Thursday, May 30, 2013

Required Viewing for White People

My wife saw the video below, immediately posted it Facebook, and then told me I would love it.  No surprise, I did.  

As I've said many times and written here many times, modern racism can take some unusual forms, and it doesn't always come from where some people expect it to.  Just because you vote the *correct* way and you know when to use "Asian" vs. "Oriental" -- even though your grandmother blurs the two -- does not earn you immunity here.  

Having mostly lived in the Northeast Megalopolis, I am far more familiar with the type of commodifying/exoticizing brand of racism being parodied here than I am with the more old-school, "traditional" racism that remains a dominant theme in our popular culture, yet is far more rare than what this video spoofs.  

Every white person who watches this probably laughs and says, "That's not ME!" but maybe at some point, during some conversation -- if even for a fleeting moment -- it was.  

For what it's worth, my belief is that the *secret* to cross-cultural communication is to remain true to your original self.  Just be you.  If YOU equals a Waspy, 32 year-old white male, then just BE THAT.  People are way more accepting of that than of someone who meets a person of Cambodian descent who instantly starts apologizing for other Americans' lack of sensitivity or starts to disown Nixon's bombing campaign in nineteen-seventy-what-was-it...which no one ever said they owned in the first place!  

If you're truly interested in another person's heritage or culture, you can show that by asking them about it.  No one cares about your five words of Mandarin.  But ASK someone about their thoughts on Sino-American cultural differences, actually listen to their answer, and you might make a friend for life.  

And one last thought before you watch this:  Do you find yourself constantly describing every person of color that you meet as 'inspiring,' 'amazing,' or 'awesome'?  If you do the same for white folks, you've earned a free pass on this...but you don't, the hard truth is that YOU ARE this guy.  

Congratulations, Mr. Comey

I opened up my morning paper today and saw that my high school's most prominent alum, James Comey, is about to be nominated as FBI Director.

Congratulations to him.  And a reminder to all that good things can happen to those who take a stand when it's the right time to do it (Comey stood up to John Ashcroft's warrantless wiretapping plan in 2004).

From his Wiki page: "Born in Yonkers, New York, Comey grew up in Allendale, New Jersey.  He attended Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale."

And on that note, it's off to the Nesmith House in Belvidere for some Chamber of Commerce gladhanding in the name of Merrimack Analysis Group!  

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Fanniewoods and the Fredhegan Sun

When I was overseas in 2011, something dawned on me in an early-morning hour.  The Big Revelation was that Fannie and Freddie were STILL backstopping millions of mortgages across the U.S., and I could scoop up FNMA and FMCC shares for pennies apiece.  Yes, there was no guarantee they would ever be worth anything more, and yes, there's a reason sane people advise other sane people to stay away from de-listed stocks.

Still, I scooped up a few thousand shares and just sort of sat on them.  I watched the temporary fluctuations and realized that if they ever somehow regained even a fraction of their initial value, my life could become very, very different.  

But I would see them do a "run-up" and flirt with the $1.00 mark, only to run back down.  I saw it time and again.  Last week, I did something impulsive.

I sold the entire pile.

When they were around $1.40, I just cashed the heck out.  I figured the common shares were about to take another dip down, because they were hitting the peak heights from March.  Now was the time to pull my chips off the felt, take a few free mortgage payments out of it, and call it good. 

Last I checked, they're flirting with five bucks.  Each.  If I were still holding that entire pile, I could NOW cash it it in and never make another car payment.  If they were to double again, and I were still holding, I could pay off my entire Stafford Loan, too.  Two more doublings -- still holding -- and I could send Wells Fargo a check.  For my entire mortgage.  

No, I'm not joking, and please don't call me Shirley!  

I feel like the casino analogy is appropriate, because unless someone knows something I'm not privy to, there's simply no guarantee that Fannie and Freddie profits will return to common shareholders.  This is not the same thing as a BAC, C, or AIG investment back in 2009.  

I realize I didn't really *lose* anything.  

But the lesson I'll take is to exercise some discipline when selling into a rally.  Hindsight has that special Splendid Splinter sort of visual clarity, but I woulda could shoulda done something like this:  Dump 500 shares at $1.50.  Dump 500 more at $2.00.  Dump another 500 at $2.50.  And so on.  That would've meant nice piles o'cheddar along the way without missing out on all the upside of the roulette wheel that just keeps hitting someone's lucky number.  Had I shown some discipline, and  done this, I'd still be holding shares, and progressively ticking off the bills I wouldn't be paying again. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Whatever They Say...It's the Other Thing

Driving through Boston today and seeing a bunch of college kids moving out of their dorms, I reflected back a bit on how I think now, vs. how I thought then.

As far as interpersonal stuff goes, there are two quotes that pretty much nail it:

From Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The louder he spoke of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons," and from Margaret Thatcher: "Being powerful is a lot like being a lady.  If you have to tell people you are, you aren't."

The longer in the tooth I get, the more I see the wisdom in the above lines.  Whatever people tell you about themselves, they probably aren't.  As to why they feel the need to tell you?  Well, who knows.  But people who are something just sort of are it.   

Whether it's honesty, trustworthiness, loyalty, diligence, or whatever, if it's on display, it's there to be seen [and I will acknowledge that I bragged about my work ethic in my last perhaps it's not as good as I say it is].

If someone tells you about someone or something they "don't care about," completely unprompted by you?  It's probably a really big deal.

If someone is yelling at you to "just calm down!" even though you just asked a basic question using your indoor, 45 rpm voice, they might need to chill out a bit.

If someone feels insistent about knocking you off a high horse that you're not on, and never said you were, they might need a dismounting of their own.

None of that would have been obvious to me 10 years ago.  10 years ago, I never really would've *gotten it* if you tried to explain to me that people with bumper stickers that said "Coexist" and "Try Tolerance" are some of the least tolerant people among us.  In fact, I would even be so bold now as to say that I'd expect an inverse correlation between actual open-mindedness and the presence of bumper stickers like these.

I've also had the fortune to be around some really high-performers, first at my initial duty station in the military, and then again in civilian life years down the road.  I never would've known that most really, really successful people don't need to remind others about it, and they don't try to tear other people down.  Whether it's because they're successful or whether it's what made them successful, they don't have a zero-sum mentality.  As hard of an audience as they might be to get, they're sometimes the most receptive to new concepts and possibilities.

Much like the paradox of the "Coexist" bumper stickers, this wasn't always so obvious to me.

So, for starters, props to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mrs. Thatcher.  

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What Eric Schmidt Said

I am about to wrap up a very, very busy period.

Probably equivalent to a deployment in terms of weekly workload, but far, far better in the sense that I go to bed and wake up in the same place as my wife and daughter each day.

Also, sometimes weirder: On a deployment, at least everyone around you knows you're deployed.  Here, when people see me unshaven in flip-flops at noon, and ask with an air of faux concern whether I'm employed, and whether everything's okay, I've run out of responses, so I just shrug my shoulders as I couldn't understand their question.  I might mutter something about school.  Nothing about four jobs, and nothing about a place that doesn't know what a gut course is, though.

Besides, the "four jobs" thing gets overdone, and now that I can technically say I'm part of that camp, I've got more power to call it out:  There are 168 hours in a week.  If someone works one extremely demanding job (let's say they're an associate at Choate Hall or Skadden Arps, or a consultant with Bain or McKinsey), you better believe they're working most of their waking hours.  It might only be *one* job, but it doesn't quite have the uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow ring to it the way it does when you can say "School full-time with four jobs."

Anyway, once I put the pen down on the Finance final at noon on Tuesday, I'm probably due for a long nap.

When I wake up, though, it's time to finally apply myself full-time to my start-up, which centers around online identity/digital footprint awareness and education.

Here is an excerpt from a book just published by Eric Schmidt, Chairman and former CEO of Google, writing about this very subject:

"School systems will also adapt to play an important role.  Parents-teacher associations will advocate for privacy and security classes to be taught alongside sex-education classes in their children's schools.  Such classes will teach students to optimize their privacy-and-security settings and train them to become well versed in the dos and don'ts of the virtual world.  And teachers will frighten them with real-life stories of what happens if they don't take control of their privacy and security at an early age."
It might not always be feasible for school systems to hire just for it, and they may not always have someone on hand to do it.  Sometimes, it might be easier, faster, and cheaper to bring someone in for just that amount of time that you need.

Who's going to lead this charge?  I think you could do worse than bet on someone with a 99%+ percentile work ethic, years of public speaking experience, and a background in education, security, and business.  

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Go Program, Young Man and Woman!

I don't know if this bit of grad-season advice will go viral in the way last year's speech at Wellesley High did (You're Not Special!) but it ought to.

Kirk McDonald argued in the WSJ yesterday that people looking to get hired in ANYTHING related to media, technology, or related fields should learn just enough programming to be dangerous.  

He's not saying everyone should go out and try to become a NASA-level programmer...and he realizes that's not an achievable goal.  But he is saying that everyone should at least have a sense of how the software development process works, what it generally means to *code* something, etc.  Even if you are looking for a separate role, the knowledge of how that back-end stuff works is invaluable.  

We frequently hear about how many twenty- and thirty-somethings (and maybe everything-somethings) are unemployed or underemployed.  But there are also thousands of jobs going unfilled because of the skills gap.  Some of the biggest money in Silicon Valley is going into political lobbying to support comprehensive immigration reform because we lack the home-grown talent to get the work done.  

No one can claim that the knowledge is inaccessible or too expensive to attain.  Look at OpenCourseWare.  Look at Coursera.  Udacity.  Stanford Engineering Everywhere (SEE).  Khan Academy.  EdX.  Not a single one of those platforms charges its users a single dime.  

I mentioned this to the guy sitting next to me in a "Business of Software" class yesterday, and he concurred.  He even added, "MBAs aren't that special.  This applies to us, too."  He and I are both taking programming MOOCs this summer.

Just to re-emphasize the point, this really matters.  Quoting Dr. Seuss' "Oh the Places You'll Go" is wonderful, and quoting the Wellesley High speech is even more wonderful.  But neither is specific enough to be able to extrapolate real, practical lessons from.  

The advice in that op-ed, though, is a different story.  Learn some Python.  Learn some Java.  Play around with APIs.  Get better...gradually.  Kai-zen, my friend.

Put it on your resume, get those words on your LinkedIn profile, and suddenly become more employable than all the self-described "gadget freaks" and "ideas guys" who can't install networks or write a line of code.  

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Worcester's Problem, Everyone's Problem

I understand that Worcester City officials are extremely frustrated right now -- the police details outside the funeral home are costing them roughly 10k/day.

They want something to be done, but the entire reason why it's so complicated is that no municipality would want to take on a cost like that indefinitely.

Robert Healy is a very smart man (Has to be...he was a Mayor's Aide in Lowell, right?)  His decision not to allow for the plot usage in Cambridge wasn't rooted in intolerance or hatred.  It may have been rooted in respect for the victims, however...AND the practicality issue.  If he says "Yes" then he's dealing with the strange brew of MANY daily protesters mixed with a few daily shrine-worshippers indefinitely (or at least until he passes the torch to Rich Rossi).

But the point is that this is complicated.  As time goes on, we'll have a better playbook to draw from.  For now, there's way more to it than just saying that certain people are being idiots, or that others are being intolerant (oh, but the people mistakenly taunting the families of mourners in Worcester who have nothing to do with the bombers are idiots).

It's obviously not a simple issue.  

Monday, May 6, 2013

Exhaustion v. Burnout

Someone once explained to me that "burnout" is what occurs when you lose motivation to work.  You might be too physically tired, you might be too discouraged, you might be too distracted, etc.  But basically as long as the desire to work > desire not to work, you're not burning out.

I think its cousin, exhaustion, is what happens when you basically overdraft your account at the sleep bank.  You start to notice things not really making sense.  You catch yourself saying things that might not be totally coherent, you get a bit shorter in conversations, and your edit button breaks at inopportune times.  As long as you're aware that it's happening, though, you're sort of protected from real disaster.

Something just past exhaustion would be what happens to SEAL trainees during Hell Week.  It's also what's similar to what happens during the first stages of hypothermia.  It's delirium when you're doing stuff that you don't even realize makes no sense.  When you really think you're writing a letter home, but you're really just tapping on your buddy's back, you're probably there.

When you recognize real exhaustion, you need to rejigger your priorities just enough to where you can grab that one great night's sleep that eludes you when too much else gets in the way.

And on that note, good night.  Semester ends May 21.  Two weeks is more of a marathon than a sprint, so for right right now, projects can be put on hold.  

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Underdogs and Overdogs

I voted for Gabriel Gomez yesterday, and will vote for him again in June.

I understand that many people across Massachusetts -- including many good friends of mine -- will vote for Ed Markey.

I respect their decision, just as I would hope they would respect mine.

One point that I think needs to be clarified, though, is that Ed Markey is the 1927 New York Yankees.  He is US Steel, he is Ivan Drago, and he is the Super Bowl III Baltimore Colts.  Pick whatever sports or historical analogy you like, but the point is that Markey is the heavy odds-on favorite.

Many Dems wouldn't deny this, and some would even celebrate it.  Fair enough -- it's always nice to be on the side that's favored to win.

But I think it's a wee bit absurd when I hear rhetoric coming FROM the Markey side about how it's "the people versus the powerful" or the "battle to save us from special interests," and so on.

Backs-to-the-wall rhetoric is one of the most tried-and-true ways to rally support for a cause.  A shared enemy -- just like shared misery (i.e. boot camp or three-a-days) -- is how you build a team.  So in a sense, I get that.  People love to tell themselves those kind of stories, too: that's why everyone you've ever met grew up poor (anecdotally, I've learned that the national poverty rate prior to 1970 was 100%), every beautiful celebrity was an awkward nerd in high school (but they somehow managed to dazzle at the Oscars by age 20), and every brilliant musician "never had one lesson."

If you support Markey, awesome.  I'm not going to try to change your mind.  If you think he would represent us better in DC, great.  Whatever.  Just don't tell me that you're on some kind of rogue mission when you're lining up in the dugout behind Koenig, Ruth, and Gehrig.