Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Yep, you can buy one.

How are businesses like Star Trek? Redshirts.

In case you have somehow managed not to hear about them, I'll explain: Redshirts are a kind of stock character in television, whose purpose in life is to end it quickly, sometimes even before the opening credits. On the original Star Trek series, they were typically security personnel who beamed down with the main characters, and were promptly killed to demonstrate that the situation was serious without having to kill off a main character. The captain would show suitable pathos for the fallen crewman, and one minute later the entire remaining cast would have forgotten that he existed. (You'd think at least once, at the end of an episode, Kirk would have said something like, “I'm glad we've worked out a lasting peace between our people. By the way, your trial for vaporizing Ensign Nobody starts Tuesday.”) Since the security officers wore red shirts, the facetious notion arose that wearing a red shirt on Star Trek was likely to severely shorten your life span. The term continued even when later incarnations of Trek had security officers wearing gold.

Back in 2002, I was working as a software developer for a .com startup. Like most other CFO's at .com startups at that time, ours was yelling, “Cap'n! She cannae take much morra this!” But the way you knew that things were getting serious was when the redshirts started falling victim to the pink slips. I survived round one, but in the second set of layoffs, I took the phaser blast/acid spray/weird alien disease along with most of my co-workers.

Sometimes if things are really bad, main characters can die, too, although they generally don't go down until a significant number of redshirts have expired first. This is also true in business. The first round of layoffs pretty much never includes any of the top brass. This isn't surprising; after all, if the situation were reversed, you'd probably rather the redshirt to go down instead of you. However, unlike TV, sometimes it's preferable to be the redshirt. A co-worker who survived the second round of layoffs informed me later that, in retrospect, he probably would have preferred getting canned. After all, better to get shot by the evil overlord's henchmen outright than to rot for months in his dungeon, only to eventually die anyway. It's not fun going down with the ship.

From what you see in the news, it seems like a lot of redshirts (and yes, even some captains) in business are getting posthumous honorable discharges. Let's say that you would rather not be the one that gets his or her head gnawed on by a giant lizard creature in the first act. What do you do? Well, the most straightforward answer would be to go into science or medical rather than security. Unfortunately, in business, if you're at the bottom of the org chart, you're a redshirt, regardless of what you actually do. So that means you want to get promoted fast. However, this is up to your superior officer, who, if he's thinking about it, probably likes the idea of having a meat shield when the natives start throwing spears. (“Look, I cut expenses!”)

So that pretty much leaves one other option, short of quitting Starfleet altogether: stick to the captain. Nine times out of ten, when a redshirt passes into the great beyond, he's by himself. Nobody actually witnesses the stroke that does him in; they just hear his agonized scream and come running to find him lying on the ground, not breathing and covered with purple goo. But the captain has an invisible aura of protection around him; he won't go until everyone else is dead first. So if you can get inside that bubble, you can share that protection. Granted, this may involve spending way more time with him than you'd prefer, but hey, it's that or get eaten by a giant carnivorous plant. Take your pick.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

New York, We Thought We Knew You

An image of a small cardboard robot on a New York sidewalk, with curious onlookers

So maybe the tough New Yorker image is all a sham.

Apparently, a NYU student is conducting a social experiment. She created a miniature “robot” and turned it loose in New York City, armed with nothing but a cardboard smile and a flag stating its intended destination and asking for help. Since it's only capable of constant forward movement, it must be assisted by strangers pointing it in the right direction to get to where it's going. One Gizmodo columnist expected the little guy to get “stabbed, stomped, mugged, or covered in graffiti;” but thus far, New Yorkers have assisted the tiny artificial pedestrian in reaching its destination in every venture, helping it get unstuck from curbs, out of potholes and away from traffic.

So are New Yorkers really a bunch of softies? I'll have to ask Gorgeous Wife the Bronxite what she thinks.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Big Boom

If you don't regularly watch MythBusters or missed Wednesday's episode, you have got to see the following clips.

A little background: They were testing the myth that a head-on collision between two semis could sandwich compact car between them to the point that the compact car would not be visible until the semis were separated. After they attempted it and did not get the desired results, they decided to determine what it would take to smash a compact car that flat. What did they come up with?

They shot a rocket sled at it at 700 mph.

Here's a shot of the point of impact.

Now here's the truly amazing clip: a slow motion close up of the car. It doesn't really crumple; it looks like it's just getting erased from existence by the rocket sled.