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 ...