Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Reason for Being

On the recommendation of Mr. RWorld I've been reading "Flow", by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ("sick-sent-mih-hal-ye"?) "Flow" defines the characteristics of optimal life experiences, experiences that make us happy and satisfied. My ultra-short summary, which in no way should excuse you from reading this fine book, is that almost any activity where we "lose ourselves" as we focus on doing something is the kind of activity that likely brings happiness and fulfillment.

Being somewhat of a perpetual motion machine, I have quite a few opportunities for "flow" experiences, experiences where I am fully caught up in the challenge of the task at hand - tasks such as hiking the Appalachian Trail, closing a set of financial books, or even writing this blog. Csikszentmihalyi's advice is to structure life's activities so as to maximize the amount of time spent in active "flow" rather than in passive, meaningless activities like watching sitcoms. It's excellent advice regarding how to achieve periods of happiness and pleasure, but it leaves me with a big question - whether having frequent periods of happiness is a sufficient reason for being or a way to achieve true fulfillment.

If this life is all there is, and when it's over my atoms go back to becoming just more stuff of the universe and my consciousness winks out never to wake again, then "flow" is the goal I must pursue if I want to make the most of it.

If there is more to life than what I can perceive, then the kinds of things I do to achieve "flow" may be more important than the happiness and pleasure I get from doing them.

As I continue with this book I'll be looking for clues about how Csikszentmihalyi addresses the quandary about whether to maximize on pleasure or maximize on spiritual values - or, whether one can do both simultaneously. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Return of the Gym Rat

The one thing I really don't like about winter is the short days. I can deal with and even enjoy the snow, frigid cold, and the sloppy driving conditions of winter, but waking up in the dark and eating dinner in the dark really bugs me.

So, later in January when I sense the days getting longer my spirits begin to revive and I have visions of spring and all the fun things that I'll be able to do when it gets warmer and the days start early and end late. Then, I look in the mirror and take stock of what the more sedentary late fall and winter have done to my profile...tummy protruding a bit, pectorals and quads less defined, the bicep more like a potato than an orange. Time to hit the gym again! This happens every year, just like groundhog day.

This afternoon marked my second workout of 2008. Thirty-five minutes on the elliptical cycle trainer, then abs, back, laterals, bench presses, triceps pull-downs, curls with palms up and down, shoulder pull-downs. A little more than one hour of pure pleasure! OK, I'll have to endure a bunch of places that bark for a couple weeks, but those irritations simply remind me that something good is happening under my skin.

After two or three weeks I'll see some changes taking place. I'll gain a little weight as I replace fat with muscle. Some of the tummy will be gone, and some of the old pect's and biceps will have returned. I'll be lifting 15% more weight with the same effort, and I'll do more repetitions. Every two or three weeks I'll see the same level of progress once again. February, March, April. By May there will be a much different "me". Ready for hiking and golf once again! (My kids have shamed me back to the Appalachian Trail, I have to admit - "Dad never gives up!")

If you've never exercised seriously as an adult, think about it. The endorphin rushes are wonderful, and progress is easily measured. Every other day is a good plan, since the day off allows time for things to heal a bit before you gently torture them again!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Teamwork in Politics - Why Not?

One of the things that puzzles me about presidential politics is that the candidates run as individuals rather than as the head of teams. Don't get me wrong about this, though. After being an executive for most of the past 43 years, I fully appreciate that someone has to be in charge. However, I also know very well that any job that involves being a manager of managers is a teamwork-intensive job. President of the United States is the most teamwork-intensive job I can contemplate, yet I'm puzzled by the fact that we know virtually nothing about who will be the key members of any of the candidates' teams.

We should be concerned about the incompleteness of our knowledge in this area. After all, we might have made a different choice about George Bush if we had known in advance about who the key members of his staff were to be. I don't want to dwell on individuals, but it's fair to say that his penchant for promoting cronies and rewarding loyalty over talent has been a major factor in his failure as a president. Then, there's Dick Cheney - I'll just leave it at that. Why, then, aren't we more concerned about knowing who the key players in potential future administrations might be?

The fact is that every person in a president's cabinet, and even many of those in sub-cabinet positions, have power exceeding the CEO's of most companies. Their backgrounds, their objectives, their management skills, and their integrity are critically important to the president and to each of us. Yet we know nothing about who these key people will be until we elect the president. This troubles me.

Let's take Obama, for instance. He's young but he's smart, he's a great communicator, and he has fewer "obligations" to vested interests than some other candidates. In some respects he's like Jack Kennedy - but Jack Kennedy got us the Bay of Pigs within months of being elected. He chose the wrong people, and they led him astray. Could Obama make a similar mistake? I'd like to know who will be giving him information and advice before I pull the lever for him.

I'm a long-time member of a volunteer ambulance corp that has about 100 members, and I was chief executive for three years. We elect our Director of Operations and the Deputy Director as a team, but everyone knows who the DO candidates have chosen as his/her staff members. It's comforting to know, before we vote, that we won't have an unqualified person mananging the medics, drivers, or dispatchers. How much more, then, would it be comforting to know that a president didn't have an Alberto Gonzales in mind as attorney general?

Perhaps it's too early for candidates to disclose their cabinet choices at this stage of the game. But, it seems to me that when the finalists head for the conventions they ought to bring their lists with them. The key people, of course, will be in the jobs where the candidates have weaker backgrounds and will put greater reliance on others. We should know who these people might be. A great team would have greater influence on my vote than a potentially-great president.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

It's Nobody's Fault

The aftermath, or at least middle-math, of the sub-prime debacle and resulting world-wide financial crisis has me puzzled. There's no question that our economy is FUBAR at the moment, and that the Federal Reserve, the congress (small C), and the president (even smaller p) are all flailing around trying to come up with an anti-recession or, god forbid, anti-depression pill. What has me puzzled is that none of these august authorities is crying out for a public hanging of whoever caused this mess - usually, public hangings are in order when a catastrophe of this magnitude occurs.

Some may say that the resignations of a handful of Wall Street CEO's and CEO's of lenders like Countrywide show that a price has been paid. I beg to differ. All these people made out like bandits while the sun was shining, and they've departed for their mansions and a life of leisure. Some punishment!

So, let's look at what really happened. Interest rates were brought down to very low levels following the 9/11 crisis, and they recovered very slowly to levels that never reached "normal". During this period, individuals could purchase homes at very favorable interest rates, so the builders built lots of new homes and speculators refurbed many more ("flip this house"). Then, lenders pumped demand even more by offering interest-only loans, adjustable-rate mortgages with very low initial rates, and "no paperwork" loans, the latter meaning that the borrower did not have to prove income sufficient to cover the mortgage payments. As demand exploded, home prices rose at a record pace. Finally, supply caught up with demand and the unqualified buyers started to have trouble paying their mortgages. The resulting foreclosures glutted the market, created a massive over-supply situation and drove home prices down dramatically, trapping many more regular people and speculators with property they could neither pay for nor sell. BOOM! But who caused it?

Some people think the real estate agents caused it by convincing people to buy homes or speculate on homes that were fundamentally over-priced. Some people think the lenders caused it by loaning money to people who could not pay. Some people think the financial institutions caused it by buying packages of these loans from Countrywide and everybody else, and then peddling the packages as "AAA" investments to unsuspecting buyers. Clearly, all these facets of the real estate industry were at fault. But, did they cause it? I think not.

I think our government caused it, by sins of omission - by failing to regulate the financing industry and thereby slow the runaway train of the real estate market. Neither the Federal Reserve, nor the congress, nor the administration - each of whom had powers sufficient to slow the runaway train - did their job. None of them wanted to be the bad guy when every person on the block was counting up the inflated value of their home, and when every facet of the real estate building and financing industry was earning record profits and paying lots of taxes. So, our government let the train run until it ran off the tracks and into a school full of kids, figuratively speaking. That's why nobody is to's "look into the mirror" time for the people who are supposed to be protecting our economy.

OK. I've put the blame where it belongs. So what? What does it matter? What can we do if the people we elected to protect us have failed? What if both the party of George Bush and the party of Hillary Clinton have failed us, which they have? What can we do?

Well, we can hope that the short term "get well" programs actually get us well - that is, preclude a deep recession or a depression. But, beyond that and more important than that, we must demand that our representatives fix the generic ills that we suffer from. If we think, for example, that the entitlement funding shortfalls are not even more dangerous than the sub-prime crisis, we are deluding ourselves. If we think that deficit budgets at the federal and state levels are OK, we are deluding ourselves. The fixes are simple in concept: we need to pay more if we want to keep existing benefit levels or the service levels that our governments currently provide. Or, we need to cut benefits or services. None of this is politically popular, and that is why none of the candidates are talking about doing any of it. Maybe this recent melt-down will scare them into reality, but the odds are not in our favor.

I get the feeling that the next big craze will be to move out of the U.S., put your money in commodities or other hard assets, and leave this country to fall on its figurative ass. After all, hordes of New Yorkers have moved south to avoid the high taxes and poor business conditions. Perhaps the next wave will head to protected enclaves of expat Americans in even more hospitable climes. Only the politicians can prevent this speculation from becoming a reality, so go out there and kick their butts!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Bush, Revisited.

My friend Ron of RWorld posted on Bush, expressing his dismay and publishing some statistics that show Bush's accomplishments pale in comparison to Clinton's. I started a comment, but it got so long I thought it better to just put it on my own blog. So, here goes!

It's about time we started talking about Bush again. And it's crazy that republican candidates other than Ron Paul haven't repudiated him because his administration will be totally in the toilet by November.

The latest fiasco is the financial debacle created by sub-prime loans and real estate speculation. This is an example of the "free market" at its worst.

The Bush administration and its regular contributors in the real estate, lending, and securities industries benefitted greatly from the hyper-activity in the real estate market. Sensible regulation could have slowed the inflation and limited the credit risk, but Bush and Co. had been bought by the high rollers. Now the American people, the great majority of whom had no part in any of this, are paying a huge price for the sins of a relatively few.

I have believed for a long time that America's greatest risk is its economy - not the damn terrorists. We can easily defeat ourselves from within by making poor economic decisions, and Bush has taken us well down that road.

When you add up the financial toll on our country from the Iraq war, the imprudent tax cuts (cut taxes when you are running big deficits?),and the sub-prime debacle, the Bush administration has been a financial disaster. I would also add many more billions in cost to our economy from risk premiums on oil caused by his inane saber-rattling.

I would give Bush credit only for attempting to legalize the immigrants who provide so much productivity and vigor to our economy - but his own party torched him!

Why in heck would anyone want to follow him in office? He's going to leave the biggest mess of anyone since Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam - an America in debt up to its eyeballs and verging on a big recession!

Thanks a lot, Mr. MBA (slept through classes) president!

Friday, January 18, 2008


I've kept a very open mind about Hillary. I have always felt that Bill was a really good moderate republican president, and he always said she was the smarter one of the two. And, I think I've lost most of my sexist tendencies over the years after working with lot of very effective women. But lately she's been turning me off, for two reasons.

First, she's really waffling about where she stands on the big issues. Ask her a question about where she stands, she starts describing her opponents' stands and then trashes them. Press her to reveal her own position and she starts babbling about "bi-partisan commissions". That is not leadership, it's just waffling. Leaders give answers.

Second, Hillary's played the race card with Obama and she didn't condemn that BET idiot's comment about Obama's drug use. The presidency has nothing to do with race, and Obama has appeared to know this from the start. Whoever you are, you've got to be president of all the people and show favoritism to none, even those who share your own background. Besides, I'm not sure what race Obama is, anyway. But Hillary let race talk get started,and she showed no class at all when she got caught.

My favorite presidents all put their cards on the table. In the last 100 years, TR, Franklin Roosevelt, and Truman stand out as real leaders. Bill Clinton had potential but his hormones did him in, probably later than he deserved. Most of the rest were OK, and our current bonehead will be remembered only for his monumental mistakes. Hillary may be smart, but she's not forthcoming enough to be classified as a leader. She may be just a policy wonk and back room bargainer.

I still wish Bloomberg would enter the race and force both the democrats and the republicans to show their cards on the big issues. None of the current candidates are really telling it like it is with respect to where America is and where it needs to go. At one time I thought Hillary might have what it takes, despite all the baggage she drags behind her and the hatred so many brainwashed conservatives will never let go of. Now I'm not so sure I'd even consider her.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Good People

You know, our country and the world are filled with problems caused by unthinking and uncaring humans. Sins of comission and omission. Wars, poverty, hate, greed, perverted sexuality ("using people"), profligate use of resources, you name it. One can become downright depressed by all the crap going on in the world. I would be one of those depresssed people, except that I know so many really good people.

I know people who work hard and make very good money, then turn around and give a whole lot of it away to people and groups who really need it. I know people who work all day, then volunteer on the ambulance and take an old lady with diarrhea to the hospital. I know someone who regularly visits a very bright younger woman who has cerebral palsy so bad that she uses a stick, attached to her forehead, to punch computer keys. I know someone who leaves her suburban house two days each week to work for free in a city school where she lets kids who may have head lice sit on her lap and listen to stories. And I know a lot more people like these good people. They give me hope. And the neat thing is that all of them are happy people.

What ugliness will the unthinking and uncaring people of the world need to commit before we are so grossed out that we say "enough" to those who create wars and poverty, foster hate, cruelty and perversion, and savage our planet? How empty must celebrities' lifestyles become for society to understand that we need pay no attention at all? Will the world get hopelessly out of control before we realize that good people are the answer? I'm perhaps unduly optimistic that humanity has a chance, because there are still plenty of good people around.

Don't get me wrong. I don't want a lot of laws and forced conformity. I want people to be free to get naked, say a swear word, or smoke a joint without going to jail. I want people to work hard in the hope they can live well, and I want lazy people to live low. I want the earth to be full of people who see possiblities rather than obstructions, and full of people who smile when someone "different" walks by. But I want to see hate, cruelty, exploitation and violence called out and named for what it is - poison for the world. Good people do good and call out the bad.

Thanks, good people, for giving me hope and inspiration. And, since there are so many of you folks around, I'm looking forward to meeting some more of you tomorrow.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


It's a classic. It's beautifully filmed, has a luscious musical score, the cast and acting are first rate, and there's at least a couple worthwhile morals to the story. Oh, I almost forgot - she's hot! Juliette Binoche, I mean. And the Good Witch thinks the young Johnny Depp is worth watching, too.

We saved "Chocolat" from HBO-HD on our DVR the other night and just got around to watching it - again. If you've never seen it, do yourself a favor and find the DVD somewhere. If you have seen it before, I promise you will get into it even more the second time.

I'll just let it cool awhile before I enjoy the taste of "Chocolat" once again.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

iPod Initiation

I have a history of staying somewhat close to the forefront of practical technology in the electronics genre, but I must confess that I completely missed the boat with iPod. My last portable music, I'm embarassed to admit, was a CD Walkman. All that changed on Christmas morning when, to my surprise, my three sons gave me an 80GB iPod Classic. It was empty, of course. Must fill it up!

This laptop just happened to have iTunes on it, and I had imported a few of my own CD's and purchased a few more tunes from Apple - so I didn't need to start from scratch. I started from scratch + a trivial amount of music. But I own a small mountain of CD's, so the giant import of the century began almost immediately and continues to this day. Fortunately, the end is in sight and the iPod will have about 7GB of tunes when I'm done.

All through this process I've been wondering if there would be a payoff to all the effort, and I'm happy to report that there is.

Previously, I found it difficult to sort through my CD's and choose a particular one to play on my stereo system. The CD's were stored here and there in little cabinets that each held about 40 of them. Now, they are all stored in this little black thing that I can hold in my hand. I just tap and spin, and - it's magic - all my tunes are there, sorted in any number of ways. I can take the time to choose, or I can listen in random fashion. No muss, no fuss. That's the magic of iPod. Thanks, boys, for a great present!

The bonus will be on my next long plane flight to Phoenix, when I plan to watch a full-length movie to kill the time. Pretty incredible, Mr. Jobs!

To all of you who are laughing your butts off at my belated iPod epiphany, I wholeheartedly agree that I deserve whatever ridicule you are dishing out. But I will not spring for an iPhone just to get back near the front of the wave. I'm so busy listening to my lost tunes that I can't be bothered by phone calls.