Musings from George

Are blogs depressing?
April 30, 2007, 6:57 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The NY Times today (Sunday edition) Week In Review (worth $4 all by itself) cited multiple references to Tom Sawyer regarding the current business model of user-contributed content. At the same time, a good friend found my blog and asked if all blogs were sad. I’m thinking these two thoughts are related!?

If the cost of entry to publication is being able to type, the bar has been lowered considerably. No one read your journal in high school (if you kept one), and only one person read your letters (if you wrote them). Now, any idiot (including me) can commit their thoughts to a server, published immediately for anyone to read. Is that progress? Should it be happy?

For what it’s worth, we as a civilization are enjoying a period of prosperity that exceeds any prior period — when taken as a reflection of how well the WORLD is doing, not any one country. There are more people living well now than at any point in history, and less systemic subjugation than at any earlier time (there are more people living free, and those people are living well). So rejoice, and consume. Recognize that Malthus was wrong (we didn’t starve to death as population grew), and that the things we worry about may not matter in the short-term (who will miss a genus of salamanders, really?). But please also recognize that worrying about the future is the only insurance that we have that we won’t reproduce the past. Rome fell, China turned inward, the British empire collapsed when overextended. What can we do to make the world a better place — for everyone, and for the world itself? That’s the real challenge of the thinking person.

Latest crazy idea — a solar-panel-powered CO2 extractor that produces ethanol, which floats in the ocean. Cheap, no input required (other than sea water), and produces a valuable commodity — even at a drip a day, over time it can reduce the CO2 in the environment more effectively than trees, and will be economical to harvest. Can I get a patent via blog these days?

Enjoy every day, enjoy every smile. Read the Ralph Waldo Emerson post lower in this blog if you want to feel good — and then be successful in your own life. Make someone’s life better, make a child smile, leave a garden. But please do something, everyone!


What’s the future hold?
April 9, 2007, 5:02 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

A friend asked if I was optimistic about the state of the world. Just finished watching ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, and I regularly watch Brian Williams on the evening noise. So my take…

I have to say that I think as a country we are at a real nadir. Bush has squandered the respect (and the fear) that the rest of the world had for us, and is slowly bleeding us in a conflict we can’t win. It took 15 years to recover from Vietnam, and we can’t really afford to wait 15 years to have our confidence back. I’m also not convinced that any of the Democratic candidates can really change the course of the nation — we need a landslide in the Senate to change anything, and the country is just too comfortable to make the important sacrifices we need to make (for energy, for health care). So while I am very happy and comfortable, I can’t go so far as optimistic. Where are the bright spots?

1. We adapt faster than anyone’s computer models predict. If the US government decides to make a difference in energy production and consumption, we can change the world in less than ten years (for those as old as I am, remember dioxin? Nearly eliminated the bald eagle, and it’s taken twenty years to recover … but we banned it, and they did recover. Remember CFCs and the hole in the ozone? Ban -> results). So my free proposal for anyone running for president: Buy Chrysler, and make a truly eco-revolutionary car at cost for the world: Solar panels cover it’s square top (can power 100 miles each day in the average US climate), a very tiny gas engine enables the car to get to 65 MPH in ten seconds, and the frame is a huge capacitor battery that can drive two people 300 miles on a single charge. Note: no revolutions, all these technologies exist today. Note: no danger — far less gas needed, no exposive acids or fuels included. Distribution of both electricity and gas are well understood / in place. Sell the car at cost, and give huge tradein value for older / larger cars — change the makeup of the cars on the road today, and give the poor people who are driving crappy cars a chance to move into the Prius world affordably.

2. Subsidize any form of energy conservation that makes sense — free trade-up for refrigerators more than twenty years old, 50% subsidies for replacing single-pane with double-pane glass, free tradeup from electric coil heaters to ceramic heaters.

3. Stop optimizing & subsidizing the production of oil & coal, and plug real money into solar, wind, and tidal power. Tack another $1 tax on the price of a gallon of gasoline, and spend 100% of that money building replacements for oil. People predicted chaos and recession when gas hit $2.50 — well guess what, we all adapted somehow.

4. Kids and immigrants are not saddled with our preconceptions about what is free, and what the world owes us. I’m very hopeful that we can become more conscious of the impact we are having on the world, and more fearful of the consequences of that impact. We’ve already made housing so expensive that more kids are moving back in with their parents after college; in many cultures, that is the most efficient way for communities to grow and for consumption to remain largely flat.

Gotta go, my corporate-free retreat only lasts a week and I’ve been sitting here too long already…


Blogs, podcasts, and viewcasts
April 9, 2007, 4:45 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

So we are all drowning in media, brought to us by many channels and organized for us by many appliances. Most of it is noise, yet there is more signal available today than at any time in history — and no one has created the right bandpass filter (or screen) that selects the signal from out of the noise, and gives us that crisp feed we want to read, listen to, and watch. A friend sent me an email with a few links in it that caused me to think (and I believe that to be a good thing :^), and I decided to share that here.

This is the famed Robert Scoble’s list of “great things to watch” that are available as viewcasts online:

A blog about how the plethora of options online will displace commercial distribution of media:

A funny sendup of the evening news (or “evening noise”):

My reaction:

I understand Scoble & the blog post, but I think the blog assumes that  the average American is more technically capable (and promiscuous) than they really are. Most people (like my mother, and probably yours) don’t use DVRs even if they have them. People reading this blog are not typical (no offense intended, but my readership is small and mostly like me). Most people are perfectly happy to have their news (and their crappy shows like Dancing With the Stars) pre-selected and pre-fabricated for them. They _want_ the pablum the TV networks serve, or they wouldn’t eat it. For all of us who really enjoy NPR when we drive in the car, very few of us listen to it at home. So I don’t see the world turning away from its increasingly niche programming via TV, and I expect that some of todays webcasts will (when rated sufficiently, that band-pass filter that doesn’t yet exist) cross over to be broadcast on TV. That’ll be the first time my Mom sees “What We Call The News” — when it’s a trailer on NBC news, with a “push 196 to watch the JibJab channel”.


April 8, 2007, 11:26 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

emersonsuccess.pngYes, three posts on Easter. It’s early, I’m alone (sleep possesses the rest of my posse), and I am behind on thoughts I wanted to put down.

How do we / society / your family define success? My mother told me in high school she didn’t care what I did with my life as long as I enjoyed it and was good at it. Not useful advice, but very supportive.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the enclosed definition (haven’t figured out the image editor yet, but the picture is here somewhere). I like it. Put it in context with your own life, and hold that thought when you hear on tonight’s news that someone’s 18-year-old son died in Tal Afar yesterday when an IED / EFP destroyed their lightly armored Humvee. They have paid the ultimate price, made the grandest sacrifice, and Tal Afar is no better for our loss. I sure hope we’re done there in less than 15 years, and have learned how not to do this again. I read that we have spent $400 billion and climbing, and oil and electricity remain more scarce and expensive today than when we invaded. Remember the promise that Iraq would be self-sufficient financially from oil revenues by now? and instead we are importing gasoline at $7.50 a gallon to drive thousands of tanks getting gallons per mile, and the Iraqis are waiting in long lines to buy stolen gasoline from the militias (who are funding the above IEDs and EFPs with this gasoline revenue).

I’m planting a garden this week. I’m calling it a corporate-free retreat week. And my kids smile a lot, so I think Ralph would be happy with me so far.


Native Americans and Aborigines
April 8, 2007, 11:11 am
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A friend commented via email to me about my proposal to backpack with my kid(s) for a month if they were troubled, and pointed out that aboriginal peoples had been doing exactly that for thousands of years before Outward Bound was created. It occurred to me that Jesus goes for his walk in the wilderness (alone, yes) when he has questions that cannot easily be answered, too. So the concept of vising nature to question life isn’t new (or my own), but is very powerful. Thoreau, Bryson, and others have documented their own search for discovery in nature; Ansel Adams documented primarily natural scenes, but also man’s contributions (a graveyard in New Mexico comes to mind). In a time when success appears to be measured by possessions or wealth, it’s a tantalizing idea to simply move back towards nature (not into it, I’m neither atavistic nor foolish). I have had the luxury in my lifetime to have rafted down the Grand Canyon twice, and both were entirely different experiences because of the people I went with. Small plug here for Mary Petrofsky, with whom I attended high school — she organized my second trip, and so well prepared us that we saw ancient trylobyte impressions well off the river, and sat next to Anasazi ruins near the rim of the cliffs at sunset. She knew where to go, and how to get there, each day. Back to the theme… when in nature, and I do mean without cell phone or email or news or blogs, you really can’t help but listen to both the world around you and your body about you. Creaky knees, running water, sweat soaking through where the backpack rests on your body.

My wife and I drove around the American southwest for four weeks years ago, before kids made that a memory rather than an annual practice. It doesn’t take very long to realize that you are paying a LOT to store a LOT of stuff in a house somewhere, and that you don’t need much to live on. A cutting board and two knives, a thermos and a cooler — supplemented as needed at stores. Camping where feasible, cheap hotels where necessary, restaurants when desireable (Mesa Verde has a great in-park restaurant, for example…).

So if ever I must intervene in my kids’ lives, I believe that I can invent a journey to invite them on that will both excite them and engage them, involve them and enlighten them. Would it matter to them? I don’t know. But I do know it would matter to me.


Corporate life
April 8, 2007, 10:31 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

It’s both flattering and unnerving to realize that people read what I write. A friend mentioned that she had read my blog, and expressed concern about how I was feeling about my job. I paused briefly to consider “Gee, wouldn’t it be great if my _boss_ cared enough to read my blog?”

I’ve managed quite a few people in my life, and the responsibility is awesome. It is part coaching, part teaching, and part role modeling. I believe that most people are good at one of these things, and the unusual person is good at two of them — the truly rare individual is good at all three. The ‘Peter Principle’ gives us many people in the third category — they are great individual contributors, and they have become managers because they know how to get the job done, not because they can motivate or communicate. Teaching is a skill that can be learned, and I have definitely known people who can teach and cannot themselves do … they know what a well-hit ball sounds like, or what a smooth golf swing looks like, but they cannot for the life of them hit a baseball or drive a golf ball. Likewise as manager, there are those who can critique a slide or spin a presentation, yet they have no context or content and cannot actually create that slide or presentation. They rely on others’ judgment and input to do their own work, and as a result never create talent or promote talent — they can’t spare it. This type of manager typically “inherits” employees from other groups, and cannot recruit or develop talent.

Coaching is that third skill in managing, and is the rarest of all skills. Coaching includes the ability to communite a higher vision, a picture of what the team can accomplish that no one individual can accomplish. Coaching includes some aspect of past accomplishment (having played, or having led teams that were good), which earns the necessary respect and credibility to lead. And coaching involves the willingness and ability to study people’s skills and abilities, and the capability of helping them improve. Teaching is simply showing or explaining (the physics of hitting a golf ball are the same for everyone), coaching is the higher art of personalizing feedback (the way YOU close your eyes right when the bat connects with the ball, the fact that SHE always headfakes the same way when she’s going to drive left). Personalization requires observation, and that in particular is where most managers fall down on the job … they rely on collecting others’ thoughts once or twice a year, and their own personal interaction with their employees is limited to the time spent in staff meetings or stressful presentations. Neither are good opportunities for developing your people, as neither are typically productive events. If your employee is really being paid to write software, or to take support calls, isn’t that what you should be helping them with? and if you don’t actually see their software, or talk to the people they support, or measure the impact of either activity, how valuable is your feedback to that employee?

I understand that a good part of one’s success in the corporate world has to do with influencing others, and selling one’s vision, and celebrating one’s accomplishments (and even better, your team’s accomplishments). I also recognize that these are non-productive uses of time, and that the people who get promoted tend to spend much more of their time on these activities — and are inherently less productive than those who quietly accomplish a great deal. I have attended entire management meetings focused on the next generation of whatever (let’s say music jukeboxes) that never even mention the product being shipped today, or the 80% of the company consumed with existing customers and earning 100% of the company’s revenue. The leaps of faith being made for tomorrow sometimes border on the willing suspension of disbelief (to borrow from Samuel Taylor Coleridge), and sometimes completely ignore the lessons being learned in the moment (yes, gravity is likely to exist tomorrow and people are likely to resent advertising in products they have paid for).

So why am I frustrated at work? I am taking this next week off to help myself understand that frustration, and in a perfect world to learn from it and grow as a result. I credit myself with being willing to change, and with being curious about things, and with being smart. So if I can’t figure it out, I will be very disappointed in myself. But it may never make it into this blog, simply because that level of introspection is impossible to do in public, I fear. The great news for me is that it was my boss’s boss’s boss (and yes, he also has a boss so I guess that makes me a fifth-level employee?) is the one who suggested that I take a break, and it was the closest thing to coaching that I have received in the past year. I’ve taken on a lot of challenges, and it’s not that surprising that I have been frustrated. Turning that frustration into a personal challenge to deliver great results on each of the things I’ve chosen to take on is a great next step for me to take.

I’ve got more to say, but it’s off-topic so I’m going to actually break it into another entry in keeping with my own rants about how poorly people tag and inventory their own knowledge / what they create online.


April 2, 2007, 8:52 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Amalgam is one of those weird words that I mispronounced most of my life because so much of my vocabulary comes from reading, rather than conversation.  One of the great innovations on the Merriam-Webster site is the “speak this” feature, which you can try here:

So, I decided to share a collection of random thoughts rather than a cohesive story tonight. It’s late, this is all free, and you don’t have to read it :^)

 1. I cried at the gym this week. Not because I’m overweight (okay, maybe) or lazy (okay, maybe) — but because I was reading the “special edition” of Newsweek comprised of letters from soldiers who have died in Iraq. My nephew made it home whole from three rotations there, but as I coaxed my young son to sleep I had that unnerving moment — what would I do if he wanted to be a Marine? if we had a draft? I’m quite sure I would have served if asked, but I don’t know if today I would feel the same way. Bush has squandered the country’s faith in our global role, and waged a unilateral war for the first time in history (quibble about the Spanish-American war if you want to, but Korea and the Vietnam war had support from Western governments. Grenada doesn’t count, nor Panama — gotta last more than four hours). I don’t think this is just being a parent, because I wouldn’t go to fight in Iraq now and would have been seriously disillusioned if I enlisted after 9/11 and then learned about the paper-thin mockery of a justification we created to invade Iraq. Oh well…

2. A friend chided me about charitable donations. I give a lot of money to charity, and it’s frustrating when people (or organizations) make it difficult to give. This friend is doing a charity walk, yet the main website for the organization has no search capabilities and no way to find your friend to sponsor. Second link was as useless as the first…so there is learning to be done by our nonprofits.

3. Health care! Aaaargh. My mother puts up with Kaiser because she can’t afford better. She accepts a miserable personal physician because “the next one might be worse”. She accepts monthlong delays for treatment, and accepts treatment from a woman who has NO understanding of her underlying ills (geriatric, manic depressive, diabetic, overweight, arthritic… her doctor is young, thin, fit, Asian  and out of touch). Why is it that the largest economy in the world (5% of the population enjoying 25% of the fruits of the world’s labor) puts up with such substandard care?

4. Pets. People spend more on pet food in the US than we give to foreign countries by a wide margin. As a nation, we spend as much on veterinarian care as we spend caring for our elderly. When did we decide that a 15-year-old poodle who needs a blood transfusion is more important than feeding a village in Darfur? How have we gotten so out of touch with the world, and so focused on our own pets?

5. Job. I’m frustrated right now in my job. What’s the best way to fix it or find a better one?

6. Charity.  Discussing religion and soul with a friend, he mentioned that his litmus test for a person’s goodness was how they treat the homeless (and in particular, whether they look the homeless person in they eye). I have to say that I have fed more homeless people than 99% of the country, and I always look people in the eye — but I also don’t think it makes me a better person than 99% of my fellow Americans. It’s a strength I have, and a confidence (I’m tall & somewhat fit, and haven’t been in a real fight since fifth grade) that allows me to walk in dangerous places without really worrying. But my friends who devote their lives to teaching or who spend their spare time working to improve lives in third-world countries make my gifts look paltry, and your friends may do the same for you. What’s a good measurement and target for individuals to set for “worthiness”? I have embraced the concept of karma, that we are what we do — do more good, and good things happen to you. It’s an embodiment of the Golden Rule with a sense of keeping score, which appeals to me.