Archive for the 'alternative' Category

I am a Bass Player

Bass ViolinWhen I was a 4th grader, my mom asked if I would like to play an instrument.

I don’t know exactly how I arrived at the bass violin, but that’s the one I ended up with, like the one in the picture.

It could be because I was always tall for my age, reaching six feet at about age 14 or 15.

(After that, I was fairly average height for boys in my high school.)

Playing the big bass, as I refer to it, was fine.

But, by the time I got to 6th grade, I had a six-string guitar and wanted to get a bass guitar, as well.

My first bass guitar was a knock-off Fender Precision bass, similar to the one in the photo.

Fender PrecisionI remember the “action” (i.e., the height of the strings from the neck) was relatively low, which made it easy to play.

But, the lower frets buzzed when played and I could never get rid of it, even when raising the action.

It was a decent bass but I wanted something newer and, frankly, cooler.

Gibson GrabberThen, Gibson introduced a line of rock bass guitars, with the primary models being the Ripper and the Grabber.

The names alone were cool! But, while the Ripper sounded more dangerous (and what skinny, pimply, math nerd isn’t desperate to be perceived as just a little dangerous?!), the Grabber was the cooler looking bass.

Why? Because while the Ripper has a conventional two pickup set-up, the Grabber has this crazy, single sliding pickup that you can move forward (toward the neck) for a bassier sound or backward (toward the bridge) for a treblier sound. Very innovative!

I loved that bass and kept it for quite awhile until I got the pièce de résistance – my Ibanez double neck bass and electric guitar.

Talk about a unique showpiece. The thing was massive and weighed a ton. But, no one else had or played anything like it.

Ibanez DoubleneckAnd, instrumentally, it put me on the same plane as my bass hero, Geddy Lee of Rush.

I ultimately traded that axe in for a brand new, tobacco sunburst Gibson SG guitar. I had always wanted an SG and was going through a serious AC/DC phase at the time. But, it’s a decision I regret to this day!

I only have one photo of me with that guitar – a grainy black-and-white that you can find on my Shadow the Rock Band page.

Fender MustangAnyhow, my best friend Jeff, took pity on me and more-or-less gave me a natural finish Fender Mustang bass, after I had gone for a period of time bass-less.

Jeff and I played many, many a gig together in high school and junior college.

Over the years, we traded guitars, records, new rock music discoveries, and brotherly insults.

In the future, I’ll cover guitars I’ve owned.

MoMA’s Curator Talks About the Future

I’ve been so busy, I’ve not yet had time to share any reflections on the 2015 SXSW Interactive sessions.

Among my favorites was Paolo Antonelli, curator of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Her keynote, entitled “Curious Bridges: How Designers Grow the Future” was, in my opinion, this year’s example of why I always plan to return to SXSW the next year.

If you wish, you can watch the entire, delightful and borderline provocative keynote, courtesy of the good people at Southby.

Much of her presentation revolved on the notion of “designing for the ‘in between’.” While I may be slightly off in my interpretation of her intent, this phrase seemed to be Paola’s way of referencing the essential role designers play connecting the imagined to the real.

Among the examples that she shared (and there were many) during her remarks, I was especially drawn to the ones that had bio- and nanotech references. This is largely due to one of the Powershift Group projects I’ve been supervising for the past six months, called Nano Global Corp.

Nano Global is focused on nanotechnology-based products into direct everyday consumer uses. These include skin protection, surface cleaning, safe food preparation, water and air purification, and many other practical applications.

Nanotech-based consumer products have the potential to improve the lives of tens of millions around the world. This is an especially urgent need, in the post-antibiotic age we’ve entered, where superbugs and fast-mutating germs are resistant to conventional treatments.

design - 1Back to Antonelli’s Southby keynote, there were several designer-inspired ideas that I found fascinating.

One was the pointy, polygon-shaped structure in the picture that almost looks like a building-sized virus itself.

But, far from being a virus, the structure is coated with nanoparticles that were meant to neutralize pollutants in the air.

In other words, it’s a giant air filter, sucking bad stuff out of the air.

Paola spent a significant portion of her time describing ways that science, design and architecture can work together. Artists want to share their art with the world; scientists want to make their science more useful.

Architecture provides a fascinating third way for these other two to come together in a way that is both pragmatic and beautiful.

design - 3Another more playful example that Antonelli mentioned was Moyasimon’s Tales of Agriculture.

This is a manga story about a boy who passionate about agriculture. In the story, the boy can see and talk to bacteria.

It’s a lovely way to represent what designers are actually thinking about, in terms of harnessing bacteria as worker bees that enable us to build a better future.

design - 2Taking it beyond bacteria, Antonelli closed with examples of the design of living beings.

One example she showed was Autodesk’s design of its own virus, in-vitro.

Another example she showed was MoMA’s latest acquisitions from the Wyss Institute, called organs-on-chip.

design - 4Organs-on-chip are designed to simulate how certain organs work, down to and including the interaction of nanoparticles and the body’s chemistry.

The point of these designs is very real: it is to create new, validated means of speeding new pharmaceuticals through their trials, to get life-saving and other beneficial drugs to market rapidly.

All-in-all, I found it a riveting SXSW keynote that will have me thinking about the possibilities of design, at least until SXSW 2016!

Austin Clean Energy Initiative Reunion

ACE-reunionThis is a photo of Allan (“Chip”) Wolfe and me, taken recently at a reunion lunch of what I liked to call the “Batman and Robin” of cleantech evangelizing in the early 2000s. NOTE: Chip was Batman; me, Robin.

What we’re each holding is the original copy of a modestly historic City of Austin resolution that we were proud to have received.

It says, simply: “Be it resolved by the City Council of the City of Austin: The City Council endorses the Mayor’s Task Force on the Economy’s Austin Clean Energy Initiative, adding the clean energy cluster to Austin’s local economy.”

You see, back in late 2001, it was pretty clear that a virtual neutron bomb had dropped on the economic activity of any US city that had been benefitting from the dot-com boom, what we know fondly refer to as “web 1.0.”

ACE-resolutionEarlier in the year, the Dow and S&P had shown their first sounds of cratering, under the dual weight of ridiculously overhyped dot-com investing and the drying up of Y2K remediation dollars, on which companies had spent billions. Throw in the third blow of 9/11, which happened that dark September day, and what you had was the Austin tech economy in a free fall.

Then, in early 2002, I found myself sitting in my friend and colleague Angelos Angelou’s office who more-or-less said “Hey, I’m going over to IC2 to sit in with some people who are getting together to talk about clean energy technologies. Want to come along?”

Having spent the first dozen years of my professional life growing up and doing business in the oil & gas patch of Houston, Texas, I was intrigued and said “Sure!”

That meeting is where I met Chip. Others I very clearly remember at that first meeting, in addition to Angelos and me, were Richard Amato (the 1st director of ATI’s Clean Energy Incubator), Randi Shade (before she made her 1st Austin City Council run), Dennis Corkran (operating his family business Corkran Energy at the time), and a handful of others.

At the time, I’d been scanning the economic landscape for sectors to invest some time & effort, including life sciences, biotech, financial services, social ventures, and others that were a few steps removed from the hobbling dot-com industry.

An_Inconvenient_Truth_Film_PosterWith this merry band of sisters and brothers, I instantly knew I’d found something. Mind you, this was a full four years before “An Inconvenient Truth” exploded on the scene and made cleantech and its evil twin, global warming, household discussion topics.

But, once we started talking, the group – which we dubbed the Austin Clean Energy Initiative, or ACE Initiative for short – saw with clear-eyed conviction that, not only was the time right, but in fact the Austin and central Texas region had an enormous cluster of industrial, environmental, university, and civic resources already present that made cleantech a natural candidate for entrepreneurial activity.

However, as it is unlikely to surprise you, few business leaders at the time saw things the way we did. To his credit, Will Wynn, Austin’s mayor at the time, did “get it” fairly immediately and became an important advocate of ACE.

But, to win over the rest of the business community, we had work to do. I’ll leave a description of those efforts to another day and a cup of coffee, if you are really interested.

To jump to the end, Chip and I – as Batman and Robin – and the rest of the ACE Initiative team (including a big shout out to Jon Lebkowsky, who I’ll call our “Alfred” of the team, which means he was really often the brains of the operation, but kind enough to let us take some credit!) met with hundreds of city, business, and academic leaders, all around Austin, Texas, and parts beyond, advocating our position.

ACE-reportThe effort culminated in the publication of a major report, commissioned by the ACE Initiative and rolled out at a significant press conference, that convincingly established what we had known — that Austin/central Texas had the resources, people and financial capital to be one of the major centers of cleantech entrepreneurial activity in the country.

We were quite proud of that 100-page report, which you can still download today, and have been pleased at its prescience (in that cleantech, indeed, did become a welcomed part of the entrepreneurial, business establishment in Austin) and its durability, with most of the main arguments researched in the report as valid today as they were at the time.

So, back to the Austin city council resolution, which I had found sandwiched in some old files I was cleaning out over New Year’s day. I hadn’t broken bread with Chip in over a year, so I thought it was time to pass the resolution from Robin to Batman and reminisce about one of my favorite advocacy projects in the 20 years I’ve been in Austin.


the-treachery-of-images-this-is-not-a-pipe-1948-magrittePerception is reality.

Change is the only constant.

Adapt or die.

The simplicity of these phrases is powerful.  But they belie a greater complexity.

There is perception and reality.

Some things don’t change.

Death, like adaptation, is a transitive state, not a permanent one.

I’m going to write more about this topic soon.  Stay tuned…

Goodbye China – Final Musings

IMG_42941 – I’ve picked up a parasite since traveling to China.

I told my wife that we would solve the world’s future energy problems if we could just decode the biological process of this bug. Because it basically turns everything I eat into gas and liquid.

Just think if you could do this with coal. Rather than burning it and unleashing noxious clouds of CO2, you could just burn the gas and use the liquid for hydro or cooling the gas burners or, heck, for watering your lawn.

2 – I was up before 4am this morning and on a plane by 6am.

It’s now midnight my body time, but I’m hanging in there with my overseas system. That system consists of staying awake as absolutely long as I possibly can.

That way, when I finally get to my Chinese destination, I can collapse in an exhausted stupor, have a good night’s sleep, and hit the ground running for a full day the next day.

The system has worked pretty well the past 2 trips; we’ll see about this one. We left about 8 hours ago which means that we still have nearly 6 hours to go. And I’ve come close to completely nodding off in mid-sentence reading, or in mid-swipe flipping through photos.

I’m listening to A Perfect Circle’s Judith hoping that some industrial metal will kick the brain awake for a bit. Maybe head back for a 3rd cup of coffee shortly, to stretch my legs as well.

SH farewell - 53 – I caught a break on my seat assignment this trip.

I managed to snag emergency row, aisle seats on both legs – from Austin to LA, then LA to Shanghai. And, to top it off, no one in the middle seat beside me, giving me lots of elbow and stretching room.

Of course, what this means on the Shanghai leg is that I get a ‘front row seat’ for watching the parade of travelers – almost all Chinese, although no one is immune – try to figure out the bathroom doors for the lavatories.

Nearly all doors have some form of handle on them in the rest of the world, right? So, naturally, people fumble with the various features of the door that suggest some form of handle, clever and unworkable as it may be.

However, there are no handles – you simply push the door from the outside, or pull it towards you if you are inside. But, person after person ambles up and studies, probes, pokes, pulls and finally (occasionally with help) pushes the door to get it open.

The other thing they do (or actually don’t do) is shut the lavatory door, often when they exit and occasionally after they enter. For example, a little boy age 5 or 6, has left the door open and peed at least three times in front of me and anyone else who cared to be walking by then.

I’ve learned it’s a relic of history and (somewhat) rural tradition that comes from a very communal style of life, where there is a lack of any kind of privacy.

4 – Clearly, China is working a form of evil selective amnesia over me.

Last trip, I hopped on the plane forgetting every electronics adapter that I have. Thus, I ended up borrowing a multi-prong extension cord from the office for a week that allows mixed voltage devices.

This trip, no sooner did I land than I realized that I forgot my China Mobile cell phone. The sad part was that I made sure to grab the specially pronged China adapter for it, on my way out of the house.

AppJamm - closing ceremony5 – I experienced 2 earthquake aftershocks this trip.

One was in the middle of a speech I was delivering, as the closing speaker of a weekend hack-a-thon that my company sponsored with Neusoft University, called the AppJamm.

The campus was in a suburb (a village, really) north of Chengdu. Chengdu is in Western, central China, not too far from Tibet in the province called Sichuan – the root of the cooking style of the same name.

The earthquake that struck the area on April 20 that killed over 100 people had happened the day before, causing numerous cancellations and delays to flights to the area (including mine).

Everything was running smoothly through the day and we had just presented the final awards. As I was talking, all of a sudden I noticed that the PowerPoint screen behind me was rocking wildly and I heard a collective gasp from the auditorium of students.

IMG_4679Whereas they felt the movement because they were all sitting, I didn’t feel anything since I was standing. Nonetheless, it was a disturbing event and I asked the professors if we should evacuate the auditorium, just in case. ‘No,’ they said: ‘Just keep going!’

Afterwards, one of my colleagues remarked that it was the most earthshaking speech he’d ever attended.

Then, the next day, I was in Shenyang, which is in far north east China, more northern than Pyongyang, North Korea. We had just completed our day’s meetings and were waiting for a driver to take us to the airport.

As we were hanging out in this Mediterranean-style coffee shop, all of a sudden the big umbrella over our table started to sway and the heavy wooden door to the coffee shop went ajar.

This time, I was sitting, and my colleague and I both felt the earth’s movement, for the solid 2 seconds or so that things were mildly rocking. We immediately checked Weibo and Wechat, both of which indicated that indeed a mild aftershock had struck.

6 – This is my last blog about China.

It’s an amazing country, with people who have an incredible drive to improve their lives and that of their children. It must be remembered that less than a generation ago, this economic leviathan was literally North Korean style, slave labor state during the Cultural Revolution.

So, when people (like me) marvel at the crazy, weird, opulent, goofy, inexplicable aspects of the country, one can’t forget how far and fast the country and its people have bounced back in such a short amount of time.

The country has many natural wonders and generous, friendly people. Just listen to the traffic-free morning of bird activity one morning in Chengdu. In addition to being the home of one of Neusoft’s three campuses, it has nearby Panda preserves and is near the ancient home of the Taoist religion.

Goodbye to all of my Chinese friends and work colleagues, both natives and ex-pats like myself, whom I met. I will always remember you.

The Golden Era of Law & Order

law & orderFor a couple of holiday seasons now, the one Christmas gift I’ve been wishing someone in my extended household would get me (but hasn’t yet) is the complete DVD compilation of Law & Order, the original franchise series.

Besides tying Gunsmoke for the record, longest-running TV series of all time, I think it is noteworthy because it was the perfectly-crafted, INTJ-targeted television show.

But, if I couldn’t have the whole series on DVD, then I’d have to pick the sequence of years when Jerry Orbach (detective Lennie Briscoe) was paired, first with Benjamin Bratt (det. Ray Curtis) and then with Jesse L. Martin (det. Ed Green).

I consider those the “Golden Years” of Law & Order.

Orbach, who was an accomplished theater performer and movie actor before he had a second career with Law & Order on TV, is the image of a committed-but-caring, wise-cracking-but-serious-about-getting-the-bad-guys, New York City detective – even if his portrayal bordered on farcical at times.

But, it is just that farce that helps make the show so weirdly enjoyable, for me.

Let me give you three brief scenes.

Nearly every show started with the initial crime, breaking for commercial just after the detectives briefly arrive on scene.  Invariably, Lennie would crack a wise one.

First scene, case in point:

Lennie’s partner, referring to a dead woman found in a hospital clinic: “She comes in for a biopsy and manages to get killed.”

Lennie: “I guess that’s why they call it managed care.”

ME lnoSecond scene:

A frequent foil for Lennie and his partners was the medical examiner Elizabeth Rodgers (wickedly, expertly played by Leslie Hendrix).  Here’s one of their exchanges.

They are talking in the medical examiner’s lab, nearby a victim on which the ME has been performing an autopsy.  The wall phone rings and the ME answers it and listens.  Then:

Med examiner: “Phone for you, detective.”

Detective, as he reaches for the phone and then suddenly pulls his hand back: “Is that brains?”

ME, pausing as she looks at her hand and then the phone that she’s still holding: “Egg salad, I think…”

Detective: “I’ll use the other phone.”

Finally, third scene – one of my all-time classics, with the dialog speed of a 30 Rock scene, again in the ME’s lab:

Lennie: “When can we get the final report, doc?”

ME: “Look, I’m busy. I got a body in the next room waiting to have a javelin removed from the chest.”

Lennie, dryly: “So… what made a nice girl like you get into this line of work?”

ME: “Free javelins.”

I know, I know – you probably saw that one coming.

In fact, I have no doubt that the appeal of the show was that most viewers thrived on that “I see it coming” element of the Law & Order plots.  A formula show, yes – the ultimate one, given its longevity and the fact that it still lives on, with differently titles variants, like Criminal Intent and Special Victims Unit.

There’s always next Christmas.

Professional Discretion: A Personal Reflection

I’m sitting on a plane returning to the US from Shanghai. As we were taxiing on the runway, this couple who obviously works in the same company, has begun to discuss personnel issues.

The man, who appears to be the superior to the woman, has begun to complain about information that she apparently shared with a colleague in another department.

“I don’t understand why you turned me in like that,” he said. “If we are going to build a different kind of culture, we’ve got to stick together and support each other,” he continued.

She seems slightly defensive, yet replied back to him with her point of view. I won’t include it here, tempting as it is, to avoid sharing embarrassment for the company and perhaps their colleagues.

The man has moved on to more philosophical HR topics with her – still specific about their company – about how decisions are made to target and lay people off.  He apparently deems the process arbitrary, capricious, and on the whole rather unfair. (Class action lawsuit, anyone?!)

Mind you, the guy isn’t whispering. He is speaking with a room-level voice, leaning across the aisle, because his colleague is in a seat across from him.

Since it is one of those transatlantic planes where the center seats are slightly staggered from the side seats and I’m sitting on the aisle directly behind the woman, we form something of an intimate, if unwanted, triangle.

I’m feeling like Harry Potter with his stealth cloak, standing right beside Snape or one of his cronies, conspiring some sort of dark, evil deed on Gryffindor.

They’ve kept going on so long that I’ve finally stuck my earbuds in, because we’ve taken off and reached sufficient altitude.

At least I can get some relief by listening to King’s X and drowning out the corporate dirty laundry being heaped in front of me – not to mention the other 15-20 people within two rows of easy earshot of the conversation.

Has something like this ever happened to you? A situation where you were in a very public place and two or more people started talking about what would generally be considered a confidential business matter?  Perhaps you were in the group.  Maybe you are one of the people that started or carried on the conversation.

In the age of public social networks and the generation of “always on” communications, it seems discretion has disappeared as a value that few, if any, of the American public, well… values(!) any more. And don’t get me started on the influence of reality TV!!

It hasn’t always been this way, at least not in the professional circles in which I’ve worked most of my life.

This summer, I celebrated the 30th anniversary of my first “real” job as a professional, when I started as a new-hire consultant in the Houston office of Arthur Andersen & Co.’s management information consulting division or MICD.

I had 7 job offers coming out of my MBA program at Texas A&M with AA&Co. offering the lowest starting salary. Yet, I took it for several reasons: the variety of projects, the outstanding career path to the partnership that all of the Big 8 firms offered (which few people ever stayed long enough to reach), but most of all the vaunted Andersen training.

From the moment you arrived at Andersen, you began your training, beginning with 3 weeks straight of 8 hours a day of Method 1 “Foundation” courses.

After that, you immediately shipped off to the Firm’s worldwide training center in St. Charles, Illinois, a suburb just outside of Chicago for 2 weeks of immersive, 16-hour days with other new hires from around the world. I found it completely invigorating.

A foundational driver of the training was equal parts professional training to the technical, skills-based training you received.

And, even though most of us in MICD were being groomed to be code-jockeys on systems integration projects rising up to eventually sell them (where you made the big bucks), every consultant got training in professional ethics and the basics of being an auditor.

This training included rather extensive readings, videos, and role-playing exercises on how to conduct oneself on behalf of the Firm.

Among the reading materials, as I recall, was a handbook written by the Firm’s namesake himself, Arthur Andersen. In it, he wrote of the near-sacred trust that the auditor assumes when he or she begins working on behalf of a client.

This trust included high ethical standards, among which were integrity, discretion, confidentiality, and generally conducting oneself  in the highest manner of loyalty, on which others could depend – others being your fellow “Androids” (as other Andersen co-workers and alumni re sometimes called), your family, your business associates, your friends, and most of all, your clients.

We role-played situations involving being discrete. We took tests about being discrete. Then, we watched each other’s backs when we saw Andersen colleagues potentially violating the ethos of discretion.

If you were in a hotel elevator with 1 or 2 colleagues discussing a matter – even if on trip away from the city to a training event – if someone not with the Firm got on, you stopped talking about the matter, or switched subjects.

There was no such thing as a “working lunch” in a public setting, meaning discussing client or other Firm matters at a local restaurant where people at the next table might overhear.

And you never – ever – discussed client business in an airplane, bus, train, subway, or any other public transport. It wasn’t done.

If you saw (or heard) it happening among any of your other colleagues – even if you didn’t know them – you were to counsel them, gently but firmly, to stop.

About the only time I encountered private or confidential information being shared in public was when there was a deep discussion about a particular issue being vetted.

In the process of crossing from a private location – say, a rental car – to a public location – say, the shuttle bus to the airport – occasionally the passion of wrestling with a topic would carry the conversation forward.

However, all it usually took was a nudge or a look, once someone realized the risk, and everyone immediately switched gears. That was it. No more talking – period.

To disregard these values was a major career inhibitor. (The great irony to all of this, of course, is the way in which AA&Co. suffered its demise at the hands of rogue partners in the Firm’s Houston office who aided and abetted the Enron debacle – ultimately, receiving a corporate death penalty vis-a-vis a felony criminal indictment for the Firm’s actions.)

I left many years before that, in the mid-80s, to begin my path as a start-up entrepreneur.  Likewise, the consulting partners of the Firm “left” their audit and tax brethren to form Andersen Consulting, later renamed to Accenture, now a global, management consulting giant.

I suspect some of the early partners who were around when the split happened still get down on their knees every night to say prayers of thanks for the vision, if not profound lucky break, from which they benefited by going their own way.

But, I have great fondness for my time at the Firm. I learned a lot. I transitioned from being a college kid in a three-piece suit to an experienced professional.

And I met some fantastic people who shaped my business persona. Many of them, I’m fortunate to say, are still colleagues with whom I stay in touch, with a smaller handful among my closest professional partners, still to this day.

One thing’s for sure, while today’s indiscrete public ethos has likely lowered my guard a bit, I doubt you’ll ever  hear me talking in public about what my business partners or clients are doing …that is, unless I want you to know about them. If you do, nudge me – the ghost of Arthur Andersen will do the rest!

Now, let me get back to that couple’s discussion on the plane. Yes, they are still at it.

In fact, the guy has written out a whole list of employees by name on a sheet of paper that is plainly visible, with different categories of assessment.

(Here’s a picture I took – I tried to be discrete when taking it.)

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