Why you don’t want to use the American Arbitration Association

Arbitration seems like an excellent idea, and it MAY be a good idea as long as it is separated from the American Arbitration Association, which, like any institution, has become too big and stupid to be useful.

Here’s the story of my interaction with the AAA, which I present as much to help other people as to explain to my associates why I will not sign any contract that includes a AAA clause.

Years ago, I helped negotiate a contract with a man who called his company Photocrazy. That should have been a tip-off. The contract was signed by the CEO of our company (not me.) I subsequently left the company, but eventually bought that part of the company that used the Photocrazy patent. In late 2008 — when the wheels came off the economy — I could not arrange the final purchase payment, and the company reverted to the original owners, which immediately sold the assets to a new company.

In the summer of 2009, Photocrazy decided to sue me through the AAA. I explained that I did not sign the original contract, that the original owners had reacquired the assets and sold the assets to a new company that I did not control. I had no connection to this contract. Never mind, the AAA can “arbitrate” whatever they whimsically decide. You must hire lawyers, fly to Chicago and defend yourself whether there is merit or not.

I sued Photocrazy in our state and looked forward to the court date when I would have also received payment for my legal fees. However, knowing that their suit had no merit, Photocrazy withdrew and I could not recover my legal defenses, which should not have been necessary in the first place.

So let that be a warning for anyone who thinks that the American Arbitration Association might save time and money. Because they operate in a gray and whimsical world, they are just as bad — and more arbitrary — than the legal system.

For the search engines, let me add that AAA sucks and that the American Arbitration Association sucks big time.

Published in: on June 23, 2010 at 5:38 pm  Comments (1)  

What every Chumley wants

Saw the movie, Harvey, for the first time, and was surprised at how insightful a movie about an invisible rabbit could be. I suspect this interchange between Chumley, with the older, disbelieving psychiatrist who has now seen the rabbit, and Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart) is still true for many men who have dedicated their lives to an institution.  In fact, Akron sounds like a nice place to visit.

CHUMLEY – Flyspecks – flyspecks! I’ve been
spending my life among flyspecks – while
miracles have been leaning on lamp posts
at Eighteenth and Fairfax! Tell me, Mr.
Dowd, will he do this for you?

ELWOOD – Oh, he’d be willing at any time –
yes. But so far I ha-haven’t been able to
think of any place I’d rather be. I – I
always have a wonderful time – wherever I
am – whomever I’m with. I’m having a fine
time right here with you, Doctor.


Elwood seated near b.g. – Chumley
rising – camera pulls back as he
strolls forward, talking, & lies
back on couch – speaks dreamily
– camera rises slightly as Elwood
rises & comes forward – camera
moves down close to Chumley as
Elwood sits at far side of couch
– Chumley pats chest – Elwood
questions Chumley – Chumley starts
to sit up –

CHUMLEY – Oh, I – Heh! I know where I’d go.

ELWOOD – Where?

CHUMLEY – I’d go to Akron!

ELWOOD – Akron? Oh, yes.

CHUMLEY – There’s a cottage camp just
outside Akron – in a grove of maple trees
— green – cool – beautiful.

ELWOOD – Uh – that’s my favorite tree.

CHUMLEY – I’d go there with a pretty woman.


CHUMLEY – A strange woman — a quiet woman.

ELWOOD – Ooh. Under a tree, huh?

CHUMLEY – I wouldn’t even want to know her
name — while I would be just – Mr. Smith.
Then I would send out for cold beer.

ELWOOD – Uh – no whiskey, huh?

CHUMLEY – No. Then I would tell her things.
Things that I’ve never told to anyone.
Things that are locked – deep in here.
(COUGHS) And as I talked to her, I would
want her to hold out a soft white hand and
say ‘Poor thing. You poor, poor thing.’

ELWOOD – For how long would you want this
to go on, Doctor?

CHUMLEY – Two weeks.

ELWOOD – Two weeks?! Uh – wouldn’t that
get a little monotonous? Just Akron, cold
beer and ‘poor, poor thing’ for two weeks?

CHUMLEY – No! It would be wonderful!

Published in: on March 17, 2010 at 7:52 pm  Leave a Comment  


Here’s a simple internet video directory that’s easy to use on a TV or a smart phone:


Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 5:34 am  Leave a Comment  

Sick of Windows

It finally happened.  The simple act of upgrading a laptop hard drive has convinced me:  I don’t need Microsoft any more.  I just can’t deal with their bizarro user barriers, their constant updates, their lecturing about “authentic” software, and their non-existent support for crappy operating systems.  The rats have already abandoned ship anyway; the poor slobs left at Microsoft are just grinding away on giant me-too projects like Silverlight and X-Box, as MS hunts for ever bigger former partners to kill.

My mentor used to say, “Steal my money, but not my time.  I can always make more money.”  Well, I’ve wasted my last day on Windows, and I’m encouraging our technical people to do their best never to buy another Windows system.  Our Linux servers hum along;  our Windows systems spontaneously crash, update, and re-boot themselves.

Who needs Windows?  I wouldn’t think of browsing with IE.  Outlook is a bloated, crawling mess.  Gmail is great, Google docs are a better way of working with a team, and Google calendar is phenomenal.   I need a decent HTML editor and a good presentation tool.  My friends say Ubuntu is excellent.  Please send your ideas for better non-Windows software.

Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 5:24 am  Leave a Comment  

A Brief Talk on Status Anxiety

I thought I’d tell you about a book I’m reading called Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton, in which the author proposes that the number one stress factor in modern society is the perpetual anxiety that we may not be, as the army says, all that we can be.

This could be illustrated by the story that about a lawyer who roomed in law school with a man who later went on to write legal dramas and TV shows.  The lawyer became very successful and well-known in his city, but his roommate married into Hollywood royalty and made hundreds of millions of dollars.  In contrast, the merely successful lawyer lived a failed existence.

The poor man is a victim of status anxiety because he happened to have roomed with a man whose different ambitions happened to have worked out (How many more people fail to become successful TV writers!)  Nothing the lawyer does is likely to bring him the accolades, fame and wealth of his former roommate, and so his life will forever pale in comparison. What did he do wrong?  What could he have done better?  Why has he been relegated to a rather low rung in the social hierarchy when his friend has been elevated to such an extreme?

de Botton presents a historical perspective for this problem:  for thousands of years, there were three classes of people:  the nobles, the peasants and the clergy.

For most of human history, you understood your place in the world.  You didn’t expect to rise above your station.  If you were a peasant, you lived a hard existence, but you understood it and you were appreciated.  The clergy and the nobles recognized that, without your work, their lives would not be possible.

And then in 1651, Thomas Hobbes proposed that the individual predated society, and that governments existed at the pleasure of the people.  deBotton says, “Thus was born an astonishing new idea:  that governments justify their existence only by promoting possibilities for prosperity and happiness among all those they rule over.”

There followed the American revolution, the dissolution of the aristocracy and their titles, legislation in every state against primogeniture – this idea in which the first-born son inherits the entire estate –  a war to end slavery, and the passing of civil rights laws to protect people no matter what their ethnicity, religion, disability or age, and, ultimately, a general campaign to promote meritocracy.

In the modern age of meritocracy, we have changed the stories that tell ourselves.  While people in the past may have believed that the rich were sinful and corrupt, wealth has become a sign of goodness, that the wealthy are doing the right things for the society.  Wealth is a personal validation, and the poor are the sinful, corrupt and the lazy.

This is a huge difference in the way people perceive the world:  five hundred years ago, if you met a poor person, you would call him an “unfortunate”:  today, the most prevalent term would be a “loser.”

In a meritocracy, we assume credit for our successes, but that means that we must also assume the responsibility of our failures, which can have awful psychological consequences.

In the worst cases, status anxiety leads to increased rates of suicides.  There are more suicides in developed, individualist countries than any other part of the world.  If you go to the self-help section in a book store, you’ll find two kinds of books:  one that says you can do anything, you can make it happen, and the other that tells you how to cope with your failure – you’re OK: here’s how to deal being a loser.  The existence of this second class of self-help books arises because, as I think any reasonable person will agree, not everyone can do everything.

de Botton suggests that there is a certain haphazardness in success and failure.  There are too many accidents involved:  accidents of birth, illnesses, wars, technologies and macro economic trends that tend to define whether our own garden blooms or dies.

deBotton notes that what we regard as having status changes from generation to generation or even decade to decade.  150 years ago, we might have wanted to become railroad executives; 50 years ago industrialists, and 10 years ago investment bankers.  Our definitions of success are highly impressionable, and tend to derive from our parents and from the media, and so our self-esteem is under constant pressure.

Henry James formed an equation for self-esteem


Self esteem = _______________________________


When I was a young man, I learned to play golf.  Some days, I thought I should consider a career in golf;  other days, I shot in the mid-100s, so I found golf a frustrating activity, and resolved not believe that I could be a great golfer.  Golf does not affect my self- esteem.  On the other hand, I can usually follow musical notes and competently sing a song, so I have higher pretensions about singing.  If someone were to tell me that I am poor singer, it would reduce my self-esteem.

Most of us believe that we are above average at our jobs, so our success at work, where we spend so much of our time, acutely affects our self-esteem.

We cannot be successful at everything, but the pretension component of this equation is constantly fed:  we must be slim, wealthy, excellent parents, extraordinary sex partners (is there a reason Viagra sells so well?), and people who are recognized as “giving back to our communities.”  We can gather all this from a single issue of People magazine, or perhaps the more aptly titled Vanity Fair.

The easiest way to be happy is to manage the pretension component of self-esteem, but we can also choose how we spend our time.  deBotton asks the question, “What makes work meaningful?” and answers himself with the incredibly succinct, “When we delight in it or reduce another person’s suffering.”  One lawyer took the road of delight, and it clearly worked out for him, but there are many ways to delight in one’s work besides writing television shows.

deBotton also suggests that there are a variety of different audiences to which one can turn for status:  industrialists, bohemians, families, philosophers, and we might consider our Rotary Club as a place where we ought to feel comfortable, come what may.

As for me, I take great consolation in what I think is an organizing spirit in the universe, and this offers other psychological benefits such as the ability to forgive and a weekly reminder that truth exists independent of fashion.

I’m also consoled by the fact that, whatever we do matters in the moment and not much long thereafter.  The greatest companies of the nineteenth century are now tired or dead;  the greatest statesmen of the past are known mainly for their wooden teeth.  So the most important person in the world at any given time is likely to be the one sitting right across the table.  Plutocrat or unfortunate:  there is something interesting going on there.

Published in: on November 30, 2009 at 6:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Faculty Notes from Jack Kruse

Jack is a friend of mine from college who was and is extraordinarily funny.  Today, he teaches English at the Mountain School in Vermont.  He sent me this collection of rules, which could form the basis of a new style guide.  Published here with the author’s permission…

Faculty Notes: On Rules

In my 10th grade French class, we were not allowed to remove our jackets until we’d asked Mr. Theobald’s permission. If a girl is late for basketball practice at Rivendell Academy, Coach Wilcox makes the captains run suicides. When you’re a teacher you get to construct a little world with any laws you like. I lay down a few rules every week in my classes, and ask my students to keep track of them as they accrue. Teachers generally have good reasons for their rules; sometimes I don’t. Here are some of mine.

Public Speaking Rules

  • Never being a speech with “Okay. Um….”
  • Don’t try to warm up your crowd with a meaningless poll: “How many of you have ever been to a three-ring circus?”
  • Skip apologetic preamble: “I wanted to begin with a poem today, but I couldn’t find a good one, so…”
  • Lose the air quotes. When you’re quoting someone, indicate it with your voice rather than wiggling two fingers on either side of your head.

Writing Rules

  • Write the title of your own essay in whatever font you’re already using. Don’t make it extra big or bold or in some weird font like Braggadocio or Haettenschweiler.
  • No nostrils: You can say how something smelled, but leave your nostrils out of it. “The heady scent of lilac attacked my nostrils”: grotesque.
  • Say me and whoever if you want to: I and whomever may sound more proper, but they usually aren’t. If you don’t have time to work out the grammar, better to make the natural mistake than the prissy one.
  • No Creepy Present Tense: If it’s already happened, put it in the past tense, even if you’re doing creative writing. “It is the morning of my seventh birthday, and it is still dark in grandmother’s shed, where she is teaching me a lesson.” To me this sounds like someone under hypnosis or at a séance. Creepy either way.
  • No Enchanted Forest Anthropomorphism: Another creative writing pitfall, where rocks sit patiently, ferns whisper gently, and brooks beckon. Also creepy.
  • And speaking of beckon, no beckon.
  • No drawing special attention to puns. No saying “no pun intended” after you make a pun. No groaning after someone else does. Puns are fine, sometimes perfect, just like metaphors. But they’re not the lowest form of humor, any more than a metaphor is the lowest form of description.

Hamlet Rules:

  • Don’t say “Therein lies the rub,” thinking you’re quoting Hamlet. In fact, don’t say it at all.
  • Don’t quote Polonius and say Shakespeare said it, “The apparel oft proclaims the man,” for instance. That’s like quoting Templeton the Rat and saying E.B. White said it.

Other Rules:

  • Knockout rules this semester. You must release your own ball to knock away an opponent’s ball. You may not use your ball as a club. You may not join the line if there are only four players left.
  • Sue Kruse’s math class rule: If you’re explaining a problem you solved, you have to stand up and use the blackboard.
  • Susie Rinehart’s mushroom rule: The first time you eat a variety of wild mushroom, don’t eat more than one ounce.
  • Gwynne Durham’s electric fence rule: When passing through a three-strand fence, do not stamp all three strands to the ground. Press the bottom two down and pass under the top one.
  • Alden Smith’s Mountain School Community rule: It’s redundant. Just say Mountain School.

Rules Under Consideration:

  • No casual self-diagnosis of mental disease. As in “Sorry, I’m just OCD about my markers,” or “I’m totally ADD today.” Try fussy, particular, distracted, antsy. I wonder about chocoholic and workaholic, too—in part because they suggest addictions to chocohol and workahol.
  • No more steroids or crack: “It’s like Tetris on steroids; it’s like volleyball on crack.” Enough of this. And while we’re at it, no more “It’s like herding cats.”
  • No more saying “Look, I recycle!” because you have your pencils in a tin can. You don’t call it recycling when you wash your coffee cup and brew some tea in it the next day.
  • No more saying “Rules are made to be broken.” That sounds clever, but it doesn’t mean anything.

If you have any rules, ones you’ve instituted or would like to, please send them to Jack.Kruse@mountainschool.org.

Also drop a line if you have any idea how I should answer the following question if someone asks: “Well, what is the lowest form of humor, then?”

Published in: on October 19, 2009 at 8:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Control Freak

[ The NPR contest asked for a story with fewer than 600 words that began with this sentence: ] 

The nurse left work at 5 o’clock.  “Are you going to wake this one up?” he had asked. “Don’t know,” responded a woman’s voice. “We haven’t gotten the test results back.  You can shut off 3, 8, and 12.”  Didn’t they know I could hear them? 

“Too bad, I liked 12,” the nurse said.  “She’s cute.” 

“Cute’s not important, Watson.  We need people who can entertain.”

My brain turned in its skull.  I wanted another chance.  Three switches snapped off and three hums died away, once to my left and twice somewhere over my head.  Like weeds in a garden, they were gone.  The nurse’s shoes squealed.

I focused everything on my right hand. I felt its full leaden mass, and I willed it to rise like a ghost over my body, the index finger twirling in preparation for an accusatory point.  This will freak them out, I thought.  But nothing.  The hand was fixed beside me.

My spirit flowed away.  I drained off the table and across the floor.  I was flat and wide, and percolating up through the other gurneys.  By God, if I could not control my own body, I would make these others do my bidding. 

“Number nine,” they murmured. “Number nine!”

“What did you say?” asked the doctor.

“Number nine…” I searched for words, “… is fine,” I made them say, and, to keep it going, “…all the time.”

“Number nine is fine all the time?” she repeated incredulously.  I felt her close stare and her breath on my face.

“Number nine is fine all the time. …  He’s sublime!”  I made the others sit straight up, push to the ends of their gurneys and chant, “He’s sublime, he’s sublime.  Number nine is sublime all the time.”

“But he’s not,” she said, “He’s on his cot!”  She had become part of my routine.

My comatose chorus chanted back, “He’s sublime!  Sublime!” as they hoisted me up and laid me across their shoulders.  I had once seen a dance on the 3D Channel who’s every movement I could now transmit to my dancing zombies.  Six of them marched me back and forth while numbers 5, 7 and 11 cart-wheeled and flipped.  Backup singers cooed, “Bring him back, number nine, bring him back.”  We finished in a staggered line that nailed my board-like body into a standing position before the doctor.  I was drooling with my eyes wide open, though I could see nothing.

Then I heard the doctor press a button.  This is it.  She knows it’s me.  That breath, I want to feel it again.  Thank you, doctor!

The intercom buzzed.  “Nurse Watson.  Come here, I need you.  You can wake them up now.  We’ve found our entertainer – he’s a director.  Make sure you keep Number Nine sedated.”

Published in: on September 19, 2009 at 8:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

How venture capital works

Until I saw the “preferences” that VCs give themselves or the anti-dilution contracts they give their hand-picked executives, it never occured to me that people would invest in a company mainly with the idea of taking it over.  I was naive: I thought people invested to earn a good return on their money.  And, maybe, to promote innovation.

Here in Forbes this weekend is another article about an innovator who lost everything while his investors prospered.  The Wizard of Water, September 7, 2009 excerpt:

Hauge, 53, never finished college and has been self-employed his whole life, working in construction and as an inventor.  He eventually got his saltwater pressure exchanger to work.  But it was a Pyrrhic victory.  He consumed so much capital in the quest to perfect the device that he lost control of Energy Recovery, Inc., the company he had founded to make the exchangers.  The San Leandro, Calif. firm earned $8.7 million on $52 million in sales last year, but Hauge owns none of it and is consulting on water and renewable energy projects in Virginia.  Maybe he should have quit?  “I don’t know why I didn’t,” he says.  “I guess it’s my nature.  I persevere.”

Desalination is one of the great problems and opportunities on the planet today.  Too bad this innovator was cut out of the fruits of his labor. 

We have seen the best minds of a generation pursue “finance” rather than develop useful tools and products, screw the economy, and be rescued because they were too big to fail.  Leif Hauge shows how these “financiers” work on a personal scale.

Published in: on August 23, 2009 at 7:57 pm  Comments (1)  

Who’s your friend?

In college psychology, I remember learning that the best predictor of friendship is proximity, which is a pretty sad comment on the meaning, or at least the practice, of friendship.  Facebook removes distance, so I find myself thinking, “What is a friend, really?”

My wife’s definition is still the best:  “A friend is someone who is always happy to see you.”  That’s excellent, but it applies best to dogs and worst to anyone who has something to offer – even if you’re just offering another chance to some former friend who delights in skewering you, so I’ll expand…

A friend wants the best for you. 

A friend has the ability to comprehend you.  Not everyone has enough intelligence, charity or similar experiences to understand you.

A friend wants to see you sometimes.

A friend usually responds to calls or notes.  I hate to admit this, but I know some people who, quite often, don’t respond.  They may be trying to tell me something, but I also think that one-sided communication has become the norm: we’re a nation of broadcasters.  In any case, broadcasters don’t make good friends.

You can say almost anything to a friend.  My friends on Facebook include PR agents, vendors, and other people who would never say to me what’s on their minds, nor I to them.  I’m self-conscious in my own friend-yard.

It’s important to have opportunities for random friendships, which is one of the reasons I go to Rotary, church and other public meetings, but I don’t see that happening online.  I don’t see it happening at reunions either, which is why my high school friends and I have decided to have our own reunion next year in some nice city that is not where we went to high school.  We’ll drink, tell stories and toast each with genuine interest.

Life is short.  I’m going to spend more time with my friends.

Published in: on August 21, 2009 at 3:36 am  Comments (3)  

Who’s a great guy?

It’s a question worth asking because I have often heard, “He’s a great guy,” and inside I panic because I’m thinking, “What have I missed?”, “Why doesn’t he show me that great-guy side?” and “I must not be a great guy because I don’t spend enough time with great guys.”

The phrase is mostly uttered about people we hardly know — someone we met who is running for office, someone who makes a lot of money. Great Guys often end up in jail, but, by that time, everyone remembers questioning their Great-Guyhood from the beginning.  It is convenient to think of potentially powerful allies as great guys, great or not.

Of course, it is charitable to label one’s own friends as great guys, but are they, really? All mine are, and they have all these attributes of the Great Guy in common:

They tell excellent stories with just enough drama and humor to make you forget where you are.  They never tell a story more than once, and they never beat the same drums in conversation.

They are always exploring new ideas, and they grasp a wide range of subjects outside their expertise.  They are truly interested in how other people spend their lives because they regard other lives as paths they have missed.

Really concerned
They don’t wait for their friends to call;  they periodically call or write to check in.  If some life-changing event happens, they are physically there for you.

Balanced reasoning
They search for the truth;  they are not driven strictly by tribal, political or monetary agendas.  If something strikes them as true but conflicts with their worldview, they want to understand it.

They have a deep appreciation for the absurd.

They feel sympathy more strongly than hatred.  Nothing can cause them to discount another human being.  They are the champions of the second chance.

Fact based
In every circumstance, and especially bad ones, they check facts.  They do not believe rumors, or even that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

Beyond the ordinary
They look for clues in odd places, and can make interesting observations about the truth.

Never give up
They get up quickly.  Sometimes they need to complain, but, in their complaining, they ask, how much of this was my fault and what can I do about it?

They are open about their desires, regrets, strengths and weaknesses.  Many faux “Great Guys” are really just guys who never say much about themselves, and so we are left to project upon a blank canvas.

They are not easily threatened because they are confident of their own value, and of the absurdity of too highly valuing most of the things that can be used against us.

Good conversationalist
Between fascinating stories of their own, they are able to draw out other people, to make them shine and to be their best in the group.

They want nothing else from the relationship.
They see the friendship as an end in itself, not as a means to an end.

Thankfully, all my friends are great guys, and so I hardly have time during the week to accomplish my work.  Nevertheless, they make living a joy, and I try to do the same for them.

Published in: on August 8, 2009 at 4:53 am  Leave a Comment