How I Almost Got Arrested on My Way to Harriet Tubman’s House

(Originally published November 2016) The news in late April that Alexander Hamilton would remain on the $10 bill and that Harriet Tubman would grace the $20, replacing Andrew Jackson, greatly pleased me. There is much to admire in both individuals, and I have connections to both—photographically speaking.

A few years ago, my wife and I vacationed in New York. For the first part of our trip, I attended a conference in NYC. We, however, had a few days of free time in which to walk around the city. Of course, a must stop was the 9/11 site, and on our way we passed Trinity Church. Alexander Hamilton, as you can see by the adjacent photograph, is buried in the church’s graveyard. Hamilton has long been one of my heroes. He is primarily responsible for the United States’ sound financial footing at the beginning of our democracy.

Hamilton’s grave

The movement to replace Hamilton on the $10 was misguided, in my opinion. Without him, we likely wouldn’t have any greenbacks. Hamilton, as first secretary of the treasury, advocated that the federal government take over the debts of the individual states accumulated because of the Revolutionary War. States that had already paid off most, if not all, of their debts did not appreciate that they would have to subsidize states with outstanding obligations. Hamilton negotiated a compromise (it’s the reason why the nation’s capital is where it’s at) that essentially allowed his policy to go through.

Although I had heard of Tubman in my high school history class, I’m not as familiar with her life as I am with Hamilton’s. But I can say that I almost got arrested while on the way to her home.

Harriet Tubman’s house


On the same vacation in which we saw Hamilton’s grave, we also visited Tubman’s home outside of Auburn, New York. The actual reason we drove to Auburn, however, was to tour the home of William Seward—he of Alaska folly fame and Abe Lincoln’s secretary of state. Unfortunately, we were in Auburn on Independence Day, and Seward’s home was closed to the public. But my wife and I circled the house and snapped some pictures. I was intrigued by the carriage shed, and put my hand on the door handle. The door opened and set off an alarm. Within minutes, the cops showed up.

Seward’s carriage

Thankfully, an officer assured my wife and me that we were not under arrest, and he allowed us to leave. I told the patrolman that we were headed to Tubman’s house, only two miles down the road, just in case we set off alarms there.

Sure enough, the Tubman house was closed for the holiday. But we did walk around the grounds and took a few photos. And I pointedly refrained from touching any doorknobs.

Note to trustees of national landmarks: Independence Day is precisely the one day of the year your properties should be open to the public—especially in the case of a woman who helped free so many of her brethren.


Your Humble Servant Protests How You Address Emails

Hey there!

Is that a good way to begin an email? Hey there? If I see those words at the top of an email, I usually delete it without reading it—except if it is from someone I know. Even so, I think less of that individual. If he or she really wants to engage my attention, why not take the split second to write, “Hi, Bill”? (Note the comma.) My nickname is short and easily spelled.

Is it too much to ask in this day of text messages, social media and smart phones for someone to properly greet the party he or she is addressing, to be sure that the spelling and grammar are correct and that sentences make sense? Yes, I can tolerate on-the-fly abbreviations and even a “thru” for “through” or a “4” for “for” in a text message. I do them (occasionally) myself, primarily because I hate typing with my thumbs or index finger on a small phone screen. (On a standard qwerty keyboard, I use all my fingers and type about 60 wpm, but I can’t get the hang of that small phone screen.) But, really, an email—especially a business email—should be a bit more well-dressed.

Mind you, I’m not asking that we go full-out Victorian. I haven’t handwritten a letter in years and have always thought “yours truly” (let alone “your humble servant”) sounded pretentious. But I cringe when someone begins a correspondence to me with “Dear William.” I have no problem with “dear,” as I realize it is a convention. It’s the “William” part I dislike. The name William is fine, and I use it in my formal signature. If it is used in an email, however, I know that the writer hasn’t bothered to research who I am and that I go by “Bill.” Delete.

In fact, I would much rather be addressed as Mr. Spaniel in an email if the correspondent has not communicated with me previously. Usually he or she is trying to attract my business in some way, and if he or she really wants me to at least consider an offer, formal address will make me somewhat more amenable than, say, a “Hey, Bill.” (And note the comma. Without the comma, “hey” could be mistaken as an adjective rather than an interjection.)

Topics: text messages, social media, emails, comma

Analyze This: A Rash of Symbols

Are you a “symbolic analyst”? If you are a CPA, you are. Also, engineers, lawyers or anyone who processes information or primarily manipulates words or symbols qualifies. That includes writers, like myself.

I discovered that I was a symbolic analyst about 16 years ago. I attended a luncheon for instructors of a university for which I teach part time. (Guess what, teachers are symbolic analysts—so I’m twice one!). The guest speaker was Robert Reich, former secretary of labor under President Clinton. Although my fellow instructors and I were dining in Woodland Hills, California, Reich addressed us from the East Coast over a large television screen. Reich described what a symbolic analyst is (he apparently invented the term in his book The Work of Nations) and why those who are, should congratulate themselves. The reason for such self-adulation: symbolic analysts probably will earn more money and be more employable than the two other job categories he delineated—routine producers (manufacturers of goods and low-level supervisors) and service workers (waiters, janitors, plumbers, etc.).

Reich posited that about 20 percent of the labor force in the then emerging global economy would be symbolic analysts and that these symbolic analysts would be able to easily work anywhere. The producers and service workers, on the other hand, would be mostly restricted to where they live. Furthermore, because of their education, mobility and ability to solve problems, symbolic analysts likely will earn more money than workers in the other two categories. They also likely will be more employable, as robots eventually could take over many of the production and service jobs. (Where do medical professionals fit? Are they service workers whose jobs will be taken over by robots?)

I hope it doesn’t sound like hubris, but I take comfort in knowing that I’m a symbolic analyst. Yet I do admit that John W. Gardner (another former Cabinet member) may have been on to something when he said, “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

Incidentally, I just figured out that I’m thrice a symbolic analyst, as Reich lists consultants among the elect.

Exploring the Wave of Telecommuting

Years ago I read the book The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler. Toffler discusses the progress of civilization. He notes that the first wave was the Agricultural Revolution: humans evolved from being primarily hunter-gathers to planters and domesticators of animals. People during that “wave” mostly lived adjacent to where they worked. The second wave was the Industrial Revolution: humans migrated to cities and manufactured goods. Life became more complex. People often had to travel miles to do their work.

The Third Wave is the Information Age: people are transitioning from primarily manufacturing goods to providing services. Much of what they do involves the exchanging of information. (Interestingly, when The Third Wave was first published, personal computers were about five years away.) And Toffler posited that most people in the Information Age would be working at home or relatively nearby. (Or that’s how I recall it.)

I read The Third Wave when I just started out as a member of the workforce, and now I’m nearing the end of my employable years. All this time I’ve been waiting for Toffler’s prediction to come true. Since I moved to Los Angeles in 1977, I’ve had jobs that involved commutes of a half hour, 45 minutes, an hour, and 90 minutes. During most of this time, I could have done much of my work in either my bachelor apartment or the home I share with my family. Yet it is only now as I get closer to the end of my career that I am enjoying the benefits of telecommuting—at least for two out of every five workdays. Alvin, what took us so long?

I am grateful to the California Society of CPAs for allowing me and most of my colleagues to work from home. I’ve been doing this for more than six months now, and I think my productivity has improved, mostly because I have fewer distractions. And telecommuting has allowed me to spend more time with my family as I gain back those hours spent in my car driving to and from an office. As a result, I am a happier person.

To those who say that telecommuters cannot collaborate as well with their colleagues because they don’t see them every day, I respond that even when I’m in the office I primarily communicate with fellow employees by email or phone, which I can do just as well at home. And nowadays I can video conference through my home computer.

Some people wonder how managers can tell if home-based employees are actually working. But generally people who are hard-workers in office settings will also be hard-workers at home. In fact, they probably are faster and more dedicated workers because they are happy that they can work remotely.

Obviously most jobs cannot be done at home, but for those of us who are primarily symbolic analysts (and I’ll write about that next time), we likely can do our work regardless of where we are in the world or what time zone we’re in. All we need is a personal computer. Even a smart phone or a tablet PC can keep us connected—and on the job—with clients, customers and colleagues.

Does your employer offer a telecommuting option? If you have employees, do you allow them to telecommute? What are the advantages and disadvantages of telecommuting compared to working mostly in a traditional office setting?

It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Sig

Many of my emails are missing something important: a signature block. I receive hundreds of emails a day, many from members of the association I work for. And many of those member emails lack signature blocks or even the name of the individual sending the email. Now, I often recognize the sender if I frequently correspond with him or her. But I sometimes get emails signed “John” or “Mary,” and I have to figure out which John or Mary I’m replying to. This is frustrating.

Is it so difficult to include a signature block in emails? Standard email programs allow users to set up a signature block that includes the person’s full name, firm, address, telephone number, email account and additional information such as Twitter handle or a slogan. Once set up, the email software can automatically add the signature block to any outgoing message. Simple. But many people don’t use this vital communication tool.

Aside from correctly identifying the sender, an email signature block can serve several purposes:

Automatically Connect to Clients

Generally, email signature blocks are “hot.” That is, the receiver can click on the email address, web link or phone number and automatically be connected to you. How convenient! A good businessperson should be easily accessible, and a good signature block serves that need.


A business signature block should have a short slogan as well as link to your website and Facebook page (or other social media pages, such as LinkedIn). Your slogan, website and SM pages should provide information about your services and expertise. A signature block is a good way to attract new business.


Keeping connected to colleagues is essential for businesspeople. A signature block keeps friends, customers and others updated regarding your position and contact information. What’s more, recipients usually can easily pull the information from the signature block into the contact section of their email programs, thus reducing the likelihood of typos and other errors.

News Media Pitching

If you send an email to a newspaper regarding an article you just read, they generally won’t publish your comments unless you provide your full name, address and telephone number. Your standard signature block does that. Furthermore, if you send story ideas to reporters, they would appreciate having your full contact information handy just in case they would rather call you directly instead of replying to an email. Too, they’ll need to know your firm’s name and other information should they want to quote you in a story. So why not provide that information right away?

A signature block is essential part of business communications. It takes only a couple of minutes to create one. And as Ron Popeil once said, “Set it, and forget it.”

Social Media Determines What’s News

I spent the last few weeks conducting news media training for members of the California Society of CPAs in Northern California. In between, I attended the World Conference of the International Association of Business Communicators in San Francisco. (I am an IABC member and an accredited business communicator, or ABC, through that organization.)

The sessions at the four-day conference changed my thinking on how I will approach news media training in the future. Although I have modified my program over the past few years to include more about social media, the future version of my presentation likely will include more practical information on how firms and individuals can use social media to their advantage.

For now, here are a few observations shaped by my attendance at the World Conference.

Social Media Trumps Legacy Media

Radio didn’t doom newspapers, and television hasn’t bashed radio. So-called legacy media (newspapers, radio, television) will always be around, but their influence is changing because generations change. Young people—those millennials entering the workforce—have different ways of gathering news compared to Baby Boomers They rely more on social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Yelp, Instagram) to obtain information than on print publications, radio or television. My own son, who recently received a Ph.D. in how game theory applies to negotiations among nations, doesn’t read newspapers. He can easily collect the information he needs by cruising the Web.

We’re All Exposed

Did we really ever have complete privacy? The Constitution never guaranteed such a right. Nowadays the average person can spend a few minutes at a computer and ferret out the address, age and other details of anyone else. A good hacker can get even more, including Social Security and credit card numbers. Uber tracks its users. Surveillance cameras are ubiquitous. And if you are at a conference or rocking to a concert, chances are someone is Periscoping your presence.

Control Your Brand

My contemporaries and I were constantly advised to make a good impression on potential employers. Dress in appropriate business attire. Exercise good manners (do gentlemen—if they exist—still open doors for ladies [if I may use that term]?). Censor your language, especially in mixed company. Today such rules are relaxed. Casual business dress is standard in many fields. Feminism has put everyone on equal footing when exiting or entering a building. And radio and network television seem to be the only places where no one can say those seven famous words.

Regardless, branding (which is another way of saying “impression”) probably is even more important today than it has ever been. If nothing is private anymore, then the person who knows how to maintain a particular image of himself (or herself) has an advantage over the person who sees no connection between his Facebook posts and his choice of beer.

At the World Conference, self-styled social media evangelist Guy Kawasaki proclaimed the power of the visual on social media and advised that a person use the same profile photo over all social media venues he or she is involved with. Why? Because the smart person realizes that consistency in profile imagery conveys a certain gravitas. Perception, in short, is reality.

So how do you want others to perceive you?