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Why is the American Ugly? January 23, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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In 1958, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer wrote a fictional novel titled “The Ugly American”.  I read it as a teen in the 1970s.  (No, it was not required reading for school; I simply read a lot of different things at that point in my life).  It took place largely in southeast Asia, and involved sincere but misguided American attempts to improve the lives of the average person elsewhere in the world.  Afterwards, and into today, the phrase generally refers to insensitive and obnoxious Americans (mostly tourists) trying to tell those in other cultures what they are doing wrong, based on their own perspective.

There is much to say here. I am, at this moment, returning from approximately a week in Europe, speaking at a conference.  I pretty much travel to Europe 3-5 times a year, for the last seven years.  I realize that Europe isn’t the rest of the world, so interpret this as you will.

However you might feel about American culture and influence, it has become the gold standard of technology, entertainment and, well, art. As Neil Stephenson put it in Snow Crash, Americans are good at four things – music, movies, microcode (software), and fast pizza delivery.  In Europe at least, you have a good measure of American influence in at least the first three of these.  In at least some cases, it has overwhelmed the local culture.

The English language is the lingua franca. It is the language of aviation worldwide.  Tour guides, hotel staff, and restaurants are almost required to understand and speak English.  Some are upset with that state of affairs.

I am old enough to remember a time when Esperanto was supposed to be the universal language.  But a language that does not well represent a practical reality has no chance of becoming universal.

You may argue that Americans refuse to speak another language. I will respectfully disagree.  I took Spanish in high school, and Russian in college.  I would like to communicate in those languages, and in others (most recently this past week, German; well, and Slovak, the language of my past).  Most Americans are required to take a language in secondary school and college.  Unlike the Europeans, we are so large a geographic area that we have no opportunity to use our learned languages, and they fall into disuse.

In short, I do not believe in the colloquial definition of the ugly American. Sure, a few of my compatriots are less than comprehending of the norms of a foreign culture.  But there are certainly those from other countries (again, mostly tourists) who behave boorishly.  Yet the world seems to hold Americans to another standard.

American movies, music, and microcode are overwhelming because they are, well, good. Or at least compelling to those who consume them.

I met many people who speak multiple languages and attempt to communicate with others (not just me). One on this trip was Mario, who was an Italian transplanted to Austria to be with his girlfriend.  They spoke different languages, he Italian and her German, but they found common ground in English.  Would they have even met without English?  For most, English is the least common denominator of communications.

We Americans are not ugly. We are just trying to do the best we can, like everyone else.

If You Want to Know Something About a Culture December 16, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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Know the words they are using. This simply fantastic infographic helps enormously in understanding how different words are used to reflect regional cultures in the US.  Among the examples they provide are different words for meals, food, cities, and, well, swear words.  This is seriously good information for those who attempt to differentiate how language makes us who we are.  We don’t pay enough attention to that.

The Conundrum of Health Care December 12, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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I write about health care because now, about 18 months ago, I was under a death sentence. I ultimately didn’t die (I will someday, but it won’t be today), but such a situation does tend to focus your thoughts.

Health care in the US is mostly private, based on employment. In other countries, notably the UK, it is largely public.  I came across the story of a writer in Britain, Adrian Gill, who passed of cancer a few days ago, and offers praises for the National Health Service there.

There is a fatal flaw in health care that societies in general refuse to acknowledge. Health care is not an unlimited resource.  There is not an infinity of doctors, nurses, and hospitals.  Drugs cost money.  Out of necessity, health care must be rationed.  Here in the US, we largely ration through, as I said, employment.  That isn’t particularly satisfactory, of course.  But in places such as the UK and Canada, they ration through availability.  That isn’t satisfactory, either.

But it’s a discussion that no society is willing to have, and that’s the real problem. I have a friend who says, crassly but no doubt reflecting what many people truly think, “I love nationalized health care, as long as I can afford to buy what I need on my own.”

No one wants to say, “You can get as much health care as you can afford.” Or “You can have health care as long as you are willing to wait a long time for it.”

And there is the rub. They are the realities.  But we ignore them because of the friction built into our health care systems.  We can dismiss rationing as being an unintended consequence of the broken systems.

I do have one objection to Gill’s description of the NHS. He says that you don’t get the humanity in private health care that you do in public.  I respectfully disagree.  People are people, whoever signs their paycheck.  We have a human connection.  He was wrong.

In Defense of Entertainment Past December 10, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I am of a certain age. I remember popular music (some, as I had an older sibling) from the 1960s, more from the 1970s, when I was a teen.  And I like music from later decades; my tastes, I think, tend to be eclectic.

But we tend to lose sight of those who brought their talents to people in the past, in at least some part because we believe that talent from the past does not equate to talent of today. I beg to disagree.

Two voices, not common, from my early times. Jim Nabors, yes Gomer Pyle, he of the “Shazaam!”  My god.  Please, take eight minutes of your life and listen.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJlgio-UOng&t=335s .  You will thank me, I believe.

Ricky Nelson, he of Ozzie and Harriett, circa 1960. I once played Ricky Nelson for someone, she said, I cannot believe that his voice isn’t electronically enhanced.  I said, it’s the 1960s, dammit.  Another who passed before his time (died in an airplane crash at 45).  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PECmjB9df0w.

More in the pop era, Annie Haslam and Renaissance. There are very few five-octave voices in history, but she was (is) one.  You will not find a voice like this anywhere else.  Here is just one of her masterpieces.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CBShoN2bhA

You may not appreciate, but you should. There is much in history to learn.

About Grace December 9, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I’m writing this because someone should. My dear friend Gerie, we ran in a pair of races this past spring.  In the first, at Oak Island, she ran the half marathon, in a very decent 1:56 and change.  I had already run the 5K, and amazingly placed in my age group (old, very old).  The organizers were placing printouts of times (gun time for awards, and chip times otherwise) on a bulletin board, and her eyesight didn’t permit her to read hers.  I crowded into the bulletin board, saw her name, and held up three fingers.

She placed third in her age group, her first placement in a half marathon. There was another woman next to her, who saw her own name, and warmly congratulated Gerie.  It turned out that this woman was, by chip time, a half second faster than Gerie in the same age group, but because they went by gun time, Gerie placed just ahead of her by the same margin.  Grace, indeed.

The next morning, we ran the charity 5K at Fort Fisher. At the very end, Gerie fell at a speed bump, and ended up bleeding profusely in the women’s WC.  There was no first aid for the race, but a woman came up to her and said, “I sent my daughter out to our car for our first aid kit.  We’ll take care of you.”  And they did.  There was no “Do you need help?” or any equivocation.  It just happened.

Grace, indeed.

In early September, at the Virginia Beach half marathon, Gerie finished, and we were walking away from the course, when she suddenly froze with a horrified look on her face. A second later, before I even knew there was a problem, a young man (of color, but I shouldn’t have to specify that) ran up and said, “Let me help you down.”  She sat, with a serious leg cramp, and he continued, “Here’s what you need to do.”  Two police officers stopped to help.  A woman stepped up and said, “You’re dehydrated.  Take my Gatorade.”

In an era where we believe we are self-sufficient, where we need help from no one, where we let our competitive juices take over our emotions, there remain many people like this. A part of that is the running community in general, but it is also very much a part of human nature.

So today, let me ask you this: Who have you helped today?

I Want to See Things I Disagree With December 8, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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This article on Quartz is disheartening on many levels.  What first got my attention is its point that the new Amazon grocery store is specifically designed to avoid interactions with random people.

And then it goes on to talk about how the Facebook algorithms tailor our news based on how we define ourselves. (It most definitely doesn’t define mine; I refuse to join Facebook).  It gives us only what it thinks we want to read.

It is a thesis similar to Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation.  We avoid conversation with friends, family, and random people during the day because they are unpredictable.  At a deeper level, they may force us to consider other ideas, which is also disruptive to our daily lives.

It turns out that we don’t particularly like other ideas, that don’t conform to our current belief network. We want reinforcement of what we already believe, because it is easier for us.  We don’t want the friction of having to think about ideas opposed to our existing belief networks.  We call that friction, and we are attempting to minimize or even eliminate friction in our lives.

Dammit, I want friction in my life. I want to put a few bucks in the pot next to the bell-ringing Salvation Army Santa, and tell him he does good work, and hear what he says.  I want to make a random remark to a random person, just to hear the response.  And dammit, I don’t want to be told what I want to read, and I resent an algorithm that tries to tell me otherwise.  Why doesn’t anyone else?

My belief network has changed substantially as an adult. If yours hasn’t, then you have a real problem.

And I am not a particularly social person. In my late middle age (at least), I remain uncomfortable in group situations where I don’t know anyone.  But this is what it means to be a human being, in a human society.  We should be uncomfortable, because we grow as a result.

Kudos for Mike Murphy for writing this.

And. I realize that I am getting more strident in my late middle age.  I don’t know that I am right, in all or in part.  But I am willing to lay it out there, and listen to people who might prove me wrong.  And that seems to be more than just about any of us are willing to do right now.

In Defense of Honesty October 27, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I dislike politics. There is more dishonesty and deception in politics than in any other human endeavor.  It is neither productive nor expedient, yet we spend an enormous amount of time and energy in creating, manipulating, and explaining (as in “lying about”) views, policies, and outcomes.  It is a true low point in human progress (albeit possibly an inevitable one).

Yet the narrative that the system is “rigged” (however you might want to describe that) troubles me still more. No one doubts the “graveyard vote” in Chicago of half a century ago, or the poll payoffs that occurred in New York City in the early 1900s.  It’s not clear that these ever made a difference in outcomes, but yes, they existed.  Even today, certainly there are machinations behind the scenes that sometimes smack of less-than-fair or backroom political dealings.

But an election, especially a national election, being rigged?  Ah, no one but the most paranoid can even hope to entertain that thought.  The problem is that people talk.  There is no chance, zero chance, of keeping such a conspiracy a secret.  Three people can keep a secret, if two are dead.

But a larger problem is that the entire foundation of US democracy is based on the premise that we are transparent. Or at the very least the outcomes are transparent.  If we stop believing this with all of our hearts and souls, then we are no better than a third world country (sorry, all third world countries out there).

So, no, elections are not rigged. I think that there can be a reasonable proof applied to that, but more to the point, believing that is contradictory to believing that we have a democracy.  And I, as a citizen of the United States of America, refuse to go there.

All Financial Advisors Should Be Shot October 24, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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That seems a bit extreme, and out of the purview of this blog, but I think is an important message. Tax-deferred Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) became legal in my early 20s.  Shortly thereafter, I started gingerly putting money into an IRA.  At that early time, the only investment options were certificates of deposit (CDs).  No mutual funds or stocks.

For the next 30 years, all (literally) personal investment advisors said, both privately and publically, that you didn’t have to invest very much; rather, let the power of compound interest do the heavy lifting for you. Start early, invest a few percent of your income, and let the prevailing interest rates take care of the rest.  Sleep easy.  This was the case whether you had an IRA, SEP, 401K, 403B, or other investment vehicle (I have had them all).

Circa 2010, the message emanating from all personal investment advisors changed dramatically. The message now became “Save as much as you can.  Interest rates aren’t going to do anything for you.  You just need to sock away more money.  And still more money.”

For those deep into their careers, this change of message came like a kick in the stomach. For those who followed the advice of the last 30 years, all of a sudden, in their years before retirement, that they were doing it wrong.

The fact of the matter is, they lied. Simply, personal financial advisors lied.  Granted, the landscape had changed.  The interest rates have changed in recent years, putting the economic burden on savers, while spenders get free reign.

But financial advisors, if they were honest and competent, are supposed to think in the long term, for your benefit. They don’t, and they won’t.  They think for their own benefit, and don’t give a flying leap about yours.  And if they say otherwise, they are either incompetent or lying.  Myself, I would bet on lying.

Remember, your personal financial advisor (or investment website) is fundamentally a sales person. They are out to enrich themselves, not you.  In fact, if you followed their advice for two or three decades, you have certainly gotten yourself screwed.  Certainly, they have to appear as though they care about your financial future, but the drastically changed messages put the lie to that in a hurry.

They can radically change their message; in fact, deliver a very contradictory message, with impunity, because they continue to collect fees from you. They make money whether or not you do.

Okay, it is buyer beware. But if they in any way represented themselves as honest brokers, they are liars, and deserve to be treated as such.  They are not honest.  They are not on your side.  And if your personal financial advisor has abruptly changed his or her message over the last several years, you have good reason, oh, I cannot say shoot them, but perhaps throttle them.  Because they lied to you, over a period of years.