Friday, November 30, 2012

Learning, Earning and Returning


"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other"

Mother Teresa
Years ago, I heard it for the first time. It was very impactful. However, ever since then, when I hear it, or read it, the impact runs deeper. What is it? Simply this - "As you go through life, there are three parts. The first is learning, the second is earning, and the last should be returning".

A couple years ago, when my wife had a big shindig for my 60th birthday, my former mentor from the Navy was able to attend. He is a man who is a tireless giver. Without his help and support, my career in the Navy would have been much different, and probably much shorter. At the party he said something I had not heard before. He told my family that my legacy to the the unit happened at the end of my career. I would tell junior officers that our main purpose was to train our replacements. In other words, in my career I learned, then I earned, and at the end, I returned. It turns out it was a microcosm of how my life was meant to be.

As I age, I think about how this old adage applies to my life. I have been very blessed. I was able to get a good education as well as having great role models to learn from. I was able to find rewarding and diverse employment and make good wages for over 35 years. That being said, now I that I have entered the returning phase of my life, I do believe this will be the most exciting of the three.

Americans are for the most part cheerful givers. We help each other, we help the less fortunate in the world. We have a tremendous capacity to give. Nobody demands that we do this - it is part of our fiber. What I have been mulling is this - how can I return the blessings that I have received for so many years? Not only the tangible ones, but the intangible also. I believe our legacy is build on that. Anyone can be fortunate enough to make a small fortune - it was is done with that fortune with it that will build a legacy.

Someone once said that a rich man can only be successful if he dies broke. In other words, riches earned acquired are to be used, not hoarded. Unlike ancient Egyptians, who were buried with their treasure to take to the great beyond, we don't throw money in coffins. All money is made to be used. Even money in the bank is only there as a place holder. That money too, in meant to be used.

However, as important as sharing our resources are, I also think sharing the wisdom we have learned or gained is important. As wisdom has been given to us, we need to pass it forward. Not only wisdom, but also setting good examples of how to live life as we have learned from those who came before us. Tradition, heritage and then legacy. In other words, we are here to train our replacements.

It is exciting. There is no rule book, no recipe. The sky is the limit on how to return blessings. As we have been blessed, we can return those blessings to others. Learning, earning and now returning. As with desert after a fine meal, the best really is yet to come...


Thursday, November 29, 2012



"I'm a soldier, a lonely soldier,
Away from home through no wish of my own.
That's why I'm lonely, I'm Mr. Lonely,
I wish that I could go back home"
Mr. Lonely
Bobby Vinton
Most that have served overseas have a USO story. This is mine.

My folks took me to the airport on a dark, cold January evening in 1970. I just finished up my service school and spent two weeks home on leave for Christmas. I was in my dress blues and with pea coat in hand, I was getting ready to hop on a jet, heading for a part of the world I had never been to, barely ever heard of. Just having turned twenty, I was filled with excitement, apprehension and a small measure of terror, all at the same time.

The plane took off and we landed in San Fransisco. Like many young men at that time, most getting off planes were ushered to a bus waited to take us to Travis Air Force Base. Once I arrived at Travis, I had never seen anything like it. Hundreds, many hundreds of young men, all in the uniform of their service, were packed like sardines into the terminal waiting for a plane to take them across the Pacific. Most were going directly to Viet Nam. After waiting almost a day, sleeping on the floor at times, my name was called and I got on board a Boeing 707 long range jet.

First stop was Hawaii. We had to stop for fuel, as even though the 707 was a long range jet, Hawaii was about as far as it could go without a refuel. We spent fours there, enough time for me to walk around and entertain the idea of going AWOL, and just staying on this island paradise. After the plane was refueled, we took off and flew to Wake Island, possibly the smallest thing I have ever landed on. Wake is just an atoll, in the middle of nowhere, but big enough to refuel jets going further into the WESTPAC. It was hot - at least 90 degrees. I was in my dress blues, sweating my butt off. Again, after a few hours, we took off and headed to Okinawa.

Once we landed in Okinawa, bedlam ensued. The island, part of the Ryukian Chain , was getting ready to transition from a United States Protectorate which it had been since the war, to either independence or becoming part of Japan. In any event, the locals were not happy, riots had broken out, and the entire island was in "condition green" (which meant "lock down").

After landing at Kadena Air Force Base, I was lost. My orders were very cryptic. I was to be staying at a small Army Base called Torii Station, but was assigned to a even smaller base on the island called Hanza. I went up to someone in the military police, showed him my orders, and he directed me to a waiting bus outside the terminal. Once on the bus, I was the only sailor - everyone else was a Marine. We were told to crouch down and put our sea bags in front of the windows as the riots were getting violent in the streets. We took off and arrived at a huge base called Camp Hansen. To make a long story short, I was sent there by mistake. They thought I was a Navy medic and they were going to send me to Viet Nam the next day. In the middle of the night. they found the error, and send my back (through the riots) to Kadena. Finally, I was able to get to Torii Station where I checked in.

My first few months on Okinawa were dreadful. It was the rainy season, so it was always cloudy, rainy and cold. To make matters worse, the island remained in Condition Green more often than not. I was living in a WW II barracks, two men to a very small room. I would go to work, work either a 8 or 12 hour shift, and then go back to that very small room. There was no going off base during lock down. It was then I discovered the USO.

As bad as things were my first six months on Okinawa, they were much more tolerable by having the USO on base. I spent quite a bit of time there. I was an avid reader and they had many books of my interest. They also had a television, so I could watch delayed programing from the Armed Forces channel. I wrote almost daily letters home (using USO stationary) and played cards with other service people. In short, the USO was my home away from home.

By June, the rioting had subsided, the people of Okinawa had made their decision, and we were free to go off base during liberty. It was like being let out of jail. However, as confining as my first six months were, without the USO it would have really been rough. I will never forget what the USO did for me and how it went from just being a building on base to "my USO".

As the years have gone on, every time I see a USO or a commercial for one on television, I think back to 1970, being far from home, living on that "rock" in the East China Sea. I am grateful for not only what they did for me, but also what they continue to do for young men and women serving near and afar. For many, it continues to this day to be "a home away from home".


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Teambuilder


"The secret to success is good leadership, and good leadership is all about making the lives of your team members or workers better"

Tony Dungy

Shortly after I had started with a new company, I was integrated into a program team with others who were also new. It was a dynamic group with some very talented folks. However, the team had way too many "alphas" and not enough cohesiveness to operate effectively in this very competitive industry. The Program Manager who led this group, soon saw the problem and put the wheels in motion on how to make it better.

A call went out to the East Coast to bring in a pro. This man had helped my company before I had joined - he was a legend. He was very good at what he did - he specialized in fixing things - things like broken organizations. The Program Manager called us all together, told us we would be going off site for three days, and not to even think about calling back to the office. He did tell us one thing - prepare to come back changed.

The next week we met at a conference center on the west side of town. With all the business trips I had been on, this was the first where I was going to spend three days in the town I lived in. The first morning we gathered together for coffee and met the teambuilder. An older professorial looking gentleman with a topping of uncombed white hair, he was engaging from the first time he shook your hand. The first day was spent defining what we did, what we thought others did (or should be doing) and how everything played together. It was a long day with lots of notes taken.

That evening we gathered for a social event and talked about the day. Everyone was tired and pretty soon the gathering thinned as people just wanted to go to their rooms to rest for the next day. It turns out, it was going to be needed.

Early on day two, we had breakfast together and then went straight back to training. My thought was this - yesterday we defined jobs, are we really going to go over that again? Nope - we meditated. I had never meditated before. The teambuilder went though the first part of the morning teaching us how to do it. And then we all meditated for the rest of the morning. It turns out, there was method in the madness. After lunch, things were going to get rough.

After lunch, we gathered in a circle and the teambuilder was in the middle. He told us this was the part of the training that would change us the most. With the circle consisting of twenty people, one by one, we needed to address everyone in the circle and tell them three things we liked about them. It had to be what we liked about them as a person (not work related), and we could not copy what someone else in front of us in the circle had said.

Have you ever had to tell someone you really did not care for what you liked about them? The teambuilder had told us from the start that even in the most acerbic relationships, there are always things about each of us that are of value. To change our dynamics, we needed to focus what we liked about each other and minimize what we disliked. What was really going to make this hard for me was a relationship I struggled with daily. One woman on the team and I had not gotten along since I walked in the door. By the nature of our jobs, we needed to work together closely - and some days it was brutal. I was dreading when it would come to my time in the circle and I had to address her.

It turns out she was first in the circle to start. She was very good at her job, but not a "touchy-feelie" type of person. This was going to be hard for her. By the time she got to the third person, the tears were already flowing - I had never seen her cry. Finally, she came to me. I really thought she was going to say "pass" and move on to the next person. She did not. Through misty eyes and a cracking voice, she told me three things that she really admired about me, and then moved on to the next person. To go around the circle, it took her an hour.

The exercise continued on into the next morning. Finally it was my turn. It was very hard, and yet, felt very good. When I came to the woman I had been having problems with, I repaid her by telling her three things that I admired about her. Not made up, truth. From that day forward, my working and professional relationship with that woman changed. We became good friends and our working relationship, although not perfect, was much, much improved.

The reason I tell this story is this - I went to a mandatory off site because I had to. I expected very little out of it. I ended up learning a life skill that went far above what I did for this company. I was reminded that everyone, each one of us, has value and something to offer. Quite often that is minimized or overlooked by the strong pull of negative talk or feelings. It is not often that I have been able to say I had a life changing event. Thanks to the teambuilder, this was one of them.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Really Sol - Settle Down!


"If I had to choose a religion, the sun as the universal giver of life would be my god"

Napoleon Bonaparte

Last week Dr. Michio Kaku (from the Science Channel) was on one of the cable news shows talking about the latest cycle of solar activity. It seems as if our old friend Sol, is having one of his periodic fits. However, according to Dr. Kaku, this one could be different, very different.

Currently we are in Solar Cycle 24, which began in January 2008, and should end in 2013. Dr. Kaku asserts that it is only a matter of time before the Earth gets another "direct hit" from one of these flares that occur during a solar cycle. He is strongly encouraging the world governments to ensure the integrity of electrical infrastructures, so as to prevent a recurrence of disruption akin to that caused by the massive solar storm of 1859.

The Super Solar Storm, or Carrington Storm of 1859 was indeed a whopper. The big activity started in late August when many sunspots and flares were detected (even back in that day!). A Brit astronomer named Carrington, detected a huge flare traveling towards Earth on Sept 1st of that year. Whereas light from the Sun can reach the Earth in only 8 minutes, solar flares lumber along at much slower speeds. In fact, a typical flare usually takes 3 or 4 days to reach the Earth. This massive one was different - it was going at "warp" speed. It reached the Earth in only 17 hours.

The effects of this storm were devastating and fascinating at the same time. The Aurora was nothing short of spectacular. It was noticed over most of the Earth. In fact, it was so light at midnight, people in Cuba could read by just using the light of the Aurora. In addition, gold miners in the Rockies were awoken in the middle of the night, thinking it might be morning, as it was so bright.

However, there was a much darker side also. There was not yet any electrical power, so the effect this storm would have had on a electrical grid can only be estimated. However, there were telegraph systems, and they all took a big hit. Most of them failed in both North America and Europe. Some lines grew so hot that papers close by caught fire. It was the first time in modern times that the Earth had suffered an EMP (electro-magnetic pulse).

Dr. Kaku speculates that if this type of storm would hit as a result of Solar Cycle 24, the effects on this country, as well as the rest of the world, would be nothing short of catastrophic. In our country alone, we would lose our power grid and it would take three years to replace. The cost of the damage would exceed $2T and without power to generate electricity, water and gas, hundreds of thousands would perish. In short, until the damage was repaired, we, along with the rest of the world, would be living as if in the 19th century.

What do we do? Sit around and continue to play Russian Roulette with our Sun? Wait for the hit? It was been known for quite a while now that our electric grid, just like most other grids in the world, needs updating. To update our grid, which would allow it protection from solar storms as well as man made EMP threats, would cost a paltry $300M. Not a trillion, not a billion, but 300 million. Yet when this gets brought up for funding in front of Congress, it gets voted down.

Until we update our grid, all we can do is stay prepared for a long term power disruption. Have enough food and water in the house to last for a while. And then we can hope - hope that 24 turns out to be a lucky number. We can hope that once this cycle is over, Sol, our friend and life giver, can settle down and go back to just being the sun.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Taxation without Representation


"Taxation without representation is tyranny"
James Otis
I thought it would be interesting to take a trip to "make believe" land. In that trip, I am still working. Not only working, but owning a very successful business. I employ people, make a good product, and invest the profits of the company wisely. Like Warren Buffet, my tax rate is modest - about 14 to 16 percent. It is that low because I have taken advantage of favorable tax deductions as well as the capital gains rates. In short, I have done what many other successful Americans have done for years - work hard, make some money, and pay my fair share of taxes.
However, the November election is now over, and many are advocating that I pay a more "fair share" on my taxes. Never mind I pay 35% on profits made from normal operations - no, they want more. How much more? Here are some ideas being floated:
  • Raising the rate for those families making over $250k to 39.5%
  • Rather than have the top rate reached when the income exceeds $250k, have 39.5% start from dollar one
  • Eliminate or drastically reduce the capital gains tax rates
  • Eliminate or drastically reduce all personal deductions

The question which begs to be asked is this - if it is true that 47% of all Americans pay no federal income tax at all, and if the exit polls were correct that over 80% of those people voted to re-elect the president, who is looking out for people like me? An even better question is this - when did making money become evil? When did the wealthy become pariahs? However the most important question - due of the way people vote by stratas of income, is this another example of taxation without representation?

We need to remember we fought a war, formed a country due to taxation without representation. It led to our first party - the Boston Tea Party. Taxes were never intended to be used as a weapon - as a divider. However, over the years, that is exactly what has happened. Our tax code has become a political grab bag of favors and paybacks. Somehow in this world of upside down, people that are paying the bulk of the nation's taxes are looked upon as greedy by those who pay nothing.

Now that I have come back from the land of "make believe", and once again live in reality, I will say this: I am retired, I am not wealthy, I should have no dog in this fight. However, I am a student of our history and understand the cornerstones on which this country was founded. I dare say our founders would not believe our current financial mess. I also would say the solution they might suggest is for everyone, not just one or two percent, to contribute to the solution. They would remind us the most important function of the Federal Government is to raise a militia, a military, to protect the states. That and that alone should be sacrosanct the last thing to come under the budget knife.

It will be interesting to see how our republic, now living in the "new normal", will solve our tax and debt issue. Unlike yesteryear, when our country fought a war over taxes, many today understand making money is not a requirement. The rich don't have to be rich - they succeed because they choose to. If we make it too hard, too painful for the successful, they might choose not to be. That is the only representation they truly have. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Real Debt


"So tonite I'm gonna party like it's nineteen ninety-nineYeah, yeah, hey"


Oh boy! This is going to be fun! Ever since the election when I decided to move from reality to "La La Land", life has been good, very good. I grew tired of all those "nay sayers" telling me over and over again that we had nothing more than a spending problem. After a couple more sips of kool aid, I started to agree with them. In fact, I recently read some of the "Republican" leaders are also in agreement. We need to tax more and expect less. After all, elections do have consequences.

The only fly in the ointment is this "facts" thing. While I am really trying to jump on the band wagon, I keep getting tripped up by stubborn facts. For example, I recently came across a good article put together last year by three rather smart fellows, Liqun Liu, Andrew Rettenmaier and Thomas Saving. It addressed, in terms I could understand, what our real debt is.

One of the more relevant points of this article was the unbelievable amount of pension debt that we owe. While, it is true that our publicly held debt is high at slightly over 70 percent of GDP, it is still less than what Greece has (150% of GDP). However public debt is only a part of our government's total liabilities. For example, besides our public debt, federal civilian and military employees have accrued significant pension and other retirement benefits based on their employment in previous years. These obligations are already on the books and will be paid out in the future. It is estimated that in 2011, these federal employee pension and other retirement benefits and liabilities were over $7T.

It is now time to get to the real rub. Social Security and Medicare benefits payable to current retirees are not included as liabilities on federal balance sheets, though these two programs currently account for over one-third of federal spending. The public debt plus benefits payable to federal workers and the accrued Social Security and Medicare benefits payable to retirees total $30.3 trillion. This number is almost twice as high as the number we keep hearing about - our national debt of $16.25T and growing.

Wait - the report is not over yet. It actually gets worse. It gets very technical, so I will try any make this very simple. We also need to address what is known as the fiscal imbalance issue. This fiscal imbalance is equal to the current debt held by the public plus the unfunded obligations of all federal government programs, or the amount by which future expenditures exceed projected revenues. How much is this? If you add this amount to the $30.3T previously stated, the grand total comes up to $84T - and growing. Again, since the cost of the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) is not yet known, who knows where this number could end up.

So much for reading about the truth. I hate it. I am going back to "La La Land", have another big glass of kool aid, and relax. What is $84T among friends? We have rich folks in this land - let them take care of it. As for me, I am going to party like it is 1999, or 2012, or something. If we just ignore the facts, I am sure they will go away.

Post script: The reason I used the article I did for my facts was it was the one of the more conservative and credible that I came across. I found others which showed our total debt and liabilities over $100T.







Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Occam's razor


"Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated"



Oh my, do I love Occam's Razor. It is a great way to look at problems, no matter how complex. Years ago I worked with a man who always brought up Occam's Razor whenever we were confronted with a problem, no matter the size. However, before I go much further, I should explain exactly what Occam's Razor is.

Merriam Webster defines Occam's Razor as follows: "a scientific and philosophic rule that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily which is interpreted as requiring that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex or that explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities." Putting it in a much more simple way - take the path of least resistance. It does not work all the time, but in my experience, it works most of the time. 

So who was Occam? Simply put, he did not exist. The name is a derivation of William of Ockham, who lived from 1285 to 1349. He was a well known philosopher who first developed the razor theory. Razor refers to distinguishing between two theories by "shaving away" certain redundant or unnecessary assumptions or bifurcating two similar theories. Some have referred to this as the law of parsimony (a great Navy term) or succinctness.

So what? What dos this ancient law have to do with the price of tea in China? It is this - many of our problems today would less problematic if we took a more simple approach. For example, look at our tax system. We have taken what should have been a very simple system and turned it into a complex mess with so many twists and turns, most tax experts don't fully understand it. The razor approach would have been much easier. Line 1 - how much did you make; Line 2 - multiply by 10%; Line 3 - send that amount to the government. Also, taxes would have been a "pay as you go". No withholding. At the end of every month, you pay your taxes for that month. That way you know exactly how much you paid in taxes.

How about our national debt? That has turned out to be mess of the highest magnitude. We have managed to stack up IOU's to such an extent it has become unfathomable. And yet we keep spending - and spending - and spending. The razor approach again is so simple it is almost silly. Like most families, "x" number of dollars comes in every year, and "y" is spent. If "x" is more than "y", the extra money is saved. If "y" is more than "x", a loan would have been needed with absolute repayment terms. However, most responsible families end up with the amounts of "x" and "y" very close.

There are many more, but I want to do the grand daddy of them all for my final example - Obamacare. The resulting law is the polar opposite of what Occam's Law teaches. What an unholy, complicated mess this has turned out to be, and it is not done yet. Besides over 2,600 pages of gobblety gook in the bill, there are still hundreds of regulations left to be written. Smart people have poured over this thing for months and still cannot figure it out. The insult to injury on this law is a major cost driver was not even addressed - tort reform. Yes, this offspring of politics and inefficiency will be with us for some years. Growing, confusing, rationing, and spending. A monster so big, Occam's Law did not stand a chance.

Those in the business world have many times heard the modern day version of the razor. KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid. Don't you wish we could tattoo that on every forehead in Washington, D.C.? Now that would be the easy approach.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Adentures in Neverland


“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust”
Peter Pan
 J. M. Barrie

Most all of us have some memories of our youth reading or watching Peter Pan. Myself, I rank Peter Pan up there with The Wizard of Oz as classic movies I can see time and time again, and never tire of them. The Lost Boys from Peter Pan were a group of boys who lived in Neverland, a place most young lads would have loved to be a part of. No school, no work, no responsibility. It was a great life for a young boy. Then again, the story was a fairy tale and did take place in Neverland.
Today, I feel like we are all living in a different kind of Neverland. In fact, living in Neverland is one step removed from living in denial. Rather than a group of young boys whose motto was "We will never grow up!", our Neverland is made up of adults in Washington who have a new motto - "We will never face facts!". I was somewhat bemused to see the stock market go up over 200 points on nothing more the optimism that agreement can be reached on the "fiscal cliff". Not to be a downer, but if you truly look at the hard lifting which needs to be done, we have miles to go.
An old saying is "bad news does not get better with age". Amen to that. It has taken us decades of financial malfeasance to get into this mess, and it is going to take more than a handshake and pat on the back between the President and the Speaker to get us out of it. The longer we have waited, the harder the fix will be.

For example, consider the following:
  • The National Debt clock shows our debt at $16.125T and climbing. In October of this year, rather than our debt slowing down, it sped up.
  • In November of 2011, the last time the debt ceiling was due to raised, agreement was not reached. The fall back to keep our credit rating from taking a dive or defaulting on our obligations, was to install a "fail safe" a sequestration so to speak. Starting in January of 2013, and going for the next ten years, a total of $1.2T will be equally reduced from defense and discretionary portions of the budget.
  • Even with these draconian cuts taking place starting in January of 2013, by March we will again be up against the debt ceiling. Once again, we will be faced with either raising a boat load more of revenue, or having further cuts in the defense and discretionary potions of the budget.
  • Many of the "Progressive" Democrats are dead set against touching entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. As most truth tellers know, the "real money" rests in entitlements. Failure to address this portion of the budget, will mean we can't tax enough or cut enough to put a meaningful dent in our mountainous debt.
  • Closing the top 10 loopholes would pull in an extra $834 billion a year - not enough to eliminate annual deficits. Those 10 loopholes are:
    1) Exclusion of employer-sponsored health insurance -- $164.2 billion
    2) Exclusion of employer pension benefits -- $162.7 billion
    3) Mortgage interest deduction -- $99.8 billion
    4) Exclusion of Medicare benefits -- $76.2 billion
    5) Lower capital gains rates -- $71.4 billion
    6) The earned income tax credit -- $58.4 billion
    7) Deduction of state and local income taxes -- $54 billion
    8) Exclusion of gains at death and the gift carryover exclusion -- $51.9 billion
    9) Deduction of charitable contributions -- $51.6 billion
    10) Exclusion of employer benefits under so-called cafeteria plans -- $43.8 billion
  • Going back to the Clinton Era rates for the highest income earners will result in at most $100B. Still not enough to keep from running a deficit.

The above items were just about addressing our deficit - not the debt. Our debt of over $16.T comes with a staggering interest charge which we all have to pay every year as part of our budget. In Fiscal 2012, the interest on our debt was $360B. It would have been higher if not for the fact that interest rates are at almost historic lows. As our debt grows, so grows the portion of the budget needed to service it.

Back to Neverland. One of the best weddings my wife and I went to was over 30 years ago. After the wedding was over, and the reception started, the groom and the groom's men took off their wedding attire are put on t-shirts which read "I will never grow up" - the slogan for the Lost Boys in Neverland. It was fun to see these young men at a wedding acting like mythical characters from a fairy tale.

However, it is not fun nor funny to see our leaders in Washington do the same. It is time to grow up. It is time to leave Neverland. The game is over, the adventure is done, lets get back to reality and do the heavy lifting. Once the real work is done, and results can be seen, then the stock market can have a meaningful rally.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Flop? No, a Petaflop!


"Computers are useless. They can only give you answers"

Pablo Picasso

What some do not know about the twin cities is this - it has always been a hotbed for the computer industry. At least it was some time ago. A young engineer from Nebraska named William (Bill) Norris entered the young and fledgling computer business shortly after the second World War. He and a team of Navy cryptographers formed a company called ERA, with a plan to build scientific computers. The company did well, was sold to Remington Rand in the the 1950's, and then Rand merged with Sperry. Through continued mergers, the new division of Sperry Rand merged with UNIVAC, and the company became known as Sperry Univac. It developed a business niche for the defense industry, and due in large part to the many fine universities in the area, it set up headquarters in the twin cities.

The new company of Sperry Univac did not go the direction that the forward thinking Bill Norris wanted to. He and group of like minded engineers traveled a few miles away to Bloomington, Minnesota and started a new company called Control Data. Unlike Sperry Univac, Control Data wanted to have a strong commercial presence as well as maintaining a modest defense business. The company continued to grow and in short order developed a national reputation for innovation in both computing and storage technologies.

Enter the next phase of development. Seymour Cray was a young engineer from Wisconsin who followed a similar path as Bill Norris. He worked at the young Sperry Univac and then followed Norris over to Control Data. Whereas Norris was interested in a myriad of different applications with this new technology, Cray was only interested in computing - very, very large scale computing. He was instrumental in helping to develop Control Data's mainframe business and it soon was competing with the giant IBM. However, in the early 1970's, Cray became restless with the direction that Norris was taking Control Data and left to go back to Wisconsin to set up his own company - Cray Research.

We will now flash forward to today. Sperry Univac continued to go through mergers, downsizing and so on. Finally, what was left of it was bought by Lockheed Martin. A few years ago, Lockheed Martin sold the last building which had once been a part of the Sperry Univac empire in the twin cities. A very sad day indeed. 

Control Data is no more. After trying to be too many things at once, it outgrew itself. Many layoffs, sales, and mergers followed. A proud company which at one time employed tens of thousands and had a world wide reputation is now nothing more than a mention in business history books.

Cray on the other hand, can still be found. The most recent computer that wears the Cray name is the Titan. As the old cigarette commercial once said, "we have come along way baby!". This new super computer can perform at 17.6 petaFLOPS, which is almost 18 quadrillion calculations per second. This month, the Titan was ranked as the top computer in the world, narrowly beating out IBM's Sequoia. The Titan now resides at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and is in involved in numerous scientific experiments.

A bit a disclosure before I finish. In my varied career, I had the opportunity to spend over 22 years working at Sperry Univac, Control Data and IBM. All three companies gave me great experiences, great insight. I had no regrets about working for any of them. While at Control Data, I heard Bill Norris speak more than once. I knew it was an honor to listen to this great and inspiring Minnesota legend.

With Cray Research being around for 40 years and going from zero to 18 quadrillion calculations per second, what does the next 40 years hold? Back in the 1950's, some thought the computer industry might end up being flop - instead it now measures things in petaFLOPS. Buckle up folks, I think this ride is far from over.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Lights in the Sky

"The world hasn’t discovered more than
 5% of the incredible universe’s secrets"

Johann Dietrich Forner 

It was six years ago tomorrow - on Thanksgiving. Unlike this year, it was one of those late November days where winter had decided to take its time in depositing snow, cold weather and inconvenience. Since it is one of our favorite holidays, we had the family over for a nice relaxing Thanksgiving meal.

This Thanksgiving was extra special as our younger daughter, who often got caught up working on holidays, was able to join us. However, she did have an evening shift and my son in law and I agreed to give her a lift to her work location once we were done eating.

Once we finished the meal, the three of us packed up in the car, grateful we got out of helping with a massive Thanksgiving cleanup. As the day began to tire, we headed off to my daughter's workplace.

The traffic was very light, the sun was setting, and we chatted about all kinds of nonsense. Once we got to her location, dropped her off, and headed back home. After all, there was still dessert to be had, and maybe the late football game was still in progress.

My son-in-law was driving so it gave me a chance to relax and see how many people already had Christmas lights lit. As we approached the bridge going across the Mississippi River between Champlain and Anoka, something caught my eye. It looked like three helicopters, flying low over the river with their collision lights on. I pointed that out to my son-in-law and mentioned how odd it was to have some military or law enforcement training on a holiday evening.

Just as I said that, the lights started rising up from the river in triangle formation. They were not helicopters.The lights were orbs that pulsated yellow to white. The formation remained a perfect triangle as it continued to slowly turn and rise above the river. When we got to the other side of the bridge, we pulled over and got out of the car. We continued to watch this odd sight continue to rise until it disappeared. It was the last thing we expected to see on a very calm, and relaxing drive home.

It was a unique experience for me. I had never seen a UFO nor strange lights in the sky before. I have talked to credible people who have, but never for me. If I had not had my son-in-law riding with me, and seeing the same thing, I would have doubted my senses. I have no idea what we saw. Truthfully, I wish we had not seen anything - but we did.

Days later, my son-in-law thought he would contact MUFON to see if what we witnessed had merit. The person he talked to thought it might and set up an interview with us. When we told our story, he asked questions, took some notes, and then told us this could be a documented case in Minnesota.

We then asked him some questions about MUFON (I knew practically nothing about the organization). He proceeded to tell us stories that that went from interesting, to stories which made my skin crawl. It became clear that we were not the only people in Minnesota or Wisconsin who had seen or experienced something very strange and unexplainable.

I know there are millions of people in the world who have seen "something" that can't be explained. I wish I was not one of them. I think it is human nature to put things we experience in categories of similar experiences. When you see or experience something like this which does not fit in any category, it is disturbing to say the least.

However I will say this - ever since that night six years ago, my interest in the unexplained which are seen in the sky, has peaked. Although I don't know that "they" are, I do know this - the truth is out there.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Stargazer....


"There are more stars in the Heavens than grains of sand on the Earth"
Carl Sagan

As a young boy, I was very fortunate to grow up close to a man who had a genuine love for the stars. In fact, he was a full Professor of Astronomy at the University of Minnesota. He had built (from scratch) a large telescope in his backyard. It was complete with motors and timers to ensure it would be in sync with the motion of the Earth.  In fact, he told me it was one of the largest homemade telescopes west of the Mississippi. His biggest enemy was the city, who kept putting up security lights in the alley behind his house. Someone, who was never caught, kept shooting out the security light with a BB gun.

From that telescope, I first saw the craters of the Moon, the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter, and the redness of Mars. I could not get enough of it - I was hooked. The professor was good and very patient with me. He thought maybe, just maybe, I could be a protege. However, my interest far outstripped by abilities. In short, I was not that good of a math student - in fact math was not my friend. To be an astronomer, you and math have to be very good friends indeed. 

My interest in astronomy continued as I grew up. I took Astronomy at the University and received an easy "A". I read books, watch specials on the Discovery and Science Channels and followed NASA developments on the internet. Before I left for the Navy, the professor gave me a book he co-authored. He signed it, and wrote "for much good work among the stars". To this day, it remains one of my most prized possessions.

I remember when the Hubble telescope was launched. After some adjustments were made while in orbit, it has sent back the most amazing pictures. We are now seeing things that no person has ever seen before. I became interested in the man who this telescope was named after. Edwin Hubble was a famous astronomer from the early part of the 20th Century. Many people credit him for discovering the existence galaxies other than our own as well as the "Doppler shift". Whether he was the one who made these discoveries is open for debate, however many believe he was involved in both as well as many other lesser discoveries. In any event, his work was credible and helped advance the science significantly last century.

The heavens continue to reveal themselves to me. I have learned about uncounted distant galaxies, quasars, pulsars, black holes and neutron stars which include the very strange  and mysterious magnetars. I have become fascinated with unproven concepts such as "bending space" allowing faster than light travel, dark matter (or energy), and the very unusual and bizarre "string theory". However, the thing that interests me the most is the age old question, "are we alone?" As Dr. Sagen has said, "There are more stars in the Heavens than grains of sand on the Earth". If that is true, is it possible we are not alone? Or is it probable. Stay tuned...



Friday, November 16, 2012

Eyeless in Gaza?

"... Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;
Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves ..."
Samson Agonistes
John Milton
I am sorry that I had to steal the title from Aldous Huxley's award winning book Eyeless in Gaza. But not that sorry, since Huxley himself stole his title from John Milton's Samson Agonistes. In any event, this article has nothing to do with Huxley or Milton. It does have to do with the Middle East once again being on the precipice of madness.

I know many of us are thinking the same thing when we see what is happening in Gaza. We have seen this movie before. However, today it is somewhat different. For the first time in twenty years, Hamas, the thugs of the neighborhood, are able to hit the financial capital of Israel, Tel Aviv, with rockets fired from the Gaza strip. Yes, the sirens are going off as I write this.

It would be wrong to say this is the start of a new offensive by Hamas. It would be wrong because the rockets have been pouring into Israel for some time now. What many do not understand is that missile attacks in Israel are not an event, but rather a continuum. It is estimated that since the first of the year until October, over 800 missiles have been fired at Israel. That does not include the current offensive which should drive the number of total missiles for this year much higher. Think of the restraint that the Israel people have. Think of how this country would react if a terror organization in Mexico fired 800 missile towards some of the boarder towns in Texas, Arizona or New Mexico. My guess is that "invasion Mexico" would have started months ago, with some very bloody results.

Israel is not a stranger to rocket attacks. During the Desert Storm, another neighborhood thug, Sadaam Hussein, shot Scud Missiles into Israel. He threatened to tip the missiles with all kinds of bad stuff, such as toxic nightmares consisting of bio and chemical agents. The United States, who was strongly allied with Israel at that time, supplied Israel with modules and training utilizing the Patriot Missile Defense System. Some missiles evaded the Patriots and got through to Israel - fortunately, none where tipped with anything other than high explosives.

Today, with the political climate much different in the United States, Israel knows it will have to go it alone on missile defense. It came up with a more advanced system than the Patriot, which is called the Iron Dome. So far, the Iron Dome has had limited success in taking out incoming missiles - however, some are still getting through. To me, taking out incoming missile is like catching a mouse when it already in the kitchen. The damage may have already been done. The old "War Horse" in me has thought for years now, that a stronger message should have been sent to Hamas. I would have considered sending a couple of F-16's streaking through downtown Ramallah every time there was a rocket attack. My guess is either the entire area would have exploded in conflict, or the rocket attacks would have stopped. I tend to think it would have been the latter.

How this will end up is anyone's guess right now. My opinion is that the enemies of Israel are emboldened as many believe the United States is not guarding the "back door". This might be a good opportunity for Syria, Iran or a host of other bad actors to join the fray. Israel has been though this before. They have taken on all comers and come out on top. Pound for pound, Israel is tiny, but packs a  very mean punch. I believe it is time for the United States to once again show it is on the side of it's best friend in the Middle East. As for me and my house, we stand with Israel.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

USSID 18 and Something Stellar in the Wind

"If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees"

Khalil Gibran

Back in the day, certain elements of the Armed Forces did a behind the scenes service for their country by keeping tabs on certain countries that needed to be watched. For those who did this service, it was similar to flying an airplane - 99% boredom and 1% panic. The performance of this function was nothing similar to ad hoc - it was strictly directed and regulated by the National Security Agency.

A document which was in existence back then was called USSID (UNITED STATES SIGNALS INTELLIGENCE DIRECTIVE) 18. For people in the signal intelligence (SIGINT) business, it was like a bible. Now declassified, it wasn't back then. It was classified Secret and the document contained the do's and don'ts of signal intelligence. Anyone in the business was required to read it once a year and sign a certification as such. The main point of the document was under no circumstances, we you allowed to eavesdrop on a United States citizen. Period. You could get in huge trouble if you disobeyed that directive. It is available on the internet, so if on a sleepless night you are looking to get drowsy, it is easy to find.

After September 11, 2001, everything changed. We realized our homeland was vulnerable to attack and separating the good guys from the bad guys on our own shore was becoming difficult. With much consternation and debate, the Patriot Act as well as other lesser know laws came into being. To ensure our safety, something was going to have to give - and what had to give were some of our civil liberties. Warrantless wire taps had gone from strictly illegal to more legal. Sadly, USSID 18 had now become a part of eavesdropping history.

As with any good intentions, often there are unintended consequences. The NSA and the FBI now has different powers, different authority. To isolate embedded terrorists or worse yet, home grown terrorists, our government had to drill deeper into communication and data streams. This amounted to sifting through an almost an incalculable amount of data. In order to store and properly analyse this information, a huge amount of computing power and storage space would be required.

There you have it, without going into too much detail. Our lives are becoming more and more an open book. To stay safe, we had had to pay a price - some say a very steep price. All of us have become like Truman in The Truman Show. Pandora's Box has been opened and may never be closed again. Everything we do, every Google search, every check written, every cent earned, every call made, is now a candidate for viewing, analysis and storage. It is as if our entire existence, our entire life is governed by one big computer "cookie".

Are we safer now? I sure hope so. Are we more vulnerable to information abuse? I think so. Was giving up our privacy and some of our civil liberties the right thing to do? I really, really hope it was. Otherwise, we might have just slipped back in time - to 1984.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Grand or Aggrandized Bargain


"Don't bargain for fish which are still in the water"

Indian Proverb
Those who knew me before I retired, know that at one time I had a real "day job". In the working world, I was employed by five large companies, including one of the largest -"Big Blue". My job was basically two fold - first, to ensure the pricing and terms on any deal the company was involved with measured up and was most importantly, was adhered to. Second, was to lead the negotiation  team on any new or modified deal. Consequently, over the decades, I have been involved in many, many negotiations. 
Why do I need to tell you that? Simply put, based on my experience, I know something about negotiations, both large and small. The largest, most important negotiation in many years is due to start this week in Washington. Yes, the fiscal cliff negotiation is going to be one for the ages, and so far it it not starting out very well.
Lesson 1 - "QTIP" - "QTIP" stands for "quit taking it personal". In other words, separate the deal from your feelings. I have negotiated with many people I really liked as well as some I did not like. Those feelings were left outside the negotiation room. One of my big breaks early in my career came when my predecessor told the other negotiator he was going to "break his arm off and feed it to him". The next day I was called in to  see the boss and offered his job. The man I was negotiating with was truly a jerk, but I looked to find common interests and gain his trust. I worked with him for two years with no problems and finished five deals.
Lesson 2 - Agree when you can agree - In most negotiations there are a multitude of issues that need to be addressed. Some are huge and others are "throw away". It is best to find the small or "throw away" issues and take care of those first. By doing that, it gives both sides the opportunity to agree rather than disagree. Also, it puts both teams in the "habit" of agreement. Most people like the feeling of consensus rather than not.
Lesson 3 - Beware of the "line in the sand" - The best way to screw up any negotiation is to start out by drawing a line in the sand. I have seen this many times and it is a killer. Rather than following Lesson 2 above, you go right to the toughest issue and lay out an intractable term. Rather than a negotiator, you become a "Dr. No". Once a line in the sand is drawn, it is very hard to "undraw' it, or even worse, cross over it.
Lesson 4 - Never rush - A good negotiation, like a good meal, takes as long as it takes. If you rush the preparation of good meal, the result will probably be disappointing. The same it true for a negotiation. A good negotiator has a "sixth sense" when the deal is "fully cooked", ready to be agreed to and signed. It also is a stop gap in making sure nothing was left out or forgotten. Many rushed negotiations have ended up with buyers remorse on one side, sometimes both.
Lesson 5 - Never leave the other side bleeding - If you decide to go for the kill in any negotiation, it will be your only chance. The other side will never want to deal with you again. It is critical that both parties walk away from the deal feeling like they got something. Most negotiations are hard, lots of travel, many nights away from home. However, when you can finish and feel good about the outcome, it is all worth it. To walk away feeling like you have been skewered, will make you never want to walk that path again.

When I look at the upcoming fiscal cliff negotiations, I can see that most of lessons have already been violated. The President has said in the past, if he won re-election, he could "break the back" of the Republicans (Lessons 1 and 5). Bad move. This now has to be done in less than fifty days whereas it could have been started eighteen months ago (Lesson 4). In addition, the President has publicly said he would not negotiate on extending the tax cuts for folks making over 250K (Lesson 3).

If I was a betting man, I would put the chances of success somewhere between slim and none. Unless there is a huge change in mindset, this week will be one more example of how not to do things, how not to govern. Sometimes I really wish the adults could be in charge once again...

Monday, November 12, 2012

The New Normal


"We are not in Kansas anymore..."
In case you did not notice, our world changed last week. We now live in a new land - uncharted territory. The closest we have  ever been to this venue was in the late seventies. We were suffering though a terrible economy. Our military had been weakened and overseas, Muslim extremists were holding American citizens hostage. Our country was being led by a good and moral man, however immanently unqualified for the job. Collectively, we made a mistake electing him to be our leader. As hard as our president tried to make things better, to fix things, he could not - he did not have the skills. The country could not wait to remove him from office once his term was up - and we did.

Today, we have a president whom four years ago we chose over a man who was a genuine war hero and a sitting, experienced United States Senator. We knew that the man we selected to lead our country had absolutely no experience - we really did not care. The country was "war weary", "Bush weary" and most everyone it seemed was looking for a change - that is "hope and change". After winning the election, with the economy on the brink of disaster, our new president governed in the same manner his lack of experience allowed him to. He ignored consensus, eschewed the opposition, and governed like a monarch ruling over subjects. The promises of being the "uniter" we all were hoping for were quickly replaced by divisions this country had not seen for generations. Rather than being respected by our friends and feared by our enemies, we were neither. In short, it was the late 1970's all over again, and we had an election coming up to remedy this mistake. 

Last week the election came and many thought it would be the end to malaise 2.0 and the start of the healing for the country. Those that thought that, thought wrong. Welcome to the "new normal". With the country a mess, scandals erupting at home and abroad, and a monster storm paralyzing the Jersey and New York coastline, we voted for more of the same. We decided to vote for gay marriage, unchecked voter fraud, legalized pot, higher taxes and hundreds of new crippling regulations, mostly still unwritten. More importantly, we decided to return a man to the nation's highest office who did not have the skills or experience to be there in the first place.

As we settle into our new home in the land of "new normal", we look ahead to the future. Once sacrosanct documents like the Holy Bible and our Constitution are being questioned and cherry picked. Our economic system of capitalism will continue to morph into European style Socialism. The United Nations will become more of our overlord as we allow it to be so. Freshly emboldened by the election, many Obamacare advocates will attempt to take healthcare to the next level - single payer. Many small business will shutter their doors as the cost new health care and the new regulations resulting from Dodd-Frank make profit margins unacceptable and unsustainable. We will continue to sink valuable and diminishing resources into untested "green" technologies while continuing the "war on coal". As much as we don't want it to, the War on Terror will continue. Further defense cuts will allow our "blue water" Navy to devolve into nothing more than a Japanese style "self defense force".

No Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore. Even though over 90% of all the counties in America voted for a change in leadership, a change in direction, the remainder of the counties, mostly blue, voted for status quo. Geographically, the tale wagged the dog. And so life now begins, in "new normal"...