Tuesday, July 28, 2015

why Bladerunner is a great movie

I was working on the material for a creativity seminar I taught last week, and I was reflecting on some principles - Sinek's "Start with Why", and this scene from Bladerunner kept running through my mind. The lines I love are actually Harrison Ford's:
All he'd wanted was the same answers the rest of us want:
where do I come from?
where am I going?
how long have I got?
These are the fundamental questions of life. Bladerunner, science fiction and movie violence aside, does a great job of making you feel those questions profoundly, and to understand they are the same questions everyone around you is wondering, and everyone who has ever lived has wondered. 


My department chair started a new Master of Science in Analytics program here at UNH. He and his team are running the first cohort through now. It's a year-round program, so they actually started in May (a model I am familiar with from my Army-Baylor days). Back in the spring we were talking and I was telling him about my creativity course I had offered last year. He was intrigued and invited me to give a one-day seminar to the Analytics students.

I was only too happy to comply. I love the topic and I love talking about it. It's something that is dear to my heart because it is central to my identity. Creativity is fundamental to the Renaissance Man ideal I have been pursuing since before I really understood what that was. I put a lot of time into planning the seminar - much more than I should have because I had other things I needed to be doing. But I plugged away on it and re-organized it and changed and tweeked it right up until the moment I started talking.

And I have to say I was completely dissatisfied with the outcome.

Don't get me wrong - the students were great. They were polite and engaged. I think it was a decent seminar - I'm sure they've seen worse. But here's the thing - with my teaching, I don't strive for decent. Decent is dissatisfying. And teaching something I really love - well, that just ratchets it up a whole additional notch. So that was probably part of the problem. Typical of my style, I tried to do too much in the time I had. I didn't run out of time (I actually finished a few minutes early), but I could tell I presented too many concepts. Frankly, I just talked too much.

The biggest thing I did wrong, and it really pisses me off, is that I talked too much about myself. Not, I hope in a bragging way (I poked fun at myself quite a bit), but just a bit too ego-centric. The ego is a vicious Achille's heal. No one really wants to hear about you. They really want to hear about themselves. People are self-centered as a rule. The more you can help someone see how something is relevant to their goals and objectives, the more they will pay attention to what you are saying. 

So I was dissatisfied by my performance. It's a moment to take stock and think. As I said in the class, you learn more from failure than from success. I asked the students to give me a quick eval at the end of class - to answer 3 questions anonymously on a piece of paper about the class - 1) what did you like? 2) what would you want more of? 3) What would you want less of? I'm so unhappy with my own evaluation that I haven't even read their responses yet. They're sitting on my desk in a manilla folder. It's true that you learn more from failure than success, But it's hard to fail, especially when you really care about something. I know what I need to do. Like most important things, it's simple, but it isn't easy.

Tomorrow I'll read the evals and start thinking about the next opportunity.

Monday, July 27, 2015

the podcast as a creative enterprise

I've been working on my podcast, The Health Leader Forge, since March. I just recorded my 10th interview this past Friday with Jay Couture, the CEO of the Seacoast Mental Health Clinic, one of 10 community mental health clinics in the state.

Doing these podcasts is a different experience than almost anything else I've done before. I hadn't really thought of it as a creative outlet until recently. But it definitely is. The whole enterprise started as an idea - or a question - how could I use this podcast technology to extend my teaching mission? I had been organizing an after-hours speaker series when I was teaching at Army-Baylor, and so I combined the two. I hadn't given much thought to interview-style journalism before, but there is a lot of preparation that goes into doing an interview. I spend several hours preparing for each interview, determining what I want to have the guest share. And then after the interview there is a fair amount of editing work to be done as well. What's fun about the podcast is it is really a joint creation between me and the guest (or should that be the guest and I? I don't know - but it's fun). The podcast is creative in the sense that in the beginning there is nothing, and then I work with the guest, and at the end we have something that I think is informative, interesting, and eye opening. I'm very lucky in that I've only interviewed people who are totally passionate about what they do - so the process is actually pretty easy. I feel like I have been relatively successful in helping them show who they really are as people, too, which I think is important.

Ten is one of those numbers of significance, for no rational reason. It feels like the podcast is starting to have some substance, I suppose. With 10 episodes, it's not a flash in the pan. I'm looking forward to hitting 26 - which will mark a year's worth. I plan to start using these podcasts in my teaching - if not in the fall when I teach Health Systems, then in the spring when I teach Health Care Management.

A lot of what we do in life we don't think of as creative - as if being creative requires picking up some crayons and glue. Creativity permeates our lives. The Health Leader Forge is a creative enterprise, but there are so many other creative things we do in our lives. Its worth stepping back and celebrating that fact every now and then.

dinner back at my father's and closure

We - Kandie, the kids, and I - went back as a family to my father and Sally's place for dinner finally this weekend.

Here he is grilling corn and eggplant.

We had a wonderful time, and I hope it is a sign of great family time to come.

I spent the winter living with my father and Sally, as I talked about several times, it was strange to live in someone else's house, even if that someone else was family. We made it through the long New Hampshire winter together. How many days did I look out the window of his house and see this:

But this weekend, the view looked like this:

New Hampshire in the summer is gentle and lush. No crushing heat like we used to experience in San Antonio.

The incredible coincidence that my father bought a retirement home in Dover, the next town over from Durham where I now live and work, 5 years ago, well before we had any inkling that I would be relocating here to start the second chapter of my adult life, still amazes me. It feels like more than just luck - like the universe was conspiring to make this very good thing happen for us. I like that idea. 

Now that we are (for the most part) settled in our new home down the street, it was a bit of closure to come back to visit my father and Sally. I joined the Army many years ago in part so that I could be independent. I don't like being dependent on anyone. So it was hard to accept their generosity and hospitality, even though it was given in kindness and even though they went out of their way to make me feel welcome, because it felt like I was putting myself in a dependent position again. I've worked hard to structure my life in such a way that I am not involuntarily dependent on anyone, and not likely to be at risk of being so. So going back this weekend and having dinner closed that loop. I'm whole again - with my family and my own home - and I can relax and enjoy the visit in their beautiful yard, play with the dogs, and feel like myself. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

27/52: pain

A photo posted by Mark Bonica (@markbonica) on

One of the pains of moving, especially between states, is bringing all your various insurances, registrations, and yes, car inspections, into compliance with your new state.

And of course, every state has different rules. For example, in New Hampshire you cannot have tinting on the front side windows of a car - driver's or passenger's side. None. Not a light amount. None.

So when I went to get the Adventure Wagon inspected, it immediately failed. I had no idea how to remove window tinting, so I went to Uncle Google and asked.

Apparently there are several ways, including spraying ammonia on the window and trying to hold it there with a garbage bag (no thanks), or applying some sort of heating element to melt the glue. The best way to apply heat was to use an upholstery steamer. So two days and $30 later, courtesy of Amazon Prime, I had my upholstery cleaner.

It was actually pretty cool - the tinting pretty much just peeled off in a couple of big sheets. But you know, I would have liked to have kept my tinting. The Adventure Wagon is just a notch less cool now than it was.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

taste and refinement

I don't have great taste all the time. I often go for the cheapest thing, on the bet that the cost/quality trade off is not as bad as it appears.

You can get used to low quality, too. And cheap means you can get more of it. But getting a lot of low quality stuff just leaves you sitting on a pile of crap at the end of the day. Really, no one wants that. It's easy to get lost in the process, and then turn around and see what you have done.

I bought some brie the other day - about $12/pound. Way more than I usually spend on cheese. We meant to use it for a party, but forgot about it. So there it was in the refrigerator and I decided to use it to make an omelet. Usually I make my omelets with Kraft shredded cheddar. Unless I'm feeling cheap when I go to the grocery store and then I buy the store brand shredded cheddar, because I think in that case the marginal cost/quality trade of is near zero. But shredded cheddar in a bag is probably less than $6/pound.

I'll tell you, there was a significant quality difference in the omelet made with $12 brie. Brie has a distinct and powerful flavor. You don't need much. And that's good, because I make my omelets with two eggs and one ounce of cheese, and I fry them in about a teaspoon of olive oil. The total cost of my cheddar omelet - about $0.94. The total cost of my brie omelet - about $1.31. For a difference of $0.37, why do I not eat omelets with more sophisticated cheese?

I think there are a lot of small refinements like this that you can make in your life. Small adjustments where you can get a lot more quality for a small increase in the cost.

There are also big ones. When is it worth really giving up a lot to get something better? How do you avoid chugging along, acquiring what look like bargains, and then turning around and finding you're sitting on a huge pile of crap?

Friday, July 17, 2015

China: the market is not a taco

Watching the mess that is happening in the Chinese stock market, I am reminded of the poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, Valentine for Ernest Mann. It begins:
You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.
The Chinese stock market has just gone through a major bubble. For the last 20 years or so, it had been rising at a relatively steady rate as the government has loosened its grip on the economy and market forces were allowed, if only partially and ever so slowly, to increasingly drive business decisions.

A stock market is a betting mechanism. People buy and sell stocks based on what they believe about the future. There is no simple way to decide the value of a stock - there is no objective value. The value is entirely based on what people believe. Those beliefs are shaped at two levels: first they are shaped at the individual security level. What do I believe about the business plan of this firm? How well managed is it? How will it compete in its respective industry? Will the industry continue to solve problems for people in a unique way such that the value of the companies will continue to rise? These are questions that do not have objective answers because they are about the future. And stock ownership is about the long run - the 10, 20 year run - and these kinds of questions are simply unknowable in any objective sense over that time. The answers to these questions come in the form of believable stories. The second way these beliefs are shaped is at the market level itself. The rules that govern the market, such as accounting standards, trading rules, the use of leverage, and of course, whether the government will intervene when it doesn't like what the values are spontaneously arriving at. Markets operate on trust. The role of a regulator is not to ensure a particular outcome in the market, but to act as a referee, making sure that the rules, determined ex-ante, are enforced.

The US markets look chaotic, but an order emerges from that chaos. That order is reflected in prices that reflect the collective beliefs (bets) of the participants, and a confidence that the regulators are not interfering behind the scenes.

China has been on the rise for some time, and it seemed unstoppable. Chinese officials have been pushing for the Yuan to be a reserve currency - that is, they dream of it having the same status as the US dollar in international markets. This mess with the stock market shows just how far the China has to go with the second set of beliefs. No one is going to trust the Chinese government to keep its mits off the market for a long time. This FP article says it quite well:
For years, China has dreamed of Shanghai’s becoming a global financial center. Now, one analyst at the global investment firm Julius Baer told the Financial Times, “confidence in the local Chinese equity market has been shattered and is unlikely to come back anytime soon.” Just a few weeks ago, observers confidently predicted it was “inevitable” that domestic Chinese stocks would soon be added to the major global indices that serve as benchmarks for professional investors. Today, with a mere rump of China’s stock market trading at all, and with investors afraid they will be thrown in prison for selling at the wrong time for the “wrong” price, it’s inconceivable.
You can't order up a stock market or a reserve currency like you can order up a taco. China is still a command economy. Until they achieve a greater level of economic and political freedom, and that means until the Communist Party loses exclusive control of the country, Chinese markets will never have the same level of trust as those in the US or other Western countries. That chaos and disorder that we have in our economy and political markets is actually what ensures our markets can be trusted.