Sunday, October 30, 2016

Constitution 2.0

“The Sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. 'Tis not the affair of a City, a County, a Province, or a Kingdom; but of a Continent — of at least one-eighth part of the habitable Globe. 'Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end of time, by the proceedings now. Now is the seed-time of Continental union, faith and honour. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound would enlarge with the tree, and posterity read in it full grown characters."
            Thomas Paine. Common Reason.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
James Madison. The Federalist Papers No. 51. February 6, 1788.

"Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment,  jealousy, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities?"
            Alexander Hamilton. The Federalist Papers No. 6. November 14, 1787.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Winston Churchill. 1874-1965.

The Republican Party, and not just Donald Trump, have lost a lot of credibility in the recent past but the Democratic Party is not far behind in blame either. It's not until you take a step back and take a broader look that you realize both sides are just playing the game by the rules. Our government is broken and massively inefficient because two hundred and forty years worth of incremental patches and compromises have turned its magnificent rule book into a swiss cheese of self-serving addendums, tax loopholes, unethical lobbying, and dark money.

I contend that the patchwork of incremental changes to our laws have made them generally better over time as we have grappled with new situations and innovations, just like bug fixes to a program make it more robust over time. But, the same process over time results in complex and unmaintainable code as you also try to incorporate entirely new functionality. Similarly, in the case of our government, every time we have tried to add laws to govern a new situation, we have also introduced compromises and loopholes to appease “the other side”. That is how you end up with a Billionaire not paying taxes for eighteen years. He's just playing by the rules of the game that we put in place.

Any good systems engineer will also tell you that, every once in awhile, you have to start with a clean sheet of paper design. The operating environment, the assumptions, and the capabilities of the underlying system have changed so dramatically after a few years of industry evolution that it costs more to maintain the old code base than to start anew. The term "clean sheet of paper" is a misnomer, though. You are starting with all the learnings from your experience with the previous generation of the system. You know which mistakes and pitfalls to avoid. Of course, you will make new mistakes but at least you won’t be spending massive amounts of time and energy maintaining the mistakes of the past.

By the same analogy, I claim, it would better to start with a clean sheet of paper and write a new constitution - one suffused with all the learnings of the past two hundred odd years. I hope this isn’t interpreted as treasonous or unpatriotic. I have the utmost respect for the American constitution and its hard fought amendments but I also hate how hundreds of years of political bartering have twisted it into a battleground for illogical and petty aims.

The American constitution was written by some of the smartest and most courageous men that have ever lived. But even an average educated person living today knows far more about the world around them than any of the founding fathers ever did. The document was written at a time when cars didn't exist, planes didn't exist, the Internet didn't exist, modern medicine didn't exist. Hell, even electricity didn’t exist. Continuing to use the same general principles and patching them for the modern world is akin to a programmer trying to patch an MS-DOS program to run on a modern multiprocessor system in the cloud. Sure, it’s possible but is it the best path forward?

I am proud to be an American citizen and hope to continue to enjoy all the great things we have accomplished together as a nation but I think it is also perfectly reasonable to want to be the citizen of a better, more logical, more scientific, more rational, more reasonable, more humane country that is not polarized by a two party system drifting further and further apart from each other, gridlocked and with little hope of reform.

Try explaining the electoral process to anyone and you will soon find out what I mean. The fact that we count delegates and superdelegates, the fact that we fight over blue states and red states, the fact that we engage in gerrymandering for political gain (try explaining that to a newcomer to the country), the fact that we have elected four presidents who did not win the popular vote - these are all indications that the system is unnecessarily complex and fragile and that it is buckling under the weight of its own compromises. This, in an age where we could instantaneously collect and process everyone's vote online. Are you going to argue that our current electoral system is better than one in which we use an automated system to truly offer one vote to each citizen? And please don’t tell me about the potential for online voter fraud. We sent men to the moon when we set our minds to it. Are you telling me we can’t build a system that is more robust and efficient than the current one? And as for the potential for hacking by foreign governments, well - we already have that problem.

But the politicians are so busy fighting, playing the game by the current set of rules we ourselves put in place, that they are incapable of reforming the system holistically from within. It's much easier to add yet another patch and avoid the large cost of a redesign - even if the overhaul is the right thing to do for everyone involved.

As we prepare to pick from among two unpopular candidates a week from now, as we look back to years of ugly infighting and bureaucracy, as we look agape at the corruption, deceit, and partisan behavior crippling our country, as we scratch our heads at bizarre tax laws and their loopholes, as we grapple with second amendment issues and their consequent tragedies based on laws written for an agrarian society and muskets, and finally - as we look forward to many more years of infighting and paralysis, I think we have to stop and think: Can't we do any better?

Interestingly, many other western nations are finding themselves in the grip of familiar existential dilemmas. Brexit is just the most recent example. The reasons, I think, are similar. Democracies were a vast improvement over all earlier forms of government but they have failed to modernize themselves and their rules of conduct. The result is a system in which the participants continue to manipulate the rules for their own political advantage.

The politicians have a vested interest in keeping the current system intact. Their jobs depend on it. And, as many pundits have pointed out, we can expect many more years of discord and obstructionism ahead of us regardless of who wins the election. In other words, no opportunity for fundamental reform.

So, if the current government is incapable of reforming the rules of the game, what choice do we have?

The founding fathers of this country were businessmen, politicians, lawyers, doctors, engineers, philosophers, and scientists. So were those who brought us the French revolution and the Enlightenment. They wrote documents that have largely withstood the test of time for hundreds of years and have simultaneously modernized the Western world, ushering in an era of unprecedented prosperity and liberty. Yet, even these texts were written for pre-industrial and pre-digital eras and have had to be amended repeatedly as we discover new truths and learn more about the world we live in.

The time has come for a new group of thinkers to come together and modernize our constitution, brush aside the cobwebs of history, streamline the special interests, and remove the loopholes - for the next two hundred odd years, for our children if not for ourselves. Will it be easy? I dare say not. Nothing worthwhile has ever been easy.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Workaholism and Its Discontents

There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”
H.L. Mencken. 1880-1956.

“Most people spend their time on the 'urgent' rather than on the 'important.' ”
Robert Hutchins. 1899-1977.

“There's definitely no logic to human behavior.”
Bjork. Human behavior. Debut.

As a classic workaholic, it's only been in recent years that I have fully realized how much I ignored my family in favor of work throughout my career. At every opportunity, it seems, I tried hard to choose work and career above family and friends. I was often aided in this by the technological advances of the past few decades.

I always used to work late into the night. Initially, that meant being at a physical office which, in turn, meant not even being physically present at home. Later on with the advent of high speed connectivity, it became easier to "work from home" - for me as well as pretty much everyone else on the planet, . For many of us, though, that didn't mean spending fewer hours at the office and more hours at home. It meant the exact opposite. The home work hours were additive. In my case, it meant I spent just as many hours physically at work, often late into the night, then went home to jump on the computer again. It meant spending weekend days working from home instead of going into the office but it didn’t reduce the aggregate number of hours spent in the office. It meant even more immediate access to “work” regardless of time of day or night. There was always work to fill the empty hours.

I used to jump up at 3 am to send an email or to check on the status of something - be it the status of a long compile, be it the status of some projects through various project management tools, be it the status of some critical alerts or other operational issues, be it whatever. It seemed like there were always more and more things to keep an eye on. The result was obvious. I may have physically been at home but I wasn't there mentally. My face was glued to the screen on my laptop even as I sat next to my wife and pretended to watch TV. My eyes were focused on the same screen as I pretended to spend quality time with my daughter or help her with her homework. Even if the laptop wasn't open, chances are that I was thinking about a bug I was working on, an upsetting email I had just read, or one I had just sent!

Worse yet, I now resented the fact that my family was interfering with my concentration and encroaching on my obviously important work. Couldn’t they see I was busy? My responses were often curt, filled with annoyance, often requiring a repetition of the context since I hadn't been paying attention the first time around (see my rant about multitasking here).

Fast forward a few years and we've taken another huge leap forward - or should I say backward - in the ways in which work intrudes on our personal lives. That damn smartphone or tablet is surgically attached to our wrists - even when we are walking, driving, eating, or lying in bed. The invasion is complete and total. For workaholics like me, this means every waking moment is spent checking on stuff - either in a chat tool or on instant messenger or Facebook or Twitter or even (the horror!) email.

As a society, we seem to be heading in the opposite direction. Our families have given up on us or are themselves preoccupied with their own work or school or friends - all from the comfort of the dinner table. It's become routine to see all members of the family sitting around the table each with their own iPhone or iPad and headphones. Physically there, mentally elsewhere. I think I now understand the reason behind recent French attempts to limit employee access to work email after hours. I contend that the insidious connection between workaholism and our ever increasingly connected and online world will not result in a happy populace over time - not unless it's carefully checked and controlled.

I know some people have (or at least claim to have) achieved work-life balance. I don't know too many people like that nor was I ever able to achieve it myself. For me, it's too late. Thankfully, my marriage survived. Thankfully, my daughter grew up to be a successful, happy, and compassionate adult. The two of them have been much more forgiving of my flaws than I ever realized. I was lucky. Many others are not as lucky. This problem will only get worse if we don’t address it head on. If you don’t believe me, just wait five years. We’ll all be wearing Augmented Reality glasses so we can multitask surreptitiously as we pretend to spend time with our loved ones.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Early Retirement: The First Day of the Rest of My Life

“Hereby, too, I shall indulge the inclination so natural in old men, to be talking of themselves and their own past actions; and I shall indulge it without being tiresome to others, who, through respect to age, might conceive themselves obliged to give me a hearing, since this may be read or not as any one pleases.”
Benjamin Franklin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

Funny how the things you have the hardest time parting with
Are the things you need the least.”
Bob Dylan. Lonesome Day Blues. Love and Theft.

“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”
Nelson Mandela. 1918-2013.

I’ve been toying with the idea of retiring for a while now and finally took the plunge this past week. It’s a long and tedious story that I won’t bore you with. Suffice it to say that I've had a fairly productive and successful thirty five year career behind me as well as a happy personal life. The decision was based more on personal reasons than anything related to work.

“A bit young” [fifty two], you might say. Thirty five years is a long time in any industry, I would respond. I just happened to have started early.

“You'll be bored,” you may say. “You’ll need something to keep your mind occupied.” True, and also what my wife tells me. In her case, she also has a not-so-hidden agenda to get me out of the house and out of her hair. There are only so many ways you can rearrange the junk in the garage or program the sprinklers, after all, even given infinite time and patience. Having spent thirty five years in a niche (and, let's admit it, we’re all working in niches today) has meant many repetitive and boring tasks over the years. There are only so many ways you can manage a project, only so many lessons you can learn by shipping software. So you end up with more "Been there, done that" moments than "Aha!" moments. Of course, there are always new technologies, new ideas, and new companies to get excited about but I find, for one reason or another, I usually end up running an engineering organization and that often amounts to 90% repetition and frustration and, at best, 10% “new” and exciting.

I think a more candid objection might be: “You’ll need the discipline of a nine to five job to avoid brain rot.” Perhaps true. I aim to take my chances and find out. I hope I can keep myself occupied without needing the daily grind. If I can't, I have noone but myself to blame for my lack of creativity.

“That's pretty selfish of you,” you might say, “or at the very least self-centered.” Only if I use the time to live selfishly. Not having to go to work every day, in fact, increases the opportunity for more engagement with friends and family, with the community, and with the world at large.

Let me put it differently. I've obsessed over work for the past thirty five years. And, in the process, ignored "life". Having tried and failed to ever achieve any semblance of work-life balance, I’m forcing myself to walk away from full time work. Let's see if I can go obsess about "life" for a while. And, I'd argue, fifty two is exactly the right age for retirement. I have at most ten years of healthy living ahead of me before genetics catches up with me. If I don't have to sit in an office building for the last ten healthy years of my life, why would I?

So, what am I going to do with all my spare time? I don't have a clue. Right now, I'm enjoying biking several hours a day and getting back in shape. We plan to spend a few months living in Europe next year and travel extensively - something both my wife and I enjoy. My daughter got married last year and I hope to be a grandfather one of these days. I plan to spoil the little ones every chance I get. Meanwhile, I'm also staying engaged with the industry through advisory roles and coming up with crazy ideas for new startups.

You can follow me on Twitter or read my blog. Who knows, I may even pick up a camera again. Stay in touch. Things are just starting to get interesting around here.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Homo Theatricales

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts”
            William Shakespeare. As You Like It.

“She had discovered the secret to life - which is that it's all invented. it's all invented.”
Benjamin Zander. Music director, Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.

“For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals
Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination
We learned to talk”
Pink Floyd. Keep Talking. The Division Bell.

I have long believed that the one unique trait that sets us apart as a species is not our ability to speak (even parrots can do that) nor our propensity to collaborate (even ants and termites can do that) but rather our amazing ability to act - to recast ourselves into ever-evolving characters based on the people and situations around us.

It seems like everything we do, at one level or another, is part of an act we play (no negative connotations implied), part of a role that applies to that specific situation and that specific audience. The way I act with my daughter is different from the way I act with my wife which is different from the way I act with my cousin which is different from the way I act with my boss which is different from the way I act with my co-workers which is different from the way I act with people in line at Starbucks which is different from how I imagine myself acting if I were ever to meet Barrack Obama.

It is this instinctive ability to create and retain information about a thousand different scenarios simultaneously and to act accordingly in each case that sets us apart as a species. No other species can even come close. Our closest relatives, the chimps, may be capable of acting out half a dozen "personas". Ours is the only species that seems to have perfected the art of “acting”, of creating personas and story lines and dramatic plot lines - and then of acting in those plays.  We are not only Homo Sapiens but also Homo Theatricales.

In a sense, we are always playing a role when we interact with others, often even when we are alone and thinking to ourselves with no one else around to judge us. In fact, I claim that we are always acting – either consciously or unconsciously. A single individual can simultaneously be a father, a brother, a son, an engineer, a runner, a cousin, a musician, a philosopher, a soccer coach, a second generation Irish immigrant, a poker player, a devout Catholic, a Corvette aficionado, and many other things - all at the same time. In every social situation, we play out one or more of these (often conflicting) “roles” and others respond to us by playing the appropriate accompanying roles.

If you don't believe me when I tell you we are all always acting, then just think about someone you dislike - an annoying coworker or friend of a friend. Now think about how you act and feel and talk about that person when he (or she) is not around - and then think about what your behavior looks like when he is in the room. If that's not acting, I don't know what is.

These are all roles we play - roles, to be sure, backed by a single cohesive identity and a set of beliefs (the proverbial "I"), but roles nonetheless that can be dramatically different from one minute to the next. Most of us are good actors in only a few of the dramas we play in. We merely plod along as an extra or, at best, a bit player in most of the dramas we engage in during our lifetimes.

So, why are you boring me with this pseudo-Latin psycho-babble? Isn’t this basically what Shakespeare was saying?

I bring it up for one reason and one reason alone. It is often very difficult for us to "step out of character" but doing so can be illuminating.  It's only when you realize that you are always acting that you also recognize your innate ability to change your performance at any time, to play a different role - regardless of the circumstances. It's just an act, you tell yourself. You are in control. It’s just an act, after all.

I find it liberating.