The pain and importance of communication

During the past several months, I’ve had to work with people much more than before, and I learned a few things, one of which is the importance of communication.

Ligia and Raoul, talking

It’s one thing to sit in front of the computer all day and communicate via email and the occasional meeting, as it happens in IT work, and it’s quite another to only do it in person, face to face, explain concepts and ideas, try to get your vision across, then see how well others understood and delivered on the stuff you needed. More often than not, I’ve been disappointed, but I’m told that’s par for this course.

So where does communication help?

Where there’s tension, it helps deflate anger and potential conflict. I’ve been in situations where the tension had built up so much the hair stood up on my back and I was ready to punch someone, and yet if we were able to communicate rationally for a few minutes and hash out the various problems that we faced, all of that pent-up anger literally melted away. Of course, if the other person can’t communicate rationally, that’s another story altogether…

I can’t overemphasize the importance of communicating with each other as you work on a project with other people, particularly when it’s new territory for either one of you. Most people aren’t good communicators. They’d rather just do their work, but if they’re not taking the time to understand what it is you want them to do, being faced with an end result that differs from your expectations can lead to bad situations all around. So what I’ve had to do is to initiate communication most of the time, and to get these people to explain to me each stage of the work they were doing, several times a day, just to make sure they’re on the right track.

In the past, when I worked on IT projects, I had to do the same thing sometimes, but more often than not, I got too frustrated with the capabilities of others and brushed them aside, preferring to do the work myself, knowing I could do it faster and better. That wasn’t possible this time. I’ve been involved in construction/renovation work, and even though I could do the work myself, I couldn’t allow myself to do it because I needed to get results on a tight schedule. Doing things myself would have meant pushing deadlines into the future, and that wasn’t an option. The teams I worked with could deliver the stuff on time, but I had to make sure we were communicating properly. It was a real challenge, and I gained a new-found respect for general contractors and project managers. It’s very stressful and exhausting to work on construction projects and ensure everything gets done according to plan and to your vision when you’re dealing with people. Unfortunately, until we invent robots that can do all manner of construction work to spec — and I doubt that’ll ever happen — that’s what we have to work with.

In IT work, if something isn’t right, you can go back in and change things. You erase or modify the code, re-adjust the software options, etc. You’ve only wasted time, not materials. (Yes, you can also waste resources and others’ time, but let’s not bring that into the equation for this analogy.) In construction work, you not only waste time, you waste materials, and that can really add up. There’s also the painful cost of tearing down stuff that wasn’t built right and starting from scratch, and you pay for this in more stress.

So yeah, communication is vital, but there are some serious flip sides to it.

I’ve found out that you can still be misunderstood and judged even when you do your best to communicate as much as possible — and here I’m not talking about construction work, but life in general. Your every action can be perceived as the opposite of what you meant it to be. You’ll try to help someone else and they’ll think you’re trying to hurt them. You’ll do a good deed and it’ll get mocked or your kindness will be abused when others seek to take advantage of you. It is so painful to deal with this crap, and yet there’s no way around it unless you go live someplace away from everybody — and let me tell you I’m sorely tempted to do it.

There is so much potential in each of us to create, to do good things, lasting things, beautiful things, to achieve lofty goals working in harmony, but we’re stuck using language to communicate what’s inside us. There’s no better way to transfer information and ideas between us. Unfortunately, words can be sorely lacking in the power to transfer information and vision, in most situations where it’s really important for them to convey that. And yes, this is coming from a writer, someone who loves using words. It’d be so much easier if we could communicate what’s in our hearts, unequivocally, when we needed to do it, so there would be no doubt in the mind of the other person of what our true intentions really are. Of course my vision is somewhat utopic. After all, many people simply don’t aspire to do good things. Their goals stop at the ordinary or downright sordid aspects of life, and you can’t do much good with those people. You’re better off avoiding them, unless you welcome extra stress in your life.

I suppose one antidote for all this pain caused by living and working among people is to not care. By this I don’t mean we should be callous. I mean we shouldn’t care what others think of our actions or of us. We should stand rooted in our morality and do what we know is right, treat others the way we want to be treated, and let others think what they will of us. As long as we’re true to our own moral compasses, nothing else should matter. Right? But somehow it does, doesn’t it? And it’s so damned painful, too.


The Atlantic Cable – Eighth Wonder of the World

In July 1866, after the successful completion of the project which undertook to lay a single undersea cable through the North Atlantic, from Newfoundland to Ireland, this following commemorative print was created:

The Eighth Wonder of the World

The Atlantic Cable was the idea of the New York merchant and financier Cirus W. Field, who wanted to communicate with Europe in hours, not weeks, and in 1854, conducted the first trial of laying a 2,000 mile cable between the US and Europe. The first three attempts were not successful, but in 1866, his persistence paid off, and his cable worked. Needless to say, he was showered with due praise and honors for his efforts — one of them being this print.

When you look at Cirus W. Field, the man, he wasn’t that imposing. He seems to have been of average height and thinner build, and yet, this is the man that laid the foundation of long-distance communication. Isn’t it wonderful what one person can achieve if they set their mind to it?

Cyrus W. Field, as photographed by Mathew Brady in 1958

Just how did those trans-Atlantic telegraph cables look? You can see longitudinal and transverse sections of each size in this print:

Samples of the Atlantic cables used in the 1800s

The cables are quite complex, as you can see above. When you think that 2,000 miles of these cables had to be made, from scratch, in the mid 1800s, it’s no wonder they were at the time called the Eighth Wonder of the World.

The failures to lay working cables before 1866 attracted controversy. You see, Cyrus Field didn’t finance the matter himself. He’d have been bankrupted many times over. He used other people’s money by selling shares in the venture. Here’s one such stock certificate, sold to Lady Anne Isabella Noel Byron, Lord Byron’s widow. This certificate lost most of its value after the failure of the 1858 cable, then became worthless until the formation of the companies which handled the laying of the 1865 and 1866 cables.

Atlantic Cable Stock Certificate

The route of the 1858 cable can be seen in the map included here:

1858 Telegraph Cable Map

The routes of the cables available in 1870 can be seen on this map:

1870 Telegraph Cable Map

Pause here for a bit and think about this: in the late 1800s, these were all of the communication routes available in the entire world. That was it. There was no internet, no telephone, no TV, no radio, only written letters and telegraph. Oh yes, they also had Indian smoke signals, but they weren’t as widely used, and those communication lines aren’t marked on these maps as each transfer hub was assembled and disassembled on the fly.

It’s easy to complain about how much faster and more reliable our Internet access could be, but the fact of the matter is that we’ve made amazing strides in communication over the past century and a half. As I write this, I’m sitting at a desk in a village in rural Dobrogea, Romania, and am storing these letters or bits or whatever you want to call them on my server back in the United States, instantly, each and every time I press the “Save Draft” button in my WordPress Editor. That’s amazing, in and of itself.

Let’s fast forward and see how fast things progressed from that single cable laid in 1866. By 1880, there were four cables already.

1880 Telegraph Cable Map

By 1901, there were 14 cables. That’s right, fourteen, from four just 20 years earlier.

1901 Telegraph Cable Map

Although trans-Atlantic telegraph communications progressed quite fast, the first trans-atlantic telephone call did not occur until 1927. It was made from Columbia, Missouri, to London, lasted six minutes and cost $162, which was quite a large sum for that time.

The first trans-Atlantic telephone call, in 1927

Just think, now we can talk anywhere in the world for pennies a minute, or do audio or video chats with applications like Skype or iChat for free. We sure have come a long way!


Images used courtesy of the History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications and Missouri School of Journalism Archives.


Google launches video chat, ignores PowerPC Macs

A few days ago, Google launched something that a lot of people had wanted for some time: the ability to do a video chat, right from Gmail. Everyone got really excited, and for good reason. I was very happy too, until I discovered that PowerPC Macs were out of the picture. Why?

Here’s what I get when I access the Google Video Chat site from my Intel MBP:

And here’s what my wife gets when she accesses that very same site:

So while she gets to see this when I’m away from home:

I’ll still only get to see this, which makes me sad:

Why, Google, why?


But what happens if you die?

Blood on the tracks

This is a bit of a rant, but a recent comment on one of my articles reminded of an argument I sometimes hear as a consultant. It goes something like this: “But what happens if you die?” I cringe when I hear it — not because I can’t defend it — because I find it silly.

Actually, it’s not really an argument or a question at all. It’s a symptom. It tells me that the person making it is feeling very insecure about the deal.

Here’s what I told a recent potential client when I was asked that question:

I understand the “drop dead” factor, and it’s something that my long-term clients and I talked about. The thing is, unless I drop dead while the project is in development, you’re fairly safe. Once the project is completed, another knowledgeable designer/developer can come in and pick up where I’ve left off. Even while the project is being developed, if I can’t continue for whatever reason, the work isn’t lost. It isn’t as if I write my code in some language that no one understands. A good coder should be able to understand what I’ve done and build on it.

And that’s the truth. I can’t see how that argument could possibly stand on its own feet. If you’re a good developer, are in communication with the client, you back up your work, and you have certain deliverables and a timeline tied to a project, how can the project just disappear if you should kick the bucket? Makes no sense to me. Even if I should die, my computer will still be there. My wife or my friends will be there. My source code should be there. Besides, if it’s a website, chances are I’m working on a server somewhere as well, not just in my home, so the files can be retrieved even if my computer were to crash or be locked down.

Isn’t it individuals that have driven innovation throughout the ages? It’s people doing the work and driving toward goals, people that could croak at any point, I suppose, not machines. If the same “what if” argument to them, where would we be today? If a company looking to hire someone stops to think, what if he or she dies tomorrow, where will they be? If you find a good product or a good man, do you wait a few years to see whether or not that product will disappear or that person will croak? You have to take some risk if you want to see results, and sometimes the opportunities are there only for short amounts of time.

How To

Block anonymous calls with SkypeIn

You may or may not know that Skype offers a service called SkypeIn, which lets you get a local number that people can call to reach you anywhere in the world, provided you’re logged into Skype. I’ve had a SkypeIn number for the past couple of years, and I love it. Want the number? It’s +1 (301) 637-6885.

Do you know why I can give it out so freely? First, because all my calls go right to voicemail. I get that bundled with SkypeIn. I screen all my calls that way and delete all of the annoying telemarketing calls. Second, because of a great feature that I’ve discovered yesterday. It’s hidden away in the Advanced settings for Calls, and it blocks most telemarketing calls automatically.

Here’s how it works. Open Skype and go to Tools >> Options. Then click on the Calls icon, located in the sidebar of the Options dialog box. You’ll get the following screen:

Basic call settings in Skype

Now click on the “Show Advanced Options” button. You’ll get this screen:

Advanced call settings in Skype

Now look for the option that says “Allow SkypeIn calls from…” and select “anyone”, then make sure to check the option called “Block calls when number is hidden”.

Doing this will block most telemarketing calls, since they usually hide their numbers. Isn’t that beautiful?

If you want to make sure none of them get through to you, just go to the Voicemail section and look for the “Send calls to voicemail if…” option, then change the number of seconds to 1 or something really small. That way everything that makes it past the initial call filter goes right to voicemail. This allows you to listen to the messages later and hit delete without wasting your time. I have my threshold set to 10 seconds. If I’m logged into Skype, that usually gives me enough time to see who’s calling and decide if I want to take the call or not. If I’m not logged in, then all the calls go directly to voicemail anyway.

Voicemail settings in Skype

Hope this helps!