The Other End of Sunset

Thursday, September 07, 2006

I kid, I kid!

I am on a plane. Surprise, surprise!

But I don’t feel like reading this time – I usually catch up on Harvard Business Review, or BusinessWeek, or GQ, or something that talks about motorcycles or exercise. Yes, my seat mates are often a bit surprised by the variance of my reading. They can deal with it, I think. But I digress.

This time, I started by reading the manual for my Benelli. They ship it out on a CD, and I copied it onto my laptop. It’s nigh on useless, by the way, but it certainly has lots of pretty pictures of my bike. Yes, I'm having bike trouble, again. As my friend recently put it, I'm not so lucky with vehicles. Indeed.

However, I forgot where I put the manual. Man search is a nice feature. No advertisements today, by the way. Anyway. I found it, hiding in a not-at-all-obvious place – what WAS I thinking when I copied it across to there? Dunno. But I found it. (Did I mention that search is cool?)

In keeping with my recent thread on surprise interactions, I had one with my computer. I happened to take a look into the local Documents folder. I don’t keep much stuff on my laptop, other than posts, of course. Generally, I try not to travel with anything that would be interesting to anyone other than me. And (perhaps) you OtherEnders. But generally, if anyone else would be interested, I probably shouldn’t be carrying it.

Anyway, back to my story. I had a surprise interaction with my laptop. I found a deck I wrote about 18 months ago.

// Side note: Hmm, “deck”? There is no wood in this deck, nor a ship, not even a backyard. It’s just a bunch of words. Have you ever noticed that some people call those things “foils”, and some “decks”, and others call them after the program used to create them? Basically, collections of words and pictures (not text files) that are used to describe, convince, or confuse. I think you can probably age-verify someone by what they label these collections. Or perhaps you can tell where the speaker worked – I was a consultant for a long time, and these things are definitely “decks” to consultants. Anyway. End of lackadaisical linguistic legacy. //

What was wild about this deck is that 18 months is NOT that long a time, and yet the entire content of the deck was out of date. Overtaken by events, as it were.

// Sidenote, next. RAND had a long-ish publication cycle – and virtually all projects ended with publications of one sort or another. However, the cycle was very long – months, at least. I was at RAND during the “fall of the Soviet Union”. It happened kinda quickly, if you were paying attention. But our papers that were written BEFORE the fall still talked about the Union as a strategic player. And so the strategic positioning was all wrong. We had a hard choice to make – what to do with all these research efforts? The answer was to add a paragraph to every one of the papers talking about how the conclusions were “overtaken by events”. In other words, conclusions may be irrelevant because the context has totally changed. Sorry. Your mileage may vary. We wrote so many of these that we shorted the phrase to “OBE” internally. I think the phrase was coined by my pal Mitchell, who had one of the coolest jobs ever. Mitchell’s job was to talk to researchers, figure out what they meant, and help them characterize them in some relatively logical pattern. What a cool job. Dude got to spend his entire time talking to, and listening to, these wicked smart people and help them think more clearly. Best listener ever, and smarter than all of us. Now he runs a charity that is focused on worldwide development – like, as in, making villages in Africa able to sustain themselves. Now THERE’S a person to look up to. //

The deck talked about a set of challenges we faced at the time. And how we were going to attack them. The team has overcome almost all of them, and has found and fixed others in the meantime. It’s hard for me to even get myself into the emotional space presented by that deck. The content just seems so totally wrong. Antiquated even. Almost as if I were reading something written by someone else, in a different era. Maybe in a different language. How cool is that.

Why walk when you can run.
-- Mary-Chapin Carpenter

Lots has changed, in 18 months. I love it that I am blessed enough to hang out at a work place that changes quickly, and develops a lot. I am markedly better than I was when I joined. That is a gift, my friends.

My life is also different. 18 months ago, JR was still alive, and we were headed off to Tahoe for the holidays. I had shorter hair, and fewer tattoos, and fewer motorcycles. And the stack of photographs that sit in my dresser looked more like me than they do now.

Did it make any easier to leave me where I stand?
I guess there might not be too many
Who would stand beside you now.
Where’d you come from?
Where am I going?
-- Counting Crows

It’s hard to envisage where we will be in the future. Past performance is no guarantee of future success, the securities lawyers tell us. And yet, the philosophers tell us that the best predictor of what will happen next is that which happened just now.

One of my friends is an historian-by-avocation. She loves medieval history. And can argue about its relevant to today’s life. But I'm not sure even she believes that. I can make the same argument – those that don’t know history are doomed to repeat it – but I don’t believe it.

Does the predictive value of the past decline as it moves farther away from “now”? Clearly, behaviors and thoughts from the Reconstruction in the US aren’t particularly helpful as I traverse Southern California traffic. I think we would all agree that the 1860’s are a long way from 2006.

But 18 months doesn’t seem all that long. It seems like we should be able to predict that far in advance, don’t you think? How about 5 years? Or 10?

Think about the commitments we make to ourselves, to our lovers, to our jobs, to our children. Does it ever scare you, this promise that goes forward into the future? What if you don’t like your kids? You are kind of stuck with them, aren’t you? You can change a job, I guess. Lovers are somewhere in between. And, at least in my case, all of my past lovers are on my skin, in my heart, and in my eyes. I guess one can change lovers, but they change you too.

And what if you are wrong – what if your commitment is to the wrong person, or the wrong commitment. You promise something, and it’s the wrong thing to do. It happens. Thinking about this is an unpleasant mental exercise. Much like the classic Hitler question – if you had the opportunity to kill Hitler, before World War II, knowing what you know now, would you do it, even though it would be murder? There are dozens of such conundrums – is it ever right to do “wrong”? What about war? What about lying to your partner? When you commit to someone, are you committing to absolute honesty and exposure?

Spending too much time thinking about this is probably unhealthy. It certainly is for me.

The first step is to admit you have a problem – I want to know the future before I take the first step. This isn’t possible.

I may be powerless over this problem. It is certainly destructive to my life.

But perhaps, with you my brothers and sisters, we can together walk forward, into the future, be it light or dark, knowing that we know … nothing. And being grateful for that lack of knowledge, for it allows us to find things, serendipitously, from our past.

Sometimes we can do together that which we cannot do alone.

But that requires commitments, and not knowing makes commitments hard.

So let us commit, for the next 24 hours, to commit.

But you can love completely
Without complete understanding.
--Norman Maclean