Saturday, April 15, 2017

United Airlines made the right decision. Just not the smart one

How DARE United Airlines drag that poor man, a DOCTOR, with PATIENTS! Did you see the video? You HAVE to watch the video. OMG, I just can’t stop SMH. You know this is JUST what is wrong with AMERICA. We have lost our RIGHTS!

Hasn’t it been fun? The OUTRAGE! This is some good-shit, collective-consciousness, crack cocaine we are smoking on this media frenzy.

Beyond the specifics of what happened on United Flight 3411 is another story: what happens when businesses become so laser focused on the bottom line that they forget their customers? Add to that the difficulty in assessing the risk of very rare but exceedingly costly events.

Imagine we are at United’s corporate office where they look at and review policies. Someone or some team was responsible for developing the policies and procedures for handling “bumping” a passenger from a flight from overbooking, moving pilots around the country, and so on. And somewhere is the case where no one is willing to voluntarily be bumped, regardless of the incentives, so they choose randomly. The end.

So when a randomly selected passenger says, “no, I’m still not leaving regardless of your incentives,” we invoke a different set of policies and procedures. We now have a “belligerent” or “non-cooperative passenger” with guidance ending with calling in local law enforcement to forcibly remove the passenger.

Could this have been anticipated? Maybe, maybe not. But it is now! United is taking the heat but every other airline has some variation of that approach.

But consider this: United was acting rationally. They overbook to ensure all seats are full. It’s cheaper to bump passengers than run a flight with empty seats. It’s cheaper to bump passengers to accommodate pilots “dead heading” to another airport. It allows the airline to run with fewer pilots rather than having unused pilot capacity sprinkled around the country. From a pure profit, bottom-line assessment, to return the most to it’s share holders, United is acting just as it should.

But are there costs to this approach? Imagine the conversation of one United’s policies and procedures teams in the corporate office: “You know, what if something bad happens when we bump someone? They are not in a ‘happy place’ and willingly go along with it? What then?”

Risk analysis of this type is tricky? What is the probability that will occur? And then, what is the cost if it does occur? Could someone have estimated the PR costs, then lost revenues from boycotts? The media spin campaign and special consultants to fix it? The lawsuits? Hard to say.

If you want to see something interesting, check out United’s Annual Report (SEC 10-K) filing then look at Southwest’s. It’s interesting to note the cold, data reporting, tables, and such of United’s while Southwest’s opens with a three-and-a-half page letter from the CEO that ends with this:

"… our Purpose is to connect People to what’s important in their lives with friendly, reliable, low-cost air travel. We take great care of our Employees, so they can take great care of our Customers. If we do both well—keep our service levels high and our fares low—we can take great care of our Shareholders. 
And, ... we aspire to more—to become the world’s most loved, most flown, and most profitable airline."

That’s good stuff. It says a lot. Shareholder value? Yes, yes, of course. But people? Oh Yes! Very important. And this is how Southwest manages it’s risks. By ensuring their cultural goal includes becoming the most loved airline. When the boots on the ground -- the gate attendants, flight attendants, and pilots -- are operating from that cultural orientation, rather than solely the numbers, different outcomes become possible.

It’s a culture thing.

And we can see how United is starting to handle this. With a new policy. 

I wonder if they want to be loved too?

Sunday, April 2, 2017

I can’t believe I’m going to die. Please pass the peanuts.

My death. It’s been on my mind lately. I turned 50 this past year. Maybe that’s why. My two boys started high school and middle school respectively this past fall. Maybe seeing them grow up so fast is a reminder. I’m coming up on the seven-year milestone of Amy’s death. Something about the number seven. I’m not into numerology, but it is still a 7. Maybe that has something to do with it. Maybe its my health. I’ve had some suspicious abdominal pain, not bad, but still led me to the doctor and my first colonoscopy. Everything is clean as a whistle!

Maybe it’s my weight. I’ve gained a few pounds and I am now determined to shed them. I feel good when I’m around 190-ish or so. Right now I’m on the high side of 210 and recently topped out at 218. My diet hasn’t changed. I eat pretty well. Nearly vegetarian, not much sweets. I could cut back on alcohol, but it’s really a few glasses of wine over the course of the week and not every night.  I do have cravings, though, and portion control, even of good food, is something I continuously need to watch. When I was 16 a single serving of pasta was three plates full. Now it’s the size of my fist? It’s hard to retrain my brain on that one. And a bowl full of peanuts? That’s my go to snack, or was. When I actually looked up the nutrition facts on line (1 cup has 828 calories!), I was shocked to (re) learn I was getting almost half my daily caloric ration from peanuts and peanut butter.

But its also exercise. I used to go to the gym and lift 2-3 times per week, and also run, and play basketball. I’ve become sedentary. I have a number of really good excuses: Two knee surgeries over the past several years (left and right meniscus), ongoing plantar fasciitis that makes running difficult, and most recently, Achilles tendinitis. But those are just excuses. I can walk. I can do crunches and planks. I can curl a dumbbell. I just haven’t been.

Aside: I’m sharing all my medical history here, now, since we can kiss our online privacy goodbye. Might as well get ahead of the news cycle on my ailments.

I’ve been going to an acupuncturist lately. I've been going to her, on and off, over the past 15 years. First, for a shoulder ailment (lingering discomfort from a minor shoulder separation (bicycle crash), and torn biceps tendon), then to help with my grief after Amy died, and now, for the Achilles. And also this general feeling of malaise that has emerged with my present sense of mortality. 

It’s been helping. I don’t know if I actually believe that I have blockages of Chi and that sticking a needle in the right place releases it. But I do know this: I feel better. Lying on the table anticipating the needles (which don’t hurt), forces me to become very aware of my body and become relaxed. It’s almost meditative. I leave feeling calmer, yet also alert. And the affect seems to last.

Lori and I had a conversation recently. We have 20 years left. 20 we can count on, with confidence, baring an unfortunate accident or an earlier that statistically likely cancer, or something like that. The Social Security Administration has an online calculator that says I can expect to make it to 82. That means I have a 50/50 chance of that. Another online calculator says 88. That’s better! But I can’t bet on that. It’s a coin toss bet. And those last few years might be good, active, healthy years, or they may not be. So, for planning purposes, I’m going with 70. Okay, maybe 75. 

Then I look back the past 20 years. Whoosh! Everyone is right, every song is right. It goes by quite quickly.

As the Buddha said, “you’re gonna die – just get over it!”

Or something like that. Meanwhile, I’ll pass on the peanuts.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Something for everyone! My Men's NCAA Brackets

In the interest of politicizing everything possible, I decided to make my bracket picks based on party affiliation. That is, I would choose my teams based on the congressional district the school is located in and how it voted in the 2016 Presidential election. I created three brackets. One for Dems, one for Reps, then a bi-partisan bracket. The methodology is simple: Find the district the school is in by the school's zip code. Then determine the percent vote for Trump or Clinton. For the Democratic bracket, simply pick the school in each match-up with the higher percentage vote for Clinton. Likewise for the Republican bracket, choose the school with the higher percentage vote for Trump.

For the Purple, Bi-partisan Bracket, I calculated the difference between the percentage vote for Clinton and Trump and selected the team in the district with the lower number. That is, the vote between Clinton and Trump was smaller.

Depending on your preferences, you'll be cheering on either USC (Dems), Northern Kentucky (Reps), or U or Oregon (Bi).

Remember, this is for entertainment purposes only. No one should actually be betting on these brackets.

NCAA Men's Basketball Tourney Bracket for Democrats
NCAA Men's Basketball Tourney Bracket for Republicans 
NCAA Men's Basketball Tourney Bracket for Hopeless Romantics

Sorry Libertarians and Greens, you're on your own!

Saturday, February 25, 2017


Where scary monsters sometimes reside
The sound of crying from the floor below startles me awake. It's 1:12 a.m. as I jump out of bed. My younger son is standing at the bottom of the stairs crying in panic, staring and pointing. The night shadow shapes in the small hall to the front door are whatever monster your 11-year-old fevered brain conjures. I put my arms around him and he is soaking wet, head to toe. I tell him it's okay. It's just a dream, he is safe, and so on, but it takes a minute or more and I turn on a light to vanquish the monster and transform it back to a harmless handbag hanging from the front door handle.

We get a drink of water, head back to his room, and change into dry jammies. I gently rub his back and massage his sweaty scalp fantasizing that my dad-magic makes fevers and coughs disappear as easily as monsters.

Monday, February 20, 2017

U.S.A.: We can still do shit!

SpaceX launch. Photo from
If you missed it, check out the launch of the Space-X rocket from historic launch pad 39A. The final countdown starts at about the 19-minute mark. And watch through minute 30 to see the first stage landing. I was lucky enough to be wasting time on FaceBook yesterday morning, instead of going to church, and caught the live video feed a friend had posted to his page.

There was much to be amazed by. First, any big rocket launch is cool. Second, the landing of the
reusable first stage is very cool. And third, that I was watching it live on FaceBook along with thousands of others, live commenting, as the count-down unfolded—very, very cool!

I also felt something I hadn't felt in a while. Pride. American pride. We still can do shit! Big shit! Big shit with a purpose. Here is what I wrote on my friend's FB page commenting on the launch:

This is how its supposed to work. Big projects require massive investments. Only gov't can really do that at that scale, clear the way, so to speak, whether its rocket launches, railroads or the internet. Then the IP and infrastructure is shared and private industry takes it from there.

In our country we have gotten locked into an either/or debate and we need to end it. It's not helpful. It's not that government is bad and the private sector is good. Or the other way around. Each has its purpose. Each can do good work and both, together can do really good work. And, by the way, when we talk about "government" or the "private sector" we are really just talking about people. We the people. We create those these. Oh, and speaking of people, the person leading SpaceX is a person named Elon Musk. An immigrant from South Africa.

It's President's Day today. Much to wring hands about, I'm sure. But today I am going to celebrate that "can-do" spirit that is uniquely American. And what attracts people to want to become Americans.

Monday, February 13, 2017

French fries and daffodils

Lori's dad turned 82 Thursday but yesterday was the first day we could visit. He is in a well-maintained assisted living facility about two hours away. We arrived later than hoped and Lori's dad was in the dining area, back to us, reading a newspaper while the twenty or so others slowly and silently, some needing assistance, finished their dinners.

"Hi Dad, it's Lori and John," Lori said as she leaned over him from behind with a hug. With shaky hands he set the paper down and greeted us with cheer. I asked him if he had watched the Super Bowl—yes, but had fallen asleep before the end. Without the Steelers in it, I asked who he rooted for, New England or Atlanta? Atlanta. Lori handed him the double order of Burger King french fries she had brought, a favorite, along with a potted daffodil, it's blooms timed for his birthday four days ago.

After the introductions and gifts, he turned quiet. Not too long ago, during past visits, Lori would ask her dad about growing up on the farm in Indiana, PA, or his time in Korea, or how he met mom. Yesterday he seemed content to turn back to his newspaper.

Driving away, Lori cried. We want to do what's right, you know? Honor a father on—or near—his birthday. Maybe cheer him up with flowers and french fries. Did we cheer him up? Does he remember it?

Canadian Geese
Then we turned to the real topic: There are still miles ahead for us but there is enough road behind to know how quickly it will go. We won't be like that, right? Difficulty eating, going to the bathroom. We'll end it before getting to that place, we tell ourselves unconvincingly.

We were quiet for a moment then Lori pulled out her iPhone and clicked on the live stream of our local NPR station's Sunday evening programming: The Big Broadcast. Last night it was another episode of Johnny Dollar, Our Miss Brooks, and Gunsmoke. We drove on.

Living in the present. It's hard work.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

An endless stream of setbacks and disappointments

Today is the worst day. That's my 11-year-old's assessment. The rationale is simple: If a snow day is the best day, then it follows that snow day that doesn't come is, ipso facto, the worst.

If you are in the north-east corner of the U.S., or maritime provinces of Canada, you know about the big storm. Here in Maryland suburbs of D.C., we got rain. I guess there was just too much hot air in place (rim shot).

Placing a spoon in the freezer has been show to increase the
chance of snow day. By middle schoolers.
What makes this non-snow-day a particularly bitter pill to swallow is it is the second failed snow-day attempt this year. There are well established actions that increase the odds of a snow day. The two that work best are: 1, wearing your PJs inside out, and 2, putting spoons in the freezer. There is some emerging evidence in the literature that singing in the bathtub has an effect but that has been difficult to replicate in controlled settings. I know it's easy to look at the actual weather forecast which was for "less than an inch" of snow, but that is meteorology. Middle-school mythology seems to have a better track record. Especially if you ask a middle-schooler.

I read an article in Lion's Roar, a Buddhist oriented website. The article, “Right Now, It’s Like This” — How to make this increasingly used Buddhist phrase work for you was timely for me.

You should read in its entirety, but this snippet from Buddhist teacher and meditator, Vinni Ferraro, stands out.

“Right now, it’s like this” is an invitation to explore what is present. At the same time, it clearly reassures us that impermanence is hard at work. So even though the mind threatens me with the idea that “it’s going to be like this forever,” this phrase helps me call bullshit on that. It helps me let go of the main message from the mind, “that something has to be done,” to this vital message of the dharma: “that maybe something has to be felt.”

That's helpful for non-snow-days and other days too. Enjoy your weather, whatever it may be today.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Make America Great Again: Representation

I spent 20+ years in the IT industry; first as a software engineer, then as a project manager and director of larger teams. I am now involved with a couple startups—one that focuses on the environment and leading a healthy and sustainable life, and one that offers team and leadership training through online simulations. I also consult with a group doing organizational development and leadership coaching at a large university. I also have a blog. All of this clearly qualifies me to offer political commentary.

This is the first of a periodic series I am cleverly calling "Make America Great Again" hoping to draw in unsuspecting readers who think I am either for Trump, or against Trump and are looking for yet one more essay on his threat to the universe. I may comment on Trump's policies from time to time, like I have with Obama in the past, but that is not my primary goal. It is my assessment that we have a number of structural problems, some rooted in our Constitution, as amazing as it is, that if not addressed, will continue to lead to break downs in governance.

First up: Congressional Representation. Article I of the U.S. Constitution describes our loathsome congress and Article 1 Section 2, paragraph 3 includes this sentence:

The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand

At the outset we kept close-ish to that one to 30,000 ratio. In 1800 the U.S. population was about 5.3 million with 106 representatives in the 6th Congress. That's one per 50,000. But our country expanded in size and Congress couldn't keep up. The Apportionment Act of 1911 fixed the size of Congress at 435 members. There were 92 million Americans them, less than a third of our current population with one Rep for every 235,000 Americans. By 2010, our population grew to 308 million with the same 435 representatives. 

About one for every 709,000! 

Today your average member of Congress represents 14 times as many people as at our founding!

In my line of work with teams and leaders we hear about trust and fairness. Equitable treatment, who reports to whom after a re-org, who's ideas wins, pay equity, and so on. It's not just a workplace thing. It's a human thing. We expect to be treated fairly and require trust in relationships. With my representative having to look out for the welfare of 708,999 others, how am I to know I am being treated fairly within the system? With so much now separating me from my directly elected representative, how can I trust them? When I read in social media or in the news (fake or otherwise) I hear human needs for trust and fairness not being met. These are real problems.

Revisiting the representation proportion is an essential first step. Gerrymandering becomes obsolete as districts naturally become smaller and more compact. Money influence would be offset by the increase in districts. Local issues could be more fairly represented. Third parties would emerge across the political spectrum as the price for entry would go down. The will of the people would be more fairly expressed through Congressional Reps and reduce the gulf between the separating parties as moderate districts choose middle-of-the road candidates. Imagine a Congress with an actual Green Party or Tea Party, not Tea Partiers buried inside the Republican machine. All sorts of minority groups could have a voice from their smaller, compact districts. Different factions within the current party systems could emerge. Alliances would have to be brokered since a clear majority would be harder to achieve. 

"Now, John," you might be wondering, "are you suggesting we multiply Congress by 14? Fourteen?!? That's 6090 representatives! That'll never work!" 

U.S. Capitol. Size matters.
And how is 435 working for you? I say we try. With my former IT hat on I think of scaleability. Like IT systems that don't scale well for large numbers of users, Congress doesn't scale well. It's like running an MS Access database for your office on Windows 95. It's become unwieldy and brittle. It crashes too much, requiring reboots. We need a cloud solution for Congress!

Trump is out to drain swamps and upset apple carts. Frankly, his efforts will yield little, in my opinion. While he is enflaming passions, it is really at the policy level, not the structural level. And he couldn't change that anyway. Our long-term success as a nation, honestly, requires a different approach. And even with all Trump's bluster, it's still the same power dynamic revolving around a center of gravity of money. Look at his cabinet—billionaires all. The "little guy" is only getting more marginalized. 

Consider this: Modern technology could allow 6000 representatives to find new ways to collaborate. They couldn't all physically fit in the House Chamber so other meeting arrangements would be discovered. They could meet in virtual spaces and explore different ways of working together. Regional Representative offices could emerge for face-to-face debates before bringing an issue forward to the larger caucus. Committee work, voting schemes, House rules, power centers based on party and tenure would shift. Everything would be up for discussion on how the sausage machine works. 

Think about where you live and what the geographical boundary of 50,000 people would look like. Wouldn't that be an appealing group of similarly oriented individuals towards debating and selecting a representative? All politics would truly become local again.

There is an organization called that has a lot more to say about this. Check them out.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Lessons from the Super Bowl

For the game, our family of four was joined by two adult friends and two young neighbor friends of our 11-year-old. Eight in total, six rooted for the Falcons and two for the Pats. The 11-year-old Pats' fan was particularly partisan with face paint and a Gronk jersey. The rest of us were more interested in a good game. 

And now, my lessons from the game:
Odin! Get down boy - I can't see!

Lesson #1—Never give up. Our dejected young Pats' fan left for home at half-time and said his one wish was for the Pats to score enough points so that "when I feel sick from the game it won't be that sick." But that is not what the Pats said. They didn't say, "let's score enough points so that our sickened fans aren't that sick." They said something else. Right after the game, as the confetti still fell, our 11-year-old Pats' friend fan burst into our house (along with an apology text from his father) screaming with exuberant joy. It was fun to see. 

Lesson #2—Learn from others. The NFL should adopt the NCAA college overtime rules starting with the next season. The winner take all overtime, even with the provision that you can't win on a field goal at the outset, gives too much weight to the coin toss. As thrilling as last night's ending was, Atlanta's offense deserved one more chance. 

I hope I can remember these lessons until March Madness rolls around.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Rooting for the underdog

The other day I walked into a local, independent auto parts store right over the line in D.C. I needed a new car battery. Behind the counter the owner, of Indian-Pakistani heritage, talked into his phone.

"I don't know why every pulls against Brady. Look at him. He is successful and doesn't take all his salary so the team can bring on other guys."

He went on a little more before he noticed me and hung up.

"Ah," I said, "you a Pats fan?"
"Nah, Cowboys."

There are a few Cowboy fans around here. Insurrectionists, I think, who like to get in a dig when they can. And those from not around these parts tend to go for Dallas, so-called Americas team. Good marketing goes a long way. I grew up an Eagles fan, so who am I to say.

I brought in my old battery and got the new one, but I was thinking about the conversation I overheard. Why do we root for the underdog, all else equal, when our own team isn't in it? I don't especially like Atlanta, but that is who I'll probably pull for.

Consider the Patriots and Tom Brady in particular. He works very hard, studies the game, gives back on his salary so the team can stay under the cap and bring on supporting players. He has a smoking hot wife. He's what we would all aspire too, right? Maybe we are jealous. But isn't the American way to reward those who work hard? Okay, then there is sour-puss Bill Belichick and his wardrobe. Maybe that's what it's all about. Or maybe its the owner's political connections. I don't know.

Hard working, connections, plays a little fast and loose with the rules, crabby demeanor with a crappy grey hoodie, hot wife. Sorry Dallas, but New England is now America's Team.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Need to tear up the street

Crew digs up our street for new gas line.
Our house was built in 1940. Our neighbor’s house to the right was built in 1948. In our neighborhood of a couple hundred homes there are a handful built before 1941 and the rest after 1948. A few years ago they tore up the streets to replace the aging water and sewer lines. Now they are doing it for 75-year-old or so gas lines. We’ve had some leaks here and there, nothing consequential, but that occasional and subtle rotten egg smell coming up from the front yard, near the curb, meant it was time.

It’s a mess. There is a rolling detour as section by section of street is trenched for the new supply pipe, a yellow plastic pipe that will last 100 years, one of the crew explained to me. The old pipe, steel or something, runs along our front yards. They won’t dig that up. It’ll just stay buried forever and at some point a valve will flip up stream to activate the new piping.  I started to wonder what they’ll do in a hundred years when the new yellow pipe starts to give out then decided to worry about that later.

It’s inconvenient but everyone seems to be taking it in stride. What’s the option? If we want hot showers or cooked food we need the street torn up.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Things are in motion

Looking west from my home office at dawn
I look west from my desk out the window through our backyard to a pale blue sky backlighting the leafless trees. The seasons creep up in different ways. I like those days when I am surprised that it is sunny earlier or later. “Oh look! It’s just past seven in the morning and I can see the first dawn glow!” As if by magic, though the weather app just rolls her eyes at me when I confirm sunrise is at 7:13 today. We’ve picked up about 30 minutes of daylight since the beginning of January and we’ll pick up another hour this month. Things are speeding up.

Autumn and spring are my two favorite seasons. Things are in motion.  

Monday, January 30, 2017

Memories lost

Sunset through clouds
There is this thing that happens in a marriage. Any serious relationship really. You divvy stuff up.  Who cleans what. Who drops the kids off and who picks up. Amy stopped cooking for herself. I did that. I stopped paying attention to birthdays. Parents, kids, nieces and nephews. I didn’t need to because Amy did. She’d hand me a birthday card to sign and off it went. It may not have been perfectly egalitarian, but it worked for us.

And then she died. All those birth dates. And other things. Trips we took together. Dates we went on. I have memories of all—I think all of them—but stuff is missing here and there. This past Thanksgiving as a family we decided to go to a restaurant for dinner. It was a good choice. They had an outdoor grill with smoked oysters on the half-shell. I introduced my older son, now 14, to the delight of oysters, a rare treat for me now. I started to tell him about the first time I had raw oysters—with his mother. I like sharing happy stories of their mother when I can. I told him, it was a weekend getaway 17 years ago to Ocean City, Maryland. It was winter and we had just started dating. Or was it the year after that? In Rehoboth? I couldn’t remember. It’s a small detail but I really wish I knew. In telling the story to my son he now knows that happened in 1999 in Ocean City. I'm pretty sure about it. Seven years ago I would have asked Amy to confirm the details of this minor family history footnote but I didn’t need to then and I can’t now.

It’s a small thing. But it gnaws a little. I wish I had written more things down. Journaled consistently. Something.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Keystone XL approved: blame the environmentalists

The Keystone XL pipeline looks like it will now be built, thanks to Trump’s pen. And I blame my team, the environmentalists. We did not properly frame the problem.

We framed the problem as an environmental problem. Keep that nasty tar in the ground. It pollutes the local water and contributes to CO2 emissions. Yes, all true. But not an argument that stirs many emotions, except for the emotions of us hard-core greenies.

Feb 2013 Forward on Climate Rally, Washington DC
Instead we should have asked the question, “why is they want to build that pipeline all the way to the Gulf of Mexico in the first place?” Well, the answer is pretty easy: Global markets are better than U.S. markets, and profit. The Gulf Coast is home to one of the largest concentrations of refineries in the world. Crude oil needs to be refined into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, etc., before being sold to the consumers. Also, you need to know this: U.S. law prohibits the export of crude oil. This is a remnant for the 1970’s Arab Oil Embargo days. But, refined products like gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, can be exported. So the oil companies have to refine that tarry oil into something they can sell on the world market. Right now they can't. Not easily.

So the bottom line is this: If we were really interested in national security and energy independence, like Trump says, this is not the way. That Canadian tar will be sent to the Gulf, processed into gas, diesel, and jet fuel then sold on the world market to China, India, Europe, you name it, where it can be sold for more than it can be sold on the US market. Have you checked out the price of a gallon of gasoline in Europe?

We environmentalists took our eye off the ball. In the future we should look for ways to reframe the issue as one of national security rather than saving polar bears. The environmental math involved in all the different pieces and parts of Keystone XL were too complex for your average politician sound bite. We should have tried something different, like, "if you are going to take land away from U.S. citizens and pollute North America, at least keep that gas at home so we can stop importing in from the Saudis and Venezuelans."

But now we are all going to pay for it. As will the environment.