Perhaps St. Andrew’s Cross…
Enjoyed your Ryan Irelan interview…as always….must admit that I have a slightly different take on the higher education thing….having studied, worked, and taught in the “space” at different times in my life I guess I’ve formed an opinion or two…I think the notion of noble purpose vs. serving the customer is in a state of crisis.
Thanks for the kind words Steve. How would you feel about sitting still for a Sandhill interview in a few weeks? If you could clear some time the first week of June, I’d enjoy the chat.
SM: Sure….fire away….I’m on the east coast…Charlotte, NC to be exact. 😉
FP: After seeing the picture of you in your ethnic garb, I’m reminded to ask: Boxers or briefs?
SM: Ha. Of course the answer to the age old question of what does a Scotsman wear under his kilt is……his shoes.
FP: I think of Steve McLaughlin as a “hidden” A list blogger. You show up on many blog rolls Your work is universally admired. But you’re not in the middle of the foaming blog culture of conventions and conferences and lots of link swapping/blog rolling.
SM: Thank you. If that’s the perception you get, then I must be actually doing something right.
I never really sat down and thought about what kind of blogger I wanted to be. That’s not my style and I think that sets you up for failure. I just write the way I feel like writing and we’ll see what happens. So if your take is that I’m a “hidden A list blogger” then I take that as a great compliment because I guess that’s really a reflection of my approach to my writing. Given the choice of being an NBA star, to pick a random analogy here, I would rather be Steve Kerr than Allen Iverson.
The reason I choose not to get wrapped up in the frothing confab of bloggerdom is because I honestly do not believe there is that much to say about blog culture. I believe that there has been less debate over Rousseau’s “The Social Contract” or “Waiting For Godot” by Samuel Beckett than there has been over what blogging is or what it means in some larger social context. History always repeats itself and blogging is the latest iteration of personal journals, which is not a new concept to say the least. Go back and read some Samuel Pepys or James Boswell and you will quickly get a much less haughty golly-gee-whiz attitude about blogging’s originality or special powers.
I also avoid the conventions and conferences because I honestly think most of them areâ€¦wellâ€¦silly. I think most of them are just networking events or circle jerks where [insert technology here] experts talk with fellow [insert technology here] experts to a crowd of [insert technology here] experts all on someone else’s dime. To take a recent example, you had a conference about blogging’s impact on the business world where bloggers sat on panels with other bloggers, some of which were blogging what was said, while other bloggers sat in the audience blogging about all of the blogging discussions.
Yawn. Meanwhile business people elsewhere were getting some real business done.
FP: How long have you been engaged in personal publishing on the web?
SM: I started blogging back in early August of 2001 after getting some helpful prodding from Doc Searls. But I had been doing a lot of personal publishing for years, so doing it online was the next logical step I guess. My first post was simply, “Here we go. Let’s see where it goes. Stay tuned…” For me, writing has always been one of those things I have derived a lot of pleasure out of as some kind of release I guess. Back in high school a bunch of us started a renegade student newspaper that ended up trouncing the official one. I actually had a column back then called “From the Bleacher Seats” where I opined about crowded parking lots and other seemingly monumental issues. A portent of things to come I suppose.
So I guess the stage was set many many many years ago to do writing from a personal perspective. When I was working in the interactive services world I started up a monthly printed newsletter that had book reviews and other business focused columns, and eventually I transitioned that to an online version. A lot of Saltire’s first content was my recent book reviews and columns that went beyond my usual topics.
FP: What kind of tools do you use and what influenced your choice?
SM: I use Weblogger’s service which uses Manila. It’s not the most sophisticated blogging tool out on the market, but I think the fact that I still remember how to get under the hood and tweak the code has helped. I think that in my exuberance, or more likely my impatience, to get started blogging I didn’t look very far. At the time Weblogs.com just stopped adding users to their service so Weblogger was next on my list. I am however keeping my eyes on what TypePad is up to, and so who knows if I will decide to trade horses one of these days. I also use Weblogger for my satellite radio blog at
FP: McLaughlin isn’t like an Asian name, is it? Where did you get the inspiration for “Saltire?”
SM: That’s MacLaughlin not McLaughlin you numpty! 😉 Well I have a wee bit o’ Scots in me and at the same time I was looking for something to call my blog that was a bit off the beaten path. I have a thing for choosing words, phrases, analogies, or whatevers that are somewhat surreptitious. If you know the word or reference, then it opens up a few new angles on the subject. If you don’t know the word or reference, then you either gloss over it or you take the time to figure out the sub-rosa part of it.
FP: Some bloggers, for example Dave Winer, are unashamed blogging evangelists. Some, like Chris Locke, have extended their personal publishing into blog space. Some, like AKMA, find blogging to be an online community building opportunity. Other’s like Eric Norlin post brief journal entries that keep us abreast of what’s up with [Eric]. Reading Saltire, I get a clear sense of the blogger as journalist. No question of is blogging journalism. I get that Steve MacLaughlin is a writer and Saltire is one of his vehicles. What can you share about your sense of journalism and how blogging fits in?
SM: I have never really stopped much to think about what my blogging style is, but I think your observations are pretty spot on. Alfred Hitchcock once said that “self-plagiarism is style” and I think Saltire’s style is to present a polished form of journalism. Now from time to time I have toyed with capital-J Journalism, like a piece I did on satellite radio, and I think my blogging over the past few months about Formula One might fall into that category in a sense. For better or worse I have never been interested in evangelizing a particular belief or focusing too much on my personal life. I suppose that goes back to the whole journalism versus journal approach to blogging. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading Eric Norlin’s blog because you always get the raw feed of what he’s thinking. That’s just not my style. Although I have given a lot of thought recently to starting a personal journal that is more of a view on what’s going on in my mind that particular day, but I haven’t jumped over the ledge on that one just yet.
My whole life I have always enjoyed the articles or news stories that took you behind the behind the scenes of a particular story and gave you the details about the details. So in a sense that is the kind of journalism I wanted to explore with Saltire. That also probably explains why I do not do a lot of off the cuff posts. I want to know the facts, figures, and mother’s maiden names of the things I write about. I typically won’t post something unless I know that information is correct and I have seen it backed up in a few different places. Paul Boutin told me a while back that the downfall of most bloggers is that they don’t have editors, and that has always forced me to try and be my own editor.
I think the whole debate of bloggers as Journalists has long since exhausted any new meaningful thoughts. At the end of the day we are all just adjunct journalists. We have other jobs that in theory qualify us to comment on particular subjects, but our blogging does not pay the bills. We may occasionally break a story or force a correction in print or topple a politician, but we are always going to be amateurs in the eyes of the professional Journalists. This is a lesson that I have gleaned from another profession. Unless I am mistaken the only bloggers making a living from their blogging are those that were Journalists to begin with. When someone crosses over from the minor leagues then I will be pleasantly surprised.
Bloggers are the barbarians at the gates of the Journalism world, and there is some real apprehension about our presence, but they figure they can wait out any siege. Their hope is that we get bored and find someone else to pester. Journalists do not fear bloggers, but they do have some concerns about how blogging will change their profession.
The constant navel gazing over the journalism versus Journalism and bloggerdom’s importance is one of the reason I’ve gone cold turkey about writing about any of it. After getting a lot of attention for my coverage of the Space Shuttle Columbia accident, and the mixed reaction to my “Blogger Sells Out” attempt at satire, I decided that I just needed to go off in a whole new direction for a while. I had covered Formula One for an online site last season, and so I decided to see if I could focus on a single topic and do it some justice for a while. It’s been hard not to comment on a few things, and I have written one or two non-F1 articles, but I am resisting the urge to blog on anything else. In particular there’s one piece that I’ve written, but haven’t published about the world of academia. Initially my readership dropped, but it’s since come back to pre-F1 levels. I think I have brought some new readers on board from a different audience, and I still get a lot of readers who stumble across some of my older stuff. It’s a strange dynamic.
FP: How about some Steve MacLaughlin biographical background? Born when and where? Family? Training? Ever done hard time? That kind of thing…
SM: Sure, no problemo.
Born in ’75 in Jamestown, New York. It’s a small place, though technically a city, in Upstate New York near Lake Chautauqua. The area is most famous for giving the world Lucille Ball, political satirist Mark Russell, Chautauqua Institution, and the 10,000 Maniacs. My father has worked in law enforcement for 30 years and my mother used to write ads for radio before becoming a high school English teacher. I have an older sister who is married and they have a rapidly growing child that has recently learned how to chase their dog.
As a kid I used to listen to the radio at night to fall asleep. To this day I need some kind of background noise when I hit the hay. And so I used to listen to a lot of old school talk radio which, for better or worse, would put me out. I would listen to the Larry King Show back when he wasn’t on CNN. I am talking about his late night radio talk program that really launched his career. Anyhow, I remember back around 1985, I must have been 10 or so at the time, and the Titanic had just been found. Larry had Walter Lord, author of “A Night To Remember” on his show, and I got up the nerve to call in and ask a question that was on my mind. So I dialed in and and actually got put on the air, and I asked, “Who actually owns the Titanic?” and hung up the phone. Larry seemed very surprised and intersted in the question himself and pressed Lord by reasking him, “Yeah, who does the Titanic?” I’m a bit fuzzy on Lord’s exact response, but I got the impression that he really couldn’t say for sure who it was.
After high school, I took the first train out of New York and spent nine years in Indiana. Went to Indiana University as an undergrad, and at the time thought I would go to law school. I was a political science major who picked up English as a second major because I figured it would force me read all the classics. As it turned out that decision really got me to focus more on my writing more than anything else. I remember coming in as an incoming freshman and I wanted to take a course on argumentative writing instead of the vanilla introductory required course. The English department told me the course was only open to upper classmen, but I managed to plead my case to get into the class. The instructor told me on the first day that if my first paper wasn’t up to snuff I was out. Needless to say I ended up with an “A-” in that class.
Then in 1994 I was sitting in a computer lab on campus, reading through some email, and I asked the person next to me what the heck Mosaic was, and the rest is history. I would end up spending the next eight years of my life living and working with all things Internet. By 2001 I had done a lot of things, worked on some amazing projects, picked up a few awards, and managed to get my name into print, but I needed a break. It had become the closest thing to hard time I have done in my life. I keep telling people I am going to write a book about those years, but that the lawsuits for being too revealing and honest would probably squash idea pretty quickly.
So I accepted an invitation to teach at my alma matter on subjects they couldn’t have taught when I was a student. A pretty interesting turn of events in a very short period of time. Along the way I went back to grad school to get my “union card” with a MS degree in Interactive Media. Then I started blogging later that year and here we are. But where is here?
For the past year my wife and I have lived in Charlotte, North Carolina. We started dating as undergrads in college and we were married in Fernie Castle, Kingdom of Fife, Scotland three years ago. We moved down South when she finished medical school, and she is starting her second year of residency at the top emergency medicine program in the country. I am overly
humble about myself, but I have not qualms being immodest about her. She is the most amazing women in the world I have ever known, and most days I scratch my head wondering how I got so lucky. I just wrapped up a year of teaching at UNC Charlotte, and I am back working in the technology scene. But even that twist in my life has a complicated story behind it.
FP: How do you manage to blog the F1 circuit real-time without a huge travel budget?
SM: Ah, that’s the beauty of the Internet. I have access to some real-time timing feeds and enough content sources to keep me buried in information. I think it actually helps that most of the races are held overseas. The time difference lets me get up early enough in the morning to catch what is going on, and in most cases get something published before my work day begins.
FP: How are you connected to the sport?
SM: I had been a fan for many years and in 2002 I decided to try my hand at reporting for a site called Racing News Online. During that time I got to know Dan Knutson, who is the only full-time American journalist covering Formula One. Dan travels to each race and writes for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com. He told me just how difficult it is to get press access to the F1 Paddock so something tells me this is as close as I will ever get to the real thing. Who knows though? I did just have a race report republished by one of the teams. It’s a random universe and anything can
SM: Jaguar’s current livery is about the closest you will get to British racing green these days. The cars themselves these days are nothing short of works of art. Both visually and technically speaking. There is so much time and money spent on each inch of carbon fiber or exhaust valve or break duct to get the car to perform on the highest possible level, but when you just stand back and look at one of them up close you cannot help but be amazed at the unique curves, lines, and profiles each team has come up with.
FP: How many of these grand prix events have you attended in person?
SM: I have been to the United State Grand Prix for all three races that have been held so far at Indianapolis. My work schedule has always been pretty hectic but I have always found a way to get to the circuit. I would really like to get up to the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal as soon as next year. And if I can convince my wife to go I would like to go to Monaco in the next few years or so.
There is just something about the sound of that first engine note as the cars literally scream coming down the pit lane towards the exit. The way you can almost feel the strain of the breaks and tires as the car slows to whip around a corner. The smell of the exhaust fumes when a group of cars pass by or the haunting echo of gear changes at 18,000 RPM. You honestly have to hear it, feel it, smell it, and see it to understand it.
FP: Isn’t there something a little nihilistic about a sport that will claim your life if your competitor makes a slight error?
SM: Well jousting, sword fighting, and pistols at dawn have gone the way of the horse drawn carriage, but I suppose these is the element of danger in all sports. In the past year we have had football and baseball players drop dead all in the pursuit of higher performance. Formula One has always been a leader in motorsports safety, but I do not believe you can ever completely eliminate risk from the equation.
I think Imola 1994 changed everything in the world of motorsport. That weekend Roland Ratzenberger and Aryton Senna, arguably the sport’s greatest driver, were both killed in separate accidents during the grand prix weekend. Although it had been 12 years since Riccardo Paletti’s death at the start of the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix the sport was operating on a whole new level. Up until that time there were a lot of safety improvements, but Imola was a wake-up call for Bernie Ecclestone and everyone else in Formula One. You had a tremendous amount of money pouring into the sport and millions of viewers at this point in time, and the simple truth was that sponsors do not want stars dying in races. There was nothing romantic or heroic about Senna’s death at the Tamburello curve. Knock on wood…there have not been any fatal crashes in Formula One since that fateful day, but sadly many other racing series did not heed the warnings.
I do think that there is something captivating about how Formula One drivers must push themselves and their cars to the absolute limit to find their limits, and just how unforgiving the circuits are on the slightest mistakes. I know that a lot of people bash F1 as being a bunch of follow-the-leader racing. The reality is that if you take a corner too slow or too fast or your break late or too quickly that all adds up over the course of a lap to a few hundredths of a second or more. There is the need to make as few mistakes as possible while going as fast as possible, and at the same time you have 19 other cars on the track all trying to do the same thing at the same time for 60+ laps in the heat, cold, wet, or dry. And that’s just the race. Add to that the testing schedule between races, Friday pratice and quals, and Saturday practice and quals.
FP: You’re in Chapel Hill. [ed. note: We pay this guy too much. The subject has already told us up front that he’s in CHARLOTTE for gawd’s sake. Doesn’t this FP have any commitment to the trade, or do you think it’s a mental defect?] Do you ever run into Ryan Irelan in person? Ryan commented in his Sandhill Interview that his “experience in grad school has really cut me off from many other things and people I enjoy, and it has narrowed my viewpoint or angle, especially when reflecting back upon my own accomplishments and myself. The whole nature of graduate work … squelched my creativity, strained relationships and just made me simply less happy than I was before.” Is Ryan’s experience typical do you suppose?
SM: I’m actually in Charlotte. Chapel Hill is about two hours east of here, but close enough for government work. We’ve traded some emails after your interview with him, and his observations are pretty spot on. I think the one difference between Ryan’s graduate school experience and mine was that I was still working full steam ahead when I went back to graduate school. I had gone back to get a MS in Interactive Media at Indiana University because my undergrad degree from there really didn’t fit with what I had been doing professionally, and I was told that if I ever wanted to get a full-time teaching job I would have to earn my “union card.”
I think still working actually helped me from being completely sucked into the academia abyss. But it’s true that the courses are usually so limited to whatever the professor has focused their research on that you usually end up getting less freedom of movement. I remember sitting in theory classes about cognitive psychology and human computer interaction and I thought I was going to self-combust. The theory is great and all but I was always getting spiteful responses for wanting to talk about the practical application of any of it. Some days you really forgot what the rest of the outside world really looked like.
FP: As an adjunct instructor yourself, do the students you get to know share some of the experience Ryan describes?
SM: Well I taught grads and undergrads at IU, graduating seniors at the University of Indianapolis, and undergrads and continuing students at UNC Charlotte and I think different types of students have vastly different experiences. Graduate students are either there because they want to pursue an academic career or they want to get some skills that are hard to get access to as undergrads. So they are typically a little worldlier, but they also realize that pretty soon they’re going to need to get a job. Undergrads are so hypnotized by the whole college experience at times that getting them to think about life after college makes you feel like the Dean who’s coming by to shut down the party. But I think I had street cred with them because I was one of the few instructors they had who could tell them exactly what it took to get a job. Continuing students were in-between because a lot of them needed these skills to move up in their careers or to give themselves an opportunity to move in a new direction. I will probably miss the students more than anything else now that my teaching days appear to be over.
FP: What are the strengths of the American system of higher education? The weaknesses?
SM: I will preface my response by saying that I am probably one of the few people who have been an undergrad and grad student, worked in the administration, and served as a member of the faculty. So I think that has given me a pretty broad perspective on the state of higher education.
Some of the strengths are clearly choice and affordability. I mean there is more choice now than ever before about the type of place you can have a great college experience, and for the most part Uncle Sam will always loan you the money to pay the tab. Though that might mean you pay off your house before that piece of vellum on the wall.
I think the weaknesses all center around the issue of who is the real customer in higher education. Is it the students? Is it the alumni? Is it the taxpayers? Is it the business community? Is it the research community? Whichever one you choose, and I contend it’s the students, the problem is that higher education serves only one true master and that’s the faculty.
Whoever coined the term “ivory tower” hit the bull’s-eye dead center. The whole process of getting hired in higher education defies any logic, and once you get into the club you are not going to let someone upset the apple cart. Then to reward you for towing the line they give you this amazing thing called “tenure” that makes you bulletproof from getting canned no matter what you do, or better yet, don’t do. Who wouldn’t love that kind of job security… err… academic freedom?
What they don’t tell you is that higher ed has over produced union card holders to the degree that there are five or six applicants for every one full-time position. That makes it an employers market where the inmates run the asylum. I have actually written an as yet unpublished article about my own adventures in trying to get hired in higher ed. My lawyer says I might want to consider keeping it that way.
FP: I’m engaged in a searching review of postmodernism and trying to identify what came next when that movement became moribund enough to be taught at the university level. Do you have any insights on that subject for me?
SM: A long time ago I issued an open challenge to anyone who could define “postmodernism” in five words or less that your average person could understand. That challenge has yet to be met. I think I will pass on that one. 😉
FP: This question of “who is the real customer?” I find troubling. What do you think “the product” is, who produces it, and who consumes?
SM: Well the product should be well rounded individuals who not only have the hard skills to actually do the work, but the soft skills and experiences to function in a dynamic work environment. For a very long time the attitude by those in higher ed has been to say that it’s not their job to make sure Johnny and Suzy can get a job. It was knowledge for the sake of knowledge type of approach. Do not dare to taint the well of wisdom with the ills of the corporate world. I do not think that argument holds water anymore.
Now I know that not everyone who comes out with a degree is actually employable. We all had a roommate or a friend who was better at using organic chemicals than attending organic chemistry lectures. A lot of BS degrees are just that and Harvard churns out its fair share of baristas. But for professors to say they have no accountability or responsibility for what they produce is as morally bankrupt as some of the folks at Enron.
When it comes to the arts and humanities I will buy the argument that English, history, folklore, and political science departments cannot reasonably be expected to be held to that threshold. There is an argument to be made that those subjects enhance the culture of humanity, and I am will to give them a pass. But when it comes to computer science, business, or new technology disciplines I think there should be a higher expectation. The problem is that most people teaching the stuff have never had to go out and prove their worth. Yet when you ask students, or better yet their parents who are more than likely mortgaging the house to pay the tuition, that is what they hope a degree will enable them to do.
That probably explains why for the past three years my end of the semester lecture on how to get an internship or how to get a job is such a big hit with the students. I go through everything from building a network of contact to how to follow-up on resumes and portfolios to how to prepare for interviews. And every time I gave that lecture I was also told that they never heard this kind of valuable information before, and they opening questioned why no one addressed these topics before.
Another way of looking at it as well is that the products of the higher ed system are talented, employable individuals, not just robots with a piece of paper, and the end customer is the job market. Despite the bursting of the technology bubble there is still a work shortage. When there is a shortage of application developers and a computer science department is teaching its students an antiquated language, because they invented it, then there is a huge disconnect going on. The customer ends up buying something they can’t use, but the department gets to keep playing bait and switch.
Now this kind of talk really drives the academia folks crazy because there is the belief that you are overstepping your bounds, and they fear that the business world will always be changing their list of wants. The reality is that departments and programs that have partnered up with the private sector to understand what they are looking for are the same programs that are the best in the country. That is not by coincidence.
FP: Do you read the Invisible Adjunct?
Yes and we’ve also shared some private correspondence on the subject. The undercurrents of revolt are all over the place. Talk to the non-tenures and they know the revolution is just around the corner. Talk to the tenures and they know that it is only a matter of time.
FP: I’d be interested in your impressions of the Invisible Adjunct’s treatment of tenure and related issues.
SM: Coming from the corporate world the whole notion of tenure is just insane and absurd. I understand the argument that it allows for academic freedom, but from what I have seen it causes stagnation. When you start to bulletproof professors I think you are starting down the road to ruin. I may sound a tad bit negative here, and I hope that’s not the case. I have worked with some amazing people over the years who really have their act together. But the problem is that they appear to be the exception to the rule.
And when you look at some recent statistics you can see that administrators know tenure is nothing but trouble. There has been a rise in part-time and non-tenure track instructors for many years now. Institutions have less money than ever before, but they still have the same fixed costs. Higher enrollment only pushes those fixed costs even higher so you cannot grow your way out of the problem. Not that many institutions aren’t already trying that approach.
The solution is to start cutting the fat and having worked on the administrative side of higher ed I can tell you that is a taboo word. The faculty completely freak out because the gravy train might come to and end, and they put pressure back on the administration to cut services or raise fees. I wrote something called “Why Higher Education Is Gonna Come Crashing Down” that really echoes a lot of these points. My boiled-down take is that some sacred cows are gonna have to be made into hamburger.
FP: On this matter of “the customer….” I think some make the argument that the sponsor of research has an interest. An investor can be thought of as a customer, nicht wahr? And then there is the matter of society as the customer. This argument develops better in the context of public funded institutions, but here matter are complicated because there are plenty of “private schools” with public funding, particularly funding for research. (And of course plenty of private funding for research is given to public institutions.) How does our capitalist market model of higher education play into these investment markets?
SM: Well research sponsors could be viewed as active investors and public funds could be viewed as passive investors. Although most of the research funding comes from government sources which means it really comes from the passive investors. Research is such a huge part of the ecomics of education because the institutions need to find money to make up for the drop in state and federal funding. In most major research institutions the reality is that research dollars pay for the folklore department, just like football pays for the lacrosse team. I think the passive investors take the attitude that at least someone else is picking up the tab, but in the end it’s their kids who get shafted.
FP: A year or so ago I asked this of Dorothea Salo: “I think the PhD is the most expensive product that a University has in its suite of offerings. A masters degree is usually less expensive than a PhD but to get either you have to own a bachelors degree. Bachelors degrees aren’t cheap, but prices do vary. How do you relate to this perspective of students as consumers shopping for appropriately inscribed vellum? What do you think of this approach to comparison shopping for an education?”
SM: I think there are two perspectives here. One, that terminal degrees beyond the bachelors degree only help to further the academia species. With the exception of professional degrees (M.D., J.D., M.B.A.) most of the PhD, MS, and MA programs really only help you if you plan on staying in the academic world. The problem is that for the past few decades there has been an overproduction of these degrees compared to the number of actual available jobs. Graduate programs are cash cows at most insitutions, especially when students are teaching undergrads, and so you’ve got this vicious cycle going on.
Second, that most students really are never told what they can or cannot do with a particular degree. For example, if you want to save the world and decide that a BA in psychology will allow you to do that, then you’re sadly mistaken. The reality is that you really need to go on to get an MD or PhD to really do anything in the field. A BA gets you nowhere, a BS is just that, and an MS is more of the same. I think someone should sit these kids down early on and explain what you really need in order to do what you want in life. Too many professors or counselors set people down the wrong path because they don’t want students dropping out of their programs.
FP: Can you tell me a little about the life of a lecturer? How do you get the gig? How do you keep it? What are the prospects for advancing a career?
SM: My perspective comes from someone who worked in the technology world, and was then asked to teach because the department really didn’t have anyone who could teach from practical experience. So it is not as though I went after a career in academia from the get go. When I started teaching at Indiana University word spread pretty quickly about some of the topics that I was covering, and that led to other invites to teach. When I began teaching at UNC Charlotte it was all about being at the right place at the right time, and I knew that there would actually be a full-time position opening for the following fall semester.
A wise man once told me that the world of academia never makes a rational decision when it comes to hiring. There are a whole lot of intangibles like ego, insecurity, and politics that always come into play. My short answer is that I honestly have no idea how someone gets hired or advances their career in academia. It usually has more to do with what the faculty wants than what is good for the department, the institution, or the students. Hence the whole customer problem.
FP: In your current blogging, I find the F1 statistics a little dry, but I read your Bernie Ecclestone piece today and it got me hungry for more. The article is labeled “Part 4.” What happened to parts 1, 2, and 3?
SM: 1 and 2 were in March….3 was in April sometime. I suppose I should post some links to those previous parts. I’m also working on an upcoming piece about the F1 Paddock Club and some explanations of the technology in the cars.
FP: Do you think Ecclestone and big tobacco will move the sport to America, keeping only a few non-North American venues (Monaco) alive?
SM: I think Bernie’s recent actions show that he’s interested in opening some new markets. For example the Chinese Grand Prix is all but certain to be on the calendar for 2004 and they are building an amazing circuit at Shanghai. It is being designed by Hermann Tilke, who also did the new circuit in Malaysian circuit, and should include facilities for 200,000 spectators. Turkey and Bahrain are also vying for a race as well. The clock is ticking on tobacco advertising in F1, and the clock expires in 2007 when the worldwide ban goes into effect. You have already started to see a shift by many teams away from tobacco sponsorship and planning for the future is always a good idea.
I think there are some huge opportunities for the sport in the US, but a lot of it depends on some marketing dollars being spent and some American involvement. For the past few months a lot of rumors have been flying around, the latest that Ecclestone is trying to but a grand prix on the streets of NYC. At the end of the day there needs to be a lot more promotion of the United States Grand Prix, but at the moment Ecclestone is leaving that to the folks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I honestly do not think they have the horsepower or the wallet to make it work on their own. And that’s a real shame. Give me a camera crew and some voice over talent and I could put together a bunch of spots that would definitely get people interested.
FP: In high school basketball, I notice the most talented kids sometimes suffer “handicapping” on the part of the referees: Fast whistles, dubious fouls, overlooked infractions by the small guy trying to guard the big guy… Do you see some of the same going on F1? An unwillingness to let the fast drive fast? Perhaps an attempt to level the field between the rich teams and the poor teams by denying use of advanced and expensive technology?
SM: I think the rules changes for this year have made a very positive impact on the sport. Everyone thinks it was simply an attempt to Schumacher-proof the sport, but that’s a very myopic view. The financial issues in Formula One are the same issues faced by most major sports worldwide at the moment. Soccer in Europe is going through some strains, baseball and hockey in the US, and a few other sports point to the growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Right now you have 10 teams in the sport and two of them, Minardi and Jordan, have just been thrown a lifeline to survive. While the top teams might not want to share revenue with the smaller teams I think there’s awareness that the good of the sport outweighs the interests of individual teams.
As for some of the rule changes to take away some of the technological advantages I guess the jury is still out on that one. Traction control was brought back because the FIA all but admitted they couldn’t police whether or not teams were using it. Some of the other changes like automatic gearboxes will not really make a huge difference to be honest. The cost
cutting moves like eliminating the spare car and longer-life engines are really not cost cutting at all. We have already seen this season several cases where teams could use the spare car, and typically because they could afford to anyhow. The whole longer-life engine debate might get scuttled anyhow, and it really only shifts the costs to the bigger manufacturers.
What they really need to look at is pushing for the manufacturers to provide engines to smaller teams, and Mercedes-Benz has already stepped up to the plate on that front. I also think you will soon see a new Concorde Agreement between Bernie Ecclestone and the teams to avoid the whole GPWC rouse. That will mean more TV revenue for the teams and a rising tide lifts all boats.
FP: We haven’t discussed blogville much. You showed up early and often on the blogrolls of people I read, people like Doc Searls, Eric Norlin, and of course Chris Locke. What is your connection to these Clue Trainistas?
SM: Well I believe someone once wrote that “markets are conversations” and it all started with some electronic conversations. I was working on a piece called “The Viral Economy” and I asked Doc Searls for some feedback on it. That led to a bunch of other discussions and eventually got to know Eric Norlin. He and I share a lot of similar views on the business and technology world, and so it’s always good to know someone’s got your back. I got to know Locke through doing reviews of his two most recent books. I guess I was just at the right place at the right time with some fresh thoughts to add to the conversation.
FP: If somebody said, “There’s no such thing as a blog… blogging was a fad and a facet of e-publishing,” what you tell them?
SM: Whether blogging is a fad like pet rocks remains to be seen, but I suppose all publishing is just a facet of Gutenberg’s little invention. The desktop publishing revolution of the 1980s really probably set a lot of this in motion. The tools out on the market for blogging just lower the technology barriers even more. I am not one of those people that think blogging is some huge cultural tectonic shift. It’s evolutionary not revolutionary as I believe Eric Norlin likes to say.
FP: How does your writing fit in your daily life? What advice would your wife have for someone whose significant other is a writer?
SM: Over time I think I have actually started doing less writing, but I would like to think the quality is better. When I first started blogging I had pretty regular posts on this or that along with book reviews and articles. After the first year I made a decision to only blog once per day on a single topic. It was getting too easy and too disruptive to be firing off a thought on anything that happened to cross my mind’s eye. I suppose my F1 coverage has focused things even more on a specific timetable. I can schedule things out and do some advance writing like a publication format as opposed to just a journal.
I suppose that I have tried to fit writing into my demanding schedule. Which explains why I have had to adjust how often I actually post something. For better or worse a lot of things that I think about never make it to the blog these days. I think my wife’s first piece of advice would be to have them remind their “significant other” not to quit their day job. Her father is a published author so I think she has a much more realistic perspective on what it takes to succeed.
FP: How long have you been a writer? When did it first hit you that writing per se is a huge part of your life? (You’re not in denial about this I hope).
Some people do yoga. Some people paint miniature figurines. I write. It is a cathartic release for me while at the same time letting me have a voice. I would say that I am in denial only in the sense that if you asked me if I was a writer I would probably say no. Though I suppose that through the course of this interview I have found that I have actually been writing a lot longer than I thought. But by that same token if I chose to become a writer for a living then it would probably loose some its medicinal benefits.
FP: It has been said that there isn’t a decent living to be made writing, but that you can make a fortune. Does that make any sense to you?
SM: For every J.K. Rowling there are a million hacks who all believe they have the next blockbuster novel in the works. Having done a lot of peer reviewing and editing in the past few years I can tell you that a lot of authors realize that they still need to keep their day jobs. It’s a way to share some knowledge and increase your visibility, but the publishing market is pretty tight these days and publishers want to weed out irrelevant books before they hit the press.
FP: When you’re blogging, do you have a desire to “scoop” the blog-world, to publish the latest stuff earliest?
SM: I think I got over that approach pretty early on. I got the “scoop” on some things like AT&T’s whole “M Life” campaign, but it’s not as easy as you would think. Not only do you have to have the goods, but you also have to get someone to notice what you’re even writing. It is interesting to note that in all of the hype over the multitude of voices that have been unleashed by blogging the first reaction is to start ranking the most legitimate sources of information. I am not saying that’s a bad thing, but for all the voices some are going to be louder than others.