Thursday, December 30, 2010

Come Fly with Me

Having been away for so long, and having been delayed getting home due to the UK airport closures, every interaction with my daughter has become an event in itself. I don't just arrive back home, I bring presents. We don't just spend a day together, we fly to Seattle for dinner. We don't just build the Lego Architecture Landmark kits, we have to make a visit each building on which they're modeled and then buy them there. We don't just have a fat evening, we make a chocolate fondue and watch Bugs Bunny cartoons for hours on end.

There's a high correlation between absence and fondness of heart. But it doesn't take long before the key correlation changes to "sight" relative to "mind" - as in, "out of" each in a 1:1 ratio.

Our over-programmed interaction is a reaction to this change. Part of it is, I want to give her exposure to how I live - travel, meetings, uncertainty - so that we can establish a common ground with each other. But I'm also applying the paddles, optimistically to accelerate, pessimistically to restart, the heartbeat of the relationship.

Just as prolonged absence isn't sustainable, neither is hyper-programmed interaction. For one thing, the world beckons, and both school and work start up again in just a few days and the mindless-industrial complex will impose its rhythm on us. For another, a fully programmed existence hits a limit: the next episode is twice as adventerous but half as thrilling as the last.

Restarting is not so simple, but our hearts are commited. We're becoming reacquainted and re-integrated into each others lives, and our interaction is gradually becoming a matter of mundane routine as opposed to celebratory exception.

I'm back on the road again, all too soon, but hopefully at a more sustainable pace. This time round, rather than needing to find a way back to "mundane routine" from "celebratory exception", I'm going to try to find the exceptional ground of "celebratory routine".

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Every Generation Gets Its Own Technology

Mainframes and minis had been around for quite some time when personal computers came around in the late 1970s. The mainframe people looked at the PC through the lens of the mainframe, and saw all that the PC couldn't do.  But the PC people didn't focus on what a micro couldn't do, they looked on what the micro could do. And in the process, we created solutions to problems that mainframes just weren't suited to do.  So much creative energy, determination, and economic motivation was brought to bear on the PC that it only took 15 years or so for the commercially available microcomputer to go from office toy to dominant office technology.

Today, the winds of change are blowin' at hurricane force.  Mobile technology is maturing rapidly.  At the moment, it's replacing large segments of what we've relied on PCs to do.  But the exciting bit about mobile technology isn't replacing things that we already do.  Just as PCs became the dominant technology by doing entirely new things, mobile will enable us to do entirely new things.  

I was fortunate to grow up during the birth and rise of the PC, and make a career largely linked to their evolution. It made for exciting times, particularly the early days: the hardware advanced quickly, the application software improved by leaps and bounds each year, programming languages came and went, entirely new tech segments sprang up and in some cases died out just as fast.  But best of all, businesses made dramatic changes to how they operated and what they did in response to this affordable, and increasingly powerful, technology.  PC technology has become a bit stale of late, but it's on a 30 year run, and it's been pretty good.

Technology is constantly being re-invented, which means it can liberate just as much as it binds.  Microcomputers gave my generation the opportunity to invent an entirely new computing paradigm that was free of the restrictions of what came before it.  Mobile gives my daughter's generation the opportunity to do the same.  Here's hoping she's one of those who pushes the boundaries to overthrow the concepts and limitations imposed by the microcomputer order.

Or better yet, that she's one of those who defines the technology beyond "mobile".

Sunday, October 31, 2010

100 Billion Galaxies

According to the Hubble IMax film at the Kennedy Space Center, the wide angle camera on the Hubble Space Telescope has given us imagery that suggests there could be as many as 100 billion galaxies. Each galaxy with billions of stars. Many of those stars with planets. The thought of that is humbling and a little bit frightening.

But it's also inspiring. A lot of science and technology, theory and application created an unbelievably sophisticated telescope. But it isn't just the telescope. The Shuttle that launched and repaired it, and the computers that receive and render the imagery are no small accomplishments in themselves. This is an amazing ecosystem for creating amazing technologies, putting them up, keeping them there, and making them useful. Still fragile and not without problem, but testimony to what we are capable of doing. And we've created that ecosystem in roughly 60 years. That's not long given the few thousand years that people have inhabited this rock.

Of course, our greatest achievements discover just how much more we have yet to learn than we know. And at 100 billion galaxies, the technology we have is woefully inadequate. But it means our greatest achievements that will lead to our greatest discoveries are yet to come. Technology is advancing at an accelerating rate, giving us entirely new ways to explore. There's so much more that we'll do and discover in my daughter's lifetime than in mine.

I hope that she'll want to be part of making those discoveries.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Coming Home

The interesting thing about being out of your family's life for an extended period of time isn't the separation, it's the re-entry. The initial euphoria of homecoming quickly gives rise to being a nuisance in their daily routines, even marginalized while you find your way back in. Even with daily emails, phone calls and text messages, the's still going to be a gap between where you each left off and are today. You don't bridge that gap by trying to describe everything you did during the time apart, you get on straight away by doing new things in your time together.  

Monday, August 30, 2010

Changing Paradigms

There's an episode of Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson says he prefers a 20 year old Ferrari F40 to their more recent vehicles. Among his reasons is the gap between driver and machine. With older supercars, driver and machine were in direct contact, with driver commands relayed directly to the engine, brakes, wheels, and so forth. But with modern supercars, the driver gives commands to a computer, which translates those commands into actions taken by car. This introduces a layer between person and machine, which (to Jeremy Clarkson, anyway) is less satisfying.

This is not to say that computers aren’t helpful, even necessary, in the modern supercar. The latest generation are so incredibly powerful, driver’s aids such as launch and traction control are necessary just to make them drivable. Not to mention less terrifying for the driver: when harnessing the power of 500+ bhp, there’s a very thin margin between driving on the limit and turfing the car.

Even when we drive ordinary cars, more and more we're talking to a computer that will tell the car what we want the car to do. Which raises the question of whether the driving paradigm that we use - foot-pedal throttle, gear lever shifting, foot braking, steering – has become an anachronism. If we're going to talk to a computer, these mechanisms for interaction are extremely primitive given both the computing power and sophisticated human-computer interfaces we have today. In that light, it comes as no surprise that smartphones are becoming increasingly integrated with cars; perhaps a new paradigm for interacting with our cars lies there.

It's also more than just a simple "command interface." The driver-car dialogue is not a one-way phenomenon, because driving is no longer as simple as driver instructing the car. The automobile can interpret multiple simultaneous commands (e.g., steering and braking) to try to understand what the driver is likely trying to accomplish and implement the right kind of steering with the right kind of braking. The car can also interpret those commands with some degree of situational awareness: things like road conditions, obstacle detection and satnav can enable a computer to interpret why we might be sending a combination of commands, and act accordingly. This makes the act of driving an all together different exercise: we don't control the car, as much as we describe what we want the car to do.

This isn’t an unprecedented shift. Commercial airplanes went through a similar phenomenon, and it changed the nature of what it meant to pilot a commercial airliner. It took several years, but stick and pedals gradually gave rise to fly-by-wire. The Airbus A320 was a clean break from the prior paradigm, making pilots feel more like computer programmers. Boeing still includes a stick in their aircraft, but pilots talk to a computer which talks to the ailerons, engines, landing gear, etc.

All told, we're likely very close to witnessing a shift in what it means to "drive". The way we control a car stems from function more than form. The underlying function is changing, and with it, so must the form.

One thing is for certain: the next generation of drivers will have a far easier time accepting a new paradigm than older generations will have in letting the previous paradigm go.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Pain from Parenting

It hurts to be a dad.

At this age, it's just the physical pain that comes from trying to keep up with an 8 year old. Things like tossing her around in a lake, blocking her soccer kicks, or building a zipline in the back yard. It’s a lot of cuts, scrapes, muscle aches and bruises. All outdoor stuff, and although it’s great to be outdoors, one person’s sweetly perfumed air is another’s pollen nightmare. Every now and again, it gets to be a bit much: it took a bit of time to recover from a controlled fall on my knees after losing my balance while tossing her back and forth on my shoulders. But it heals, and we do it all over again.

Today she’s bruising my muscle tissue (especially when I try to block her soccer kicks). Before too long, of course, she’ll break my heart.

'Twas ever thus between fathers & daughters. Between now and then, we have a zipline to finish, and countless other adventures to have.

Cuts, bruises & sneezing fits be damned.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Children are fairly resilient to change. They adapt easier, in no small part because even with their overloaded routines, they're not so firmly set in their ways.

But a house move is a pretty big change, even in the same town, even for a little person. All those routines are no more. A key source of consistency, security, comfort is upended.

The emotion of loss of the familiar can be eclipsed by the excitement of discovery of the new. New walking paths. A new park to play in. New neighbors. New places to go cycling... like the ice cream parlor. And old things, no longer stored away for lack of space, become accessible and new all over again.

Maybe someday my daughter will make the opportunity for herself to make a big move, maybe out of her home country. For all the adventure that it promises, a big move can be frustrating: things that you took for granted can become marathon struggles. On top of it, the loss of the familiar can wear you down and be outright demoralizing. The adventure is hard to enjoy if it's overwhelmed by enormous effort necessary just to do the basics.

Maybe this little move we've made will give her a few tools or patterns that will help her adjust to the unfamiliar later in life.

Or, more modestly, simply how to overcome the stationary interia that settles in with age.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Maybe we have to tell our kids they're winners...

Perhaps because we're borrowing so much from our kids (in the form of massive public debt), we have no choice but to tell them "you're all winners" all the time: if we don't, they might cut us off.

Friday, April 30, 2010

That's one small step...

Our first model rocket launch together was a success. So were the next 4.

Rocketry seems like a pretty good use of time:

  • She may learn a bit of physics and aerodynamics.
  • She may gain some appreciation for precision and attention to detail, e.g., as flight patterns are affected by the alignment of the fins.
  • This might point her in a direction of a career path she should pursue.
  • It may become a hobby.

Of course, it may turn out to be something we do a few times before she loses interest completely.

However it turns out, building things that we can launch a thousand feet up in the sky, recover, and launch again is a whole lot of fun for us both right now. But it's more than a way to kill time. It's got her wheels turning. It's got her thinking about things she'd never thought of before: she created a launch vehicle that goes high in the sky and returns for another round. It's a spark.

It's one small step for a little girl, one giant leap for her imagination.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Parent-Advocate

Parents are a child's best - and often only - advocate.

There are times when a child stands accused of something and their voice isn't heard. Accusations tend to carry more weight than facts. A little person who stands accused of something is less likely to get a fair hearing, especially in the face of heinous or hysterical charges. A child on the defensive needs an advocate to level the playing field.

There are also times when a child's situation is misdiagnosed. Children are subjected to all sorts of mechanical social processes, most prominently the education system. The machinery of "the system" doesn't handle exceptions all that well. For example, a child that appears to be struggling with a subject may actually have mastered it. Lackluster performance may be a result of the fact that they're bored to tears, and subsequently not engaged. Unfortunately, those administrating "the system" know only to assess performance in a few set patterns: the kids studied this subject, then took this exam, so that exam score is the true barometer of their subject mastery. These mechanical processes aren't designed to recognize, let alone deal, with exception cases.

When an authority presents you with a conclusion about your child, you can't take it at face value. You have to interrogate everybody involved to get all the relevant facts, consider alternative conclusions that the data might be trying to tell you, find ways to test for the truth, and engage everybody in ferreting out the truth. It can be laborious. Advocating for a single person runs counter to an educational-industrial complex designed to mass-educate large volumes of children. Also, enabling those who drive a mechanical process every day to be meta-aware is no small task. No surprise, flying directly into the headwinds is emotionally trying. But the parent-advocate must be prepared to do this and keep a level head in the process.

There is a dark side of advocacy, of course: the parent who, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, asserts their child can do no wrong, is perfect in every subject, is the greatest athlete, is the most talented musician, etc. Delusional advocacy is quite damaging. It creates a false floor of performance, a sense of entitlement, and a wildly distorted sense of self-awareness. That doesn't build self-esteem; it creates a recursive pattern of denial.

But that aside, a child has no better and no more important an advocate than a parent. An attorney is a hired gun, there to argue points of law interspersed with selected facts to win an argument. A parent is invested not in winning the argument of the moment on behalf of a child, but in championing a child's cause in life-impacting events.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

On My Honor

I just finished reading Legacy of Honor, by Alvin Townley. It’s about Eagle Scouts and Eagle Scouting. (Yes, being an Eagle Scout is a lifelong thing, hence the use of the gerund “Scouting”.)

Mr. Townley uses the word “honor” a great deal throughout the book. That’s no surprise as it’s the third word of the book’s title as well as the Scout Oath:

On my honor, I will do my best
to do my duty

to God and my country

and to obey the Scout Laws

To help other people at all times

To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight

We project a lot of integrity into other people, earned or otherwise. Still, we constantly (if only subconsciously) ask if the people around us - colleagues, employers, friends, elected officials - behave in an honorable fashion; e.g., are they honest, are they worthy of our trust. We also question our own honor a fair bit, especially when (well, usually after) we’re put to the test in a personal or professional situation. Did I do the right thing? Is that how I would have wanted somebody else to act if I were on the receiving end of what I just did?

The Scout Oath gives us a standard of honorable conduct. It’s not written in the negative, i.e., as a collection of “thou shall not” expressions. Negative statements attempt to define what we should aspire not to be. The Oath is written in the affirmative. It defines what a person should aspire to be.

Affirmative statements are more inclusive, allowing us to invoke the “spirit” or the “intent” to guide our decision making. That is, we can ask, “is something I am about to do consistent with my definition of the kind of person I wish to be?” That’s radically different from reconciling our conduct to a collection of expressions written in the negative. Guidance from negative statements usually leads to conclusions such as, “well, nobody told me I can’t do what I’m about to do.”

The Oath also points out that sometimes we'll come up short. We say that we will do our best, not that we will always and without fail. Now, that isn’t a “get out of jail free” card because we’re still responsible for our actions. However, it is an acknowledgement that sometimes we end up in situations that are completely new to us, where the facts – particularly the motivations of other people – aren’t immediately clear. In circumstances like this where we are compelled to act, we must be certain that above all else we do our best. And if we conduct ourselves consistently with this code, we’ve nothing to be afraid of should we be called to account for our actions, regardless the outcome.

Our honor, our integrity, is challenged every day. ‘Twas ever thus. The only difference is that today, media amplifies a lapse of honor with a broad and persistent exposure of the person caught out in a compromising situation. At the same time, the tools of obfuscation are much more sophisticated than ever before. The sad result is that plausible deniability is not just a matter of policy that guides people through troubled situations, it defines entire career paths.

Which brings attention to an unpleasant, self-reinforcing combination of societal norms. Society stresses winning above all else: we’ve all heard the phrase “nobody remembers who finished in second place” and the famous Al Davis quote, “Just win, baby.” At the same time, we’ve incubated a cultural norm that nobody should lose: "we’re all winners” pervades our society. So we see people managing the appearances of being right, be it in business, or politics, or science, or even our personal interactions. We are increasingly conditioned to be afraid to fail. We are afraid to be wrong.

The shame of it is, we shouldn’t be afraid to fail at what we set out to do. We should be afraid to fail at how we go about doing it. Conducting ourselves with honor tends to have a direct bearing on both the probability of success and sustainability of what we set out to do. Climate scientists are only the latest in a long line of people as wide and varied as Nixon's 1972 election team and McLaren Formula One race engineers to discover this.

Instilling a sense of honor in our children is a tremendous responsibility. Think about how past generations instilled it in us. It was done by example, by the words people used, by the stories we were told, by how we were coached and taught. We learned it from our family and all those people with whom we came into contact: teachers, babysitters, camp counselors, older and younger kids, and many others in our extended family and community.

And it didn't hurt to recite a code of conduct week after week for 6 years.

I hope the Girl Scouts have a similar code of conduct. It's about time for my daughter and I to find out.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Crowding Out

Children's lives are highly scheduled, with school and extra-curricular activities dictating where they need to be and what they need to be doing at pretty much any given moment in time.

The amount of homework a child has each week is, not surprisingly, directly proportional to the amount of programmed activities in which they participate. In an effort to get parents more involved, just about everything children are involved with involves some form of homework.

All this homework is well intentioned. It's too easy to put a kid in a bunch of extra-curricular activities to make them "somebody else's problem" for a few hours each day so a parent can pursue some other interest. And it's fair to say that many parents are practicing a form of "outsourcing," expecting that their child's education, spiritual development, or musical training is fully the responsibility of a contracted party. Clearly, that is an irresponsible expectation, and homework helps to reset the balance.

All told, when we sign our children up for things, we're committing them for both time they'll spend in an activity, and time they'll spend on the activity.

Independently of this, the days are short in the winter months, so there's only small windows of time each day to enjoy the season.

The net effect is that spontaneity is crowded out. The ability to do something like ski or sled is constrained by the need to keep pace with everything else they're signed up to do. What initially seemed a sustainable pace of activities quickly becomes what runners call fartlek training: sudden sprints in the middle of a sustained run.

In a highly scheduled life, the conspiracy of convergence is inevitable. The rescheduled music lesson, the irregularly scheduled basketball game, the religious education study, the choir lesson, a birthday party and a school project will all need to fit in the same weekend. Add to this a travel schedule that has you away from home several days a week, and you soon discover that your interactions with your child are substantially framed, if not outright dictated, by somebody else.

Compound this with extraordinarily beautiful weather for ice skating, and the sense of constraint is overwhelming. You're left lamenting the lost opportunity to do something unique during the season, more than feeling a sense of accomplishment for having executed so many things in a pre-programmed schedule.

A profound sense of loss may be merited. Harry Eyres, writing in the Weekend FT, commented on how his earliest memories of winter shaped his expectation for what winter is like. As Mr. Eyres points out, the experiences of the season are critical moments of our experience of life, be it walking on a frozen river Thames, moving about in snow as deep as you are tall, or self- and community-reliance to share food and shelter when transportation and technology fail in the face of the elements.

These experiences are, in a highly-programmed world, exception to the rule. Indeed, a significant cold snap or heavy snowfall is seen more as an encumbrance than a reason for celebration. But just as banking had rules that mattered not when the governing principles no longer held true with the onset of the credit crunch, so, too, is the fragility of this programmed existence exposed in the face of a hostile yet still curiously sustaining world. Our programming functions only in this bubble, and the bubble doesn't provide for our needs.

The more we program our lives, the further and fewer between the opportunities to connect with and embrace the world outside our bubbles. We have to always remember that our children may not truly fathom the fundamental subservience we have to the Earth. The Earth sustains us far more than we impose any form of management over it. Helping our children develop that appreciation - even at the expense of their programming - is an obligation we have as parents.

And on perfect winter days, it's a highly liberating one at that.