Southern Discomfort

Dancing in the Streets during San Telmo Street Fair

Dancing in the Streets during San Telmo Street Fair

I wrote a couple of weeks ago of our adventures in Antarctica. Given our somewhat lukewarm reaction to this destination that sits on so many others’ bucket lists, you may wonder how we ended up there. To be honest, it wasn’t our idea. It was the desire of friends who – between the time we made our reservations and the time of our departure – had the vagaries of life intervene so decisively that they were unable to go.

Though we had been told by Grand Circle Travel, our tour company, that purchasing trip insurance would allow us to cancel the trip “even if we just changed our minds,” it turned out that little piece of verbiage was a blatant falsehood. There is a slight possibility that that canard may have colored our reaction to the rest of the trip.

But there was a saving grace, and that was, prior to boarding the ship in Tierra del Fuego, several days in Buenos Aires. Monica had always wanted to go to Buenos Aires. We had friends who’d honeymooned in Buenos Aires and loved it. Touching down in South America would represent my sixth continent, and Antarctica would be my seventh. But as Harry Anderson used to say on Night Court, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The trouble really started at our hotel, which shall remain nameless. Given the cost of our Antarctica cruise, we naturally assumed that the associated hotel prior to the voyage would be of equivalent value. Suffice to say, it was one of those places that aspired to be a five-star hotel, and claim to be a five-star hotel, but only if it was actually five stars on a scale of ten.

For instance, we had never stayed at a five-star hotel that didn’t have bellmen. Or a concierge. Or a ramp to roll luggage up. We’d never encountered a swimming pool that was too small to be a pool and too big to be a hot tub. We’d never seen a system that required you to insert your room key into a slot to get the lights and the air conditioning to work (this is apparently increasingly common, but signage indicating this requirement for visitors from countries like the U.S. that waste electricity with impunity would have been helpful).

Nor had we stayed at a hotel where no one ever picked up the telephone. Every time we had a problem, we had to get in the elevator and head downstairs. This is where a concierge really would have helped. This is not to say that the staff wasn’t helpful once you were standing face-to-face with them, but it was nonetheless disconcerting to see one staffer lift a ringing telephone and then immediately drop it back into the cradle when he was helping me.

Buenos Aires also took a little getting used to. When I’ve traveled internationally in the past, I’d been accustomed to calling the Bank of America several weeks ahead and ordering foreign currency. You can’t do that with Argentine pesos, because in addition to dealing with mysterious prosecutorial deaths and other pesky political issues, the government doesn’t seem to be able to get a handle on its currency’s volatility. You can’t change dollars into pesos until you’re actually in Argentina.

This requirement was eased by the fact that most entities that deal with tourists are happy to accept American dollars. Except when they don’t. After dealing with multiple cab drivers that accepted dollars, I felt badly for the one who didn’t, because I hadn’t exchanged any money for pesos. He finally reluctantly accepted a five dollar bill.

Now, you’d think that you’d be able to do what most people do when they need cash – visit an ATM. Too bad no one at our tour operator thought to suggest that we update our credit cards to the latest technology, which requires both a PIN and a chip to get money out of most ATMs outside the United States (the U.S. is not at the forefront of everything, it turns out). Multiple weekend visits to multiple vestibules using multiple cards all resulted in the same message: You cannot use this card in this ATM.

Buenos Aires was also incredibly humid, which wouldn’t have been a problem, except that the bodegas selling bottled water were among those merchants that refused to accept American dollars. Even the prospects of tourists melting into puddles on their doorsteps wouldn’t persuade them.

I eventually did what most people do, which is ask the front desk at the hotel for a recommendation of a black market dealer in pesos – whose exchange rate, it turns out for still murky reasons, was much better than the one I would have gotten walking into a bank. Once I had a little local currency in my wallet, I felt much better.

But on the whole, Buenos Aires was very much a mixed bag. We loved the wide streets, but we were disconcerted by the graffiti and the fact that it looked like – when it came to throwing garbage into dumpsters – people simply aimed and hoped. The result had the effect of looking like a dumpster had exploded.

We enjoyed some wonderful walking tours, led by a local woman we contacted through Vayable, a clearinghouse for such experts. We enjoyed the San Telmo street fair (see photo).

The rampant tributes to Eva Peron were slightly disconcerting. We even visited her burial site in La Recoleta, a cemetery known for its above-ground crypts. Imagine walking around New York City and seeing images of Eleanor Roosevelt everywhere you turned. Eleanor Roosevelt, of course, never had her own musical, although time will tell.

We saw a tango performance. We figured out how to use the subway. My high school Spanish came back with more accuracy than I ever would have expected. We found multiple Starbucks.

But ultimately, I have to say that the next time I have the hankering to visit a city with good food, wide boulevards, architecture derived from both French and Spanish influences, above-ground cemeteries, and sweltering humidity, I’m just going to New Orleans.

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That Noise You Just Heard Was The First Chink In Hillary’s Inevitability

Oops. A lot of people in the Democratic party (and probably some in the Republican party too) had expected that come January 20, 2016, Hillary Clinton would be on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., while Chief Justice John Roberts swore her in through gritted teeth. I know I did.

But this e-mail thing – eeehhh (not sure how to type a cross “ick” and “yeah”). The fact that she used personal e-mail for government business. We were riding on a fantasy balloon, thinking that maybe she’s different than he is, maybe she’s really not one of those people who thinks the rules don’t apply to her. We wanted to think that Clinton II would be different than Clinton I because she really is smarter than he is.

Now, Clinton herself has managed to put more than a hint of doubt into people’s minds about what kind of politician she is. Here’s why.

No one understands Benghazi – what happened, what went wrong, and why. The Republicans’ attempts to discredit her on this have failed because there’s so much murk surrounding it. It’s too easy for the Republicans to say black and the Democrats to say, well, no, if you look at it this way, gray.

But everyone understands e-mail. Don’t forget, my real job is writing about technology. A big component of that is security and audit. What should be in e-mail, what shouldn’t be in e-mail, how long should they be archived, how do you search them in an e-discovery effort to uncover what happened and when.

Everyone in corporate America understands there are rules about e-mail. They have IT staff banging on them constantly about passwords and paper trails and how they have to clean out their in-box because their e-mail is hogging too many megabytes. So when Clinton suddenly, completely, extravagantly – especially as a member of an administration yammering about “transparency” – ignores rules that everyone can relate to, it really makes people stop and wonder if she’s just as secretive and corrupt and opaque as other candidates contemplating the presidency (Chris Christie, please call your office – your E-ZPass bill is overdue).

Clinton has never been my favorite candidate. Even as a Californian, I contributed to the New York Senate campaign of Rick Lazio, her opponent when she initially ran. But I admired her poise when Barack Obama beat her. I admired her commitment to the country when she accepted the Secretary of State nomination. I was completely won over when I saw her speak to a software vendor’s user conference last year.

One of my editors asked me to go to see what, if anything, Clinton actually knew about the topic of “software-defined networking.” She immediately admitted that she knew absolutely nothing. She stopped short of saying that the only reason she was there was for the $150,000 speaking fee. But … she spoke for 30 minutes on a variety of topics of interest to the tech audience: immigration, intellectual property, net neutrality, Internet security. She was eloquent. She was articulate.

Thinking back to times I’d seen Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden get tangled up in the simplest sentence structures and eventually dying from exhaustion, watching Clinton was a breath of fresh air. I was impressed.

Then the CEO of the company that invited her segued to the Q&A. Again, more eloquence. They wrapped up with what he called “the lightning round” (a term I found humorous since Password has been off the air since 1989). Among the rapid-fire questions were her favorite book, her favorite movie, her favorite food. This was the best part – even as Bill has slimmed down, Hillary had clearly gained weight. She was wearing a dress that looked like she was wearing a coat. But with a great deal of self-deprecation, she said, “Well, as you can see, I have a lot of favorite foods.”

That’s what we like to see in politicians – a sense of humanity, humility. I was won over.

But now, what has she done? In a world where it’s almost impossible for a Democrat to lose a Presidential election, because of the solid Democratic majorities in urban areas, she’s managed to plant a seed of doubt about that humanity and humility in everybody’s mind. It was already in the Republicans’ mind, but now, with this, I suspect it’s seeping into independents’ minds as well. How does someone so smart chip a chink in her own armor of inevitability?

Granted, the Republicans may still nominate a right-wing fruitcake, or worse, a moderate masquerading through the primaries as a right-wing fruitcake. But the sad part is that Hillary Clinton has, in a horribly self-inflicted, bungling way, managed to do to herself what the Republicans have been trying to do for years – make people wonder about what kind of a politician she really is.

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Won’t You Find It In Your Heart To Help?

Friends, your neighbors are suffering. They may act like they are bearing up well, but in reality, they are fearful. Fearful and tired and worried. Many of them in the west have not the rain for weeks. Many of them in the east have not seen the sun for weeks. Some of them are overwhelmed by the prospect of so much sun on so many consecutive days. Others are overwhelmed by the prospect of so much snow on so many consecutive days. They are not sure how much more they can stand. Many are at the breaking point.

Now is the time to act. Now is the time to step up and ease their suffering.

Those of you in the west, please take an empty watertight container – a jar, a jug, a soda bottle – and clean it thoroughly. Then ship the empty container to a friend in the East, with return postage.

Those of you in the east, please take the watertight container and pack it full of snow. Then ship it back to your friend in the west. It will melt along the way. The mailmen will wonder how a package that got mailed with so little postage is now really heavy, but they’ll figure that their counterparts back east are morons or they wouldn’t be spending their lives tramping through snow that’s piled higher than they are tall.

Those of you in the west, take the container to your nearest local reservoir and pour it in.

If we all step up, we can exact astonishing social and hydraulic change. The level of the snow in the east will go down. The level of the reservoirs in the west will go up. The people of the east can walk their streets again without fear of avalanche. The people of the west can swim in their pools again without fear of rationing. The tradeoff may not seem fair, but so be it.

Think of the transcontinental goodwill we can inspire. We will be a nation united in solving each other’s problems. We will engender a higher level of tolerance and understanding. No longer will westerners want to reach through the phone lines on conference calls and strangle their eastern colleagues bragging about how hardy they are. No longer will easterners want to reach through the phone lines on conference calls and strangle their western colleagues bragging about driving to work with the top down.

We will remember anew that we are one nation, one commonwealth, one country, working together to solve each other’s most pressing problems.

Won’t YOU find it in your heart to help?

 

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The Road To Hana, Southern Version

Howard on AntarcticaOn the southeast edge of the Hawaiian isle of Maui, there is a little town called Hana. It sits at the end of a road so twisting and serpentine that even drivers get carsick on the way there. The journey is said to be worth it, as Hana boasts an idyllic place called the Seven Sacred Pools.

I’ve driven the road to Hana. I never did find the Seven Sacred Pools. All I found was a grubby general store and a beach that didn’t look any different than any other municipal beach in the islands. The journey was not worth it.

In fact, I suspect that somewhere along the way, someone in Hana came up with the brilliant idea of marketing this little blip on the map as some sort of special destination, even though it’s not. They bamboozled people into visiting, but because everyone who realized that they’d been bamboozled upon arrival didn’t want to admit it, the mystique of Hana continues to spread.

I bring this up because we just got back from the southern hemisphere’s version of Hana, which is otherwise known as Antarctica.

Instead of a curvy road, to get to Antarctica, you must traverse a channel of water known as Drake’s Passage, a journey that can take far longer than driving to Hana – usually about two days. Drake’s Passage is where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Pacific Ocean, and hence is some of the roughest water in the world. Bring your Bonine, your Dramamine, your Sea-Bands, your Scopolamine patches – bring it all, and they still may not be enough.

Now, some disclosure here – we may have chosen the wrong cabin on our ship. We may have exceptionally weak constitutions. We may just be wimps. There were some people on our Antarctica journey who claimed not to use any seasickness medication at all, and I salute them. But Monica and I were flat on our backs in our cabin in two days southbound and two days northbound.

We couldn’t read. We couldn’t watch television. We couldn’t eat. We couldn’t do anything that involved being vertical or focusing on an immobile object at close or middle distance.

Admittedly, at times it felt what I imagine a magic carpet would feel like, floating over waves of air as it traverses a Middle Eastern fantasy kingdom. At other times, it felt more like a rollercoaster. More frequently, it felt like that scene at the beginning of Beverly Hills Cop where the truck is banging into cars on the streets of Detroit and thrashing them around like toys. Every time the ship hit another wave, there was another bang. We felt like the cars. It was hard to remember at that point that we had actually paid someone to let us to do this.

At this point, you probably suspect the twist. We got to Antarctica. I was finally able to say I’d been on all seven continents (see photo). It wasn’t like Hana. It was stunning. The vistas of white ice and blue sky were unlike anything we’d ever seen. The air smelled cleaner than anything we’d inhaled in our entire lives. The huts of the military and scientific outposts were hauntingly isolated. The seals were majestic. The penguins, even when they leaned forward a tad and propelled eighteen inches of liquefied shit out their butts, were irrevocably cute.

All that may have been true. The cruise may have been wholly memorable, in the way that the voyages of the Titanic, the Costa Concordia, and the Hindenburg were undeniably memorable. All I can really say without fear of contradiction is that a trip to Antarctica is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime journey … because only a moron would do it a second time.

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Not The Visionary I Thought I Was

Many years ago, Hewlett-Packard produced a promotional video on the future of computing that even then featured an astonishing gaffe. As the narrator talked about everything computers would be able to do in the 21st century, the person onscreen took out a paper agenda and updated his schedule. Really? No.

But now, as we’re actually living in the years that the video purported to envision, I’ve discovered that I’ve made similarly clunky assumptions. Several years ago, wanting to make my home office a marvel of efficiency, I bought in a friend who did both design and fine woodworking to create my dream workspace.

I took a room that had probably been designed as a child’s bedroom – it had a closet, after all – but was better suited for a playroom or a den. Don’t tell the Internal Revenue Service, but I had him create shelves for my collection of toy cars: 1:18, 1:25, and 1:43 scale replicas of the hulking, finned behemoths our parents drove in elementary school. My great-nephews think my office is a toy store.

But here’s where I went wrong: I asked him to design in plenty of space for files. Under two sides of the desk: drawers, some with racks for hanging files, some design to hold office equipment. I had him do the same in the closet: create huge file drawers. Just a smidgen into the 21st century, it is already anachronistic, every bit as much as that video.

After all, who uses paper anymore? Not me. While I still have magazines from the late 20th and early 21st century, most of my work now is online. I preserve it as PDF files, not as hard copies. And like an automobile manufacturing supply chain that extends out in circular rings, I find the office-supply drawers full of paper-related implements: paper clips, scissors, staplers, staple removers, butterfly clips, file folders, file folder labels, and more. Remember Liquid Paper? It was used with something called a typewriter. I still have some. Oh, and Post-Its. Granted, you can affix them to a computer monitor as a handy reminder, but we used to use them a lot more in the old days.

Ditto reference books. I can’t remember the last time I actually thumbed through a dictionary. Language dictionaries? Google Translate has made those obsolete. Thank goodness the thesaurus within Microsoft Word sucks, or I’d never need that reference book either.

Add to that paper cutters, scanners, and printers, not to mention pristine white paper that I bought in bulk at Costco in a different decade. If I print at all these days, it’s on the back of already used paper that finds its way into the house from a variety of sources – my father-in-law’s den or the photocopiers where my wife works. I doubt I’ll need to buy paper again before I retire. I find myself sitting with my laptop, tablet, and smartphone among an astonishing number of antediluvian remnants from a civilization that is no more and isn’t coming back. Yet it’s all still too common for anthropologists to care about, so it has no value.

Every so often, I go through the drawers, looking for articles I know I won’t need anymore, whether written by me or not. I recently threw out six copies of a humorous story from my freshman year in college. It was funny, but not that funny. Multiply that by other stuff that I never needed again, or articles I was able to find online and save digitally, and I was able to cull an awful lot of stuff.

Not long after, my woodworker friend was over with another acquaintance, and I was showing off my friend’s work. “Look at these great drawers,” I said. The woodworker deadpanned, “If they’re so great, why are they empty?”

I haven’t figured out a really good answer to that question. I’m still kind of embarrassed that I didn’t realize – even though I write about the world of tomorrow every day – that I sometimes have trouble seeing past the end of my own desk.

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Confluence and Convergence

I wasn’t supposed to be at the intersection of Foothill Expressway and Hillview Avenue in Palo Alto last Wednesday afternoon. A lot of unrelated events, occurring in a seemingly random sequence, put me there.

Nor is the intersection particularly meaningful to anyone just passing through. It is for me. On the micro level of my life, it is proximate to many parts of my life.

To the south, less than a mile away, the neighborhood I grew up in and the high school I attended.

Closer by, also to the south, visible from the intersection, the Veterans Administration hospital where I volunteered in the hematology lab the summer I was 15. (This was when I still thought I wanted to be a doctor, but hadn’t yet realized I couldn’t stand the sight of blood; how ironic to be assigned to the hematology lab.)

Just a half-block to the north, the swim and tennis club we belonged to when I was a child, where I swam competitively (sometimes – and not so competitively other times).

On the macro level of life in Silicon Valley, the intersection carries equal importance. To the west, within walking distance, are the offices of Xerox PARC, where Steve Jobs first saw the graphical user interface. To the east, the offices of Varian, founded by two brothers whose World War II contributions in radar helped lay the groundwork of Silicon Valley’s pedigree, and on the hill beyond Varian, the headquarters of Hewlett-Packard. To the south, on the far side of the hospital, the site of the R&D facility of Fairchild Semiconductor. That was the company founded by eight seminal electrical engineers, who later went on to establish manufacturers such as Intel and venture capital firms such as Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers.

People argue about where the heart of Silicon Valley lies, deservedly so, but for my money, this is one of the top contenders. Even today, many of technology’s leaders in cutting-edge technology, from virtualization to in-memory computing, have clustered together in that area.

Life is a series of collisions, of people coming together and going away, interacting upon each other like electrons and protons. I know you probably think I’m leading up to the revelation that my car got broadsided at that intersection, but this isn’t that kind of story.

No, there was a different kind of confluence going on. That afternoon, I was supposed have a meeting with IBM at 2 p.m. and then be at the Hillview Avenue office of the Stanford Blood Center at 3 p.m. The IBM meeting was postponed, so I went to the blood center early.

Like I said, I wouldn’t have been there at all, except that I had donated platelets a few weeks before. In the intervening time, an adult female patient somewhere in the region – someone I’ll never know – was not responding to antibiotics in the treatment of whatever ailed her. The Stanford Blood Center is one of the few such centers to test blood for something called granulocytes, and this particular facility of Stanford’s was the only one that had the equipment to harvest them.

Granulocytes are a type of white blood cell that – like antibiotics – fights infection. They do not last a long time, so only by testing the blood of people who had recently donated could the blood center find people like me – it needed three for this patient, to donate sequentially in three 24-hour periods – whose blood was compatible.

That’s why I was at the blood center – to pick up a dose of something called dexamethasone, a steroid that would help make my white blood cells easier to harvest. I was to pick up the dexamethasone on Wednesday, take it with dinner on Thursday, and come back on Friday morning to donate the white blood cells.

As I was turning from Foothill Expressway onto Hillview Avenue, my phone rang. I didn’t think then that I had entered some meaningful vortex. I was just a supporting player in the bigger production that is life in Silicon Valley, where lives of families and strangers, friends and colleagues alike intersect in the most improbable ways.

I pushed the “accept” button on the touchscreen in the car, and the voice of my father’s nurse came over the speakers to tell me that he had passed away. My father was just a couple of weeks shy of his 95th birthday, and the date was also, I realized later when I went to update the family genealogy, his own father’s birthday.

How strange it felt to get that news, in that place of portent for both my world and the world. How ironic it felt to have death intervene on a moment that was supposed to be about saving someone’s life. But then again, maybe it was neither strange nor ironic. Perhaps it was really just a vivid example of the way life works all the time, bringing us together and then apart again, on its seemingly random path through time and place.

 

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The Dismantling of the Tree

If decorating the tree is a Christmas tradition, then dismantling the tree is a New Year’s tradition, and one that I find unspeakably sad. I like having a colorful, glittery piece of art in the corner of the living room, especially one that looks different each year while still displaying our venerable ornaments.

We have a tradition of buying a Christmas ornament wherever we travel. That way, every time we decorate the tree, we remember all the wonderful places we’ve been. Sometimes we’re reduced to buying a generic decoration – undoubtedly made in China – with only printing on it to remind us of its origin, like the sleigh-bound Santa that reads “The Cotswolds.” But sometimes we have something a bit more appropriate, such as a kangaroo clutching a boomerang from Australia or a moose with ornaments on its antlers from Wyoming.

But there are other memory-inducing ornaments, and the thoughts they inspire may be more so when they’re going back in the storage box as opposed to going on the tree, which is a more aesthetic than reflective process. So many of them relate to friends and the inevitable bittersweet passage of time.

We have numerous decorations that are framed photographs of our cats. Hanging the picture of Bandit, whom we lost this year, was especially sad. Even the numerous UC Berkeley ornaments brought up kitty memories: our oldest, Tuxedo, managed to break several of the Cal ornaments, while leaving the Stanford ones intact. Monica thought I trained him to do this, which is ridiculous, because Tuxedo always had a mind of his own. Nevertheless, over the years I have bought extra Cal ornaments to atone for his behavior.

Christmas is such a loaded holiday, one that combines stress and happiness in fairly equal doses. Taking down the tree is just one event in this ying and yang – sadness for the holiday’s end and happiness for both its past joy and the new, blank year to come.

Sometimes, there’s too much on the sad side. At the top of the tree, we usually put two beautifully painted miniature birdhouses. These were wedding favors at the nuptials of a former co-worker; I don’t see her as often as I’d like, and the marriage has long since dissolved, but it lives on in those little birdhouses with their initials stamped on the bottom. There’s also an ornament from the Olympic Peninsula, purchased on a trip with another couple whose marriage has since ended.

At the end of the process is the removal of the skirt we put underneath the tree. Generally this is used for presents, but since we don’t give presents anymore, it’s actually a sanctuary for the cats. Throughout December, we walk into the living room and see one and maybe two pairs of eyes peering out from under the tree. It’s a safe haven that I hate taking away from them.

Once the skirt is gone, it’s traditional to discover the broken ornaments. For a few years, we tried having an “ornament-free” zone at the bottom of the tree to avoid cat-batting, but the tree always looked weird, and the cats could always reach higher than we thought. So we put the wooden ornaments at the bottom and the more fragile ones higher up. It didn’t help.

When I removed the skirt this year, I found one of the ceramic ornaments, only slightly damaged but still usable. Unfortunately, it was one of the many Cal ornaments. I put it back in the box without telling Monica, because she’ll think I’m still training the cats behind her back.

 

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