Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Team

The functional analyst was born in the Philippines, lived in Singapore for seven years, a 16 year veteran of the company, who worked in Logistics projects in Japan, Thailand, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, France, Brazil and Algeria, transferred to South Carolina 3 years ago, working in the same field that concerns warehouses and logistics, holds a Master Degree in Business, a licensed project manager and an  officer in Toastmaster, a book reading aspiring writer, the longest member of the team as the original members have either left or moved to other departments, some say a source of stability for the project, an expert in technology, not talkative though striving to be sociable, prefers to work alone, often the last person to leave a site, bringing the new members up to speed as they came into the project, working above and beyond what was expected of him, focused on the project for the three years since coming aboard, learning the American culture and working with outsource partners in India and Cleveland, Ohio, doing most of the heavy work, feeling stressed at times like carrying the whole project on his shoulders, feeling vindicated after going live in four sites.

These are the members of the project team – a transplanted Northerner from New York, a well-traveled Mormon - both young technology geeks with advanced degrees, a golf playing Southerner with a happy go lucky charm with significant working experiences in the warehouse, and a recently transplanted Asian who has done logistics projects in many countries, also a technology geek with an advanced degree,  working together to get the project running, traveling to different sites like Laurens, Reno, Houston and Chicago, facing glitches on-site, criticism from the bosses, tolerating the foot dragging attitude of the major developer, the skepticism of former project members, facing personal doubts but struggling forward, experiencing problem after problem in the first site, humiliation and grief, nasty emails from the logistics director, questioning if the problem can ever be solved, working with IBM to check the network, talking about bandwidth and major software redesign, finally hitting a solution that solves the key issue, bypassing any network bottle neck that would have stopped the roll out, getting the department leaders on-board to help overcome obstacles, successfully persevering in the end.

How did we end up together, with our different backgrounds, like ingredients in a tasty sauce, different experiences and viewpoints working together to get things done, springing into action collectively; the software not really a major product, but a small system, a side show that prints shipping labels, but a technical innovation, to perform in the cloud; a decentralized process that may entail changes in other areas, like a small rain drop that causes ripples and extends farther out the pond, a fresh wind that may prove to be a catalyst for larger things, perhaps that is what makes the project interesting, despite its meager role in the scheme of things. One recalls a key member leaving the team for a new job but the team moving on, he was the support manager, another 30 year veteran of the company, a former sergeant in the US marines, telling stories of training in the Panama jungle, well-traveled, who also worked with the Southerner in the warehouse, himself born in Alabama who moved to South Carolina decades ago; both these persons from support are middle-aged, while the other members are in their early or late forties,  the team moving like an old war horse, slow but determined with some challenging episodes.    

There is a ‘cowboy’ culture in the team, unlike in the East, the members are willing to crawl under tables, lift heavy equipment, ready to do the menial tasks like a ‘cowboy’, willing to ‘go at it alone’ mentality, whereas the Asian culture have managers or idea men as people who assign arduous stuff to ‘workers’, a level below senior employees, often to young people, delineating mental and physical chores to their appropriate personnel, unlike the ‘cowboy’ team who are willing to do anything, the democratic principle at work wherein everyone is equal, conscious of pulling their own weight with no distinction between leader and servant with regards to manual work, an egalitarian ideal that gives comfort, that everyone is in it for the duration, giving respect to mental work and idea men, but treating them equally just the same as a janitor, a natural tendency to be suspicious of intellectuals,  respecting only hard work and perseverance, perhaps that’s the greatness of the country; let’s roll up our sleeves and get down to business mentality, a no nonsense, practical approach to life, devoid of the French predilection to high thinking or Chinese subtle stratagems but an innocent and eager approach of the ‘cowboy’, the lonely hero in the range or part of a heroic group out to beat the bad guys.

Back from Chicago

I arrived at around 8 pm local time. The trip back was uneventful, leaving the office at about 1:30 pm and driving to Chicago Midway airport under dark skies, following the highway leading back to the city, seeing signs that lead to Wisconsin or Indiana, aware of the historic places nearby like Springfield where both Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama declared their run for the presidency, aware of Grant Park in downtown where Obama made his first appearance after winning the election, passing by Chicago suburbs with their large homes and the straight lines of streets with ball parks and schools, thinking that Ernest Hemingway grew up nearby, in similar surroundings, seeing the diversity where an African-American can be elected as Senator and eventually as President, recalling reading in the papers this morning of the GOP debates and their attacks, wishing to visit these historic places, maybe a little stop before going to the airport, but deciding against it, to get caught in traffic and rushing to get to the plane - a possible nightmare, some other time when the weather is better.

One makes these trips to see places, to experience new things, to discover and learn, following the Confucian principle of travel, to read and to write as a way to refinement, something I read in the book I just finished called ‘Tide Players’, but realizing that one does not have spare time during these business trips unlike in Asia, instead the value is the meals with the project team, eating excellent food for dinner or lunch, telling stories and sharing experiences, to get to know one another, to work together and solve problems in different circumstances; the joy is traveling together and working together, a communal activity and not the solitary diversion of a tourist; sneaking to visit places in one’s free time, avoiding the natural slowness of moving with a team, instead adjusting to the rhythm of the group, solving problems collectively, it’s the true value of these business trips despite the routine of hotel – office – restaurant  - hotel, a boring cycle day in day out for the few days on site, but one must not miss the real importance:  the formal intimacy of working with different sets of people and learning from them.

The business leader is a Northerner who grew up in Long Island, New York, a Jets fan, deciding to study in South Carolina, meeting his wife and settling down, preferring the Southern climate and way of life instead of the cold, frenzy and high taxes of New York, working in different industries before coming to the present company, a veteran manager of multiple projects and positions, the youngest in the group, with a weight problem before going for an operation in his stomach that would reduce his food intake, dropping from about 350 pounds to 215 pounds, his large frame still significant, his height about 6’5” , a jolly family man who develops web sites on the side, a technology expert in love with the iPhone and iPad and all things from Apple, although having an Android phone, always talking about his family; his wife is a school teacher, complaining about her low wages, his son and daughter in college, diligently writing daily reports, a new addition to the group but providing a steady hand and a commanding presence to the project, possibly the main reason why the projects is moving forward with success.

The support expert is a middle aged Southerner, having lived in the same general area all his life, never venturing far from his Southern roots, going to work straight from high school, working himself up from warehouses and in the production floor, a 30 year veteran of the company, a good ole Southern boy who loves motorcycles, plays golf and has a boat, talking of his grandchildren, satisfied with life in South Carolina, sporting a mustache and goatee, reminding one of those Confederate generals during the Civil War, a kind man who just transferred to the computer department from the factory, an expert on warehouse operations and their computer systems,  preferring regular Southern food than Asian stuff like sushi or sashimi, an owner of several ‘mill’ houses, small homes near former textile mills that workers used to live in, renting them out to folks and earning possibly a decent sideline, harking back to the old Southern land owners who were devastated by the war, a back slapping friendly man who is easy to work with a natural Southern charm that disarms the folks in the warehouse, insuring a friendly rapport with the staff, though easily disconcerted when faced with an issue, sometimes scrambling when some intricate issue is involved, lamenting that he does not have a college education, correcting him that Bill Gates and Steven Jobs did not have a college education themselves, easy to joke with, his laughter a good sign, telling multitudes of stories of his time in the warehouse.

The project leader is possibly a Mormon, grew up in Utah but lived in Egypt, Israel and all sorts of other places in the Middle East as his parents, possibly Mormon missionaries traveled the globe to preach their religion, living in different places like Colorado, Utah, Indiana and, finally, South Carolina; a licensed gardener, who has a Master Degree in Business from a local college, like the project leader a college educated professional with advance degrees, a certified project manager, an expert as well in technology, especially Android and Google products, a geek who plays online strategy games in the evening, a friendly person who also talks about his family especially his wife who he had met in his youth in the Middle East, talking about his hearing problem, being deaf in one ear until a recent operation that fixed it, a small square contraption strapped behind his ear, a hole through his skull that keeps the gadget in place, a Toastmaster whose life changed significantly when he got back his hearing, and like the project leader, experienced a new life after a major operation, a good manager though a bit laid back at times, passing work to others, but a good leader though unable to travel with the team because of budget constraints.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Last Day

Strong winds this morning, some flights delayed according to the television in the lobby, meeting the team for breakfast, telling stories of Christmas presents; the other two preparing to go to the airport while I go back to the office to check any loose ends or issues, planning to depart to Midway terminal after noon time, the flight back to South Carolina at 5 pm. Packed the bags in the early morning, surfed the Internet for news, checked out the hotel, cold wind as I walked to the car and wearing my beanie, driving down the highway, skies dark with ominous potential for rain, arriving in the office parking lot and noticing fewer cars; the pretty and smart supervisor not in her cubicle, some offices unlit, their tenants absent from work, perhaps because our project leader had gone home, the place going back to its usual rhythm of slack and relaxed tempo, glad the place has shown its true colors, hoping for a serene morning but confronted with an email from the carrier; the electronic transmission somehow failing to be sent or received, realizing that this glitch alone justified my staying back.

Booted up my computer but unable to login the network, feels like working blind if not connected to the grid, unable to do anything but check past records, providing the new account number to the warehouse staff so she could reply to the carrier; maybe the reason for the missing transmissions, waiting for the reply to see if the hypothesis is correct. Still trying to login, trying repeatedly but no luck, afraid that one would be helpless if an issue arises, knock on wood and hope not, paranoia and worry creeping in the brain, thinking about Andrew Grove’s dictum that only the paranoid survive or something like that, the former chief of Intel sounding like a drug crazed teenager, but he’s right in today’s world of frenzied work and overheated arguments; for example, another government slowdown possibly looming in the horizon, the nut cases in Washington willing to create turmoil during Christmas. Recently, one can control the frenzied thoughts, no real need to worry after all, the product of a competitive environment, now in a country of calm demeanor except for the lunacy of Washington, adjusting to a sort of strange tranquility amidst feeling of envy and materialism.

The network is congested, too many people logging in from outside the company, suddenly realizing that one can switch to another server site, changing the IP address and ‘Voila!’, login  successful, now why didn’t I think about that earlier, glad to be in the grid and ready for work, it’s 9:45 am local time. Started writing emails on the missing transmissions, the carrier not replying yet, making phone calls to the help desk to resolve another issue, thinking that Chicago was not difficult after all, working in the conference room, seeing the truckers and warehouse pickers eating their snacks in the canteen during their break, talking loudly and joking among themselves,  remembering the mental fears in weeks past regarding the roll-out, the words ‘Chicago’ like a monster lurking in the shadows, where some surprise would come out and blind side the team, but finding no monsters but kind accommodating people, sharing pizza and having pleasant conversations; software working well despite some bugs, overall a pleasant experience, wondering what the doubts where all about.

While in Chicago, while preparing to leave in a few hours, seeing not much work today, thinking how far one has gone, not only the external journey from Asia to America, but the internal journey as well, from some obscure book reading geek to Toastmasters and attending writing workshops, from journal writing to Tai Chi, to blogging; it has been a large leap with modest success, the smooth transition because of kind people; one wonders how it is with the family, how they have adjusted, with their father leading them to faraway lands and new experiences, thinking these thoughts as one basks in the success of another project; one realizes how far one’s journey when sharing stories with the team, comparing experiences and realizing you have the most to share, travelled the most and perhaps accomplished the most, wondering if all this movement was worth it, a replacement of some permanent home with firm roots, instead of a nomad lifestyle; the other team members living in their homes for nearly 20 to 30 years near the same place, while one has traversed oceans and continents, not staying for more than a decade in one place, enjoying new food, places and experiences that nowadays one feels tired of all the new things and thinking that one should settle down, glimpsing the large homes in the Chicago suburbs, perhaps one can live here in America, contentedly and see the kids grow.  

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Live in Chicago

The final major piece was tested successfully today, software purring like a well-oiled machine, drawing grateful sighs from the team, a major milestone achieved; all is well in the world after all, God listening to the pleas of a tired and bruised team.  Leaving tomorrow, relieved the project has gone well, going home in victory (like those soldiers from Iraq announced today by the president), after all those months of hardships and humiliation, as one struggled to fix all those bugs, emerging months later with a better program, a mature team, ready to conquer the other sites. Seven months later, four sites are converted with about five more warehouses scheduled next year, now a seemingly ordinary task, after the ease of the last two deployment, overcoming major bumps and challenges from different folks, management with limited viewpoints, unaware of the challenges tackled on the ground, clever in their remarks; arm chair experts while the soldier in the front  face the actual problems and pressure, finally making the point that the project succeeds if everyone do their part, realizing that the fault lies in their feeble attention in the early years.

This morning the work area of the staff was re-organized, old equipment removed and the new one brought in, teaching the staff on the final feature, going over the other features again, the staff satisfied, that it wasn’t really difficult, reducing work for everyone, some slight glitches still to be fixed like missing labels and reports; the project leader writing great updates to bosses at head office, strangely no remarks of encouragement or congratulations, perhaps realizing that earlier criticisms where foolish and dead wrong, silence a reward that means acceptance. The local staff eager and intelligent, ready to adapt to the change, enthusiastic and hardworking, unlike the staff in the other warehouses, finally meeting folks focused on the job, grateful that they understood the nuances of the software, confident that the project will go well, feeling like an undefeated army inexorably marching on, bringing progress and newness to obscure places, appreciating  the new warehouse boss, erudite and experienced, thanking the team and showing off the changes in the warehouse since he came, a game of give and take.

Lunch in the ‘Iron Skillet’, a truck stop beside a gas station, a section of the restaurant reserved for drivers only, kind old lady serving us, lunch is a meal of sirloin tips with pepper and onions and rice and chicken noodle soup, the meat soft and cooked well, a great lunch served in iron skillets, avoiding the buffet and watching the truck drivers come in, some fat, some with long hair, some bald with beard, watching the trucks drive by, some stop to fill their tanks with gas, old couples coming in, ordering the usual, finishing with a full stomach; an early lunch so the team could work during the staff’s lunch hour, clearing her desk and de-commissioning old printers, watching her work and pleased with the changes, the warehouse management coming to us to shake our hands, realizing that it’s the last day of two of our team who will leave in the morning while I will remain for a few hours to make sure things are fine, our team leader writing the last report, a job well done, leaving early under the rain, the sky dark as evening comes early in Chicago at about 4:30 pm in the afternoon.

From the warehouse we went to Best Buy to look at the new Kindle Fire, walked through the store looking at all those sleek gadgets, row and rows of modern gizmos, no trace of envy in the body wondering what’s it all for?, going for dinner at Apple Bees, dinner of sirloin steak, chocolate fudge for dessert and Heineken beer, going back to the Hampton Inn and discovering a free dinner of tacos, light beer and wine, an event sponsored by the Inn every Wednesday, going back to the room and meeting the team at the lobby, enjoying 2 bottles of light beer while we talked about the company, the old workers that we met, experiences in the warehouse and factories, sharing stories of long ago, good episodes with good bosses and bad bosses, talking about the turnaround in perception of the project, remarking that a lot of the officers in the company are from the military, graduates from West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy, the father of one of the team members a West Point graduate too; himself avoiding military school and settling in the South having been born in Long Island New York. At dinner he shared his story about an operation that save his life while at lunch I shared my experience with the worker’s union back in the Philippine factory about 10 years ago, long memories that one can still tap to learn the lessons of experience, a good foundation in the project today, meeting and working with different people in the warehouse.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

So Far so Good

The past 2 days have been great but tiring. On the first day we toured the warehouse, seeing tasks never seen before like loading 60 foot agricultural tires in a flatbed truck, expertly put into place by an ace with a forklift, reminding one of flipping pancakes; afterwards setting up computers and printers, checking cables in the back of tables, under the furniture and delving in the spaghetti like mess in the computer room; finally all the equipment was ready and a test successful y conducted to prepare for the next day’s go live. Lunch was pepperoni pizza and diet coke; the team deciding to stay in the office instead of going out to lunch, finding a glitch in the software and alerting the suppliers; all other test looking good and the supplier promising to have the glitch fixed by tomorrow.  We left late from the warehouse, completing emails and performing the final preparation, fixing the tables in an orderly manner and telling the local staff that we will be in the office early the next day in time for the go live, excited again to be in the eve of another warehouse roll-out.

We had dinner at a ‘hole in the wall’ restaurant called ‘Dusties’ which featured a buffet of pork knuckles cooked in oil, chicken in various forms;  fried,  spicy chicken and pork, sausage and sauerkraut, rice and beans, slices of pepper, olives,  onions and Heineken beer.  It was not a great dinner but we were tired, an interesting restaurant nevertheless with booths and tables, pictures of old artists in walls paneled with wood, mostly African American singers of the 60’s to 70’s, tunes of Rhythm and Blues wafting in place; pork knuckles is a rare treat after all, a dish available in Asia but rare in America, plunging into a second serving but giving up when feeling dizzy, a condition that arises when one eats too much fat.  We went back to Hampton Inn; I had tea, drank vitamins and some medication, went to Sports authority with a colleague so he could buy gym clothes, got back to the Inn, exercised for 40 minutes, alternating the routine with the cross-trainer and the stationary bike, the food digesting with the physical effort, back to the room, taking a shower and trying to write but falling asleep by 11pm.

Woke early the next day, read yesterday’s paper, tried to write but no time, ate breakfast of hardboiled egg, ham, potatoes and scrambled eggs, yogurt, orange juice, chocolate and green tea.  The morning at the office went well, software working great, met remotely with the suppliers and team leader, reported an issue again, lunch of chicken tenders; warehouse staff happy with the way it works, continue to set up the laser printer, the day ending, wrote emails and make phone calls, performing the day end procedure, everything looks good except the reports don’t print. Going home early, having dinner at an elegant restaurant called ‘Barneys’, entree of rack of lamb with mint sauce, rice pilaf and Heineken beer, back at the Inn by 7:30 pm, working out at the gym an hour later for 40 minutes, chatting with colleague about work and office challenges, so far so good in Chicago, some remaining issues, hoping the supplier fixes the issue by tomorrow would make the perfect roll-out. Still a major feature will be used tomorrow that will determine if the exercise is a success.  So far the windy city has been kind to the team and luck likely will continue.

We spent some time in the warehouse floor the past 2 days, learning about automatic light switches to save energy, pallets and other packing debris cleared from the floor; good housekeeping to increase the space for product, different ways to load into trucks, inspecting the computers and printers on the floor, planning to de-commission several equipment once we’re done, learning about the operations in the past 2 days than in a career in Logistics, glad that one is working with professionals, experts who know their stuff and done a lot of projects, sharing stories during dinner, of the ways the product is stolen, about the mischief done in the warehouse and the trucking companies, talking about the latest technology, scanning barcodes and using radio frequency identification or RFID, about stolen goods hidden in the truck driver’s cab, about accidents in forklifts, about the warehouse being staffed with crazy people who take drugs and drink a lot, about outsourcing and the loss of good people to third party logistics providers, companies willing to take these people (some are crazy) after being outsourced, cutting costs and freezing wages, talking about changes in the industry and how one adapts and make everything work out right, being in the midst of another change and glad to have participated in some way, a voyage of many countries and warehouses that one realizes that he is an expert, too.    

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


We arrived at Chicago- Midway airport at about 4 pm Central Time on Sunday. The weather was great, some traces of snow, but a clear sky with the temperature in the 30’s. We rented 2 cars because the other members would leave  early this coming Thursday, leaving me behind for a few hours so the systems has  support, instead of having us together on the air at the same time and unable to address any problems if it arises; a good precaution to Murphy’s law. We drove for about 45 minutes to Monee, a small town south of Chicago, going through neighborhoods with extremely large houses, the Chicago suburbs seen beyond the highway, the road littered with diners, strip malls and car lots; the street busy with dusk commuters, perhaps hurrying home to see the football game between the Denver Broncos and the Chicago bears. I followed the team the another car, driving through side roads, avoiding the main highway, the night coming fast until we were travelling away from the city with large patches of dark seemingly empty land, a lot of large houses in expensive looking neighborhoods, along empty parks, reaching the town near a strip mall, finally finding the Hampton Inn, set behind the mall with lots of places to eat.

After checking in, we shared a car and drove to Apple bees; the restaurant was crowded, the football game in full swing, people watching the restaurant’s many television screen, the patrons cheering the local team who were ahead. I ordered Cajun steak and shrimps, cooked medium well and Heineken beer,  talking about football, suddenly load cheers then disappointment, the Denver Broncos evened the score and the game went into overtime, an amazing turn of events in the last minutes of the match, a testament to the ability of Denver’s quarterback Tim Tebow. I had read about Tebow a day earlier, a player who seemed gifted from all reports but shrouded in some controversy; an unorthodox player said my friend, with an ability to deliver, playing his own game against the wishes of the team’s coaching staff, always a good story – the lone brilliant protagonist, following his own gut and leading the team. In overtime, the Denver Broncos beat Chicago, the crowd in the restaurant leaving dejected, amazed at the reversal of fortune; I finished my excellent dinner, more knowledgeable about American football, driving back to the hotel and watching television for most of the night.

I finished reading the chapter in the book ‘Tide Players’ by Jianying Zha, watching a show on China from CNBC, what a coincidence, both discussing slightly similar themes, Tiananmen square, modern China and so on, the book focusing on the Chinese players while the television show on America’s challenges ahead. Both dwelled on the seeming disinterest of the Chinese youth on political events, forgetting the disaster of Tiananmen Square, preferring to live prosperous lives and avoid challenging the government, happily becoming consumers, allowing the Communist government to lead the country towards becoming the greatest economy on earth. Coincidentally, 60 minutes was interviewing Barack Obama, the president eloquently talking about his plans, while earlier I read account of the Republican party, a new front runner in the game, confirmed after the recent debates, a few weeks before the Iowa primary, politics coming into limelight as the presidential election looms in the months ahead.

‘Tide Players’ is an excellent book, about ‘the movers and shakers of a rising China’, portraits of entrepreneurs and intellectuals; it seemed to me that this representative section are more insightful and sensible than their American counterparts, soon I recall the CNBC segment  which showed the youths of China looking for work and trying out new things, while the youth of America is shown lining up in Best Buy in the early morning, waiting in the cold for the opening of Black Friday sale, to rush in and buy the latest gizmos on discount, a surprising contrast to different societies, both giants in the East and West. Interestingly, I have just finished reading George Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, thinking that the stories of poverty that portray the lower depths that the modern countries try to avoid, China lifting 400 million people out of poverty and into the middle class, while America struggles to maintain theirs, Orwell’s book a frightening (but entertaining reminder) of the consequence of inequality and the life of squalor if a society does not take care of its own. Travelling down the Chicago suburbs, looking at the immense houses outlined in the descending dusk, one wonders how many of those houses are in foreclosure, or watching the people in the street, wondering who is unemployed, thanking God of one’s momentary fortune, realizing that the coming debate in the role of government will be the deciding factor in the coming elections.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Things Happen

Yesterday was another one of those days when everyone attributes a system bug to my project. It’s not the first time it happens so I end up scrambling to get things back on track and prove it isn’t me causing the issue; immediate response being the secret of damage control, a method honed to perfection by the Clinton team when faced with ‘bimbo’ problems, still an effective tactic in  every day blame game politics at work. Unfortunately, one is also deploying a software, perhaps not testing as much as required before the roll out, especially with the care free attitude of the supplier, the bane of successful project management, instead playing a game of chicken to see who blinks first, wondering if someone is not getting paid, thereby causing the foot dragging of the programmer. Next week the plan is to go live in Chicago, travel arrangement already made and tickets booked, the team all ready to go but still a few issues remain and the program not yet installed in the main server. What a mess, one wonders how this situation can still happen after the many obstacles overcome in the past, one thinks that some rapport has been established but chastened with the current state of affairs.

Feeling responsible is a mistake that must be corrected; otherwise one succumbs to pressure, a victim of the hero mindset; the skill to develop is the facility to answer back to one’s own team members, a factual and witty reply used like a sword to get things done or refuse a task, waving the weapon to suppliers, bosses, fellow workers and all those who would challenge you and try to load all the burden on your shoulders. I guess that is what people try to do when one’s in charge, the example of the current president a sad picture, one wonders if that’s democracy in action but one sees it everywhere, possibly the lizard brain trying to survive and the helpless martyr dying on the cross if he accepts the burden.  Another interesting article in Vanity Fair is the story of Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, the advocate for consumer protection from financial malfeasance, a victim of all sort of bad press despite her noble goal of helping the middle class, a cautionary tale of how one can be blamed of all sorts of things even if the allegations are untrue, money and profit being the core motive for destroying other people’s reputation.

Vanity Fair is getting to be a great magazine where one can get insider news on politics and finance, like a gossip rag for the elite, powerful and discreet, stories about movers and shakers, stories already available in the dry magazines of Fortune or Forbes but lacking the human perspective provided by engaging writers like Michael Lewis, someone who may be reluctant to write in dry finance magazines, focusing instead in a sort of pop culture tale of the rich and famous. The story on Elizabeth Warren is interesting, a crusader confronting banking executives on their irresponsible behavior in the crisis, replying to her that ‘things happen’, similar to the idiotic remark of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the Iraq chaos after the invasion who said ‘stuff happens’.  Unfortunately, it’s not easy to reform Wall Street in the same manner as withdrawing troops from Iraq, so courageous people like Elizabeth Warren or even Arnold the former California governor gets hammered, harsh stories and criticism flying like mud, tarnishing reputations like it was so easy to do like nothing, divisiveness in politics like it exist today, people hoping someday to be saved from gridlock.

The clock is ticking, the day slowly coming to an end, waiting for the supplier’s reply, wondering if the trip next week will push through, the supplier confident that the issue will be fixed, hopeful words spoken in a noon meeting but still no reply, one thinks about the guilt, now why did I not test this feature sooner?, preparing my alibi, weapons at ready, formulating the argument that the supplier is delivering a faulty product, pushing the testing to the customer.  It feels like the world is coming apart, the center will not hold, one feels burned out, wondering why I had agreed on the schedule next week when one could have pushed out to next year, no one to blame but oneself, ‘hell - stuff happens’, you say, following Rummy’s alibi, a glib pronouncement when trying to absolve yourself. There is just too much to do, attention spread out to different areas, fixing issues, writing emails, creating tickets, losing touch and dropping the ball. It’s not your problem man, you would say, just move on and have fun, laughing like the president despite the vitriol directed at him, head and shoulders above the contenders, opponents like pygmies with their small minds.   It’s your decision they would say and there you go accepting that responsibility.

The call finally happens but still not conclusive, issues not fixed, another call scheduled later at 5pm, one foolishly volunteers to remain and continue testing, determined to push forward, is that a dumb thing to do or what?, let’s wait out the game and see who breaks first, you wonder but really it’s been delayed too long and there’s no choice but to move ahead or another month goes by, things get delayed and you find yourself in the middle of next year. Soon the next call comes and by God things have improved, all the problems solved except for one small matter, nothing to worry about, ready to test again, continuing to work for a few more hours, shutting your computer, restarting and find your email broken, still marching on, testing all the possible scenarios, calling the help desk to have them fix your email, still not working and resolving to use the web-based one, continuing testing and the confidence coming back, yes it’s working right. The team will be going to Chicago after all, amidst the cold and possible snow, facing sure bumps in the road but ready for the game, the supplier keen on helping out too, proud to have fixed all the issue in hair – raising time, they are the best that can ever be, my God proud of them to keep at it and solving the problem. We shall see what we shall see next week in the windy city. Yes, yes, yes!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Financial Mess

Michael Lewis is always an interesting writer, a noticeable result of his intriguing background, having studied in the London School of Economics, worked for Solomon Brothers, an undergraduate degree in art history, some years spent in the art world, giving him a certain perspective that is both intellectually rigorous but with a touch of frivolity.  His string of books on the financial crisis plus other works on baseball economics, football drama, his early days in the bonds market at Solomon, gives him the chops to write about finance and economics. He is no academic who writes dry tomes but goes straight to the jugular, making him a cross between an investigative hack and a daft professor, a playful vein with the light philosophical bent of the everyday man. His regular columns in Vanity Fair is one reason I like the magazine, his articles shrewdly a draft of future books to come, making him an appealing writer to readers with a level of education that can appreciate the finer points of finance or economics, but not pandering to the academic side but to the area that would stimulate the most attention without losing sight of his goal.

His recent article was on the looming crisis in states and municipalities, focusing on California as THE place in dire straits with the potential to bankrupt the whole country, with towns and cities declaring insolvency such as the town of Vallejo near San Francisco. He starts his article with an interview with the former California governor, the action star Arnold Schwarzenegger - now that’s a brilliant start, describing how a movie actor has tried to reform the state but failing to lead either the citizens or the Republican or Democratic politicians, achieving only minor victories during his term. His article starts with an early morning bike ride with Arnold along the roads near Venice beach where the former muscle man started as a brick layer before his eventual stardom in body building, movies and politics, ending up as governor in one of the greatest states of the union, right smack into a financial crisis for the ages, a story that describes the symptoms affecting the whole country; declining revenues with the poor economy, unfunded pension and health care benefits, obscenely rising salaries, a militant citizenry who expects a lot of service without paying for it, all resulting in a nightmare scenario that will still play out in the future.

What a brilliant start, the bike ride with Arnold, the warning from a respected financial analyst Meredith Whitney, interviews with the mayors of San Jose and the manager of Vallejo, plus a fire chief and a professor at a university . According to the professor, the financial mess is a cultural problem, Americans have no way to respond moderately in an age of abundance, the seeds of collapse seen in the success of their modern society, resulting in obesity and debt, wherein the a map of the country displaying the highest incidence of obesity are also the places with the highest foreclosures and bankruptcies, attributing the financial problem to a psychological problem, the modern mind still following the lizard brain, a fear of scarcity despite the wealth, gorging in food because of the fear the food will disappear (perhaps eaten by some predator in the cave man age). It’s a brilliant analysis that provide a psychological basis for the economic problem, something that most citizenry do not ascribe to, with tea party movement calling for lesser government, or the occupy Wall Street movements assailing big banks, not realizing that the enemy is within ourselves, not the government or the big corporations, these entities just living out the desires of their misguided employees.

This brings me back to my predicament, the insatiable curiosity that leaves out any productive endeavor, forever distracted by multiple desires, perhaps a reflection of the culture, influenced by that insatiable lust for knowledge, but in fact driven by fear, fear of missing something, of being ignorant, of lacking the skills to be a good worker, forever striving until nothing is really achieved. Is this the influence of modern culture? , being a consumer of media but in fact a willing victim to its materialism, unable to focus but to keep consuming, whether it is food resulting in obesity, or media resulting in anxiety or a bent toward procrastination; the true sin being an unquenchable urge to consume until one becomes bloated in mind and body. The professor in the article relates a true story of a pheasant he observed during a stay at Blenheim Palace, a bird that lived in a well-nourished field, which ate itself into obesity that he could no longer fly and disappeared one day because a fox ate him, unable to take to the air naturally as in the past, a victim of his own gluttony. Perhaps that is the fate of the modern writer who is unable to write, forever procrastinating as he tries to be better, reading more books, watching movies all in a conscious attempt to learn more and feed his creativity, but instead lost in a merry go round of distraction.

From this perspective, the solution seems to be straight forward and simple, to live a moderate life of austerity and humility, avoiding unnecessary distraction, consuming only that which is necessary for survival, a philosophical way of life that will restore sanity. Such a plain solution, the key to living for the ages, answering the problems of the financial mess of bankruptcy and foreclosure, of procrastination and unending consumption, but something actually difficult to do because most people do not internalize the fix, but blame an outside force like the government, the banks, Wall Street. Of course there’s a grain of truth as these organizations are made of flawed men, their failures becoming the failure of the whole entity until the way of doing things becomes a culture, influencing a whole country until everyone want to become like America. One wonders if that’s the true dream, the Arab spring as a way to achieve this so-called dream, perhaps that’s one lesson being learned but recent elections have brought victory to the Islamist and one wonders if a back lash is coming, perhaps a return to conservative lifestyles that fundamentalist groups in the both the East and West seem to want but with the skewed results of extremism.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Curiosity as Addiction

The reason one goes about distracting himself with fruitless diversions is to satisfy one’s curiosity. Curiosity killed the cat goes the famous saying, as curiosity lead one to discover new worlds and new ideas and new experiences, inevitably resulting in new desires and cravings, more shopping and the spending of money, satisfying the urge to consummate one’s desires and achieve new levels of delight, all of which starts with curiosity. The story of Adam and Eve is really about satisfying one’s curiosity, to eat the forbidden fruit and see what happens next instead of leaving things alone, resulting in their banishment from Eden and their eventual epic procreation that resulted in the human race.  Hence, curiosity is the original sin, resulting with banishment into the reality of normal existence, away from paradise and the loss of innocence as represented by Eden. Some literature depict the forbidden fruit as eating from the tree of knowledge, to quench one’s thirst for information and satisfy that urge to know more and more, unaware that one eventually becomes jaded and cynical with the education gained, ‘did that, done that’ as people say, until the next level is indulgence, excess and corruption.

Perhaps an example is Orson Welles or Marlon Brando, young geniuses or pioneers who have gone beyond the normal limits of talent in their respective fields, going to new horizons with their original visions, craving new experiences to fuel their creativity and achieving greatness but, in later years, becoming overweight and world-weary, a former shell of themselves, exhausted and corrupted in their excess, their innocence long gone, that rare quality that gave their work uniqueness and power. Perhaps another example is Ernest Hemingway, another genius with his literary works, hunting, fishing, travelling and having a good time in a way or manner that is inspiring, continuing well into his advanced years until the pace of his life was no longer sustainable, descending into madness (or, as some said, a momentary lucidity) to commit suicide. Maintaining innocence is perhaps the goal, to be like a child and discover life anew every day, a fresh perspective that keep one alive and vital, not jaded or cynical, not eating the forbidden fruit, not consuming from the tree of knowledge is perhaps the true secret.

Don’t be too smart is a good adage, perhaps concentrating only in a few skills instead of throwing the net wide, to be a hedgehog instead of a fox (or is that the other way around?), to focus and limit one’s wide reading or search for more experiences or skills, maybe the threshold has been reached that the urge for the new is no longer an innocent urge but a cynical striving for more and more like gluttony, unable to stop eating or stop stuffing things into one’s mouth, the innocence of a child’s curiosity already lost and replaced with debauchery and depravity. Eastern despots well known for their wantonness, their harem of women, unlike the puritans of the Western world but with hedonistic rulers as well with their many mistresses, these decadent European kings, excess now spread in the new world with the obscene wealth, vice and abundance of modern times, where obesity and bankruptcy is the norm.  Curiosity is an addiction that needs to be controlled; an urge that translates into a love of food, wine, book reading, travel and search for new experiences, spending money and feeling satiated after the momentary lust is quenched.

I guess the urge starts with a quest for an education, to learn and be a productive member of society; soon it translates into arrogance and greed, to be the smartest man in the room by knowing lots of stuff, or to keep up with the Joneses, to spend more, travel more and experience more and tell your friends about it and spread the green monster of envy,  in a race for social supremacy and wealth; the corrupting element when one tries to share experiences with your acquaintances, turning one’s quest for education into an immoral act of insatiability, acquisitiveness and materialism.  One needs to pull back after one has satisfied the basic need to be productive, to lead a moderate life with the realization that one can never learn more and be the smartest man on the planet, erudition becoming a bragging right to show off. Curtailing this addiction is more difficult to stop than alcoholism or drug addiction or gambling because it comes in the guise of progress, or a positive sign of consumerism instead of materialism, that one has lost the true goal of curiosity, to learn enough to earn a decent living, therefore one does not need to eat the forbidden fruit and go down the road to wasteful indulgence.   Japanese artist remain ascetic I think, not succumbing to over indulgence or overeating but working long hours and achieving more, perhaps people like Toshiro Mifune, Akira Kurosawa and Haroyuki Murakami or Western artists like Ingmar Bergman or Woody Allen or Clint Eastwood who are productive well into their twilight years.

Perhaps age determines when one has had enough, or one’s present circumstances, when one needs to curtail his craving, avoid going to the libraries where one is addicted to books, after all what more can one learn if it is at the expense of productive endeavors; being productive is really the key to life and one must strike a balance between productivity and satisfying one’s endless curiosity. This is a worthwhile resolution for the New Year, to be aware of the compulsion of the mind, the obsession for knowledge at the expense of living a moderate life, to stop feasting on the forbidden fruit and smell the roses, to concentrate on constructive activities to fill one’s days. Now what does one read? Finance and investment books to increase one’s investment skills, computer books to increase one’s programming and technical skills, how to write books to become a writer plus general history, literature, travel, biographical books to deepen one’s reading to use in the future as a writer. Why does one watch movies? To fill the well of a writer’s reservoir for reference in his later works, to expand one’s horizon, also to use as backdrop in some future assignment.  Have you satisfied your curiosity or achieved your objective in reading and watching goals? I think the answer is yes.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Regaining Oneself

As with most people, I realized this weekend that I wasn't doing what I needed to do to make my life more meaningful. Instead one is consciously being sidetracked from one’s true goal, a goal that makes one magically driven in life, like writing a book or being outdoors or making more sincere connections to one’s family, but instead one is watching movies, reading numerous books and what not. The weeks, months and years go by with missed opportunities; one does not realize one is lost, driving forward with another agenda that does not meet one true dreams or passions, instead just moving along with the rat race, mistaken in thinking that one is progressing to a better place, but just accepting new information and new realities while missing the boat. Tragically one realizes this mistake watching good movies like ‘Cedar Rapids’, making one think that watching movies is a worthwhile activity when one stumbles into a gem of cinema that transforms the viewer.  Maybe cinema doesn’t waste one’s time, but like reading a book, good cinema can open one’s eyes.

Last week, one was given a chance to think about one’s career path, the future that one would like down the road, meeting a career planner, someone one has never had the privilege of meeting before, where one’s dreams are drawn as if one’s fate is in the hands of this specialist before you, wondering if one can indeed reach out and grasp the arc of your destiny and bend it towards the correct direction. Perhaps one’s life can be charted like one of those 5-year plans that countries in the developing world make, striving to undertake the tasks that would make one a better person, being on a path that will not only bring fame and fortune but enlightenment, serenity, freedom and better health, striving to make plans that will deliver the dream in some future time. But the road one has already traveled has been long, maybe it’s time to relax and smell the roses as someone said in my past; does one really need more challenges or new career plans, to work in distant lands, or just stay put and be part of your children’s life as they grow and go to college, starting their lives and one can only pray that you can be part of this new journey and contribute to its success. It is not the destination that matters but the journey, one had said.

What were the missed connections? A lost love, a different place or career, a new lover, quality time with  family and friends, a different destiny that was missed; how did one ignore these cues, by not paying attention but maybe the current path is the right one? How does one know? Perhaps it is a feeling of emptiness, a realization that one is better off somewhere else, a remembrance of excellent food eaten in the past, visions of a twilight, the sun setting on an Asian landscape, perhaps the lost time in one’s youth, of a place long gone, of seeing old friends in Facebook, wondering how they have changed, not realizing that one has aged too, wondering where all the time has gone,  thinking how one has spent his moments, time flying past like a whirlwind while one is engaged in trivia, reading books, watching movies, lost in the Internet, attending Toastmaster meetings; indeed submerging into different lands and places, the result of consuming media that alternate realities seem possible. The ability to imagine a different place in one’s mind, to see the insidious politics of Washington, the exotic lands of Iran, India and the Middle East, the culture of Japan, Thailand and China, ruminating that one can be there, done that like a global tourist.

Awakening one day and thinking what am I doing here, living in the American south, driving to work in lonely back roads, the Appalachian mountains and hills in the far horizon, the quiet neighborhoods, the dying light of dusk and the sunrise in early mornings, the light reaching the silent houses, the rural landscapes without the teeming multitudes of major cities, wondering who am I, why am I here; existential questions that suddenly comes after meeting the career professional, poised and ready to deliver you to the next great thing. In the evening of that meeting, one attended a Toastmaster assembly, the second gathering of the day, as the first one with one’s own club, listening to speeches, seeing people and speaking, working hard on the project that will go live next week in Chicago, Illinois. Perhaps it’s the trigger of one’s sudden yearning, experiencing the thrill and pressure of work, the chance to travel and work at another warehouse again, thinking of the stress and work that requires one to be here right now. One wonders if the pressure and stress is worth it, of the many hours spent toiling without vacation, fixing problems during weekends, alone during times of trouble, wracking one’s brain to identify the solution.

After all has been said and done with thoughts swirling about at night, of sleeping late due to the many diversions, of trying to achieve dreams in the midst of a full workload, unable to cut down on distraction and indulgence, wondering if all these new things are worth it, but instead dreaming of the wonderful days of tropical splendor and serenity with one’s friends. It’s time to move again you think, to discover new places and meet new people, discovering yourself even more and learn about the true value of time, maybe running away is the answer or travelling back where you came from and go full circle, perhaps that is the answer to reclaiming that which one has lost in one’s youth or travels, to reclaim the past (or is it innocence?). But old friends live here too, spread out the continent, in California or Canada or Chicago, maybe visiting old friends will return one to his roots and rediscover value, when one was sure about himself in his youth, without the doubt and uncertainty of today, without the bewildering array of choices that bring you to paths unknown with the hope of finding yourself but instead lost in a maze of broken mirrors and uncertainty. Perhaps heading to Chicago next week will clear one’s mind, followed thankfully, by a needed vacation in California.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Saved by Beauty

I finished reading a remarkable book about Iran, written by an Anglo-American poet, a devotee of Rumi - the Islamic mystic, the author writes with the sensitivities of a first class travel writer, with the appropriate background on politics and history, alive to the ironies encountered in his travels while delving in the strange and exotic events, reminding one of writers like Rory Stewart and those upper class Englishmen who roam the world and write elegant accounts of their adventures. I supplemented my reading by looking at YouTube videos about the places the writer visited like Tehran, Isfahan, Nishpur, Yadz and Qom, and watching events attended by the writer like whirling dervishes, muharram and other solemn Islamic singing and dancing events that commemorate the martyrdom of the Shiite leader, bringing one towards a deeper understanding of Iran and the greater Islamic world. Learning by multimedia leaves one with images in the mind, the book’s words lost with the visual reality, as if one has done the travels himself, seeing the actual scenes instead of visualizing from the pages of the book, less imagination is needed by the mind.

I had visited Islamic sites in India like Fatepur Sikri, the great deserted city in the plains that ran out of water, near the city of Agra, built by a Mogul emperor, descendants of rulers from the Middle East, following the Persian architectural principles with their gardens and water pools, precise in their geometric lines, also recalling the immense courtyard of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi as well as the majestic columns and platforms in the Red forts of Agra and Delhi and the other ancient forts scattered in the city with their architectural lines claiming lineage from Persian roots. The wide open boulevards of the city of Isfahan, the Imam square, the bridge across the river, the bazaar, one clearly sees the majestic history of the ancient city, one gets the same feeling in the gardens and lakes of Beijing, symbols of an imperial past long lost in time. I saw these places first hand in Beijing and Delhi but glimpsed Iran from videos in the Internet, accompanied by words from a book, delving into the inner life of Persian poets and the modern day politics of Islam.

Iranians, who the author met in his travels, talk about Iran before the Islamic conquest, citing writers like Ferdowsi – the author of the Persian epic ‘Shanameh’, or more enlightened Islamic thinkers like Hafez, Omar Khayyam and Rumi the mystic, as the true image of Iran and not the severe Ayatollahs that rule today, writers one has read in the books of the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk in his great books ‘My Name is Red’ and ‘Snow’, writing also that the Sufi mystical tradition is the only bulwark preventing Pakistan from succumbing into a fundamentalist Islamic state like Iran, showing another face that one has deemed lost in the wars of the Middle East, a face of elegance, beauty, tolerance and enlightenment. The writer had difficulties leaving Iran, accused of being a Western spy, notably after visiting places like Kurdistan and meeting artists and other well-known people like directors and painters, some notable critics of the regime,  indeed working like a spy under the guise of being a poet, now that’s a novelty, meeting with the English ambassador, having dinner in his elegant residence, with echoes of their own imperial past, the colonial masters of continents now sovereign, Britannia no longer ruling the waves.

The writer has a strange pedigree, an English poet who worked on newspapers like ‘The Guardian’ and BBC, writing popular books on poetry, accepting American citizenships and living in the San Francisco Bay Area, travelling the world especially the Middle East with his avowed love of Rumi, going to America to help the Obama campaign in Ohio, returning to see the inauguration and feeling the anticipation for change, finally travelling to Iran to visit the fabled city of Isfahan to see the blue tiles covering the domes of ancient mosques, an image seen in a dream. The thesis of his book is that the harsh fundamentalism of Islam will be saved by the beauty of Iran’s past, perhaps a separation of church and state, as in the secular countries of Turkey and Egypt, countries with a rich ancient history, alluding to the role of Sufism in preventing Pakistan fall into fundamentalism, an insight by the writer William Dalrymple, hoping for change in the same vein as the election of the new American president. A year or so later, the Arab spring erupts with the fall of the entrenched leaders in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, with increasing protests in Syria, Bahrain and Iran, the killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan and the coming pullout of foreign troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, times are a’ changing baby as someone said, the openness heralded by news services like Al Jazeera based in Qatar.

Initially one was skeptical about the book, thinking it was some mushy romantic trip back to ancient Persia, but strangely has aspects of fine travel writing and insights into politics and religion, lacking in fact the usual poetic sensibilities despite frequent quotes from mystical poets, instead a raw insight into modern day Iran, but perhaps the YouTube videos were the real gems, placing value on a trivial book. The book was the highlight of the thanksgiving weekend, filled with great movies like Kurosawa’s ‘Kagemusha’, viewed with audio commentary, providing an unknown detail into Japanese history, refreshing the mind like a tonic, amidst tasks like smoking a turkey, injected beforehand with a spicy marinade, shopping on ‘Black Friday’, purchasing furniture at a discount with free shipping, delving into picture books and magazines, one’s thoughts flying again while keeping the mind lubricated with the usual drinks, going to the gym to swim and run,  missing sleep by sleeping late, aware that the deficit will hit you one day but who cares, lost in the subject of the moment, unfocused and missing real goals, perhaps like the book’s title, hoping to be saved by beauty.