Where’s My Future?

The world is mired in one of the most godawful economic turd storms mankind has experienced in recent history.  Many are beyond frightened to the point of having become dulled and cynical — average housing prices fell another 50%?  Big deal.  We unwashed Euros anxiously await the point at which the inevitable fallout will break over our battered but as-yet holding up economies (well, some of them appear to be holding up better than others.)  The Americas are gripped by a sensationalist media uproar resulting from a few thousand cases of pig sniffles, while in the U.S. Congress, accusations fly over who cut what pandemic preparedness funds from which budget.

Unemployment is rising worldwide, food prices recently caused riots in many third world cities, and overfishing, deforestation and pollution threaten the viability of large areas of the inhabited world — not that there are many uninhabited areas with the planet’s population nearing 7 billion.  Criminal thugs and fanatics control too many governments to count, tribalism and superstition threaten to balkanize significant parts of the developing world, while lobbying-induced protectionism, paranoia over terrorism, ridiculous intellectual property laws, excessive personal entitlement and corporate graft gradually choke off the innovation and trade that could bring humanity up to the level of enlightened prosperity it deserves.

Welcome to 2009.  It’s more than 70 years after Buck Rogers, more than 50 years since tailfins on cars, more than 40 years since the moon landing and we haven’t even set foot on Mars yet.

calvin_hobbs

I am not a scientist, but I believe in science.  Nor am I an economist, a politician, or a psychic.  So where should we be, from an expectant layman’s perspective?

Energy — is there any particular reason why massive swaths of the sahara or other sun-baked arid stretches of land are not yet equipped with enormous solar energy farms?  DARPA set a goal of 50% efficiency for photovoltaic cells; to my knowledge, by 2007 prototypes had surpassed 40% energy conversion efficiency.  It’s my understanding that conventional wafer solar cells are mainly silicon, i.e. sand.  Even when given that other technologies, such as thin-film, are still fairly new, and that solar cell manufacture is still comparatively expensive, I would have imagined that by now we’d be able to develop the technology to the point of economically equipping every rooftop in existence with a solar power plant.

The same goes for tidal plants and windmills (especially vertical axis windmills that are less prone to mechanical breakdown, cheaper, and more resistant to high winds).  Supposedly Senator Edward Kennedy threw a monkey wrench in the wheels of a project to place windmills off Nantucket sound.  I personally think that propellers are actually very handsome additions to a rolling, wind-blown countryside.

Water — this one makes no sense to the unenlightened.  Huge parts of the population are without clean drinking water.  Ground water supplies in the developed world are evaporating out of uncounted swimming pools.  Fishing grounds are drying up due to agricultural demand.  And yet, 9/10 of the world’s surface is covered with water.

Simple ideas like the LifeStraw are a fantastic start, but what about massive-scale desalination?  I read once as a child that you could make a simple evaporation water treatment plant (albeit for small amounts) by making a tent of a black plastic tarp over a bucket of contaminated water placed in a sunny spot, and collecting the evaporated water that condensed at the top of the tarp and rolled down the sides.  Regardless of whether or not this is practical for large amounts of seawater (isn’t this exactly what sea salt collectors have been doing since the dawn of time, just without bothering to collect the evaporated water?) I find it bizarre that nobody has come up with a cheap, clean method for filtering obscene amounts of ocean water and using it to turn the sahara into a garden.

Food — the technology exists to irrigate deserts (the Israelis have done it, why can’t everyone else?), to stack numerous layers of farmland floors, as with the proposed Rotterdam Deltapark [1] [2] — whatever happened to that?  Google doesn’t seem to have an idea — or to go vertical with farmland in urban buildings in order to reduce transportation costs for food brought to cities.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that by 2030 at the latest, the world food supply will outstrip the population.  If it does not do so already.  Over the past 40 years, global food production has grown faster than the population.  Even given problems like rampant overfishing, logging to create new farmland and grazing areas and the possibility that efficiency increases in food production are a one-shot deal that will slow down as most farmland is brought up to its optimum level, there is a lot that can be done to sustainably grow huge amounts of food through advances like algae feedstocks or protein cloning that already exist in some form or another.

At the same time, the United States, the European Union and Switzerland, Japan and a number of other countries pursue nonsensical agricultural protectionism (subsidies for agrocorporations like Archer Daniels Midland and for inefficient, regionally uneconomic crops and products like California rice or biofuels in the United States, or EU important tariffs on bananas, for example) while dumping subsidized donor crops on hungering third world countries, thus stifling local agriculture that could conceivably support populations in place.  Switzerland sits on mountains of unsold dairy products, kept off the market as a price support mechanism.  The inefficiencies of it are hair-raising for anyone with even a modest bit of economic sense — think of that the next time you see a politician trawling for the local farm vote.

Transportation — Eletric and hydrogen cars exist, and have done so for a long time; they’re just highly inefficient to build and use.  This is a simple question of technological evolution — to create a tiny, hyperperformant battery and components made out of recyclable, sustainable materials (viz. “Pollution“).  An argument I had once with my very ecologically conscious father ended with him insisting angrily that “mankind has to change!”, while I attempted to make him understand that, if you build a sexy, fast, cheap, sustainable car, they will change.  Where’s that car?

What about long range transportation?  Since the trauma of the Hindenburg explosion died down, we’ve been promised airships; what Neal Stevenson’s described as “giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel“.  I’m looking up, but no airships.  Only loud, polluting, condensation-trail-leaving (that one’s a particular shame for anyone who, like me, likes to look up through a telescope at night) jet airliners.  German zeppelins crossed the Atlantic in less than 6 days at a cruising speed of less than 130km/h; currently, it takes 7-8 hours to fly from London to New York, crammed in with other passengers like sardines; if you count the commute to and from the airport, hours spent in waiting lounges, security checks, ticketing lines and other utter wastes of time, this can go up to 12 hours.  Surely we ought to be technologically capable of doubling the Hindenburg’s speed, traveling for three days while being able to work, play, sleep, shower, eat well and stretch our legs.  The cynic in me is sure that any increase in available space will be used to cram in more steerage passengers rather than for comfort…

High speed trains?  I currently commute from Paris to Switzerland at least twice a month.  The TGV, in second class, is by no means a paradigm of luxury, but it’s fast and somewhat reasonably priced.  German ICEs manage to one-up this with very comfortable seats even in second class, extremely clean interiors, good meals, wireless access, power outlets everywhere, and the convenience and punctuality that comes from taking a train from city center to city center.  Considering that the air trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles can take 6 hours when including all the time wasted getting to and from the airplane, where is the high speed rail corridor?  Where is the NYC-Chicago monorail?

Pollution — It is possible to create plastics out of hemp and soy.  It’s not necessary to burn hydrocarbons to create energy, or to package consumer goods in inorganic, impossible-to-break-down materials that end up in titanic landfills.  I’m not advocating any of the “reduce your carbon footprint to a minimum” noise that’s so often thrown at us by fanatics and the media — that is a dead end, leading to us sitting naked under trees, grubbing for nuts and berries, but without impacting mother nature.

Humanity exists and has a footprint, and that’s all right.  Technology exists to make biodegradable products, to avoid most of the pollution we face today (viz. “Transportation” and “Energy“), and to generally minimize the crap pumped out of factories, cities, cars and households.  Sadly, the trash mountains are still growing.  They shouldn’t be.  We have easy recycling; the technology to reduce emissions of all sorts to a minimum exists, why isn’t it everywhere?  How does smog still exist?

Overpopulation — Malthus was wrong.  (viz. “Space Travel” below.)  First, the more people you have, and the more they communicate, the more the rise in distributed innovation will grow more rapidly than the population’s needs (I’m channeling Julian Lincoln Simon here.)  Second, as a region becomes more prosperous, its birthrate slows down; this is an effect of no longer needing as many children as possible in the hope that some will survive malaria, wolves, militias and starvation in order to be able to support you in your old age.  And yet, the third world, particularly Africa, is still ready to explode at the seams.  Humanity is closing on 7 billion, with estimates for 2050 reaching 8.9 billion (U.N.) and 9.5 billion (U.S. census bureau.)

Until poor regions of the world gain access to clean drinking water, political stability and a reliable rule of law, free trade, good universal education and functioning food supplies, it’s too much to hope for that they will not churn out hordes of unemployed, hungry, angry youth.  Then again, I would have thought that by now the above would not be such a huge stretch to expect.

Space Travel — just getting objects out of Earth’s orbit is an energy-voracious, inefficient task.  Where are the giant Gauss coilguns angled up along hillsides near the equator that fling unmanned cargo pods into space?  The theory behind using successive magnetic fields to rapidly accelerate objects has existed for a long time.  If a bunch of MIT students can build a prototype on a tabletop in 1999, surely someone would have come up with the thought of creating a really big catapult for containers full of tools, parts, party favors, whatever is needed to assemble a permanent outer space presence, to create long-haul spaceships for extraterrestrial exploration and colonization, and to give mankind the tools to exploit the riches of the universe (viz. “Raw Materials” below.)  Accelerate magnetically, take them the rest of the way with rocket boosters.  Minimal pollution, and one cargo pod after another flies into space like so many ducklings in a row.

Naturally, humans could not withstand the enormous forces of a Gauss cannon.  Send them up in a space elevator.  What, we don’t have one yet?  Why not?  Again, the technology exists and the long-term business model is there, so where’s the joy?  I suppose sending tourists into space is a first baby step, but don’t we owe it to ourselves to be so much further by now?

Raw Materials — the solar system is littered with asteroids rich in metals and gases.  If New Scientist’s flawed logic is to be believed (to name a few examples, the graphic oversimplifies the need for certain compounds in medicine, it does not factor recycling into reduction of new materials required, and it glosses over the fact that many of the elements of their graphic can be obtained from other sources) there ought to be a tremendous incentive to start getting this crap back to earth before our local supplies run out.  NASA and the Russians have been calculating re-entry trajectories for years; it ought to be feasible to drop giant mineral gift packages into uninhabited areas for pickup and processing without too much difficulty.

Granted, these are all oversimplifications, probably ignorantly so, but it saddens me that, as a member of a species with so much potential, I still see beggars on the street, tyrants on TV, and no flying cars, no robot cleaning brigades, none of the stuff Popular Science kept promising throughout the last half century.

Dear Orangutans at the TSA

…no, that’s insulting to Orangutans.

Consider this an open letter, written in the hope that it will give someone at that abomination of a rent-a-cop-shop just a twinge of guilt, and thus perhaps make their day as bad as they made mine.

You see, when I recently entered the U.S., I went through all the rigmarole you put your visitors through.  I waited, patiently and almost uncomplainingly, in the immigration line, not flinching when, after an hour and a half (cut short by just enough for me to make my connecting flight by a lovely Mexican gentleman who let me in front of him), a pasty-faced midwestern Gestapo type spent ten minutes snapping at me and questioning my motives for visiting your lovely country.

“What are you doing in the U.S.?  Are you carrying money?  How much?  You were just here in February!  Why are you here again?  When are you leaving?  What do you want?  Are you bringing food?  For whom?  Why?”  Well, sir, I’m here for a funeral, it’s none of the U.S. government’s goddamned business that it’s my grandfather and that he died while I was last here, that this trip was unplanned and involuntary, that it’s because of people like the gentlemen put forward by ze Abteilung für Heimatlandssicherheit that I do not like visiting the U.S. and encourage others not to do so, that the champagne is for my friends who’re helping me out, and that I’m leaving as soon as I can, but I smile sweetly and answer his questions.

Back to you, dear friends at the TSA.  The reason I am writing this is that your dedicated baggage screeners did a wonderful job.  I understand now why I had to pick up my bags after the ordeal at immigration, after sprinting to the luggage carousel through groups of people downcast about having missed their flights thanks to the unnecessary wait, only to discover that they had all been dumped hodgepodge on the floor to make room for suitcases from another flight — while all the other baggage carousels in the hall stood unused and empty.

It is now clear that requiring me to pick up my bags between connecting flights (as opposed to highly ineffective screening and customs inspections that do not involve frustrated, hassled and stressed passengers frantically trying to make their way between gates without the ability to grab a luggage cart thanks to their lack of dollar bills — did I mention that your airports are the only ones I know worldwide that charge for trolleys?) gave you a chance to inspect my potential vehicles for evil terrorist shenanigans.  Let’s go through a list of what your luggage inspectors did and did not do:

Did:

  • Rifle through my suitcases, thus safeguarding America from two dangerous bottles of children’s sugary syrup.
  • Open said dangerous bottles
  • Re-place said dangerous bottles upside down in my suitcase
  • Ensure that my gift bottle of champagne was sticking out of the bottom of the suitcase, allowing for it to be stress tested while thumping against the floor.  Wouldn’t want any weak foreign champagne bottles to survive the trip, would we?
  • Remove my pretty plastic silver Lufthansa baggage tags, ensuring that I could not get new ones due to the fact that LH has decided to revoke my frequent flyer status — probably over the fact that I keep referring to them as Luftwaffe, so I’ll let that slide.

Did not:

  • Wholly screw the caps back on to said syrup bottles

Not only did your henchmen in uniform rudely harass and effectively detain me at your border (I was under the impression that you _wanted_ nice people to visit your country?  Maybe someone could explain to me how making tourists feel like criminals is part of this policy?) thus forcing me to sprint through the airport, you also put me through the usual unnecessary security circus of shoe-and-belt removal, pushy and snappy security inspectors and all manner of other inconvenience.  Because, of course, somebody’s bottle of water could be used to bring down a 747, but that’s another story.

Permit me to provide you with an executive summary:  fuck you.  You are clowns, you are ineffective, you hire people with no training, basic linguistic skills and terrible manners.  You are part of a machinery designed to instill fear of authority for no reason but your own vanity.  The world hates you and laughs at you behind your backs.  You are an unnecessary evil that must be tolerated by hassled travelers for fear of being thrown off airplanes while on the way to see families or meet with clients.

Like parking ticket enforcers, you choose to work in the jobs for you; the Nuremberg defense (look it up) does not apply.  You are despicable and reprehensible, without any justification for existence; you do not add security or other value in any conceivable sense, beyond providing employment for thugs and ignoramuses, with apologies for the few decent, intelligent people who may have accidentally found their way into your organization.  When you are disbanded and sent back to Wal-Mart where you belong, the world will not miss you.

The Seven Friends Principle

Or, why the customer is not always not always right.

Mom intensely dislikes ratings & review sites such as Yelp, for their uncontrolled anonymity.  While I don’t always agree with her, I can definitely understand how she, working in the restaurant business, would have issues with platforms that allow for unfettered, spiteful vitriol from anyone with an axe to grind, even more so given that, for a fee, you can give your company a preferred listing, as in “may we suggest this and this alternative to the crappy review you’re currently reading” , as well as, I assume, the opportunity for paid subscribers to remove or edit poor reviews.

The same pretty much goes for any online forum; Web 2.0 is nice and all, but it does have the unfortunate side effect of permitting anyone to plant even unfounded doubts in the minds of even occasional readers, along the lines of “so, tell the court please, when did you stop beating your wife?”  The reasons for bashing products or businesses can range from having a bad day over legitimate founded gripes, all the way to targeted reputation assassination campaigns, leaving the reader to make his own judgment.  Again, though, even if I were an intelligent thoughtful person, if a site confronts me with a review of, say, a hotel that proclaims it to be “the worst ever”, even in the midst of otherwise glowing critiques, it might plant a seed of wariness in the back of my head — especially if  otherwise equally outstanding alternatives are available.  Make sense?

And yet, you can’t censor these things, because whom would we trust to decide which review is legitimate and which is not?  Maybe, as with Karin’s and my visit to a well-known San Francisco restaurant, which others (whom I trust) proclaimed to be outstanding, the reviewer just happened to catch a bad day.  Unlucky for the customer, unlucky for those reviewed.  All the assurances that, no, really, they’re generally wonderful, don’t change the fact that we had a bad experience.  Then again, maybe you’re dealing with a bad customer (for whatever reason), or even a competitor’s shill?  What if it’s genuinely bad, shouldn’t it be my right to say so in a public forum if I want to?

Taking the sanctimonious moral high ground for a moment, I make it a point in my food and travel journal to only post things I genuinely enjoyed; as it’s for my own reference as well as that of friends and acquaintances, I love having reminders of good experiences.  Unless someone asks me for advice regarding a specific place that I disliked for some reason, I see no point in wasting anyone’s time with rants about how bad something was.  Life’s (usually) too short for pointless bile shouted out into the void.

When I feel mistreated by a company, I often try to inform them what happened.  A disagreeable waiter or bellhop or secretary whose dog just died, who didn’t get enough sleep worrying about Aunt Hilda’s Haemorrhoids or who’s just genuinely a defective pissant shouldn’t have the power to sink a business; in a lot of cases, the owner may not even know that this is going on, and, I feel, ought to have a chance to rectify the situation.  Unless you feel you’ve been intentionally and royally screwed, drop the management a note about it.

This was the case with the extremely gracious management of both the Kahala (then Mandarin Oriental) in Hawaii several years ago, and the Copacabana Palace in Rio during our big South America trip in 2007, this worked wonders.  Both hotels were part of major holidays we’d planned for a while; we had intended them as special treats, and felt unwelcome and badly served at the hands of condescending staff.  A complaint to the manager in charge and a letter to the Orient Express group, respectively, both elicited very friendly, apologetic replies, thankful that we’d informed them, and offering to bend over backwards to make good.  I think we’re pretty gracious, grateful guests, so nobody was trying to weasel concessions out of big companies by being difficult, and after the responses we got to our objections, both Karin and I felt that they’d taken us seriously, would do something about the problems to help future guests avoid them, and really appreciated us as customers.  Nice, eh?

All of which brings me to the point — I once read about something called the “seven friends principle”, or whatever name it goes by (there has got to be a well-known marketing term for this.)  The idea was that every customer you piss off will tell seven of their friends about you, and you are likely to lose at least some of them as customers.

Let’s say you still feel treated like crap; I like this way of handling a disagreeable commercial exchange, even though it seemingly contradicts my point above about “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”  Tell a given number people you know how bad your encounter was, making sure to give a good reason.  Granted, your point of view will always be objective, but this way you’re allowing the other people at least a chance to make up their own minds.  In return,  good karma dictates only paying heed to criticism that’s equally founded and justified (not just “that restaurant / movie / hotel / city” sucked.

You’ve let the other guy know that you didn’t appreciate what they gave you for your money and gave them a chance to make up.  If they don’t take this at all seriously, you then voted with your wallet, and gave a limited number of your friends information that might help them avoid what you went through, all without expending any significant amount of effort in the process.  The market works, and all’s well in the world.

The List

I always liked Esquire’s What I’ve Learned feature.  So, in response to a 16-year-old’s question  on one of the discussion pages I frequent, “what, I guess, life lesson or advice would you give to a regular 16-yr.-old, or your own younger self?” I put together this list.  I’m only 35, but here’s a collection of things that come to mind; either what I’ve learned, or what I wish I’d done differently.

Find a good woman (man, whatever floats your boat.) It likely won’t be the first one you run across. It very possibly won’t be the tenth one you run across either.

Have as few things as you can. Clutter keeps you down. Do you really need that? Then again, keep your dad’s watch.

Your parents (most probably) aren’t nearly as bad as you think they are. They were once your age too. Cut them some slack, humor them a bit. You won’t have that much time to hang out with them later.

As the man said, sex. Lots of it. And use a goddamm rubber.

You think you know everything. You don’t. Figuring out how little you know is actually a pretty humbling experience and the first step to knowing something.

Keep a cool head at all times.

Heinlein was right:  specialization is for insects.

If you ever get the feeling that some of your friends might be bums, they probably (but again, not necessarily) are.

Practice drawing people. If nothing else, it’ll give you something to smirk at when you flip through old notebooks.

Doubt everything anyone tells you. The more they claim to be an authority, the more you should doubt them. This doesn’t mean you should always ignore others, just do your own fact checking. Then doubt what you found while fact checking.

Clothes do, at least to some extent, make the man. Make sure you know how to shave, and when you want to have a decent haircut. Own at least one decent suit, tie, shirt and pair of dress suits. At worst, you’re not overdressed — everyone else is underdressed. Find a good tailor; sometimes, he/she is the wrinkled grandma sitting at the back of the Chinese laundry (mine was in college.)

Always be a gentleman.

Be curious.

Always take the moral high road. Then again, sometimes you have to pop the son of a bitch in the face.

More Heinlein, TANSTAAFL. Then again, sometimes there is.

Chivalry is not dead.

Learn to listen (my biggest weakness, look at me, I’m preaching to a 16-year-old.) Learn to express yourself.

Don’t give up the piano lessons.

You’re probably better than you think you are. Still, you’re probably nowhere near as good as you think you are.

Roman emperors in victory parades had a slave who stood behind them in their chariot, holding a laurel wreath over their heads, and continually whispering “thou art mortal, thou art mortal” in their ear.

Don’t be defensive towards people who’re easily offended.

Never underestimate the importance and value of reading absolutely insane amounts of books and learning seemingly random, inane facts.

Learn at least 2 foreign languages. Do it soon, it gets harder the longer you wait.

While you’re at it, go backpacking across the country. Then go backpacking abroad if you can. You most likely won’t feel like sleeping in gritty hostels when you’re over 25.

Buy a decent entry-level DSLR. Use it. A lot.

Back up your photos. Often. Back up everything else often as well. It will crash.

Buy a small, lightweight laptop and keep a journal.

Keep in touch with people, always.

Accept criticism graciously. If it’s negative, ignore it. If it’s constructive, consider it.

Make it a habit to smile at people. You get a lot more out of them.

It’s only money, there’ll be more of it.

Learn to care for your belongings.

Make it a habit to make lists of things to do, then do them.

Learn to cook. It’s not that hard, it impresses women (men, whatever), and if worse comes to worse, it’s an excuse to have a martini.

Don’t watch TV, it’s mostly crap.

Get as much education as you can as early as you can. Even if it’s not your thing, it will come in useful. And if it doesn’t, you can impress people with the diploma.

Many people are easily impressed by charlatans. Don’t be, and don’t become a charlatan.

Always read the fine print. Remember that the other guy’s out to make a living.

Then again, some people are just good at heart.

Think before you talk. What looks and sounds good on first glance may be ill-considered.

Organized religion is a crock. That shouldn’t stop you from learning about it, reading its literature and admiring its art. Then again, do whatever works for you.

Learn how to do some useful things that might be distasteful to you (shoot a gun, iron shirts, whatever.)

Ask yourself how the other guy sees things. That doesn’t mean he’s always right, but understanding his point of view can sure make things easier.

Learn a few hands-on trades (plumbing, car repair, painting, electrical work) — when the poli sci degree is useless, you can build things.

The law isn’t always right.

Don’t overpay for things. Let other people do that.

Appreciate beauty.

There are no absolutes, ever.

Yes, that last one was meant to be a joke.

But some things and ideas are just non-negotiable.

Learn to negotiate.

Cussing is a sign of a weak vocabulary. Then again, it can be mighty satisfying.

Nobody ever died of a hard day’s work.

Nobody ever lay on their death bed wishing they’d spent more time at the office either.

Don’t procrastinate. If there’s something you’d rather be doing and you can get away with it, go and do it and don’t apologize.

Don’t be afraid to do look ridiculous. If someone’s scoffing at you and you’re not hurting anyone, the other guy is probably (but not necessarily) not worth your time.

The guy you hate may become best friend.

Learn to be wary of the slippery slope.

If you have five really close friends that you stay in touch with, you’re lucky. If you have ten, you’re exceptional. Did I mention stay in touch?

Develop a work ethic.

Learn to prioritize.

Be good to others, karma (usually) comes around. And if it doesn’t, you get to be smug about it.

Don’t be smug.

If all else fails, RTFM. Oh, and learn to read maps. I usually get there faster than my friends with a GPS.

Go to the dentist.

Experiment, but stay the hell away from anything harder than pot or booze.

Know your limits (you do have them.)

Get enough sleep and exercise, eat well and all that jazz, and keep doing it. Lack of sleep leads to the dark side.

Murphy was an optimist.

Don’t believe everything you read online, including long lists made by people who should have gone to bed but stayed up writing to-do lists out of some perverted sense of get-shit-done-itis.

Get off reddit, it’s a nice day outside.

Have Suitcase, Will Travel

Who am I?

This is not exactly the question I set out to answer when applying to INSEAD in 2006.  And honestly, since graduating, I still haven’t found an answer.  What I do know, however, is that, at my current pace, I’m rapidly going nowhere professionally, and want to try and present a somewhat coherent overview of what I know and why you should hire me.

During business school, I spent an inordinate amount of time, along with my classmates, polishing my résumé until it was a succinct, elegant masterpiece of shameless self-promotion, only to revert to my old, technology-heavy pre-INSEAD copy once I realized that all my airy dreams of career change were rapidly going up in recessionary smoke and that I might as well face the music and consider reverting to my strengths as electronic-plumber-cum-IT-consultant to pay the bills.  I won’t include a copy of my résumé/curriculum vitae here, since you probably know as well as I do that I’ll create a highly customized version for any job I apply to.  In case you still want one, I’ll be happy to do just that if you only ask.

What do I want to do?

I’m working on defining that.  Help me out here.

At age 35 I find myself with an MBA from what is supposedly one of the world’s top business schools, with a reasonably impressive professional background, not entirely sure as to what comes now — not exactly a good thing during the biggest economic implosion in postwar history, surrounded by legions of blustering, hyperconfident young sprouts (you know, the kind that would normally have rocket-powered careers in indestructible investment banks, creating a robust and sustainable global economy.)  I mean, not even in terms of industry or job description, but somewhat confounded by the mechanics of dealing with companies, careers, recruiting, jobs or experience.

I hold a grudging admiration for those who’re able to use their existing position to network and move up in the world, earning a good salary for interesting work, while I carry on with my part-time IT contract work, testing medical software while I decide what’s next.  During and after business school, I tried to focus on a set of industries or functional job descriptions, with little luck.  The last 7 or so years of my career forced me to navigate some very demanding, fast-paced projects for dynamic, hard-riding clients.  That is not something that gives a person much time to focus on the logistics of learning what a highly industry-specific career even looks like.

I see myself either joining a startup that is already moving along but needs help organizing, strategizing, plotting, scheming, selling, building and everythingelseing, or being someone’s right-hand man, in Bond-speak, “sort of a licensed troubleshooter.”  As long as it’s legal and interesting, I don’t care if you make or sell cars, cocaine (okay, scratch that last one), air freight in the Congo or, as a friend put it, “work in the exciting field of industrial sewage filtration equipment parts manufacture” — point me in a direction, pull the trigger and watch me go.

I beg you humbly to take a few minutes to read through this and give me some guidance, an idea, or even a job.  You won’t regret it.

  • Sex:  Male
  • Age:  35
  • Dimensions:  6′2″, slightly out of shape
  • Nationality:  Swiss/U.S. dual citizen, but haven’t had an American passport in five years
  • Academic degrees I hold:  Bachelor of Arts, Master of Business Administration
  • Institutions I hold academic degrees from:  The University of California at Berkeley, INSEAD
  • Countries I’ve lived and worked in:  Argentina, Chile, France, Singapore, Switzerland, the United States
  • Languages I speak natively or fluently:  German, English, French and Spanish
  • Years of professional experience:  11
  • Companies I have been employed by:  Bull, Perot Systems, Chakraborty Software — the latter being the vaguely anarchic, mercenary jack-of-all-trades consulting group I have run my projects over since the fall of 2000
  • Clients I have done consulting work for:  UBS, Winterthur, F. Hoffmann-LaRoche, Clariden, Credit Suisse (with marvelous letters of recommendation from each of my respective project managers, really, you should read these, they’re all very nice)
  • Tangible skills I have:  Pretty much anything involving computer networks, data systems architecture, or information security.  Project management, training and presentation
  • Intangible qualities I have that you might be interested in:   I am personable, eloquent, creative, and adaptable.  I am reliable to a fault, and will be brutally honest when something can’t be done and about why it can’t be done, but am always receptive to ways to do it better.  I am absolutely crazy about new challenges, great in teams of smart, motivated people, and comically loyal.  If there is a choice between following the rules and getting it done, I choose the second every time.  I have an uncanny knack for quickly coming up with comprehensive, elegant and unorthodox solutions to convoluted problems
  • Weaknesses:  Bullets, kryptonite, a pathological aversion to small amounts of blood, an occasional inability to constrain my enthusiasm to fire off a comprehensive, elegant and unorthodox solution to your convoluted problems, that’s been stewing in my hyperactive mind since you first opened your mouth
  • Turn-offs:  Negative politics and wasted potential.  I do not believe in the zero-sum game, and can tolerate failure to deliver results as long as I am honestly and openly informed beforehand
  • Most important thing I am looking for in a new job:  A mentor.  Someone who is willing to take the time to work with me through any issues and honestly give me some guidance.  I’ve been an IT consultant since I was able to spell “oh, I’m graduating without a job, this could be an issue.”  Help me figure things out
  • Other desirable bits:  Intelligent co-workers, challenging projects, something new every day
  • My salary expectations:  I’ve already taken a big pay cut for INSEAD.  Hooray.  I’ll work for either a fair salary commensurate with my experience, skills and education, or for enough to live on with a reasonable and realistic promise of future payout.  Is your salary budget overstrained?  Fine, let’s talk.  Let me help you fix that
  • Professional motto, if any:  At any new work environment, first make friends with the janitor, the secretary and the systems administrator — then you can get anything done
  • Countries I would like to work in:  Anywhere, as long as I am able to maintain a base at a somewhat arbitrary location in Europe (currently in Paris, France.)  I have been with my girlfriend for 12 years, I love her dearly, and while you have a special place in my heart if you are reading this, I am sure you will understand that you take a very respectable second place to my relationship
  • Industries I refuse to work in:
  • Countries I’ve traveled in:  Switzerland, Germany, Liechtenstein, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Greece, the United Kingdom, Russia, the Czech Republic, Morocco, Monaco, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, Cambodia, and Vanuatu
  • Religious institutions I am an ordained minister of:  The Universal Life Church of Modesto, California (although I long ago lost the little cut-out mail-order card certifying me as such.)  Before you excorciate me for being a religious nutjob, so were / are Johnny Carson, Abbie Hoffman, Hugh Hefner, and Hunter S. Thompson
  • Hobbies and occasional interests that you probably don’t care much about, but which are important enough to me to deserve mention:  Snowboarding, opera, photography, old motorcycles, cooking (very occasionally), amateur astronomy, sport shooting, restaurants, writing short stories, travel, online computer gaming, and searching for the perfect vodka martini

That’s about it.  You know where to find me.  So go on, take a chance and spend half an hour with me over coffee, getting to know me, letting me convince you that I am your guy.  I’ll even buy the coffee.

Guns

The thought of a firearm conjures up any number of images and ideas.  Liberty, protection, murder, threat, violence, power.  And yet, a gun is no more than an inanimate object, a cold, impersonal tool designed for putting small, heavy, fast-moving objects into other objects.  I can think of few other things existent that carry a weight of symbolism so vastly disproportionate to what they actually are.

I own guns, several of them, although I wouldn’t classify myself as a gun owner.  These include, in no particular order,

  • A 1945 Remington-made M1911 U.S. Army surplus .45.  I bought this at a gun store in Switzerland, specifically looking for something obviously used, that had “been to the wars.”  I love old mechanical things, even if I don’t always muster the kind of patience or skill to maintain or restore them properly; case in point, my beautiful old 1945 cherry-red Moto Guzzi Airone 250 and 1952 Condor A580 motorcycles currently, sadly, in storage.  The .45, bought at a gun store in Zurich run by a couple of friendly, aged gnomes,  jams occasionally (need to get that fixed, there’s that whole time issue again) but shoots beautifully.  The magnificently mustachioed master gunsmith who sold it for me, and who found me a supposedly rare black leather officer’s holster for the gun seemed reluctant to part with it, and every time I’ve had the chance to shoot it, it felt like I owned a part of history.
  • A stainless steel SIG P220 chambered for .45 ACP.  I inherited this from my friend Michele, a congenial gun nut who had a lot of tragic personal demons.  Despite the fact that he gradually lost it and, sadly, ended up putting a hole through his heart in a forest near Santa Barbara, I don’t believe he ever would have threatened anyone but himself with his appreciable collection of arms.  He gave me a whole suitcase full of guns when he last left for the U.S., insisting that it was a sale as he desperately needed money; I told him to consider it a security for permanent loan (I could not muster even close to the amount of cash that all the guns fairly would have been worth.)  It’s a reliable, solid-feeling weapon, except for occasional jams that are more likely than not the result of my not cleaning it nearly as much as I should.)
  • A Mossberg 500-series (couldn’t tell you the exact model) 12″ shotgun; I hadn’t realized how much fun it was to blow up inanimate objects until I took it to my local (unfortunately underground) range to put holes in computer cases and cardboard boxes.  The ultimate goal of taking the beast skeet shooting is delayed indefinitely until such point as I find the time and location for it, but the combination of gigantic boom and having something explode in a dust cloud 10 meters ahead of you is breathtakingly satisfying.
  • Two Swiss straight-pull bolt action army surplus rifles; a 1931 K31 carbine my father gave me for my 16th birthday, and an ancient Langgewehr 11 he once shot with.  These are about as common in Switzerland as old Soviet SKS carbines in the rest of the world; the 8mm ammunition is cheap and plentiful (and government subsidized), and Swiss military ranges let you shoot any weapon that was once part of the official arsenal.  You still occasionally see old-timers toting these beautifully machined, accurate guns on their backs, on the way to their regular shooting practice.  One would imagine that a 90-year-old-man (the oldest gentleman at my range when I last lived in Zurich) would no longer feel compelled to go polish his marksmanship skills, but there you are, the armed, participatory citizenry lives.

Shooting these pieces is fun.  The discipline required in getting a shot on target (an out of the ordinary experience for me), the smell of powder, the opportunity to handle mechanical gizmos, and the strict rules I’ve seen universally respected and enforced at every range I ever visited all add up to a great experience.  For anyone who’s never fired a gun, I highly recommend visiting a local rifle or pistol range (if your country is not one of those bastions of nanny-state paranoia that wants to keep anything even vaguely threatening out of the hands of its constituents) and asking around; people are generally friendly and willing to help introduce the curious to shooting.

In discussions with Michele when he was still alive, we would argue the pros and cons of keeping a loaded gun in one’s household — why bother, he’d say, locking up a weapon, and keeping it unloaded?  When someone’s breaking in, you won’t have time to fumble for the key to the trigger lock, find a full mag, quietly load it and defend yourself.  Michele might have had the discipline and calm to face down an attacker with a firearm, but I personally prefer to use my guns for sport, potting away at inanimate objects.  Who knows how any of us would react when confronted with an armed intruder?  I certainly have no idea what I would do if I had a gun pointed at someone endangering me or my girlfriend, and while I wouldn’t think of judging those who do, it seems like such an odd sense of asymmetrical power to be able to extinguish someone with the pull of a trigger, bad guy or not.  Even hunting, though I would never condemn anyone who actually eats what they shoot, is vastly beyond what I believe I would be capable of.

Guns are, 0bviously, weapons, designed to kill and maim.  They occupy a weird sort of limbo in the sense that, sports shooting aside, they really have no purpose but to hurt people.  Nonetheless, to paraphrase a tired cliché, guns are not intrinsically evil.  They can be dangerous when inexpertly manhandled, badly maintained or irresponsibly employed, but shouldn’t that be a reason to demystify them?  I’m entirely for gun control, but for me, this does not imply banning certain types of weapons or registering handguns by serial number or ballistic profiles, but rather, enforcing handling and range training requirements, background checks and no-exceptions criminal penalties for any illegitimate (i.e. non-sport, non-self-defense) use of firearms.  I would rather see a responsible, educated and armed citizenry than a populace in nonsensical fear of boom-sticks, unable to even consider the eventuality of defending itself against crime, tyranny or threatening paper targets.

Inshallah

Or, it is what it is.

I just spent the better part of three days holding the hand of a dying man.

This may be the first night in the past week when I was able to sleep enough to collect my thoughts in a somewhat coherent manner, after spending many hours with words and images racing through my mind, driving out any rational thought with sledgehammer blow after blow of body-wracking grief in between staring into space trying to make sense of things, yet not really thinking much of anything.

People close to me have died before, but never with this much physical proximity and involvement.  Platitudes about speaking only well of the dead aside, this was a good, honest, intelligent man who had lived a long and exciting life.  The world will be a poorer place without his presence, beyond the inspiration he gave to those who had the good fortune to spend time with him.  When someone approaches me with condolences like “I am so sorry for your loss”, I appreciate the thought, but it was your loss too, it was everyone’s, yours too.

Looking into the eyes and holding the hands of someone who is dying, who knows it, who recognizes you and tries to speak but can’t say anything intelligible beyond “hold me” is not something I thought I would ever have the strength to go through.  I tried to stay upright through the experience, to keep a straight, confident face with others and to avoid the sort of sullen, blubbering self-pity that I would hate anyone at my own bedside to express.  To look the man in the eye and speak to him calmly, to do what little I could to make his remaining time a less painful one, and to not refer to him in the past tense while he still breathed — something I guiltily caught myself doing more than once.  To prepare and smooth the inevitable, disagreeable logistics of death without feeling ghoulish about discussing wills and executors and funeral plots.  To talk with doctors and nurses, each of them knowing that he was dying but trying, through years of experience, to be sensitive toward friends and relatives when all I wanted was for them to be superhuman master orators, walking that impossibly fine line between compassion and honesty even more than they had been doing all along.  The worst part of it is witnessing the open, unashamed grieving of others, their interactions with a being that soon will no longer be, that always sent me over the edge.

It was something I had feared would happen for several months, not for any particular reason beyond the man’s advanced age.  He was not an old man, despite the inevitable frailty that comes with nine decades, and the occasional curmudgeonry he permitted himself; he drove a car, judged legal cases, drank, ate, traveled and lived more than many of my generation.  When the call came that he was in intensive care due to a mysterious full-body infection, when the second call came that he was deteriorating rapidly after a perceived improvement, and when the third call came that he was dying, it seemed like a perverse serendipity that I was here, visiting him from another continent.

I force myself periodically to take a step back beyond the pain to realize that this was someone who lived long and well, who died comparatively easily without significant pain, who was surrounded by those close to him at all times, and was clearly not afraid.  It seems unreasonably whiny to bawl like a child despite knowing that it was an undeserved privilege to be able to communicate again before he died, and to be the one to see him off.  Selfishly, I find myself wishing I’d been at his bedside when the lights went out, instead of racing to the hospital at a quarter to five in the morning, only to miss him by 20 minutes, after going home at midnight and leaving him with his wife.  Then I realize that he didn’t wake up again after he’d last opened his eyes to the day before and registered my voice and presence, right before completely losing any hint of composure again.

My father was with his father when that old man died, up until the very end.  He described it as a “beautiful” experience, being able to see someone through a calm death.  I’d thought about this, and didn’t think I was capable of that degree of calmness, even though several of the times it seemed clear to me that the man whose hand I was holding was dying.  He didn’t, leaving us each time with a glimmer of hope that he would rally and maybe pull off a miracle recovery, but it was like experiencing someone dying several times.  Near the end, we hoped that his body would just permit him to let go to end his discomfort, feeling vaguely dirty and callous that we were wishing death upon someone.

It’s over now, I feel drained and empty, and should get down to the business of researching what a remarkable person this was.

I’m sorry if this was not particularly funny.  Go spend some time with your family, your friends and your dog.

The Invisible Hand

A Swiss news magazine recently published a story about an international trading house that was doing comparatively well in this depression, thanks to a mixture of sound financial policies, solid product and services footing and conservative, sensible management.  While the name and nature of the group were forgettable, the thing that stuck with me was the slogan some of their managers came up with at a planning outing — “we refuse to take part in the downturn.”

I understand the causes of this economic shit sandwich — despite the omnipresent howling about how nobody has a clue what happened, it’s pretty simple.  Take a big pot, mix in excessive consumer debt from buying too much crap, complete lack of common sense in home values, reduction of financial transactions regulation, piss-poor shareholder representation rules in corporations, excessive labor bargaining power, short-sighted management incentive and bonus schemes, reduction of math and science competence in economically powerful countries, outsourcing of not just manufacturing but also innovation, refusal to enforce minimal environmental and labor standards globally for fear of losing cheap production, over-reliance on service industries, over-leveraging of financial institutions, and generally a lot of myopic greed and laziness, stir, let fester for a few years, add in some overpriced petroleum and a match, sit back and enjoy the fireworks.

I also understand that everyone, with few exceptions, is terrified, nearly catatonic at the miserable prospects facing the world of commerce and industry, with the catastrophic influences the draw-down in economic activity may potentially have on even better-seated individuals.  Nonetheless, despite the benefit of a fairly sound educational footing in political science and economics, I fail to understand the panic and doomsaying.

Starting with the basics and working upwards, everyone must eat.  Preferably, this goes hand in hand with such basic needs as shelter, warmth and clothing.  So let’s say that Adam Smith was right, and letting a few people concentrate on producing the above will engender greater expertise on their part, economies of scale and thus generally higher efficiency and lower cost.  Plus, everyone else can go about doing different things.

Those “different things” will include supporting the food-growers, house-builders, clothes-makers and fire-starters.  Lugging sacks of dung (and making those sacks), creating tools, spinning yarn and collecting firewood are all supporting industries.  Advancing a bit, we get transportation; consolidating production in fewer locations means lower incremental costs due to yet more efficiencies of scale.  Resources have to be distributed to fewer locations, and the advances in manufacturing techniques and equipment required to allow larger production facilities will inevitably have knock-on effects elsewhere as technological innovation diffuses to different applications.

Each of these supporting industries in turn needs support, from the mechanics who fix trucks to the trainers who teach drivers their trade.  Eventually we get to the point where barter is no longer a viable form of payment, so you have symbolic representations of the trust that someone else will redeem the representation for a good or service the recipient values similarly to what he gave away for it — money.

Keeping money around in liquid form is impractical, so you get banks.  They keep money safe.  Not just that, but businesses now have incentive to gamble on expansion, but they have to obtain all the stuff they need in order to build new facilities, hire people, buy resources.  So they borrow money; banks lend to them, factoring the risk that the company may not succeed into the price of that money — loans and bonds.  Furthermore, individuals look at new companies that want capital, and think, “hey, that’s a good idea, he’s going to make money but needs funding now, I have extra cash, I’ll buy into it.”  And lo and behold, a stock market is born.  People start gambling on their health, natural disasters and other possible failures, thus giving rise to insurance.  They become willing to pay for professional advice to navigate all this information — thus stock- and insurance brokers.

This goes on and on and on.  Each innovation brings with it the need to build and maintain other, new aspects of economic activity, which makes money go from point A to point B, thus fundamentally enriching society as a whole.  And through it all, people need food, shelter, warmth and clothing.

Will someone please remind me why we are having a recession?

The Serious Ones (Part I)

I just start these things whenever I get ideas; they don’t necessarily go anywhere.  Putting up even partial drafts is a good way to make sure you get stuff done, any stuff.  For more on that, have a look at the Cult of Done Manifesto.  Then have a look at this guy’s assertion why the Cult of Done can kiss his ass.  Then, make yourself a vodka gibson (for best results, just rinse out the glass with vermouth) and draw your own confusions.

She paused for a moment after exiting the cab, looking around to take her bearings, to get a feel for the neighborhood.  At left, a slightly modernistic parking structures, its high prices a holdover from better, more economically insane times, when shiny SUVs driven by open-collared venture capitalist-types holding a cappucino in one hand while talking on bluetooth earbuds terrified commute traffic.  Natasha Sheherazade Roubichev, who for some inexplicable reason went by the innocuous name “Janie”, had never particularly understood those little earpieces.  Like bicycle clips, cell phone belt holsters or pocket protectors, they seemed like a wonderful idea when considered purely logically.  And like those other things, they made their owners look utterly stupid. That, or frighteningly insane, as they walked down the street, spontaneously gesticulating and shouting at the invisible magic demons, when all they were really doing was complaining to their plumbing contractor how, goddammit, the repairmen had tracked crap all over the recently cleaned carpets again.

To the right, an empty sidewalk was abutted by a run down coffee shop.  An elderly black homeless woman talked to herself, while a thirty-something white guy with a three-day stubble stared listlessly at his Macbook.  Ordinarily, Janie would have pegged him for a marketing wonk or sales account manager who’d snuck out of the office to “work” remotely.  In these times, the pale light cast by the laptop’s screen onto his face through gloom of a cloudy afternoon was more likely the reflection from some social networking site or similar time-waster for the shell-shocked recently unemployed.

Ahead, a short set of stairs rose into a vaguely scummy 5-story building, probably put up in the ’50s or ’60s, which inevitably attracted mid-sized shipping companies, travel firms or other nameless third-tier outfits with a need for cubicle space.  Space to house the legions of middle-aged secretaries that haunted the city’s subway at rush hour, clad in tennis shoes to be exchanged for sensible pumps at the office, clutching a cup of coffee in one hand and a bright blue oversize fake leather purse in the other.  Who answered phones, organized the company christmas dinner, spread office rumors around the water cooler, put pictures of their nonexistent cats on their cubicle walls, and retired at quitting time to evenings of pajamas, Sex and the City, and ice cream.  The kind of person, in short, who stereotypically infested the sort of company that Janie desperately hoped she was not about to set foot in.

Dressed stylishly but not excessively so, unsure of the expectations of the 20-something crowd of with-it t-shirt-clad, soul-patched hipsters she expected to encounter having the run of the place, she brushed down her skirt and approached the double glass doors at the end of the dusky hallway, infused with a brew of dim daylight spilling through the frosted windows topping the other office doors, and indefinable office sounds.  Telephones, keyboards, muffled voices all speaking of human daily activity hidden in the offices of innumerable lawyers, therapists, accountants, headhunters, detectives, consultants, scattered throughout innumerable office buildings in innumerable cities, creating the strangely calm atmosphere of work through which Janie walked through the doors.

OrionWerks Ltd. was one of the flood of publishing operations devoted to comic books that had sprung up during the nineties, in response to an Internet-driven combination of talented, doodling high school kids bored stupid by their biology teacher and able to spread their drawings to other, equally bored kids, and a seeming epidemic of short attention spans leading to the decline of anyone actually wanting to pick up a “book” and parse “text”.  All pretensions to luddite elegance aside, it always seemed like such a vastly more practical way to convey concepts when compared to sitting in front a computer screen, droolingly taking in mascara’ed emo types whining about political concepts they barely understood.

To be continued?

The Charge of the Unicycle Brigade

The idea first came up during a DARPA brainstorming session a few years ago.  Someone in the brass asked a bunch of junior engineers in the High Mobility Infantry Soldier program to come up with a lightweight, all-terrain counterpart to the robot challenge that had been monopolizing all the press as of late.  Dozens of fresh-faced university engineering students constantly infested the labs, when they should have been out getting honestly drunk instead of playing with PCBs and blow torches.  It was assumed that none of these guys had gotten laid in a while, seeing as how they spent all their time tinkering with self-steering pickup trucks.

The robot vehicle guys weren’t the only ones stealing the thunder lately.  Those windbag jerks over at Weapons Platform Research never stopped bragging about their damn Predator drones.  Listening to them, one couldn’t help getting the impression that those remote-controlled flying marital aids could do just about anything, including making coffee for breakfast.  Everyone knew the platform boys cheated at cards just to get the Air Force meatheads to sneak them into the drone operations center so they could play with their toys in the field.  It was harmless fun at first, with the Xbox-raised joystick jockeys frequently buzzing goat herds on the other side of the world, scaring the crap out of the locals.

The yokels in the area had never been particularly happy about having infidels chase their livestock around the place with their horrid winged nuisances and would drive out in their jeeps to shake their fists at the drones, screaming Pashtu obscenities at the little bastards. Things got a bit out of hand when one of the drone controllers got a bit over-excited during a particularly obnoxious bit of aerobatics and accidentally spilled his Coke on the launch console, dropping a couple of laser-guided bombs on a Land Cruiser belonging to some Waziri chieftain.   After this screwup, it was going to be difficult to keep the carnage under wraps, so Bolander, the navigation systems team lead, called a cousin at Central Intelligence and claimed they’d just completed a successful live weapons test on a known group of Al Qaeda operatives.  The Pakistani army didn’t dare go into that neighborhood for a while afterwards, so nobody ever asked what terrorists would have been doing with the 50-odd now-disassembled sheep littering the smoking crater.

After the robot vehicle teams were asked to leave following a badly wired circuit that sent an F500, nicknamed “Fluffy”, through the cafeteria at 50mph, the infantry mobility team had a bit more peace and quiet to figure out some ways of giving soldiers laden with several hundred pounds of weapons, armor, electronics, supplies, pornographic magazines, beer and anything else a grunt needs in the field, the kind of movement advantage that would let them chase down hopped-up fanatics with AK-47s in narrow side streets.

Everyone’s nerves were on edge, which wasn’t helped by the fact that the project was on a tight deadline and an even tighter budget.  Inter-office SRM (Stress-Relief Mission) competitions, usually involving substantial amounts of liquor, the roof terrace, and large electronic appliances liberated from other groups did a bit to improve morale.  Bannock, who inevitably instigated the shenanigans, figured that using taxpayer money to buy more equipment from American manufacturers was a better way to stimulate the economy than giving it to bankers, who’d just use it to buy cocaine anyway.  This all lasted until late one Tuesday night, Mrs. Holley, the assistant director’s personal secretary, failed to note the deep gouges in the pavement outside lab building C and parked her Mini Cooper in the wrong place on her way to “take dictation”, as the team euphemistically named her rumpus sessions in the conference room.  Nobody ever claimed responsibility for having gravity-tested the storage tape array that Mrs. Holley found taking up the driver’s seat of what remained of her car later that evening.

Things looked glum, until Simonds, the junior micromotor engineer, found the leftovers of the custodial staff’s chocolate brownie supply.  That cheered things up a bit.  It cheered things up even more when Mohdi, the IIT exchange student from UCLA, inexplicably, quietly, started singing Bollywood show tunes in an oddly high voice.  That drew some giggles, then more, until the entire crew was impossibly stoned, having neglected to realize that Drew, the Grateful-Dead-t-shirt-clad loser who operated the trash pickup golf cart and insisted every time on clipping the rear fender of whoever happened to be parked in spot 27, had been driving particularly erratically that day, and that after their brownie party, the maintenance guys had been uncharacteristically mellow.  Everyone just figured that Johnson, the apprentice electrician, had a perfectly good reason to spend 45 minutes staring at the socket he’d been installing that didn’t necessarily involve a copious amount of pot baked into the brownie he’d just eaten.

The subject of unicycles arose after a meandering discussion about PC power supplies, tulips, astronomy, the true power behind the government, and finally, the problem at hand, which was a portable, lightweight, universal infantry vehicle.  In one of his more lucid “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” moments that evening, Roberts, the mechanical engineer, tried to follow a logical chain of thought that kept popping up in his marijuana-choked mind…small size, rugged, simple, cheap, fluorescent….   Actually, the color hadn’t figured in the original army specs, but that wasn’t going to stop Johnson from including a degree of psychedelic coolness in the design, into which he launched himself with a determined frenzy once he’d decided that his protractor wasn’t actually trying to crawl away — all of which seemed nearly as funny to the rest of the team as the fact that Roberts had trouble staying on his chair while drafting.

The idea was readily accepted by the three colonels on the project evaluation board.  This was considered a career dead end, and each of them wanted to get the hell back to his respective regimental HQ ASAP to prepare for some serious ass-kissing before the next round of promotions rolled about.   Nobody would fault their decision — after all, these were some of the nation’s greatest scientific minds, stoned or not, solving the toughest challenges of the common defense, and if the goddamm French could mount an artillery piece on a Vespa, we could certainly put an infantryman on a unicycle.

The Mark 27 Portable Veterinary Inseminator (actually a strangely squat-looking unicycle given the name of an abandoned low-visibility project as a smokescreen against nosy reporters) went through the design and production stage in record time, due to Mohdi’s ability to get one of his numerous cousins to commit to a rush order job in his sweat shop outside Chennai.  The first hundred units shipped Stateside in boxes labeled “Bananas — ripen before re-shipping” and went to the testing platoons for evaluation.

The test results of the world’s first personal combat unicycle resulted in no major failings, with several of the volunteers who had been ordered to participate in the project surviving the field trials with remarkably few serious fractured bones.  Minor design flaws were observed, such as the propensity of the device to flip over from recoil when firing heavy weapons from the shoulder while riding, or the possibility that enemy soldiers would simply poke long sticks between the spokes of the wheels.  However, it was estimated overall that in a combat deployment, enemy casualties might, given optimal conditions, actually exceed friendly injuries. Psychologically, the new weapon was proven to be a masterpiece, with simulated enemy troops literally reduced to combat ineffectiveness, from laughing at the vaguely embarrassed GIs frantically flailing their arms in an effort to remain upright.

A special 8-foot-high scout model was considered, but rejected as being impractical after repeated falls from inattentive snipers banging their heads into low street lamps and shop signs while looking in another direction.  An airborne model also existed at one point in the form of a few prototypes, designed to be strapped under a paratrooper to allow a rolling start when landing in a “hot” zone.  The development group, alas, underestimated the force with which the average parachutist hits the ground, their only exposure to such suicidal stunts as jumping out of a perfectly good airplane coming from childhoods spent watching action movies and playing war games instead of actually doing their homework.  The resulting injuries, remarkably, left the army footing the bill for fewer than 20 gender reassignment surgeries for those parachutists who had managed to avoid getting their clumsy undercarriages caught in trees, swamps, chimneys and other obstacles and actually landed upright.  And landed hard.  Too hard.  Thankfully, the army’s shiny new sex non-discrimination policy prevented the resulting paperwork from being too complicated.

During the invasion of Iraq, a testing platoon was issued with early versions of the combat unicycle — while the unit generally performed well on flat surfaces, the insurgents quickly developed the technique of lying in ambush by the roadside and jumping up and waving their arms to startle the riders.  The resulting confusion would inevitably send badly balanced and overloaded infantrymen careening into each other, to the endless amusement of the local children watching the closest they’d thus far ever come to a clown circus.

The unicycle project was finally dropped after a little-known incident when the testing platoon accidentallyentered a patch of quicksand, to tragic yet strangely hilarious consequences, with 45 troopers simultaneously faceplanting in the soft ground.  The design team is currently on indefinite administrative leave; their respective academic institutions have been asked to restrict themselves to providing research input on sanitary installations and camouflaged candy wrappers.