Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Eyeglass in Reverse

Imagine for a moment a distant future where one's primary focus, when dealing with other people, is to see their virtues first and ignore whatever vices they may possess. In daily life, people spend their lives improving their minds, not as part of formal schooling, but as an on-going process of perfecting their skills. As a result, the majority of adults perform to the best of their abilities, be it in their chosen professions, their romantic lives or even the hobbies they pursue in their free time. Gone is the neurotic clinging to flaws or the sneering sarcasm prevalent in the olden days of the 20th and early 21st century cultures.

In this shining new Grecian age of the perfectibility of man, people curiously look upon the past as a barbarous relic. In those days of yesteryear, mediocrity and incompetence became a fine art. Clay feet were the norm, and the wider culture reflected this norm in its art: movies about drug addicts, musicals about squatters in Greenwich Village, paintings that depicted nothing save a jumble of spatters of paint on canvas. The men and women of today scratch their heads in confusion over the people who inhabited this previous world. What on earth motivated them to wallow in their simpering, empty, listless lives?

The people also recall that their recent ancestors lived on the brink of destruction, electing ever more dictatorial leaders who boastfully prided themselves on their ignorance of history and economics. Then, at a critical juncture, a new age of rationality began to take hold as people rejected the nostrums they heard everyday in the mass media. A once silent minority of men who valued their lives so much that they refused to give into the irrationality they saw around them set about forging for themselves a new future. The culture at large saw them as kooks and radicals, but they failed to see the one thing that set these men apart: they possessed an indomitable sprit. They refused to give up.

The above is a fable, of course. My goal in presenting it was not to wish for a utopia that doesn't exist, but to highlight how one's focus can determine the outcome of one's life. Over dinner some weeks ago, one of my housemate's friends dominated the conversation by insisting that she could discern other people's character flaws. She thus possessed the ability to figure out how messed up the people around her were, or so she claimed. I said little in reply, other than to point out that my method was to look first for virtues in others and only reject them if they proved unworthy of my attention.

I rarely have found reasons to reject people I deal with. Most everyone I have known over the course of my life has had some good traits and I have found their company valuable to me to one degree or another. I choose my associations carefully and if I sense that someone is lacking in virtue, I minimise my contact with them. Put simply, I don't have to become best friends with a barista. I only care that he makes an excellent coffee. And so it goes for all the people I choose to deal with, from co-workers, to friends, to romantic partners.

It is extraordinarily difficult to maintain my position, but as I have grown older, it has become easier. Habits begun as a young man are now second nature to me, but the world today can constantly challenge a positive outlook. I rarely find others willing to challenge cultural norms to the degree that I do, but they do exist. Those others who do exist prove to be the ray of sunlight I need to soldier on.

Over that dinner conversation, I struggled to come up with an expression to describe the disagreement with my flaw-obsessed interlocutor, but then it hit me: this person looks through the eyeglass in reverse. I find it describes the viewpoint perfectly: in looking through the wrong end of a telescope, objects appear smaller and distorted - flawed even. If, on the other hand, one looks through the right end, one's field of vision expands, enabling one to see with greater depth and clarity those objects ordinarily invisible to the naked eye. It's what I do every day.

Perhaps, instead of blindly accepting the popular wisdom of the day by looking through the wrong end of a telescope, you too can widen your field of vision by flipping it around for a change. Try it sometime. The results might surprise you.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Zombie Epistemology

I have been watching the TV show The Walking Dead since its first season last year and have been fascinated. I must admit to liking the horror genre. Even though I used to enjoy the gross-out factor when I was younger, these days what I enjoy in a good horror tale is not the gore, but its cautionary nature about what might be if we are not careful. Like the best Twilight Zone episodes, a good horror story is essentially a morality tale.

So what is the morality tale in The Walking Dead? It is fairly simple: use your mind or suffer the gruesome fate of becoming a literal zombie walking the earth for eternity -- or until a human picks you off. The story follows a ragtag group of survivors of the zombie apocalypse, each struggling to survive and find purpose in a dead world. Since no fictional story exists in isolation from the culture that makes it possible, I have pondered, while watching the show, if there are parallels in the real world that also serve as cautionary tales.

Over the past month or so, I have found my parallel: the Occupy Wall Street movement. How are protestors in New York and other cities like the undead zombies shuffling through the landscape on a fictional show? Observe, if you have watched the show, that one or two zombies are easily dealt with by the human characters, but a hoard of zombies becomes an immediate threat. In the Occupy protests, a few misguided youth seem benign enough, but a mob of them has quickly become violent -- to the point that they have closed down the entire port of Oakland, California and caused millions of dollars of damage to private property. In New York City, a 'safe tent' has been erected for women so they can avoid the sexual assaults that have become increasingly common as the protests have turned uglier.

The most telling aspect of the Occupy protests, however, is not the actions they take, but the ideas they put forth. What do the protestors stand for, if anything, and what do they propose as solutions to the things they're protesting? From my observation, the most common idea is anti-capitalism, but there are a laundry list of other demands, some more outlandish than others, such as the forgiveness of all debts. Presumably, an individual incurs debt because he has borrowed a sum for a specific purpose, such as buying a car or a house or to pay for university tuition. The demand for the forgiveness of all debts therefore has to mean that someone must pay for them, usually in the form of more taxes on those who haven't gone into debt. But what if those who are prudent with their money and work hard to achieve their goals object to yet another violation of their rights? None of the protestors seem to have thought out the consequences of their demands. How could they if their method of thinking is disconnected and inconsistent?

What the protestors possess, therefore, is a thinking method I have come to call zombie epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge and how man acquires it. Because zombies no longer possess a rational faculty, the only thing they're capable of doing is mindlessly attacking humans and literally feeding off of them. What better way to describe roving gangs of dispossessed youth (though often from affluent families) making demands without thinking about the logical conclusion of those demands? Observe also that they are more than willing to use the products of capitalism whilst opposing the very system that makes their lives possible. They hate 'big oil' but wear Nikes, carry rucksacks made of synthetic materials, post Facebook and Twitter messages on their iPhones made of silicon, plastic and other materials. They hate Wall Street and financiers in general, but benefit from the investment capital that flows to companies like Apple and Nike.

There is one Occupy idea I have agreed with: the opposition of the bailouts that Washington doled out starting from the Bush administration and then increasing at an alarming rate at the helm of the Obama presidency. What I find curious is if the Occupy protestors oppose financial bailouts, why weren't they setting up camp in Washington? That is the real epicentre of the financial woes that Americans are suffering these days. The problem with protesting in Washington is it would clash with the central goal of the Occupy protests, which is not to reduce the size of the state, but to increase it. After all, demands for free stuff -- from health care to education to housing -- have to be paid for somehow and the only way to do it is to advocate an ever larger state.

As a general principle, I am suspicious of street protests for the simple reason that they rapidly devolve into chanting slogans with little intellectual content. As a longtime advocate of limited government and free markets, my form of activism is one that requires thinking, reading and writing. It is also one that requires setting long term goals, such as constructing a strategy for ending state involvement in medicine, education and other areas. In other words, it does people like me little good to bellow 'Hey hey, ho ho, government intervention has got to go!'

My antidote to the mindless shuffling of zombie protestors consists of rational thinking. It entails the advocacy of ideas that lead to the freeing of our minds and wallets from the clutches of bureaucrats in Washington, Ottawa and Canberra, among the few countries I have called home. Are the stakes high? Most assuredly. Is success possible? Absolutely! But first one must do the thing lacking in so many adults these days: think.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I Love Life. You Should, Too.

In both my professional and personal lives, I meet all kinds of people. Most of the time, I find those I meet honest, rational and good natured. Just as often, however, I meet people who are philosophically confused or, in some cases, downright negative about their lives. They conclude, upon paying attention to the news, that human nature is base, that man is prone to stupidity and self destruction. When I politely disagree with this position, as I often do, the response is predicable: I must be one of those blind optimists ignorant of the horrors of mankind. I disagree with this, too, but at that point in a conversation, there is little value in expounding on the glory that is man.

You see, for as long as I can remember, I have been a lover of life. Not just any life. My own life. My parents taught me always to question and always to seek out the best for myself. I have done that. I have criss-crossed the planet numerous times, learnt a second language fluently, worked in private enterprise for more than 20 years and uprooted myself more times than most people move house. Whenever I have reached a lull or felt a burn out coming on, I have set forth goals to change my life so I can continue moving forward. In my mind, there is no sitting still.

One would think with all my worldly ways that I would adopt a cynical attitude. After all, there are some real scoundrels walking the face of the planet, many of them elected to political offices in my country of birth as well as in Australia. There are rapists, murderers, genocidal dictators, and insane theocrats bent on human destruction.

And then there is man. Man the explorer. Man the inventor. Man the thinker. There are the glorious products of man all around us: lightning fast computers, cars that zip through the teeming streets of my favourite cities of the world, skyscrapers that still make me gasp in awe of the greatness man possesses and the list goes on and on and on. I walk down the streets of Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane or Wellington and smell the delightful coffees being prepared for eager patrons. Nowhere else on earth is coffee quite as revered as it is in Australia and New Zealand. It is my daily evidence that despite all the bad news, the most common occurrence today is life being lived -- and at a level our ancestors would envy.

Now, some of you might admonish me for insisting that you love life, too. Aren’t I imposing my views on you? Aren’t I committing the same sin I so frequently castigate others for, which is: telling people how to live?

Well, no. In fact, I don’t care if other people love life. It won’t stop me from loving mine any less. I will continue to ignore those lamenters and sad sacks. What I mean that you should love life is that I am inviting you to do it. I implore you to find values for which you are passionate and go after them. Quit worrying about global warming or other fashionable bugbears and find a job that excites you, a romantic partner who reveres you, a hobby that energises you. Be your own self improvement project and never let up.

I have a confession to make. I want you to love life for purely selfish reasons. The more you go after and the more you achieve, the more I want to know you and the more I want to be your friend. I have no use for cynics and crybabies. Passionate valuers will always be on my A list, so if you want to get in good with Jason, be the kind of man or woman who says yes to life and means it.

Now stop reading this article and get busy living.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Self Made

Many years ago I was having lunch with a friend at a casino in Las Vegas. Midway through the meal, I excused myself to go to the bathroom, first asking my friend where it was. He replied with a chuckle that I would have to go through the casino first. This struck me as odd and inconvenient. My friend explained to me that casinos are deliberately configured to entice people to gamble, and therefore the placement of the bathrooms was another way to get visitors to toss a coin or two into a slot machine on the way to the bathroom. The notion here was that people are subconsciously ‘conditioned’ to throw their money away, just as capitalists of all stripes use advertising to ‘programme’ people to buy their wares, whether or not the person needs them.

Something about this explanation didn’t sit well with me. Yes, I had heard my entire life that the vast majority of people were easily programmed automatons, pulled in one direction or another by forces beyond their control. In anthropology, the popular expression for this phenomenon is ‘nature vs nurture’, which refers to conflicting notions concerning the development of personality in man.

I stubbornly replied to my friend: ‘If this is so, then why don’t you or I so mindlessly toss coins into slot machines, like the rest of the rabble?’

Without blinking, he answered, ‘Because we’re thinkers and aren’t so easily swayed the way most people are’.

I didn’t pursue the conversation, opting to relieve myself instead. Still, it is a question that bothers me even today. Examples of this viewpoint are everywhere in Australian and American culture: people are fat because they’re conditioned to over-indulge in vast quantities of sugar and fat laden foods; or they mindlessly spend their money on the latest gadgets because Apple makes pretty looking boxes and advertises them like no-one else.

The nagging question, which I have since answered for myself, has been: how do we know people engage in this behaviour? If they’re conditioned, then it stands to reason that everything they do is either automatic or mindless. Free will is thus a myth.

Is it? Does it not also stand to reason that if all we are is unconscious impulses, then how is it some people are capable of independent thought? Does this not have implications about how our personalities are formed, too?

I argue that man is capable of rational and independent thinking and that some choose to exercise their minds, whilst others allow themselves to drift. They accept pre-formed ideas and conclusions without questioning because they have never learnt a proper thinking method.

In previous articles, I have addressed a host of issues and ideas that I have questioned for many years, without getting at the crux of why so many people today default on that responsibility. There is nothing particularly special about me as against most other educated adults, save one thing: I have always considered it my solemn responsibility to think - about everything. For example, I reject the notion of state run education, not because I’m some right wing Christian lunatic, but because the transmission of ideas and knowledge to young people is far too important to entrust to government. I did not arrive at this conclusion as some do. I spent years observing various school systems in North America and Europe, both as a student and a teacher, and read vociferously on the history of education. In short, I reached my conclusion on the value of a free market in schooling through a scrupulous process of thinking.

Another factor preventing independent thought is fear. Many people fear their own minds and the result is they don’t trust themselves. So they default on their responsibility to exercise their rational faculty and go along with the latest fad or fashion, or worse, they actively follow charismatic rulers who promise to shower them with free gifts. The grave error they commit in abdicating their minds is they eventually abdicate everything else, too.

From the youngest age, whether I was admiring my father in the newsroom as the managing editor of my hometown newspaper, looking up to a skyscraper in New York City and marvelling at man’s ability to build such a structure or even relishing the skill of a favourite novelist in devising a cracking good plot, I held to one constant viewpoint: the self made man is the ideal to emulate.

To be self made does not imply that one ignores or attempts to diminish others. On the contrary, a self made man seeks out others like him and says, in effect: ‘Let’s trade!’ In my life on three continents over the past 25 years, I have succeeded in finding other such men and women. Some were further along in their thinking, while others were beginning their quest for greatness. In every case, the joy in encountering a kindred spirit continues to give me objective proof that the future is a bright one.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Jason Lockwood: 24 August 1966 - 22 June 2008, 24 June 2008 - ??

This is my eulogy. This is the story of how I died but was reborn a different man - a man capable of greatness and hell bent on resuming its quest. No, I did not die in fact, but the day I stepped onto Australian soil on June 24, 2008, I bid goodbye to the man I was. It was a necessary step, and now I can write about how I thought I had died inside, only to discover that my life was greater - no, grander - and whatever setbacks I experienced were just that.

My death occurred on a scorching hot day in July of 2007. My partner of several years broke the news that though he loved me, he was no longer in love with me. I took the news stoically, calmly. It shocked but didn’t surprise me. I knew that we had drifted apart somewhat, but I misjudged how far. Some time before, he had suggested to me that we seek some counselling, and I didn’t disagree. I simply took it in and then continued on as I had before. I didn’t listen, and then on that summer day six or eight weeks later, it was over.

Simultaneously, I was assigned to an impossible project at work which frustrated and annoyed me. Days after my break-up, I lost control. I rang my boss and told her I needed to be put in a supporting role on the project. I could no longer deal with the developers on the customer side and I risked saying something inappropriate to them. My voice cracked as I explained this to my boss, and she quickly picked up on my state.

“Are you OK, Jason?” she asked.

“No, I’m not. I’m sorry, but I am going through some personal difficulties, and I just need to take a background role on this project. Can I do that?”

“Yes, of course.”

“I’m sorry. I am trying my best not to compromise this project. I know how important it is.”

“Don’t worry, Jason, just take the day off and take care of yourself. We’ll get it sorted out.”

I hung up the phone and stood in silent misery in my home office. Randy had heard the exchange from the other room and came into my office and hugged me close. He didn’t utter platitudes or phoney words of consolation. He just held me while I cried until I pulled myself together. I told him to go to work and that I would be OK. I just needed time to think.

At the time we were living in a two-bedroom unit in Scottsdale, Arizona that we’d bought together. We were both unhappy in the place and decided to move back to his place on the other side of town until we could sort things out financially. We’d put the unit up for sale or rent and proceed from there.


In the months after we moved back to Chandler, similar episodes would recur. I’d begun to retreat from my friends somewhat and welcomed the increasing business travel that my boss doled out to me. On any given Friday or Saturday night, Randy would return home from working at a local bar to find me in a terrible state once again. He’d begun to worry about me. I’d constructed a cocoon of a bedroom, living room and home office all in one small bedroom. I spent a lot of time there. I still went out, but I avoided talking to anyone about anything of substance. Being a rational adult, I did not descend into heavy drinking or other self destructive behaviour. I was simply sad, deeply sad. I was confused and spent hours, days and weeks trying to understand what I’d done wrong. I beat myself up. I thought myself unlovable. I thought the curse of independence had rendered me incapable of connecting.

Then, light. During a training engagement at my company’s home office in Carlsbad, California, an older gentleman from New Zealand attending the course approached me about working in Australia. He had been a long-time consultant for a business partner of ours. After observing my depth of knowledge he thought I would be perfect for a role down under. He took me to lunch and laid out the possibilities. I felt energised for the first time since summer of 2007.

I returned home and told Randy I might have an opportunity in Australia. He was overjoyed. We had spent a month long holiday in the country and had fallen in love with it. We had even discussed moving there together at one point, but after the break-up, that plan dissolved.

I then began to investigate the possibilities. I contacted a work colleague in Sydney and asked him if they needed anyone to assist their small team. They did, as it turned out. As account manager, he was desperately in need of a pre-sales engineer - or demo boy, as I sometimes call it. They could only get a US-based person down to Australia on rare occasions and then it was a struggle to bring that person up to speed on the deal. They really needed a full-time local pre-sales guy. I told him I was interested, and even though I had no real sales experience, I’d been a trainer and a consultant, so I had vast knowledge working with customers. He said he’d talk it over with his guys and get back to me.

Some time later, I had a phone interview with the guys in Sydney. It went well. They hired me. Steve, my soon-to-be boss, explained the challenges of being isolated from the rest of the company, but I didn’t mind that. I was moving to Australia and nothing was going to stop me!

For the months to follow, I played the visa preparation game with our HR department in Sydney. I had to get medical exams, fill out reams of paperwork, supply proof of education and birth. I was a man with purpose again.


In March of 2008, Randy announced to me that he was seeing someone new who lived in Los Angeles. I asked how they’d met and he replied with: “Do you remember that night with your sister and her friend Ron at that bar in LA last Thanksgiving?” I did remember and that’s where he’d met the new guy. I was thunderstruck. I hadn't attempted dating yet and couldn’t conceive that Randy might have already moved on. Once again, my immediate reaction was stoic and calm. And once again, my delayed reaction was devastation. I had only a few months left before leaving the United States and here I was a blubbering a mess. Why couldn’t I just get on with it?


Finally, my visa paperwork was submitted to Australian immigration. The HR department in Sydney informed me the approval was certain to occur, but could take up to eight weeks for it to go through. I sighed in relief. It was really happening. I was moving to Australia.

Three days later I received the e-mail from HR that my visa had been approved. Good God! I had four weeks to pack my life up, sell my car and leave my American life behind me permanently. My intention was not to move temporarily. Australia was to become my new home country.


Late June arrived quickly. I had decided to rent a car in Phoenix and drive to LA with all my belongings I hadn’t already shipped to Sydney. I needed the thinking time and I needed a last weekend of fun in southern California. I booked a room at an inexpensive motel on Santa Monica Boulevard and invited my friend David in San Diego to come up and my oldest and best friend Daniel from Montréal to fly down. Randy would come out Sunday morning - my departure date - and have one last day with me, my friends and my sister.

At dinner on Friday at a nice French bistro in West Hollywood, I felt a sudden sadness hit me again. I felt alone again. I excused myself from the dinner table and found my way to the men’s room in the back of the restaurant. I braced myself against the wall and collapsed onto the toilet seat, trembling with grief, but anger too. Almost a year had passed. I was about to embark on the grandest adventure of my life and here I was back in my home office in Scottsdale wracked with helplessness. I felt like a pathetic mess.

Minutes later I returned to the table. My friends were concerned. They could tell from my complexion I’d been crying, but I told them not to worry. I would be OK. I didn’t know if I would, but I didn’t want them spending the night consoling me instead of enjoying the occasion.

Sunday came. Randy arrived and met us all at a cafe in Pasadena. It felt odd seeing him, knowing I was leaving, but he would carry on with his life undisturbed. I didn’t resent him. Even though he had initiated the break-up, he had been there for me ever since. He never spoke ill of me to anyone. Who could be angry with someone of such kindness of character? I was more angry with myself for failing to live up to the relationship.

Mid-afternoon came and I had to go. My flight to Sydney wasn’t until after 10 pm, but I needed to return the rental car, check through my oversized luggage and get through customs. I didn’t want to be rushed. My friends left Randy and me alone to say goodbye to each other in the car park of a museum. He hugged me close, told me how much he loved me and that I would do great things in Australia. I turned around and walked toward the car without looking back.


It is now 2011 and Randy was right. In the three years since my death and rebirth, I have reinvented myself. I still work for the same firm and I have established a network of friends and business associates. Within a few years’ time I’ll be an Australian citizen. I have fulfilled the promise I made to myself years ago. I pushed through my grief slowly. I have moved on. I have even met someone whom I think is an even better match for me than Randy was.

In the end, I realise that I did nothing wrong. My relationship with Randy ran its course and that’s that. We’re as close as friends today as we were as partners in the past. Whilst the nature of the relationship changed, we still possess the comfortable ease with each other that we had almost from the time we met eight years ago. I’ve heard over the years that a first love stays with you forever and I think that’s true for me. I will never forget the wondrous four years together and I now cherish the memories we’ve had since then as friends.

My life in Australia is completely different from my life back in the US, and in some ways I am a different man. My passion for living is intact, however. So is my fierce independence and my single minded drive to achieve excellence. Those who care about me proudly boast of my exciting life in Sydney and all the exotic locales I get to visit as a matter of course. When I think back on the choices I’ve made since childhood, the Greek concept of eudaimonia returns to me. It is a concept that the word happiness cannot convey properly, for it means the deep, fulfilling life of achievement and the serenity that comes with it. This is the meaning of my life and, despite a crucial setback, it continues to be what drives me every day. As it turns out, my death was an exaggeration. It is my life that is most important.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Thwarted Life

I recently finished reading the 1941 James M. Cain novel Mildred Pierce. Many of you may recall the 1945 film version that was a comeback vehicle for Joan Crawford. The novel, like the movie, follows the life of a put upon woman struggling to make a success of her life. At every pass, just when success is seemingly hers, someone or something gets in the way.

From that common framework, the movie version veers 180 degrees from the novel. The movie is showy and soapy. Joan Crawford’s Mildred is more caricature than character. Her daughter Veda, played by a teenaged Ann Blyth, is more petulant brat than scheming she-devil, as she is in the novel. Fundamentally, however, the movie diverts from the novel in its tone.

Mildred Pierce the star vehicle is bombast and revenge melodrama, with a murder plot thrown in as a nod to the popular noir films of the era. The novel, on the other hand, portrays its lead character as a woman striving to succeed on her own terms. She is decidedly low class, with no skills or standing to guide her other than her own fierce determination. Her daughter Veda fashions herself a high society girl embarrassed by her mother’s menial work as a waitress in a greasy spoon in Depression era Los Angeles. Even after her mother rises to become the owner of a chain of restaurants, Veda is only impressed when Mildred shacks up with worthless playboy Monty Beragon. Monty may not amount to anything, but at least he hails from Pasadena blue-blood stock.

The central conflict of the story is between Mildred and Veda, each vying for victory and only one winning in the end. The novel deals not in murder and mayhem, but rather in the universal theme of earned versus unearned success. It is a sombre work, and whilst it treats Mildred as a heroine of sorts, it is essentially a period slice of life piece, albeit a compelling and well written one.

Reading the novel reminded me of the same kinds of people I’ve met and dealt with my entire life, some who have striven to earn their own way, and others who live as parasites on the backs of those who do succeed. Some people think the Vedas of this world are the norm and that the Mildreds are an impossible fiction. I am sometimes aghast at the abject cynicism of young adults who have already given up merely because they confuse the occasional louts they meet as the norm, as the to-be-expected. Looking at the politicians of our era, I cannot say I blame young people entirely. That is why I often tell younger people to look beyond the empty platitudes and dangling carrots that politicians proffer and focus on their own integrity.

When I decided at a fairly young age that my life would consist of adventures spanning the globe, I didn’t know the precise nature of the obstacles that lay before me. Even someone with the sunniest of attitudes can get caught in a web of deceitful or opportunistic imbeciles, and I was no different. Despite these occasional setbacks, I never allowed others to get me down for long. I cast them aside and continued forward, only occasionally glancing back to assess a failed friendship, job or relationship as lessons of what to avoid in the future.

Since moving to Australia nearly three years ago, I’ve met a great number of new people, some who have become friends and on-going business associates, while others fleeting acquaintances of little consequence. My greatest joy, however, is in knowing that I shall never accept the fate of Mildred Pierce: a woman who had high goals but who enabled a wicked child to get the best of her.

In writing this, I am thinking of someone I’ve come to know well over the past six months who occasionally struggles with some of his recent decisions. I remind him that he needn’t ruminate too much about the past because he has a radiant future. Neither of us, in other words, are Mildred Pierce, and that is a damn fine thing.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Keynote of the Future

Several times a year, Apple releases new products or significant updates to existing products. To generate excitement for the new products, Steve Jobs gives a keynote address highlighting what’s new and compelling about them. Mr Jobs invites the product managers on stage at the events to present a deeper dive of each new product or set of features. What strikes me most about these keynotes is the glee with which Mr Jobs and his employees showcase their new products. They clearly love their careers and they love Apple.

The most recent keynote for the new iPad 2 got me thinking about great products and industries in general. These days, it is tough to find industries that wow us as much as the computer industry. Year after year, people around the world reap the benefits of all the research and development that goes into the products of technology that we enjoy every day. Who can recall how much time was required to research something as simple as the first movie Cary Grant starred in or the population of Austin, Texas in 1980, to cite a few slightly arcane examples? Hours? Probably, because in order to find that information one had to visit a public library and then one could only get that information during opening hours. Today it takes seconds, thanks to search engines like Google and the World Wide Web in general.

I also got to thinking about those industries that remain stagnant for years or even decades. Industries that don’t wow us with their innovation because they have none. Industries that we tolerate because most of us cannot imagine that schools or post offices could operate any differently from the way they do. We have grown accustomed over more than a century to see them as necessarily state run enterprises with a mediocre at best track record at educating children or delivering the mail.

So what does this have to do with Apple keynotes? Nothing, really. But it raises a few questions: Why is there no excitement about new teaching methods? Why is there no famous CEO in the education field getting up on stage in front of millions of eager customers to show off his latest innovations in teaching mathematics to young children?  The answer, sadly, is there is no such thing as a market in education. The entire notion that education could be an exciting marketplace of ideas and competing for profit schools and universities is an anathema.

To an old friend of mine who is a public school teacher, the idea of capitalism applied to education is bizarre. Obviously education must be state run or else how would kids get a decent education? Without the beneficent state, kids would have no schools to attend because their parents couldn’t afford it. Of course the teachers would make a pittance without the public unions to collectively bargain for their salaries and benefits. Everyone knows this - right?

If it is true education must be a state run monopoly, then why is it other industries thrive as private, for profit entities? Why is it the very marketplace that has made our lives more efficient, safe and even fun inappropriate when it comes to the most important thing in a child’s life - the development of his mental faculty? Wouldn’t great teachers relish the idea that their greatness be rewarded with an ever rising standard of living, just as computer programmers have enjoyed for decades?

In some distant future - but not too distant one hopes - we may one day see the rise of the Education Keynote. It will attract millions of eager parents and teachers clamouring to get a glimpse at the latest marvels of the education world. iMaths 2030 - a mere $10 upgrade from iMaths 2028, with a money back guarantee if your eight-year-old son or daughter fails to master differential equations in three months’ time. Now that is a future I think is worth fighting for - not just the return of rigour in education, but in the innovations that we have come to expect in the high tech world of 2011.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Rigour or Rigor Mortis

Back in America, a battle is brewing in my home state of Wisconsin concerning public unions. The new governor is proposing budget cuts in the face of mounting debt which include an end to collective bargaining for teachers, requiring public employees to contribute more to their health care and pensions, among other things. Predictably, union members and teachers in particular are protesting these cuts on the basis of workers’ rights.

For those unfamiliar with the history of Wisconsin, it is known as one of the leftist laboratories in America. Public salaries and benefits are higher on average in Wisconsin than many other states. The city of Milwaukee once had a socialist mayor even, which to some is a real accomplishment. Having spent a fair amount of time in Eastern Europe as a younger man, I consider it more of a guilty admission, not a cause for celebration.

It is instructive that the primary protesters in Wisconsin are teachers. They even staged a ‘sick-out’ to enable them to flock to Madison, the state’s capital, to protest Governor Walker’s bill. Whilst I cannot verify that teachers dragged their unwitting students along to these protests, I do have an old friend who advocated this.

The grim joke in this affair is the one thing the teachers aren’t doing currently, which is teach. My intention here is not to talk about whether or not I support Governor Walker. That is a topic in of itself. What alarms me is the audacity of some teachers who assert a right to a job, with lavish benefits on top of it. In my profession, I am rewarded on the basis of how well I perform my job. If I fail to live up to it, then I am rightly reprimanded and, if my bad performance continues, summarily shown the door. In addition to this, I am only as good as my last achievement. I must continually prove my value. The result for me has been a rewarding career in the software industry, stretching back 15 years.

Are teachers in Wisconsin and other American states paid on the basis of their performance? Must they prove they are imparting knowledge and training young minds? Do they even know what a proper education entails? I have yet to see evidence that the protesting teachers are bothering to think about what their recent actions mean to the kids denied the very thing we entrust teachers to do.

Perhaps a bit of perspective is in order. At the young age of 17, I left the comfort of my hometown and ventured to Belgium to live with a family and attend a Belgian high school. My primary goal was to achieve fluency in French, which I did. What I witnessed in my Belgian school, however, shocked me to my core. Not only were my Belgian counterparts better educated than my fellow American students, but they were expected to perform. No mollycoddling. No excuses. Excellence was expected - full stop.

Just what did a last year Belgian high school student learn? In geography class, he was expected to grasp the nature of the Soviet collective farm system and compare and contrast it with western private farming. He was expected in French class to write eloquently about Marguerite Yourcenar’s Mémoires d’Hadrien, among other advanced works of literature. In religion class, he was expected to have a good understanding of the world’s religions and offer up cogent commentary on them. In maths, he was expected to offer critical analysis of concepts barely seen in American universities. In addition to the daily rigour, teachers examined a student’s notes for their accuracy and penmanship and he would be marked down for illegible writing and poor grammar.

At test time, a student received two marks in each subject: one for the material and another for his ability to write. Finals consisted of both oral and written exams. What did this mean for me, an ill-prepared American kid? I was utterly lost. I constantly felt ashamed for the education I didn’t receive and simultaneously revolted by the schools American teachers in Wisconsin are now abandoning in favour of their ‘rights’.

Fortunately for me, my French teacher took me under his wing to help me achieve the one modest goal I had set for myself. He gave me special reading that was within my grasp, but also challenged me to learn more and more vocabulary. I wrote short essays on the books he assigned me and he thoroughly corrected every last sentence in French. He gave me elocution lessons to improve my diction. By the end of my year in Belgium, I could write fluently and could discuss advanced topics with my teacher. Because of this preparation, I was able to attend a French language university and study successfully with native French speakers.

Returning to the paltry excuse for schools in America, I ask the protesters to prove their value or get out. I ask them to rise to the task to become like the late Jean Marchal, my Belgian mentor and intellectual saviour. I demand that they stop allowing children to languish and do their jobs. The heroes in education are not the mob mentality protesters demanding benefits beyond all reason, but those who treat excellence in education as their only goal. Nothing less will do.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

That All-Consuming Passion

As I have travelled through life these past four and a half decades, I have noticed two essential attitudes that guide people's lives. There are those who attack life with gusto, taking on one challenge after another, come what may. Then there are those who muddle through life in a grey lament, neither excelling at anything nor seeking to improve their lives. They exist - or even subsist - but they don't seek greatness.

I, of course, fall into the former category. Never one to let a disappointment stop me, I take lessons from my failures so I can avoid the same mistakes, and then I find a new goal to energise me. I have possessed this attitude for all of my adult life, but it stretches back to my early childhood, too.

At the beginning of 2011, a good friend of mine Steven and I were chatting about life and goals. I talked about how I had wanted to pursue a long-form writing project for many years. As a lover of great fiction, I aspired to create a great plot and story, but after much thought and even outlining, the ideas would fall flat. This, as one could imagine, frustrated me. I love fiction so much and have read hundreds of novels over the course my life, so why couldn't I, a confident and mature young adult, come up with a good story? I haven't an answer to that question right now, but in discussing this, my friend suggested something else. In essence, he said to me: 'What about a chronicle of your life and travels?' My first thought was: who would want to read such a thing? My next thought was: who wouldn't! Why isn't my life interesting enough to write about and therefore put out for the world to read - whomever that might entail?

Returning to the goalless drifters for a moment, I notice another common trait: defeatism. Whilst I possess a certain amount of self-criticism, these others wallow in the things they'll never do. Perhaps as children they had parents who treated them as incapable nothings. Perhaps as school children their teachers did the same. And now as adults, their defeatism encompasses the essence of their souls such that when they encounter a can-do spirit, they express jealousy or even hatred. I, on the other hand, feel a tingling excitement when I meet other people of achievement.

Another friend and former colleague, Liza, recently came to Sydney for some business meetings. She's based in Toronto, but travels the world seeking out new opportunities wherever they may originate. The only word to describe Liza is dynamo. She's constantly on the lookout for new challenges and achievements. Wherever she is and whatever the state of economies in North America and abroad, Liza will come out successful and cheerful. Nothing gets in her way. Over dinner, I discussed my book plans with her and how they began to take form. First, she was surprised to hear that I had been writing for such a long time and then she had only words of encouragement to offer. Though I only see Liza occasionally, I consider her a lightning rod of inspiration. Obviously I don't need her enthusiasm to embark on a daunting project such as writing a travel memoir, but it surely encourages me, knowing that I have an audience of other achievers.

In the end, what I see in my friends and in myself is an all-consuming passion to live to the fullest. Yes we admit that disappointments and failures are part of the on-going experiment, but they are brief moments to accept and then cast aside as the consequence of taking risks. If I flash forward to my dying days and one asks me if I have regrets, I am sure the answer will be a resounding NO. That, I submit, is the difference between one who lives and one who merely exists.