What’s in a number?

In 1996, three friends and I left our jobs at Z-Code Software (which by then had been acquired by NCD, which is a whole story in itself) to found our own e-mail software company, Zanshin. To get the company going, we each put in ten thousand dollars of our own money.


Zanshin is a Japanese word relating to follow-through (particularly in the martial arts), but it has other nice connotations too. We chose it after reading this passage in Neal Stephenson‘s Snow Crash:

The businessman turns out to have a lot of zanshin. Translating this concept into English is like translating “fuckface” into Nipponese, but it might translate into “emotional intensity” in football lingo. […] “Emotional intensity” doesn’t convey the half of it, of course. It is the kind of coarse and disappointing translation that makes the dismembered bodies of samurai warriors spin in their graves. The word “zanshin” is larded down with a lot of other folderol that you have to be Nipponese to understand.

Zanshin (the company) still exists, though I’m no longer involved day-to-day, it’s in a completely different business from the one we started, and it now operates under the name iPost.

Sitting down with our lawyer to draw up the paperwork for the new corporation, he asked us what the ownership structure of the company was. We replied that we were four equal partners. He next asked how many shares of company stock we wanted to issue.

We looked at each other and shrugged. We were all novices at this. “Uh, I dunno,” we muttered in various forms. I ventured:


The lawyer looked at me as if I’d just suggested we eat the table for lunch. “No,” he said with a smile, as if getting my joke.

But I was sincere. “Why not?” I asked.

“Because each share would then cost ten thousand dollars.”


“So, what if you want to accept investment in something other than multiples of ten thousand dollars? To make the shares worth twenty dollars each, we’d have to do a 500-for-1 stock split!”

“So?” The mathematician in me was kicking in and I wasn’t letting it drop. “If we want to accept outside investment there’ll be stock-related paperwork anyway, so why not also do a 500-for-1 split at that time?”

“Well, it’s just not what new companies do,” he said. I protested a couple more times — one share apiece was both necessary and sufficient, any other number would be arbitrary — and he countered. He seemed as sure that I was nuts as I was about him — though only I could articulate my side of the debate, his obviously consisted of nothing but inertia from decades of unquestioned acquiescence in tradition. My partners were beginning to roll their eyes, the lawyer was growing uncomfortable (and costing us money!), and I was aware I didn’t know everything about starting companies, so finally I let it drop. On the lawyer’s advice we issued 800,000 shares in the new company, each worth a nickel, and we each got 200,000 of them.

Trivial though the matter was, to this day it bothers me that I caved. You might say that makes me stubborn. I call it a healthy mistrust of authority.

Take the time, do it right

I used the following story at work the other day to illustrate why some of us should avoid some ill-advised shortcuts and choose instead to stand up to critics of how long our project is taking:

In 1995, when my primary flight training was complete, it was time for my checkride to see whether I’d become a licensed pilot or not. For the checkride I had to fly from my home airport, Petaluma, to the FAA examiner’s airport, Santa Rosa (er, the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport — yes, that Charles Schulz). That flight was uneventful. When I arrived I shut down and secured the plane as usual, then went in to talk to the examiner for a while before we began the “practical” (flying) portion of the examination.

Unlike Petaluma, Santa Rosa has a control tower, which means you must radio for permission to taxi. So after preflighting the plane, climbing aboard, strapping in, putting on my headset, starting the engine, and performing the pre-taxi checklist, I radioed the tower. “Santa Rosa ground, Cessna 24498 on the main ramp, taxi to the active with Foxtrot.” The tower did not respond, which is not too unusual as control towers sometimes get busy and taxi clearances get low priority. So after a few seconds I radioed again. “Santa Rosa ground, Cessna 24498 on the main ramp, taxi to the active with Foxtrot.” Still nothing. I double-checked the frequency to which the radio was tuned, waited a few seconds and tried again. Then again. Finally after several long minutes, with the instructor waiting patiently beside me (and was that a bemused smile on his face the whole time?), I noticed that I’d forgotten to plug the headsets into the radio stack! The instructor and I were able to talk to each other but not to the tower.

Flustered, I explained to the instructor that this was my first time using a two-person intercom with the radio stack. (In small planes, very often the intercom is a separate little box that the pilot owns. Two headsets plug into it, then the box — which usually ends up wedged between the front seats or knocking around loose on the floor of the cabin — plugs into the radio. Before the checkride, I flew solo with no need for an intercom — my headset plugged right into the radio — and before flying solo, my instructor would always set up his intercom for us to use.) The examiner put me at ease, saying, “Anyone could have forgotten to plug in the intercom. It’s not on the checklist. A poor student would have given up and started taxiing without clearance. You did what you were supposed to do, even if it took a little longer.”

About an hour later I was a licensed pilot.

Moral of the story: if it takes a little longer to do things right because you haven’t thought of everything, it’s still better than the alternative.

The one that got away

I remember the summer of 1975. I was not quite nine. Everyone was talking about Jaws. My mom forbade me to see it, asserting it would ruin forever my enjoyment of swimming at the beach (as it had hers). She was probably right, but with the pop-culture world abuzz about the film, it was impossible not to burn with desire to see it, especially when my friend Matthew, who had seen it, described in gory detail the scene where they find a disembodied human head floating in a shipwreck!

As we now know, Star Wars came along two summers later and together these two films transformed the economics of Hollywood, ushering in the era of the summer blockbuster. But in 1975 the ubiquity of Jaws was an unprecedented phenomenon. Certainly there had been big “event” movies before, but not since the Great Depression, when droves of Americans turned to glitzy musicals for much-needed escapism, had going to the movies been so central to American life.

All this came back to me as I read a news blurb recently about how, after Jaws, Alfred Hitchcock refused to meet with Steven Spielberg because Spielberg made Hitchcock “feel like such a whore.” That, and the dismay this caused Spielberg (who idolized Hitchcock), was all I saw of the blurb.

At once I understood a little better why Spielberg cast François Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Truffaut was not only an iconic filmmaker from the French new wave, he was also Hitchcock’s definitive biographer.

But I wondered about why Spielberg made Hitchcock feel like a whore. Did Hitchcock foresee, years before everyone else, the huge changes that Jaws was wreaking on the movie business? Did he fret about the coming rise of commerce over art? Did Spielberg’s success with Jaws somehow make Hitchcock question the motivation behind his own accomplishments? It seemed unlikely given all the changes Hitchcock had seen in the film industry over the course of his long career. Hollywood is not a place for those with hangups about artistic integrity.

All of which was interesting enough to think about that it prompted me to begin writing this blog post, which in turn prompted me to look up the full article, which explains the less-culturally-relevant reality: that Hitchcock was a whore. He took a million dollars to be the voice of the Jaws ride on the Universal Studios tour and felt dirty about it ever after. “I can’t sit down and talk to the boy who did the fish movie,” Hitchcock once explained to actor Bruce Dern. “I couldn’t even touch his hand.”

Re-go, Gore!

In the past few days I’ve read two provocative articles on the possibility of an Al Gore presidential run in 2008: one by Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos and one in Rolling Stone. Both agree that he’d be a killer candidate, and both express skepticism that he’d actually run. In the words of Moulitsas,

I doubt he’ll pull the trigger. There’s no need for him to do so. His passion is fighting global warming, not social security solvency or extracting ourselves from Bush’s myriad messes.

Rolling Stone asserts,

Most of Gore’s closest associates believe that he is unlikely to run. “He’s hanging out with interesting people, he’s making money, but he’s still having a serious impact on the political discourse,” says Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network. “You could look at all that and say, ‘My God, he’ll never run for president.’”

A friend of mine from high school, Eli Attie, was part of Al Gore’s staff during the Clinton administration and during the 2000 election. Afterward, he got work in the private sector — as a writer and producer on the TV show The West Wing. I told him how jealous I was of his involvement in presidential politics, and he told me what a relief it was to be out of it. From all I know of what’s involved — cheap hotels, bad food, brutal hours, glad-handing every asshole in sight, constant money-grubbing, and the fearsome unblinking eye of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy — it’s perfectly understandable that Eli, Al Gore, or anyone else would be relieved to be done with it. Who, after all, would ever want to be in it? Only the hopelessly idealistic, or those with an abiding commitment to public service, or to naked power.

And yet…

Al Gore has made a new name for himself as a leader whose passion on issues of global importance has transcended party politics and national boundaries. He and his proxies speak as if a presidential run would mire him in the muck, bringing him back down to a level where he could only be less effective than he is now. But recent history provides an example of another man whose moral leadership transcended politics, yet was coaxed into his country’s presidency to great effect: Nelson Mandela.

For my money, Gore is planning to run, and those who claim to know otherwise are probably dissembling in order to help him set the stage properly. (No, my friendship with Eli Attie gives me no special access nor insight one way or the other.) But just in case he really isn’t planning to run because he believes he’s found his bully pulpit, I have this message for him: the American presidency’s pulpit is bullier, and we need our Mandela.

The fame vampire

We rented an old favorite from Netflix the other day: Bugsy Malone, a canonical Chicago gangland story with some great musical numbers and one big twist: no performer in the film is over the age of 12. Instead of knives, rival mobsters eliminate each other with a pie in the face. Instead of bullets, the tommy guns fire creampuffs.

After watching it, I grew curious about the kids who starred in it. Where are they now? I went to the Internet Movie Database to look them up one by one.

To my surprise, nearly all of the cast had zero, one, or two additional film credits after Bugsy Malone, and that’s all. Scott Baio played the title role, and he of course enjoyed a steady trickle of fame for a while in the 70’s. Other than that, no one appears to have emerged from Bugsy Malone with any sort of acting career intact…

…except for four-time Oscar nominee (and two-time winner) Jodie Foster.

Reet! Reet! Reet! Reet!

Jodie Foster is a huge star. Her Bugsy Malone co-stars are shriveled husks. Coincidence — or did she have something to do with the premature depletion of their careers? Has her fame been nourished by (what should rightly have been) theirs? Some of the kids in that movie were quite good, a fact that couldn’t have escaped young Foster’s notice. Did she gorge herself on their star potential and make it her own? We report, you decide.

(Incidentally, there is a new Coca-Cola ad [I saw it in the movie theater before the very-good-but-not-as-great-as-they’re-saying Children of Men] that uses the finale from Bugsy Malone as its jingle — “You give a little love and it all comes back to you, la la la la la la la.”)


Recently I discovered that Sony is planning a new in-dash car stereo with a USB port for reading and playing MP3 files from a thumb drive. I had an earlier such model but it got stolen. I replaced it with a JVC model that I don’t much like. (Among other things, its clock won’t display when the unit is switched off. And when it does show the time, occasionally the time display won’t update itself for many minutes in a row!) For someone with a long daily commute, a good car stereo is indispensable. So I’m interested in Sony’s latest and I have been checking Amazon periodically to see when it’ll be available to order.

While checking just now I discovered that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — the final book in the series — is now available to pre-order. Its just-announced release date is 21 July. Yay! Into the shopping cart. I’m proud to be among the first to pre-order it. Thanks to an automated recommendation I also discovered that Universal Hall Pass — Melissa Kaplan’s post-Splashdown band — has a new EP out. On it she collaborates with former Splashdown bandmate Kasson Crooker — yay! Into the shopping cart.

Today’s run of luck continues…

Luck o’ the Jewish

It happened again: I left my wallet at home and didn’t realize it until I got to work (some fifty miles away).

On “in line”

New Yorkers don’t say “standing in line,” they say “standing on line,” and so did I for the first half of my life. My sister Suzanne noticed the change when I started saying “in line” instead, some time after I left New York for college. She ribbed me about going native, since in Pittsburgh (as in most other places), people say “standing in line.” I explained to her the real reason I switched: to avoid confusion with the computer networking term “online,” which in the mid-80’s had not achieved any meaningful linguistic currency outside the world of computer nerds, but which was part of my everyday vocabulary at Carnegie Mellon.

I discovered it while standing in line to buy some food at a local lunch joint, just like last time. Muttering a curse, I went back to the office unfed.

…where I found aluminum catering trays full of white rice and Chinese vegetables, left over from someone’s lunch meeting. I heaped some on a plate and headed for the stairwell back to my desk. On the way there I encountered my coworker Cid, who asked me, “Do you eat meat?” “Sure,” I said, and he handed me a take-out box of leftover Szechuan chicken! Continuing to the stairwell I began trying to fetch my security badge (to open the stairwell door) while balancing the items in my hands — when my coworker Stefan saw me coming and held the door open for me.

Now it’s just after lunch. When I discovered my missing wallet I thought, “Well, at least this will help me lose a little more weight,” since my efforts in that department have plateaued — but I’m stuffed!

Relative weight loss is easy:
just fatten up everyone else

I just hope all this good karma doesn’t mean I’m going to get busted for driving without a license on my way home tonight. I’ll have to do something nice for my co-workers tomorrow.