Thursday, December 30, 2010

The End Of 2010

Another year has come and gone. Time to write another retrospective on the year. Turn back now if this is too self-serving or boring!

Any year in which you maintain your health, family, and economic base is a good one, so 2010 was a good year.

My mother is ensconced in her new home. I thought we'd be doing well if she was transitioned by spring, but she's well ahead of that deadline. She sounds happy in the new place whenever I talk to her. What a relief! She's a marvel of good humor and optimism. I hope I can follow her example through my life changes to come.

My youngest sister had her second child, a boy. What a happy occasion! My oldest sister's son announced that he and his wife are expecting their first child in the spring of 2011. It'll be my mother's first great-grandchild. We're all happy to see the first of another generation arrive.

I was lucky enough to change groups at my current employer. The new gang is doing work that I enjoy a great deal more and the people are terrific. It's such a pleasure to work with folks that actually smile and laugh once in a while. There's a lot to be done, but I'm grateful for the chance to do something good with people I like.

My oldest daughter has moved to New York City to work and go to grad school. She's doing a great job of figuring out how to manage herself as an adult. My youngest daughter continues to make progress towards her undergraduate degree. We're still on track to get both of them through school without debt.

This fall was the first time my wife and I have been alone in the house for an extended period since our eldest was born. I was concerned at first: would I be enough? Would my wife be happy with the children gone? I was relieved to find that everything was great. My wife still has the capacity to surprise and delight me, even after 29 years of marriage.

As usual, my athletic and technical goals were the most measurable things I did all year.

I had my best swimming yardage total ever in 2010, topping my "unbeatable" record set in 2008. I started the year off with a bang: I had "best month" totals in seven of the first eight months of the year. My attendance was stellar. I had resolved to make 2500 yards my new daily standard, and I kept to it. "90% of success is showing up" rings true in this case.

I was on a pace to exceed 600,000 yards for the year back in June, but I tailed off in the last third of the year. The last four months weren't nearly as good as the first eight. Work pressures start to get in the way.

I expect that the trend will continue in 2011, but that's not a bad thing. Rather than pushing myself to greater heights, I'm planning to take another direction. A yardage total exceeding 400,000 yards would still be in my top five totals ever, so that's what I'll be shooting for.

Instead of merely piling up yards, I'd like to change the way I swim. One thing that I did this year was train myself to breathe every other stroke. I've always been comfortable with breathing to either side, but now I can do waltz time over long distances. I think it makes my stroke more balanced and efficient.

I tried an experiment before the holidays: if breathing every three strokes is good, would every five strokes be better? It takes greater lung capacity and discipline. I did a set of 20x50 on 1:00 one morning, breathing every fifth stroke. It was hard, but I was able to do it. I counted strokes per length the whole time. I found that my stroke count ranged between 16-19; my three breath stroke usually takes 19-21 strokes per length. Making five strokes per breath my new standard will be a goal for 2011.

I'd still love to work my way up to 200 yard butterfly. That's a stretch goal.

Mostly I'd like to weave more cross-training into my life. I've maintained my yoga practice all year. It's making my flexibility, balance, and core strength better. I think I need to work in some strength training. Muscle mass is something that declines with age. I need to start fighting the good fight on that front.

My cycling fell off a long way when compared to 2009. I still rode to work with my friend Michael, but not nearly as much as I had the previous year. My cycling mileage dropped by almost 50% in 2010, and it was a small fraction of the 2,500 miles that Michael logged for the year. I'll try to improve on that next year.

I had a pretty good technical year. I made a lot of progress in learning Python. I have a new IDE in PyCharm to help. I've been poring over some good books. I wrote a lot of code on my own. Now I need a focused effort at an application to pound it into my head. I've got some ideas that are worth pursuing. I'll see if I can bring that home in 2011. In the meantime, I'm glad to have more of a development role during my core hours. It helps to not have to do all my saw sharpening on my time.

I had a fine year with Toastmasters. I achieved "Competent Communicator" status by completing ten speeches, entered and won a competition, and was elected an officer of my club. I'm actually a mentor for two newer members of our club. I hope to complete my "Advanced Communicator Bronze" and "Competent Leader" designations for 2011.

The economic debacle that I feared back in 2008 didn't happen, but I'm concerned that nothing significant has been done to prevent it. We're in a holding pattern, convinced that our past behavior can continue without change. The alterations to come could be neither orderly nor our choice. I don't want to find out how deadly hyperinflation can be. I fear the rise of the political and religious right in our country. 2011 will bring a new Congress to power in the United States. I hope they don't accelerate our slide in the coming year.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Keeping Faith, Keeping Contact

It's a cold, rainy Sunday morning here. Icing conditions were predicted, because the jet stream has dipped down and brought arctic Canadian air all week. I heard a sanding truck drive down the street early this morning.

I was concerned about driving conditions because I had agreed to have breakfast with two friends, one of whom had left the company about eight months ago. We've sent messages back and forth on Facebook, but there's been no face to face contact since he departed. I was looking forward to the meeting. I hoped the weather wouldn't interfere.

I was relieved to find warm conditions and rain when I went out to get the paper. The ice line was north of us.

Breakfast was great fun for me. The two young men aren't too far in age from my oldest daughter. It's more likely that they'd come by to chat her up and ask for a date than to spend time with her father. I'm flattered that they'd want to.

We fell into a little work talk to catch up, but not too much. We talked about working life, women, car problems, and strength training. I've had a great swimming year - my best ever; more about that in a later entry - but I've neglected strength training all my life. My flexibility problems are less critical now that I've made yoga a regular feature of my week. I'm thinking that a good objective for 2011 would be to work something into my routine to help improve strength and retain muscle mass. These two guys are perfect sources of information. I was glad to be able to ask questions and soak in their knowledge.

I've accumulated a long list of people that I like very much after hopping between jobs as often as I have over the last fifteen years. The problem is that they leave my life once we lose the shared context of work.

It seems to me that regular, face to face contact is the only anecdote there is for this malady. Technology won't do: all the cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging, chat, and Facebook applications you can think of can never fill the void.

Breakfast is the perfect way to sort this out.

It's a meal that's unobtrusive: early in the day is transparent to my wife. It takes at least an hour to order and consume, so you have time to sit and chat. It's inexpensive - we met at a diner and had simple breakfast food with coffee. I met the man who is the best friend I have early in my engineering career. Since I've switched to software development we've made it a point to get together for breakfast once a month before work. We get to catch up, discuss our favorite topics, and make it to work without a hitch. I wouldn't miss these get-togethers.

I enjoyed the conversation so much. This morning's meal was a reminder that I should expand its reach. I need to make sure that all these terrific folks I've met don't diffuse out of my life.

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Like A Little Death

I helped my mother to move out of the house that she and my father moved me and my two older sisters into a few months before my first birthday.

She decided that keeping the house up was more than she could manage on her own. The yard is spacious by the standards of the town. It's one of the property's best features, but all that grass doesn't cut itself. The housing market in the US isn't as frothy and wild as it was two or three years ago, but interest rates were still low enough to keep buyers off the sidelines. She put the house on the market in the spring with a starting price that was reasonable, below the median for the area. She entertained a steady stream of viewers in several open houses throughout the spring and summer, but no offers were forthcoming.

While she was waiting for a nibble she was looking at places to move into . She found a lovely condominium in town had the location and features she was looking for. It was in a community that was mixed in age, not one of those warehouses for seniors.

She got her first sign of interest late in the season, but the low ball offer wasn't acceptable. A few months later, the buyer came back with a serious offer. Things moved quickly: she negotiated an acceptable price that allowed her to buy the condo and left her with cash in her pocket, even after paying the capital gains taxes.

Next came the hard part: playing Solomon for decades of accumulated stuff, deciding what to keep, pack, and move and what to discard. A stack of cardboard boxes and many rolls of bubble wrap was procured for the keepers; a dumpster was dropped in the driveway that became the final resting place for the discards. It took several weekends of work to sort it all out, but the day finally came this week. The movers arrived early on Tuesday morning to ferry it all across town to the new location.

My youngest brother was the last into the house; he was also the last to leave. He stayed in the house to direct the movers. My assignment was the new condo. The hardwood floors were bare, so it was the perfect time to wash and clean every surface for the new occupant. I had a bucket, a sponge, some heavy duty knee pads, several squeeze bottles of Murphy's Oil Soap, and cleaning agents for the tile, bathroom, and kitchen. I emptied a dozen buckets of hot, black water into the drain after a morning of hard labor. By the time the movers arrived at mid-morning the place was spotless and ready to accept furniture.

The movers did a brilliant job. It pays to have professionals do these things. The whole job was done by the time darkness enveloped us at five o'clock. The hard work of unpacking and settling lay ahead, but the emotional job of leaving the house and all its history behind was done.

My youngest brother took some beautiful photos of the house, including the picture that accompanies this entry. It was a fittingly overcast, somber day. We were all left with our memories. This was the house where my mother spent her entire adult life with her husband and six children. All of her children had their own memories of time spent together in the house, yard, and neighborhood. We celebrated lots of birthdays, including memorable surprise parties for milestone birthdays for our mother and one brother. Two sisters were married in town and had unforgettable parties in the house at the end of their wedding days. Our father passed away in the house; one brother was nursed almost to the end in the living room.

I kept my mind on the work at hand all day. I did my best to be grateful for our mother's courage to make such a decision. I didn't dwell on the past. I reminded myself that home was where our mother was; the house was a mere building. The time that I've lived away from that address is now twice that of the time I called it home.

But the enormity of it all hit me when I returned to my own home. Maybe it was the time of day: dusk on a quiet, cold December weekend. The waning of the day, year, life itself. It's like a little death. It's final; it's a bifurcation point in our history, dividing time into Before Move and ever after. It's a reminder that our mother still has her health, her marbles, and her grace, but time is passing by.

It says I'm not young anymore, either. Someday my children will be faced with a similar chore and remember all the time they spent in my house.

I'm glad that we had the time that we did. It's time to move on.

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Progress With Python

I finished a first reading of Wesley Chun's "Core Python Programming" at last. I have slowed down on completing the exercises, but I do plan to continue burning the language into my brain so I can feel completely comfortable.

Thank you, John D. Cook. His blog, "The Endeavor", is one of my favorites. I track his writings faithfully using Google Reader. John recommended this book back on 4-Feb-2009. If it was good enough for John, it was good enough for me. I think he was spot on. I found the book to be well written and fine introduction to the language.

My efforts were accelerated by the availability of PyCharm, the wonderful new Python IDE from the geniuses at JetBrains. I've used IntelliJ, their Java IDE, for many years and loved it. I'm ecstatic to have an equally good tool at my disposal for learning this new language. The Python console is built right in. So is Django support.

I took my first, tottering steps with Django this weekend. I'm having some trouble with it, because it's so unfamiliar. My goal is to find out just how capable it is at creating robust web sites.

A good friend of mine would rib me about the Java work we did: "If we were writing this application in Python we'd be done by now!" he'd say with a smile. I've always been intrigued to find out for myself if this was hyperbole from a fan-boy or the truth.

If I can manage the trick, I'd like to see if Grails compares as well.

Another friend of mine has a web site that he'd like to upgrade from VB6. When he proposed doing it in Python, I immediately offered myself as slave labor. It'll be a great opportunity for me to apply these tools on a real, live problem.

Getting through that book, and achieving some measure of comfort with Python, was one of my technical goals for 2010. I'm happy with my progress, and there are still two months left to go in the year.

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

2010 Was A Fine Year, Indeed

I swam before work again this morning. I logged 2,000 yards, which is typical these days when I manage to catch the second bus to work that leaves the commuter lot at 6:30 am. When I make it to the first bus that leaves at 6:10 am I have time to put in 2,500 yards.

I did make that first bus today, but I cut down on the distance to do something I've never done before. I was talking to my friend Slaven at Masters swimming last night about the butterfly stroke. We both agreed that we'd like to be better at it. I've been pretty diligent at working on IM on a regular basis. But the longest distance I can endure when doing butterfly is 100 yards. I'd love to feel comfortable with 200 yard fly.

They had a 200 yard fly event at the last Masters meet I signed up for in 2004. Several brave souls signed up for it. The winner was a specialist whose technique was fast and smooth the whole way. He was the best flier I've ever seen who wasn't competing in the Olympics on television. How I'd like to build myself up to that level!

Slaven and I talked about a good fly set. I said I thought I might be able to handle a 10x50 fly set on a 1:30 interval, but I wasn't sure. (We nixed the idea in favor of 5x100 IM instead.) I've never tried it to test my limits. The most strenuous set I do is a descending IM pyramid: 1x400 IM on 8:00/1x300 IM on 6:00/1x200 IM on 4:00/1x100 IM on 2:00.

So after I warmed up and finished a set of 5x100 free on 1:45, I decided to submit to that test: Could I hold up through a 10x50 fly set? I finished the first one in under 50 seconds, so I decided that a 1:30 interval was too long. Would my heart explode by the end if I held to an interval of 1:15? I surprised myself by completing it in style. I was so pleased with myself. I'll have to make this a regular feature of my workouts. Perhaps I can make 200 fly a goal for 2011.

It was a milestone workout, too. My best yearly yardage total (524,200 yards) came in 2008. When I added this morning's total to my tracking spreadsheet the running total was 500,050 yards. I've already topped 500K yards for only the second time in the 17 years I've been keeping track. And it's only the first week in November! 2010 will be a difficult year to top.

But that's what I said at the end of 2008.

It feels good.

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Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Liar's Poker"

My mother is in the process of down-sizing. She's selling the house that she and my father moved into a few months before my first birthday. She's going to move into a condo not too far away, still in the same town.

Being a people of books, the house is loaded with them: first editions signed by the author, collections, and a dizzying range of topics.

One of the treasures I found while helping her to pack was "Liar's Poker" by Michael Lewis. I've written about another of his books, "The Big Short". I was surprised to find that my mother had a copy via my younger brother. I asked her if I could take it home with me. She was glad to comply.

I've been reading it this weekend while I convalesced from a minor illness. (My immune system started fighting off a cold in earnest on Thursday night.) I'm squeezing it in alongside technical reading.

It's as engaging as the later work. It's especially remarkable to read now because it's set in the 80s, when the roots of our current financial mess first took hold.

Michael Lewis was hired as an art major out of Princeton by Salomon Brothers, the venerable Wall Street firm that was founded in 1919, acquired by Travelers and Citigroup in 1998, and disappeared from the public eye after a series of scandals in 2003.

He went through their training program and worked in the mortgage bond department. Salomon pioneered the idea of packaging mortgages as bonds. Everything that has happened in the thirty years since that is described in "The Big Short" had its genesis in his department.

I'm only halfway through the book. It's entertaining but sobering. I'm sure that no one understood the significance of the change to the tax code that was passed in 1981 would have the effect that it did. It was one step on a road that included the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, the establishment of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, the gutting of Glass-Steagall, and the invention of the collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps.

Small outcomes, big effects.

I'll have to finish the book to find out if Michael Lewis was in the right place at the right time, wallowing in millions that financed his subsequent writing career. That we should all be so fortunate.

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Most Dangerous Man In America

I'm watching "The Most Dangerous Man In America", the story of Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers, and the Vietnam War.

It's quaint and sad.

Our government is doing far worse things, all in the name of keeping us safe, yet no one is protesting or getting agitated about it. There's nothing in our national media to compare to the risk that the New York Times took in publishing them.

What will we look like in hindsight forty years from now?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

"That Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Kid...."

I work in a small-scale downtown area now. I commute to and from work on a bus. I see a lot of people every day, scurrying from place to place. Everyone seems to have earbuds jammed into their ears, with ubiquitous white cords dangling down to connect them to "their music", the soundtrack to their lives that makes them the individual they are - along with the millions of others making identical choices. So many of them are simultaneously scrolling through e-mail messages on their iPhone or Blackberry or Android, furiously tapping out a text message, or browsing something on the web.

They're completely cut off from their surroundings, any random contact with people around them, snug in a digital cocoon.

The ear buds and extreme focus make me think of that 60s rock opera "Tommy":

He ain't got no distractions
Can't hear those buzzers and bells
Don't see lights a flashin'
Plays by sense of smell
Always gets a replay
Never tilts at all
That deaf, dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pinball

It drives me crazy to see someone on a bicycle with ear buds in. Hearing what's going on around me is a key component of keeping myself safe when I ride.

It's always someone else that's interesting in this cocoon: the person you could be talking to. Anyone within reach is fair game to be ignored or interrupted in favor of the next incoming packet of stimulation.

All this technology is re-wiring us and re-writing the rules of etiquette for social interaction. Sometimes it's good, but not always.


We're experiencing a rare morning of sustained rain here. It's been a dry summer, so the sound of droplets drumming on the shingles was most welcome.

I've spent most of the morning at a computer with the television off. The only sounds I can hear are the computer's fan, birds chirping in celebration of the moisture coming down, and the occasion splash of a car going by. The dog is being his usual handsome, lazy self lounging on the sofa. I'm puttering around: paying bills, writing some code in Python, and killing time with this blog.

I'm conscious of the end of another summer. My beloved eldest daughter is in Brooklyn awaiting the start of classes and grad school. My adored youngest daughter will be leaving us again in six days to renew her pursuit of an undergraduate degree in molecular cell biology. My wife will mourn the end of the period of renewal and head back to work in the schools on Wednesday. We'll be empty nesters for the first time this fall.

I rode my bike into work last Tuesday. It was dark enough when I left the house that cars had to put their lights on. I had a strobe light on the rear pannier to give those drivers their best chance to avoid hitting me. I may have another morning ride or two left in me, but the season for riding to work is rapidly coming to a close.

This is a solemn time of year for me. It's a reminder of the period fifteen years ago this year when a younger brother passed away. That was a hot, dry summer; just like this one.

I'm spending time learning a new language, Python, by working my way through "Core Python Programming". I'm enjoying it very much, now that I have a great IDE: PyCharm from JetBrains. "Develop with pleasure", indeed: it's fun to have a nice tool to help lighten the load. Python is fun after years of writing Java. It just feels light and fast. I like the combination of functional and object-oriented styles in one language. I want to remember the math I know and check out SciPy and NumPy; I want to find out if Django is just like Grails and Ruby on Rails.

I just want to keep learning and continue to do something - programming - that I like to do but rarely get a chance at in my current position at work.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

First IKEA Visit

I made my first pilgrimage to IKEA this past Sunday. My oldest daughter will be moving out this month, so we took a trip to find a bed: a decent, full size mattress that will last her for a while.

I had a similar feeling when I walked into Whole Foods for a first time: a little overwhelmed, awe-struck by the sheer scale of the display in a temple devoted to consumption.

Those IKEA folks must have taken a page from Disney: they shepherd you along a well-marked trail throughout the store so you have to see everything they have to offer. The number of path choices are limited and winding.

We looked at several beds that were nice before settling on one that suited her well. We asked about pickup and delivery options. IKEA won't bring it to her new apartment, but there's a store nearby that would make the pickup easier. (I wasn't thinking today; we should have brought a car that's bigger than a Honda Civic so we could have taken our purchase away.) We'll probably just go back to this store before she leaves to minimize running around on moving day.

It's an emotional thing to see one of my children leaving home. I remember it being a very hard thing for me to do, both when I took the half-step out of the house to go to college and the full, headlong leap into my first job and apartment upon graduation. The job didn't pay much. I didn't have a lot of possessions: a bed, a stupid desk bought at a second-hand store that I was convinced was worth refinishing, two guitars, a small all-in-one stereo, my clothes, and a few kitchen items so I could feed myself.

It wasn't a young man's bachelor pad, by any stretch. I don't recall either of my parents setting foot in it during the two years I lived there. No one who came to visit once came back a second time. I can't tell if it was because the company was poor or the lack of a couch to sit on.

But it was my place. If I came home from work and wanted to swim or play basketball before cooking dinner, so be it. One of the reasons I've become such an avid swimmer was that I had an indoor pool available to me every day. It was a bathtub - just 20 yards long - but it gave me the chance to practice my poor freestyle in relative privacy without worrying about being run over by better swimmers or cannonballed by flying children.

I didn't have a television set, so there were few distractions. I'd listen to the public radio station for company: Robert J. Lurtsema on WFCR was the star of the dial. His "Morning Pro Musica" program would start every day at 6 AM with themes like Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances Suite (thanks to Google and 10engines for this nugget). There was one piece, whose title escapes me, that I learned how to play on the guitar. It was always a pleasure to hear it and think to myself "I know how to play that."

I rekindled my love of classical guitar after a four-year undergraduate hiatus by going to the music store down the street and signing up for lessons. My teacher was a young Hartt School graduate named Jim Petrie. He was a terrific teacher. I wish I could say I was a better student. I practiced faithfully, usually in the morning before I went to work. I found the early hours lent themselves to this sort of thing.

When I married my wife she was the one who brought "stuff": a huge, comfortable couch from her parents that was long enough to stretch out and take naps on; lamps; end tables. One point of friction at first was the television. If I liked listening to the radio for company, she liked to have the television on. I chafed under the new regime at first - until the NBA playoffs rolled around. I was happy to be able to watch a young Larry Bird face down the Houston Rockets.

You never forget your first apartment. I hope my daughter makes good memories in hers.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Python and PyCharm

I bought a book entitled "Core Python Programming" by Wesley J. Chun at the urging of John D. Cook. It's a wonderful book, but I stopped reading about three-quarters of the way through. I wanted very much to learn Python, but I didn't have a motivating problem. I was also lacking a good IDE. As a Java developer, I'm used to having IntelliJ by Jetbrains on hand at all times. I think it's the best IDE there is. I buy a personal license every year, because I don't want to work without it.

I've been trying to do more coding on my own time lately, because my architecture day job doesn't afford me any opportunity to write code. (We draw UML diagrams, write documentation, and act as a go-between for the business and the developers.)

I've been aware of Peter Norvig's brilliant spelling corrector in Python for a while. He makes magic happen in just 21 lines of Python 2.5 code. It inspired a cottage industry of efforts to match his functionality and succinctness in other languages, including Java and Groovy.

This weekend I thought I'd revisit his spelling checker and see if I could reproduce it in Java. I wasn't concerned with minimizing lines of code. My goal was to maximize my understanding.

The shell of the code is simplicity itself, but when I got to the heart of the matter I didn't understand the Python idiom well enough to see my way through in Java, so I got my "Core Python Programming" off the shelf and started trying to piece things together. Running the code in a debugger would help. What tools could I use?

That's when Jetbrains came to my rescue again: I downloaded the latest version of PyCharm, their new Python IDE that's now in beta. It offers the same wonderful feel that I've enjoyed in IntelliJ for years.

It was easy to create a new project and add Norvig's code and seed file. I didn't know how to run a module in the console - that's how green I am - but it didn't take long to figure out how to import. Then there was the problem of command line arguments. I knew how to enter them in Java - how to duplicate the trick in Python? Thank god for Google; the answer was soon at hand.

The script took a very long time to run when I tried it the first time. What was taking so long? The debugger clued me in: the first command line argument was the full path to the script being executed, which drove the poor spelling corrector crazy. How to avoid processing the first argument? With Python, the answer is easy. You change this:

if __name__ == "__main__":
for arg in sys.argv:
print arg, correct(arg)

to this:

if __name__ == "__main__":
for arg in sys.argv[1:]:
print arg, correct(arg)

It felt great to work through some simple difficulties that are challenging to a newbie like me. I'd love to develop a comfort level with Python sufficient to start taking advantage of its terrific scientific programming libraries like NumPy and SciPy.

I'm going to continue working to port the spelling corrector over to Java. It's a terrific application of Bayesian statistics.

But I hope that having a world-class IDE at my disposal will re-inspire my Python efforts.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hostess With The Mostess

Two of our oldest and best friends invited us to join them at Cape Code this past Saturday. We couldn't stay the weekend because we had a previous obligation to attend a one-year-old's birthday party on Sunday afternoon. We spent a lovely day at the beach: swimming out to a raft and back, lolling on the beach, having a craic - all our favorites. At the end of the afternoon we showered, changed, and headed out for some lovely seafood for dinner. The food was inexpensive but delicious.

We were strolling after dinner when we found Cupcake Charlie's. The moment I walked in the door I had to have a Hostess With The Mostest. It was an incredible facsimile of the old favorite from my childhood. The cake was rich devil's food; the center was filled with creme; the icing on top was dense and thick. It was fantastic! I'd soon weigh three hundred pounds if I lived within easy reach of these beauties.

I was so taken with my cupcake that I went back into the store to thank them and compliment them on their handiwork. They've been in business for three years now. It sounds like they're doing pretty well.

With products like this, it's no wonder.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Leadership Role

As part of my ongoing efforts at self-improvement, I ran for a leadership position in my local Toastmasters club. The Toastmasters fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30 of the following year, so elections are usually held in June. There are several high level positions, such as president and several vice-presidents, followed by lower level positions such as treasurer, sergeant-at-arms, and secretary. I decided to try for secretary as my first office. I thought it would be an opportunity to learn how things worked and observe someone up-close before making a run of my own for a higher office.

I ran unopposed, so my victory was a fait accompli.

I'm still pleased by the outcome. The incoming president is a dynamic, smart individual. I'm looking forward to supporting him and learning from his experience over the next year.

Claiming a leadership position means training, so I headed over to a morning of sessions yesterday afternoon. There was the usual "pump up the crowd" opening and closing gathering sandwiching hour-long sessions on a variety of topics.

My first session talked about record keeping for secretaries and treasurers. It was a cautionary tale that merely signing up for Toastmasters doth not a speaker make. The man who gave the presentation was awful:

  1. His self-deprecation was merely annoying at first; it quickly made me wonder why he was chosen to speak at all.

  2. He was unprepared. He kept telling us about all the other things he had going on in his life (e.g., children, grandchildren, etc.) that made it impossible for him to be ready.

  3. His slides were simply atrocious.

  4. His delivery was flat, monotone, and uninspired. Record keeping may not be an exciting topic, but that's no excuse for informing so poorly.

  5. His speech was riddled with "ahs" and "ums" and lots of filler words.

I was nodding off in the back row. The audience was glad when the hour was over. There was an evaluation slip to be filled out, but I pulled the punch. The only criticism I wrote was "update slides".

I wanted to attend a discussion about Robert's Rules of Order next, a topic that I've heard about but never read. But when I peeked in the doorway I saw the presenter from the record keeping talk I'd just left setting up shop for his second presentation. Thank you sir, I'd rather not have another! I sprinted over to the "Evaluation Boot Camp" talk, and am I glad I did. It made the day worthwhile all by itself.

For those who aren't familiar, Toastmasters promotes the idea of developing speaking and leadership skills in a supportive environment. We're all familiar with preparing and delivering speeches, but feedback is rarely talked about. Every speech is given a 2-3 minute long evaluation. The evaluator has to listen carefully and critically while the speech is delivered, furiously write down their thoughts in the minute that follows, and then deliver an extemporaneous speech for 2-3 minutes that provides actionable recommendations.

It's not an easy thing to do. There are some telltale signs that signify "bad evaluation".

Evaluators need to resist the temptation to recap the speech: "They said this; then we heard this..." A recap isn't educational.

The manuals that guides members through a gauntlet of speeches has specific goals for each exercise. It's easy for an evaluator to read the objectives in a rote manner and check off how the speaker met each objective. It's slothful.

The worst of all says "Great job - I couldn't find a single thing to criticize! It was perfect in every way!" It might be great for the ego, but I won't learn what to do better from this.

Don E. Smith had some wonderful, actionable suggestions. He had an evaluation template that had space for comments on content, organization, and delivery (COD). He pointed out that there are only three kinds of speeches (PIE):

  1. Persuasive - talk about Feeling, organized logically, with a call to action at the end

  2. Informative - talk about Knowing, organized logically, without a call to action at the end

  3. Entertaining - talk about Experience, organized chronologically

He recommended citing the type of speech right up front. This fixes the type of organization right away. The evaluation dives right into content, organization, and delivery once that's sorted out.

I think my future evaluations will be better after hearing this. My speeches will be too, because now I will craft them with an evaluation in mind.

I've always shunned organizations and forced behavior. Fraternities are not for me. Toastmasters is no different. I'm not a rah-rah cheerleader for the organization.

But I like the quiet self-improvement and social opportunities. As I've attended more of the meetings and functions I've started to develop a small circle of folks that I'm comfortable with.

My goals for this year are to learn about the running of the club, get through the first book towards Advanced Communicator Bronze, and complete the Competent Leader designation to match my Competent Communicator achievement.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Good Death

One of my good friends from the Masters swimming group was unable to join us a week ago from Friday. He got a call that his mother had suddenly passed away in South Africa, so another swimmer took him to the airport to catch a plane to Washington DC. He was going to meet his sister on her way from California so they could travel home together.

It was a surprise, in spite of the fact that she was 86 years old. He had been home over the Christmas holidays. Her health was as good as could be expected for a woman of her age. There was no hint of long-term illness.

I saw him again tonight when I went to our Masters workout. He was his usual self: smiling, calm, and swimming faster than anybody in the pool. He complained about being out of shape after having been away, but he's still head and shoulders beyond the rest of us. My typical pace is 75% of his. If we do a 200 yard freestyle, I'll be making my turn for the final lap when he finishes.

The remarkable part came after the workout was over. When we hit the shower I asked him how his trip was: "Good as could be expected?", I asked.

The story he told me was unbelievable. She died on her birthday, just like Ingrid Bergman and (allegedly) Shakespeare. My friend had spoken to her by phone just hours before she died. There was no hint of a problem. She was planning to go to a restaurant for a celebration that evening. When her son came to pick her up, he found her looking pale and sweat was running down her face. He took her to hospital as a precautionary measure. She insisted that she'd be fine, that the others should proceed to the restaurant without her. They came back later to look in on her and found her in good hands with the doctors.

An hour later they got a call at home to say she had passed away from a heart attack. There was no history of heart problems or high cholesterol.

He told the story so calmly, with a smile on his face as he related the details. It was as if he was talking about someone who wasn't a relative. It wasn't cold or unemotional, just matter-of-fact.

I come from a long line of emotional blubber babies. When my mother leaves me, there will be no one within fifty miles who will miss out on the news.

My friend is one of the most accomplished people I've had the pleasure of knowing. You would have to pick up on being in the presence of genius by listening and observing; he'll never tell you that he got his Ph.D. from Cal Tech and did a post-doc at MIT.

It made me think that this was an example of what I'd call a good death: lucid until the end, possessing all your faculties, not experiencing prolonged pain or convalescence. Still going out to celebrate your birthday! We should all hope to do as well.

Friday, April 30, 2010

First Ride Of The Season

I rode to work for the first time in 2010 yesterday. It's a 22.78 mile ride each way - downhill going to work, uphill coming home.

Temperatures were cold yesterday. Some parts of New England got snow. We experienced temperatures in the low 30 F range. I bundled up before I left. I had a hat under my helmet, gloves, tights, a t-shirt, a sweatshirt, and a windbreaker over the top. You can only put on so many pairs of socks before your shoes won't fit, so I was limited to a single pair.

I pumped up my tires to 100 PSI and pushed off at 5:55 AM. It was light enough to be safe, but I hedged my bets by hanging a strobe light on my seat post.

There's a slight downhill just beyond my driveway, so it's easy to build up some momentum right out of the gate. That 15-20 mph breeze sure felt cold! I started pumping my pedals to build up some heat. Soon my torso felt comfortable, but my fingers and toes stayed cold through the whole ride.

The plan calls for me to meet my friend at a pre-arranged corner at 6:30 AM. We have the timing down pat, because he was standing at the corner as I steamed down the road. He said he'd been waiting for less than a minute before I came into sight around the bend.

The ride was a pleasant one, as always. I love the riding, especially since I get to do it with my best friend. We kept up a steady stream of conversation as we made our way down the bike trail.

We parted ways after ninety minutes. I continued alone for the short distance to the Founders Bridge that takes me over the Connecticut River and into Hartford. It was a great feeling to ride into town under my own power in just 1:40. I parked my bike in the garage and made my way to the place where I swim to get a hot shower. That warm water was essential - my feet were numb! I needed a little heat to walk naturally.

I felt good all day long. My legs felt fine when I went up and down stairs - a good sign. When my legs aren't strong I groan with pain on stairs.

I made sure to eat a salad for lunch. Later in the afternoon I bought a bottle of Gatorade that would fit into my water bottle cage and two Cliff Bars (chocolate chip) for a snack. I ate the first one just before I left to make sure that I had some fuel in the tank.

I did something different when I left my desk to ride home. Last year I'd leave my biking clothes in the locker room, which meant having to cross the street to dress and then come back to get the bike. I carried my stuff in a backpack and changed in the bathroom down the hall from my desk in order to save some time. I was able to be on my bike in ten minutes after leaving, which makes a big difference.

I rode back across the Connecticut River and met my friend on the east side. Going home is always harder than the morning ride: it's uphill and the fatigue from the morning hasn't dissipated. The wind was gusting out of the west when we left, but temperatures were much more comfortable. We made good time, but I was starting to feel tired by the time we parted. My left knee felt sore, too. I ate my second Cliff bar and finished the last of the Gatorade. After a few minutes I was able to push my biggest gear without difficulty. I made it home in 1:46, which is a pretty good time for the first ride of the year.

My knee felt a little tender that night, but the soreness wasn't too bad. I went for a swim before work the next morning. I did the usual 5x200 pull warm-up, a 5x200 IM set, and finished with 5x100 alternating kicking with a board and one-arm drill. My legs felt great when I was done. My left knee was fine. I did a little downward facing dog to stretch out my lower back. I felt energetic and strong all day.

I haven't had my best April for swimming. It was only slightly better than an average April, so my string of "best months" starting 2010 was ended.

it'll be good to mingle swimming and biking together. I enjoy riding so much. As long as I can stay upright and avoid getting hurt, this is a fun time of year for me. All spring and summer are ahead of us. This year it'll last forever and never end.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"The Big Short"

I've taken advantage of my local library to do a fair bit of reading on the cheap lately. I'm interested in the details of how our most recent financial debacle happened. Any book that sheds light on the subject is on my list.

"The Big Short" by Michael Lewis fits the bill perfectly. It's the true story of a cadre of individuals who saw what was going on, well before anyone else did, when the conventional wisdom said they were fools. They put their money where their mouths were, too. They bet millions on shorting the mortgage market, knowing that the rate of default didn't have to reach historic proportions for the bet to pay off. It took great courage, because they were either betting with their own money or that of investors. They were certain that the crash would come, but they couldn't predict when. They didn't know if their funds or courage would run out before the payoff would arrive.

Michael Lewis knows something about the terrain. He worked for an investment bank back in the 80s. He wasn't a great success as a financial adviser, but it did start him on the writer's path with "Liar's Poker". How fortunate for the rest of us!

It's a great read, very entertaining. I recommend it highly.

There was a lot of negative discussion about short selling when the market came down and Lehman Brothers failed. CEOs hate short sellers. They complain about their company being hurt by rumors and whispers, implying that the short sellers are merely manipulating the market for their own benefit.

There might be some truth to this, especially for naked short sellers who don't have to risk their own money. But people who put up their own money and take a real risk are providing an alternative information source to the market. If short action is lively, perhaps there's something to it. It's the sobering other side to the happy talk pumped out by CEOs and the sellers of their stock.

With congressional testimony going on, it's especially timely to answer a few questions about how this happened to us:

1. Was this a "perfect storm" of circumstances that no one could have foreseen?
2. Were the financial instruments so inherently complex that they couldn't be understood by anyone?
3. What did CEOs know, and when did they know it?
4. Was it merely the latest example of an Enron-style theft?

All four contributed, but I think the fourth option is one that will win the day.

The news from the New York Times today says that Goldman Sachs was offsetting losses in the mortgage market with their own short action. They can't claim perfect storm or too complex or not knowing what was going on.

There are lots of great sources for reading about what happened. "The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb spells out the dangers of over-reliance on lovely mathematical models and normal distributions. (Note to self: There's a second edition available.) Mark Chu-Carroll's "Good Math, Bad Math" blog has a fine entry on the matter.

What will we do about this? There's legislation being crafted right now that claims to reform our banking system. This will be Chris Dodd's last hurrah, but I fear that it won't be at all effective. There will be too many amendments to water it down. Lobbyists from the banking industry will lend their "expertise" to craft the laws. Senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle have taken too much money from banks and financial services firms to be objective anymore.

I've maintained all along that the biggest mistake was repealing Glass-Steagall and replacing it with Gramm-Leach-Bliley. That was done on Bill Clinton's watch, with Goldman Sachs principals Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers running things. Goldman Sachs is embedded far too deeply into our government today. I know I'll be watching the hearings very closely.

In the meantime, I recommend that you go out and read "The Big Short".

Sunday, April 25, 2010

"City Of Thieves"

A friend in my swimming group recommended "City of Thieves" by David Benioff. It's set in Leningrad during the Nazi siege. How cheery!

I was surprised to find that it was the best work of 'fiction' that I've read in a very long time.

I put fiction in quotes because it was difficult to separate truth from fiction. The prologue describes the author's visit to his Russian grandparents, who have retired to Florida. The grandfather has never spoken about his experiences during the war, but the trip inspired a weekend with a tape recorder. After three straight days of stories, the author says he'll need another session to fill in the details. "You're a writer, David - make it up!" says the grandfather.

And so the book begins.

It's a wonderful page turner that I couldn't put down. The language was so vivid, the weaving of details so artful, that after I finished it I had to re-read the last chapters to take it in again.

I expected horror given the setting and time period. Horrible things did happen, and the author didn't shy away from them.

But it was the humor and human connections between characters that took me by surprise. The characters were wonderful.

I'm recommending this book to everyone I know. I read a lot of technical and non-fiction stuff these days. It felt good to enjoy a work like this so much.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

First Competition

I took the next step in my Toastmasters competition last night after winning our club contest: the area contest. I was up against two winners from other local clubs. The prize? The chance to move on to the district competition and, perhaps, the international.

Contests are run very much like regular weekly meetings. Everything is very formal. I've been an observer at AA meetings for years. Toastmasters meetings remind me of them. They're structured and formal, with lots of applause and encouragement. The contests have judges and rules, prizes and protocols. There are two competitions: one for tall tales, where contestants speak for 3-5 minutes about the wildest imaginary stories they can think of, and another for international, which require 5-7 minutes talks on more serious topics.

I was one of three contestants in the international competition. I came in third, but I was happy with that. The other two speakers were both far more experienced that I am, and it showed. Their writing, rehearsal, and delivery were top-shelf. I had heard (and evaluated) the winner's speech a month ago, so I knew what I was up against going in. She didn't disappoint. It was a most impressive performance. I would have voted for her as the winner if I were a judge.

The second-place finisher at my club entered the tall tales battle and won, hands down. He's an incredibly accomplished guy and a great speaker. He has an instrument-level pilot's license. He went to the Caribbean on vacation with his family, piloting a 40 foot sailboat. His story described how he tied up the boat and went with his family to head into town on a windy day. They were strolling along the beach when they saw their $750,000 chartered boat had torn free of its mooring and was gliding into the harbor without a pilot. My friend jumped into a motorboat, climbed aboard, and stopped the vessel just a few feet short of shoals and a wall. He would have had an embarrassing call to a charter company and their insurance company if he hadn't acted so quickly.

The name of the boat? "Vela Via", Italian for "Sail Away". Delicious irony!

I enjoyed the competition very much, but it tells me that I can do much, much better. I have to work harder at improving my writing, rehearsal, and delivery. My inclination towards procrastination will be the death of me.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Competent Communicator At Last

Last Thursday I was working at my desk when an e-mail popped into Outlook. Thursday is Toastmaster's Day. I received a note saying that there was an open speaking slot available; the first one to claim it could speak.

I happened to have a speech written, printed out and ready to go. I hadn't rehearsed it at all, so I would have to depend on notes, my memory, and my passion for the subject matter. I immediately replied to say that I wanted the chance.

I felt some urgency for two reasons: first, it would be my tenth speech in the Competent Communicator series, the lowest rung on the Toastmasters ladder, and second, I would achieve the milestone within two years of giving my icebreaker speech back in Apr 2008. I had a seven month hiatus from September 2008 through April 2009 where I was utterly silent. I changed jobs and clubs during that time. It took me a while to get used to my new surroundings. But now I was on a roll. I wanted to make that first benchmark.

I bounced up the stairs to the conference room on the tenth floor just before noon, text in hand. I was the first speaker that day. I wasn't happy about my failure to rehearse, but I liked the topic and delivered it fairly well.

The president of our club happened to be talking about the requirements for achieving "distinguished club" status. Every club has a set of goals to meet in terms of new members, certifications earned, officers trained and such. When she found out that I was getting my competent communicator designation, she smiled and said "You weren't even on my radar!" Our club was one step closer to the highest designation as a result of my efforts.

I felt a great sense of accomplishment. It took longer than I'd like, but I've really picked up the past since joining this group. I delivered just three speeches in fifteen months at my first club. I gave four more from April 2009 through the end of the year. I've already stepped up three times this year, and March is just ending.

This club meets once a week, which helps a great deal. My first club only met on the second and fourth Thursday of the month, so the number of available speaking slots was cut in half. The drip, drip, drip effect of meeting every week helps - it's too easy to slide back while two weeks go by.

I have the district competition coming up on 14-Apr. I'm approaching it as a learning experience, with little or no thought about winning it. I want to see what accomplished speakers do and use them as an inspiration to progress further along.

I'm as comfortable as I can be with standing and delivering. I have no fear of it at all. I know my technique needs to become more conscious, more deliberate.

But the two things that I need to improve on most are writing and rehearsing. I should have a stable of talks on hand, ready to deliver at a moment's notice. People have to cancel all the time due to work obligations. I can make progress if I can jump in the way I did for my tenth.

It's the rehearsal that needs the most work. The way to become more conscious, more deliberate is to practice it in, to observe what you're doing, to think about how it all comes across. Speakers are no different from actors learning their lines. I have to have them down cold when I stride to the podium.

There are very few things in life that I'm naturally good at, but speaking in front of groups seems to be one of them. I'd like to see if I can polish this skill into something that will have a future use that I can't see right now. I'm always trying to figure out what my third act in life will be. First engineering, then software. If the world has changed, and we all need to change fields several times, I want to be ready.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

First Toastmasters Competition

I entered my first Toastmasters competition on Thursday.

I won.

It was a bit of a shock for me. There were two other speakers entered, and both of them are among the most talented and prolific speakers in our club. I had heard the runner up's speech a week earlier at another local club. He's so talented, so precise, so conscious of what he's doing that I immediately resigned myself to accomplishing nothing more than completing the ninth out of ten speeches required for the Competent Communicator designation, the first rung on the communication ladder.

I wrote my speech at the last minute. It was a description of a recent event in my life that served as the basis for the tenth and final speech: "Inspire Your Audience". It was an emotional topic for me. As usual, I procrastinated and didn't rehearse as much as I'd like.

But I knew the story well enough to deliver it extemporaneously. I had the added advantage of speaking last. It's natural for people to remember the last thing they heard. Perhaps that factored into the thinking of the judges.

I get to try again on 14-Apr against some other local clubs. If that goes well I'll get to move on to the district competition on 22-May.

I've got to present my ninth and last speech soon so I can have that Competent Communicator designation in hand. I'd like to do it before 24-Apr, because that would mean that I finished the ten speeches in two years. I gave my first one on 24-Apr-2008. I had long stretch of six months where I didn't speak at all. I switched jobs and clubs, so it took me a while to recover my stride.

I don't know what the next steps will be. Toastmasters has two tracks: communication and leadership. I don't know if completing that first booklet and achieving a Competent Leader designation is a requirement, or if I'd have the option of going on to more advanced communication work.

Whichever I choose, I'd like to start accelerating my rate of progress. I need to be writing, speaking, practicing more.

This was a good start. It's astonishing how you can get better at something with regular practice. I've appreciated having the opportunity. I don't know where it will lead, but it feels good to continue to progress, grow, and learn.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hello, Android

I've done it - I've turned into one of "those guys" who has a phone that's really a computer in their hand.

My wife bought me an Android phone from Google for Christmas. I was ambivalent about it. It's a terrific toy, but I objected and held out on activating it for two reasons:

  1. The monthly plan for data, text, and phone adds another $30 per month to my bill. It's easy to say that $30 isn't a lot of money, but it accumulates to $360 over a year.

  2. I didn't want to be one of "those guys" who is always looking at their damn phone. I find that people pay more attention to the devices than they do the people they're with at any given moment.

I held out for two months, gladly sticking to my ancient flip phone, until I got my bill for Feb. It included a $260 equipment charge. What was that? I called Verizon to ask. They told me that I had agreed to "terms and conditions" when the phone was purchased. If I didn't activate the phone within a certain period of time I had to pay the equipment charge.

So I sailed over to the local Verizon store to sort it out. They had a few issues that kept me standing at the counter for longer than I thought was necessary. When I started to lose patience I said some magic words that got things moving again: "Maybe I should just forget it and get an iPhone..."

After about 30 minutes of futzing around I was able to take the phone home. I had a little bit of trouble migrating the contacts from my old phone to the new one. The site wasn't as clear as they'd like to believe. (All I could think of was Steve Krug's wonderful book on web design entitled "Don't Make Me Think!")

It seems like a lovely toy. Android accepts Java; iPhone only allows Objective C. Android works on Verizon, the wireless carrier my whole family uses; iPhone only works on AT&T. I'm still figuring out how it all works. It'll be interesting to see if I can synch it up with my work e-mail and calendar. One of the biggest problems I have at work is knowing I have to be in a certain place, but not being able to see my calendar because I'm removed from my desk. The phone might be able to help with that.

It'll also help me feel a bit more high-tech. We'll see how it all works out.

Android is a trademark of Google Inc. Use of this trademark is subject to Google Permissions.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

First Ride Of 2010

It's a spectacular late winter Sunday. Temperatures are up above 50 F/10 C and skies are cloudless and blue.

I usually don't get on my bike until spring is well under way. I didn't take my first ride last year until 19-Apr-2009. Sand and pavement broken by ice and snowplows usually combine to scare me off, but I couldn't resist this year. I pumped up my tires and headed out to circle the lake in Marlborough, a modest ride of 15.9 miles.

I was dressed for colder conditions. I had a new pair of fingered gloves that kept my hands nice and toasty. I wore a hat under my helmet so my ears wouldn't go numb. I had tights, a sweatshirt, and a windbreaker on. I worked my way to a good sweat by the time I was done.

I think the extra 500 yards I've tacked onto my daily swims is paying dividends. I felt fit today. There are three decent climbs on this ride, including
Jones Hollow Road in Marlborough. I downshifted and kept my seat the whole way up instead of standing on the pedals and rocking the bike. My heart, lungs, and legs all felt good. I've been doing more kicking with a board lately during my swim workouts. My legs were up to the task today.

I had no problems with sand or pavement. My brakes were squealing loudly when I left the house, but once the pads and rim warmed up the noise went away.

My equipment was in fine shape. I replaced my pedals last year. A chronic problem with flat rear tires was corrected with a new rubber seal on the spokes. I added a strobe light that hangs off my seat post, at the cost of having to remove the carrier I used to bring my clothes to work. It'll help to keep me safer in the morning if I start riding to work again in April. I'll have to find another way to transport my clothes. Perhaps a backpack will do the trick....

I loved being back on my bike again. It means that winter is on its way out, that spring isn't far away, that I'll be back on the road to work with my friend Michael again soon. Of course I tracked my riding last year in the same spreadsheet that I used to track my swimming totals. I'm starting earlier than last year. If I could work my way up to two rides to work per week on average I'd have no problem besting the 625 mile total that I accumulated last season. Maybe I can break the 1,000 mile barrier this summer.

If only I could translate this goal and metric oriented thinking to my entire life. I'd accomplish far more than I have to date if I could only figure out how.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Swimming 2010

I had my best yardage total ever back in 2008, the year after I hurt my neck. I topped 520,000 yards for the year. Last year was very good - 405,000 yards, my third-best total ever - but not up to the blowout standard set in 2008.

2010 is shaping up to be a monstrous year for me. I'm only two months in, and I've already logged 115,200 yards. January was my best single month ever, and February was my third best by only 900 yards. One more workout would have made it my second best month; as it was, Feb 2010 was the best February total I've ever had.

I would have made it too, except for unfortunate circumstances on Friday night. I was planning to attend a Masters swim after work. But I just missed catching the first bus from work back to my commuter lot. The snowy conditions and traffic had the second bus crawling along the highway, so I didn't get to my car until fifteen minutes before the workout started. It takes 35 minutes on a good day to drive from the commuter lot to the pool, so I knew I'd be late. And, to top it off, I did a 2500 yard workout before work. I was planning to "double up" and squeeze in two swims in one day.

I was already tired from a long week. So I got into my car, drove home, ate linguini with clam sauce for dinner, and drank wine while watching "Copenhagen", starring Daniel Craig as Heisenberg an Stephen Rea as Bohr.

If I extrapolate this total, I'll approach 700,000 yards for the year.

I don't expect to be able to keep up this pace. Spring is coming, and if all goes according to plan I'll be riding my bicycle to work two days a week. It will shave two workouts off my torrid pace until summer ends.

But I'm very happy with my efforts so far. Three factors have contributed:

  1. I've been healthy. I haven't missed a workday of swimming yet.

  2. I've increased my morning workout from 2000 to 2500 yards every day. The extra 500 yards of kicking and drills only takes another 13 minutes, but the yards add up.

  3. I've managed two Masters swims a week. Those give a big boost to the yardage total, because they're at least 4000 yards each.

If only I could manage to apply the same dedication and consistent effort to other areas of my life, like my technical and learning aspirations. They don't lend themselves as easily to the tracking and measurement that motivate me so much in my athletic pursuits.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Warning

I just finished watching Frontline's "The Warning" for the second time. I'm outraged, bemused, fearful, and saddened all at the same time.

Having lived through that time, I remember how magical the stock market's run-up was. The frightening crash on "Black October" in 1986 had the opposite of the expected reaction: the market recovered quickly. It wasn't a disaster or a wipeout - it was a buying opportunity.

Ironically, it was the first crisis of Alan Greenspan's career as Fed chairman. I wonder how much the orderly, swift recovery validated his ideology?

Everyone I knew was buying stocks, whether they liked it or not. We were all being moved out of fixed benefit retirement plans and into 401k. Who wouldn't want that? Where else could you get 10% annual returns except in the market? You were a sucker to do otherwise.

The apocryphal story of the Great Depression was that Joe P. Kennedy withdrew all his money from the market when he got stock tips from a shoe shine boy. If those kinds of folks were in the market, it was a sure sign to Kennedy that it was time to get out. What about legions of engineers and software developers snapping up Microsoft, Dell, Intel, Cisco, and Apple? That was just smart business. All those companies were in their heyday in the 90s. Remember when Microsoft was a growth stock? Everybody expected 10% returns on their investments back then.

I know my thoughts on the market still reflected the view that fundamentals mattered. Knowing a company's products and markets and financial situation was the key to choosing wisely. I wasn't comfortable with the day trading mentality of ignoring fundamentals and buying on movement.

But I always thought that the dizzying growth we experienced back then was due to the emergence of new technologies like computers and the Internet. I believed the mantra that said productivity was increasing, because I could see it in the industries I worked in. I certainly didn't understand derivatives or the risky behavior they encourage.

I did read the Wall Street Journal, which touted Mr. Greenspan as "The Oracle." His trips to Capitol Hill were legendary. Parsing his obscure statements for clues about the economy took on the character of examining the entrails of chickens to predict the future.

There haven't been many public figures in my memory that have had a more glowing reputation, only to see it tarnished it so badly. Mr. Greenspan has wounded this country twice: once by his encouragement of unfettered free markets and again by backing the Bush tax cuts in 2001. Our budgets have gone from surplus to raging deficits and off-budget war expenditures. The total debt is on the order of an entire year's worth of production and growing.

The Frontline program demonstrates clearly that this is not a problem of Democrats or Republicans. The entire political class is guilty here. Glass-Steagall was repealed on Clinton's watch as Rubin, Greenspan, and Summers cheered from the sidelines. The Community Reinvestment Act of 1978, passed under Jimmy Carter, contributed to our latest housing bubble by requiring banks to require credit to the entire community, regardless of ability to repay. Mr. Obama hasn't done enough to contain and reverse the damage in his first year in office.

It's been eighteen months since the failure of Lehman Brothers. There's a sense of unease caused by high, stubborn unemployment, but the panic that gripped the country has subsided. The rescue effort architected by the Treasury, Goldman Sachs, and the rest of Wall Street has had a calming effect. It feels like we've all rolled over, pulled the covers over our heads, and gone back to sleep in hope of better dreams.

But we still don't have any regulation of derivatives, in spite of the lessons from Long Term Capital Management and AIG. Banks are still too big to fail. Risk is still being masked and encouraged to a dangerous degree. The people who brought us to this place are still wielding power. The fourth branch of government, K Street and lobbyists, have been given a new weapon: their unregulated political contributions are now free speech similar to that of an individual.

There was a time in my life when there still seemed to be individuals running things that still put the general good ahead of their own. But that time is over. We've reached a dangerous spot where ideology and religion are trumping what used to be called rational, liberal thought. (Not "liberal" in the political spectrum sense; more of the "enlightened" meaning it had during Revolutionary times). Global corporations owe no allegiance to the country they're based in. After all, their workers live in many countries.

After watching "The Warning" I believe we're far from done. There will be more, worse shocks to come.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Climbing The Corporate Ladder

I had an interesting experience last week. I was walking to a meeting at work when I thought I saw a woman that my wife and I knew at university. She was two years behind us, living in the same dorm as my wife; a math major specializing in actuarial science. She and her husband came to our wedding. We visited back and forth after marriage, but we lost track after both having children. She visited on her own after her first daughter was born, just before her maternity leave ended. We've exchanged Christmas cards every year since, keeping track of the passage of years and the progress of our children via picture greeting cards.

I recognized her right away, even though she was out of context and the glimpse was fleeting. My memory for names and such is not what it used to be, but I've always been pretty good about remembering faces. I had the advantage over her in this case. She still looked terrific, very much like her younger self. The last time she saw me I had lots more hair that was dark instead of white, didn't wear glasses, and my face was covered with a full beard.

I went back to my desk and looked her up in the corporate directory. Sure enough, my memory was spot on. I didn't realize that ten months ago I'd landed at the same company where she's spent most of her career. She's in a different line of business, which is one reason why we never crossed paths. Another is that she's on the executive staff, just three steps below the CEO of a $30B company. I'm a lowly IT guy, a lifelong cubicle denizen. We move in different circles.

I sent an e-mail, wondering if I'd get a response back. There was a delay, which made me think that perhaps I'd overstepped my bounds. I was delighted to find out that she'd been out of town and would like very much to get together. She asked her admin to put a lunch date on our calendars.

When the day came, something came up that forced her to cancel. I replied back saying that was fine with me, but I didn't need an elaborate lunch meeting. How about a cup of coffee? She agreed, and we sat down fifteen minutes later over tea.

I always thought very highly of our friend, and time hasn't diminished that opinion. It was a fun conversation, filled mostly with our respective pairs of daughters. Hers are both still in high school, so she was pumping me for information about the college experience and life after children.

We talked for about half an hour - quite a gift from a person so highly placed in a large organization. We agreed not to wait so long before getting together again. Our spouses will make the trek downtown for a dinner foursome sooner rather than later. It was a terrific meeting.

I can't think of another person that I know who's done as well in corporate America. The ladder is narrow and shaky. Everyone who joins a big company imagines themselves being quickly identified as superior and swept along to the upper rungs. But we all learn that the ladder is wobbly and narrow, and the gifts that we do possess aren't always the best fit for climbing.

What are the qualities that cause one person to stand out and rise up? These would be true both for entrepreneurs and executives.

I think one of the first qualities is the self-awareness that makes you raise your eyes up from a narrow specialty and take a broader view. You've got to wake up one day and start thinking in terms of steps to take towards a different goal.

Another is a belief that you can and should be in charge. The confidence that's necessary to direct the efforts of others is essential.

Education is necessary but not sufficient. If it was I'd be in great shape. I went to school either as a student or a professor every semester except two from the time I was five years old until I hit forty-three. That's a lot of classes, a lot of grades, a lot of material. Most of it was quite challenging, in areas that I hear our country is falling short in. I wasn't the best student, but I certainly can claim to be dogged.

There are many ways to be smart. Someone who is good at taking that wider view, spotting risks, articulating a path to take or avoid, and anticipating consequences is going to be more valuable than a person who has mastered the latest computer language du jour.

It's a fascinating question. Why didn't it work for me?

Lots of possible reasons. I could have been limited by my working class, union upbringing: "Don't think too much of yourself. Don't get a big head!"

It might be a generational thing, because when I started my working life the idea was to stick with one large, well connected, reliable firm all your life and go as far as you could. I started with that mindset but started hopping around mid-way through.

I don't think I had that self-awareness that told me to aspire to that kind of thing. No matter how many crazy people I met in middle and upper management, it never occurred to me that I could do at least as well or better.

I love technical work. That's what I like to do. Tearing myself away from it and supervising others was losing twice: I'd have to do something I didn't enjoy and give up something I did. When I was asked to do such a thing during my engineering career, I turned it down.

It could be that I'm not nearly as smart as I think I am. There are many ways to be smart: emotional intelligence, reading people, persuading others to take your point of view, etc. It could be that a deficiency in one of those kept me in a cubicle.

Another, more comforting, reason is that there is a price to pay for everything. When you're an executive, you're expected to get into the limo when they send it to your house. Your life isn't entirely your own anymore. Cubicle dwellers generally get to leave it behind when they go home at night. I chose balance.

I hope that my children think seriously about what they want and where they see themselves when they're my age. What do you really value? Satisfying work? Money? Status? Being your own boss? Owning a company? Meeting a payroll? Balancing family and work? Raising children? Having a tribe of friends? Being involved in lots of activities? Being artistic?

I'd love to hear my friend talk at length about her journey. If I get the chance, perhaps I'll write about it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Not As Excited

A year ago I wrote about how excited I was to see Barack Obama in the White House. I was happy to see the Bush administration end after eight years and hopeful that things would change for the better.

Some things are better, but I'm disappointed that we haven't gone far enough:

  1. Guantanamo is still open.

  2. Goldman Sachs still runs the Treasury Department.

  3. The Patriot Act, Department of Homeland Security, and other measures put in place to make us safer have not had the desired effect. We have given up liberty for safety and ended up with neither.

  4. Deficits continue to climb. Our debt is reaching the point where we won't be able to turn back.

  5. We're still at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, with no end in sight. Yemen might be next. Sabre-rattling continues with Iran. At this rate we'll be fighting with the whole Middle East soon. How will we know "victory" when we see it? When does a war on terror end? At $1M per year per soldier, how long before we can't afford any more?

  6. Jobs continue to disappear and don't look like they'll be coming back soon. Part of the reason for unrest in the Middle East is a large population of educated young people who can't get jobs and establish themselves as adults. How long before our country finds itself in a similar predicament?

  7. Lobbyists and K-Street continue to represent a fourth branch of government that the founders never envisioned.

  8. Glass Steagall is still repealed.

The economy did not crater, as I feared it might back in September 2008. But it has not recovered much, either. The fundamentals are simply terrible. We cannot continue to spend and consume more than we save and produce. Eventually the Chinese and Japanese won't want any more of our bonds.

We're increasingly a country that indulges in magical thinking. Excessive belief in belief isn't getting us anywhere.

Our ruling class isn't telling us the truth: "We cannot have all-you-can-eat health care and low mortgages and billions on wars and still cut taxes. Hard choices will be forced on us soon if we don't make them ourselves. Let's start the discussion now before it's too late." Instead we have Fox News and talk radio.

Our educational system is falling behind. Our kids are encouraged to spend more time playing sports and game consoles and surfing the Internet and keeping up with the Kardashians and texting on iPhones instead of reading or doing science. Our colleges are turning out plenty of lawyers and MBAs and fewer scientists and engineers. Where do people think that innovations like iPhones and netbooks come from?

I'm still glad that Mr. Obama is in charge. But I hoped for more.

Our problems are bigger than any president. It should not take catastrophe for us to look inside ourselves and decide that we need to reconsider the path we're taking.