Saturday, February 25, 2017

Dad-magic

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 nasa.gov
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 thirty-thousand.org 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.