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When Words Mattered

September 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Elbert Hubbard's Scrapbook

Past few weeks I’ve been posting various quotes on Facebook.  Here’s the story on the source of these bits of ephemera.

Two weeks ago Kim and I took a ride out to Shelburne, Mass.  Purpose of this trip was to get some grass-fed beef from Wheel-View Farm, a great place where John and Carolyn Wheeler raise Belted Galloway cattle just on grass, free from antibiotics, corn or hormones.  It is just beef that tastes great and is great for you.

On the way back we passed an antiques store – can’t recall if it was in Turner’s Falls or Miller’s Falls, but around there.  New Englanders will instantly be familiar with this kind of place: aisles and aisles and shelves and shelves of old junk, from keys to tableware to brushes and razors to aged toys to old signs and more.  We were in no hurry to get back and you never know what you will find, so we stopped and browsed around.

The was a section of old books and out of the yellowed issues of Life and Time the title shown here to the left instantly leapt out at me: Elbert Hubbard’s Scrapbook.  I snatched it up and without even opening it made my way to the checkout, where I parted with all of $4.50.

I know Hubbard, at least a bit.  He was one of the great progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a printer and businessman, and founder of Roycroft, an Arts and Crafts movement that lives on to this day in East Aurora, NY, not far from my own hometown.  (He is also the uncle (adopted) of L Ron Hubbard of Scientology and Battlefield Earth fame.)  On Hubbard’s wikiPedia page you’ll find he was a socialist and anarchist, but his was a uniquely American version of those ideologies, melding a deep reverence for personal responsibility and productivity with a desire for social justice.  If Hubbard is known for anything today it is for the essay, Message to Garcia.  The message in this story of initiative, self-reliance and devotion to duty has made this work required reading in US military academies for decades; not many socialists nor anarchists are so revered.

The scrapbook is not Hubbard’s own writing, but writings of others that he prized.  In it you will find quotes from over 500 authors: Twain, Wordsworth, Solon, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Savonarola, Blake, Bronte, Buddha, Charles Darwin, Eugene Debs, Cato, and Cicero, just to name a few pulled at random from the index.

Isn’t this amazing?  I consider myself a well-read person, and having access to the information resources of the modern age, I should easily excel someone like Hubbard – who, as Mr. Spock remarked lived in a “stone knives and beaksins” culture – in exposure to great thoughts.  Yet it is not so.  My own scrapbook would be a thin volume indeed, compared to Hubbard’s.

We can debate the reasons for this, but it hardly matters.  To skim through the Scrapbook is to quickly see how the progressive movement was born in words, wed to action, much as the independence of America was born in the works of thinkers like John Locke and later John Stuart Mill.

I suppose people today would find much of the Scrapbook maudlin, or naïve.  In my sampling of it I have found to be energizing and optimistic.  I’ll leave you with this quote:

EVIL is unnatural – goodness is the natural state of man.  Earth has no hopeless islands or continents.  We live in a redemptive world.  Poverty will end; sin will die; love will triumph and hope will plant flowers on every grave.
David Swing

I imagine this was Hubbard’s belief as well – provided of course enough men and women are willing to take the message to Garcia …

roycroft-stamp

Categories: Books

Visiting Greener Pastures

September 13, 2014 Comments off

Alpacas

No, not so far as Peru where alpacas are native, but just to Shelburne, Mass., there to visit Wheel-View Farm.  At Wheel-View,  John & Carolyn Wheeler raise Belted Galloway cattle fed only on grass.  This is better for the pasture, better for the surrounding environment and (to my taste) makes for better tasting beef.  Back in 2011 before I departed for India we had been buying beef from Wheel-View.  This was our first chance to get back and re-stock.  Tomorrow it is grass-fed beefsteak on the grill.

On our way back we encountered alpacas – not ranging about wild but on a small farm.  There were 5 or 6, all recently shorn.  These animals are a source of amazing natural fiber; some years back Kim has made me an knitted alpaca hat:

IMG_1987

The warming power of this hat is beyond description – suffice to say should I be called upon to visit the South Pole I am more than provided for, hat-wise.  Anyway searching about I find at least 16 alpaca ranchers in Massachusetts.  Alpacas have been farmed in the US since 1984, and today give access to a beneficial but complicated set of tax incentives.

Nonetheless, don’t expect to be seeing any alpacas here in Arlington anytime soon.  For now I’m happy to be an end-user, not a producer, where animal products are concerned.

Categories: Food, Pictures

Rough Weather

September 7, 2014 Comments off

Dark skies in Arlington

Here in Massachusetts the day to day temperatures have been close to those in Pune, India, my recent home away from home.  Humidity is much greater here … yesterday outside doing some errands the feeling was like being in Mumbai, 33 degrees C and 75% humidity.  Hereabouts weather often resolves itself sharply.  Around 6 pm the skies quickly darkened and as if a switch was flipped suddenly we had heavy rain and cannon-shot thunder, for about 30 mins.  After all was cool, calm and lightly breezy, the cloying touch of high humidity gone from the air.  This harsh weather was a pleasant diversion for myself and Kim; we sat on our back porch relaxing, sipping wine while the downpour drenched a few backyard grillers in our immediate neighborhood, or set dogs to yowling whenever the thunder cracked.

Weather on the other side of the world can do much worse than drench your cookout or scare the family pet.  In India and Pakistan the monsoon is not yet done and this past week more than 200 people perished in floods from powerful rains.  I still follow India and South Asia news and so I see these things as they happen, but I daresay most westerners know the danger the extremes of weather pose in that part of the world, perhaps remembering the Bangladesh floods of 1974 and 1984.

It’s common sense that variations in weather are more dangerous for people in rural India and for people in USA.  But, how much more dangerous exactly?  I came across an interesting paper on this very thing, Weather and Death in India (Burgess, Deschenes, Donaldson and

Greenstone, 2011).  The paper is math-intensive and I’ve only done a cursory reading, yet the methodology seems interesting.  The authors related day-to-day mortality reports to temperature (and other factors) and related variability in temperature to variability in mortality.  Here’s one of their graphs:

weather-mortality graphA baseline day has a temperature of 22 – 24 degrees C.  The blue line shows how mortality in the USA goes up or down, on average, on days of higher of lower temperatures.  This blue line is pretty flat; your chance of dying in the USA stays the same no matter the temperature.

The red line is rural India.  Lower temperatures have broad effects on mortality, but not at all levels.  But look at the higher side of the chart.  As the temperature increases to 26, then 30, and finally 36, mortality rate increases consistently.  (Note that the units here are the natural log of the mortality rate, not the mortality rate itself, so a change of 0.01 means quite a lot.)

Well, everyone seems to complain about the weather but no one does anything about it.  That’s not the Salazar way, though.  We’ve already taken initial steps towards getting a photovoltaic solar system for our home; in fact this coming week we have scheduled site visits from two contractors we are evaluating.  This expected PV system will certainly save us a lot of money and, I like to think at least, in a tiny way will lessen the risk of extreme weather for everyone.  More news on this when we get the detailed proposals.

Back to the weather and particularly the plight of farmers in India and South Asia I believe the proper way to think about this is based on a single word: Freedom.  In the USA we talk about freedom all the time; I need to be free to shout out whatever blather I wish, to own massive amounts of weaponry, to pay my workers as little as I can get away with, even to pollute because I think it is cool.  But the Indian farmer lacks a fundamental freedom we Americans have forgot we have: Freedom from weather.  Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize-winning economist and native of Bangladesh, speaks about this at length in his book, Development as Freedom.  His argument there is the world’s poor suffer from “unfreedoms”; while ostensibly free to do what they want they are in fact without choices, they must labor in pre-determined ways or die; they are in fact if not in name, slaves: slaves to hunger, slaves to bosses, to bureaucrats, and to the weather.  At the end of his book, he cites famous lines by William Cowper:

Freedom has a thousand charms to show,
That slaves, howe’er contented, never
know.

The “thousand charms” are choice.  For me I can be soaked by rain or not, depending on my mood.  Everyone deserves the choice of watching the weather – or not – without fear. 

Categories: Economics, Sundries

Restarting, Unpacking & New-Jobbing

August 11, 2014 2 comments

Sunset over Cape Cod Bay

Sorry for no posts for some time.  I returned to USA three weeks ago on 18 July.  My first week back I spent getting over jet-lag, doing some unpacking, and keeping caught up with work.  My real “reintegration” back into things here started the week after, when Kim and I spent a week in North Truro at the Topmast Resort, our long-time summer vacation getaway.  We played some golf, saw some sights here and there, but mostly we sat on the beach, swam, read, kayaked a bit.  Going to the Cape is for us a bit of a family ritual, and the familiarity of the place we’ve been visiting 15+ years helped bring my mind back here and away from the other side of the world.

Since coming back friends and acquaintances of course are asking, “What was it like?”  I still don’t have a proper answer.  The time in India was enriching, since I saw so much that was new; yet is was also disheartening in that much of what I saw was very sad.  The time was stimulating and satisfying, since I met so many new colleagues and friends, and (I think) we did great stuff together; but at the same time it was disappointing in that I feel I could have done much more.  Finally the time was rejuvenating, in that it was an opportunity to look at my lifestyle and make changes, for the better I hope; and then it was exhausting in that it is hard work living in a place that is so different and where you are always on display.

I guess another sort of hard work now awaits me here at home, more unpacking:

Boxes from India

Above is the shipment of our India goods: kitchen items, books, clothes, rugs, mementos, etc.  Also shown is our chair, which Kim now needs to have re-upholstered using some fabrics we brought back.  Since I am greatly against clutter, we have to reorganize and/or dispose of lots of old things about the home, to make space for the new.  I foresee it will be some weeks until our living room is navigable again.

Finally to add to the mix, yours truly has a new job.  Well, not 100% new.  My job was Chief Architect for IBM Sametime; there my priority was the technical strategy for the product line, though I also had to do a lot to promote, explain and sell the product.  Now my job is Director of Product Management for IBM Sametime – and IBM Docs – where I have ownership for the overall Sametime business, which means leading the development of the roadmap, negotiating budgets and investment, forging partnerships, and lots of evangelizing to customers.  So to paraphrase Pete Townshend, it’s a bit of “meet the new job, same as the old job” – but I’m sure a lot will be totally new, some of which I hope to share in these pages.

So, I’m back.  India is not out of my blood yet, but I don’t think it ever will be, not totally.  Yesterday with our grilled lamb I asked Kim to make a spicy cabbage dish we oftentimes had during our time in Pune, very similar to this recipe or to this one.  I guess once a Punekar always a Punekar.

Till next time.

Categories: Expat life, Pictures, Travel

Bits and pieces

July 12, 2014 1 comment

Odds and ends

Only 6 days remain till I depart India to return to USA and home.  Now I am in a limbo, where I have to tear down the infrastructure that has sustained me these 23 months.  Just last night I moved from apartment to hotel, having sold off all our mattresses.  As the bellman was walking me to my room he asked a typical question, “Did you have a very long journey, sir?”  I was taken aback.  In a way it took me 2 years to get to that point in time.  In the end I just said, the journey was not bad.

99% of our stuff is now in boxes or bags awaiting the movers on Monday.  In the un-packed 1% are the items above, small keepsakes from our travels about, that we have lined up on our dining room shelf.  Leading the way is the wooden horse, one of Kim’s finds.  Then there’s our soapstone elephant within an elephant, a candlestick given us by Rupesh’ family, minerals from our trip to Karla Caves, brass and wood fabric stamps (another Kim acquisition), and statues of Lords Hanuman and Vishnu, and of Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom.  Soon they too will be in limbo, packed and mostly waiting in warehouses, till 3 or 4 weeks from now they arrive in Arlington, MA., pieces of India far from home …

… back now, a pleasant duty done.  In the kitchen we have many things to give away – excess staples like rice and dal, plastic containers, odds and ends of glassware.  Seeing some of the sweeper ladies who clean our building, I brought them up and they happily took it all.  And, they gave me some of their chai, that they brew in a little utility room using a tiny electric boiler.  It was good, hot, sweet, and with a bit of masala.  Who knows what they will think of the Salazars after we are gone?

Now, time to tear down more infrastructure … till next time.

Categories: Expat life

The Long Tail of the Personal Brand

June 28, 2014 2 comments

Fernando's logoLately it seems we are surrounded – sometimes aggressively so – by advice that we must build our “personal brand”.  Like pretty much anyone in my business I have accounts (mostly unpaid) on sites like The Ladders and of course LinkedIn.  The regular emails I get from these sites constantly exhort me to promote the new-and-improved Salazar through my own brand.  The Ladders tells me:

 

Besides a marriage proposal, your value in the job market is probably the most important product you’ll ever sell.  … Your brand is what you’re known for and what you’re known for knowing. Use that to your advantage in making a career transition.

Great work-life-balance point they make there about marriage, which apparently in the eyes of The Ladders is also about selling.  Meanwhile the folks at LinkedIn offer this #1 tip on building a personal brand:

#1: Be authentic. The best personal brands are genuine and honest both in person and online. It can be tricky to showcase your personality on the web (you might love puns, but those don’t go over well on a professional profile), but it’s possible with a bit of effort.

Or, as Oliver Stone wrote in Nixon, “Nothing sells like sincerity.”

What occasions these observations is an article in the Times, The Self-Promotion Backlash.  The article is itself an observation on a new book, “Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion,” by David Zweig.  Just got this for my Kindle, and after only a few pages of the intro its thesis is crystal clear: Vastly more economic output is generated by “invisible” non-self-promoters than by all the glad-handing, like-me-on-Facebooking, personal-branding addicts that seem to be surging ahead everywhere we look.  One of the first examples Zweig talks about are fact-checkers, in his case at the CIA: pretty obviously essential, and pretty obviously invisible.

In the high-tech industry, because we make the tools that allow all this personal branding in the first place, we’re expected to use them and to do so loudly and often.  How bizarre that software engineers, one of the most introverted, invisible occupations you’re likely to find, get marked down because they are insufficiently “visible”.  This is sales culture run amuck.  Look, sales and sales-people – love ‘em, need ‘em, all that – but the cultural needs of engineering are vastly different from sales.  Back in the day, the men and women I most respected hardly ever spoke.  They were valued for their knowledge and their ability to show and tell novices, as I was, what to do to turn out good code.

I’m afraid nostalgia is an inevitable product of age, and for that I apologize.  But, if we did a 1 week ban on self-promotion, what would happen?  Quality go up? Output go up?  An impractical experiment of course … still, can’t help but wonder.

I’ll leave you all with this, the most influential drum-line is all the history of rock and roll, Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks.  It wasn’t created by drummer John Bonham, or Zeppelin lead guitarist and producer Jimmy Page, but by a recording engineer – and an invisible – named Andy Johns.  Enjoy.

I have a journey, sir, shortly to go.

June 22, 2014 1 comment

Bullock cart

When Kent speaks this line at the end of King Lear, he has a truly final journey in mind, but the journey ahead of me now is just as all-encompassing as his.  For 22 months I’ve been half a world away from my home.  Now in less than 4 weeks I return there, and I‘m filled with a sense of unreality.  You know, I can’t say for certain if my USA home even exists.  Logically of course I know it does – daughter Alex lives there and Kim was there only a month ago.  Yet, the feeling remains.  Given enough physical and cultural distance, we become disconnected, floating.  Having seen up close how big the world is, how strange to suppose I shall float back exactly to where I started.

Writing this post and thinking about journeys, the picture above occurred to me.  This bullock cart is a common kind here; it is used for carrying long things, like bamboo poles, which would jut out 2 or 3 meters off the back end.  What struck me was the driver’s concentration: keeping his balance, watching the bullocks, heading back to a precise and (for him) important destination.  A humble journey to be sure, but how many of us can say we go from one place to the next with such certainty?

One thing I should tell anyone considering a long expat experience is this: Make sure you are comfortable being alone with yourself.  In my time here I’ve made new friendships, and deepened existing ones, but the fact is here, me and my family are different.  Wherever we go we are noted, many times stared at.  This isolates you; you will never be a regular guy, one of the crowd.  In the precincts of high-tech companies here in India, the effect is less – my colleagues at IBM work with Westerners constantly – but still there is a barrier.  Even in the lifts at work (see, I now say ‘lift’ and not elevator) it’s there.  Who is this guy? I can almost hear people thinking.  Does he know where he’s going?  Maybe he’s lost …

This quote I found captures the feeling quite nicely:

The loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped.

— Adam Gopnik (Paris to the Moon)

 

The family and I, just 2 weeks ago, did have a great experience of not feeling isolated when our driver Rupesh invited us to his family’s village home.  About 100 kms south of Pune, we left on a bright Sunday morning and reached in a little over 2 hours.  Here’s Morgan and Kim (wearing kameez, no less) with Rupesh, Rupesh’ Dad, and Rupesh little boy in front.

Morgan, Kim and our hosts

This was just beside a backyard garden where I had just invoked much astonishment among the children by eating some chilies right off the plant.

Soon after we had one of the greatest meals I have yet had in India.  I’ve written before on Indian hospitality.  Here, if you come into someone’s home you will be given the best of everything and the food, I guarantee, will be there in such quantity even the heartiest eater will be challenged.  We had mutton curry, potato curry, dry-braised ribs and bones of mutton, two kinds of rotis, salad, rice and chutneys … but the star of the lunch was freshwater crab curry.  The gravy was amazing.  Rupesh told us his Mum would take the claw meat from the crabs – which were not big, the bodies were about 4 inches across – and lightly pound it till it was a flaky paste.  The claw meat then goes into the gravy and thickens it and flavors it.  The gravy was more of a soup – the richest, most intense crab flavor I have ever had.  Now, I have had Lobster Bisque at some good restaurants, “five star” as they say here in India.  This crab gravy put any such soup I have ever had to cringing shame.

After the meal we relaxed a bit, and then I prevailed upon Rupesh to walk us around the village:

Village school

ChiliesAn old cart

Here’s the village school, with hills in the distance; some chilies drying in the sun; and, an old bullock cart, the ancient uncle of the one we saw on the road.  The village is a modest place and the pace there now is slow; farmers await the coming of the monsoon before starting the next planting.  It is a time for maintaining tools, cleaning the sheds and, mostly, sitting in the shade and talking.

A wonderful afternoon.  Children played outside with their friends, and many relatives were visiting.  They were there to see the famous Salazars (other than aid workers the first Westerners to ever come to this place) but we were not on display, everything was welcoming and easy-going.  The ladies worked furiously in the kitchen and invited Kim in for some impromptu roti-making lessons.  One young cousin of Rupesh asked us many questions about USA.  He told us science and history were his favorite subjects, and that he hoped to go to an American university.  May it be so.

Then, it was time to leave and as guests we cannot go without gifts.  For me was a nice shawl, such as Indian men might wear to keep out the chill of winter evenings.  But Kim got a unique gift:

Board and rolling pin

This rolling pin and board – a belan and chakla – were made by hand, by Rupesh’ Dad.  The wood is smooth and heavy; a hundred years from now I expect our descendants will still be using them.

I know that, in time, the village will become as unreal to me as my own home now seems to be.  But for the moment the image of it is very clear: A good place, where there are many challenges and obstacles, but also achievements and celebrations.  We should all have so much in our own homes.

And so the start of the next journey draws near.  In the weeks I have remaining I hope to make some posts on the good, and the bad,  I have seen here.  Take care till then.

Categories: Expat life, Pictures
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