Sunday, May 14, 2017

Why I Came Back - Oprah: "Life is like a cup of coffee" (Part 1 of 4)


I just read a blog post by Petrus Wu titled “Ahok Dipenjara, Buat Apa Pulang ke Indonesia” (Ahok jailed, what would you return home to Indonesia for)

I’d like to share three personal stories to answer it.

My first story is about love, stronger than fear.

It began on Valentine’s Day 2017 – a day before historic election for governor of Jakarta. For the very first time in Indonesia’s history, a man with double minority background – Pak Ahok is both non-Muslim and of Chinese heritage – stood as incumbent for election as governor of the Special Capital District.

I was helping Swiss Radio with an official reporting. We toured Kalijodo – a slum and a red-light district which was once illegally built on flood canals, now turned into a public park. Then we visited Marunda – where apartment blocks were built to house the people relocated from Kalijodo. To understand the people who were about to vote the next day.

Of course we hear the common theme. That the relocation process – led by Pak Ahok – was “inhumane”. Many were relocated against their will. People lost their livelihoods and incomes. Sex tourists used to visit Kalijodo in droves, spending millions of dollars annually on sex and entertainment. Not everyone was involved in the sex industry of course – many others sell halal food, daily essentials, and normal clothes. But without the cash provided by the sex industry, now nobody has money to spend. Such is the situation in Marunda: plenty of legacy shops from Kalijodo, but no customers with cash to spend.

It was no surprise that the majority seem to reserve their hatred for the incumbent Governor. That “Chinese Pig”.

Curiously, though – there were also some who quietly reserve appreciation for Pak Ahok. “My house used to flood every year up to the roof. We once slept for a whole month in the attic. With rats and filth. Now we have a nice flat, with proper and clean kitchen. Our kids go to school gratis. Even transportation on public bus is free of charge. We can’t be more thankful. But we can’t vote for him, because for Muslims it is haram to vote for a Christian.”


February 15th, 2017. The day of the first round of voting. Full of hope, I arrived at the poll station at 8 AM sharp. I posted the picture of my ink-stained pinky on Facebook.


February 16th, 2017. The official results from KPU – the election committee – came out. As an engineer and data scientist, I scoured over the data – down to the specific neighborhoods and apartment blocks. And I was in for quite a shock. In some apartment blocks housing relocated Kalijodo residents, Ahok won the first round outright by 40% of the vote. Forty percent!!!

Let’s put that in perspective: at least half the population in Marunda were directly connected to the lucrative sex trade, and they were vivid about their hatred for Ahok for taking away their sex-funded lifestyle.

Yet 40% meant that nearly all those who worked “halal” lives voted for him. That’s a hell lot of Muslims who dared to defy their imams and risk eternity in hell. We are not talking about 2 years of jail sentence here. We are talking about eternity in hell. Yet virtually all those devout Muslims who lived “halal” lives – defied their imams and voted for Pak Ahok.

Indonesia’s highest Muslim body, the MUI – equivalent of Vatican’s college of cardinal – has decreed that casting a vote for Pak Ahok is haram. Casting vote for Pak Ahok is like eating pork or enjoy pre-marital sex. It’s haram. Illegal in the eye of Islam. Those voting for Ahok risk eternity in hell. Yet they took the risk.


By the numbers: 85% of registered Jakarta residents are Muslims. Simple math will show that there are more Muslims voting for Pak Ahok than there are non-Muslims in Jakarta (and there are many non-Muslims who did not vote for Pak Ahok for their allergies of clean and transparent government).

Behind the thousands of candles lit the night he was incarcerated – are the 1.7 million Muslims plus 0.5 million non-Muslims who had quietly cast their votes for the man who had changed their lives. Who had touched their hearts. For the man they believed could change the world.

That is love – stronger than fear.

So why, do you ask, he is now in jail? For all his service – why is he in jail?

Because his struggle is not yet done. Our struggle is not yet done. Pak Ahok has changed the lives of many and touched the hearts of many. But not enough. Not enough. Not yet enough.

Pak Ahok has changed the lives of the thousands now living in Marunda flats – and they voted for him. Pak Ahok has changed the lives of the thousands who live in Kalijodo – and they voted for him.

Never allow the “opinion” of three judges to blur that fact.

Pak Ahok has only been in the job for 2 years. The job is not yet done. The fight must go on. The struggle must continue.

So, if you ask “what for”? The first answer is: to pick up the baton and to spread love, stronger than fear.

( … to be continued … )

Sunday, May 05, 2013

in stories: "Changing the Lightbulb" ...

So ... it's about time that I resurrect my blog and shift it towards my Stanford GSB (short for Graduate School of Business) experience.  But now that I have not yet left for Stanford, let me fill these pages with a few things: my hopes from the Stanford MSx (short for Master of Science for Experienced Leader) Fellow program, my time in Indonesia as a chicken farmer, and stories from / about my fellow "MSx Fellows".

Now, about some hopes about the program ...

My dad never finished college, and as successful as he has with the family chicken farming business (more on this you can read in excerpts from my Stanford essay that I will publish later), he has always been the strongest supporter of seeing me come back to school to earn a Master's degree.  It's a bit counter-intuitive, right, and he has always struggled to explain this to anyone.  But it's actually more or less like this:

When a lightbulb goes out in our living room, my dad who is about 10 cm taller than me would simply reach up, unscrew the old lightbulb, and screw a new one in.  But sometimes when he does not feel like it, he would turn towards my brother and ask him to replace the lightbulb.  My brother would then look at the lightbulb, and say to my dad that it's out of reach; why won't my dad change it himself.  My dad would then turn to me and ask me.

My brother and I are about the same height, so I would know that if my brother could not reach the lightbulb, there'd be no way that I could.  So I'd fetch a ladder, step on it, and replace the lightbulb.

Some people like my dad could replace lightbulbs with ease without any ladders.  I'm one of those who could not. Not with ease, anyway.

And some ... they don't need a ladder because they'd rather not be the one to change the lightbulb.

And as for my dad, I'd like to add: yes he could change the lightbulb without a ladder.  But had he used a ladder, perhaps he could have gotten close enough into the ceiling to notice the leak above the ceiling that had caused the lightbulbs to die prematurely so frequently.  Or perhaps he would not need to overstrain his back and his toes in the process of trying to overreach the lightbulb.  Perhaps.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Who are the current Stanford Sloan Fellows?

Most impressive about this program is the kind of people you'd meet.  You can see the complete list here.  Here are some of the most interesting profiles:

Deputy Private Secretary - Hong Kong SAR Chief Executive
SVP - Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ
SVP - Standard Chartered Bank
Managing Director - Morgan Stanley
SVP - Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels
Manager, CTO Office - Samsung
SVP - Piaggio

I will add into this list once I am done skimming through the entire list ...

Saturday, December 08, 2012

... in new possibilities?

There's a fitting quote I just came by this morning on Twitter:

"In beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in expert's mind there are few.": Shunryu Suzuki

As some of you have learned, Stanford Graduate School of Business has admitted me into its 12-months Sloan Fellow program.  A week ago, I have formally signed my job resignation papers and the notice to vacate my rented apartment.  The program begins in July 2013; I am planning to stay in Indonesia between February and May 2013.

Crazy.  Great risk.  Unnecessary.  Those are likely your reactions.

About fifteen years ago, I did something similar under worse circumstances.  At the height of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, I packed my bags and flew to St. Louis USA to study in Washington University, another one of the world's finest institutions.  I received half-tuition scholarship then, yet I still saddled myself with over $50k in debt with little understanding on how I was going to pay that back.

But the rest ... you know my life story: it was the best decision I've ever made.

Out of the many reasons why I wanted to join the Stanford Sloan program (all of which I will discuss in the coming weeks through this blog), the most important comes down to this:

I love what I do, and I still do.

But therein lies life's biggest risk: I have become so comfortable with my job that I could no longer strive and take risks the way I did when I first started my career.  It is easier to do as told, and it has become more and more difficult to take risks because to think and do different -- the payback would never worth more than the risks of failure and repercussions.  Somehow I long for what Steve Jobs said in his 2005 Stanford Commencement speech:

"I didn't see it then, but getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.  The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything.  It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life ..."

I am no Steve Jobs, I know.  But in the Sloan Fellow program, I will be joining 79 fantastic individuals.  This year's cohort includes Senior VP of Bank of Tokyo - Mitsubishi UFJ.  Senior VP of Standard Chartered Bank.  Managing Director of Morgan Stanley.  Senior VP of Piaggio.  US Navy SEAL.  Deputy of Private Secretary to Chief Executive of Hong Kong SAR.  Manager in Samsung CTO office.  Senior VP of Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels.  About two dozens of cofounders and CEO/COO of various firms -- high tech and low, financial and operational.  Oh, and the list goes on.  You get the idea: how the admission committee thinks I belong in this elite group is beyond me, but let's not question that :)

When I put everything in balance, anything I stand to lose does not compare with everything I will gain by joining this program in Stanford at the heart of Silicon Valley.

Wish me luck.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Die Luft der Freiheit Weht ...

Some of you probably wondered why I rambled in German. Others, probably wondered about what is "this wind that freedom blows" all about. Few probably have taken the pain to google the phrase and see the connection.

So there's the clue. I won't spoil your fun.


It began a few years ago when I (re)watched Steve Jobs' 1995 speech, where one phrase particularly jumped out:

"I didn't see it then, but getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life."

***** (to be continued ...)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

"So, what is home, to you?" - Part 3

(Reposting from November 2005)

"So how would you answer that question: Where are you from?"

Me: "I will try to understand the context, and try to make it short."

"What do you mean?"

Me: "Well, after a while I was sick of telling the long version over and over. So I will think of an answer that will require the least explanation."

"Typical you. But what is home to you? As I can sense, English sounds like your first language now ..."

Me: "Hopefully soon enough West Vloms will be my first language. As I wrote in my blog, someone once told me that home is where your heart is, and my heart belongs to the people, the experience, and the enjoyment of the things that I do. It's not a physical thing. My last home--Memphis--is no longer there. The people who worked the nights away with me are no longer there. They are now scattered all over the world. But if I have to pick a place ... right now, Ieper, is home.

"But why? They think you were a scum who stole their jobs away?"

Me: "Once I was beaten up in the streets of Jakarta and was denied a spot in Indonesian public universities. Tennessee would not issue me a driver's license. True, Europe has its problems. But just because you have Hitler as your neighbor that by itself does not make the entire neighborhood racists. I mean, Bush gave Americans a bad name, but it was some American strangers who funded my education. Then a different American family welcomed me with open hands and helped me to integrate into the American culture. Here in Ieper? I would not have survived my first month without a lot of help from the vast majority of Belgians who enjoyed having me here. In return, I would be glad to show those extremist few that they were wrong: I too can make a positive difference in their little world. Giving up is like letting the bad people win."

"So why did you decide to go to Belgium?"

Me: "Well, why not?"

"I mean, what happened to your US permanent residency and citizenship? Don't you have to give them up to come here?"

Me: "You know ... that was among the most popular questions but also the easiest one: I never started the process."

"Why not?"

Me: "Then I would've not been able to be flexible and move to Belgium when I wanted to."

"You are making a circular reference."

Me: "What was your question again?"

"I forgot."

Me: "Works all the time ..."

"Will you ever settle down?"

Me: "Why is everyone asking me that? Somebody else asked me this before, and in the end she spoke to me less and less, then not at all. Maybe. One day."

"Who is she?"

Me: "It sucks to have to move all the time, learn new language, adapt to new culture, and build new relationships. It always feels lonely at first. But at the same time, I am willing to pay that price for all the experience. For example, I now know many people who work for the EU at the time when Europe is struggling in building a Union that will potentially direct where the global pendulum is swinging. It helped me widen my perspective."

"So what did you do when you get lonely?"

Me: "Ha! I went on a speed dating once."

"You what???"

Me: "Hey ... you got to try everything at least once!"

"Did it work?"

Me: "No."

"Where do you think you'll eventually settle?"

Me: "Two years ago I went to Zhengzhou, China to support a manufacturing plant start-up in December when temperature dropped to 20 Centigrade below freezing and people didn't even own heaters. So we bought portable heaters. But the locals--believing artificial heating was bad for health--resisted them so much that we had to type emails in our "office complex" wearing gloves during our first month there ... yes Zhengzhou was not what many Americans would call a "civilized" world. With me, there was some cultural connection, but not much. I eat similar food. But I am still what they call a banana. Once a taxi driver looked at me confused: 'You don't speak Henan, you don't speak proper Mandarin, what the hell do you speak??' I use my engineering handbook to make decisions and I don't give much respect to some ancient wind-and-water references. I mean, they had engineers who did not believe in thermodynamic laws. But they were all hardworkers. Together, we worked the winter and brought the plant up and running within the 6 weeks time we were given. And when we finally bagged our first pound of product 1.3 billion frustrations later, there was a different feeling. It's a feeling you'd get for securing hope and opportunities for the people who've given their all for the common goal. And, afterall, what can be more priceless than watching the superstitious Chinese flock around their much-hated portable heaters two months later? That was home."

"So China was home?"

Me: "No. Over there I was just a foreigner who looked exactly like the locals but don't behave like the locals. Home was with the people, the experience, and the enjoyment. I would in a heartbeat come back there for a similar experience, but it does not have to be China. Maybe I will have a different but equally satisfying feeling here in Europe. We'll have to see."

"In a sense, you'd never settle down?"

Me: "I'll tell you when I do."

Five years later ...

Yeah, I am still in Belgium. In Ypres (Ieper) in the far southwest corner of West Flanders, of all places. Even the Belgians call it "the end of civilization" (it's quite accurate if you think about it ... it's the last stronghold of Flemish civilization against the continuously pushed borders of Français Flandres ...)

About a year and a half ago, I actually was called to go home by my bosses. Yes, home means America.

And about a month ago, I was called to go home by my parents. Yes, home means Indonesia. Or, in their terms, "at least Singapore" ...

But home is where your heart is.

To be continued ...

Monday, August 04, 2008

... in life ... at 4808 m

In October last year, I watched Dr. Randy Pausch's "Last Lecture" video after reading about him featured in the Wall Street Journal. My favorite line from this lecture was:

"It's not about how to achieve your dreams. It's about how to live your life. If you live your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dream will come to you."

After his fight with cancer for about a year, Dr. Pausch is now resting in peace. He lived on for about double the amount of time that his doctor had originally expected from him.
... ... ...

So how do I live my life? You can see my entire pictures from this Switzerland and Mt. Blanc climbing trip in my Flickr album

"Fun? If your idea of fun is eating undercooked crap food (water boils at 85C at such altitude), sharing a double mattress with two other (awfully stinky) guys, trying to sleep while your heart is beating at almost 200 bpm, then waking up at 2 am, fighting up hungry Italians just to get your fair share of breakfast, then go out and face the cold wind by 3:30 am ... went through a layer of cloud then found yourself above the clouds and above all other peaks in Europe on a beautiful morning with an amazing sunrise ... YES, THAT WAS FUN!!!": Me

Mt. Blanc does not rank among the extreme mountains to climb, nevertheless, there's always something mythical about it. The White Mountain. La Dame Blanche. The White Lady. The world's most storied mountain. The top of Europe.

4808 meters above sea level.

Sunday, July 27th 2008: St-Gervais-Les-Bains (850 m) - Nid d'Aigle (2372 m) - Refuge du Goûter (3817 m)

After a week of warm up sessions in the Swiss mountains, on Saturday, July 27th 2008, we moved our base camp from Saas Fee to St-Gervais-Les-Bains, where the Tramway du Mont Blanc starts its journey as part of Mt. Blanc's Voie Normale, or also known as Voie du Goûter.

We took the first tram up on Sunday, a 7:20 AM train (delayed to 7:40 AM), arriving at Nid d'Aigle by about 9 AM. The mountain tram took the bulk of the climb, but we still had about 1500m climb to the Refuge du Goûter, so we got there at about 2 PM.

An interesting bit -- while we were heading to the "relative" comfort of the mountain hut in Refuge du Goûter, some people decided to brave the snow storm on bivouac tents on the snow fields up the Tête Rousse plateau and just at the foothill of Dôme du Goûter.

"There is a very fine line between bravery and stupidity."

Dinner at 6 PM was supposedly quite crappy due to the lack of cooking temperature feasible at such altitude, but I was so tired and hungry that all the food tasted very delicious even on my still-swollen lips.

Monday, July 28th, 2008: Refuge du Goûter (3817 m) - Mt. Blanc (4808 m) - Col du Midi (3532 m) - Aiguille du Midi (3842 m)

"Route-finding should be easy: there will be 30 people in front of you and 200 people behind you": Adrian

"But what if the 30 people are following the 1 person who happens to be taking the wrong turn?": Me

After fighting a bunch of hungry Italians for my fair share of breakfast, and after finishing half of Adrian's leftover breakfast that earned me a strange look from our table mates ...

"What? Look at that mountain. Look at him, then look at me. I am half the size of my mate here, which means I have to make roughly twice the number of steps he has to make. I deserve to eat twice as much as what he eats!"

... by around 3:30 AM, we were heading off to the top. And as you can see from my watch ... we made it there in good time.

Life, at 4808.75 m.
The altimeter on my watch reads 4810 m ... the snow level plus the height of my arms.

Since it was still quite early ... we decided to take the scenic route back, Voie de Trois Monts. This route of the three mountains take a bit of a longer walk across to the other side of the Mt. Blanc Massif. It's so-called three mountains because the three mountains involved: Mt. Blanc, Mt. Maudit, and Mt. Blanc du Tacul. It also did involve a bit more technical skills, especially under the heat of afternoon sun ... as we had to descend a wall of melting snow, traverse along walls of melting ice, and a few of wide-open rimayes. Nevertheless, after ... the ... last ... three ... hundred ... meters .. climb ... from Col du Midi up to Aiguille du Midi, we made it back safely to the end point of Aiguille du Midi téléphérique--almost to a hero's welcome. Dozens of tourists stood around the guard rails of the observation deck of the Aiguille du Midi almost like waiting for our return ... pointing at us and taking our pictures. A Dutch kid pointed at us and said "Look, mom, mountain man!" And just to be obnoxious, I pointed back at them, and told my friend, "Hey, look, Adrian ... tourists!! What do they want?"

"Oh, I'll tell you what's most fun. At the top of Aiguille du Midi téléphérique, a Dutch tourist asked me: 'So, are you guys gonna hike back down now?'

I said, '*Back* down? We didn't come from down. We came from *up* there ...' pointing at Mt. Blanc."

And, at the end of the day, it was one, heck, amazing, memorable, great, journey.

Sunset over Mt. Blanc as seen from Chamonix

Carmen: "Wow! How did you get there??? ;-)"

Me: "Oh, easy. Google's venture arm has invented this device called magic clouds that you could just call out of the skies and you jump on it and it will take you anywhere you want. I was lucky to be selected as one of the beta testers for this really really cool device. You see the yellow things on my shoes ... they latch right on the magic clouds. The rope around my shoulder is its version of safety belt ... you know, to prevent people from falling down during sometimes bumpy flights."

Adrian: "Magic clouds my arse. "

At the end of the day, looking at Mt. Blanc from a restaurant in Chamonix, Adrian asked me: "Would you not rather have grown up in Chamonix?"


I am what I am. An Indonesian by birth, name, and food culture. American by upbringing, dreams, and aspirations. Chinese by heritage, work ethics, and compassion. Franco-Flemish by pragmatism, appreciation of life, and beer passion. Small town boy at heart with a global perspective in the mind.

Confused by identity and values but a big believer in the culture of tolerance at the end.

Why would I want to trade that with anything?

"If you live your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dream will come to you.": Dr. Randy Pausch

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

What Happens to the American Economic and Technological Might?

This article below was first published in the 1980, and was republished almost a year ago.

With the dollar today hovering at almost $1.6 per € and at parity with CA$, AU$, and CHF (yes, it does hurt when you're paid in US$), American (investment grade) bonds are selling 90 cents to the dollar, and one of the world's most cultured symbol of capitalism sold for less than the price of the office building that it occupies ... one has to wonder ...

Is American capitalism, as we know it, dead?

Managing Our Way to Economic Decline

Harvard Business Review, July-August 2007

"During the past several years, American business has experienced a market deterioration of competitive vigor and a growing unease about its overall economic well being. This decline in both health and confidence has been attributed by economists and business leaders to such factors as the rapacity of OPEC, deficiencies in government tax and monetary policies, and the proliferation of regulation. We find these explanations inadequate ... Germany imports 95% of its oil (we import 50%), its government's share of gross domestic product is about 37% (ours is about 30%), and workers must be consulted on most major decisions. Yet Germany's rate of productivity growth has actually increased since 1970 and recently rose to more than four times ours. In France the situation is similar ...

(American) managers still earn generally high marks for their skill in improving short-term efficiency, but their counterparts in Europe and Japan have started to question America's entrepreneurial imagination and willingness to make risky long-term competitive investments ... 'It's much more difficult to come up with a synthetic meat product than a lemon-lime cake mix ... A synthetic steak is going to take a lot longer, require a much bigger investment, and the risk of failure will be greater.'

In the past 20 years, American companies have perhaps learned too well a lesson they had long been inclined to ignore: Businesses should be customer oriented rather than product oriented. Henry Ford's famous dictum that the public could have any color automobile it wished as long as the color was black has since given way to its philosophical opposite: 'We have got to stop marketing makeable products and learn to make marketable products.' At last, however, the dangers of too much reliance on this philosophy are becoming apparent. As two Canadian researchers have put it, 'inventors, scientists, engineers, and academics, in the normal pursuit of scientific knowledge, gave the world in recent times the laser, xerography, instant photography, and the transistor. In contrast, worshippers of the marketing concept has bestowed upon mankind such products as new-fangled potato chips, feminine hygiene deodorant, and the pet rock ...'

Gaining competitive success through technological superiority is a skill much valued by the seasoned European (and Japanese) managers ... European managers think themselves more pointedly concerned with how to survive over the long run under intensely competitive conditions. Few markets, of course, generate price competition as fierce as in the United States, but European companies face the remorseless necessity of exporting to other national markets or perishing. The figures here are startling. Manufactured product exports represent more than 35% of total manufacturing sales in France and Germany and nearly 60% in the Benelux country, as against not quite 10% in the United States ... Further, the kinds of pressures from European labor unions and national governments virtually force them to take a consistently long-term view in decision making ...": Robert H. Hayes, Process Emeritus, Harvard Business School, and William J. Abernathy, processor, Harvard Business School

Most of us can sense the striking déjà-vu between what was written in 1980 and what has been happening lately. Oil prices--even when adjusted for inflation--hit record prices. Companies and consumers default on loans and many file for bankruptcy. Unemployment rate climbs. American public blames its problems on oil producers, Chinese imports, and Mexican migrants, forgetting that if these external forces have truly been responsible for the world's problems, the Euro would not have traded at twice the value it had five years ago as the Euro-zone has experienced similar, if not stronger, headwinds.

Even George Soros himself has turned bearish on the greenback: he sees that the weakness in US$ as a sign of decline in American productivity (and therefore, export competitiveness) rather than as an opportunity that will improve American competitiveness in the world market. (In other words, Mr. Soros believes that cheaper US$ simply compensates for the higher cost of producing goods and services in the US that was caused by a decline in American productivity; thus, it will not make American export any more attractive than before.)

Seeing both American and European managerial styles first hand, I have to say that this is time for American leaders and managers to have a deep retrospect. While American managers are busy hiring expensive consultants to implement Lean and Kaizen quick-fix methodologies, our European counterparts are busy justifying and executing long-term technical and capital projects all the while keeping tab on their operational discipline (without spending the much-needed resources on overpaid consultants and calling them fancy names). While Americans are busy debating whether the threat global warming is real, pragmatic European leaders recognized that the world is in shortage of fossil fuels anyhow, and to survive in the longer term, Europe must reduce its dependency on foreign oils--through a combination of market forces and government interventions when necessary. While many American companies have to pay dearly to retain or poach away their best talents by treating them like some piece of commodity, many European companies enjoy enviable loyalties from their employees that keep their recruiting and training costs down, and keep their employees' invaluable knowledge in-house, simply by treating them like a piece of appreciable asset.

Productivity is Killing American Enterprise

Harvard Business Review, July - August 2007

"... Many of the claimed productivity gains in recent years have amounted to productivity losses. To appreciate this, imagine what would happen if you fired everyone in your company and shipped from stock: Working hours would disappear while output would continue. That would be extremely productive, and you'd make a lot of money in the bargain. Until, of course, you ran out of stock. In my opinion, many American companies are running out of stock. They're trading away their future health for short-term results. No CEO fires everyone, of course. But thanks to corporate subservience to shareholder value, which means driving up the price of a company's shares as quickly as possible, CEOs have been finding all kinds of other ways to cash in the goodwill that accountants and economists have trouble measuring. Trashing the brand is one easy way. Cutting R&D is another. Then there is managing by the numbers: The CEO decrees the desired results, and everyone else has to run around meeting them--no matter what the consequences ...": Henry Mintzberg

Don't get me wrong. I still believe in the American dreams. In the power of innovations, such as those that Google has shown possible. In Muhammad Yunus' social capitalism that has raised many out of poverties. In Warrent Buffet's laissez-faire approach to management and investing.

America's 1980s was followed by the technological renaissance in the 1990s. Let's just hope that the "lost decade" of our time would not last as long, and would soon be followed by yet another technological boom of the 2010s ...

Sunday, November 04, 2007

in ... the dumb things that non-climbers say ...

Found in

"And how do you get the rope up there?"
Answer1: "It just kind of grew down from that tree."
Answer2: "I used a harpoon. It took several tries."
Answer3: "We've trained a couple of these squirrels to run the rope up and loop it down the anchor."
Answer4: "You don't." - usually said as the lead climber begins to climb -

"How does the last person get down?"
Answer: "Just like I did."
"Well, then, who carries the rope down?"
Answer: "No one, we leave it there for the next party of climbers." - this usually said as the last person down is pulling down the rope -

"Hey, are you training to be Tom Cruise's double?"
Answer: "No. He's training to be mine."

"Rock climbing is your hobby; but what do you do for exercise?"

"Is there a strip-club or something at the top of the cliff?"

Then the all-time classics:

"Do you know there's an easier way around the back?"

and the most important and most classical of all:


Exactly. Why? Why do we climb?

Why do we have to get to the top of the rock? Why do we climb another rock, another mountain ... once up there, the views are all the same?


Orpierre is another world I never knew existed. A sleepy medieval village in Les Hautes-Alpes (the upper Alps) department popular with climbers but ignored by everybody else (except perhaps a few stray tourists looking for a quiet getaway from the touristy Provence or Côte d'Azur), it maintains the very traditional French character and mentality.

Friendly, laid-back, and trusting. No matter where you're from, what language you speak.

Just like in Fixkes's 'kvraagetaan. A world from the good-old-time that knows no gsm (unless you climb 500m to the top of the cliffs that is), no cinema, no police station, no restaurant, no hypermarket, not even a post office. Just a small bar, an épicerie, a bakery, and--of course--a climbing shop. Its main street--La Grand Rue--is only about 1.5m wide. A place where its villagers still live the life that knows no hate, no prejudice, no worries, no ambition, no regret ... a place where everything is still so simple, and a week vacation in a nice traditional gîte costs no more than €150, everything included.

Including one heck of an experience that--to me--beats any $5000 vacation in the Bahamas or any other "exotic" places.


Why do we climb? Why do we have to get to the top of the rock? Why do we climb another rock, another mountain ... once up there, the views are all the same?

Why do we work, why do we chase dreams, why do we have to always be better than everybody else, better than yesterday? Why do we live?

We, climbers, climb because we love to climb.

Monday, October 22, 2007

... in life and childhood dreams (memorable quotes from Dr. Randy Pausch--delivering his last lecture in Carnegie Mellon's "last lecture series"

"How do you measure a year in the life?" - The Rent

How about ... in Randy Pausch's childhood dreams?

"It's wonderful to be here. What Indira didn't tell you is that this lecture series used to be called the "Last Lecture". If you had one last lecture to give before you died, what would it be? I thought, damn, I finally nailed the venue and they renamed it!"

Delivering his "last lecture" in Carnegie Mellon's "Last Lecture Series" with 3-6 months left of good health, Randy talked about his life and his childhood dreams. For complete lecture video and transcript, they are available in Randy's website.

"So what are my childhood dreams? ... And there I actually have a picture of me dreaming. I did a lot of that. You know, there's a lot of wake up's! I was born in 1960. When you are 8 or 9 years old and you look at the TV set, men are landing on the moon, anything's possible. And that's something we should not lose sight of, is that the inspiration and the permission to dream is huge ... So what were my childhood dreams? ... Being in zero gravity, playing in the NFL, authoring an article in the World Book Encyclopedia ... Being Captain Kirk ... I wanted to become one of the guys who won the big stuffed animals in the amusement park, and I wanted to be an Imagineer with Disney ... OK, so being in zero gravity. Now it's important to have specific dreams. I did not dream of being an astronaut, because when I was a little kid, I wore glasses an they told me oh, astronauts can't have glasses. And I was like, mmm, I didn't really want the whole astronaut gig, I just wanted to float. So, and as a child, prototype 0.0 [slide shown of Randy as a child lying in floating-formation on a table top] But that didn't work so well, and it turns out that NASA has something called the Vomit Comet that they used to train the astronauts. And this thing does parabolic arcs, and at the top of each arc you get about 25 seconds where you're ballistic and you get about, a rough equivalent of weightlessness for about 25 seconds. And there is a program where college students can submit proposals and if they win the competition, they get to fly. And I thought that was really cool, and we had a team and we put a team together and they won and they got to fly. And I was all excited because I was going to go with them. And then I hit the first brick wall, because they made it very clear that under no circumstances were faculty members allowed to fly with the teams. I know, I was heartbroken. I was like, I worked so hard! And so I read the literature very carefully and it turns out that NASA, it's part of their outreach and publicity program, and it turns out that the students were allowed to bring a local media journalist from the home town. And, [deep voice] Randy Pausch, web journalist. It's really easy to get a press pass! So I called up the guys at NASA and I said, I need to know where to fax some documents. And they said, what documents are you going to fax us? And I said my resignation as the faculty advisor and my application as the journalist ..."

And he continued ...

"... Being an Imagineer. This was the hard one. Believe me, getting to zero gravity is easier than becoming an Imagineer ... And so I bided my time and then I graduated with my Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon, thinking that meant me infinitely qualified to do anything. And I dashed off my letters of applications to Walt Disney Imagineering, and they just sent me some of the damned nicest go-to-hell letters I have gotten. I mean it was just, we have carefully reviewed your application and presently we do not have any positions available which require your particular qualifications ... So that was a bit of a setback. But remember, the brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough, they're there to stop the *other* people."

But sometimes, some dreams are just out of reach. Talking about his dream of playing in the NFL, Randy said:

"Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted."

And in the end, he sums everything up nicely:

"Be prepared. Luck is truly where preparation meets opportunity."

"It's not about how to achieve your dreams. It's about how to live your life. If you live your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dream will come to you."

(And now, just for fun: ... in more sunsets ... this time from Le Mt-St-Michel in Normandie, France)

... in paper tickets, in warm meal on-board, and--who would've guessed--stainless steel knives and forks!! (Greece: a journey back through time ...)

Cyn and I (literally) in the hands of God Dionysus

Greece ... Ian summed it up nicely: "Greece ... great lots of ancient history ..." Carolien has had enough rubles, but she remembered the beautiful cities, great food + wine, beaches, and good weathers.

And Cynthia? "... annoying crickets playing the symphony at night ... roosters or peacocks or cows mooing in the early morning ... the stray cat ..."

It was about 4 in the morning when Cynthia rolled over onto my side of the tent, whispering in panic, "Hey Adi Adi Adi ... There's something that feels like someone's limb on top of my leg here!!"

Actually, the stray cat has just found a warm spot to sleep.

Then there's the scooter and the cheap rental car on adventurous gravel road. The "open-door" kitchen that solves all language barriers we thought we were going to have to encounter. And the annoying self-parking donkeys.

You really want to know what I'm talking about? Why not venture out and experience yourself all the daylights ...

(Cyn's idea of a day on the beach: "I don't wanna get any darker!")

... and sunsets ...
(sunset over Naxos beach and the Gate of Dionysus)

... and the midnights and cups of coffee ...
(ok, more like in nice cool evenings over few glasses of Santorini wines)

(All pictures, as usual, are posted on my Flickr photo album)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

... in something "bigger": social responsibility that pays

A few years ago, out of curiosity I browsed around school rankings and I was trying to see if there were strong correlations between a school's rank and the average salary of its graduates. And it stroke me hard: in several professional fields of studies (medicine, law, and scientific research), there were definitely strong and negative correlations between rank and average salary, at least among the top tier schools.

A friend told me: "Why? Easy. You don't go to Harvard Med if you wanted to practice medicine--which is where the money is. You go there to learn how to find the cure for cancer and a solution to AIDS in Africa ... a Utopian dream that does not immediately--if ever, during this lifespan--pay off."

As a person, I've always wondered what life is and what life should be. And as an aspiring leader ... I continuously ask the question: what makes an organization better than others? How do you recruit and retain the best and the brightest? And how do you create value and earn a living (and provide comfortable livings for your followers) while staying true to your values?

The Wall Street Journal, June 19th 2007
Law Firms Willing to Pay to Work for Nothing

"Pro bono work at Big Law has evolved from an act of noblesse oblige into, at least in part, a business initiative. Law firms want strong pro bono programs as a way to recruit and retain top law students and junior associates, who are often more eager than their predecessors to do pro bono work ... The big firms are 'having to dig deeper to differentiate themselves,' say Esther Lardent, the president of the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center. 'Dedicating to pro bono is a way for a firm to say 'Our culture isn't entirely about maximizing profits, but about something bigger.' ... ": Ashby Jones

Harvard Business Review, December 2006
Strategy & Society: The Link Between Competitive Advantage and Corporate Social Responsibility

"Successful corporations need a healthy society. Education, health care, and equal opportunity are essential to productive workforce. Safe products and working conditions not only attract customers but lower the internal costs of accidents ... Any business that pursues its ends at the expense of the society in which it operates will find its success to be illusory and ultimately temporary ... At the same time, a healthy society needs successful companies ... If governments, NGOs, and other participants in social society weaken the ability of business to operate productively, they may win battles but will lose the war, as corporate and regional competitiveness fade, wages stagnate, jobs disappear, and the wealth that pays taxes and supports nonprofit contributions evaporates ... Leaders in both business and civil society have focused too much on the friction between them and not enough on the points of intersection ... When value chain practices and investments in competitive context are fully integrated, corporate social responsibility becomes hard to distinguish from the day-to-day business of the company. Nestlé, for example, works directly with small farmers in developing countries to source the basic commodities, such as milk, coffee, and cocoa, on which much of its global business depends. The company's investment in local infrastructure and its transfer of world-class knowledge and technology over decades has produced enormous social benefits through improved health care, better education, and economic development, while giving Nestlé direct and reliable access to the commodities it needs to maintain a profitable global business ... NGOs, governments, and companies must stop thinking in terms of 'corporate social responsibility' and start thinking in terms of 'corporate social integration' ...": Michael E. Porter, Professor, Harvard Business School, and Mark R. Kramer, Senior Fellow, Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government

And, the truth is ... sometimes doing the good things is not only comforting ... but also makes strategic sense ...

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

"So, what is home, to you?"

Almost two years later ...


"So how long have you been there? Four years now?"

Me: "Ha! Not even two years!! You must've missed me that much, huh? I'm flattered."

"Well, not that. But normal people, they would show up back at home at least once a year--if not twice or three times per year--and you? No email, no telephone calls ... nothing. And let me see ... your last blog entry ... November 19th, 2006 ..."

Me: "Hey, at least I'm still updating my Flickr site! Take a look!"

"Fine. Tulips, tulips ... and a bunch of old-looking windmills. Are these the things that keep you there? Geez, I hope you didn't forget your allergy medicines. Ah, I see. Of course. Now I see ... there're the chicks!!"

Me: " ... "

"So how's Mt. Blanc?"

Me: "Best time in my life. Chamonix-Mt-Blanc ... the 'Death Sports Capital of the World'. You should read Kristen Ulmer's description of it in Epinions. She describes it there very well. Snowboarding along the 40-50 meters-high séracs--glowing crystal-blue walls of ice that formed as a result of glacial movement--the experience is simply out of this world. Of course, there are the crevasses too--gaps in the otherwise smooth glacier surfaces--you've always got to be in the lookout ... those things could be as deep as 2-3 hundred meters!"

" ... "

Me: "And at one time the weather was so crappy ... the funny thing was that it was quite sunny on top of the lift ... though you could see from there that you would have to snowboard through the clouds. Oh yeah. After about 200-300 meters descent, it was so windy and it was snowing so hard that we had visibility of no more than 2-3 meters ... if you could still call it "visibility". To protect against a fall into the crevasses, we were snowboarding while tied together on a rope. That was exciting!"

"Excuse me ... exciting??? Did it ever occur to you that when one guy falls, all of you might get dragged into the cliff ... crevasse ... whatever you call those things???"

Me: "Hey, I came back alive, didn't I? But fortunately, I did not get to test that theory about the rope and the crevasse. So let's just assume the guide knew what he's doing ..."

"So when are you coming back?"

Me: "Who says I will? Besides, coming back where?"

"So you're not coming back? You know, back here? Don't you miss us?"

Me: "I don't know. The guys who're deciding don't know--they're too busy with other things. So, in the meanwhile, I am making myself home."

"So you've found yourself your greener grass?"

Me: "Ha. Funny that you mentioned grass. We have a lot less grass over here that my allergy is actually doing a lot better--at least when I am sitting at home in the center of the city!"

"Oh gosh. I hope you didn't suffer too bad in the tulips garden. So, beyond the lack of grass, what do you like so much about Europe ... about Belgium?"

Me: "Well let's see ... didn't we just discuss this? The tulips, the old-looking windmills ..."

"Oh gosh, give me a break ... in Memphis you've got tulips growing in your own backyard!! You've got to mean the chicks???"

Me: "Yeah, yeah ... you're just jealous. Anyway, those are the things you don't find in the United States. Come on. You know my tulips didn't even bloom ... they were just barely poking out of the ground ... And then of course, there are Chamonix and the Alps ..."

"But weren't you the one who said that Utah had the best snow on earth?"

Me: "Yes, Utah still has the best snow on earth. But you can't find Chamonix either in the US. Truth is, there is no comparison. There is no grass that is greener or greenest. They're just ... different."