Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Fall of a Corrupt Soul

‘Nice guys finish last’. In popular parlance, few phrases prove more difficult to refute than this one. How many of us work in large organisations and companies where the most grasping, mediocre and power hungry co-workers appear to get ahead, whilst the honest among us languish in our cubicles? Hence the expression and the confusion when one suggests that the most virtuous do, in fact, prevail in the long run.

We can look no further than the popular TV show 24 to see the fall of a corrupt soul in the character of Sherry Palmer, played with aplomb by Penny Johnson Jerald. For those unfamiliar with the show, Palmer appeared in the first three seasons, first as wife of presidential hopeful David Palmer. In the first season, Sherry was David’s campaign manager who, from the first time we see her on screen, appears to have some other motive than the successful election of her husband. As the season wore on, her true colours manifested themselves in her casual flouting of the integrity that David possessed. She manipulated reporters, covered up scandals and even attempted to get a staffer to sleep with her husband. At the end of the season, David cast her out of his life and threw her off the campaign.

In season 2, David Palmer is President and faces a nuclear threat to the United States. Sherry reappears and offers to help him find out who may be trying to undermine his presidency. As in season 1, Sherry still has the same motives, but once again appears to want only the best for her ex-husband. Even though Johnson Jerald is relegated to half the episodes in the season, one feels her presence throughout. As it turns out, her conniving and conspiring form the central plot element in the season. Her narrow escape in the final episode of the season proves breathtaking. One has to watch it to believe it. In other words, how in the hell did Sherry make it out alive again?

In season 3, President David Palmer is facing a major biological threat to America, all the while campaigning for re-election. When a scandal erupts surrounding a major campaign contributor and his brother Wayne - who is also his campaign manager - David calls upon Sherry to help him sort out the mess. In so doing, Sherry sinks the lowest she possibly can to ‘solve’ David’s problems, thereby corrupting his presidency and sealing her fate once and for all.

I consider Sherry Palmer a prime example in contemporary popular art of both a political and philosophical villain. Let’s first examine the former. Sherry’s primary concern is the acquisition of power - power at any cost and regardless of whom she tramples in the process. Does she seek power in order to help her husband best serve the American people? No. As she makes clear from the outset in season 1, she wants power over others, as evidenced by the energy she expends seeking to destroy others. Sherry Palmer is, in fact, the perfect fictional example of the modern politician in America today. She neither seeks to safeguard the individual rights of Americans nor even knows what rights are.

Sherry Palmer shows her philosophical colours throughout the three seasons in which she appears. Whereas David sticks to his principles, Sherry considers David’s ideas naïve. Everything is grey and complicated to Sherry. Everything is matter of opinion and, in her unprincipled mind, this means the sky’s the limit as far as her personal corrupt ambitions go.

Now, 24 is an action thriller and as such spends little time on deep philosophical issues. Were it to do so it would lose the excitement of watching Jack Bauer defeat terrorist enemies. Nevertheless it does present ideas succinctly and within the context of the plot structure. Sherry Palmer, in all her grey pragmatism and political expediency, is a villain and therefore the show expresses its view of those ideas implicitly. That is enough for me.

To return to the initial premise of this article, dramas like 24 show that power hungry villains do get their comeuppance and the virtuous do prevail. In daily life we may see our co-workers get away with petty indiscretions and power plays, but over time, eventually, these same corrupt souls do lose. We may not see them fall as dramatically as we do in pulse pounding action thrillers, but they do burn out, one way or another. A million little Sherry Palmers ultimately take two proverbial bullets to the chest.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Intellectual Due Diligence

During a conversation with my mother when I was about 30, I proclaimed that she and Dad had made it easy for me to reject religion. Incredulous, my mother asked me what I meant by that statement. I told her that both she and Dad had inculcated in me from a young age never to believe something without thinking. Both my parents are life long journalists and therefore their MO in life has been to ask questions and to seek out facts. Sometimes those facts have lead to an uncomfortable revision of a previously held opinion. Sometimes they have reinforced an existing stand on an issue. Whatever the case, they always insisted my siblings and I think first and weigh the evidence before reaching a conclusion.

In exhorting me and my siblings to investigate and sort things out on our own, my parents never told us some areas were off limits. Therefore, from about age 11, I decided the concept of a God and religion in general were utterly silly - or worse. If, as my parents said, I ought to gather facts and evidence in all endeavours of life, then surely they were inviting me to do the same for the really BIG issues, too. And so I did.

Being a child of educated parents where dinnertime conversation frequently revolved around issues and ideas, I also learnt from a young age to cultivate good speaking skills. Respect for the opinions of others was key in my household, but so was healthy debate. If I disagreed with someone, it was acceptable to say so without belittling the other person for holding a divergent view from my own.

As readers of my blog know, I am not afraid to jump into serious issues, but I also avoid the philosophical jargon of other writers. That said, what I figured out as an adult through my own reading was the method my parents had taught me and my siblings amounted to Aristotelian epistemology. The 'e' word is a mouthful, so simply put, Mom and Dad taught us: what do you know and how do you know it? I am sure neither of them had the word epistemology in mind. Theirs was a common sense method they passed on to their kids and I am the happy recipient of that method.

I must pause here to insist I am not a professional intellectual - not by any stretch of the imagination. But I am an observer by my nature and I have always sought answers to the trickiest questions in life. Sometimes my method gets me into hot water. Some religious people have expressed dismay or anger over my lack of belief. Others cannot fathom how I could possess the audacity to challenge belief in a God when historical giants like Thomas Aquinas remained a Catholic despite his Aristotelian methods.

I can appreciate all the scorn and dismay, but my reply to those challenges is to say: people also believed in a flat earth until that notion was proven incorrect. In addition to that, a common reaction to my atheism has been: prove there isn't a God! Ah, that's a nice intellectual trick, but how does one prove the non-existence of something? Couldn't I just as easily say: prove there isn't an elephant in the room?

My intention here is not to condemn people - after all, this is a blog about valuing. My point is to illustrate that the only way I or anyone else can attain knowledge is by using our minds, sifting through relevant facts and reaching conclusions by a ruthless logical process. I often say - and this should be the epitaph on my gravestone - the facts, wherever they lead me. Sometimes facts will cause me to reject a specious set of ideas like religion or environmentalism. Other times they move me to accept unpopular ideas, such as my hard won belief in freedom and capitalism.

Many people are afraid to think or to challenge the popular wisdom of the day. I have never feared my own mind because I grasped at a young age that my greatest achievements in life will result from my ability to reason. Because of my adherence to good thinking methods, I can accept my errors without difficulty. I LIKE to be proven wrong, as long as the evidence provided squares with the facts of reality.

In thinking about thinking, I am moved to ask my readers: how do YOU arrive at conclusions? Put another way: is reality your friend or your foe?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Culture Collector

Whilst sitting in my local cafe today drinking my large flat white coffee, I couldn't help smiling at the 80s pop tunes playing on the stereo. I of course came of age in the 1980s and since then the reminder of the infectious era of funny hair styles and crazy fashions emanates from all directions. Nothing brings a smile to my face quicker than a pop song of my youth.

Characteristic of the era were the irrepressibly upbeat melodies and clever assortment of electronic and acoustic instruments, combined with the blue-eyed soul singing styles. The 1980s were also the era that I began my life as a world traveller. When I arrived in Belgium in July of 1984, I noticed straightaway that the pop sensibilities were similar in Europe, but with a decidedly more techno and dark bent. Groups like The Cure were big in Europe, whereas in America they had a more cult following among the brooding set.

Arriving in Québec City in 1986, I began drinking in the local popular music sung in French but with similar upbeat song arrangements as in the English pop songs. To this day, I enjoy a vast array of popular styles sung in various languages, including Norwegian, a language I have never learnt, but which nevertheless translates well to the simple song structures of the era.

In keeping with my own hybrid personality that I have carved for myself over the last three decades, the music of multiple countries appeals to me because it expresses in three or four minutes the joy of my wanderlust. I realised that I am a culture collector. I seek out the bric-à-brac of Belgium, Québec, France, Germany, America, the UK and Australia that appeals to my own sunny outlook on life. I once mused that the climates of the Southwestern United States and Sydney appeal so much to me because they are as sun-drenched as my own personality. Whilst I do have my low moments, my overall theme is one of eternal optimism at my lot in life.

Let me pause to state that my family and friends the world over must find me an interesting egg, to say the least. Some might think leaving America for a life abroad must mean I am at odds with the culture of America. Nothing could be further from the truth. The only difference between me and other adventurous Americans is instead of moving to another American state, I have moved to another country. I remain as engaged with America as always - from afar. I liken my lifestyle to those adventurers of previous centuries seeking out new challenges - ever mindful of what I have left behind, but also excited about what I find in my new home.

Listening to those old songs of my adolescence and early adulthood reminds me of my carefree days, but they also ground me. They arouse in me the exuberance of my youth but also the possibility of what still lies before me. What do the songs of your youth conjure up in you?

Saturday, July 31, 2010

L'Expatrié, c'est moi

Over lunch with my French co-worker and his Swedish wife, the three of us agreed that the expatriate life renders us unusual by definition. Not only do we constantly evaluate the countries we choose to live in, but also our own countries of birth. The expatriate observes the world in a semi-detached state that non-expatriates don't even consider. We have eaten good food and bad, sometimes learnt strange languages and, most importantly, befriended other globetrotters.

I have often wondered if one can identify the expatriate by his mannerisms or hybrid styles. Australians know immediately that I come from somewhere in North America, but they can never quite place my accent. I say 'zed' and 'lift' and bit by bit my pronunciation is taking on slight local characteristics. Additionally, on return visits to the United States, I get the odd looks from my compatriots who think I sound Australian. I don't, but neither do I sound like the Milwaukee boy of my upbringing. I sound other.

Interestingly, my French co-worker was flummoxed to hear my full on Québécois accent in French. He knew I spoke French, but out of courtesy for other colleagues in the office, we normally speak English together. His surprise highlighted a theory of mine that it is easier to alter one's accent in a second language than it is in one's first language. I reckoned that the extra effort one makes in a second language forces the speaker to pay close attention to the nuance of accent and intonation. That is definitely true for me, as I originally learnt to speak French in Belgium when I was a teenager. After a year at university in Québec City, however, I had shifted completely to a French-Canadian accent.

Naturally, as globetrotters, the conversation turned to the bureaucracy of immigration in the various countries we'd lived in: the United States, Canada, France, Belgium, Sweden, Slovakia and now Australia. We mused at the friendliness - or its lack - amongst customs officials the world over. Australian customs moves quickly and the officials are nearly always friendly and efficient. Not so in the United States or Canada. Europe can be a mixed bag, depending on the nationality. My co-worker's wife noted that red tape in Sweden is cut and dried, whereas in France it can be horribly inconsistent and pedantic. In Sweden you get the stamp or you don't, whereas in France it depends on the mood or temperament of the official.

All these topics got me thinking about the principles of freedom and capitalism, though the conversations did not turn to political philosophy. As I have noted in previous articles, I avoid overt conversations about politics because the context of knowledge varies so much as to make such discussions either too emotional or too disconnected from reality.

As an observer of the world, I thought of politics because I notice that the degree of freedom in a given country will give one a clue about the ease of movement within it. The United States has been heading towards some kind of totalitarian state for many decades, so consequently the ability to migrate there has become byzantine and lacks coherence. Not surprisingly, immigration has become a bugbear in a country with an ever-growing state. Australia, whilst hardly a completely free country, proves nevertheless more hospitable to foreigners seeking to live here. The rules are clear cut and, though more restrictive than I advocate, relatively easy to grasp.

Many people in the West today struggle with the virtue of immigration. I call it a virtue because people who choose to uproot themselves to go make their way in a completely new country are among the most productive in the world. By and large, immigrants seek self-improvement, not free handouts. If I had my choice, when I become a permanent resident of Australia, I would happily forgo all the so-called state benefits in favour of a lower tax burden. Alas, that option does not exist. It should.

In the end, expatriates are the engine of dynamic countries like Australia. They remind native-born Australians by their very presence that the country is worth the long haul flights and the great distances from loved ones back home. If I had my druthers, I would create a special passport for people who have the pluck and courage to change countries like some people change clothes.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Loving Her Is Easy

Popular music these days is rarely compelling or even interesting. Most of what passes for music consists of retreads of old songs or scandalously dressed non-entities strutting their stuff for the paparazzi. Amid the dearth of singing talent arises once or twice in a decade the understated loveliness of Sarah McLachlan, whose grace and distinctive contralto welcome the listener like an old friend.

Whereas other singers make heartbreak feel like a dagger to the soul, Miss McLachlan takes the painful end to her marriage and adds hope for a happier future into the mix. The result is her new release Laws of Illusion. The album reminds the listener of her earlier songs whilst inviting us to experience a woman approaching middle age with the passion of her 25-year-old self.

Miss McLachlan's breakthrough album was Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, released in the early 1990s. On it she sang of fan obsession and the importance of holding onto hope even in the face of death. Critics correctly pointed out at the time that her singing was very good, but the lyrics had the ring of a teenage girl's scribbled poetry.

Now in her early 40s, McLachlan has acquired the subtlety of experience to avoid complex metaphor and state things simply. In the song 'Forgiveness', she sings 'Cause you don't know much about heaven, boy, if you have to hurt to feel'. No-one will give McLachlan writing awards, but she possesses a fine sense of phrasing that suits her understated singing style perfectly.

Critics of her new work complain that her pain strikes the listener as almost benign. Shouldn't she be spitting angry about the break-up of her 11-year marriage? Shouldn't she lash out at the man who disappointed her? Well, no. The point of Laws of Illusion is coming to terms with the heartache and then moving forward towards a new life with the possibility of loving still intact. McLachlan expresses this possibility in two songs on the album: 'Loving You Is Easy' and 'Love Come'. The former is bouncy and upbeat whereas the latter is more taciturn and cautious, almost a lament.

In a career now spanning two decades, Sarah McLachlan can still tease the listener into wanting more. She smartly avoids 75-minute albums crammed with content. Instead, she writes well crafted medium length songs. Her albums rarely extend beyond the 45-minute mark. Most of her songs are simply arranged - with piano, drums and guitar accompaniment and no fancy effects or overdubs. The result frees the listener to experience her pure and sweet voice unadorned by technology.

Laws of Illusion is a fine return to form for a singer who hasn't released a full length album of original songs in seven years. Welcome back, Sarah. Loving you is easy.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I Still Eat Pasta

Early this year, I decided to undergo a little body transformation. No, I don't mean I'm going all Cher on people and forking over gobs of cash to fix my nose or belly or whatever. I decided that at age 43, though reasonably fit, I could stand to lose the customary 10 to 12 kilos that Australians talk about often enough. (As an aside, my American readers will simply have to accept that I live in a metric country and figure out the conversions all on their own.)

Upon making this decision, I did a bit of research on the proper methods of weight loss and what is achievable in a four- to six-month span of time. A decade ago I was gung ho about the Atkins diet, but in the intervening years have come to find these types of diets so restrictive as to be ridiculous. Its adherents appear to lose heaps of weight, and then like any other fad diet they gain the weight back over time.

On an online forum I read and post to regularly, I asked the resident fitness expert about the various types of diets out there and he came back with a common sense answer: eat what you want in smaller quantities, eat several small meals a day and stay hydrated. That's it. No self-deprivation, no starvation, no angry cravings that only annoy people, anyway. Oh, and a bit of good resistance training every week.

I decided to try the Lite n' Easy diet (somewhat the Australian equivalent of Weight Watchers), not because it's anything earth shattering, but because it trains you to be conscious of portion size and frequency of meals. So, for the first month of my experiment, I signed up to a 1200-calorie per day diet that included the three main meals of the day and snacks in between. The service conveniently delivers an esky to your door with the week's food. They provide clear directions on what to put in the fridge and freezer. For the breakfasts and lunches, they label each by day of the week. Dead simple.

The quality of the food is above average. They won't win any awards, but to their credit, Lite n' Easy keeps it simple and reasonably flavourful. They also provide a wide array of choices, so if pumpkin and beetroot are not your thing (as a newish resident of Australia, I am still not a huge fan of either), there are plenty of other meal options available.

After my first month or so, I began to wean myself off the Lite n' Easy food, starting with the breakfasts. Because I had trained myself to eat breakfast every day, I have merely replaced theirs with my own. Instead of three eggs and four rashers of bacon, I'll eat ONE egg and a bit of bacon, along with a bottle of water. Or I'll have a SMALL bowl of muesli and an apple. Again, nothing complex there, just some rational thought applied to what I ingest.

Throughout this time, I have continued my twice weekly sessions with my fantastic trainer Alison. In two month's time, I have lost approximately half the weight I want to AND I feel satisfied with my progress. I no longer feel hungry or full - ever. My clothes fit me better and by the end of my weight loss I will need to go shopping. That alone is an exciting prospect for this clothes horse.

The most important lesson I've learnt is vigilance. To remain fit, one must constantly heed one's own body warnings. I have lived in my own body for long enough to know what will cause me to gain weight again and what I must do to maintain the shape that I seek, however modest my own goals. Another lesson came from a cognitive therapist I am familiar with: don't beat myself up for the progress I HAVEN'T made, but do feel proud of the success I HAVE achieved.

I still eat pasta - because I love it - but in much smaller quantities. Life is grand. Now go eat, drink, be merry and lead a life of achievement.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Beyond the Lighted Stage

When a young boy is growing up he strives to find ideals in the world around him. He wants to drink in everything and try on several hats until he finds one that fits just right. Before the age of 10, a boy's primary adult male frame of reference is his father. He watches his dad like a hawk, hanging on every word, admiring the work he does and vowing to himself that someday he will be just like dad.

Then, as a boy reaches the age of about 12, something shifts in him. He begins to notice other adult men: teachers, shopkeepers, neighbours and others. He's no longer a small boy, nor is he a man. He thus begins a long journey of intellectual and artistic discovery, if he has retained his inquisitive nature he had as a younger child. A boy starts to look up to new ideals outside his immediate surroundings: television and movie actors, characters in his favourite stories or even musicians.

I was that boy and at the age of 14, I discovered a musical act that defined for me the standard for excellence to this day: Rush. Rush is a notoriously famous rock band in North America in particular, known early on for its conceptual hard rock albums like 2112 and Hemispheres, and then later its more sharply focused and complex songs from albums like Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures. In their nearly 40 years together, they have released scads of albums, played thousands of concerts the world over, and enjoyed enormous fan adoration, but the mainstream press always scorned or ignored them. I never understood why until I was in my 20s and figured out they were a band that didn't follow trends or suck up to the media elites. They wrote and played music that pleased them first and cared little for their critics.

Finally, in 2010, Rush not only got their stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but a new documentary entitled Beyond the Lighted Stage, has been released. It chronicles their beginnings growing up in suburban Toronto playing gigs at high school dances, to their early fame in midwestern America, to their meteoric rise to become a 'Power Trio', to the current day. It showcases three men who refused to compromise their own standards and who were willing to work meaningless jobs if it meant they couldn't play the kind of music they wanted. Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart always struck me as true to life embodiments of Howard Roark, the famous character from Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead.

Rush was the band that to me represented integrity and sticking to one's highest ideals. Throughout the past 30 years of my own life, I've collected their albums and attended their concerts. Whenever I need a reminder that achievement is possible and that great men exist, I return to their music and am swept away all over again. If ever I had the chance to meet the three members of the band, the one thing I would say to them is: thank you.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Nurse Jackie is America

On a recent business trip to New Zealand, I had the opportunity to catch the entire first season of the hit Showtime series 'Nurse Jackie'. The show stars Edie Falco of Soprano's fame and focuses on her job as veteran nurse of a Catholic hospital in New York City. Each episode showcases her struggles to balance career and family life, and adds two twists: Jackie is addicted to prescription drugs and she is carrying on an affair with the hospital's pharmacist Eddie.

The show touts itself as a black comedy, but I find this qualification misleading. In essence Nurse Jackie is a drama with comedic touches. I found myself laughing at the absurdities that Falco's character imposes on herself. At the same time I realised the show is a commentary about modern America. I doubt the creators of the show set out to portray the Greco-Roman antipodes that comprise modern American culture, yet there they are on display in each episode.

Jackie is presented as morally conflicted, which explains on the one hand her rational devotion to her job whilst she simultaneously engages in self destructive behaviour. She purports to love her husband and two daughters, yet she still has a daily sexual affair with Eddie the pharmacist. As the season progresses, the conflict between her two sides intensifies, creating ever more absurd twists in the storyline. Will Eddie finally figure out that Jackie is married with children? Will her husband discover that Jackie abuses drugs and sleeps with her co-worker?

These are interesting enough reasons to watch the show, but the greater question nagged at me throughout the 12 30-minute episodes, which was: in a culture where rationality is ever diminishing, is it possible to return from the brink of collapse and right one's course? Nurse Jackie doesn't answer this question, but it does highlight in stark relief the conflict tugging at the soul of America.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I admit it. I'm a Gleek. It happened to me gradually over the past year. At first I was ashamed of myself. Then I made peace with my shame and gave into my enthusiasm for all things Glee.

By all standards, I should hate Glee. It's noisy, it's angst-ridden misfit teenagers, it's singing and dancing on prime time TV. I like rational detective shows like CSI, or high octane thrillers like 24 or even tongue in cheek spy capers like Burn Notice. Glee is a different animal altogether. And I love it. During its just ended first season, I couldn't WAIT to download the latest episode from iTunes. I sat transfixed through every hour, laughing and crying and sometimes cheering.

What gives? I discovered, over the course of 22 episodes, that Glee fills a massive gap in the television landscape: the celebration of talent. Sure there are reality shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. Neither of those shows focus on talent as such. Mostly - in the case of American Idol - they focus on popularity.

Quick. Scan your memory banks and tell me how many American Idol kids stand out as performers and personalities. Now do the same for Glee. There's Rachel the nerdy girl with the captivating voice who takes on classics by Barbra Streisand and numbers from Les Misérables. There's Finn who can take a Journey song from the 1970s and make it his own. Even Puck, the former Mohawk sporting bad boy, does a touching solo of the cheesy Kiss song Beth. Let's not forget Mr Schuester, their teacher, who takes on everything from rap to a high octane duet of Bruce Springsteen's Fire with guest star Kristin Chenoweth. Finally there is the comic genius of Jane Lynch as Shuester's nemesis Sue Sylvester.

Coming completely out of left field in a television landscape dominated by procedural detective shows, Glee proves that Americans and the world at large love a good story of the underdog making good and the encouragement of talent. As the first season wore on, the Glee kids' ambition increased and the numbers they chose exploded in a dizzying display of theatricality. To be sure, there were some clunky subplots. I couldn't wait for the Terri Shuester character to go away so Will could pursue Emma, the quirky OCD afflicted guidance counselor. Similarly, Emma's 'romance' with gym teacher Ken Tanaka left me bored. But, the show's writers and producers had the smarts to learn from these mistakes and correct those problems early on, leaving more time for the core characters and their struggles and triumphs.

And then there were the turns by Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, both big Broadway, TV and film stars in their own right. The show gave them just the right amount of screen time without overpowering the rest of the show. Both ladies served to move the story forward without detracting from what everyone loves so much about Glee.

My recent articles have focused on political and social matters portraying some of the negative aspects of what's happening in the world today. In thinking about what I value and the things that bring a smile to my face, I immediately thought of Glee. It gives its viewers a pause from the heavy handed events playing out in the world today. Glee is a happy pleasure, not a guilty one. It reaffirms that life is worth living and with a little talent and pluck, success can be ours.

I'm a Gleek and I'm not afraid to announce it to the world.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


There exists a curious divide these days between information technology experts and everyday users of technology. For the IT expert, to love Apple products is to admit to a brutish stupidity. I mean really, everyone knows Apple lovers are just 'fanboys'. What do they know about technology anyway?

As it turns out, I am a fanboy myself. I am also a computer professional and have been for 15 years. Am I stupid? Am I brainwashed? How could a thinking man like me succumb to the mass hysteria that is Apple worship? The answer is: slowly, but methodically.

Flash back to 2001 and the release of the first iPod. Apple as a company wasn't faring so well. Their Macintosh computers were selling, but nothing like today. Along comes the iPod, which resurrected the company. Yes, portable music players by Creative Labs and others were gaining traction. But when Apple released the iPod and iTunes, it was the first unified approach to collecting and maintaining one's music collection on a computer. Granted, iTunes was only available for the Mac, so it meant the iPod enjoyed only niche status.

Then, in 2003, Apple released iTunes for the PC and the iPod took off. In a few years, it became the hottest music player on the market. Everyone had one or wanted one. I was sceptical at first, opting to go with a 10GB Archos player first, and then later a Creative Labs model. In 2004 I bought an iPod Mini and loved it - until it died completely on me a few months later. I didn't buy another iPod till a year later.

For years I bought iPods of various flavours, but I stuck with my Windows PCs. Why spend THAT much money on an overpriced toy computer? Over time I grew weary of the instability of my PCs. They would inexplicably crash or grind to a halt, even though I had ample memory and disk space. I kept them optimised and well organised - all for naught. A friend of mine and Apple aficionado insisted that he never suffered a single one of the problems PC users did: no crashes, no slowdowns, no fatal viruses. I was intrigued but still sceptical.

Then, I decided to visit an Apple Store and try a Mac out for myself. I still didn't buy one. For a year, I weighed the pros and cons of switching to a Mac. Would all my files be compatible? Would I still be able to share data with PCs? Would I be able to port all my iTunes content over without pulling my hair out?

In February of 2008 I took the plunge. I bought myself my first Mac. It was a MacBook Pro with 3 GB of memory and a 160 GB hard drive. It was sleek and beautiful and a powerhouse of a machine. Within a few days I'd transferred all my files easily and lost nothing. I could leave my Mac running for weeks and weeks without restarting it and without slowdowns. I had arrived as an Apple fan.

Today, I still own my original MacBook Pro, and I have since acquired another 15" MacBook Pro for work and two 13" MacBooks for my own personal use. I also got myself a Time Capsule that enables me to back up all my Macs wirelessly and effortlessly. I bought an Apple TV that I attached to my home theatre system. I own an iPhone that I love and was one of the first people in Australia to purchase an iPad, thanks to a business trip to California in April of 2010.

Now let's revisit the fanboy slur. If it is true that Apple lovers are just following a fad, then what does that make me? I spent years before buying an Apple product. I didn't buy a Mac until it became crystal clear to me that it was a superior machine worth every cent paid. What gives? In my view, it comes down to envy.

Now, no Apple detractor would admit to feelings of envy, but if you give it some thought, you have to wonder why these detractors so vociferously attack Apple fans. Who cares, right? One can still buy a PC with Windows or any other operating system. One can still buy portable music devices from Creative Labs and other vendors. Notice, however, that as Apple's prominence in the marketplace has increased, the attacks on the company have also increased - but not by Apple's customers.

Food for thought.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Six Percent

Recently I've been thinking about the figure of six percent. No, it's not the percentage of my salary that goes to taxes. Nor is it related to some number of people afflicted with a disease in a given area. Six percent refers to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's proposed 'super profits tax' on mining companies in Australia. His ostensive justification for this tax is it will help 'working families' in Australia. The real motive is hatred of producers.

The reason this has been on my mind is my amazement at how Mr Rudd arrived at this figure. Why not 10 percent? Or five? Or eight? Is six percent the amount above the 'usual' and 'reasonable' profit margin that governments today deem 'enough'? Who can say? One thing is certain: his hard push for this tax has garnered him some nasty press in recent weeks - enough that his entire administration is losing supporters fast.

Now let's think about what such a tax must mean in reality. If I were running a business today, any profit I make would necessarily be reinvested back into improvements in my firm. I would be able make more of the products I sell, which means more customers and also better pay for my employees. I might be able to offer better incentives to my employees to retain their skills. Or I might be able to modernise my equipment so I can produce my goods more efficiently. Whatever the case, profits exist to ensure that the business keeps functioning and growing.

Contrary to popular myth, profits do not line the pockets of fat cat capitalists, though it is no concern of mine what successful businesses do with their money. Look at Apple. In the news recently, we learnt that they had surpassed Microsoft to be the most successful tech firm in the world. Their Mac computers, iPhones and iPads sell like hotcakes. A new Apple product release resembles a blockbuster movie release, replete with celebrities and overjoyed customers raising their fancy new gadgets high in the air.

What does Apple do with its profits? Or rather what does its CEO cum rock star Steve Jobs do with his profits? Buy fancy houses, cars and yachts? Does he live the life of a playboy? No, he goes to work. Mr Jobs enjoys his fabulous success by WORKING MORE.

What if the American government were to slap a 'super profits tax' on Apple, for the simple reason that they're highly successful? Would Steve Jobs continue to work as hard? Would his company turn out as many great products as they do now? Would Americans be better off because Apple could produce less?

It is well known that Australia escaped the worst of the global financial crisis in large part because of the mining industry. For this reason alone, they should be spared the insanity of having to rethink their business plans to avoid paying a 'super profits tax'. If Mr Rudd cared a whit about the enviable Australian standard of living, he would cease his chicanery of punishing successful firms and focus on making it possible for more Australians to succeed. The best way he could do that is to tell the Australian public that they are free to produce to the best of their abilities and that he will pass no law preventing them from accomplishing their goals. And then honour that promise.

Addendum: On Thursday, 24 June 2010, Julia Gillard succeeded Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister of Australia. Much is made of her being the first woman Prime Minister, but she possesses the same tired ideas as her predecessor.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Male Dollar

A Facebook friend of mine recently offered, as one justification for the concept of feminism, the 'fact' that women make 70-ish cents to the 'male dollar'. Now, this is a view I have heard bandied about for several decades, but I was particularly taken by the expression itself. Many people today would shake their heads in dismay and proclaim that we must right this horrible and sexist wrong without further delay.

My reaction, in keeping with my investigative mind, was to offer that it would be a damn fine thing if it were true. Think about it: if businesses actually DID pay women some reduced amount compared to their male counterparts, then it would stand to reason that those businesses would JUMP on this. Why hire men at all when they can realise immense savings just by hiring women with the same skills as men? Think of the possibility of business expansion!

All sarcasm aside, the notion of a 'male dollar' is specious on the face of it. No business can or does last long by hiring purely on the basis of the sex of the employee. The purpose of any rational business venture is to attract the best talent and pay market wages. Why? Or, why NOT hire women at lower wages BECAUSE they're women? The answer is: because under capitalism or even semi-capitalism as we have today, any business that pays some group less because they belong to that group will soon find they are bleeding talent to their competitors.

I work in the enterprise software field. Every day there are market pressures to continually improve the products and lower the costs of development. If my firm were to make its hiring decisions on the basis of sex alone, it would soon find its competitors overtaking it. It would then face the threat of sure failure if it continued in its irrational hiring practises or change its ways and hire on the basis of talent alone.

Another common claim is that between two equally qualified candidates, it is usually the man who is hired over the woman. This simply cannot be true, either. The stakes are too high for an employer to make the wrong hiring decisions. They MUST hire the most qualified or suffer the consequences quickly. In reality, there is no such thing as two equally qualified candidates for a given position. The education, aptitude, drive and prior work experience will always favour one candidate over another, regardless of sex. The two finalists vying for the same job may be close competitors, but one will always be the better choice.

In the end, one must constantly challenge oft repeated bromides. Just because one makes the same claim over and over again for decades doesn't make it true. To arrive at the truth, one must remain ruthlessly logical and look for the evidence, just as crime scene investigators must sift through mountains of facts to catch a criminal.

Location:Mitchell Rd,Alexandria,Australia

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Health Care and the Lies People Believe

'You can be sure our doctors are very good', said my Slovak colleague to me one day. I had been suffering from a pretty bad cold for several days, at which point my colleague insisted I see a doctor about it. I calmly explained I already had plenty of cold medicine I'd brought from America, but she would have nothing of it. I was to see a doctor and that was that.

Off I went to see the doctor. Her office looked like a set from a 1940s period film. There was nothing to suggest a modern 1990s facility. The doctor spoke little English, but my Slovak was by then strong enough to describe my condition to her. After a bit of poking and prodding, and against my protestations that I had cold medicine, she gave me the prescription: herbal tea and a potato. A potato? I asked. Yes, she intoned. Cut it in half and rub the cut ends on your neck. This, along with the tea, will cure you for sure. She thrust a packet of tea in my hands - and said potato.

After I left the doctor's office I chuckled sadly to myself. If this is what passes for the medical profession in Slovakia, no wonder 'universal access' is so, well, universal. Who needs scientific diagnoses when a little folksy remedy can cure whatever ails you? Needless to say, I discarded the potato and the tea and took my Sudafed. I felt better soon after that. When my colleague asked me about my experience with her crack doctor (or is it cracked out?), I said it was very instructive.

Flash forward to America in 2009. A new President has been elected on the nebulous notions of hope and change, and the world grins beatifically with approval. The nostrum of 'universal health care' has tightened its grip on a goodly number of the American populace, whilst those of us who have some experience with these vaunted systems outside the US scratch our heads in wonder over the affair. Just what do people think they're going to get for free? MRIs at the drop of a hat? Advanced laser surgery? And does it occur to anyone that it might be a tad dangerous to give scalpels to people with the mentality of a nine to five postal worker, as exists in these fantastic medical systems in countries the world over?

Now, I need not spend much time here describing how most Canadians or most Australians or most French love their public health care systems. Like post offices and schools, these systems have been in place so long that virtually no-one questions whether government run medicine is moral and practical. Therein lies the great danger for Americans. Even with a medical system largely controlled by government, the country still has some free market principles that allow for continued innovation in the development of new drugs and surgical techniques. Under a fully government run system, Americans in the decades to come will come to get used to the stultifying bureaucracy and glacial pace of the beloved nationalised systems abroad. They will see as normal the kind of service they now associate with air travel, the post office and public schools. They will shrug their shoulders in resignation and say: 'At least everyone gets care now'.

But what if medical care were like the about to be released Apple iPad or the amazing devices that make our daily lives more productive and enjoyable? What if, instead of filling out reams of paperwork designed to protect themselves from a faceless agency or ministry, doctors attended to their patients as their primary purpose? And what if they decided on what fees to charge based on whatever criteria they deemed reasonable to make a good living? And what if individuals believed that their health, like their careers, was completely up to them?

I do not expect anyone to agree with me. Few do on this matter. My expectation, as always with my articles, is to encourage people to consider the consequences of the things they refuse to think about. If everyone silently abdicates the need to think about the big issues, have they still the right to grumble about the poor service they get or the botched operations that leave their loved ones worse off than before they went under the knife? In other words, if YOU value YOUR life, don't you owe it to yourself to find out that good doctors are far too important to relegate to the clutches of government boards and agencies?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Introspection and Repression

In the one corner sits psychological repression. In the other corner we have introspection. Both forces can tug at us throughout our lives, depending on the situation we must face, and both have consequences for our long term well being. As I was watching the 1980 film 'Ordinary People' again recently, it struck me how well this 30-year-old movie presents both sides, without degenerating into mawkishness or self parody.

Some of my readers may know the film, but others not. The story concerns a well off family in suburban Chicago facing the death of a son and brother. Donald Sutherland plays the father dumbfounded by the sad event of his eldest son's death in a boating accident and the resulting suicide attempt by his youngest son, played superbly by a young Timothy Hutton. Hutton's character Conrad is wracked with guilt over his brother's death. The movie begins just after Conrad has come home from a stay in hospital. In a bit of casting genius, Mary Tyler Moore plays the emotionally distant mother Beth. At the time, Moore was known as a comedienne, having recently completed the seven-season run of her hit sitcom. To cast her as the uptight suburban mother seemed risky in 1980, which is what made her tour de force performance all the more satisfying.

Ordinary People was Robert Redford's directorial debut, and in my mind he has never equalled the skill he shows in this film. There isn't a single throwaway scene or camera angle. The entire film maintains its focus on the issue of coming to grips with a personal tragedy and never lets go of this focus. Other movies turn suburban American stories into social commentaries about the idle rich or seek to reveal the 'obvious' underbelly of such a milieu. Ordinary People avoids the pontificating and cheap shots and shines its light on the Jarrett family's troubles. It neither derides them for their affluence nor snickers at their very real difficulties. It is, in my opinion, the most honest view of a family I have ever seen.

Some people may think of the film as a naturalistic slice of life. After all, there are no big heroes or monumental life-and-death struggles. Similarly, there is no obvious villain. It is a quiet and slow moving story - and a sombre one at that. Despite the apparent lack of an epic and gripping tale, in its own way it is epic. In the space of two hours, it deals with the issue of psychological health and at the close of the film has provided a subtle conclusion about which side it favours.

I first saw the movie at age 14 with my parents, when it was released in cinemas. At the time I didn't think twice about seeing such a difficult movie with my parents, but in the 30 years since, I have often thanked my parents for taking me to see it. It's quite something to sit in a dark cinema watching a family come apart at the seams, with a teenage son telling his mother to f*** off - and having my parents next to me no less! At that age, I surely didn't grasp the subtlety of the dialogue or the quiet intensity of the interplay between the characters. What I did know was this family had an awful truth to swallow and the two opposing characters of Beth and her son Conrad illustrated the theme of the film in stark frankness. To this day, the pivotal scenes at the end of the movie move me to tears.

30 years later, the movie still resonates with me because I always chose the path of introspection to resolve my difficulties. I don't credit Ordinary People with teaching me this lesson, but I do turn to it to highlight the importance of dealing with one's problems head on, regardless of how difficult it may be. Judd Hirsch, who plays the character of the wise Dr Berger, Conrad's psychiatrist, has an especially good line: 'A little advice about feelings kiddo; don't expect it always to tickle'. To me, this sums up the theme of the story. To deal with one's emotions isn't always pleasant, but it is a necessary step along the road to psychological health.

In the ruthless pursuit of values, the best gift one can give oneself is to introspect constantly and without regret. Anything less to me is to live incompletely. It's a choice we must all face on a daily basis: to think or to evade. I have picked the former and it has served me well in more than four decades of living.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Politics and Parties

A curious and fascinating thing occurs whenever I attend parties. Throughout the majority of an evening, the topics of conversation concern the details of people's lives - their careers, romantic relationships, movies they like, bands they absolutely MUST see when they return to Sydney, etc. And then that brief period hits that some of the partygoers see the need to broach the big topic of politics. Leaving aside the futility of such conversations in mixed company, I often wonder what motivates people to discuss them anyway.

To be clear, I do not view people as imbeciles incapable of deeper conversations on a variety of topics. On the contrary, I am constantly heartened to hear people wax eloquently about the industries they work in and how they have an impact on the wider culture. People are often passionate about their own values and can convey them with aplomb.

When I am asked about my career, I give a brief summary of the business problem my company solves with our software and my role in the sales process. I am neither too technical nor too 'sales-y'. I present examples of better customer service achieved through better communication, which is the key benefit of what my company sells.

Being American but living permanently in Australia is a built-in conversation starter, too. Partygoers are curious about my decision to move here and fascinated to hear about all the odd places I've lived in the world over the past 25 years. Australians I know often view Americans as uneducated homebodies, as opposed to worldly adventurers, which I clearly am.

These are all excellent party conversations. They address values at a personal level, which are to me the most important values. And yet inevitably, someone brings up politics at a party. It raises hackles because people don't want to seem uninterested and yet few people take a deep interest in the underlying principles of political philosophy. Because politics as practised in Western nations today is rarely principled, the predictable conclusion over party conversation amounts to: ah, who cares about ideas when we have such chumps in office. Rarely is there a next logical question, which is: why do we elect such chumps, only to complain later that they are liars and thieves after the fact?

During the American Presidential elections of 2008, a great many Australians asked me if I were proud that serious ideas were finally being discussed. My polite but direct answer was: I didn't find the ideas serious and that there was nothing new about quibbling over how the next administration was going to go after this or that industry for its alleged abuses.

This brings me back to the uneasy broaching of the topic in polite company. If people are moved by ideas in their personal lives, why do they so casually discard them when it comes to more abstract areas of intellectual endeavour? The answer lies within the question. People know a great deal about their own lives and careers, but when it comes to areas that do not directly concern them, their views become the boilerplate content of the airwaves and editorial pages.

As a mental exercise, think about your closest friends and what you know about them. Could you ask them 25 good questions about what they value in life and expect that the answers would be well reasoned and interesting? Now consider if the same is true if you were to ask them 25 questions about politics.

Abstract ideas are abstract for a reason: they are necessarily far removed from the immediately perceptual data that we all witness every day. It is far easier to reach rational conclusions about our jobs because we do them every day. We can even think ahead and form conclusions about how our work life can and ought to be, to borrow a formulation from the Greeks. When it comes to politics, however, few have the wherewithal to question the validity of minimum wage laws or the corruption of science when taken over by politics, to cite a few examples I have frequently overheard at parties.

As a matter of habit, I never bring up politics in mixed company and I never try to persuade anyone of the contrary views I hold. I respect people's intellects too much to bombard them with data they are unlikely to process fully. I have reached the conclusion, upon observation of a number of parties over the years, that people want to appear more intellectually 'with it' and so they jump headlong into a topic destined for a train wreck at the next switching station. Whilst I appreciate the sentiment, I still wish people would refrain from such desperation and stick to discussion better suited to party conversation: their own fascinating lives.