HTBU has been described as "smart" (Chicago Tribune), "engaging" (The Washington Post), "helpful" (New York magazine), "frequently hilarious" (The Guardian), "pretty terrific" (January magazine), "sharp [and] witty [and] brimming with advice" (Minneapolis Star Tribune), "odd" (The Montreal Gazette), "fortuitous" (Utne Reader), and "clever and, as the title promises, useful" (Newsweek).

Demolition Project

Posted: September 5th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

This site is being taken down, post by post by page. In the meantime, if you have any questions re. the book, or usefulness more generally, please contact me at

best “How to Be Useful” Google alert to date

Posted: February 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: nothing to do with the book | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Fat Controller enlists Thomas to teach the silly Logging Locos how to be useful.

At 7:15 a.m. I was not awake enough for that sentence. The existence of the “Fat Controller” was also news to me.


As long as I’m keeping a running list, cont. II

As long as I’m keeping a running list, cont.

As long as I’m keeping a running list of “how to be useful” mentions…

Sting contemplates his new Christmas album

from the latest Google alert email

Posted: January 11th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: devotionals | No Comments »

A useful summary:

Useful builds bridges. Useful gives you authority. Useful is fulfilling. Useful is cool. Useful is kind. Useful brings you credibility.

The Middle Class is Magic

Posted: October 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Since August 2007, for perverse reasons of my own, I’ve had Google send an email that alerts me to the previous week’s uses of the terms “class warfare” and “class conflict.”* I’m perversely interested in class the way only people who spend childhood in one and adulthood amongst another seem to be. Don’t get me wrong; this is not undergraduate-style communism talking. It’s only the hyper awareness that money, and family resources, matter deeply. You don’t have to read Karl Marx to get that idea. Jane Austen will do just fine.

These Google alerts did not, at first, offer much that was surprising. Cranky right-wing pundits accused Democrats of stoking the fires of class warfare every time it was suggested that a return to Clinton-era tax rates might not spell the end of the union. Clearly, they argued, liberals hated successful people. For their part, left-wing pundits ranted about how the top income bracket waged class war by bending tax policy to their favor, contributing to a yawning income gap between the U.S.’s richest and poorest.

This is about what you’d expect. More surprising was the accusation from the right that those on the left, in desiring a tax policy that would ask more of the haves, were engaging in unwholesome, possibly even seditious activity. Class warfare, they denounced, was “un-American.”

Then Michelle Malkin saw class warfare in a wire story about a small plane crash. “BUTTE, Mont. (AP) – Three California families headed to a retreat for the ultrarich were among the 14 victims of a plane crash in Montana,” prompted Malkin to wonder:

“Was the reference to the “ultrarich” retreat necessary? What is the relevance of how much it costs to stay at the ski resort the families were headed to — and why does it belong in the lede? How dehumanizing. And gratuitously callous.”

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Short Attention Span Essay on Artists That Meant a Lot to a Younger Me, Facebook, “Like,” and Identity by Association

Posted: September 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

The other week a woman I don’t know too well asked me if I liked Matisse. She was on her way to MoMA to see the “Radical Invention” exhibit and I was stumped. Which is odd in that she didn’t ask a difficult question. Do I like Matisse?

Well, sure I do. But here’s what I said:

“Uh.” Yeah.” “Sort of.” Then: “I used to.”

Eleven days later, it’s obvious that my lapse resulted from a muddled brain bust tacking underhanded questions onto a perfectly straightforward and well-meaning one. Because in that simple question I also heard this:

Do you “Like” Matisse in the sense that you’d list him on your Facebook profile?

What does liking Matisse say? That you also like pastel sheets and Mary Cassatt?

Which led me to wonder how a culture so bent toward association — like this, don’t like that — has influenced our thought processes. We’re constantly invited (and that’s no exaggeration) to walk through the world bestowing our “Like” on sandwich shops and books and bands and op-eds. I can now even connect my Facebook profile to my local drug store.

(That drug store’s Facebook profile, by the way, lists 13 pages (as of this posting), and one of them is the The Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

It’s nice to have options. But where is the category for things that our thirteen-year-old self liked? What button do you push when confronted with an artist whose work you kept propped up on your dresser in a ten-cent dented nickel frame twenty years ago, but you no longer think much about?

An “I used to like this, now I don’t” button is probably not the answer. Shush the stupid questions — that’s the answer. But it’s easier said than done, as I discovered when I pulled an old postcard from the Van Gogh Museum out of my stationery drawer to send to a friend on his birthday.

Oude Vrouw in Wijngaard

But this friend has advanced, complicated tastes, the snot-nosed snobbish imp in the corner of my brain said. Was Van Gogh a little too…..? Shut up, I said to myself. Don’t argue.

My weekend

Posted: August 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: nothing to do with the book | No Comments »

“I’ve been writing for a living for around 15 years now and whatever method I practise remains a mystery. It’s random. Some days I’ll rapidly thump out an article in a steady daze, scarcely aware of my own breath. Other times it’s like slowly dragging individual letters of the alphabet from a mire of cold glue.

Charlie Brooker, in the Guardian

An Analysis of the BP Disaster from 1923

Posted: July 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

“When the individual man drinks whiskey, enough to get drunk, we know that the alcohol has a certain peculiar effect upon the cells of the body, especially the nerves.

“Alcohol causes the little cells to swell out and enlarge. This causes the tiny particles of solid matter in the cell, upon which the vital, positive energy is carried, to fly further apart. The positive energy is scattered and the cell becomes dominantly ‘negative.’ Emotions are stirred up and mental pictures of all sorts formed in a chaos of Imagination. The man is given a sense of freedom from all natural limitations. His ego as well as his cells become expanded and for a time he imagines himself a most wonderful Master of all he surveys. Then the reaction comes—the alcoholic conditions lose their effect, contraction of the cells and the ego sets in and the nausea and headache of the ‘morning after’ arrive. Long habit of ‘going on a spree’ distorts the very shape of the cells and warps the whole man physically and mentally.

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The Authenticity Hoax

Posted: June 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: nothing to do with the book | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

The other week I had the good luck to talk to Andrew Potter about his book The Authenticity Hoax. Potter is personable and quick on his feet and has the kind of nimble mind that runs on novel formulations of you know, this thing is like this other thing, this whole other phenomenon that appears unrelated but isn’t, not at all.

I typed up our conversation for a publication that didn’t end up running the piece. So here it is, here:

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Presentations, PowerPoint, and George Orwell

Posted: May 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: "progress", communications, tips | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

From a Q&A with Teresa A. Taylor, COO of Qwest, that ran last September in the New York Times:

Q. Is there anything unusual about the way you run meetings?

A. Well, the first is by saying, “Do we all know why we’re here?”

Q. Do you really say that?

A. Yes, because so many people say, “No, I don’t know, I was invited.” . . . I get invited to a lot of meetings where someone wants to brief me, or bring me up to speed on something, which usually means that they want to tell me about their project and then ask me for money. So I open with: “Do we all know why we’re here? Are we making decisions? Are you going to ask me for something at the end?” I try to get that out right away.

It’s amazing, there will be eight people in the room and they all have a different answer of what’s going on there. I’ll also say, once we’re clear about what we’re doing: “Does everyone need to be here? If anyone feels like they want to leave right now, that would be fine.” Every once in a while a couple of people will say, “Yeah, I could use this time back,” and they get up and leave.

Q. But you could chew up 10 minutes just going around the table.

A. Sure, I think it’s a good 10 minutes. I really do.

Q. What about presentations?

A. I use a little saying, which is, “Be brief, be bright and be gone.” It’s also not uncommon for me to say, “Why don’t we put the PowerPoint aside for a minute and why don’t you just talk to me?”

Q. What’s the maximum number of PowerPoint slides you want to see?

A. Six. But I actually prefer no PowerPoint. To be honest, I’d rather just talk. A really great meeting, to me, is someone who is just talking to me and might give me a piece of paper or two to support something, but that’s it.

A couple things strike me about this exchange. One, Ms. Taylor makes a good case for why tools like PowerPoint are best managed by pushy, efficiency-minded people. Like all technological tools, they magnify the qualities of the user. If you’re timid, PowerPoint enables your timidity. If you’re one of the most restless creative minds of your generation, technologies like PowerPoint are more likely to showcase your incredible avidity.

Either way, a limit on its use — six slides per presentation — is good for all parties. Taylor is essentially saying that she forces presenters to edit themselves, and call me biased, but I believe editing tends to clarify one’s thinking.

Two, technologies like PowerPoint make it easy to pass off sloppy thoughts. “Just talk” is less forgiving. There’s no place for half-baked ideas to hide when you’re “just talking.” To borrow from Orwell again, when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.

Techno-Agnosticism, Or, Who’s Using Who?

Posted: April 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

I’ve had a series of conversations lately after which I’ve felt completely out of step with my times. I don’t like Facebook. I do have a profile, and I appreciate it in so far as it’s an awfully good replacement for the phone book, but I view it as a professional and thus economic necessity. I generally don’t log on until politeness compels me to. I also don’t much care for Twitter, unless it’s used in an interesting way that is a layer removed from the merely personal. I don’t want to know what my friends are thinking at any given moment, I don’t want or expect them to care what I’m doing with my day, and if they did profess a desire to receive 7 updates from me in a 24-hour period, I would scowl and try to convince them that—no, in fact they don’t.

So I may be a crank or a contrarian or simply a private person (though, come to think of it, that’s a contrarian position itself these days). I’m no Luddite and to support this statement I’ll toss in a line here about how I looooove my 3G iPhone with its throbbing blue ball that tells me I’m going the wrong direction on I-65.

But I do think that many people are too eager to Twit, to bend to pressure to Twit, or exult the uses of Facebook while simultaneously batting away the idea that there may be a downside.

So in honor of techno-agnostics everywhere, here’s Neil Postman on the PBS NewsHour (ye olde MacNeil Lehrer Newshour to us older folk) in 1995, promoting his book Technopoly and discussing what he sees as the necessary questions to ask whenever presented with a new technology. Emphases (in bold) mine:

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What images come to your mind when you, when you think about what our lives will be like in cyberspace?

NEIL POSTMAN: Well, the, the worst images are of people who are overloaded with information which they don’t know what to do with, have no sense of what is relevant and what is irrelevant, people who become information junkies.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What do you mean? How do you mean that?

NEIL POSTMAN: Well, the problem in the 19th century with information was that we lived in a culture of information scarcity and so humanity addressed that problem beginning with photography and telegraphy and the–in the 1840s. We tried to solve the problem of overcoming the limitations of space, time, and form. And for about a hundred years, we worked on this problem, and we solved it in a spectacular way. And now, by solving that problem, we created a new problem, that people have never experienced before, information glut, information meaninglessness, information incoherence. I mean, if there are children starving in Somalia or any other place, it’s not because of insufficient information. And if crime is rampant in the streets in New York and Detroit and Chicago or wherever, it’s not because of insufficient information. And if people are getting divorced and mistreating their children and their sexism and racism are blights on our social life, none of that has anything to do with inadequate information. Now, along comes cyberspace and the information superhighway, and everyone seems to have the idea that, ah, here we can do it; if only we can have more access to more information faster and in more diverse forms at long last, we’ll be able to solve these problems. And I don’t think it has anything to do with it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you believe that this–that the fact that people are more connected globally will lead to a greater degree of homogenization of the global society?

NEIL POSTMAN: Here’s the puzzle about that, Charlayne. When everyone was–when McLuhan talked about the world becoming a global village and, and when people ask, as you did, about how connections can be made, everyone seemed to think that the world would become in, in some good sense more homogenous. But we seem to be experiencing the opposite. I mean, all over the world, we see a kind of reversion to tribalism. People are going back to their tribal roots in order to find a sense of identity. I mean, we see it in Russia, in Yugoslavia, in Canada, in the United States, I mean, in our own country. Why is that every group now not only is more aware of its own grievances but seems to want its own education? You know, we want an Afro-centric curriculum and a Korean-centric curriculum, and a Greek-centered curriculum. What is it about all this globalization of communication that is making people return to more–to smaller units of identity? It’s a puzzlement.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, what do you think the people, society should be doing to try and anticipate these negatives and be able to do something about them?

NEIL POSTMAN: I think they should–everyone should be sensitive to certain questions. For example, when a new–confronted with a new technology, whether it’s a cellular phone or high definition television or cyberspace or Internet, the question–one question should be: What is the problem to which this technology is a solution? And the second question would be: Whose problem is it actually? And the third question would be: If there is a legitimate problem here that is solved by the technology, what other problems will be created by my using this technology? About six months ago, I bought a new Honda Accord, and the salesman told me that it had cruise control. And I asked him, “What is the problem to which cruise control is the solution?” By the way, there’s an extra charge for cruise control. And he said no one had ever asked him that before but then he said, “Well, it’s the problem of keeping your foot on the gas.” And I said, “Well, I’ve been driving for 35 years. I’ve never found that to be a problem.” I mean, am I using this technology, or is it using me, because in a technological culture, it is very easy to be swept up in the enthusiasm for technology, and of course, all the technophiles around, all the people who adore technology and are promoting it everywhere you turn.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Neil Postman, thank you for all of your cautions.

He actually has three more. Questions, that is:

Which people and what institutions will be most seriously harmed by this new technology?

What changes in language are being forced by these new technologies?

What sort of people and institutions gain special economic and political power from this new technology?