Bill Gates Must Step Down?

According to Reuters, “Three top Microsoft shareholders say company founder Bill Gates should step down as board chairman.”

Wow! Just a couple of weeks after Steve Ballmer announces his own retirement. While I believe that some change might be good given the company’s direction of the last several years, it’s a bit of a poignant moment to consider that Microsoft will, from now on, be led by people who weren’t part of the company’s early years. Let’s hope they find some of the same passion.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/02/us-microsoft-gates-investors-idUSBRE9901H320131002?feedType=RSS&feedName=technologyNews&rpc=76

Speed = Innovation x Simplicity

As someone who’s worked in the world of information technology for nearly twenty years, it shouldn’t be too surprising that, for my first ever book, I’d choose to make my two main characters IT consultants. After all, I knew what they did, on and off the job, had numerous stories to draw from, multiple saved conversations that could prompt my memory when necessary, and enough technical depth to make up a plausible project scenario. With sales being rather weak in the book’s first year, I haven’t exactly been able to quit the day job. So I still read a lot about technology, most recently trying to increase my executive vocabulary. That’s a fancy way of saying, “talk about the things that interest executives.”

I’ve been reading a number of books, one of which is titled “The CIO Paradox” by Martha Heller. It’s a well written book on the conflicting priorities given to CIOs that goes deeper than the marketing mantras of Do More With Less or Unbreakable. One of the CIOs interviewed for her book shared the formula that is the title of this post as a beacon for his IT organization. The theory was that the simpler the IT organization was, the more quickly they could react to changes in the business requirements and innovations.

Most of the organizations I’ve worked with over the years are filled with technical (and sometimes non-technical) people who seem to thrive on putting up barriers, or creating unnecessary complexity, though not always with intent. Even my colleagues (but certainly not me) have been known from time to time to build a solution with unnecessary complexity. We could debate whether we do it, but I’d prefer to answer the question of why we do it. My theory is that IT-oriented people derive self-value from being “smart,” though the word isn’t without its own ambiguity. All too often, the smartest solution is believed to be that which is the most complex, because perhaps, it offers the highest perceived efficiency or the most flexibility.

The reality, however, is that in the world of IT, nearly everything we build has a useful life of less than five years before it requires an update to meet the changing needs of the business. So the notion of simplicity really can’t be understated. Which IT professional will be more appreciated by the business, the one who builds a complex system that requires hours of training and months of experience to learn, or the person who solves a few simple problems that consume a hefty chunk of the business’ time, while still providing adequate flexibility to respond to the next big change?

Devilish Rye Sling

I am back on the road, in second tier hotel bars, drinking the ever delicious but underappreciated Saratoga. I’d come across a recipe that called for ginger beer on Saturday and decided to pick some up Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, when cocktail hour approached, I was at a loss for how I’d might use it. The recipe was nowhere to be found, so I had to turn to my own favorite cocktail blog, Cocktail Virgin, to figure out how I might use this newly acquired Fever Tree ginger beer on short notice.

I went with the Shirley Temple Black, an interesting name for something that doesn’t resemble a Shirley Temple in the least. The recipe called for the following:

2 oz Rye
1/2 oz of Maurin Quina
1/2 oz of Ginger Liqueur (or syrup)
a dash of fresh lemon juice

Build the drink over ice in a zombie glass and finish it off with ginger beer.

Pretty basic recipe ounce you manage to assemble the ingredients, particularly the Maurin Quina, which still seems to be one of the more challenging bottles to find. The ginger and rye play well together (I used Rittenhouse, though the recipe calls for Overholt), almost masking the rye completely. I tried the drink without the quina, just to see how it worked. Essentially, it emasculates the drink by making it sweeter (still quite good). The quina, however, adds the necessary complexity, a sort of sour cherry to the neutral ginger and just enough bitter to call the drink complex.

Serfs and Lords

I am currently reading a book on Emotional Intelligence (EI), seeking some personal growth around my day job and surprised to be learning some great science that carries into the world of writing. I find that my characters, particularly those in books I abandoned, tend to have low EI. Those with higher levels of EI tend to be the antagonists, which isn’t necessarily fair, but a quick assessment of my writing would certainly confirm it is where my comfort level with other humans lies.  In real life, I find emotional intelligence interesting because I used to have it.

In my previous corporate role, I worked alone, though almost always with customers and often on challenging projects and situations. I had a very high degree of EI and could de-escalate extremely challenging situations. In my current role, I have to work with a much larger team, but I am almost always alone. The fundamental difference between the roles, as I currently see it, is that I was an independent leader in my old role, free to make my own choices and prescribe real solutions to real problems. In my current role, the problems aren’t meant to be solved and I have no freedom to act in the way I think is most appropriate. As a result, I more often find myself escalating than de-escalating (though certainly not to meltdown levels).

What’s interesting is that my anxiety levels are much lower than before. Part of that might just be because I’ve been gradually working on bringing them down, but I do have some suspicion that it might also be job related (perhaps my new-found incompetence gives me more to think about). And while I may not be recognizing any specific anxiety, I cannot help be notice that my agitation level is the highest it’s been at any point in my career. I instinctively know these two are linked, but I’m surprised by how different they feel.

Anyway, as I’ve been working on the character development for my next novel, which I plan to write in November, one of the conflicts I want to capture is the high-EI versus low-EI struggle that is so apparent in the corporate world, particularly in technical or engineering organizations. I am particularly fascinated by people with low-EI that struggle even in the lower technical rungs of the corporate ladder, contrasted against the stereotypical backstabbing and manipulative high achiever skipping around on the upper rungs of management. This is a battle as old as serfs and lords, and as fascinating as any conflict you might read about in classic or contemporary fiction.

What makes the lords, the upper-middle managers, and vice presidents so vehemently despised by the stragglers on the lower rung of the corporate ladder? After all, most of these people started at the bottom and worked their way up. Most of the ones I’ve known are nice people. But there is a certain faction within the group that is responsible for the stereotype. What is it that drives these people? Money and power seem to be the most obvious answers and maybe it really is that simple. But upon reading this book, I am becoming more inclined to believe that the link is to emotional intelligence. I believe that many of these people are low-level sociopaths who thrive in a world with so many rules that no one follows any of them. These people enjoy taking credit and placing blame. Power and money are merely small rewards that come with a successful gaming of the system. It’s the game, however, that they live for.

It’s human nature to put a value judgment on these people. But I’m hoping I can tell my next story, in part, from their point of view. At a minimum, I’d like to be as neutral as possible, but ideally, I’d like to give readers the opportunity to relate to either character in the conflict.

Win Katy Perry

There’s a contest going on through the month of September to help promote Katy Perry’s new album and single. She’s asked high schools around the county to submit a lip synced video to Roar, her first single from the album. Courtney Coddington, of Lakewood High School in Colorado, submitted the following.

Lakewood High School Lip Dub 2013 – Roar from Lakewood High School on Vimeo.

When I watched this video for the first time, I did a double-take. Was this video really shot in a single sequence? I watched it again, looking for even the slightest glitches. Sure enough, this was a one-shot video. Watching the video was a gentle reminder of my constant struggle in the world of art. No matter my medium – writing, audio, video, cocktails – my focus has always been on the technical elements and lacking in creativity (though I’ve received plenty of feedback suggesting my creativity isn’t too bad).

This video is not particularly strong in the technical department. It’s not edited (though obviously rehearsed extensively), the lighting is good for most of it, though occasionally backlit, and the audio is occasionally out of sync. But artistically, it captures not just a group of kids at a high school; it captures the feeling people get when they work hard to accomplish a complicated undertaking. That is the connection it will make with most people and why it would deserve to win the grand prize of a Katy Perry concert at their school (imagine the chaos that will come with that). Though according to the official rules, the videos submitted cannot exceed 2 minutes. Will Katy make an exception? Or will they choose their best 2 minutes and resubmit?

Revisiting a Place for the First Time

When I wrote The Gila Project, I started with only a few objectives: a twisted love triangle, that takes place in Tucson, and talks about cocktails. The love triangle quickly lost its Isosceles shape, resembling more of a line than a triangle. The cocktails were tempered considerably, based on initial feedback from early readers of the novel, but the Tucson setting kept hold and even expanded as I worked my way through the initial 50,000 word goal in 30 days. At some point in the writing process, I knew that Adam, my main character, had to seek water. It was, of course, the antidote to the harshness of the desert. While I spent nearly six months in Tucson before writing the novel, I quickly came to regret that I hadn’t strayed far outside of the city limits while there.

Upon seeing my shortsightedness, it was necessary to turn to technology to finish the story. I used Bing maps (and eventually Google) to seek out all the rivers within one hundred miles of Tucson, favoring the Gila, upon initial discovery. In all my time spent in Arizona, I’d never visited nor seen the Gila River. Everything I used to write the story was based on street-side views from Bing and Google. In the discovery process, I came across two landmarks that were particularly intriguing to me: the Gillespie Dam and its associated Old Highway 80 bridge. I spent hours looking up photos, videos, and street-side views of these side-by-side landmarks, located a few miles outside of Gila Bend. I built a connection with them that was mystical and “real.” I was determined that something important in my novel would happen at this improbable location.

While I can’t give away what did happen at this location, I can talk about what it was like to visit a place you’ve studied so thoroughly for the first time. The Gillespie Dam is not exactly a national treasure in the world of pop culture. Of my ten or so friends in Phoenix and Tucson, exactly none of them had ever been there. In fact, a few of them were surprised to learn that it was even on my agenda to spend nearly four additional hours visiting this place that was out in the middle of nowhere (lotsa drive time for a one day tour).

But last week, I had the first opportunity in a year my job afforded to revisit the desert where my book is based. I wish I could capture in words the exact feelings I felt when I turned the corner of the road, around the dead, rocky hills, and first laid eyes on the Highway 80 Gila River Bridge. It was surreal to me. As much as it looked like every picture and street-side image from Google Earth, it was nothing like what I expected it to be. I wasn’t the least bit disappointed in what I found, despite it not quite living up to my interpretations taken from the small screen experience. I didn’t regret for an instant my choice in making this place a pivotal point in my novel.

I spent an hour at the park since dedicated to the bridge and dam, and maybe three other vehicles crossed the same bridge. Two of them were utility vehicles associated with the dam; one was a truck with no decided agenda. I took video footage of whatever I could capture and plenty of still shots like this one of the bridge and breached dam.

Gillespie

In all my recent travels, I can’t think of any place so boring on the surface that has consumed so much of my mental (and physical) energy as the Gillespie Dam and Bridge. Every detail interested me: every noise, every defect, even the merciless heat of the mid-morning sun beating down on me as I did my work. To anyone else, this location is a minor point of interest on a road trip to somewhere more interesting. To me, this was a location that consumed my mental energies for months as I tried to perfect a storyline that directly linked to this latitude and longitude without ever having visited it outside of the virtual world.

While this was an awkward experience (three kinds of cameras shooting every angle of an otherwise boring place) for me, it was one I would recommend for anyone else who writes. The obsessions with far-and-away places, studied in virtual reality, for the sake of telling a story that might have minor technical inconsistencies, is an obsession worth fulfilling. While this is nothing but a bridge and dam to most Arizona residents, and perhaps even a nuisance for its narrow lanes, it was like living in my own world for one hour. It was an experience I will never forget and one that is hard to replicate. There is value in making up a story about a place before you visit it.

In contrast, I didn’t feel the same romantic appeal when I revisited the Tucson bar where most of my story takes place. Perhaps this is because I knew it so well already. In a sense, I actually felt disconnected from the bar, despite the staff remembering and welcoming me more than a year later. I’d written about it fantastically and the truth was, the people could never live up to what I’d written about. I suppose that’s fiction’s curse.

Dams, bridges, rivers and sun, however, are far less personable; I could make them whatever I wanted and the only thing that could have destroyed my vision for this special place would’ve been to find that Old Highway 80 was a massive thoroughfare with t-shirts for sale along the way. Fortunately, I didn’t find that, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that an interpretive center was erected from the location where I took the above photo. The interpretive center was established in 2012, the same year I published my book. That was cool, to me. But I don’t know what to make of it.

The Craft Cocktail Era Has Ended

As a person who travels for a living, often to West Coast cities who’ve been instrumental in the craft cocktail revolution, I continue to be surprised by the number of times I have to order the Saratoga – or, even worse – the Manhattan. The Saratoga is a good drink; it’s especially good in desperate times as nearly every bar has at least one bottle of brandy, bourbon and sweet vermouth. It’s named for the turning point in the American Revolution, and when I wrote about it in my first book, The Gila Project, it was the drink  of choice as the story began its own turning point.

So, if its such a good drink, why might I be disappointed to have to suck one (or more) down? The reality is that it represents a lowest common denominator. If the best drink I can order is a Saratoga, the bar likely has less than sixty ingredients. Keep in mind, of course, that any bar seeking to making money has at last ten kinds of vodka, so it’s really just fifty ingredients. And among those ingredients are almost never the kinds of spirits that make for interesting flavor profiles.

It was certainly my hope, as I watched what I thought was the explosion in revival cocktails back in 2008-2011, that America might return to its roots and every bar, hotel-inspired or not, would strive to outdo the others in its vicinity. I had envisioned a world where even hotel bars felt compelled to stock upwards of 200 spirits and even craft their own proprietary drinks. It was my vision that customers would be as demanding as I and walk into the Marriotts and Sheratons of the world demanding better fare. It was my vision that when airlines offered craft spirits, it would be served for our appreciation, versus mixed casually with whatever soda was most readably available.

I was wrong. The fact remains that most people who drink do so for the intoxicating effects, not for some nostalgic journey through the uniquely American phenomenon. Vodka continues to be the number one seller, often times sucked down too fast to even appreciate its tastelessness. Perhaps some revivals take decades to catch on, but I haven’t seen much evidence that craft cocktails are here to stay, save maybe for the larger cities who can support the niche crowd. Even there, however, I see the number shrinking as people determine, right or wrong, that bitter drinks were just a phase for them.

Unfortunately, I continue to watch people order whatever is placed on the menu in front of them. I continue to dine at the most expensive steak house in Washington, only to be given a drink menu whose specials resemble an MTV Spring Break episode. I continue to find myself in hotels where my only real choice is what brand of flavorless Vodka would I like shaken with ice. I continue to host craft cocktail parties that anger some of the guests who can’t understand why I didn’t bring tonic. It seems that the discovery of America’s past is back in America’s past, save maybe for the few of you who found this blog by accident or on purpose.

I hope I am wrong, but I see the next five years to be those of cocktail stagnation; even recession. Just as the American attention span doesn’t last but more than a few months, so too must go their palates. The cocktail revival had its heyday and I am pleased to have been part of it. But I am predicting the most unfortunate turn of events, based not on what I might wish, but what I experience when I step back into mainstream America.

Changing Directions

For a couple of years now, I’ve used this blog space predominantly as a way to record recipes and share other general musings around drinking and preparing cocktails. While I still plan to do that, I’ve spent the last year or so working on my book, which is currently in its final round of copy edit. Everyone who bought the original version of the book should be able to upgrade to the final version at no additional cost. If you’ve already read it, you might want to even read it again. The story did change, although the premise is the same. The book was originally written about drinking. I wanted to give the reader an appreciation of the good and bad of quality craft cocktails, much the same way that watching the movie “Sideways” gave me an appreciation of the California Wine lifestyle. As I wrote the first draft of the book, however, it transformed into a journey of the spirituous palate and how our preferences change from sweet to bitter as we age.

As I noticed these themes naturally develop during the writing process, I altered the story to match whatever the main character happened to be drinking. That, of course, provides for a rather bitter end to the story, but the initial feedback was rather positive. After contacting and working with a small publishing company, Wheatmark, of Tucson, AZ, I became inspired to take on my own developmental edit, having never been happy with the initial climax of the story. It helped that one day I awoke with the answer in my head, almost like the proverbial light bulb. Ultimately, it required me to throw away the ideas I loved, but that actively prevented the story from an otherwise natural crescendo. I’m looking forward to the final copy-edit, expected to be delivered in early October.

In the final copy of the book, you’ll also find a complete index of all the recipes used in the story, so that you can follow along at home. One of my friends who read the original draft reported back to me that something in the story hooked him early on and he stayed up all night finishing it, pouring himself about four drinks in the process. He’d wished he had the ingredients to make the drinks he was reading about instead of simple pours of whiskey.

The new story is currently live on Amazon, but the copy edited version (in other words: final) won’t be up until late October. I am also looking into a print-on-demand service for those who still prefer the old fashioned format.

So, what does this mean for the blog? Hopefully a little more diversity, I’d like to spend more time talking about all things that interest me. That is a constantly changing list.

Peppermint Nickel

Intro

Every now and then, the ingredients in something will combine in a way that simply doesn’t make sense. I suppose those who make artificial flavorings know this best. I’m reminded particularly of Beanboozled, where a series of edible flavorings are muddled together in a way that they almost taste like something gross (baby wipes, skunk, moldy cheese, etc.). But what they actually taste like is a typical sugar-filled Jelly bean with a obnoxious and extremely pungent upfront smell. Arguably, if you didn’t know what you were supposed to be tasting, you might not be able to identify it.

I was recently reminded of this phenomenon at the Zig Zag Cafe in Seattle. Seeking to challenge the bartender and hoping to come home with an idea or two for my own bottle, I asked Eric to make me something with Zubrowka that wasn’t a Bisongrass Fizz (a drink from a previous seasonal menu). The flavors of anise have long been known to mix well with Zubrowka, so I wasn’t surprised when he pulled out the Yellow Chartreuse. What did surprise me is how the bisongrass, Chartreuse and Calvados mixed together to produce a flavor not associated with any of them: peppermint. Not in an over-powering or artificial way, but rather in a subtle and herbal way. It seemed only right to garnish with a mint sprig.

Recipe

1 1/2 oz Zubrowka Polish Bisongrass Vodka
3/4 oz Yellow Chartreuse
3/4 oz Calvados Cardinal

Combine the ingredients over ice, stir until chilled and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with mint sprig.

Coming Spring 2012

Intro

Occasionally, I find the process of reading cocktail blogs to be frustrating. How often do I actually have the ingredients called for? I am fortunately enough that I can typically substitute for a like-type liquor, but occasionally I run across a recipe that requires no substitution if it’s to be enjoyed at home as much as it was enjoyed at the bar. While I don’t know the name of this recipe I recently experienced at Zig Zag Cafe, I do know that it calls for simply no substitutes in the Amaro department. Gran Classico has a flavor profile that simply doesn’t lend itself to substitutes in this cocktail. Interestingly enough, the rye and tequila are quite interchangeable, albeit dissimilar.

I’ve been assured by Eric that the recipe will find its way onto the spring cocktail menu at Zig Zag.

Recipe

2 oz Rye or Reposado Tequila
1 oz Dolin Dry
1/2 oz Gran Classico bitters
2 dashes orange bitters
Garnish with Lemon Peel

Stir and strain into a cocktail glass.