Musings from George

When things get medieval, where do you hide?
September 2, 2014, 8:58 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

I read with horror about the atrocities being committed in Iraq and Syria today, yet is is important to recognize that this type of terror is being visited upon countries (and tribes) in Africa and on religious groups in Asia regularly. Heads on spikes recall a terribly bloody past, but child soldiers and rape as a tool of war are little better.
So, what should the US (and the “civilized world”) do? We can’t be the world’s policemen, as we have tried that and it doesn’t work. We can’t just ignore human rights abuses and slaughter, but we have done so for years. Srebenica, Rwanda — scars on our collective memory. Yet already I have forgotten the sect that was persecuted on the mountaintop by ISIS, and already I am weary of the bickering in Washington DC on whether we can drop bombs without an authorization of war.
Therefore, yet another modest proposal. Why can’t we allow (make legal) a volunteer army, along the lines of the French Foreign Legion, that can go to war against enemies of the state. Give them some guidelines and some rules (they should not be pirates, the enemies should be recognized as enemies), and let 10,000 volunteers shuffle off to Iraq and Syria with the best weapons they can afford. Let them demonstrate their prowess on the battlefield, let them wage war against the enemies that we cannot (or choose not to) fight.
There are downsides, of course. Blackwater made no friends in Iraq, and rogue soldiers make bad nation builders. But if we just want to put people on the ground who want to fight to the death against “evil”, it seems like a reasonable proposal.

Bullying, sports, and middle school
March 26, 2014, 6:45 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

Age brings perspective, and occasionally some degree of understanding. In high school we read The Lord of the Flies by William Goldman, which was named by TIME Magazine (remember when we read magazines?) as one of the hundred best English novels of the last century. I recognized some of our middle school behaviors, where bullying cascaded down through the classes, and where the newly re-formed social structures (mixing kids from three different elementary schools) gave everyone reasons and excuses for bad behavior. New cliques punished “outsiders”, eighth-grade boys who had been bullied extracted their revenge from a new crop of seventh-graders, and the onslaught of hormones generated the first real competition for prized goods (between girls and for girls). I have to admit that just about everyone was involved to a varying degree as social groups dissolved and reformed. Between food fights, fist fights, and Kill the Guy with the Ball there were many opportunities to hurt someone with words or with blows.

High school sports have their own particular form of bullying, a lesser version of the hazing that occurs in the military. Nominally it results from the cascading of duties (who has to put the goals in, or pull the lane lines) but realistically it includes physical and mental abuse. The spectacular cases that make the news headlines (a drum major in the south, a football player in the midwest) are not hard to understand — just a much more vicious extension of the rabbit punches or bruises that we used to give and get.

College brings a new degree of autonomy much closer to the Lord of the Flies than our relatively safe high school. A student can finally get access to all the alcohol they want without fear of parental retribution. No one is going to note, nor intervene, when things are going terribly awry. The inmates are truly running the prison (or dormitory, or fraternity). This is really where testosterone drives a constant fight between the sexes, and where ignorance enables bad behavior. 

So why do people become bullies, or stop being bullies? I have encountered bullies in the workplace who clearly wanted revenge for years of abuse — they were finally in a position of power, and enjoyed making people dance to their chosen tune. I have encountered misanthropes, who just enjoy watching others suffer. There isn’t a sense of balancing a score card as much as enjoying power and being on the other side. This is the police officer who rapes and murders; the boss who intimidates and terrifies; the bureaucrat who could help, but won’t. The psychological damage that they experienced as a child (for being fat, for not being athletic, for being “inappropriately” feminine or masculine) returns as a desire to hurt people. Any person, all people.

Do we grow up? Yes. I have been to high school reunions, where the bullies and the bullied are all happily successful and can look past their childhood. I can say that the kids we hazed in high school have grown into wonderful human beings who could break my neck, but instead shake my hand. I can say that in the working world we don’t have to put up with the dysfunctional tyrants, and can choose who we work with (okay, within reason — those in the military or the government have been dealt a tougher hand).

A high-ranking military official was recently given a light sentence for a long-running affair with a subordinate. These are the border-line cases of bullying where I really think rules should apply, and that abuse from a position of power needs to be considered a terrible crossing of the line. The Catholic church has likewise spent too many decades hiding abusers rather than punishing and isolating them, and the new change at the top is welcome news to everyone who has ever known a victim of sexual abuse (I’m going to guess more than half of us know someone well who has been abused). So let’s all commit to calling out the bullies, to standing up for the bullied, and for prosecuting those in power who take advantage of their position to hurt people … in any way, shape, or form.


How bureaucracies steal from the masses
March 25, 2014, 9:11 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I have had two incredibly frustrating experiences with big companies recently, an insurance broker and a bank. In both cases, the big companies can hide behind poorly paid workers who never answer their phone and don’t do email. The bank and the insurance broker can create ridiculous business processes to make it impossible to get a deposit back or an interest payment waived, and then can tell the government that they have an entire department set up to serve the public.

My current favorite is Charity Watson, at the euphemistic Office of the President and CEO for Bank of America, NA. What was once a wonderful California-based bank is now an international bureaucracy, hiding behind 1-800 numbers to ensure that they never have to actually speak with anyone. Their online payment system does not work as advertised (according to their own customer support organization), and consequently BofA rang up interest payments on our credit card. Calls to complain generated promised refunds that never materialized … Charity swooped in to reverse them, since it appeared that two different agents had credited our account and she “fixed” that, never to be heard from again.

It also seems like the older I get the less willing I am to just say “oh well”, which is odd. We are supposed to get wiser with age, and with wisdom comes perspective, and with perspective comes a little more “oh well” capability. Yet as I get more perspective, I see that these banks and insurance companies prey on the busy and the poor — they don’t care that their website doesn’t work, because they make more money. They don’t care that you can’t get your deposit back, because they get to keep the money. They *intentionally* make the process work poorly, because they benefit.

I am organizing a phone-a-thon for Charity Watson, at the Office of the CEO and President for Bank of America NA. Please call her at 1-800-218-6670 x213212 to ask her what their policy is about refunding incorrect interest payments. Really.

Something thoughtful soon. A friend in the military asked my opinion about bullying, and I have been ruminating on that for a month. It’s never good to ruminate for a month. But I promise the blog will be better as a result.


A Short Random Walk Through Topics I Never Covered
January 18, 2014, 6:10 pm
Filed under: Charity, Nonprofit, Random walk, Uncategorized, Volunteering

Every so often I am notified that someone found and read my blog, which is a little like hearing from a high school friend after many years. My first reaction is “really? they must be horribly bored” and the second reaction is a twinge of guilt that I have not stayed in touch and indeed feel guilty that they had to take the first step because I am too self-involved to go back and check in with old friends. I know that I stay in touch with many more people than your average engineer, but I also wish I could see Nick and Katie more often and could squeeze in an adult play date with Mike and Michelle. There are about two dozen people on my “wish I could spend time with” list that I haven’t connected with in a year, and that just makes me sad. So, the random walk that was promised in the title… questions and topics that I think are worthy of discussion, even worthy of monologuing (watch The Incredibles for an awesome example from Jason Lee of monologuing). Herewith:

  • When is a white lie simply a lie? When are you shielding someone else from pain they don’t need to experience, and when are you just being a coward because you don’t want to tell the truth?
  • When is it wrong to invest in your own children, when there are others that are in much more need? When your elementary school PTA asks for a voluntary donation, if you don’t give are you a free-loader? If you give the same amount to a school across town in the poor neighborhood, is that an equivalence? Should you feel obliged to give to both?
  • When you are asked to keep a secret, what obligations come with that request? You may be thrust into a position of knowledge you did not see, which can put you in the uncomfortable position of  having to lie about your knowledge to keep that secret. Why should someone be empowered to pull you into their world?
  • Euthanasia and end of life decisions. Since most of us avoid hard decisions and hard realities, many of us end up in a terrible health care crisis late in life. When should the government (or some other power) be enabled to end someone’s life because there is no upside left (dementia, without family, in an unheated homestead house without plumbing… yes, it is real).
  • Money. If you have some, and people you love do not, how much should you share? When should it be a gift, and when a loan?
  • Alcoholism. Runs in may families (we famously have an alcoholic lumberjack in the family, which just makes Monty Python a MUST SEE for our generation), and is difficult to manage and almost impossible to stop. Yet it is easy to buy alcohol, parties are better with an Open Bar, and we accept the drunken idiots, sloppy drunks (“I love you man!”), and dangerous drunks (so many deserving DUIs, so few cops!) as part of society.

Let me know if you have written something insightful on any of these topics, and I promise to read it (caveat: no books, just blogs!) Let me know if you want to hear my perspective on any of these things. Today’s rant: volunteering and non-profits. I have volunteered my entire life, crossing many different organizations targeting education, homelessness, animal welfare, hunger, micro-lending, sports, international poverty and health conditions, I have given for breast cancer research, for rebuilding in the Philippines and  in Honduras, to Doctors Without Borders without restraints, to MIT and for stroke victim recovery. I have also volunteered many many hours as a coach and as board member for sports organizations. The challenge — almost all of the money comes from a few donors, and the same 10% of the people do all the volunteer work. If Karma is real, most people are negative. How does a modern Mother Teresa volunteer at the PTA *without* recognizing that the same few people do everything, and why don’t we have some obligation to give back? Our current approach enables freeloaders to skate (voluntary contributions are, of course, voluntary) and doesn’t give any advantage to those who do the work (the 10%). So why don’t those of us in the 10% just give up and stay home? Why do I keep coaching, and reffing, and writing checks? Maybe *I* am the stupid one… What do you do for others that they could do for themselves? When do you find yourself frustrated with your volunteer efforts (e.g. delivering presents through a charity to a family with a TV bigger than yours, because they filled out the forms…)? When have you STOPPED helping a charity because you took issue with something they did or didn’t do? That’s all for now. Let me know what to read, and what to write, that would be interesting to both of us. George

Uverse DSL sucks
May 16, 2012, 3:02 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I have had a terrible time with AT&T and their Uverse DSL. Four calls into their technical support, which begins with a terrible voice recognition call termination program (meaning it is so bad you are inclined to hang up without ever speaking to anyone), to speak with four different people who each have a different story (reboot this, we’ll send you an adapter, you need a replacement router, “I have fixed some settings”). I was finally promised a replacement by mail yesterday. When I called today to ask about it, I was told the order was cancelled. Not clear why, nor by whom — just cancelled. The people are all pleasant but the experience just sucks.
I have typed this twice now as well, since the router goes up and down and loses the connection.
We had Comcast (their “triple play”) two years ago, and they sucked too. It is a pity that no one has built a really good Internet service that can build a box that will run for more than six months without being replaced or being obsoleted.

Horrible warning
May 7, 2012, 3:52 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

“If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.” Catherine Aird

Someone I know well used this line in her email signature, and it has always stuck with me. I am coaching a bunch of 6- to 8-year-old boys and I do my best to be a positive role model. But it isn’t always easy to stay calm or to be happy when things are not going well, and there are always kids who push your buttons. It is telling to watch how different coaches (and parents) act as examples (or warnings) to their kids. It is flattering (or puzzling :) that most of the parents drop their kids at the curb for practice, and allow us to mold them for ninety minutes.

I am also helping to coach a bunch of 5- and 6-year-old girls, and it is somehow much less frustrating because even when they don’t listen they are nice to each other and to me.

One of the hardest ways to learn is to observe bad behavior (those horrible warnings), and to figure out how to avoid doing the same. Kids exposed to violent homes are predisposed to be violent, but the smart kids break the cycle of violence and commit themselves to protecting others rather than hurting them. It is hard to be the first person in a home to go to college (both our parents graduated from college, so we all graduated), and I have seen the challenges kids face when they don’t have a room to study in and don’t have a place of their own to keep their things (like books).

One of the best coaches I ever had never played water polo, but learned the game and was great through leadership rather than through example. By recruiting and retaining great players and co-coaches he built a dynasty at our high school. He was gay, and no one cared. He spent countless hours ensuring that we had everything we needed to succeed, and in addition taught math very well too (strict, with a focus on raising the bar for everyone). I learned many lessons about leading from him, as I know many others did as well.

I am curious to see how our current candidates for president use this election. The lessons of the recent past elections are that “nasty works”, and ideas don’t really matter. Romney distinguished himself from his rivals with a flood of negative advertising, some of which was returned in kind. Obama once ran on change and hope, and now has to settle for fear about Romney changing back to old policies … sort of the opposite of hope. It is always harder to run on one’s record, as the Tea Party freshmen are learning, but it is also rather sad to have to rely on fear instead.


Never trust a man…
March 27, 2012, 3:46 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

WC Fields was quoted as saying “Never trust a man who doesn’t drink”, and it seems relevant to the upcoming election. W gave up the bottle before he was president, and took chances with people’s lives a bit cavalierly. Romney doesn’t drink by way of religion, yet feels the need to rattle a saber and threaten Iran and Russia. I read that Barack likes a cold beer, and that he is genuinely affected by the burdens borne by our military (and he does greet coffins and disfigured veterans, and writes to the parents of those who make the ultimate sacrifice). I am not saying that drinking makes you thoughtful, but at times it seems that those who don’t drink are judgmental and self-righteous (and perhaps feel a need to swagger when they really shouldn’t).

Another common meme is “never trust a man that doesn’t like dogs, or that your dog doesn’t like”. I think dogs and horses are keen judges of character, and one thing that they have in common is that they allowed themselves to become domesticated. That would seem to favor the animals with good taste or instincts over those who chose badly (pick the right person and you are a pet, the wrong person and you are a meal). We have two dogs who seem to like everyone, so I guess I don’t have a good filter right now.

WordPress encouraged me to post another message, so I can hit an arbitrary target of 80 (okay, I assume they have some logic for picking that target… but it has taken me seven years to get to 79, so don’t hold your breath!). This is it — low calorie, zero content.


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