Sunday, April 17, 2005

Explaining the News

I sat with my ten-year-old daughter on an airplane, and she asked me to explain a news item I was reading: the newly-elected President of the Ukraine visiting our President and Congress in Washington, D.C. to discuss Ukraine entering NATO. I read her the paragraph and realized that it had no meaning to her whatsoever. So the back of the seats in front of us became an easel for me to sketch the history with my forefinger.

On the left-hand seat back, I drew a rough map of Western Europe. "During the industrial revolution, as people moved from farms to factories, the conditions of workers were horrible, just like in Oliver Twist. In the 19th century workers began to organize unions to fight for their basic human rights against the factory owners, who were called "capitalists." Some of these people formed an international workers movement to fight for political change. Philosophers like Karl Marx were concerned for workers and wrote about "class warfare" between workers and capitalists. They recommended that governments take away the factories and property of the wealthy and give everyone a decent job. These people were called "communists.""

I then drew a map of Eastern Europe on the right hand seat back. "In 1917, a communist named Lenin led a revolution that toppled the Tsar's government in Russia where the serfs were miserable."

"But Dad, in school I learned that communism is evil... are these the same people?"

"Well, it didn't turn out as good for the workers as the communists promised. Lenin was a cruel leader, and later Joseph Stalin led the Communist Party to commit horrible acts of genocide. In the 1930s, he decided to kick the Ukrainian farmers off their land and set up collective factory farms owned by the government. The Ukrainians had farmed on their own land for hundreds of years, so they resisted, and the communists starved five million of them to death. Stalin along with Hitler was one of the biggest killers of all time."

"After WWII, the Soviets took over all of the countries on this seat: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, the Balkans, and they split Germany right down the middle. That started the Cold War between the left seat and the right seat, and the split down the middle was called the "iron curtain." They built a wall right through the middle of Berlin, the capital of Germany, and if you crossed it you'd be shot. "

"Over here in Western Europe and America, the workers and the bosses eventually ironed out most of their differences. And life got better for the Soviet people too, except they had to spend about half of their income to keep up an arms race with the West. The West formed a group of countries called NATO to counter the threat from the Soviets. When I grew up we lived in fear of Soviet nuclear missiles landing in our cities. Both sides had enough weapons to destroy the whole world in hours. We still do, but there's less risk that anyone will fire them."

"Really? They still are there?"

"Yep, but in the 1980's some brave leaders in the West like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher branded the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and urged change. A new Soviet leader named Mikhail Gorbachev had a policy called "glastnost" which means "opening" in Russian, and he let people and the press criticize the Communist Party for the first time. He didn't expect such an immediate impact: within a few years the system crumbled. In the late 1980s the people in Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the Balkans started to protest against Soviet domination of their countries. Lech Walesa led the "Solidarity Movement" in Poland, and the Communist leaders resigned. The people tore down the Berlin Wall, and for the first time Germans from both sides of the iron curtain could visit each other."

"Now it's been 15 years since the process started, and finally the Ukraine has a democratically led government that wants to make friends with the West. Victor Yushenko, the new President of the Ukraine, was even poisoned by the evil Ukranian government, but he survived and won the election. Now he wants to lead the Ukraine, which was once at the center of the Soviet Union, into a union with its former enemies in NATO. That's why it's so significant that he's visiting our President in Washington, D.C. as a friend."

With the help of the airplane seats, I was able to explain about 200 years of history in just a half hour. Kids are sponges for information.

"What's that story about, Dad?" she asked, pointing to an item about terrorists firing on the first bus service between the Indian and Pakistani sides of Kashmir.

"Remember in the movie Gandhi about how India won its freedom from Britain, but then broke up into two halves..."

Shift in Plan

For a number of months I've meant to sit down and write out another ten-year plan. I wrote my last one in 1990 in London, and since then I met or surpassed all of its milestones. The 1990-2000 plan foreshadowed my marriage, children, travel and co-founding a company. It should have been obvious around 2002, when I started feeling at odds with my last job, that I'd run out of plan. But I don't think I even thought about it in those terms. I just went into perserverance mode and tried to maintain family and work life under mounting pressure and low motivation on the job.

When I quit last December, it made sense to re-write my plan. I sat down to the task a few times, but with no inspiration. My top priority was to see the kids through college - another decade of earning a high enough salary - so I started planning careers that could sustain us. Earning money was a burden that I'd have to carry for ten years. Nothing wrong with that... I'm sure lots of people are in that situation.

My second priority was to live healthier - primarily getting on top of eating and exercise. My perspective was pretty much the same about this... another ten years to control my appetite and push myself to exercise. Again, I doubt I'm alone in this. My other priorities included living better with friends and family... if only I have the time and energy for them.

The problem was that even though these were my self-selected goals, I didn't relish enduring the regime for ten years. My low-level dread is reflected in the myth of Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill, only to see it tumble down in an instant. I feared failure to earn, eat well, etc. like the rock tumbling to the bottom... utterly destroying all that I've built up over a lifetime.

I was driving home from a swimming session recently when I had a sudden shift in perspective: the ten years ahead has been granted to me to practice living the life I want. It came to me in a flash, but it totally inverted my previous outlook.

Instead of ten years of rolling a rock uphill, I'm on a flat and I can roll rocks around in any direction that I want. Instead of facing a presumption that I'll do everything perfectly, I have an opportunity to keep practicing at getting better. Instead of dreading failure at the hands of a cruel world, I have an opportunity to interact with a fascinating world and to make my own mark.

I now remember that this was my outlook in 1990 too... I'm glad that I've got it back.

Monday, April 04, 2005

It's Killing Me!

There's an elusive killer on the loose... the next killer application for broadband networks.

The killer application needs to have mass appeal, so I've been examining my own wants to try to figure out what the next big thing might be. For me, the killer application would simplify what I already do; not give me more that I can't cope with.

You've heard about the boiled frog phenomenon, where if you gradually heat a pot of water with a frog in it, the frog won't jump out because it doesn't perceive any danger in the slowly increasing temperature. I'm not sadistic enough to find out if real frogs behave this way, but I suspect they do. Like the frog, we are all stewing in the pot of innovation.

Remember how we all accumulated lots of remote controls in the 1990s, until someone came up with the programmable, universal remote. Come to think of it, why do I still have three remotes?

Another example is how we started out with simple telephone service, then added cable, ISP, wireless, broadband internet, mobile data, music downloads, game sites, etc. Now there are companies like Verizon and SBC trying to consolidate all these services, but we're still a long way from having the "follow me anywhere" communicator. At least we'll be able to pay one bill to Ma Bell again someday.

My personal pet peeve is all the paper mail that I get from bank statements, mutual funds, 401K accounts, proxy votes, annual reports etc. Each one of these financial services companies offer some sort of web-based account access, but I haven't got around to switching from paper yet. I'm afraid that I'd forget my dozen logins and would retire penniless.

For me the hassle of paying yet another fee more than offsets the convenience of any new services. Pay-per-view TV charges you to watch a TV movie. Satellite radio charges you to listen to the radio. Tivo charges you to schedule video recording. All of this stuff used to be free! So I live a daring life of watching whatever happens to be on free TV, and occasionally switching radio channels as I drive if the signal fades.

There must be a law of technology adoption that goes like: we accumulate lots of new things until we reach a limit when owning so much stuff becomes totally unmanageable, then we pay someone else to manage it or take it off our hands. I am grateful for the bounty that free markets create, but even bounty has its downside.

It seems to me the real killer application would consolidate all the things we already have and send out a monthly e-mail about it. Remember, though, just one password please.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Think Tall

I had my posture examined by my new chiropractor and she made me check into the intensive care ward! That's only a slight exaggeration... my stooped bearing is no laughing matter, and I did sign up for a six-month treatment program.

I finally decided to have my posture examined after all these years of ignoring it. It's nice to have all the facts. My medical record now has all sorts of measurements taken from X-rays of my neck and back. Most dramatically, my neck, which should have a nice 30-degree arc backwards is pitched forward at only 15 degrees arc. My chiro dramatically hands me a 10-pound bowling ball and says, "that's what your head weighs... wouldn't it be nice to have it balanced on your neck instead of pitched forward like that?" I rubbed my strained neck muscles and they strongly agreed, so I signed up!

One of my exercises is to pull my chin in when I drive or walk. Even that is helping me to feel less neck strain and a fraction of an inch taller. I wonder what miracles I'd now feel if I'd been taught to walk with a book on my head like the finishing school students in old movies. If my treatment is successful (I have high hopes), then in a few months you may remark at how tall I look.

On another elongating note, I have to thank a friend for suggesting that I read "Total Immersion - The Revolutionary Way to Swim Better, Faster and Easier" by Terry Laughlin. This amazing book tells you how to practice a much more efficient freestyle. Seventy percent of the improvement is in just becoming slippier and providing less resistance to the water you are trying to swim through. The remaining thirty percent is achieved through increasing the power of your stroke by working from your hips, not your arms.

Slipperiness: the secret of slipperiness is to "be a sailboat, not a barge." That means you swim on your sides to present as small a cross-section to the water as possible. To do that you need to rock rhythmically from side to side. The other way to reduce drag is to present as long a "hull" as possible, by stretching your arms out front as much as possible and leaving them there as long as possible. There is also a tip about keeping your body as straight as a board so that your lungs and chest cavity can help to keep your less bouyant legs afloat.

Strength: like a baseball player, tennis player or golfer, whose swing doesn't start in the arms, the swimmer gets only 10% of his power from the arms and shoulders. The rest needs to come from those rocking hips, or gluteal muscles to be precise. The arms are the propeller, not the engine, and the swimmer needs to transfer that rocking hip motion into the arms through his lateral muscles. Thrashing with the arm and shoulder muscles is counterproductive.

This is just a glimpse at the technique... if you try it and want to know more you can buy the book.

Now that I'm straightening my posture and lengthening my swim stroke, we'll see if I feel like a new (and maybe even taller) man!

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Radical Cheer

Last weekend I helped out around Vegfest2005, and most of the time I helped sell memberships to Vegetarians of Washington. This is my fourth year at the membership table, and my job is to stand out front and engage people in a discussion about our organization so that they might decide to join.

I was having one of these discussions with a woman student from Western Washington Univerity. She ultimately decided not to join, so I asked her what other organizations she did belong to. She answered that she's a member of the Radical Cheerleaders.

"The Radical Cheerleaders don't cheer for the ritualized warfare of collegiate sports," she informed me, "we cheer for radical causes like poverty reduction, queer rights and anti-militarism." Wow! that's a new one for me!

Assuming that feminism also is on her list of just causes, I asked if they perform inside cardboard boxes. "We're proud of our bodies, and if showing them off can help reduce poverty and hatred, we'll use them." "Why not!" I concur.

It's good to have an annual event that reaquaints me with what's happening outside of high tech... it reminds me that technology isn't the only source of innovation and progress.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Lighten Up

In the trendspotting department, have you noticed the proliferation of advice to lighten up? It seems to be the new mood. Gone are the heady days of 9-11 retribution, concern about Islamic terrorist threats, divisions between red and blue states, and long term threats to our sovereignty because of social security spending. Now we can just lighten up!

It makes a lot of sense: Middle-eastern zealots have given way to freedom-loving patriots forming incipient democracies. Bush's simple policies have proved to be superior to all of the academically convoluted Eurocentric theories of international strategy and leftist domestic agendas. Just stick to the simple truths of hard work, individualism and the American way, and you can't go wrong. Who's to argue with success? Wolfowitz is the man of hour, being heralded in the press as a misunderstood, freedom-loving saint, and it just so happens that he's also the US appointed head of the World Bank. Unilateralist? Don't worry... just be carefree and light. Press manipulation conspiracy? Lighten up, fella!

On a personal front, I've been learning about light approaches from my friend in Washington, D.C. We're connecting with old friends in preparation for our upcoming 30th high school reunion. He is an absolute delight to work with, and he re-connects easily with classmates we haven't seen since graduation day. Under his influence, we quickly set aside the cautious and serious images that we've all been polishing for thirty years in our corporate-, academic- and government work lives. A lighter approach helps bridge the gaps in time and experiences since we left school... and reminds us what a joy it is to just be together and have some fun.

The weight of the world is a heavy burden for any one of us to bear. While there remain some earnest voices for sacrifice and extraordinary virtue, at the same time there's a trend to just perform your good works and skip the martyrdom. It's not a bad idea to lighten our loads.

Friday, March 11, 2005

VegFest 2005

Just so you all know why I'm not blogging this weekend. My wife's healthy vegetarian food organization is holding its annual Vegfest at the Seattle Center, and I'm her number one volunteer. Those of you in the Seattle vicinity can stop by and enjoy food samples from over 100 vendors, all for the $5 admission. If you volunteer to serve food for four hours, you get a great t-shirt and feel good too. I hope to see you down there.

Here's the latest e-mail about the event:

Vegfest – This Weekend, March 12th & 13th, 10am-6pm Seattle Center Fisher Pavilion
The fourth annual Vegfest, our healthy vegetarian food festival, will be held at the Seattle Center Fisher Pavilion this weekend March 12th and 13th 2005.
This is our biggest event of the year. At this year's Vegfest, we have over 200,000 samples to offer. You can taste free food samples from over 100 companies featuring over 450 different kinds of food to try, including many companies participating in Vegfest for the first time.
You can see delicious cooking demonstrations from noted chefs and cookbook authors, hear the latest information on nutrition from doctors and dietitians, and choose from a huge selection of books, including our own brand new book, The Veg-Feasting Cookbook.
New this year is a "Talk to an Expert" table in the bookstore, where doctors, dieticians and chefs will be available to answer your medical, nutrition or cooking questions.
Vegfest will also feature a special Kids food tasting program.
Admission is only $5 and free for kids 12 and under.
Please visit for more information. Please forward this message to all friends and relatives who may be interested.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Rear end collision

Saturday morning my son needed some lacrosse equipment, so we drove to Bellevue. On a thoroughfare the car ahead of me slowed down to pull into a restaurant, but had to wait for a pedestrian to amble across the driveway. I slowed and checked my mirror to see if the taxi behind me would slow down. All seemed okay until a few seconds later the taxi plowed into our rear bumper.

There was noise and a crunching feeling, and soon we smelled smoke from the taxi's deployed airbags. Everyone said they were okay, but the taxi driver seemed dazed. People waiting on a bench to get into the restaurant chattered about this bit of excitement in their mornings. We pulled off the road and exchanged insurance cards. The taxi driver, a turbaned Sikh probably 60 years old, quietly asked if I would accept money and not report the accident... his premiums and livelihood are at risk. I'm sympathetic and say I'll get an estimate and consider it, but I prefer to use insurance.

I've never been in an accident when the other party didn't ask me not to report it. This is the third time. The first time I didn't, and later discovered frame damage (from a similar rear-end accident) that caused embarrassment when I went to turn in my company car. The next time the guy seemed hyperactive like he was on drugs and his car was a junker... the insurance company seemed like a good intermediary to keep us at a safe distance.

This time the taxi driver was just earning a living, and seemed earnest. I imagine he'd been driving all night, and was probably zonked out from lack of sleep when he hit me. But (and here's the rub) if I help him beat the system, will he have more accidents? There is information, signals, triggers and responses, feelings of disapproval and guilt, and small-scale justice built into the insurance system. (Liberal yearnings/ conservative leanings... back and forth... just make up your mind!) The easy solution: I'll call the insurance company. That's the end of the matter, right?

Voice #1: "Just lighten up!"

Voice #2: "...sure..."

Voice #1: "If you can't deal with this tiny matter, then what can you handle?"

Voice #2: "People are involved, I hate to hurt people."

Voice #1: "You don't owe people anything except to obey the rules... Besides, you didn't cause this."

Voice #2: "Is it that easy?"

Epilogue: My neck muscles are sore, and I feel them strain when I accelerate or lean down to my pillow. I cringe now when I drive, especially if someone does aggressive or silly maneuvres behind me. Have you noticed any really bad driving in the last couple days? I have! The rear-end collision was an uninvited interaction with the world, and I'm driving defensively to try to avoid any more.