Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sunday Morning Meandering

I usually wake up early on Sunday morning. This habit doesn't seem to be affected by the time I went to bed the night before, or the level of sleep deprivation I've accumulated through the week, or any normal influence that would keep another person lingering in bed. It has been my habit to awaken early on Sundays for as long as I can remember. Sunday mornings are mine, I own them. I didn't set out to own them in any conscious way. But in thinking carefully about it I realize that this is the reason for my habit. It is the one time in the week that is mine, entirely and I relish it.
I like having a chance, should I go out, of seeing a neighborhood, or a city, or a countryside awaken and stretch. If I do not wander out, I simply enjoy the act of making coffee and settling down to catch up on reading at a relaxed pace. I read differently on Sunday mornings. I am less concerned about covering ground then I am with finding something interesting that I can read more about or research. I visit Wikipedia a lot on Sunday mornings. Mornings are, of course, the most promising time of the day on any day, redolent with the expectations of the various acts of living we engage in, either planned or not. Our solar rythms are nearly perfect, inasmuch as evenings are the perfect counterbalance to morning, providing circumspection, satisfaction, wound licking, and rest from work or play.
There are, of course, exceptions to my practice on Sundays and I occasionally have committed to something or other. Today I was safe for a while, because my first commitment involved meeting a friend who was visiting from Hong Kong for a late brunch. I generally expected it to be midday before I heard from him as I know it is normally his practice to sleep in and catch up on email on weekends. So I was a little surprised when I received a message on my mobile at 8:30 this morning that stated simply: "I am awake". My first thought was to write back one of those barbs that we tend to share with old chums. Something like: "So you want me to come change your diaper or what?". Instead I wrote back " report: you've dressed". Then my phone rang and I learned what I knew already, he was hungry and ready to roll. Still, I begged for another hour or so, to which he readily agreed.
We met at a pub on my street here in Bangkok that has decent food and big screen sports TV all around. But the TVs went unnoticed. We quickly became deeply engaged in a discussion about cooking including the nuances of hominy grits (to which he, as a native New Yorker knew little), the value or lack of it of the "bitter" taste spectrum, and crock pot cooking. His interest in the latter is due to his wish to introduce his lovely Chinese wife to the great comfort foods of Western Civilization such as beef stew, corned beef and cabbage, vegetable soups, chicken & dumplings, and the wonders of that slow cooking method real chefs call "braising".
We then moved outside to a sidewalk seat for coffee al fresca and our conversation turned to the complexities of the logistics and accounting in a large technology distribution business. We talked about the merits of using Oracle, the big data base software company, and the multiple types and configurations of his company's product line comprising many different brands, technologies, and products.
While we sat outside we were approached by the whole menagerie of street vendors and hustlers selling everything from fake rolex watches to a hand puppet duck (wanna buy a duck?). To most of them a quick "mai ow khap", which means simply "don't want, sir, or maam" is enough to get them to move on. If you use the Thai phrase, they assume you aren't a tourist and have already become inured and resistant to the pitch. One of the interuptions we had this morning was from one of the teenagers that roam this street with shoe shine kits. They can be more persistant for some reason. They almost never go away easily. Interstingly, they don't differentiate between someone wearing leather shoes versus someone wearing sandals or tennis shoes. I had been a little appalled at that before, thinking they simply were hoping to wear me into giving them money. However, my buddy decided to let this particular shoe shiner, a girl of about 12 - 13 years old, his tennis shoes to clean up. I half way expected the worse, thinking they were going to have some cheap liquid shoe black lathered all over them. Instead, the girl cleaned them up nicely and returned them politely. She awarded us a big smile when he paid her an added 20 baht tip.
Both of us had an hour or two of things to do, so we parted company for a while, agreeing to meet up later to shoot some pool. As I walked back to the the apartment I thought about my buddy, and how I enjoy chatting with him. I like the way our conversations can range widely, and I like those resonant tones we hit when the talk turns to living and working abroad. We share anecdotes from our common experience of being married to "barbarians" and laugh when we acknowledge that they must feel the same way even more frequently then we do. We each secretly hope they are as happy as we are that we did. I began to notice that all along my route home the sidewalk cafes and benches had several small groups of people chatting. One group of four older guys were within earshot and I heard enough to realize their conversation wasn't very different then the one I had just engaged in. This scene was repeated several times over the three blocks or so that I walked back. It certainly felt like Sunday morning.

Other Stuff: With regard to my post below, he did it again this morning, along with team members in the 4X400 meter swim. Our hero Phelps swam the 100 meter butterfly leg of the relay and the team set a world record and struck gold. It is his eighth for this Olympics and officially passes Mark Spitz record of seven in one Olympic game. And it was Spitz who came up with one of the better superlatives for his youthful counterpart. In an interview jointly held with Spitz in the USA and Phelps still poolside after the event, Spitz referred to his performance as "epic". And so it is.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Notes on the Olympic Summer Games

I can almost imagine that the web site is experiencing a high rate of traffic today, as sports writers, bloggers, and email writers search for superlatives that accomplish the task of describing the performance of Michael Phelps. It is now official that he has set his place in sports history with the two gold medals he added this morning to his total of 5 in the Beijing games and a career total of 11, the highest number of gold medals ever won by a single individual, since stats have been kept.

(I visited, but I wasn't there to look up athletic superlatives. I was there to explore alternatives to the word "sham". The web site gave me "simulate", "assume", "feign", "dissemble", "pretend", and "act" in response to my query.

Though I could watch the Olympics in real time (Beijing is an hour ahead of Bangkok) I seldom get a chance during the daytime and even during the evenings I only take occasional glances at the television as email, conference calls with the U.S., and practical demands like preparing a meal, or pressing a shirt, uses up my time. Still, I watched news clips of Phelps accomplishments this morning when he added two more golds (and two more records) to his weighty pouch. What he has done so far adds up an incredible feat but we need to be reminded perhaps, that Phelps has already announced his decision to compete in the next staging of the global pageant and he has a few more cracks at gold in the current affair in Beijing. His moment of truth arrived this morning. As usual the pace of the swimming events was brutally rapid, as schedulers worked hard to clear the water and get the next race underway in rapid time. I assume it all had to do with the televising schedules and prime time. One news report stated that this morning there were ten events in 76 minutes counting the commercials. Athletes in the water at the end of each race were whistled out of the water. Imagine...if you were Phelps...and had no time to even contemplate what you had just accomplished. No victory laps, no waves at the crowd except as you exited the venue. The key word here, in case you haven't guessed, is "commercial".

We can easily predict that the athletic greatness debate will be brisk following this morning. There is a distinguishing characteristic of such useless arguments that there are all kinds of equivocations used, and numbingly detailed statistics and contentions at the heart of them.

Within the context of Phelp's incredible performance, there will be discussions about the suits, and the pool design (it was wider and deeper, and had been designed to minimize adjacent competitor turbulence). Perhaps someone may bring up the "top secret" experimental flow measurement techniques used by the U.S. swim coaches to help their competitors shave micro seconds of their times. Someone may even observe that the Rensselaer researcher that pioneered this work is a Chinese American. Is Phelps already the greatest athlete, or Olympic competitor of all time? Does anyone with one iota of wisdom care to venture an answer? I hope this is really the stuff of bars, locker rooms, and stuffy gentlemen's clubs, where, unless you engage in arguments as a form of sport itself, which many do. In my humble opinion there are far greater issues then this one, but then, everyone needs a diversion now and then, and all of us need our heroes. I think Phelps suits just fine in that role. I hope he can live up to it and I wish him well.However, the ideation of heroe, in our heads, is one of a self made, disciplined, person whose peserverence, with an ability for strong individual performance. We normally do not consider the institutionalization of the Olympics, and how each country fosters a network of athletic research and modern coaching techniques. Sports performance has become a science of immense complexity. It is really that organized effort that we witness when we watch our heroes swim, or shoot seemingly impossible scores in basketball, or overcome odds against higher rated competitors. If past Olympics are any evidence, we may even be witnessing the edge that some athletes gain through chemicals they take.

In this regard we may want to consider how we view the results of any sport event these days. I mean events that can command bags full of corporate money, dedicated research staff, and soon. I sometimes ask myself, what does it all mean?

P.S. Incidentally, since I wrote my opening line above Fox Sports just released a N.Y. Post commentary entitled "Running out of words to describe Phelps' feats" in which the writer opines about his exhausted Thesaurus. I do not mention this as some sort of evidence of literary secondment. I mention it for the contrary purpose of providing fair warning. What you read here is not necessarily useful,nor well written. It is the N.Y. Post and Fox Sports after all.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Soujourn in Northern Thailand

In my recollection, there had been only one time in my life that I took a vacation by myself, a "sojourn" as it were. On that occasion I was the ex director of marketing for a company that failed. I had a last meeting with the primary investor who quietly told me he was "pulling the plug". As quietly and sensitively as he delivered the news it still took the wind out of me. There must have been a large sucking sound in that office, as if someone had been gut punched. He asked me to oversee the take down and then move on to another technology company he had staked. It was a major let down for me. We had done, with all humility, a good job of positioning our product and had demonstrated some capability at making it to our customers. We had put hard orders into backlog that far exceeded our plan, and had executed a steep ramp into volumes. The earliest indications were solid, and we had embarked on a new product line. It was a highly technical precision technology product aimed at volume "OEM" users, who would integrate our product into their products aimed at the fast expanding PC industry. Forecasts were up and too the right. In the midst of all this F.L.B.A. (FLuBbA = Future Looks Bright Ahead) we were overcome by a growing horror that our product had a fatal flaw, one that only showed up after extensive use or, occasionally, in an unperfected test designed to emulate long term use. We were shipping to 100% of the OEM companies that used a product like ours, and slowly, one by one, we began to be disqualified as a vendor. A flurry of lab work, testing, searches for new materials, consultants crawling all over the place, an increased cash burn and a rapidly depleting free cash flow, was puncuated by the almost daily angst-driven phone calls and visits with impatient customers,. Six months later we determined that only a major overhaul of our process, which would require another major tranch of financing, would save us (or so we thought). We laid it all out, as candidly and as objectively as we could. Our owner listened carefully, asked questions, and then took a pass. By that time we had burned several million dollars over the original business plan, and he had lost confidence. Another two months of frantically looking for a buyer, and we reached the end of the line. With a bank account depleted and my peers already bailing out for other jobs, I flew to San Francisco to receive my last set of orders from the investor (by this time our CEO had left and I was the highest ranking employee left - the thought of which gave me utter terrors - but I couldn't let go). I flew back with a directive, and just enough money, to take it all down, piece by piece, with another job offer at another tech startup under the investor's wings, held out as an incentive. Those two or three months were hell for me. Instead of promoting my company's products, creating sparky overhead slides, negotiating prices, watching the competition, I was performing a caretaker's job. I laid off remaining employees, something I had never done on that scale before. I retained a handful of former maintenance and ops guys to decommision large process systems and prepare them for shipping. I arranged for an auctioneer to sell that equipment, and focused on an inventory catalogue. I refereed the occasional fight that broke out between the remaining crew, who like me were bummed out and stressed. In the end, a beer and pizza party was all we could muster to mark the end of an effort that had endured a three year run of demanding days strung together in a blur. It was a muted party.
After literally locking up the facility and sending the keys to the landlord I decided I needed a getaway. A quick call to the management of my next employer to arrange a new report date and I was free to do what I wanted for a week. My family was supportive, and off I went to Loreto, Mexico to spend a few days on the Sea of Cortez, hunting dolphin fish with light tackle. I was right. Those few days alone, with the surrounding beauty and tranquility of the rugged landscape was all I needed to reseat my head in it's proper fitting. I went home with a small cooler of fish filets and a whole new attitude.
Early in July this year, I could feel the need rising in me again, some twenty years later.
That earlier experience taught me that there is such a thing as lonliness and being alone and that they are different. I travel a lot so I have felt lonliness, content to endure it because I always knew it was short term and that I had someplace to go to. More importantly, someone to go to. But being alone offers incredible opportunities for reassessment, and recharging. Without any interference for your attention, you can focus on something you are interested in, examine new ways to view things that bother you, or indulge yourself in your favorite music or food without concern. A sojourn is a very selfish thing.
In early July I felt similar urgings. For me, the first half of this year was all about about responding to outside (and often unwanted)forces. All I could do was try to keep my head above water it seemed. I had been burning long hours. A worrisome health setback with the person I love most in this world had added an element of worry that weighed heavily on me. I ate irregularly. I slept less than I usually do. I fell into all the traps one is supposed to avoid when wrestling with a sudden proliferation of challenges. As these forces began to ease up, I began to experience an increasing number of the deep and utterly painful cluster headaches I've been frquently cursed with since my late twenties. It was time for a break. My first thoughts imagined a getaway with Veronica. However, she was wary of travel and didn't really want to go anywhere. Her escapade with a brain hemorrhage in January had been a source of concern for all of us. However, her prognosis was deep into very favorable territory and she had little in the way of side affects. Still, she is never one who thinks of travel as a pastime, and she was more wary then usual with the hospitalization and all the testing and worry still fresh in her mind. With her loving and reassurance that I should go, I decided to fly from Bangkok to Chiang Rai for five days over the 4th of July holiday. I had an incredible time. I roamed all around, by boat, by car, and by foot, in one of the most beautiful mountainous regions in the world, with a history that is still evident for even the most casual observer. I felt the tinge of excitement of being in the Golden Triangle, made famous by nefarious opium and heroin warlords, who themselves were stragglers of various people who had wandered into the region from hundreds of years of conflict in China, Tibet, and other troubled regions. It is a diaspora of legendary stories and incredible hardships. Further, it all fueled my imagination from my devoted reading in my younger years of Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, Melville, and Conrad. I visited villages of people who were third generation Kuomintang, who didn't go to Taiwan, but instead took what is arguably a rougher avenue of escape into Burmese jungles to avoid the growing hordes of Mao's vengeful army. I met and spoke with Karen people, of Tibetan origins, whose villages dot the mountainous region and who, in Burma (Myanmar), are still engaged in a revolutionary war that is almost as old as I am. I took a long boat down and up the river Kok which bissects Chiang Rai and is a major tributary to the infamous Meh Kong (Mekong) River. I made my way by car to the Mekong itself, and saw ancient temples next to new river ports bustling with commerce. And each day, weary from the heat of the season and exerting my bulk in ways not practiced in a long time, I would return to my boutique hotel and spa where practiced hands rubbed exotic oils into tired old muscles, imparting a new vitality to expend the next day. I sat outside in a tropical garden as lovely as you could imagine, and drank rum, while making notes on the day's events and reviewing the digital photos I inexpertly caught on my small tourist camera. A few yards away was the table I normally sat at each night to dine on fresh seasonal Thai food, expertly prepared, while watching the cafe' latte colored river moving in lazy meter nearby, masking its underlying power. As I packed to return to Bangkok and the duties of work, I had that moment of regret to be leaving such a wonderful experience. But I was also eager to get back, and more eager to get back to Kuala Lumpur and my family. I was anxious to share what I saw and had felt on this unusual sojourn of mine. I was even more anxious to fall into that cushion-like surrounding we call our homes and our family. There is no sweeter succor then that, and a sojourn, regardless of how wonderful it lingers in the mind, will never blunt the sweetness of coming home. In the end, that is the greatest prize of all.

I've posted several photos from my sojourn at the left. I've used lengthy subtitles to provide a narrative of sorts.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Maybe the question should be "Is McCain fit to lead this country"

In the following commentary by Rex Nutting, the Washington bureau chief of Marketwatch points out how the question of the fitness of Obama to lead our country has preoccupied the press and the electorate. Those commenting point out his youth and lack of experience as a primary cause for concern. However, Nutting goes on the offense and asks the same question about McCain. His answers give pause to anyone who would automatically discount Obama in favor of McCain's carefully coiffed image of senority:

Why McCain would be a mediocre president
By Rex Nutting, MarketWatch

"In his frivolous Paris and Britney ad, Sen. John McCain has asked the right question: Is Barack Obama ready to lead this country?
Since last January, Sen. Obama's fitness for the presidency has been the only question that matters in American politics. The pollsters and pundits agree that if Obama can show the voters that he's up to the job, he'll win. If not, he won't.
But that begs another question: Is McCain fit to lead America?
That question hasn't been asked, nor has it been answered.
The assumption seems to be that McCain's years of experience in the military and in Congress of course give him the background and tools he'd need in the White House. As Britney might say, "Duh! For sure he's qualified!!! He's Mac!!!"
But is that true? Does McCain have the right stuff?
A careful look at McCain's biography shows that he isn't prepared for the job. His resume is much thinner than most people think.
Here are some reasons why McCain would be a mediocre president.
Lack of accomplishments
Like the current occupant of the White House, McCain got his first career breaks from the connections and money of his family, not from hard work.
The son and grandson of Navy admirals, he attended Annapolis where he did poorly. Nevertheless, he was commissioned as a pilot, where he performed poorly, crashing three planes before he failed to evade a North Vietnamese missile that destroyed his plane. McCain spent more than five years in a prison camp.
After his release, McCain knew his weak military record meant he'd never make admiral, so he turned his sights to a career in politics. With the help of his new wife's wealth, his new father-in-law's business connections and some powerful friends had made as a lobbyist for the Navy, he was elected in 1982 to a Congress in a district that he didn't reside in until the day the seat opened up. A few years later, he succeeded Barry Goldwater as a senator.
McCain hasn't accomplished much in the Senate. Even his own campaign doesn't trumpet his successes, probably because the few victories he's had still rankle Republicans.
His campaign finance law failed to significantly reduce the role of money in politics. He failed to get a big tobacco bill through the Senate. He's failed to change the way Congress spends money; his bill to give the president a line-item veto was declared unconstitutional, and the system of pork and earmarks continues unabated. He failed to reform the immigration system.
Every senator who runs for president misses votes back in Washington, so it's no surprise that McCain and all the others who ran in the primaries have missed a lot of votes in the past year. But between the beginning of 2005 and mid-2007, no senator missed more roll-call votes than McCain did, except Tim Johnson, who was recovering from a near-fatal brain aneurysm.
McCain says he doesn't understand the economy. He's demonstrated that he doesn't understand the workings of Social Security, or the political history of the Middle East. He doesn't know who our enemies are. He says he wants to reduce global warming, but then proposes ideas that would stimulate -- not reduce -- demand for fossil fuels.
McCain has done one thing well -- self promotion. Instead of working on legislation or boning up on the issues, he's been on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" more than any other guest. He's been on the Sunday talk shows more than any other guest in the past 10 years. He's hosted "Saturday Night Live" and even announced his candidacy in 2007 on "The Late Show with David Letterman."
McCain has not articulated any lofty goals. So far, his campaign theme has mostly been "McCain: He's None of the Above."
In the primaries, he campaigned on "I'm not that robotic businessman, I'm not that sanctimonious hick, I'm not that crazy libertarian, I'm not that washed-up actor, I'm not that delusional 9/11 guy." In the general election, he's emphasized that he's not that treasonous dreamer.
No leadership
McCain has frequently taken on near-impossible missions that go against the grain of his party. It's the basis of his reputation as a maverick. But McCain has never been able to bring more than a handful of Republicans along with him on issues such as campaign finance reform or immigration. Democrats on the Hill have accepted McCain's help on some issues, but except for a few exceptions (John Kerry and Joe Lieberman), they've never warmed to him.
To achieve anything as president, McCain would have to win over two hostile parties: The Democrats and the Republicans.
Living in the Sixties
McCain is still fighting the Vietnam War. But he's not fighting the real historic war, which taught us the folly of injecting ourselves into a civil war that was none of our business. We learned that, in a world where even peasants have guns, explosives and radios, a determined and popular guerrilla force can defeat a modern army equipped with the mightiest technology if that army has no vital national interest to protect.
Instead, McCain is fighting an imaginary Vietnam War, where a sure victory could have been achieved with just a little more bombing, just a little more "pacification," just a little more will to win at home. This fantasy clouds McCain's judgment on foreign policy.
Most of the other high-profile politicians who fought in Vietnam -- Colin Powell, Chuck Hegel, John Kerry, and Jim Webb -- aren't stuck in the past, and they don't view the Iraq War as a chance to get Vietnam right.
No principles
After years of honing a reputation as a guy who'll say the truth regardless of the political consequences, McCain has crashed the Straight Talk Express. On almost every issue where he took a principled stand against the Republican line -- taxes, immigration, oil drilling, the Religious Right -- he's changed his views.
We ought to like politicians who change their mind when the facts change; it shows maturity, judgment and flexibility. But politicians who change their mind to suit the prevailing winds show the opposite.
The bottom line
Successful presidents come from two molds: visionaries, or mechanics. The visionaries -- think Reagan or FDR -- see what others can't and say 'Why not?" to inspire the country. The mechanics -- think LBJ or Eisenhower -- know the ins and outs of government and are able to harness the power of millions of humans to accomplish great things, or at least keep the wheels from coming off.
McCain fits neither style. He's neither a dreamer, nor a detail guy. His major accomplishment, in Vietnam and in the Senate, has been merely to survive.
Just surviving doesn't make you a hero, or a decent president. America needs to do more than survive the next four years."

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Another reason to dislike George W. Bush

I am in our Bangkok apartment this week and next, with much to accomplish while I am here. This week alone I have had outside meetings every day. Today was an easier schedule however. My only meeting was to be a dinner meeting with a client whom I especially enjoy visiting. We had arranged to meet at a hotel where he would be completing a full day seminar he was attending. As the time to go hail a taxi approached, I thought it was a good thing that I was leaving just before 5 pm. That is usually a good time to dart out of the city as it precedes the main rush which gets underway by 6 pm. There was a taxi just outside and with my broken Thai I managed to get him to understand where I was going. On our street the traffic was light, and I thought my plan was confirmed. However, as soon as we hit the nearby primary road we engaged in a snarl that was relentless. Now I should mention that Bangkok traffic is notoriously snarled almost all of the time, so keep in mind that all things are relative. This was a major snarl. It took about 20 minutes to travel a single block. I knew pretty quickly that I wasn't going to make it to by the appointed time. I decided to give it a few minutes to see if it was a localized problem that we might break out of, but it simply got worse. So I called my friend to advise that we should either re-schedule, or he would be in for a wait. As soon as he heard my voice he said "I was just going to call you to tell you that the police and military types have cordoned off the hotel I'm in and some member of the Royal family has just arrived. You can't get in and I can't get out." Further, we had no idea how long this was going to last. Then I remembered that "Dubya" was in town.
We quickly resigned ourselves to the obvious and discussed a re-schedule of our meeting. I instructed the taxi driver to head back to the apartment. In Bangkok, this isn't as easy as it sounds. Traffic flow is poorly organized in most Asian cities but Bangkok is renowned for the inability to navigate based on the allowable turns, and dominant traffic flow (if you can call it that). It took another hour and a quarter to get back to the apartment. All in all, I spent just under two hours in a taxi. Mind you, I am the kind of guy that resents the time it takes to get a haircut. Overhead time is anathema to me.
After returning I went to my laptop to check email and browse news. There I found Mr. Bush's speech, which I felt somehow already invested in, so spending the time to read it seemed inevitable. It only multiplied my irritation, but then, you've heard this one before.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Border guards clarify: They don't need a reason for search and seizure

A few months ago I opined about the new policies practiced by U.S. Customs and Immigration officials, observing that this was yet more evidence that our once vaulted constitution has been sullied by the U.S. Government, and the very institutions that we depend on to protect the principles we have long revered. Fellow blogger "Winter Patriot" has just updated his blog with clarification as to the policy and it's practice.
On July 24, 2006, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decided that US Customs and Border Patrol Officers had the right to search and seize a person’s laptop computer, computer discs and other electronic media. Nowhere has this information been broadcast. Millions of travelers know nothing about this ruling. Yet the word has begun to find its way out into public view. If you travel in and out of the United States I strongly recommend that you visit this blog
If you are an American, and you love your country, the information will sadden you. However, as the blogger points out:
"And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow."-- Solomon (Ecclesiastes 1:17-18)