The Third Metric and Nerd Values

change ahead

The Third Metric is better explained in Arianna Huffington’s Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. This is my take on it.

Nerdiness involves a lack of normal social affect, where conventional ambitions, like money and power aren’t such a big deal. The call to power doesn’t make much sense to me.

Here’re a few words from a nerdy perspective, which I live by to the best of my ability.

One needs the finances to live comfortably, and to help friends and family do that, but seriously, know when enough is enough.

In early 1999, I made a decision along those lines, and decided to avoid the usual Silicon Valley thing. That is, the bankers and VCs I knew told me to take their investments and cash out. However, I figured that my business model is “doing well by doing good” and that’s worked out.

My guess was that I got on track to fulfill my very limited financial goals, and anyway, I figure, who needs huge money?

As a nerd, it’s way more satisfying to make a difference.

I dunno if that reflects any kind of wisdom or path seeking, I ain’t that smart, seriously.

Personally, all I understand is working from the bottom up, where I quietly nudge people to do the best they can, and then affirm their efforts publicly. There’s no way to measure the results, it’s all anecdotal.

It’s just that a nerd’s gotta do what a nerd’s gotta do.

Glasses, philanthropy, last week

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Hey, this guy knows Leonard Cohen (my rabbi)! We were just talking about how to better seriously share power and resources with people who need it, particularly in India and Africa.

I’ve now gotten interested in that, and would love to work with people who really have their boots on the ground making a difference.

The whole deal with craigconnects is using tech to give a real voice to the voiceless and real power to the powerless. Do you have any suggestions?

A nerd’s gotta do what a nerd’s gotta do.

 

Why I’m a nerd and not a geek

I’m not going to wind up saying that being a nerd is better than being a geek. It’s just different and overlapping.

Craigpocketprotector

I’m pretty much old school. I was brought up during the Eisenhower administration and I fulfill the 50’s or early 60’s version of the nerd cliché. Y’know, the plastic pocket protector and all that. I was very much into sci fi and fantasy at that time – back then sci fi and fantasy were mostly books and very little media.

A  nerd was an outcast type, one who might be very knowledgeable with engineering, and eventually computers. Generally someone with little social skills, something that kind of caused one’s own ostracism. Again, this is kind of a 50’s perspective on the whole thing.

These days, a geek is someone with a fascination of some aspect of pop culture, often related to sci fi or fantasy, and they might get really good at what their focus is. If their focus is computers, they’ll get really good at it like a nerd with the same focus. Yes, I’m using one common definition of “geek” which I hope is fair.

The meaning of “nerd,” I guess, has shifted and conflated with “geek,” but nerd is something pejorative. Geekdom is more socially acceptable, far as I can tell. This has come about in the last 20 years, but that’s just my take from what I’ve observed from living through it. There’s a podcast/TV show called the Nerdist, it’s been a podcast for a while and became a TV show sometime last year. It goes to show how nerds have become more mainstream.

The term nerd’s meaning was getting fairly diluted in that time frame, over the last 20 years, and depending on who you talk to, nerd and geek may mean the same thing. The Japanese term of Otaku is related, but more toward the geek side with more social isolation.

Again, I don’t think one is better than the other, and again, I’m using a relatively narrow definition of nerd. The Simpson version of Comic Book Guy is a very realistic parody of the real thing.

comicbookguy

The original nerd was an outsider, though, a geek or a nerd in the modern sense is not so much an outsider, that kind of behavior is now accepted and sometimes glorified.  Like, on the Simpsons, the comic book guy is classic geek, but as recent pop culture shows, it’s become more socially acceptable. Comic Book Guy recently met Mrs. Comic Book Woman. The episode is very funny, and even moving from a narrow point of view.

Sometimes the old school nerd thing is about getting stuff done. Old school nerd is linked with technology, engineering, and math, while modern day nerd is linked more with pop cultural obsession . This is speculative on my part, based on experience, and there will be people with other opinions.

I identify as a nerd, and in my case, it’s 50’s styles, as that’s when I grew up.

Things I Carry: A Nerd’s Survival Kit

An older photo of me with the Note II, I’ve upgraded to the III since…

To make sense of the following, consider that I identify as 1. nerd, fifties-style, and 2. customer service rep for over eighteen years. While customer service comes first, my time is also spent in public service and philanthropy, quietly for the most part. For me, all that means I need a lean and effective set of tools.

(Yes, this is obsessive, and it’s been each and every day for all of the nineteen years, but I really am a nerd, and that’s how we roll.)

Maybe eighty percent of my work can be done with a good, large smartphone. I’m using a Samsung Galaxy Note III, which gets the job done. It helps that I can use alternate on-screen keyboards, making typing much easier. What really helps are keyboards where you can swipe across the keyboard to type, like Swype and SwiftKey.

Home screen widgets also make my life easier, particularly my calendar, but also weather, and wifi, and 4G signal strength.

The Chrome browser syncs up with my desktop and notebook systems, easing my work burden a great deal.

With the shutdown of Google Reader, well, I’ve been trying out Feedly: So far, so good.

I also read a lot of books, maybe eight per month, and the large screen is good for my eyes. Using the Kindle app, but it’s growing problematic. (I’ve read around 700 books, mostly science fiction. See comment about 1. being a nerd, and 2. how we roll.)

This kind of phone is really a handheld computer/communicator, and that will be an increasing reality as its software evolves. Maybe in a few years a good phone will be the only system we have, automatically connecting wirelessly to larger screens and keyboards.

Speaking of larger screens and keyboards, sometimes I really need that, as well as some specific software. When I travel, my solution is a MacBook Pro Retina 13″. In my home office, I use the MacBook.

Stuff evolves, and my watch is becoming more useful. Through my life, a watch has been the only bling I wear, though I added a wedding ring last year. However, I’m now donning a Pebble watch, which combines a nice looking analog watch with extra function. It functions as a little smartwatch with caller id and text messages, which has proven unexpectedly useful. (For older readers, it’s the Dick Tracy kind of deal, you’d see me interacting with my watch. That’s no longer a sign of eccentricity… I think.)

My deal really does involve the smallest set of tools needed to get the job done, wherever I am. It’ll be interesting to see how the phone might supplant notebook and desktop usage, and to see how watches and other wearable computing gadgets evolve.

Less is more, but whatever tools I use, the job’s gotta get done. After all, a nerd’s gotta do what a nerd’s gotta do.

5 More Ways VA is Helping Out Vets

The Department of Veteran Affairs doesn’t get the recognition they deserve. They’re really working hard to help vets. As the official VA Nerd-in-Residence, I’d like to begin 2014 by reminding folks of a few of the VA’s efforts.

  1. The VA is doing more and more to give homeless vets a hand. The move is part of the larger government-wide effort to end veterans homelessness in the next two years, and comes at a time when most federal programs are tightening their belts in an effort to deal with sharp reductions in funding. More on the homelessness efforts here and on the VA site here.

    ending va homelessness
    Photo Credit: U.S. Dept of Veteran Affairs
  2. For disability compensation, they’ve deployed something like TurboTax for veterans. It appears to be decently user-friendly, adjusted for the way that vets and veteran service orgs (VSOs) really operate. The software also accounts for all the laws and regulations, the rules that VA has gotta follow to write checks.A vet would start up eBenefits, online, click on “Apply for Disability Compensation” and go. It’s mostly drop-down menus, and many data fields get filled in automatically. It’s way easier and faster than paper forms. (More about self-service for disability claims processing here… and here.)
  3. The VBA workers are doing a whole lot for vets. Most of the workers are on the VA medical side, but there’s also a group that processes benefits payments for vets. That’s the Veterans Benefits Administration–VBA–and they work on over a million disability claims from vets each year. They deserve a lot more thanks than they’re getting.
  4. VBMS development involved a lot of waterfall stuff, but much more recently, VA people are actually directly listening to people on that and acting on that. If vets, VSOs, or VA workers find a problem or have a suggestion, they contact contact actual humans to get stuff done. (A little more on my big idea for 2014 and how to fix Washington’s approach to tech…)
  5. They’ve been working hard to get the paper claims inventory converted to digits and put into VBMS, which involves scanning huge amounts of paper into the system. That’s about 80% done. (You can view before and after photos here.)nerd-4

The Department of Veterans Affairs is doing some really good stuff for vets that no one hears about, catching up since 2009. I’ve helped, in a very minor way for several years, now I gotta do more, for VA, military families, and vets.

What do you appreciate about the VA? And what are you hoping they’ll begin to work on in 2014?

A nerd’s gotta do what a nerd’s gotta do.

5 Ways to Attract Birds & Squirrels to Your Yard

Okay, so my “home office” extends to the deck, and I have a bunch of feathered and furry friends who stop by. The wife and I have created the #Crileen Birdography Spectaular (that’s Craig and Eileen…) to document the visitors. We’ve identified 48 species as of September 2013.

As a nutty connoisseur, here are my suggestions to attract birds and squirrels to your yard:

1. Provide clean-ish open water.

birdbath

2. Use a “squirrel-resistant suet palace.” 
squirrel

This squirrel defeated Squirrel-Proof Suet Palace. I’m okay with this, he can only eat so much at a time.

3. Feed squirrels to attract hawks. (see #2, note “resistant”, they see it as a challenge)

hawk
4. Have glamorous new wife fill the feeders and water. Then have her do so for the birds. They appreciate it.

jay

5. Go outside and act like a nut. (Mission accomplished)

nut

Bearing witness: Shinseki does right for vets

Sometimes people in Washington do a really good job, but take a lot of crap unfairly. Sometimes it takes a “nerd-in-residence” to start to set the record straight. This is the short version; every topic below deserves longer treatment.

In 2009, Eric Shinseki took over the Department of Veterans Affairs, with the mission of doing right for vets. Back then: VA didn’t have the right software to process disability claims efficiently. Vets with Vietnam era-Agent Orange illnesses had a hard time getting claims judged properly. Some Vets and Vet Service Orgs (VSOs) felt they faced an adversarial attitude. VA line workers got a lot of unfair abuse. (Note to self: as a customer service rep, I get a lot of that also, almost every day, so I can identify.)

More and more Vietnam vets file disability claims, to get the benefits they deserve. However, it was really hard to get properly compensated for Agent Orange herbicide-related issues. Long story, but the bottom line is that Shinseki designated several Agent Orange-related diseases as “presumptive” conditions, and allowed claims to be made on that basis and approved fast.

However, that inflated the disability claims backlog, not only the current “inventory” of claims but also the “backlog.” For that matter, in the effort to do right by vets, Shinseki insisted on faster processing overall, and imposed stricter standards on quality and what counted as backlog. That made the existing backlog jump in a huge way, creating major perception problems for Veterans Affairs, which have been widely reported.

So the good news, not so much reported, but the bad news got a lot of attention. By doing right by vets, the VA looked bad. For whatever reason, the press has largely neglected good work, and emphasized bad news. (A while back I wrote a thank you note for VBA workers.)

Here’s the history of the claims backlog (courtesy of Brandon Friedman),

USE!!!

Most of the current backlog reduction is attributed to efforts like a lot of dedication and overtime on the part of VA line workers. (Thanks!) However, what VA has needed for a long time, at least since 2003, is an online system to expedite claims processing.

In 2009, Shinseki brought in Peter Levin as VA *Chief Technology Officer and others to make that happens.

Cutting to the chase, they started building the Vets Benefits Management System (VBMS.) The deal with VBMS is that claims could be processed online by VA workers, and entered by vets or VSO claims professionals. If entered by vets, the model is do it yourself, like TurboTax. If entered by a pro at a Vets Service Org,they can get to VMBS directly, or enter documents for the Vet via the Stakeholder Enterprise Portal (SEP). Pretty soon, if they have their own claim system like VetPro, they’ll be able to send from their system to VBMS. It’s like going to get help from H&R Block, or Earl, my CPA.

The first big task is to get the paper claims inventory converted to digits and put into VBMS, which involves scanning huge amounts of paper into the system. That’s about 75% done. Here’s before and after at the Winston-Salem VA RO:

(Before…)

W-S files

(After…)

W-S clean

The big shift to VBMS is just happening right now, and it also means first getting VSOs onboard with either the Portal or indirectly via a gateway called Digits to Digits (D2D).

Big software projects take time, but it looks like all this is happening very quickly for a large organization. At this point, the effort is in agile software development mode. I’m not using “agile software development” in the doctrinaire sense, rather, it’s like I started for my own stuff:

1. ask people what they want and need

2. do it

3. ask people what to improve

4. go to 1

That’s to say, people tell either their local VBMS coach (like Shannon who I met in Oakland) what’s going on, or they tell Allison (that’s actual Brigadier General (retired) Allison Hickey, who runs this part of VA) during her weekly calls with VBMS users. Then stuff gets fixed or deferred. (Note to VSOs: you got suggestions, tell Allison, or if you prefer, tell me, I’ll get ’em to the right place.)

Shineki got lots more going on, like an Employee Innovation effort in 2009, where I helped judge entries. My favorite effort resulted in Disability Benefits Questionnaires (DBQs), which turn what doctors say into numbers that can be automated via disability rate calculators. DBQs need work, that’s happening, largely due to the efforts of Beth the Enforcer. (I’ll tell that story another time.)

Claims processing can also be delayed while Service Treatment Records are transferred from places like Department of Defense storage warehouses. (The Raiders of Lost Ark Warehouse is actually the VA warehouse…)


However, efforts are proceeding to get Defense to scan in and electronically transfer treatment records to VA. (More later.)

VA is a very large organization, maybe over 330,000 people serving around 22 million potential customers.

Whether private or public, large orgs are normally dysfunctional. Me, I’ve worked at or with large orgs, like IBM, GM, and Bank of America, and seen from the inside how bad things can be; however, public orgs are normally way more transparent than private orgs. I bear witness that Veterans Affairs does really good, with exceptions.

As a nerd, I’ll help make the good better, and I’ll stand up for good people getting a lot of unfair crap flung at them.

A nerd’s gotta do what a nerd’s gotta do.

 

“The Baroque Cycle”: The Moment I Realized History RTs Itself

Around ten years ago, I read this historical fiction trilogy by a really influential science fiction writer, Neal Stephenson.
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At that point I had relinquished all management control of the site I started, was doing pretty intense customer service, and I was thinking about what it all meant.

My nerdly take is that The Baroque Cycle’s about the invention of the modern world, in the social normalization of attitudes and inventions including:

  • The Enlightenment perspective
  • Scientific method
  • Calculus as a possible “system of the world”
  • Representative democracy
  • Revolution via social media

It influenced the way I think about my own creation, and to cut to the chase…

Baroque Cycle helped me understand how “history retweets itself,” how people use social media to get big things done. Over time, human social contracts evolve via punctuated equilibrium wherein things slowly get better.

Improvements are not continuous, though. Normally, things are in balance, equilibrium, until we hit some kind of tipping point, which punctuate the flow of history. That’s something I learned from Victor Hugo, as often paraphrased: “Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.”

Until recently, the cost of getting your idea out there was very high; you needed your own printing press, or maybe TV station.

However, the Internet changes all that.

The way I look ahead and plan was substantially altered. My focus is not only getting stuff done in the here and now, but I’m considering what I learn and how it affects stuff in the long term (twenty years) and the longer term (two hundred years.) The work done by the historical figures in the trilogy are still playing out today.

(Yes, I’m writing in a far more nerdly manner than I’ve written in years, and to be clear, I’m going old-school nerd here.)

Okay, specifically, Baroque Cycle helped me understand a lot about the way people and history work. For example, I finally began to understand the ways that social media has been used, throughout history, to change the social contract and how we govern ourselves.

Specifically, I realized that people including John Locke (not the LOST guy) and others used blogging to effect the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It was (relatively) bloodless and short, and least compared to the preceding Civil Wars and for that matter, compared to the Wars of the Roses, etc.

The books helped me understand how the Glorious Revolution led to bloggers including Ben Franklin and Tom Paine, who helped create American independence and our own form of representative democracy. Then, I realized how Martin Luther blogged his way to major religious and social change. He used the efforts of a nerd, a guy Johannes Gutenberg, to great effect. (Gutenberg got great stuff done, but it was Luther who got big stuff done; Gutenberg also learned about venture capitalists the hard way. check out Jeff Jarvis‘ “Gutenberg the Geek.”)

Then Robert Wright helped me understand how Saint Paul used the social media of his time to get the word out regarding Christianity.

More recently, The Writing on the Wall by Thomas Standage documents all of this, from the Roman Republic through now. (Spoiler: looks to me that Julius Caesar was not only a blogger re the conquest of Gaul, but he kinda invented journalism in its most literal sense.)

The deal is that The Baroque Cycle helped me get this on a gut level, and that’s inspired all of my subsequent efforts.

In Stephenson’s book we see how people, working together, separately, and sometimes in competition, how they created major tipping points which came together in a perfect storm to create the modern world. (Sorry to invoke the cliche.)

Added to this, I think I finally understood what a latter-day Martin Luther meant by “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” My take is that he was talking about what the books teach.

So, ten years ago I started to internalize all this and to figure out what to do about it, acknowledging that, well, I’m a nerd. Helping along a global tipping point is not in the nerd job description, which requires a lot of charisma, energy, and a lot of intuition to understand of the way people work.

However, the nature of the Internet suggests we’re not looking at the “strong man theory of history” anymore. Real and massive change will come from people who learn to lead by example, through their ideas, and from some intuitive knowledge of how to move ahead with ideas whose time has come.

I love The Baroque Cycle and recommend everything by Stephenson. However, it’s way more important to act on what it depicts, and my deal is to try to give a voice to people who never had one, and then to share their work. My stuff to date gives me a bit of a bully pulpit that I don’t need for myself. However, I use it on a daily basis to get the word out on behalf other others.

My joke, occasionally tweeted, is that I retweet a lot because 1) it’s good to share, and 2) it spares me the burden of original thought. Well, #2 has some truth to it, but #1 is the big deal for me, inspired by the actions depicted by Stephenson.

altruism3

That’s not altruistic as I view it. I guess it’s just a reflection of the abnormal social affect and dysfunction of myself and sometimes of my nerdly peers.

After all, a nerd’s gotta do what a nerd’s gotta do.

The nerd-in-residence

The Department of Veterans Affairs has named me a “nerd-in-residence.” You can find more under VA team bios > Craig Newmark.

I really am a nerd, old-school, wore a plastic pocket protector, and glasses taped together, in the early sixties. I can now simulate social behavior for an hour, two hours tops, but then I start getting cranky. nerd-4

Far as my team’s concerned, this makes me the biggest nerd in the USA…

maybe the world.

(As you see, I’m comfortable being a nerd, and also, I might have a sense of humor. I don’t seem to be too concerned with dignity.)

On the other hand, I’m a customer service rep for craigslist, have been for more than eighteen years, and that changes humans. The stuff I do, I can see we help people put food on the table, and that matters.

The job also reminds me that crap rolls downhill, aimed at people with jobs that can be grinding and thankless. For example, I’ve first-hand seen that thousands of frontline VA people are doing everything in their power to do right by Vets, but government employees are being demonized or neglected.

(Dilbert is an excellent reference work regarding this. I’ve always resisted despair, that’s Wally; I’m Dilbert.)

Ever since connecting with the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America I’ve been getting more and more involved with military family and veterans’ efforts.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is doing some really good stuff for vets that no one hears about, catching up since 2009. I’ve helped, in a very minor way for several years, now I gotta do more, for VA, military families, and vets.

Anyway, a nerd’s gotta do what a nerd’s gotta do.

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