Saturday, September 11, 2021

20 Years Later

On the 20th anniversary of the sudden shift in world history we call 9/11, the brazen and brilliant attack on America, I'm at a family gathering in the Great Smokey Mountains. I feel the cool morning warmed by the sun and hear the sound of Le Conte creek coming up through the trees outside our room. This morning, life is normal as our family catches up with each other's lives while the TV, sound muted, shows the memorial in New York City, the president and vice president looking somber, Bruce Springsteen singing. No one here is watching. We don't pause our conversation for the moment of silence observed by the crowd in New York.

That morning, 20 years ago, I was working in my office in Lowell, expecting a colleague from Roanoke to fly up for a meeting and dinner. I don't recall whether he called or emailed saying he wasn't coming, referring to a plane crash. Ed was somewhat cautious and didn't enjoy flying, so I initially thought this was a convenient excuse to cancel the trip. I walked upstairs to the cafeteria and stopped in the auditorium, where a large group had gathered around a TV, watching the smoke billowing from the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It was immediately obvious, underscored by the horror of seeing the towers fall. This was no accident. The twin towers, the attack on the Pentagon, then the downed airliner in Pennsylvania, mercifully crashed while heading back to a target in Washington.

9/11 dramatically shifted the agenda of the U.S. government, and those decisions will shape the country for generations. First, the invasion of Afghanistan to quell Al-Qaeda, then on to Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, incorrectly accused of being a collaborator and a terrorist threat.

U.S. armed forces have been mired in both countries for 20 years — just extracting ourselves ingloriously from Afghanistan, enabling the Taliban to recapture the country without a fight. We tried to leave Iraq during President Obama's term, creating a vacuum that enabled the ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria, which required a renewed military campaign to defeat it. Defeat is too strong an assessment; weaken and disperse are more accurate and hopefully sufficient to prevent ISIS from again threatening innocent people with their fundamentalist and brutal orthodoxy.

While I find leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban deeply troubling, especially the uncertain fate of the country's women, I support President Biden's decision, although not the way it was implemented. Staying there would be a forever war if we retained a military presence to keep the Taliban from taking over while acquiescing to the massive corruption.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — the lives lost, the financial cost, the distraction from other global priorities — was a policy blunder equal to the one in Vietnam in the 1960s, a blunder born of anger and hubris. War is a blunt act of vengeance, often harming the innocent more than the enemy. Establishing a just, representative government in a country is a goal that has consistently evaded U.S. policy.

Perhaps the clearest act of justice in response to 9/11: Osama bin Laden is dead, killed by U.S. special forces at his hideaway in Pakistan after an unrelenting 10-year search.

Reflecting on the course of these 20 years, I wish those who lost family and friends will be comforted and inspired by memories of the good times and how they lived. For those who served valiantly in Afghanistan and Iraq, seeking justice and helping plant the seeds of democracy, I hope they can find satisfaction from their efforts, despite the inability to see those seeds fully bloom. And I pray our leaders will find humility as they steer the ship of state in this uncertain world

Initially published on September 11, 2021 on my HEY World blog.

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Variation on a Theme

The resurgence of coronavirus infections from the Delta variant seems like a variation on the tragedy of the commons.

As originally proposed, a tragedy of the commons refers to individuals acting independently in their own self interest, ultimately depleting a natural resource until it's no longer available to anyone. The players pursue their short-term interests without considering the needs of others nor their own long-term interest. A group of farmers who let their cows graze on a shared field (the common) until the grass is gone was reportedly the example used to illustrate the initial concept. A real, current example: restrictions to prevent overfishing the waters off New England.

Turning to the variation: the SARS-CoV-2 virus keeps mutating, a clear example of evolution, with the surviving variants better adapted to infecting people and propagating the virus. The Delta variant first appeared in India last fall, where a huge unvaccinated population provided a fertile environment. Travelers then carried it other countries, and it seems to be the dominant variant in the U.S., hospitalizing and killing the unvaccinated. As troubling, it is infecting the vaccinated, who have mild symptoms yet serve as carriers to spread infections.

It's a tragic reversal for Americans, just as we were shifting back to "normal" and enjoying the summer.

The best way to defeat the virus hasn't changed since the start of 2021: get vaccinated, avoid gatherings with groups in tightly packed spaces, and wear a mask around anyone who could be a carrier. Straightforward, yet some Americans feel being told to get vaccinated and wear a mask are infringements on individual liberty. They resist and protest, encouraged by political leaders who fan the "don't tread on me" flames.

And so we have a tragedy, like a tragedy of the commons. As individuals exercise their personal liberty, society suffers. Infections increase and people die.

Governments and businesses are now imposing vaccinate or test mandates and requiring that people wear masks. Ironically, this response could have been avoided if only those advocating personal liberty had chosen to get vaccinated and wear a mask "for the good of the country." Unfortunately, paraphrasing Voltaire, no snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche.

Initially published on August 1, 2021 on my HEY World blog.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Writing Prompt

Thank you, Len Edgerly, for the writing prompt.

Although I spend my days working with words, my usual role is editing. Or writing stories of technology companies or short technical descriptions of products.

My writing as introspection and making sense of this life has languished. I feel the void. There's so much in this world to contemplate, which I do best through translating my thoughts into words on a screen. While my ego preens for the satisfaction of being read by others, the deeper gratification comes from rereading my own words and seeing if the ideas make sense.

Earlier today, I spent a fulfilling hour talking with Len Edgerly, a simpatico friend I met years ago at a podcast event in Boston. Via Zoom, we shared a few of the themes and questions in our lives, teasing out some of the deeper meanings:

  • What is it about meditation that causes the mind to settle?
  • Will acting quickly on intuition, rather than a thoughtful, deliberative tradeoff of pros and cons lead to a good decision?
  • Not knowing what will happen, can we be comfortable in the uncertainty and wait quietly for discernment to provide an answer?
  • In a world so troubled, how can we make a positive difference without becoming overwhelmed?

As we talked, Len asked whether I had written a blog post lately, perhaps wondering if he had missed one. It was a nonjudgmental question, a timely question — just the writing prompt I needed.

Len has started a new writing project, recounting how he and his wife adopted a puppy to fill the void from the death of their Yorkie. He's devoting 30 minutes each morning to crafting the story, while learning the nuances of a new writing platform. Just 30 minutes. But every day.

His example of persistent and modest effort tempers my impulse to make sense of the world's ills in one massive missive. What's more practical for a busy life is persistent attention and effort. And so, I send this out, a reflection of this moment.

Thank you, Len.

Initially published on July 31, 2021 on my HEY World blog.

The Master Interviewer

I've heard Studs Terkel's name at various times throughout my life, the mention generally lauding his interviewing skills. Most recently, Ezra Klein recommended his books; Klein's favorite: Working, Terkel's survey of people's jobs. That led me to an audio compilation of about a dozen of those actual interviews, produced by Radio Diaries from the original tape recordings. I bought the Audible version.

Wow. Such powerful interviews. Terkel's questions are short and direct, yet he establishes a trusting rapport with those he's talking with, where they feel comfortable disclosing. Moved by what I heard, I wrote this review:

Studs Terkel is legendary for his interview skills. These dozen interviews reveal why. Terkel's short, probing, disarming questions explore various jobs, their challenges, and what the incumbents truly feel about them.

Talking with the father and son in a car repair garage uncovers the tensions in a multi-generational family business. The only female executive in a national advertising agency shares she's either ignored or stereotyped, her talents discounted. A Black police officer describes the racism he faced in the Chicago police force during the 1970s; sadly, not much seems to have changed.

Each story is short, yet unforgettable.

I resonate with Terkel's skills because of my interest in interviewing. When I produced a series of podcasts talking with Unitarian Universalists about their spiritual paths, my goal was to get below the surface to reach the meaning of their lives. Now, when I write the questions for Microwave Journal interviews with industry executives, I try to craft at least one to connect with the humanity of the person I'm interviewing, hoping to get beyond the talking points of the business.

Listening to Terkel, I'm inspired to take a microphone and recorder and record impromptu conversations with people on the street, looking for our common humanity. In this divisive world, we need to listen to each other's stories.

First posted on my Hey World blog, on July 31, 2021.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

On The Road Again

It seems a bit surreal to be packing a suitcase for an early departure to Atlanta tomorrow morning.

Bucking the odds, the 2021 International Microwave Symposium (IMS) refused to cancel the physical event and, thanks to the vaccines, will be one of the first conferences in the industry to act as though life is "normal" — although the attendance will be a fraction of the last IMS in Atlanta, in 2008.

The last business trip I took was in January 2020, flying to Philadelphia for a client meeting in Pennsylvania. I was really looking forward to returning to Barcelona for the 2020 Mobile World Congress the end of February; however, the conference and that trip were cancelled as the pandemic swept the globe.

We did fly to Austin last summer when our daughter had surgery. Before returning home, I spent a couple weeks with our son in Auburn. That seems so long ago, dodging the virus during its surge in the south when the flights and airports were pretty empty.

I hear the airports and flight are packed again. Can't say I'm ready for that part of the old normal.

ATL on August 29, 2020. I've never seen the Atlanta airport so deserted.

Originally posted on June 6, 2021 on my HEY World blog.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Masks and Personal Freedom

This week Governor Greg Abbott of Texas announced the state's mask mandate will end March 10, saying citizens "no longer need government running our lives." Yet, in a subsequent interview with KTRK TV in Houston, he said, "We are still urging people to continue to wear the mask."

I've been surprised that masks became and remain such a lightning rod in the country's response to COVID-19. More precisely, the issue is whether the government has the authority to require wearing masks in a public space.

The argument for wearing masks is they reduce the risk of transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which has led to the deaths of some 525,000 Americans (and counting). As part of its responsibility for public safety and health, governments have the authority to require wearing masks, at least in public spaces, to reduce the risk of infection, hospitalization, and death.

Those opposed to mandates argue governments are infringing on an individual's freedom and liberty, adding people will act responsibly if presented with the evidence, presumably then choosing to wear a mask.

I side with a government mandate for these reasons:

1) The government has a responsibility for public safety and health, with the authority to impose regulations to ensure appropriate standards.

The history of the country has been a progression of government regulation to improve safety and health, either as society gains more knowledge or to address violations. Perhaps stop signs and red lights were controversial when first proposed, yet today we accept them, trading the expectation to safely drive to the grocery store for the loss of time and personal freedom.

2) Behavioral and cultural change takes time, while a pandemic grows exponentially.

When COVID-19 first exploded in New York City, then spread across the country, we didn't have much time to socialize wearing masks and overcome the inconvenience, discomfort, and self-consciousness doing so. If I'm the only one in a store wearing a mask, I'll take it off so I won't stand out and be embarrassed — particularly since wearing masks quickly became polarized, an unfortunate symbol of a different argument.

Intuitively, wearing a mask reduces the transmission of particles to and from the lungs, and much experimental data confirms their effectiveness. Their use is accepted in other countries: I've seen many people wearing masks in China, whether to prevent disease or reduce breathing pollutants from the air.

I doubt my reasoning will convince those who see this as a violation of personal freedom. I suspect the issue is not COVID-19, it's the relationship between the individual and society. COVID-19 is simply a battle in a much more expansive philosophical war.

Also posted at my Hey World blog.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Politics or the Constitution?

Ten of the 211 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Trump on January 13, just one week after a mob of angry partisans stormed the Capitol, following a speech where the President told his followers, “We must stop the steal and then we must ensure that such outrageous election fraud never happens again, can never be allowed to happen again.”

Of course, there was no election fraud.

Peter Meijer, a newly elected representative from Michigan, was one of the 10 who voted to impeach the president. Michael Barbaro, host of The Daily podcast, interviewed Meijer yesterday to understand Meijer’s hopes entering Congress, his response to the claims of election fraud, and what led him to vote for impeachment and place himself in a small cohort of unpopular, endangered — electorally and possible physically — Republicans.

In a world of political spin, I found Meijer open, honest, and vulnerable. I sent him the following feedback:

Representative Meijer,

I listened to your interview with Michael Barbaro on The Daily and want to thank you for being so thoughtful and open, describing your hopes as a newly elected representative, assessment of the claims of election fraud, and decision to vote to impeach President Trump following the attack on the Capitol.

I have been disheartened by the tone of political discourse, particularly about the election, and respect your principled decision to choose our democracy over the Republican party’s allegiance to President Trump. May your leadership be an example to the party.

May you be safe and have a successful term, building bridges with your colleagues on both sides of the aisle.


House of Representatives vote to impeach Donald John Trump, President of the United States, for high crimes and misdemeanors. Roll Call 17 | Bill Number: H. Res. 24

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Impeach Him Again? Yes.

I sent the following to Representative Annie Kuster today.

I am writing to support the impeachment of President Trump in response to Wednesday’s violent mob attack on the Capitol, which interrupted Congress’ acceptance of the votes from the Electoral College and, more profoundly, threatened the safety of government officials, led to the death of Brian Sicknick, and desecrated our democracy.

As you know, the Constitution provides a process for removing a President from office for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” In my view, President Trump’s false, absurd, and continued gaslighting that the election was fraudulent, culminating in his rally on Wednesday, where he instructed attendees to go to the Capitol to “stop the steal,” is sedition — which certainly qualifies for impeachment.

President Trump’s subsequent video telling supporters to go home, that he loved them and knows how they feel, did not condemn the violence and lawlessness, and he continued to falsely claim a fraudulent election. Only the following day did he release a video addressing the “heinous attack on the United States Capitol” and, for the first time, conceding the election — perhaps because Congress had, indeed, certified the election.

Although President Trump has now acknowledged he will leave office on January 20, impeachment is warranted: to warn those extremists who flagrantly attacked our democracy and to provide a coda to this travesty of governance, that the House of Representatives held a delusional and despotic President accountable.


Transcript of President Trump's Save America rally speech on January 6.

Transcript of President Trump's video telling protestors "So go home. We love you. You’re very special."

Transcript of President Trump's video acknowledging "a new administration will be inaugurated on January 20th."