Archive | August, 2010

Oh, No! Not Another School Reunion!

18 Aug

There are two kinds of people: those who attend school reunions and those who do not. My wife does, while I don’t, proving once again that opposites attract.

Next month Cathie will fly to California to attend her 40th high school reunion. Although I graduated the same year as she did from a nearby school, which is also having a shindig for its aging alumni, I won’t be going. In fact, according to a forwarded message I received yesterday from a distant acquaintance, I’m on a “missing alumni” list and am being urged to become “found.”

I’ll stay firmly, resolutely AWOL, thanks just the same.

In my defense, if you can call it that, I also did not attend my college graduation ceremonies for either of my degrees. I didn’t even go to Cathie’s college graduation. (I stayed home and prepared the party, so I got a pass from her. Although I probably would have devised another excuse, if the party planning pose hadn’t worked.) I am, at least, consistent in my rejection of the forced frivolity foisted on us by our alma maters.

You might think I hated school, but you’d be wrong. In high school I was reasonably popular, elected to student council and even voted in as student body vice president in my senior year. In college I succeeded in both undergrad and grad schools. I have no complaints, so you might wonder why I reject all attempts to woo me back to campus to celebrate my past.

First, and this is probably common among those of us who decline to be “active alumni” for our old schools, I don’t know any of the people there. Oh, sure, I know their names and I may be able to conjure a connection between a face 40 years later and a nametag, but I do not know the individuals behind the tags and the smiles. And the best I’ll be able to do to get to know them is listen to a laundry list of their deeds since graduation. Jobs. Kids. Grandkids. Homes. Vacations. Illnesses. Deaths. Just a litany of facts that do not actually tell me who these strangers are.

Worse, I’ll be expected to rattle off the facts of my life. While possibly interesting to a listener, to me they reveal little of who I am as an individual, and I get bored just imagining myself talking about my past. I am much more engaged in my today than in my yesterdays.

Finally, I don’t like the con game being foisted on former students. School administrators like reunions because they get to lengthen their list of potential donors. To the school, reunions are just another revenue pump primed with nostalgia.

I know Cathie will have a fine time at this reunion just as she has had at all the others she has attended. However, she tells me that before her 20th reunion, which I had declined to escort her to, and in an alleged inebriated state, I had promised to take her to her 50th reunion. Believe me, I’m already working on my excuse. It will be a doozy.

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The Risks of Cycling

17 Aug

One of my regular Willamette Valley rides takes me down Skyline Road to its terminus at Riverside Road. I crest the rolling Skyline twice, once at Cole Road, then drop another hundred or so feet, before climbing back up another eighty-five feet to Concomly Road, with a final, curvy plunge that takes me from 940 feet in elevation to 159 feet above sea level in just under 1.3 miles.

Invariably on my way down Skyline as well as other nearby steep roads I’ll reach speeds better than 30 miles per hour. Slow by racing standards, but fast enough to get me killed, if I were to crash.

In 2008 716 cyclists were killed on their bikes in the USA, down from the the 784 who died in 2005 accidents. Doesn’t sound like many people when you consider the tens of thousands of people who die each year in car crashes. However, because of the huge disparity in vehicle miles ridden, cyclists are 3.4x or 11.5x more likely to be killed while riding than a passenger is in a car. In short, riding a bicycle is more dangerous than driving a car.

Once in a while I contemplate the risks of cycling. Not in a comparative sense. I know that the health benefits I get from regular and rigorous cycling outweigh the chance getting injured or killed while pedaling. (Unless, of course, I happen to get injured or killed.) However, as I speed downhill and glance at my front wheel and the less than an inch of tire I have gripping the asphalt, I will often delicately squeeze my brakes a bit more to slow my progress.

According to at least one report, the majority of fatalities among cyclists are their own damn fault. They race into intersections, enter streets from side roads or driveways, or veer into traffic and inevitably collide with car. And bikes never emerge the victor in a confrontation with a car. Never.

Although kids under 19 are the most likely to have a fatal bike accident, the next largest demographic is older riders. As we age our reflexes slow, our eyesight dims, and our hearing decreases, all of which we need to respond to risks while we’re on two wheels. That means we creaky oldsters need to take extra care on rides.

Ride slower. Ride smarter. Ride longer. Much, much longer.

The Forgettable Mr. Mark Hurd

13 Aug

In 1939 when the wet-behind-the-ears William Hewlett and David Packard produced an electronic gizmo for Walt Disney’s production of Fantasia in their now memorialized garage, they were truly trailblazers. Just as Carnegie and Mellon echo in the rich history of fire-hewn Pittsburgh denizens, Hewlett-Packard resonate with the paler, geekier California set.

Mark Hurd, disgraced ex-CEO of H-P, is a less-than-minor player in the history of Silicon Valley, somewhere beneath the legendary flameout Michael Spindler, an Apple CEO from the forgettable 1990s, but possibly above Ralph Ungermann, the savvy CEO of Ungermann-Bass in the 1980s. Hurd’s alleged craven antics are so pedestrian as to be laughable, except when you consider that so many people inside the company seem to hate him and the Feds seem to want to prosecute the business. I think the H-P board did a smart thing by tossing Hurd out before his minor malfeasance morphed into something more heinous.

My old boss Don Tennant argues that Ann Livermore, EVP of the company’s Enterprise Business group, should replace Hurd. Knowing Don’s good instincts for good people and having met Livermore, I can’t argue with the choice. She’d be an excellent CEO and, likely, a much more compelling figure in the future history of Silicon Valley.

My Name. Your Name. Do They Matter?

10 Aug

Recently, Cathie and I were watching Night Train to Munich, a 1940 stiff-upper-lip, wise-cracking English thriller starring Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison, and Paul Henreid. Cathie remarked when Henreid appeared in the film that she did not remember his name from the opening credits. Neither had I.

Yet, there he was: the immortal Victor Laszlo, Humphrey Bogart’s competition for Ingrid Bergman’s attention in Casablanca. The one and only suave Paul Henreid. Only he was not Paul Henreid in the credits. He was Paul von Hernreid. Two years later, in his greatest role ever, he had dropped the von and an r from his name. And in that time the Austrian actor (SPOILER ALERT!!) went from playing an evil Nazi to personifying an anti-Nazi. Interesting bit of movie trivia, no?

But, amazingly, over Netflix later the same day we streamed Panic in the Streets, the 1950 Richard Widmark disaster movie about preventing a viral epidemic, a precursor to Dustin Hoffman’s Outbreak, but without his character’s marital mishaps. Maybe because we had been primed by Night Train to Munich we both saw that one of the film’s co-stars was Walter Jack Palance, an up and coming movie villain, and, yes, the same Jack Palance (sans Walter) who demonstrated one-handed pushups at the Oscars some years ago.

Even after they had made it to the big screen both Henreid and Palance felt comfortable enough to pare down their names. (Paul von Hernreid had already come a long way from his given name of Paul Hernreid Ritter von Wasel-Waldingau.) In those days it was just their names, today consultants would fret about sullying the actor’s brand. But it didn’t matter then, and it really doesn’t matter now. Names are as permanent as clouds.

In theory, though, a person’s name should be permanent. It’s the ultimate representation of who we are. But, in reality, it’s one of the most fungible aspects of our identity. Think about it. A child is born. The parents give it a name. You’d think that would be it. Baby = Name.

But that’s not the case. Often the infant gets a nickname that carries through life, or a diminutive is used instead of their full first name. Maybe Randolph becomes Red. Or Catherine shortens to Cathie.

Then more names can be tacked on. Kids always give other kids nicknames when they’re growing up. Sometimes they stick. Sometimes they don’t. For a while I was called “Colonel” because a coat I received as a Christmas gift had epaulets. When I got rid of the coat, I lost the nickname.

Society even has formal processes to alter your name. Raised a Catholic, at my confirmation ceremony as with millions of other kids, I picked a name that was inserted between my middle name and my family name. I actually used it once officially. My full four names are emblazoned on my 1974 diploma from the University of California Santa Barbara, not far from Governor Ronald (“Ronnie” or “Dutch”) Reagan’s faux signature.

Among my friends I can’t count how many use professional appellations and then have different names that family and old buddies call them. I’ve also stopped keeping track of friends who have asked everyone they grew up with to change what they were called to something else; usually it’s the dropping of the old diminutive to the full and proper name mom and dad originally bequeathed: Rick to Frederick. Betty to Elizabeth. Randy to Randall. That sort of thing.

Not long ago I added my middle name to bylines and other identifying material. For decades I was just “Mark Hall” professionally and personally. But, as I pointed out a few years ago, it’s not always been easy using such a short, boring name. So I’ve changed it. Again.

After all, it’s just my name. I’ll probably have another one in a few years.

Edge of Your Seat Reading in the 21st Century

9 Aug

If reading influences what we think and believe, it’s little wonder that so many of us have a jaded view of government, business, media, and society in general. Just look at your typical best seller list from the New York Times or USA Today and you’ll find them chock-o-block with thrillers and mysteries, more than any other genre. Anyone familiar with these cousins of fictional style knows that nothing in life is what it appears to be; there’s always an agenda or conspiracy in play; and the truth exists merely to be suppressed.

Reading these books teaches you not to trust institutions of any sort. Politicians, bureaucrats, CEOs, journalists, and probably your next door neighbor are all up to no good. These genres feed a worldview nourished on cynicism, doubt, suspicion, and dread. Perfect books for our time.

I enjoy a gripping thriller or a taut mystery as much as (often more than) great literature. But the key to a top-notch one is not the plot, but the people in the plot. That’s where the thriller and mystery writer can match the literary artist. If they can engage you with characters at the level of, say, Edith Wharton’s Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence or Jake Barnes in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, you’ve found yourself a winning writer.

Here’s a selection of character-driven thrillers and mysteries from the first decade of the 21st century that stayed with me because the people in them were complex, interesting, and even profound as well as fun to spend time with, if only on the page.

The Falls (2000) by Ian Rankin. Almost any Rankin novel of the last ten years is worth your time. Resurrection Men would be an excellent alternative. But the plot in The Falls is more subtle and satisfying. Inspector Rebus is, as ever, an exceptional antihero worth getting to know.

The Good German (2001) by Joseph Kanon. Set immediately after World War II in the ruins of Berlin, the story is a character study of a man trying to square his pre-War life with post-War realities as the foundation for the new Cold War is being laid. Conspiracy. Greed. Murder. Femme fatale. What’s not to like?

December 6 (2002) by Martin Cruz Smith. Not one of Smith’s better known works, probably because it’s not part of his Arkady Renko series (Gorky Park, et. al.), but it is his most intriguing. Plus, Smith introduces his most engaging and likable character, Harry Niles, who is caught up in a 24-hour whirlwind of events the day before the “date which will live in infamy.”

Dark Matter: The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton (2002) by Philip Kerr. If there’s a mystery/thriller writer with a higher IQ than Kerr, I haven’t read him or her. His novels make you think and none more than his quirky mystery involving Newton and his erstwhile assistant sidekick. However, if you’ve never read Kerr before start with The Shot or Dead Meat from the previous century. They’re better still.

A Place of Hiding (2003) by Elizabeth George. Most of George’s mysteries center on her Inspector Thomas Lynley. This one, however, takes two minor characters, Deborah and Simon St. James, from her other Lynley novels and puts them front and center in solving a knotty conundrum.

Bangkok 8 (2003) by John Burdett. Although I’ve read other Burdett novels with his delightful detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, this is the one that started it off. And it’s the best of the bunch.

Case Histories (2004) by Kate Atkinson. Mysteries involving bad things that happen to children generally leave me cold. They deliver cheap thrills, building our interest around threats to the utterly innocent. Atkinson’s approach is much different, building the plot around the characters more than the crime. An exceptional story.

The Lighthouse (2006) by P.D. James. This is another excellent novel with the stiff, eloquent, and poetic Commander Adam Dagliesh. Almost any James novel will satisfy (such as 2001’s Death by Holy Orders), but this is particularly illuminating as her main character deals with issues as his career sputters towards its close.

The Book of Air and Shadows (2007) by Michael Gruber. A wonderful tale with a handful of characters who are all well-drawn, unique, and oodles of fun to follow through a fascinating plot that spans centuries. None of Gruber’s other books come close to this gem.

The Spies of Warsaw (2008) by Alan Furst. Everyone is spying on everyone else and everyone knows it. But our favorite spy is the best character of the bunch, Jean-François Mercier de Boutillon. Gallant. Brave. Thoughtful. If you’ve never read Furst, here’s the place to start.

The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009 in English) by Stieg Larsson. Lisbeth Salander. Mikael Blomkvist. Need I say more, except this is the best of the trilogy.

My Only Wisdom

5 Aug

As a writer, it’s more important to read than to write. There’s always more to learn than to say.

Mac Users: Stop Being Smug About Security

4 Aug

Apple’s software, especially Safari, QuickTime, and its OS X have all exposed major security flaws to hackers over the years; the most recent being a major problem with its browser that was revealed last month. Still, Macintosh users worry less about security than Windows users do.

But for those Mac fans who also use iPhones, they should start worrying. A lot.

Part of Mac users’ sanguine attitude about security stems from the dearth of malware directed against the platform. Many take comfort in the “security through obscurity” argument, which contends Macs are safer because of a low market share, making them a less popular target for criminal hackers. Why send out your malware to attack 5% of the market when you can release it for the other 95%?

That happy situation for Mac users could be changing because of the iPhone. As recently reported, iPhone (and Android) apps contain malware that steals information on your handheld device. With literally hundreds of millions of these devices shipping annually, they make for a potential windfall for criminals. That’s because instead of stealing your contact list, which may just add to spam problems, these new apps will be ripping off your bank accounts.

The current Consumers & Convergence study released last month by KPMG shows a huge jump by consumers in their use of mobile devices to conduct financial transactions. That means they store bank and brokerage account and, likely, password information on their handhelds, making them ideal playgrounds for illegal exploits.

Further, Apple’s smartphone is becoming more deeply integrated into the OS X core. The company even delivers a single development toolset for both OS X and the iPhone, meaning a security flaw is more likely to affect both your Mac and your Apple cellphone.

This new and more dangerous security landscape makes it imperative for Mac users to let the scales fall from their eyes and see that their online world is just as scary as those who use Windows machines. They need to vet apps more critically before downloading them. They need to keep their software up to date. They need to invest in anti-virus tools. And they need to stop being smug when it comes to computer security.