Thursday, August 28, 2008

New England's Best-Kept Secret: New France

I drove up from Lowell to Quebec yesterday in about four hours.

I shared that with you not to make some point about how cool I am (I'm not) because of how fast I drive (I don't), but to remind you of how close you are to a completely different culture, language, and, well, country.

The four hours that it takes you to get from Lowell to Quebec, plus the additional hour or so into Montreal, is comparable to the distance to New York City or the beaches in Maine that are just beyond the population and tourist clusters there. In the worst of traffic seasons, it's probably even a lot less than it would take you to get to most parts of the Cape.

And for a major population center that rightly holds a spot on the world's map for its cultural and economic influence, Montreal stays surprisingly below the radar of many New Englanders, New Yorkers, and mid-Atlantic folks who could head there after breakfast and be on Rue St. Catherine by lunchtime without breaking a sweat in the process.

It's way more accessible and affordable than a lot of comparable American cities, it offers a unique Francophone-Anglophone/Old World-New World cultural blend, and it (rightly) gives you the feeling that you're in a different country.

If you live in New England or even the New York Metro Area -- but haven't been up to Monty --I highly suggest you do.

It's worth the effort.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Real Issue with 'The Kinnock Thing'

In 1988, Sen. Joe Biden's bid for the Presidency combusted, in large part due to controversy surrounding a speech he gave about the pain and anguish of his coal miner ancestors.

While Biden is no stranger to maudlin emotional displays, his campaign did not implode because of the subject itself, but because of the controversy that emerged after it was revealed that his speech was lifted almost entirely from Labour Party Leader Neal Kinnock, the standard-bearer for his party in the 1983 and 1987 general elections that saw Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives maintain their grip on power in the UK.

I don't think that should be a big issue -- then or now.

Politicians -- much like stand-up comedians -- are always going to be subject to charges of plagiarism, and even more so in the era of instant Google searches and clever YouTube splicing displays.

When you speak all day, you're guaranteed to eventually say something someone else already said -- and when you're not the one writing the material, it's especially not your fault.

That's something Joe Biden and I could agree on. And much like the masterful "issue diversion" we saw with Jim McGreevey in 2004*, we may see it again here -- when this comes up, Joe Biden will divert us towards the non-issue (plagiarism) and thusly away from the larger and more disturbing issue -- the fact that Joe Biden would make an emotional speech about his coal miner ancestors when he DIDN'T EVEN HAVE ANY.

I know politicians can get carried away in the passion of the moment, but I have serious questions about the megalomania and just the general mental well-being of someone who can seriously deliver passionate personal speeches about something -- even to the point of getting choked-up -- when the subject matter is just, well, false.

My dad very nearly could have died on 9/11. In fact, had the attacks come just slightly later in the day, he almost certainly would have. That's the truth of the matter. But if I went around saying that I was a family member of a 9/11 victim, or started implying that the day's events had unfolded differently for my family, I think you would have a very reasonable justification to question my mental health and general sense of reality. If I then tried to cover for it by saying, "Well, I was just trying to broadly sympathize with those who did," or some such silly work-around, I would think my credibility would only drop even further.

So, I find it natural to wonder a little bit about Joe Biden.

* Amazingly, and with a sympathetic media in tow, Gov. McGreevey was able to divert attention from the real issue -- the fact that he had appointed a foreign national with no security clearance to New Jersey's top Homeland Security position -- by focusing on his need to stand up and defend himself from those who were against him because of his identity.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Fair Point about Olympic Greatness

I'm not really pro- or anti-Olympics. I follow it about as much as I follow any other sporting event, which is to say mostly not at all, but with a few ratchet turns upwards for playoffs, Bowl Games, tournaments and the like.

I'm not really pro- or anti-Michael Phelps. I keep hearing about him on the news and just think, "Good for him...he's talented, he works his tail off, and he deserves all this respect, attention, love, etc."

A guy I work with, however, made what I thought was a really good point the other day, and though he's usually pretty negative in general, I heard him out and wound up agreeing with him.

"There's all this fuss about Michael Phelps being called the greatest Olympian of all time, greatest athlete of all time, etc. But he won this whole bucketful of medals for essentially the same thing. Other athletes might be just as good in their respective sports, but it's not like there's an 8-pound shotput, a 10-pound shotput, and a 12-pound shotput that each give someone the chance to win a gold."

Now, I realize there are different strokes involved in swimming, but still, I think he was onto something -- most Olympic athletes aren't even eligible for anywhere near that number of medals in the first place.

This is not to take away from Phelps' status as the greatest swimmer ever.

Nor is it to take away from his amazing accomplishment and reflection upon his country.

Still, I had to concede, the guy had a point.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

To B (School) or not to B (School)

As I've started to think ahead to post-active duty job prospects, it's dawned on me that a 21-month detour to graduate school as a "soft landing" back into the real world might make a whole lot of sense. For one, it's really not that long of a time commitment for a potentially huge upside. For another, it's essentially free thanks to current and future service obligations (though I realize that it's still 21 months without a full-time income, those lost earnings could certainly be recouped). It's a chance to devote time just to learning something I don't really understand with major implications for a future in business, policy, military leadership, and/or some combination of all of the above.

But perhaps the bigger, better reason comes down to this -- it silences the internal debate as to whether.

Let me explain.

When you're faced with a difficult (hey, I know that's relative...there are people wondering whether they'll eat today) decision, if you can use this matrix, I recommend it -- if one route will allow you to look back and not have to wonder whether you coulda/should/woulda explored something, and the opportunity cost isn't prohibitive, take it.

I know there's no such thing as a win-win. There's nothing you can do that doesn't come with some type of cost -- monetary, opportunity, or other. But something you do and dislike -- even something you look back on and regret -- seems a lot different than something you spend the rest of your life wondering whether you should have done.

See the distinction?

Besides, when have you ever heard anyone REGRET the level of education they attained? Don't count the conventional, disingenous types who have MDs, JDs, or PhDs but are full of advice for YOU about how you should just say 'screw it' and go backpacking in the Gobi Desert instead.

Those people don't count. They don't really regret it -- by saying that after the fact, they're just being the same conventional selves that drove them to graduate school in the first place.

So, anyway, this is all a couple years away anyway, but for now the decision is made...pending the next course and bearing correction, of course.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Time Tracking

"Oh, oh, what I want to know-oh / Where does the time go?" -- Grateful Dead, Uncle John's Band

I'm going on leave next week, so as a way to make sure I'm thorough about giving the right "turnover" to the person who's going to stand in for me, I'm doing something that I thought would be a huge pain but is turning out to be kind of cool -- time-logging.

I mean, I no kidding have a voice recorder that I speak into before meetings, before running down tasks for the boss, and just at random points in the day. With it come little commentaries explaining what it is I'm doing, what not to forget, who to go to for questions, etc. At the end of the day I do a quick transcription of everything I record.

What I'm finding is that it's helping me at least as much as it will help him.

Here's why:

a) Helps understand where the day really goes. I don't think there's a working person anywhere in America that's never had this feeling -- you've been working hard all day, and you know you've been busy for what felt like each second, but at the end of the day you look at the clock -- it's quitting time and you have no idea what you just did. This helps answer that question.

b) On some level, it forces me to be more aware. Because I know I'm logging what I'm doing, even if the audience is only myself, one other person, and my eventual, yet-unnamed relief at the command down the line, I'm sure it focuses me a bit to know there are more sets of eyes on what I'm doing. A little consciousness-raising is probably a good thing for fact, it makes me think of Matt and Shannon's comments to the cleanliness post -- a lot of what's going to make you successful is just maintaining your own awareness level of what you're doing.

c) Down the road, it will lead to greater efficiency. Once I have time to let the transcript of the recorder sit on its own for a while, I can come back to it with a critical eye and find better ways to do my job... "I spent ___ hours that week doing what?!!??" is the reaction I'm hoping to have.

It may be a pain, but I recommend trying this, if even for a single day.

What you find out might surprise you.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The 'Group Work' Paradox

"So, what exactly is it you say you do here?" -- Office Space

From 2002 to 2003, I lived with five other roommates in a four-bedroom apartment in Central Square in Cambridge. As you can probably imagine, six guys crammed into a space designed for four meant a fair amount of chaos. But generally, it was a controlled chaos, and it made for a great year.

One of the funny takeaways from that year, however, is something I'll call the "Group Work Paradox." It comes from a realization I had when I heard one of my roommates say how much more of the collective work (i.e. trash out, stairs swept, dishes washed, etc.) he did proportionate to his "share."

"Hmmm..." I thought, "I've caught myself thinking the same thing many times before, because somewhere inside, I know it to be true."

So in a totally informal way, but always making sure it was in a one-on-one setting, I polled each of the other four roommates.

Guess what?

Surprise, surprise -- each one thought the same thing. There wasn't really any negative meaning attached to it -- no one was going around bitter or harboring resentments, but in each of six hearts and six minds was a steadfast belief that its owner a) did more than his share, and b) got less than his share of the "credit," however quantified that might be.

I thought this was pretty cool, and I never forgot it. I feel okay calling it a paradox, because of course if we were all right the total size of the pie would have been more than 100%, which is impossible.

Of course, the simple reason for it is that not everyone saw what everyone else did. It would have been different if we organized a giant, weekly working party and divvied everything up to do all at once, but we were (thankfully) way less formal. So if no one saw me keeping the stairs clean, or no one saw Hunt taking out the trash, then in their mind it never happened -- it just somehow got that way. Hence each person genuinely feeling both a and b from two paragraphs above.

Working at a staff command now, it's neat to see this principle back in action. Because it's not a single, operational entity (i.e. a single boat, a single aviation squadron, or a single SOF team) not everyone really *gets* what everyone else does.

So how do they fill in the gaps in their knowledge?

Easy. They just assume that they are the only one doing any real work, and that everyone else does nothing. So if you individually polled every Department Head (and even their subordinates) they would honestly tell you that they go far beyond what the *average* person on the staff does. It's not for show, either -- I guarantee you they could all pass a polygraphed version of the question, as could each of my 02-03 roommates.

Personally, I've just stopped trying to fight it. Except for a few people who work above me in the chain, many don't really know what I instead of trying to do what I would say is the common sense thing (just ask me) they just fill in the knowledge gap with an easy assumption -- nothing doing up in that office. Some of it is just good-natured ribbing, but I know there are more than a couple officers around who honestly think I just sit on my hands and sip coffee all day (hard to do when sitting on your hands, I know).

At first, I got defensive about it -- despite my vow not to get defensive, I justified it under the guise of "taking my job seriously even if not taking myself seriously" but after a while I just stopped trying. It honestly doesn't matter that the parking lot is nearly empty in the morning when I arrive and nearly empty again in the evening when I leave -- except for the people I directly work with/for, the ribbing about *not doing anything* is still going to come from the other half of the staff, and only half in jest.

Here's the bottom line to all this: In any collective work situation, all the players involved will simultaneously assume that they are not only pulling a disproportionate share of the load, but that their work also goes unnoticed or at least under-noticed.*

*Excepting, of course, situations where people's work is done more visibly.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In Sickness and in Health... (Remission -- Maybe)

John Edwards' marriage, personal life, and relationship with the Creator are absolutely none of my business...provided that he remain a private citizen.

If he wants to run for President, however, that's a different story.

If he's going to lecture the country about morals, judgement, trust, and his family values, the 2007 Father of the Year has to walk the walk.

Also, as I've written about before on this blog, he also ought to not engage in any activities that could be used against him a blackmail-type scenario. Things that are out in the open -- McCain's past marital indiscretions, Obama's cocaine experimentation, etc. are rightly taken off the table from that perspective because they're, well...out in the open. Also, they didn't happen at a time when either man was considering a job that could mean his hands on the nuclear briefcase.

If I had the chance, I'd tell John Edwards to just spare me the anguish about how no one can beat himself up worse than he has done to himself, how he was a victim of an arrogance fed by others, etc. I just see it much the same way I saw the whole Eliot Spitzer thing.

John Edwards: Don't go away mad. Just go away.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A No-Shoe Rule? I'll Take It!

Becoming part of a large Cambodian-American family has by and large been a great process, but it comes with a need to make adaptations to certain cultural norms that I'm not used to. Some are things that I haven't really wrapped my hands around yet, so I won't even try to write about them. But one that's pretty cut-and-dry is this: no shoes on inside the house.

It's a simple-enough rule to remember, though I'm still trying to beat it into my muscle memory every time I walk through the door. The 'shoes-off' thing is generally based on a respect for the cleanliness of someone else's home and, I believe, is practiced throughout most of Asia.

I'm adopting it for myself for two basic reasons:

(1) First, as someone who has written repeatedly on this blog about a personal desire to be neater, not wearing shoes inside the house is a great first step -- less mud, dirt, and whatever else from outside to track all over your carpets should automatically extend their lifespan manyfold.

(2) Far more practically speaking, when you take your shoes off inside the house, you'll always know where they are. What I'm noticing now is that whereas I used to scramble around before work in the morning or before going out at night to answer the 'where-the-heck-are-my-shoes' question, I no longer have that problem -- all the shoes I own are sitting in neat little pairs, just to the right of the front door in the entryway to my condo.

From a practicality standpoint, that's hard to beat.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Obama and "The Guys on the Bills"

I was born at 9:00 a.m., local Eastern Standard Time, at a hospital in New Jersey.

But I wasn't born a 9:00 a.m., local Eastern Standard Time, at a hospital in New Jersey yesterday.

So when Sen. Obama says that some people are hesitant to support or vote for him because he "doesn't look like the guys on the dollar bills," I know exactly what he's saying. Whether you think it's fair or unfair for him to say it, to try to pretend that race doesn't factor in to the 2008 Presidential election is to deny the presence of a 2000-pound elephant in the room. It's an exercise in naivete that borders on stupidity.

So let's start by agreeing that it matters.

Where reasonable people can start to disagree, however, is on how it matters. Of course, there are people in this country who -- consciously or sub-consciously -- won't vote for Obama solely because he doesn't look like the guys on the dollar bills. However, there are also people in this country who will support or vote for him in large part because he doesn't look like the guys on the dollar bills.

It frustrates me tremendously every time I hear someone say that "they" won't let Barack Obama win the American Presidency. Of course, the "they" being referred to is an unnamed and unidentified but conspiratorial and monolithic bloc of Americans somewhere who must somehow exert supreme power over the electorate. What I tell people when I hear this now is that the speaker is a part of "they" and should exercise his or her patriotic duty and vote in order to be heard this November.

This year's election will go down in history as a watershed event for this country, regardless of the outcome. It will be the most studied and discussed election to date -- more so than 1960, or even 1860. And it breaks my heart that if Sen. Obama does not win, academics, pundits, and history textbooks will doubtlessly ascribe his failure to do to the simple fact that, well, he "doesn't look like the guys on the dollar bills" -- regardless of his policies or his personal biography.

By itself, preventing that outcome isn't a good reason to vote for Sen. Obama. In fact, to vote for someone based on race alone is probably just as bad an idea as it is to not vote for someone based on race alone.

However, there's a part of me that's very aware that if Sen. Obama wins this November, it will move the country in an entirely new direction. Because if he does, that 2000-pound elephant in the room is going to get a whole heckuva lot smaller -- no future Presidential candidate can claim that the electorate fears someone whose face doesn't look like those on the currency, and countless scores of coffee-house pseudointellectuals won't be able to talk about how "they" would never allow someone who isn't a straight white male Protestant to win the Presidency.

Think about it -- what sense would it make if a future Massachusetts gubernatorial race pitted a white and black candidate against one another, and the chattering classes speculated that "The white guy will win because Bay Staters won't have it any other way." I already know that it doesn't make sense, but that's only demonstrably provable because Bay Staters already showed that by electing Deval Patrick as their Governor.

I'm not 100% sure yet, but I probably won't vote for Barack Obama. I find it a bit personally insulting and even depressing that he talks only of ending, not of winning, a conflict that has a very real chance to see a real-live pluralist democracy spring up in the heart of the Middle East, regardless of whether votes cast in 2002 or decisions made in 2003 were the right ones.

As a career military member who expects to go back to the Middle East in either 2010 or 2011, that' s what you might call a big deal for me.

But I digress. Regardless of my own foreign policy views or the way my vocation influences my politics, I wholeheartedly believe that if Sen. Obama wins in November, it will move the country forward in a new direction, where identity politics and the conspiracy theories that surround them will steadily lose traction.

And guess what?

We'll eventually elect a woman President, too. But, unlike Hillary Clinton, it will be someone capable of connecting in a real way with a wide swathe of American voters.

When the right female candidate comes along, I'll be happy to count myself among the "they" who help make her President. And maybe someday someone will give her a place alongside Susan B. Anthony on some piece of national currency, and we'll have to talk about the "people on the bills."

Friday, August 1, 2008

Why Re-Reading is Twice as Nice

"You can never step into the same river twice." -- ancient Greek guy

"You can never read the same book twice." -- modern American guy

The first quote, of course, deals with the fact the river you're stepping into is always changing. As the water pushes downstream, the riverbed, the tree branches, the rocks, and the aquatic life change forms, so the river is never exactly the same from one moment to the next.

Check-roger. Got it.

But the object in the second quote -- the text of a book -- obviously never changes (let's assume no new edits here). You, however, do.

That's why it's always a rewarding and underrated experience to go back and re-read books that you haven't read in years. If, like me, you're a chronic underliner and margin note-taker, you can see what you thought about it then and then compare that to how you respond to the same words now.

This just happened to me with Rudy Giuliani's wonderful tome from earlier this decade: "Leadership." Whatever your opinion of Mr. Giuliani, his time as mayor, as a U.S. Attorney, a father, a Presidential candidate, or whatever (and I'll admit, I'm a huge fan of very few public figures but I count Mr. Giuliani among them), this book is chock full of very down-to-earth wisdom about the way organizations work and how they can be effectively (or ineffectively) run.

A true auto-didact with a sharp wit and keen ability to discern b.s. from truth, Giuliani's smarts come through in a very practical way. He doesn't pull any punches, he doesn't hold back where he might offend some readers, and he never indulges in false modesty (a major personal pet peeve). The stats for his tenure as NYC mayor are amazing, and he touts them repeatedly, as he ought to.

But anyway enough about the man. I first read the book before being commissioned as a Naval Officer, which, mind you, is my first-ever real (i.e. full-time) job. So while I still enjoyed the book the first time around for the stories and ideas contained therein, I lacked a context to really understand the lessons about leadership and about organizations in general.

Now, lessons in the book about the extreme importance of accountability among employees (and within organizations in general) actually have some real meaning. In fact, that's one of the single-strongest beliefs I have -- if people aren't held accountable for what they're tasked with doing, their output will slowly fade away into nothing. As obvious as that sounds, it's way too common in both government and the private sector for people not to hold their subordinates accountable out of some misplaced fear of micromanaging.

Ditto for the mentions about the importance of intense study in order to understand your field, the importance of taking ownership for whatever happens on your watch, the need to be there for people when the chips are down -- not just up, etc. The entire book makes sense in a new way for a reader who can appreciate both leadership and having played a real role within organizations.

There are things I can do without having to experience again. I could live without another Will Ferrell movie about the zany antics of a washed-up but recovering sports personality. I could live without another Kenny Chesney song about marryin' yer high-school sweetheart. I could live without another person ever telling me about how precocious their four year-old is.

However, I would never want to be separated from my book collection. I could just go to Pollard all the time, but there's something I love about owning the texts.

That way, I can experience them again, whenever I want.