Friday, July 30, 2010

Fifteen Thousand Bicycles

Today is the sixth day of Ragbrai.  No, Ragbrai is not some obscure religious holiday--it's the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.  This is an event in which 20,000 bicyclists from all over the state, the nation, and the world ride across Iowa from the Missouri River to the Mississippi.  This year, the route chosen is 440 miles long, and happens to go right past my house.  They try to route this traffic away from larger cities and main highways and over the rural black-top roads of the Iowa "back country." And I live along just such a road.  This is the second time in 35 years that the route has gone past my front door.  It's like the annual wildebeest migration in the Serengeti, only with wheels and without the crocodiles.
      Originally, this event was begun as a publicity stunt by the DesMoines Register.  About 40 years ago, two popular columnists challenged each other to a bike ride across the state, and Register readers were invited to tag along.  They assumed they might get a dozen takers. Instead, thousands showed up. And over a few years, it grew to an event which sometimes draws over 20,000 riders.  No one knows the exact number--there's no way to really count them.  The number of participants officially registered is usually over 10,000, but about half never bother to register. The police just cordon off certain roads and turn them loose.  And all small towns welcome the hoard, as it is a wonderful commercial opportunity.
   As I looked out my 2nd floor window at 7 AM this morning, the hoard had already descended, and there was a procession of bikes as far as the eye could see in both directions, and several dozen had gathered to rest on my lawn.  These folks are notoriously polite, genteel, and obsessively careful not to brake anything or leave any trash behind.
   It started to rain and the roof of my portico beckoned, and soon 50 or so people were gathered beneath it.  I went down to talk to them.  They are of all ages, but are mostly educated, professional types, and interesting to talk to.  Internationally, Ragbrai, as a bicycle event, is second only to the Tour De France in name recognition, yet it is not a race.  When teams come here from Europe, it takes them a day or two to wrap their minds around the idea that these bikers are not racing---they don't give a damn who gets to the Mississippi first--they just want to enjoy the ride.  It is a bicycle celebration--not a race.
     The pack has been trouping by for over three hours and it just now shows signs of slacking off. I live on a corner lot, and some enterprising soul has set up a truck with a food stand on the crossroad.  Over a hundred people are now standing on my lawn eating hot dogs, but so far no one has dropped a single wrapper or soda can.   They're nice people, these bikers. Totally insane--but nice.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Syncom, and the day it all began

       July 26:  The global communications marvel we now take for granted began precisely forty-seven years ago today, with the launching of the world's first successful geo-synchronous communications satellite,  Syncom II.   Built by Hughes Aircraft, this tiny satellite was the fore-runner of the hundreds of units that inhabit the "Clarke Orbit" today.
    In 1929,  Austrian phyicist Hermann Noordung suggested that if an object were placed in orbit above the equator at a height of 22,238 miles, it would move synchronous with the earth, and would appear stationary to an observer on the ground.
    In 1945, Arthur C. Clarke  suggested that if 3 such objects, equipped as radio relay stations, were placed equidistant around the equator, the whole earth could be linked in continuous communication.
    With Syncom II, this dream became a reality.  Hughes Aircraft was later acquired by Boeing,  so the link I have provided takes you to a Boeing museum site.  Their information is brief,. mostly correct, and is an interesting read.
  There are a few glaring omissions:   They mention the ground station facilities at Lackhurst,  NJ, and on board the USNS Kingsport, but made no mention at all of the ground stations at Ft. Dix NJ, or Camp Roberts, CA., which were the two main workhorse operations.  They did mention that this satellite provided an important, reliable communications link between the US and Viet Nam during the war.  The transportable ground station flown to Asia for this purpose was a makeshift rig cobbled together on short notice by the guys at Hughes,  and operated on the tarmac of an airport in Asia by a half dozen enlisted men from Camp Roberts.   I was one of them.
      Syncom II was synchronous, but not quite geo-static, as it was not quite in the equatorial plane. A small but continuous antenna adjustment was required.  But Syncom III was truly geo-static and fixed antennae could be used.
     Both Hughes and the Army were quite aware of the historical import of the technology they were about to introduce.  Many were the speeches, ribbon cuttings, and certificates.  They likened it to the invention of the telegraph.  In retrospect, I think they were right, thought I didn't believe it at the time.
So check out this link--it's an interesting piece of history.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hard Times at the Top.

   According to an article in July 14 Wall Street Journal,  out of work CEOs face even stiffer odds at ever finding a job comparable to their previous employment than do lower level employees.  The article, "Out-of-Work CEOs Find Openings At the Top Are Few, Callbacks Rare,''  makes the same point that Barbara Ehrenreich's book, Bait and Switch made a few years ago:  That once you have reached middle management or higher, if you ever get laid off, your career is probably over.  Recruiters want energetic young contenders who are still looking ahead to the peak of their career--not "has-beens" who are looking back. Even if you are willing to accept  a position at far lower pay, it won't be offered.    Finding re-employment is tough at any level--but the higher you climb the corporate ladder, the tougher it gets.
     The same issue of WSJ has a piece describing a lawsuit where the former CEO of Lord & Taylor, (formerly owned by Macy's) is now suing Macy's over cutbacks in his retiree medical care.
   Those of us on or near the bottom of the corporate heap have always known that for the union members on the shop floor, an employee is just a piece of meat, or perhaps a machine--to be used, worn out, and thrown away.  But we always imagined that it was different for management, especially top management. Turns out we were wrong. If you're in management, you may be a more expensive piece of meat, but you're still just meat---don't ever delude yourself.
   My wife and I are now both retired, so the burden of finding work has finally been lifted from my shoulders.  Yet I bore this burden for 40 years. As a skilled construction hand, even in good times, work was intermittent at best.   And during the farm crisis of the 80s, I went a whole decade without finding any work in my home state of Iowa.  What work I did find was hundreds of miles from home. And in 1982, I put 16,000 miles on my car driving around the country looking for work and found not one job.  I was in every Southern state except Arkansas at least twice--and the south is where the work was.
    So if you're out of work, believe me brother--I have been there.  But you may take some carrion comfort in this:  If when times were good, you had worked harder and climbed to a higher position,  your present job search would not be easier--it would be harder.  What helped me get though the 80s with my mind, my marriage, and my life intact was the continuous awareness that my unemployment was due to macro-economic factors that I had not caused and could not cure.
    Imagine that a fly is on the windshield of a bus, and that the driver of the bus,  being drunk,  drives the bus off the road and into a creek. Should the fly feel that the accident is his fault?  The economy is the bus and we are the flies.  So don't take it personal.

The Perils of Undue Brevity

            If there’s one thing everyone agrees on, it’s that it’s never a good idea to use 50 words when 20 might suffice.  And considering the cost of paper, ink, bandwidth, and the reader’s time, why would this not be true?  Yet, as is the case with everything that’s generally agreed on, it’s quite unlikely to be true in all cases, and may not even be true in general.  If we humans were honey bees who’s communication technique was a little dance coded for information about the direction and distance of blooming flowers, or if we were robots trying only to relay commands from the Lord High Dalek, (something like E-X-T-E-R-M-I-N-A-T-E) then surely the shortest message would be at least an adequate one, if not the most adequate one.  But alas, humans are a bit more complex than bees or robots, and our communications requirements are a bit more nuanced.
            Whenever I write a letter to an editor, I’m ever mindful of the 250 word limit. It becomes maddening to wrestle even the simplest advocacy on any subject into anything that states its thesis within that limit, without leaving it totally shorn of all due qualifications and reservations.  And any proposition stated as an absolute usually sounds absurd, because it usually is absurd.  And if one were to include such qualifications without omitting the thesis itself, then this leaves little space for any supporting evidence.  So what might have been a carefully reasoned suggestion becomes a simplistic, arrogant, and unsupported rant.  In short, any point worth making cannot be convincingly made without both explanation and evidence, none of which is likely to fit into 250 words. 
            Even when not facing some arbitrary word limit, even in interpersonal speech with close friends and colleagues, the short way may not be the best way. Supposing you had just concluded a meeting with your boss and your friend asked you, “How did it go?”  If you were to reply, “Mr. So and So was very short with me,” what exactly would you mean?  The 4th Edition American Heritage Dictionary lists, among its many possible meanings for short:  rudely brief; abrupt; and also, in a rude or curt manner.   So if someone is being “short,” they certainly aren’t being polite, considerate, or patient.  Yet why do we equate brevity with rudeness?  If people state their business quickly, would this not place fewer demands on our time?
            The trouble is that when people address us this curtly, they are not doing it to avoid wasting our time—they do it to avoid wasting their time.  Also, in a long and nuanced conversation, both parties have ample time to volunteer information and to discuss any objections that either might have to any action taken.  But when people are short with us, what might they be saying, besides that we are not worth much of their time?  Are they saying that our objections don’t matter, or that our information is useless? Either would be insulting and inconsiderate.
            But what of situations where no insult is intended, but where there simply isn’t time to discuss things at length?  Even then the consequences of an artificially shortened exchange can be fairly dire.  Shortening the process in and of itself changes the tone.  The tentative becomes the imperative. What should have been, “Can we discuss this?” is received as, “Just do it!”
            Also, sometimes people prefer to be addressed in a more indirect way, at least in certain situations.  Suppose we have a “first date” situation, both parties having been mutually selected as moderately attractive, healthy, and normally concupiscent representatives of the opposite sex.  Suppose also that in this particular case, both are unattached and have made it clear that, at this point in their lives, they are not looking for a long term relationship.
The woman involved knows perfectly well that she is regarded as an object of sexual desire—at least she certainly hopes so. If not, then the money she’s spent on her hair and the new outfit, purchased especially for this occasion, has been utterly wasted.  Yet if her date dares to forthrightly propose some activity that might logically be pursuant to this desire, succinctly and in terse English prose, she might easily slap his face and leave in disgust—or perhaps in tears.  But why?  If you were an extra-terrestrial ethologist viewing this scene, what would you say in your report?  Would you say, “The human courtship dance is extremely complicated and must be executed perfectly in all details or mating does not occur?”   My own explanation is simply that sometimes people prefer to be approached less forthrightly. For reasons that may be personal or cultural or even biological, undue brevity may be strongly dispreferred.
            And if you are trying to change a friend’s point of view on any issue, just stating your own take on the subject will not win a convert.  In many cases, the views held by the person you’re addressing are similar to the views that you yourself once held.  And yet the transition from your old position may not have been a blinding epiphany.   More likely, it was a slow, very round-about odyssey encompassing many years.  If you can slowly, patiently take your friend with you down that same intellectual or spiritual journey, and allow them to discover along the way the same things that you have discovered, then perhaps at the end they will arrive at an understanding similar to yours, or at least more sympathetic to it.
            Finally, sometimes people accept evidence only if they are made to believe that they have discovered it themselves.  Suppose you wish to elicit a cat’s interest in a toy mouse. Would you bash her over the head with it? That would certainly get her attention.  But no; you would tie a string on it and very slowly drag it past the kitty, so that when she finally elects to pounce on it, she imagines it was her own discovery.  People are a lot like that, so don’t hit them over the head with your idea.  It’s much more effective to keep subtly dragging it past them till they pounce on it themselves.  Yet this is a process that seldom occurs quickly.  While the well chosen one-liner can be useful, or perhaps even priceless, most ideas worth explaining can be explained either at length—or not at all.  (Sorry about the length of this post, but I made it a point to avoid undue brevity.)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Why Quote From the Wall Street Journal?

            Since I have identified myself as a liberal, it may surprise you to see occasional quotes from The Wall Street Journal.  But there’s a good reason why I do this.  When I was in college (in the late Pleistocene) I was told that though WSJ was known for outrageously ultra-conservative rants on their editorial page, their news pages were accurate and reliable. But for many years, I found their editorial page so offensive that I could hardly hold my nose long enough to pick up a copy.
            Then several years back, a friend of mine changed my mind. This friend, a successful middle-management technocrat center-right moderate whom I had known from childhood, made an interesting point:  His said that many people he knows who read the Journal do not agree with any of their editorial positions, or perhaps just find them amusing.   But they subscribe anyway because within the news pages they find excellent investigative pieces—often stories covered nowhere else. He also pointed out that at The Journal, they do an good job of keeping their fact pages separated from their opinions.  (I remarked at how appropriate this was, since they usually manage to keep their opinions widely separated from any facts.)  
            I conceded that all this might be a good reason for reading WSJ, but I now have an even better reason.   Whenever I argue politics, (generally relegated to days of the week ending in “y”) I am arguing either with other liberals, (preaching to the choir) or with conservatives.  In Iowa, you can find both.  When I’m preaching to the choir, if I quote from Nation, The American Prospect, or some other liberal journal, they’ve already seen it.  They’re reading what I’m reading.  But few of them would ever read WSJ.  So if I discover some little statistical factoid in WSJ that neatly proves a liberal viewpoint, but which was never printed anywhere else, then when I make my liberal friends aware of it, I’m providing something they would not otherwise discover.
            Even better would be dangling such a factoid in front of a conservative, without identifying the source. Predictably, they begin by complaining about “liberal media bias,” saying something like, “So where did you get that story?  What ultra-liberal commie pinko rag prints that nonsense?”  And I reply, “The Wall Street Journal.”  The cognitive dissonance is wonderful. I have quoted to them from their own Bible.  It’s the rhetorical equivalent of a hand-grenade. 

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Perils of Austerity

An article in June 30 Waterloo Courier,   "Bank of England Warns of Austerity Measures," quotes Adam Posen, a member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee.  He says Britain could be pushed back into a recession by the government's austerity moves.  He also said, "I have laid awake a number of nights recently trying to figure out how big is the risk that the major economies are repeating the mistake of the U.S. in 1937.......".
   So which 1937 mistake was he talking about?    In that year,  the New Deal programs had nearly beaten the depression.  Unemployment had dropped from 25% in 1933, when Roosevelt  took over, to less than 10%, and was still dropping.  So conservatives persuaded  FDR to shift emphasis from solving the depression to balancing the budget.  Spending was slashed and taxes were raised.  And within a year the country was pushed right back into a depression.
   Thomas Frank, in an article in June 30 Wall Street Journal,  "Avoiding the Austerity Trap, " calls deficit reduction an unhealthy obsession,   explaining that it's actually a war against "entitlements."