Saturday, March 24, 2012

Filling the Well

A number of milestones where crossed this week. The most significant is the completion of the rollout in all North American (7) warehouses, the second is the completion of the design draft, the filing of my 2011 income tax and the completion of housework before my wife arrived from vacation last night. I also cleaned my white board (full of graffiti for at least 6 months) and completed reading some overdue magazines at my desk plus worked on my first cross word puzzle as an aging adult. I also had a chance to look at the pictures, read the article, watched the PowerPoint presentation and video of an important meeting I missed a week ago when I was in Michigan. Next Monday I will get a new lap top computer, discuss my objectives for this year as well as a performance review for the past year with my current and former boss.  I feel that I am about to turn a corner, considering also that I started a process last week to re-finance my housing loan from a 30 year variable mortgage to a 15 year fixed term loan. I cannot help but feel that a watershed event has been crossed, moving towards a different and exciting year ahead with new projects and, hopefully, more learning and travel.

It’s the year of the dragon after all, the most significant astrological sign in the Chinese New Year, a year that portends change; but glad to note that my birth year – the year of the rabbit – bodes well under the dragon year but with some challenges. Yesterday I attended an audit with some foreign auditors, skilled interviewers checking on our work, thinking that I answered their questions well, together with the other analysts in our department, thinking that I am ahead of my game after working in the same position for many years now. I can also be considered a veteran, working for 17 years in the company, all those years in information technology, experiencing the waves of changes sweeping the department as new trends, new leaders brought forth new ideas, different ways of doing things and so on, emerging years later after the last major convulsion in a new job at a new office across the Pacific ocean and into the new world.  It feels like it was only now that I begun to grasp the changes that have gone through my life and work, the significance of what I had weathered; maybe after some quiet time after the completion of my major project and solitude during my wife’s absence.

I had a chance to assess where I was at this stage, looked at the progress I had at Toastmasters, classes attended in creative writing and the certification at my job. There is an opportunity being offered for a new role, something that I still have to think about when extended, feeling challenged and eager to go ahead. But this morning I felt drained, attended a meeting in the morning and felt shy amongst the other big guns in the department; a similar feeling before - a sense of being overwhelmed as head of my local club, a feeling of inadequacy. It’s like I needed to replenish the well that is now empty; the water drained out; maybe my years of rushing forward at projects with ‘the seat of my pants’ method; feeling that the stress has finally come to haunt me. It’s like all the ideas have been exhausted and a time of renewal is needed; a vacation, a hike in the hills, playing golf or travel to distant lands. But I soon received a mail about a delivery of the new software baseline, more testing is needed, back to the old game but with different eyes. It feels like the world has changed around me, people looking at me differently, my awareness increased like a battle is about to commence, the stillness before the coming explosion.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

At Home Alone

A few of my colleagues are offsite this week; one team in San Bernardino, another in Reno, a project leader in France and my wife in Vancouver; leaving me behind to watch the store and support any project work remotely, actually offering me time to work on other stuff that needs to be completed by month end, including the filing of taxes this coming weekend in order to get a discount. Travelling this week would have required me to rush some work and miss deadlines, so glad the week would be spent catching up; for instance, I purchased office supplies in Staples to organize my papers; not achieving a lot but getting some order though more needs to be done; getting a chance to visit a small museum near home and eating lunch in a Japanese restaurant after church on Sunday. I had planned to complete my taxes, but I was caught up with housework and reading magazines that needed to be returned today, rushing to watch movies and television shows like my favorite Sunday show ‘The Walking Dead’, managing to catch ‘The Rum Diary’ – Johnny Depp’s belated homage to his friend, the writer Hunter Thompson; a wonderful work, especially the scenes on drinking and indulging in chemical substances in exotic locations like Puerto Rico; scenes I would have appreciated in my younger years.

In lieu of actual travel, I listened to Mark Twain’s excellent memoir ‘Innocents Abroad’, his humorous account of travels in Europe and the Middle East in the 1860’s; at a moment when America was about to emerge as a world power; years before Theodore Roosevelt’s adventures in the Spanish colonies of Cuba and the Philippines; first as assistant secretary of the Navy, then as Rough Rider, then Vice-President and eventually as President. Read today, Twain’s account would be labeled as racist, condescending and arrogant; the typical ‘ugly American’ especially in today’s charged atmosphere of political correctness, but that was a different time; Twain being the last person to be accused of being a racist, in fact criticizing the American occupation of the Philippines; instead his account should be taken as a humorous satirical tale of a na├»ve traveller. I finished the 15-CD audio book, listening at home after work or in my car; listening while driving to Simpsonville 15 miles away from home, looking at a possible new house on Saturday afternoon before going to the gym to swim. I also read Nathaniel Philbrick’s ‘Why Read Moby Dick’, an excellent primer to Melville’s masterpiece, in essence a travel book of the high seas (and of the soul), from the whaling town of Nantucket to the vast oceans, sailors born of distant shores amidst the adventure of capturing an elusive white whale.

 In Ron Suskind’s ‘Confidence Men’, the condescending Lawrence Summers would remark to his team of being ‘home alone’, alluding to Obama’s inexperience as compared to Bill Clinton, an unfortunate statement considering Obama’s achievements. It’s a question of competence, a challenge hurled by the GOP contenders, of the peril of learning on the job, an unfair accusation as one feels Obama is a sensible natural leader, gifted with unusual intelligence and luck – a trait that one should not underestimate.  With the office supplies from Staples, I organized my papers from the creative writing workshops that I attended last year, getting an impression of progress and emerging competence (like Obama?); the 2-day Wofford workshop, the 8 day one-hour course at the Greer community center, various hour long seminars at other places, watching the 24 lecture series on crafting sentences in DVD, blog entries and extensive book reading. A fair amount of study and practice but still lacking confidence, like earning an MFA on the cheap, spending more time in public speaking events, thinking these experiences enrich the writer; it’s about personal expression after all, filling the well with stories; recalling the article in the magazine ‘Poet & Writers’, that literary agents prefer story tellers, recalling the piece on a young author who writes without thought of plot, shaping a story from the many written paragraphs, discarding those unneeded words, looking at the output without emotion. This is a useful skill to learn while planning attendance on coming writing seminars.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Moving On

After returning back from Michigan, the team receives the customary kudos; the next trip is planned for the week after next and preparation work begins; so it’s back to the grindstone like nothing happened, regardless of the stress experienced during the last deployment so one is glad that he is not involved in the coming trip. It’s like the business leader is making a point, rushing forward to the next stop despite a minor surgery, perhaps expecting a raise; one notice he eagerly awaits a reply on the daily report he makes, but not receiving any feedback except from the other project leader; it’s a minor project after all. Apparently he is rushing the work due to his coming vacation; mission work in one of the Caribbean islands, a strange way to see the world, not by the regular vacation but in the guise of charity work, is this real or is one cynical of the world? One never knows the heart of things (or ‘kokoro’ in Japanese), when some effort has another underlying reality; perhaps it’s noble after all. A good illustration is the book ‘Innocents Abroad’ by Mark Twain, his excellent book about his overseas travels, skewering tourists and natives alike,  one gets a sarcastic and humorous lens in viewing the world.

Before the day ended yesterday, I was called to the office of the resource manager, seems that one may be offered another job with project management responsibilities, apparently in another department, something which I would prefer not to go to despite the interesting challenge. I have had this responsibility before in Asia, and one feels eager to move forward now that the project is ending, but one is also mid-stream in another venture moving forward; one cannot abandon the effort for this new opportunity although one is being encouraged to develop oneself and be all that you can be. One enjoys being in this department; not eager to move forward but one sees the slow decline of opportunities, one is at the low end of the totem pole; meritocracy briefly honored though seniority is treasured; other older folks eager to move forward and not happy to have a recent newcomer, despite 16 years of service in distant lands, step ahead. But it’s all paranoia, one does not know the desires inside people’s heart, is it a move to protect someone, or is there a dire need in other departments?; sadly one is not aware but what’s a fact is that the opportunity does not exists in one’s current department.

Despite the machinations of the world around you, humor helps you enjoy the moment; for instance, Mark Twain is a supreme humorist, his words have a weight of a serious writer, not a trivial featherweight who makes charming or interesting observations. In a way, one is an ‘innocent abroad’ coming from Asia into the so-called ‘new world’, having the wit of Samuel Clemens light your way into the intricacies of man’s foolishness including your own, perhaps that’s his charm, not standing above the rest and criticizing everyone around you but accepting his own folly and prejudice too, like an everyman; hence, bringing a touch of humility to his adventures. He becomes a part of that human drama that forever advances forward in the pageantry of humanity, often stumbling in folly; most have their eyes clouded with illusions of grandeur requiring a humorist like Mark Twain ready to pierce one’s own silliness. To read Mark Twain is to become sensible, to regain ones humility and be able to laugh at one self, to become human and not become one of those people who build sand castles to stand on only to find oneself like an emperor without clothes. Like Warren Buffet who said of seemingly intelligent investors: when the tide recedes, one will see who is naked and lost his bathing suit.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


We left Detroit airport this morning at 7:30 am, actually called McNamara airport, possible for the former Kennedy and Johnson Defense minister and World Bank president, also a former Ford Executive who worked in Detroit and lived in the plush suburbs of Ann Arbor, a fact I read long ago, likely from David Halberstam’s excellent book ‘The Best and the Brightest’. I remember the names of the roads and highway exits from these books read long ago, the mind connecting the significance of Ann Arbor, a distant suburb that McNamara preferred to live in, away from the usual wealthy neighborhoods of auto executives near Detroit, preferring instead a home close to a university, which is the true home of this intense data driven genius, the author of the Vietnam body counts, hoping that being empirical will insure victory against Communist guerrillas, instead admitting defeat especially after witnessing an anti-war protector burn himself in front of his office at the Pentagon; one of many anti-Vietnam protest that roiled the country;  like that depicted in Norman Mailer’s ‘Armies of the Night.’ Many years later, McNamara would gain some grace and forgiveness by admitting the government was wrong in Vietnam, an attempt to persuade the George W Bush administration to avoid war in Iraq but to no avail; the plea from the wise man proving to be fruitless to the neo-conservatives.

One would think the airport was named in honor of his last act of humility, an ironic deed from one of the proudest and smartest man alive, admitting the limits of human knowledge and logic; instead of paying tribute to his work in the government and private sector; although laying homage to having lived and worked in the auto industry in Detroit long before being engulfed in foreign wars. Detroit is also called ‘motor city’, named at a time when the big three ruled the world, the biggest companies on earth, now humbled by Japanese and Korean car makers; with some auto companies foreign owned, by German, Italian and even Indian firms. Perhaps the decline and humbling of the great car makers is reminiscent of McNamara’s journey, from a belief in American supremacy and drive, but eventually defeated in the jungles of Asia, or by the more efficient corporations of East Asia. Detroit is now foreign owned, the deserted neighborhood becoming home to Middle Eastern immigrants, refuges from the interventionist wars in the deserts and plains, motels filled with German executives, talking in their distinct language amidst the center of America. A joke heard: a group of German executives enjoyed themselves in a comedy show, visiting the stand-up comedian after the performance, commenting that there are no excellent comedians in Germany anymore, and the American comic remarking,’ Because you killed them all,’; perhaps referring to the Holocaust in World War II.

The people in the warehouse are warm people, behaving like a caring family, unlike the other warehouses, one feels certain homeliness; these are good people one feels, descendant of long ago German immigrants. Indeed, the surrounding middle class neighborhoods have a certain warmth and community, despite the harsh winters, despite the sleazy places of adult entertainment; the hills and forests of Michigan and Ohio still have streams for fishing and places to hunt, recalling the sporting life of Hemingway, vacationing in the Michigan wilderness to recover from war.  I never had a chance to see Detroit or Toledo city, instead relying on memory of book scenes or research in Wikipedia, my colleague preferring to go to the motel after work, unwilling to venture out and explore, perhaps someone who has seen it all or someone tired and lazy. The saving grace is the excellent dinner, for instance last night was at the Blue Oceans Bar and Grill, where I ordered oysters of different varieties, and an excellent medallion steak, with shrimp and crap toppings, asparagus and baked potato, salad with anchovies and blue cheese and Samuel Adams beer. I went back to the inn with my teeth feeling raw, flossed and gargled with hot water and salt, biking at the gym for 45 minutes while watching ‘Battlestar Galactica’, packing and going to bed at 12 midnight to catch some sleep for the early morning flight home.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Michigan – Ohio

Living near the border, working in Michigan while staying in Ohio, moving between states every day, mostly near the city of Toledo, site of the Toledo war, when Michigan and Ohio fought for the strip of land that is Toledo, finally Ohio winning the battle though Michigan getting more land up North in exchange, winning the contest as these lands contained deposits of copper and iron. We never got to visit downtown, though we could see the tall buildings from Interstate 75 highway, on our way to the Temperance office, seeing an old elegant Gothic Church beside the road, and the heights of several buildings beyond, the fourth largest city in Ohio. Instead I researched about Toledo in Wikipedia, seeing pictures of the city, especially the waterfront beside Maumee River, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Huntington sports center,   seeing the map with Toledo beside the Great Lakes, a city between Chicago and New York, a center of the declining automotive and glass industry, a city beside the lake, though one never gets to see the lake, no trace of water except the small rivers one passes along the way.

Large houses in cozy neighbor hoods, two-story homes in tree lined streets though bare in winter, some empty areas with fields of brown grass and uncovered trees; the vaunted middle class suffering the decay of the automotive industry; one reads in Wikipedia. We left the inn at about 7:30 am after breakfast of ham, scrambled and hard boiled eggs, orange juice, chocolate and yogurt; leaving under dark skies with slight rain, the final day of our project, leaving tomorrow for home at 4:30 am, the plane departing at 7: 30 am for the Carolinas. The morning was spent training the staff, about five people including the warehouse manager, using the Power point presentation, and doing a live demonstration, the participants looking pleased with the new program. Afterwards, downloading the printer software and driver, the installation CD strangely missing from the package, now one needs to order the kit instead of being free months ago. Lunch again at the garish Chinese restaurant, enjoying the same old buffet; Maki rolls, fried chicken wings, sweet and sour soup, chicken balls, pork chop, roast beef, fried rice, ice cream and chocolate cake. Back in the office by 1 pm, installed the printer software and tested the print out (but the cable not working), the local staff will have the cable fixed, replied to emails and said our goodbyes.

In hindsight, the rollout went well after all, the only glitch was the cut connection on the first day, but after the initial stress the rollout went smooth in the next two days; even attending a meeting remotely with the big guys, answering questions and making a point, trying to resolve a gap between our program and the key warehouse system. The major issue was fixed last night, an issue the came about due to the prematurely cut line, another support staff dialing in to resolve the problem, crawling in the warehouse floor, working with the computer and checking cables with the lady administrator.  Feeling good after leaving the office, having dinner at Red Lobster; surf and turf, lobster and steak, salad with blue cheese, Samuel Adams draft beer, appetizer of shrimp and crab dip with mushrooms and cheese, sharing stories with the business leader. This was the first time we did a roll-out without another colleague, who did not come with us to reduce project cost, instead frequently consulting by phone; it was boring at times without him.  Instead, watched the ‘Battlestar Galactica’ in my tablet while working out at the gym; walking the treadmill for an hour, getting a warm shower and watching HBO; finally going to sleep at 11 pm. The next roll out is in California, but I am not going instead my colleague who missed this trip will go, so this is my last deployment project.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Super Tuesday

We arrived yesterday in Detroit, a 2-hour flight from South Carolina, flying out at noon and arriving a little past 2 pm, landing amidst cold 32 degree Fahrenheit weather, driving out of McNamara airport headed for Temperance, also in Michigan, where the warehouse is located, but travelling further to Toledo, Ohio to the Hampton Inn where we are staying. The highway out of Detroit looked deserted, although there were some cars, it seemed desolate considering the largeness and quality of the highway, as if the roads where built for more traffic; my companion remarking that Detroit lost 30% of its population due to the decline of the auto industry, further distressed by the recent 2008 financial crisis that required Obama to bail out the car makers, but still not ending the departure of the population, forcing the remaining inhabitants in near deserted neighborhoods to move to more populated areas, a way to preserve public service cost and avoid the bankruptcy of the local government. We travelled through empty white fields, snow covering the ground and large distant houses with their roofs covered in snow, passing railroad depots, and shuttered building near the state line of Ohio, passing by the city of Dayton where the Republican candidates campaigned in the recent weekend.

Today is Super Tuesday for the Republican primaries; it was also a tough day at work, the existing software failed yesterday, forcing us to activate the new program a day earlier, rushing to complete the set-up in a cramped room, eager staff looking over our shoulders, the product piling up in the warehouse, fiddling with the printer set-up for an hour, finally connecting the cable and ‘voila!’, setup complete. It was a stressful hair raising afternoon, moving the go live forward by one day, a key support staff attending a meeting and could not help, issues cropping up in the software though addressed right away, but it was the time spent on the printer that was dreadful, trial and error to find the fix. The work was done near 8 pm, followed by dinner of veal, chicken and eggplant, spaghetti and Budweiser beer  at Rib Cage, a local restaurant recommended by the staff at the Hampton Inn. It was the second time for us to eat here, as yesterday evening’s dinner was also enjoyed here, where one had 12 oz. rib-eye steak with onions and mushrooms, medium well done, with baked potato, steamed tomatoes and salad with blue cheese; the first time a restaurant was favored 2 nights in a row, finishing at 9pm and back at the motel to be ready the next day at 5:30 am.

Back at the warehouse at 6 am the next day, a fast breakfast of sausages, scrambled and hard-boiled eggs, orange juice, chocolate and yogurt, dashing through the dawn darkness, arriving in the office with the first shift already working, taking out the old printers and computers, putting the new ones in, testing and letting go with the new program, purring like a cat as the reports started spewing out. Housekeeping for the local folks, a special favor considering the dirt and dust behind the equipment, wiping away the grime with tissue paper and a dirty rag, untangling the wires and cables, bundling them neatly into a box, watching the staff stick the labels to the product, walking around in the warehouse, when most of the major work was done by noon. Lunch at a Chinese buffet, the same look everywhere, especially the cheap diners like this one, food arrayed in tables with deep serving pans, unable to decide but digging in nevertheless; Maki rolls, fried rice, pork chop, roast beef, fried chicken wings, dumplings, pork rolls, cabbage, steamed salmon, ice cream, pastries, pudding, sweet and sour soup and diet Coke. The restaurant had wood paneling, private booths with glass dividers decorated with intricate Chinese landscapes in ivory; elegant pagodas and temples, mountains and trees like those painted in Chinese ink paintings; one feels homesick in the garish interior of a Chinese restaurant, hearing Mandarin spoken by the waitresses.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Confidence Men

Ron Suskind writes incisive books that show his insider status, not surprising being a writer from the Wall Street Journal, his main subject a nexus of politics, business and economics, notably in his book ‘Confidence Men’, which is really about the education of a president. I can’t think of no other writer who has the knowledge of intimate detail plus great storytelling ability, perhaps the late David Halberstam, who could convincingly cover the whole narrative from all the relevant angles, in fact comparing to another book I read recently ‘Game Change’ which seem trivial by comparison, despite providing some insider details though lacking in the true relevance of the episode. But Suskind is spot on in finding the sweet spot, the true meaning of the tale in all its repercussions, in effect he sees the forest and the trees, a tribute to his journalistic experience in one of the great business papers of all time. Unfortunately, Suskind tends to rush to judgment, with a slight bias towards the right, perhaps a nod to Rupert Murdoch, his new publisher, missing the long term perspective and instead seeking the obvious incisive finding, but one never really knows, after all the passage of time is the true judge.

If one read this book earlier, especially the chapters on the financial crisis in 2008 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, one would be more prudent in investing in banks like Citigroup and Bank of America. The events leading to the crisis, the government response, the aftermath of the response, all reveal the weakness of the financial system; coupled with the ongoing debate especially the seeming controversy of the Volcker rule which looks sensible though inexplicably blocked by the Geithner – Summers cabal, uncover the true situation that is still unresolved.  Buffet’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’, those exotic financial instruments like CDO, CDS and other derivatives, still lurk in the shadows until an open exchange is created, a task still to be done despite the passage of the financial reform act. A transparent exchange for derivatives will reduce the earnings of banks, pointing to the difficulties ahead, so investing in the financial sector may not be a good idea, then again the influx of brilliant financial engineers, with their PhDs and MBAs will think of new ways to earn money.

Financial engineering is really the sector making America great, not Apple or those other high tech companies in Silicon Valley, or even the oil companies in Texas or industrial conglomerates in New England; it’s Wall Street commanding the flow of funds circling the globe that make everything possible. In this context, the coming election and the current political intrigue is a classic battle between Washington and New York; where does true power really lie?, in the government or in Wall Street, a threat to the federal government foreseen by Jefferson in his opposition to Hamilton, but it’s a trivial argument long settled with the success of the only super power on earth. One can think of similar episodes in history, perhaps the intrigues between Florence and Rome or Tokyo and Kyoto or Shanghai and Beijing, where the seat of government is challenged by the merchant class, where other great centers are not troubled if both power centers reside in the same place, for example  London or Paris. In some cases the seat of government moves to the center of merchant power, like when the Japanese emperors moved from the ancient capital in Kyoto to the new Edo capital of Tokyo, recognition of reality, thus uniting the seat of power in one place.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Space Time

An interesting discussion after lunch at Crab Shack, a nearby seafood restaurant where I had pop shrimps, crab meat in Andouille sausage and fried pickles, discussing with friends the current political situation in the Republican primaries (‘Santorum scares me,’ someone said), talking about rock music (REM, Bruce Springsteen, Beach Boys, the Beatles), memories of youth and the recent death of the lead singer of the 60’s group ‘The Monkees’.  Southern folks like everything fried; fired pickles, fried okra, fried fish, fired shrimp and so on; some saying that they like fried okra because of the fried, eating anything fried in oil, like Homer Simpson ordering chicken with extra skin, or fried chicken with extra fried oil, now that’s a hoot. The primaries swings to the Southern states in Super Tuesday – Georgia, Tennessee, Texas; my friends predicting a Santorum win, his brand of conservatism that right mix in the deep South, away from the bluster of Newt and forsaking the confused moderation and pseudo conservatism of Mitt; eating and talking under a giant fake shark in the restaurant with all sorts of fishing gear stuck in the wall.

Back at work talking about science, discussing the space time continuum and quantum mechanics with a trained marine geologist who loves fly fishing and a radical Southerner, a tea party follower whose grandmother thought ‘damn Yankees’ was a single word, still smarting from the war between the states, forever grumbling about the federal government and high taxes. Love of science is palpable around here, another colleague having worked in NASA, reminiscing about astronauts and the fact that falling objects of different weights land at the same time, an observation first made by Galileo.  Space and time is always spoken together, where one concept cannot exist without the other, the earth plunging forward from the big bang – the actual beginning of time; time being a movement forward, waiting for no one until one realizes he is old, aged and wrinkled. I wonder where I am in the space time continuum, working in trivially small though interesting projects, having a chance to travel but away from the big challenges, maybe one’s time has come, with attractive colleagues getting the good jobs while I speak with the old folks, the only young person in a group of middle aged people and would be retirees.

But one is only young in the mind, approaching middle age as well, recalling those fun days in Singapore, ruminating about the bustle of Shanghai, Tokyo and Bangkok, about the distant allure of the Middle East, places like Egypt or Iran, faraway lands that one has never been to except in dreams, wondering if there is still time for one last hurrah. There is still a chance one thinks; after exhausting the local allure of fishing, civil war reenactments, and Toastmaster meetings, hiking in the hills, investing in the largest stock market in the world and finally writing a novel. It’s the only true benefit and goal that one can get in the slow pace of life here in the rural South, living like a retiree, surreptitiously surfing the Internet and writing blog entries, thinking of time lost and plotting a grand scheme to reclaim time. It’s a battle against old age after all, something even Einstein could not beat, feeling the slowness of the body, adjusting to a more serene pace, being graceful in missing the excitement of large projects. But there is a way to exploit solitude, to be a writer one thinks, regain meaning as the world rushes by while you focus on being an expert in the one activity that gives you salvation.