Answering Difficult Questions from Our Child

For several years now, part of my 7-year-old son’s bedtime ritual has been to mark off the day on a calendar that he keeps in the room.  The calendar lists many holidays and he often will ask my wife and me to explain what they are.  I am writing this post on September 12, 2011 and last night he asked us to explain what "Patriot Day" was.

My wife and I had both paid attention to our share of remembrances, but we hadn’t openly discussed the anniversary around our son.  We also hadn’t had the TV or commercial radio on all day (which is actually pretty normal for a weekend day), so he hadn’t heard or seen any of the coverage either.  The events of September 11, 2001 aren’t currently covered in school for his age group and we hadn’t had previous occasion to discuss them with him, so this was the first time we needed to address the issue. 

I know that we probably could have largely avoided the issue by giving a simplistic answer, such as "It is a day where we recognize American heroes" or something similar to that.  That type of evasive answer somehow felt dishonest, though, so we instead did our best to provide a child-friendly explanation of events that still feel almost entirely inexplicable even to my grown-up mind.  During the conversation, he frequently asked us variations on the question "why?"  We did our best to explain that there really isn’t a good answer to that question.

We weren’t blindsided by the need to address the issue.  It was obviously a possibility that he would see or here some reference to 9/11 around the 10th anniversary and ask us about it.  In fact, it wasn’t really a surprise that his calendar commemorated the day and that was what triggered the question.  For that reason, my wife and I did already have ideas in mind for how to address the subject, although it wasn’t easy to actually express the right words when the time actually came.

We started off by first asking him if he had heard anything about the events, either at school, from friends, or from some other source.  When he said he hadn’t, we then explained that some very bad people had attacked buildings in New York City and Washington D.C., causing many people to get killed.  One thing we avoided was telling him the specifics of how the attacks were carried out, mainly because we do fly somewhat frequently and we feared that part of it would be too much for him to handle.  I’m sure we would have answered direct questions, but he didn’t ask for more details of that type.

We tried to focus on the heroism of the firefighters, police officers, and even civilian bystanders that risked and, in too many cases, lost their lives trying to help get people to safety.  He specifically asked us where they took the people that they rescued and we told him that those who were injured were taken to hospitals, some were simply moved out of harm’s way, and that some of those rescued joined the effort to rescue others.  We tried really hard to convey that the attacks themselves represented the worst of what people can do, but that much of the immediate response brought out some of the very best of humanity and that those heroes are the focus of the recognition of the anniversary.

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Why I Don’t Have a Palm Pre Yet

June 6th was the launch date for the Palm Pre, the heavily hyped new smartphone from Palm and Sprint.  What I really want in a phone is something that matches the elegance and simplicity of the user interface on Apple’s iPhone, but still includes a physical keyboard and multitasking capabilities.  The Pre appears to be a very close fit, almost certainly much better than the Windows-mobile based HTC Touch Pro that I bought last year.

I definitely tend to be an early-adopter on new gadgets, so it certainly wouldn’t have been surprising if I had run out to buy a Pre last weekend.  In fact, I would have very much liked to have made that purchase.  Unfortunately, I’m already a Sprint customer and, as I mentioned earlier, I purchased a new phone last year.  Because of this, I am not currently eligible for upgrade pricing, which means that any phone purchased now would cost me considerably higher than the new or upgrade eligible customer pricing, which, of course, is the pricing that Sprint and Palm are advertising publicly.

I am, of course, under a 2-year contract with Sprint that was a necessary condition for the purchase of my last phone.  I completely recognize the validity and legality of that contract and that it is the underlying reason why I am not eligible for upgrading without a price penalty.  My purpose in this post is not to argue that my situation is somehow unfair or that I am being denied an entitlement.  I never had any expectation of being able to upgrade early and I don’t believe that there is anything unethical, much less illegal, about the system.

What I do question pretty strongly is whether or not the current business model used by the cell phone industry is a correct one in today’s marketplace.  Particularly since Apple has turned the smartphone into a much more mainstream product with the iPhone, the industry has entered a phase of extremely rapid growth and enhanced competition with frequent introduction of new models with desirable new features.  I strongly question whether customers are going to continue to be willing to accept a system that requires a 2 year wait between upgrades.

I had initially started thinking about this as subject for a blog post after getting into a Twitter discussion of it during the day of the Pre launch.  I got busy with other things and didn’t find time to start working on it until later.  In the meantime, this became a very hot subject generating a lot of coverage both in blogs and the mainstream press after Apple announced the third-generation version of the iPhone and AT&T revealed that the lower pricing would not be available to current iPhone owners that are still under contract.  This is a change from the approach taken with the last version of the iPhone, which was offered at the new-customer price to owners of the previous version, regardless of contract status.

The central idea behind current business model used by the cell phone industry is that the carriers subsidize a portion of the purchase price for the phone in exchange for the customer committing to a service contract, generally for 2 years.  If the customer chooses to switch carriers before the contract is up, he/she is obligated to pay a fairly substantial fee to buy out the contract.  Most carriers offer the customer the option of a smaller discount on an a new phone half way through the contract.  After the contract expires, the customer is generally eligible to again get the same subsidy offered to a new subscriber.

The contract system eliminates a lot of the need for carriers to expend much effort in customer retention, outside of the discounted phones offered at the end of the contract.  This likely saves the companies a lot of money, but is also almost certainly the biggest contributor to the industry’s reputation for poor customer service.  I have found that no matter which of the big cell phone carriers is mentioned, it doesn’t take long for someone to start telling stories about their horrible experiences.

It is in the best interest of the cellular carriers for most phones to have non-subsidized prices that are prohibitively high for most people since, otherwise, it is a safe bet that most people would forgo the contract.  This would make it much easier for customers to switch carriers at will and, thus, would greatly increase the cost and effort that the companies would have to expend towards retention.  I have little doubt that this would dramatically improve the quality of the customer experience, but it might or might not have a negative impact on profitability.

The big question is whether or not the non-subsidized prices really reflect the true cost of a cell phone or if they are kept artificially inflated by the cell phone manufacturers as a result of the subsidy-based sales model.  I admit that I have no direct knowledge, but my educated speculation is that the subsidized prices are probably more realistic.  The non-subsidized prices for phones (especially smartphones) simply seem way out of proportion with the pricing for other portable electronics.  In most cases, those prices are pretty close to what you would pay for a full-featured laptop computer and considerably higher than netbooks, stand-alone PDAs, or portable media players, any of which would seem more comparable technology.

The most obvious direct comparison would really be between the iPhone and the iPod Touch, which is basically an iPhone without the cellular radio or camera.  The pricing information for the 16GB version of the new iPhone 3GS has indicated that it costs $199 fully-subsidized (the price widely advertised), $399 for customers 1-year into their 2-year contract, or $599 un-subsidized.  The suggested retail price of the 16GB iPod Touch is $299 and it can be found in the $260-$275 range if you shop around.  I can certainly see where the added features of the iPhone would justify a higher price, but does it really make sense that they would double it?

In all fairness, my instinct looking at those numbers is that the $399 price offered after 1-year is probably the most realistic one.  While I suspect the price on the iPod Touch is also a bit inflated (it doesn’t really have direct competitors), it really does look like the $199 price probably brings in a pretty thin profit margin, if there is any at all.  The same is probably true with the similarly priced Palm Pre, although it does also have somewhat lighter specs, including only 8GB of memory. Even if the subsidies do push the prices down below the actual cost of the phone, I can still see justification for why the carriers might want to subsidize even for existing customers still under contract in order to prolong their contract and help to ensure loyalty.

I think that they might want to look to the satellite TV business as a possible example.  I’ve been a DirecTV customer for a number of years and they also use a system of contracts and subsidized equipment.  The big difference from the cellular business, though, is that DirecTV lets current customers upgrade their equipment (such as going to a DVR or hi-definition) at the fully subsidized price no matter how far they are into a contract.  The one catch is that doing so will reset their contractual start date to the date of the upgrade.  This helps to accommodate any need that the customer might have to move up to something better or different, while also pushing further back the date at which he/she might be able to switch to a competitor.

I do imagine that the cellular industry would probably prefer to stick with the current fairly customer-unfriendly system for as long as possible, but I do seem some recent signs that they may very well be changing their approach.  The recent publicity over AT&T’s prices for iPhone upgrades hasn’t been very good for them, even if they are pretty clearly within their rights.  A fan base as loyal as the more vocal iPhone owners, particularly when they are so willing to spend more money to make sure they have the latest and greatest, really does need to be cultivated and protected.  Policies that seem to directly target those loyal customers may not be in the company’s best interest, even if they appear to be the most financially prudent on the surface.

Another interesting development is Sprint’s recent introduction of the Sprint Premier loyalty program.  Customers that have achieved high longevity (10 years or more) or have one of the higher-end service plans (priced over $69.99/month, a fairly common price point for a smartphone with both a voice and data plan) are automatically enrolled in that program.  While the program offers a number of smaller benefits, the big one is that those customers are eligible for the fully-subsidized upgrade price at the end of the first year of a 2-year contract.  While Sprint’s recent issues with customer retention probably made this more necessary for them, it still is a pretty clear acknowledgement that higher-end customers are increasingly unwilling to wait 2 years between upgrades.

The Challenges of Writing

Anyone who follows this blog at all has certainly noticed that I am far from prolific.  At my best, I’ve occasionally managed to write up 1-2 posts a week, although it also isn’t that unusual for me to sometimes go several weeks without posting anything.  I love having a forum for sharing my thoughts, but I tend to struggle both with finding the time and the motivation to actually sit down and write something.

To address this subject honestly, I definitely have to start by admitting that I am a terrible procrastinator when it comes to writing.  I’ve often said that I generally like writing, but it is probably more accurate to say that I like the idea or writing and the end result of having written.  Motivating myself to sit down and actually write something has never been overly easy, regardless of whether it is something like a blog post that I choose on my own to write or if it is something assigned like a school paper or a work document.  It is very common that the basic form and content of something that I intend to write will rattle around in my mind for quite a few days before I finally get around to sitting down and typing it.

I also can get pretty easily distracted while writing.  In the past, particularly back when I was in school, the most likely distractions were from other people, television, phone calls, or that kind of thing.  For that most part, that could usually be pretty easily managed in such a way that the temptations could be minimized.  With most of my writing now done on Internet-connected computers, there is a lot of readily-available competition for my attention.  Even when I find the time and motivation to sit down and start writing, it is awfully easy to get sidetracked by an incoming email or to be distracted by what I think might be a quick visit to Twitter or Facebook. 

Reading discussion boards, RSS feeds, other blogs and general news/information sites do pretty often win out when I find a block of time where I could possibly do some writing on a blog post.  This is particularly common on my lunch breaks during my work week.  I have a small laptop computer (essentially an early version of what the press commonly calls a "netbook") that I usually take with me when heading off to a restaurant at lunch.  Even when I have the intent of doing some writing during lunch, it isn’t unusual for me to spend more time just surfing the web.  To be honest, writing isn’t really the most relaxing break during a busy day. 

My Amazon Kindle 2 has also become a major competitor for my time, having pretty dramatically increased the amount of time that I am spending on reading for leisure.  Particularly in the evenings after a full day at work and the kid has been put to bed, it is very tempting to just sprawl out on the sofa reading a book on the Kindle instead of sitting down at the computer to work on a blog post.  I have also been opting to spend many of my recent work lunch hours with the Kindle instead of the laptop computer as well.

Brevity has never been one of my strengths as a writer.  Although I generally received very good grades on written works in school and I have often received praise for documents at my jobs, the one common criticism that I do receive is that I can be too wordy.  My blog posts do tend to be pretty long and it isn’t very often that I complete one in a single sitting.  At any given time, it isn’t that unusual for me to have at least a couple unfinished posts in progress.  Knowing this tendency, I always make sure to upload unfinished posts to the blog as a "draft" in order to make it possible for me to work on it from my desktop PC, laptop, or even from my cell phone whenever I find the time and motivation to do so.  Possibly a bit appropriately, even this very post sat partially-written in the “drafts” folder for quite a while before I got around to finishing and publishing it.

I keep trying to come up with ways to switch to shorter, more frequent posts, but I’ve never had much luck with it.  One obvious idea would be to basically just post whatever I can complete in a single writing session along with a "to be continued" tag.  That approach doesn’t appeal to me that much because it limits my ability to revise.  It isn’t that uncommon that I come back to a post after a day or two and rework portions I’ve already written, move text around or remove it, and/or add text at places other than the end.  I don’t really like the idea of posting something before I’m at least reasonably happy with it.

I’ve also experimented with easily recurring ideas such as “week in review” posts.  My problem with this is that I have a bit of a hard time actually coming up with anything interesting to say when I follow that approach.  A number of years ago, I tried for a while to keep a personal journal.  I pretty religiously forced myself to spend 15 minutes or so writing in it every night before going to bed.  Initially, it went ok, but I eventually found that way too many of the entries were starting off with something akin to “Nothing much of interest happened today” and I eventually just abandoned the whole thing.  Recurrent blog post subjects strike me as having the same basic problem and seem likely to go down the same path.

Finally, I think that one other major obstacle that I find difficult to overcome in this blog is simple fear of actually writing about certain topics.  Politics immediately come to mind as a key subject that interests me quite a bit and generates some pretty strong opinions for me, but which I am reluctant to delve into much on this blog.  Part of the reason is that I’m simply not sure that I have the time or motivation to become sufficiently well-informed to avoid sounding naive or, worse, citing things that are simply wrong.  I also guess I’m a little worried about potentially offending friends or family members (my main readers) with opinions on controversial topics.  I don’t avoid the topic entirely (there are a couple political posts in the archives for this site), but I don’t think it will ever become a staple of the site either.

I know that I am going to keep posting to the blog and that I’ll probably always keep trying to find ways to increase the publication frequency, but I also suspect it will always remain at least somewhat intermittent.  I just hope that I can somehow manage to make up for the lack of quantity with at least some level of quality.

Week in Review 11/9/08: Elections and In-Laws

Depending on whether I have enough to say and how disciplined about it I end up being, this may or may not turn into a weekly post on here.  I’m a terrible procrastinator when it comes to writing, but maybe I can talk myself into spending a little time each weekend writing up a few thoughts about whatever caught my attention during the previous week.

On a national (and probably even world) scale, the biggest event of the past week was obviously last Tuesday’s election.  I haven’t really made it a secret in previous posts that I’m a Democrat and supported Barack Obama’s run for president.  Therefore, I was happy with the results of the presidential election.  After the past 8 years, it is definitely nice to be back on the winning side and I do have hope that this will signal a positive change in direction for the country.

I do think that President-elect Obama has a very difficult job ahead of him.  More so than in the other presidential elections that have taken place since I’ve been old enough to vote, I genuinely felt quite a bit of enthusiasm as I voted for him.  I was certainly very aware of his policy positions and agree with him on most issues, but I also have an impression that he is someone with a vision that could genuinely lead to correcting some of the biggest negatives that I have seen in our political system, particularly in areas of corruption and cronyism and a sometimes stifling fear of trying something different.   It is pretty clear to me that I am not alone in feeling that way about what Obama has to offer, but I also think that will prove to be both a blessing and a major challenge for him.  He goes into office with a remarkably supportive public, but he also faces the potential to disappoint dramatically if he fails to live up to his promise.

Of course, this election also represented an historic breakthrough as this country selected its first African-American president.  I was very disappointed, though, that I couldn’t help feel the euphoria surrounding that was blunted dramatically by the fact that a majority of voters here in California, among others, also decided to vote in favor of continued discrimination against homosexuals.  At least here in California, many of the arguments used in support of Proposition 8 were so ludicrous that I can’t  help but see it as simple excuse-making by those that don’t want to admit bigotry even to themselves.  I do still believe that the clear trend is in the right direction here and I was at least heartened somewhat by how close the vote was on Proposition 8, particularly with younger voters pretty decisively opposing the continued discrimination. I do believe this setback to be temporary, but I was truly hoping that this would be more of a year of breakthroughs on multiple fronts.

Shifting gears to my personal life, this week was dominated by one of the recurring events regularly experienced by those of us who do have marriage rights: a visit by the in-laws.  My wife’s parents currently live in Arizona and we typically manage two visits with them per year, usually with us making one trip out there (which we did last February) and them coming out here one time.  For this visit, they arrived last Wednesday and will be staying through tomorrow.  While they aren’t quite the constantly "on-the-go tourists" that my parents usually are during their visits, I’m still pretty tired after a weekend of company, even though it was a very pleasant and positive visit.  I think maybe I’m becoming too used my wife’s and my usual weekend ritual of tag-team napping, making the change of pace a bit harder.

It has been a good visit and I’ve been very pleased with the amount of quality time that they have had with their grandson.  Andy’s grandmother has particularly bonded very well with him, spending quite a bit of time playing toys and reading with him.  Both grandparents have put in some time working on drawing and writing with him and he has also enjoyed demonstrating his various computer games to them.  His grandparents also joined us for his weekly Gymboree class this morning and our usual Sunday morning breakfast at McDonalds.  This afternoon, we had an early birthday celebration for him where we had a small cake and they gave him his presents.  Tomorrow, grandma is going to accompany Andy for at least the first part of his day at pre-school. 

Looking forward to the week ahead, it is back to work tomorrow although it looks like it could be another rather quiet week there.  Between the upcoming holidays and the slowing economy, there aren’t a lot of active projects going on right now, which has kept the stress level and number of work hours somewhat more manageable the past couple weeks.  I don’t really anticipate that changing.  Other big events of the coming week include the appointment to get the crown attached to my dental implant on Tuesday (hopefully the last step of that long process) and Andy’s actual birthday and birthday party next weekend.

The Presidential Debates

I have watched the TV broadcasts of both of the Presidential Debates that have been held during this election and I am left with a strong feeling that I’d still like to see the candidates actually debate.  Both of the events so far have had strict rules and structure that have substantially reduced their value.  The result has been that each has ended up being closer to a series of focused stump speeches.  True discussion and interaction between Senators Obama and McCain has been almost entirely non-existent.

The basic format used in both debates was that each candidate would have 2 minutes to answer any given question, followed by a 60-second discussion period.  Those discussion periods ended up almost always being short follow-up speeches rather than any kind of true back-and-forth between the candidates.  Almost every time, both candidates went over the specified timings, despite the protests of the moderators, but that was almost always due to verbosity rather than any generation of discussion.

The two debates were extremely similar in content, with some of the responses even being pretty much word-for-word the same.  The second debate did have a "town hall" format where voters in the audience asked the questions, but the questions were still pre-selected by the moderator and the audience members were not allowed to follow-up with any other questions or even requests for clarification.  In many cases, the answers weren’t really precise responses to the question being asked and generally they weren’t called on it.

On multiple occasions during each debate, one of the candidates clearly indicated an interest in responding to a point made by the other, but was not allowed by the moderator who instead insisted that it was time to move on to the next topic.  This was particularly frustrating since both candidates spent a lot of time giving alternate characterizations of the other candidate’s positions, but there was never enough back and forth to get to the bottom of what each candidate really would do. 

It obviously isn’t going to happen this year, but I really would like to see a loosely-structured joint interview/discussion with the candidates without such strict rules.  If the candidates start expressing differing takes on each other’s proposals, then I would like to see them continue going back and forth with clarifications and responses until the audience really does have a good idea of what the actual proposal is.  The current format seems to be more about who can present a more convincing obfuscation than it is about truly understanding where anyone stands.

Either of the moderators so far (Jim Lehrer or Tom Brokaw) certainly could conduct a very effective discussion if they were simply allowed to use their journalistic instincts to manage a true discussion.  Both of the moderators (especially Brokaw) actually came off rather poorly in the debates, looking more like strict teachers having to enforce overbearing rules than like journalists.  I honestly have a hard time understanding why well-regarded journalists would even want to be involved in such restrictive events where the ultimate value is fairly limited.

In this day where most people have access to hundreds of TV stations as well as the vast resources of the Internet, debates that seem to be intensely restrictive in time and content seem like a major anachronism.  I think one of the most important steps to bringing more truth and relevance into political campaigns is to better utilize today’s media to truly let the public get to know and understand the differences between the views and proposals of the two candidates.

Star Wars: My Declining Interest

Last weekend, a new Star Wars movie opened in theaters and I honestly was rather startled when I realized that I don’t particularly want to see it.  Right now, my thought is that I might get around to watching it once it comes out on DVD, although even then I’m not entirely sure.

The new movie, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is an animated feature that serves as essentially the premiere episode of an upcoming series of the same name that will be airing starting this fall on Cartoon Network.  The idea behind the series is to fill in the details of the titular war, which was initially referenced in passing during the original Star Wars way back in 1977.  The war became a key story element in the much more recent prequel movies, but most of the actual war mainly took place off-screen between the events of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

Like a large portion of my generation, I basically grew up with Star Wars, seeing the original film during its first run (although I didn’t really take to it until a second viewing during the reissue 2 years later).  The release of The Empire Strikes Back and especially Return of the Jedi were then huge events during my childhood.  Collecting toys and other memorabilia related to the series was a big thing, with my sister and I even maintaining our "Star Wars wall" in the basement, which was covered in news clippings and other paper goods related to the movies.  Growing up, I suspect I would have found it impossible to imagine not going to see a new Star Wars film opening weekend, much less deciding to forgo seeing it at all in the theater.

When I first heard that George Lucas was planning on returning to the Star Wars universe via television projects (both this upcoming animated series as well as a planned live action series that would bridge the gap between the two trilogies), my reaction was cautious interest and an expectation that I would probably at least check them out.  The news earlier this year that the animated series would be kicked off with a feature film also left me with the impression that I would probably end up going to see it, even despite the fact that my movie-going has been curtailed quite a bit since the birth of my son.

My enthusiasm quickly started to wane once the first visuals from the movie and series started to come out and then pretty much dropped like a stone once I saw the trailers.  Quite simply, I immensely dislike the visual style that is used for the animation.  For some reason, they seem to have gone for something vaguely resembling the Japanese-style of animation, which I’ve never really cared for all that much and which seems hugely wrong for Star Wars.  I think one of the things that has always been appealing about the movies was that, despite the otherworldly setting, the whole Star Wars universe had a basically realistic look to it.  Even at its most alien, the setting always seemed like it was in places that could really exist.  I didn’t get that feeling at all from the look of this animation, though, which instead seems exotic and excessively stylized.

Of course, I admit that this is kind of judging the book by its cover and that it is completely possible that the visual style is something that I could adjust to.  That brings me to the second problem, which is that I generally have a hard time mustering much enthusiasm for this particular aspect of the Star Wars extended storyline.  I’m not one of those that especially disliked the prequel trilogy, but I also wasn’t particularly excited by them either.  I enjoyed all three films (especially Revenge of the Sith), but have not had much interest in revisiting them.  I have seen each of the films of the original trilogy more times than all of my viewing of the prequel films combined.  I haven’t really taken any interest at all in the related merchandise (other than the soundtrack CDs) or the various novels set during that part of the story.  While the films were fun, I just don’t find the characterizations or situations all that compelling.

Related to my preference for the parts of the story surrounding the original trilogy, I will say that I haven’t completely lost interest in all things Star Wars.  While I have little interest in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, I am somewhat interested in the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Unleashed video game, which is set during the time between the two trilogies.  Similarly, I am at least somewhat interested in the announced live-action TV series that will also take place during that same time period.  On a somewhat broader subject, I do look forward to the time in the next couple years when my son will be old enough to introduce him to the films, although I’m definitely more excited to share the original trilogy with him than the prequels.  I do know with some certainty that I’m going to encourage him strongly to watch the movies in the order they were released.

I’m really pretty torn when it comes to my overall feelings about Star Wars at this time.  While I still have a definite affection for it and certainly still admire the creativity and overall breadth of George Lucas’ creation, I also can’t help but feel like something that I once found extremely special has been diluted by an excess of mediocre product.  On the other hand, I also can’t help but recognize that it might be just as much a reflection of my own aging and changing tastes and priorities too.  I was 13-years-old when Return of the Jedi was released and I’m sure my impressions of all the films are inevitably colored by my stage in life when I saw them.  Had I been an adult when the original trilogy came out, I’m sure my views on those films would have been somewhat different as well.

Even taking into consideration that my views on the films are filtered through childhood nostalgia, I do still think the films of the original trilogy were simply better movies.  The original Star Wars (I’ve never been able to bring myself to call it A New Hope…) had some pretty bad acting and goofy dialog, but it also had a very tight, self-contained story and the big advantage of being an introduction to something truly new and exciting.  With The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, George Lucas wisely brought in much more skilled screenwriters (Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan) to flesh out his stories and also handed the projects off to more technically-skilled directors.  I really think Lucas is much more effective when he takes a role of creative oversight while letting others handle the details.

Critics of the recent Star Wars projects often bring up the idea that George Lucas should be working on telling other stories, including possibly the "small films" that he has sometimes talked about wanting to do.  I admit that I’m now finding that I am wondering if Star Wars might be the one and only great creative concept that Lucas really has.  Sure, he has done a few other projects that have had some success.  The Indiana Jones films are the most obvious, although I do tend to think that a lot more of the credit for the success of that series really should likely go to Steven Spielberg than to Lucas.  American Graffiti, which was Lucas’ one big hit prior to Star Wars is his one other pretty much unquestionable personal success, but it was a very early work that is also pretty clearly autobiographical in nature.  I’m not really sure how likely he is to have another story of that kind in him, particularly at this late stage of his career.

Regardless of what Lucas does going forward, I do think his place in film history is pretty secure.  Weaknesses aside, the Star Wars saga is a pretty remarkable accomplishment that really has been tremendously influential and is also likely to ultimately survive the test of time, at least to some extent.  His companies have also been responsible for a great deal of innovation in film, including significant advances in special effects, sound, digital editing, computer graphics (a lot of people don’t realize that Pixar was originally a division of Lucasfilm), and digital photography.  Even as I think he may be overextending Star Wars itself, I can’t see anything he does ever erasing or even substantially diminishing those accomplishments.

As a concluding note, I suppose my commentary in this post has been kind of all over the place, but it really is a reflection of very conflicted feelings.  The original motivation to post this was really the fact that I wanted to want to see the new film, but I just don’t.  In many ways, Star Wars has been an important cultural component of a large portion of my life.  I can’t help looking at my fading interest with a bit of wistful sadness.

Los Angeles Freeway Construction – A Rant

I think Caltrans is specifically conspiring to make it as difficult as possible for us to get home from Orange County on a Sunday night.  Last night, we had dinner with friends at Downtown Disney (which was very nice), but it ended up taking us close to 2 hours to get home to Van Nuys, mostly due to multiple construction projects.

We left the Disneyland Resort a little before 11pm and traffic on the North 5 was moving along at pretty much full speed until just past the 91 interchange, where it came to almost a complete halt.  I wasn’t able to see the brake lights until we were too far past the 91 to cut over to it as an alternate route.  The big problem at this point was that they were doing construction work that had all but the far left lane closed.  This brought traffic to a near stand-still, even fairly late at night.

While in this, I heard a traffic report on the radio indicating that there was a Sig Alert at the Slauson exit a bit further north, so I definitely wanted to get off the 5.  I decided to try and exit at either Auto Center Drive or Beach Blvd. and then cut across surface streets to the 91.  It turned out that the Auto Center Drive exit was closed completely, but there wasn’t a "ramp closed" sign until you were pretty much right at it.  That actually resulted in me merging to the right at one point into a lane that was about to end, because I didn’t realize the exit ramp wasn’t accessible.  I then continued to stay as far right as I could, since there were no signs indicating where I needed to be to get off at Beach, assuming that exit was even opened.  It did turn out to be opened, but it took us about 20-30 minutes (I lost track of the exact time) or so to go the 1-2 miles from the start of the construction zone to the exit.

The Beach exit actually drops you onto Auto Center Drive, just a bit north of the exit for that road specifically.  You then turn onto Beach at the next light.  When we got to Beach, we found that it was actually closed as well at that intersection.  That meant that we then had to turn on Stanton instead and then cut over to Beach near Knott’s Berry Farm in order to backtrack over to the 91.  Just to further my rant against road work, I should mention here that we did get stuck behind a sweet sweeper for part of the way as we went down Stanton.

The 91 was basically smooth going.  We then got off on the N-710 and found that they had the 2 left lanes closed on that road as well.  Fortunately, we were only going a short distance there (up to the 105) and traffic is generally light enough on the 710 that time of night that the construction didn’t slow things down that much.  It didn’t take us very long to get onto the 105-W, which we then took over to the 405-N.

The 405 wasn’t too bad through the LAX area, but then slowed to a crawl right around Culver Blvd.  Yes, as you probably guessed by now, Caltrans had a couple lanes closed for construction between Culver and the 10 interchange.  That stretch of road is pretty bad even under the best of circumstances (this is one of the busiest stretches of road in the country), so traffic was once again barely moving.  Obviously, this wasn’t as bad as it could have been during rush hour, but it still took quite a while to get through there.  To make matters worse, I was starting to need a restroom pretty badly, which helped to make the rest of the drive even more miserable.  With the traffic largely stopped, it would have been incredibly difficult to force our way over to the right to get off at any of the exits.  In addition, it was after midnight by this point, so I think there was little chance that there would have been anywhere opened with public restrooms that were both available and safe to use.

Once we got past that construction zone, fortunately traffic was moving pretty much full speed the rest of the way.  By this time, we were all pretty completely wiped out and miserable, of course.  In fact, I ended up getting home and sending a note off to my boss at work that I was planning to come in late this morning (they owe me a few hours anyway…), so I guess I should probably head there once I finish typing this.

I certainly do see the need for construction work on the freeways, and I understand why Sunday nights are a good time to do it, but last night certainly was frustrating.  I couldn’t help but think that there must have been some way that they could have better planned the projects so that someone driving a fairly common route (Orange County to the San Fernando Valley) wouldn’t keep continuously finding construction zones pretty much everywhere they turned.

Obama vs. Clinton and the Primary System

I’ve been resistant to delving into political topics on this blog, mostly out of fear that I might expose too much about my own ignorance. :)  I do tend to follow political debate (particularly at the national level) quite a bit, though.  As a registered Democrat that will almost certainly end up supporting and voting for whichever candidate becomes that party’s nominee, I have certainly been taking a lot of interest in the 2008 primary season.

I disagree with the increasingly widespread commentary accusing the Democratic Party of self-destructing simply because both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are still active candidates with more than 3 months remaining before the party convention and with several states still having yet to have their primaries.  As I see it, the Democrats are prompting a fair amount of criticism and doomsday predictions simply because the candidate selection process is working essentially as designed.  This primary instead seems to be illustrating how the basic method being used to select candidates usually doesn’t work very well and has largely become an outdated relic of a very different time.

I think that the result of the Republican nomination is much more troublesome, although very typical of the process for both parties during the typical modern election, including all the ones since I’ve been eligible to vote.  John McCain was widely accepted to have clinched his party’s nomination after the March 4th round of primaries, even though the primary season still had several months to go.  Much has been made about the voters of Florida and Michigan being disenfranchised in the selection of the Democratic candidate due to those states violating party rules regarding scheduling, but it is that really worse than the fact that the Republican primaries in 10 states have ended up being basically irrelevant?

The extended, highly staggered primary process made quite a bit of sense in a time when traveling from state to state could take days or weeks and when 24-hour news networks and the Internet weren’t available as a means for the candidates and parties to get their views, positions, and even personalities quickly and widely disseminated to every part of the country.  In today’s era of air travel and mass communications, though, campaigning for a simultaneous, nationwide primary would certainly be feasible and would avoid large portions of the population from being essentially disenfranchised from the selection of the candidates.  There might be a grain of truth in the concern that such a system could pretty sharply reduce the importance and influence of smaller states and rural communities, but the current system usually seems to have largely the opposite effect, which really seems to make even less sense.  I really hope that this year’s primary will prompt some serious discussion of this long overdue change.

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Work/Life Balance and “Loving Your Work”

Over the last few days, several of the technology-oriented blogs that I read have included some spirited debates about the work/life balance and whether or not loving your work essentially equates to a workaholic devotion to it.  This is an issue that I have spent a lot of time thinking about and working out for myself during my career and that has even contributed to something of a career change several years ago.

The online discussion was prompted by a recent blog post by Jason Calacanis, the founder of "human-edited" search engine  The post focused on various cost-savings tips for people running technology start-ups.  Most of the items in the post were pretty innocuous suggestions about things like office furniture and equipment, but there were a couple entries that could easily be interpreted as saying that a start-up should have no use for anyone that would in any way prioritize their personal life over their work life.

The most controversial item was the following:

“Fire people who are not workaholics…. come on folks, this is startup life, it’s not a game. go work at the post office or stabucks if you want balance in your life. For realz.”

He later attempted to soften it a bit by changing "are not workaholics" to "don’t love their work" and then crossing out "it’s not a game" and "if you want balance in your life. For realz."  He also wrote a pretty lengthy follow-up post that did help to clarify his view a bit and also shared his own general approach to his work.  Particularly in that follow-up post, he seems to be basically suggesting that unless you let your work largely dominate your life, then you must be working only out of necessity rather than actually loving what you do.

Even though my experience with working at start-ups is limited to a short stint at a tiny game developer that ended up folding pretty dramatically about 4 months after I started,   I believe that Calacanis is almost certainly correct that a pretty intense career focus is probably necessary to survive during the very early years at most start-ups.  Where I take exception is his apparent view that pretty much total devotion to work is a requirement to be able to say that you "love" your work.  I don’t believe that having a life balance and actually loving what you do are mutually-exclusive.

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Super Bowl Sunday

I’m not a football fan.

I have found that making that simple statement can sometimes cause people to brace for an expected tirade on various perceived evils of that sport and professional sports in general.  That isn’t going to come from me, though.  My views really are as simple as the statement.  I don’t have a dislike or moral objections to the sport.  I’m just not that interested in it and generally tend to get bored pretty quickly when watching it.

For me, Super Bowl Sunday has never been that big a deal.  To be honest, I pay so little attention to the sport that I often don’t even realize the championship game is coming up until the last minute.  There have been a number of years where I didn’t even know who was playing by the time the game started or, occasionally, even until I read about the results.

That isn’t to say that I consciously avoid the game at all.  Some years, I have watched all or part of the game, although usually while doing other things and basically paying only a bit of attention to the game.  There have even been a couple years that I have gone to Super Bowl parties, but mainly for the socializing rather than the game.    If I’m around the house, I’ll often have the game on in the background, although it is pretty rare that I’m at home all afternoon on a Sunday.

Although I don’t always think of it, I also will usually set the DVR (or in the distant past, the VCR) to record the game, just in case something interesting happens.  If nothing else, there are usually some neat commercials that air during the game, so it is fun to go back and look at the ones that got some attention.  Of course, that is not as big a deal now that they have started making all the commercials available online after the game.

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