Monday, February 28, 2011

An American Passport

A couple of years ago I lost my passport in Venice.  Well, technically, I lost it in international air somewhere between Paris and Italy.  Almost immediately after I arrived at Marco Polo, I knew it was missing. Frazzled at Charles De Gaulle, after being over-charged on baggage for an unpleasant Easyjet flight, I hadn't given it back to Thomas (the standard carrier).  I headed directly to the polizia and explained my problem in broken Italian.  As I filled out the police report and lost passport form, it became clear I would have to go down to the American consulate in Florence if I ever wanted out of Italy.  Fortuitous for us, we had planned on driving down there after a few days in the sinking city.  I counted myself lucky and tried my best to forget about something I could do little about, and told my fretting husband to do the same.  I did manage to primarily banish the thought from my head until we reached Florence.  Occasionally, it would pop into mind.  I kept picturing the man I had barely noticed behind me on my three hour flight.  He came clearer into picture each time. 

In my minds eye, he became an ugly, short, hateful drug dealing kingpin with warts on his face from some Slavic country I could not pronounce.  But he did not just deal in drugs; my imagination ran rampant.  I was convinced he also trafficked arms, and anything else of value, including women.  And that is where my passport would come in handy, he would be able to transport some poor drugged up girl across countries and continental divides.  My passport, I concluded, would be used for the darkest evils of the world. 

Fast forward a few days, I'm walking up to armed guards standing in front of a palatial building with American flags overlooking the Arno River. The Ponte Vecchio sits majestically behind me, goading me, as if to say, 'Bella principessa, how do you think I've been standing this long--- don't sweat the small stuff'. As I negotiate my way past the handsome men in barets, I enter a fluorescent lit institutional room with white linoleum floors and folding chairs.  A woman switches seats to sit next to her friend and give me an available lone seat.  I sit down directly across from a picture of our secretary of state and am put at ease. I give the courteous lady a breathy 'grazie' to which she asks if I am Italian.  I say no, at which point she compliments my accent.  We begin to discuss why we each are there. She is a professor from Italy attempting to get one of her doctoral students a visa to work with her in the US.  She explains that he is Albanian and not being from the EU, he will be particularly scrutinized.  They have been preparing his application for some time.

Soon, he is called through the large white doors to the right and so am I.  The next room was astonishing in its objective beauty, but more in its stark contrast to the previous one. The dark mahogany panelled walls reflected an incandescent lamp and antique fixtures. I sit in a lush velvet upholstered blood red seat directly next to my new slavic PhD friend.  We discuss life in the US, and I can't help but notice that he looks at me as if he were star struck, as if I was one of the chosen few to have a treasured American passport.  Desperately, he tries to converse with me in his broken english and italian, and we meet somewhere in the intersection of the languages. 

Within a few minutes he is called to the window to meet a fine-silk-Italian-suited American who speaks the language fluently, along with I'm sure many others--- I later find that he is the consul.  Naively, I was sure he would get permission, and easy passage to my homeland. After ten minutes of discussion, my foreign friend turns to me distraught, he did not receive a visa and exits through the same large mahogany varnished doors, dejected.  An arrogant American, I sit there feeling increasingly nervous and sheepish.  As I am called by my full, very official sounding name, to approach the window, the consul begins to ask me what happened.  I explain the situation, light-heartedly with a big smile.  His eyes burn through me, all levity disappears and I find myself on the business end of a brutal castigation during which I was reminded the value, importance, and desirability of an American passport. 

I felt minuscule. But that day I was issued a temporary passport from the 'American Consulate in Florence' (it actually said that).  As I breathed a deep sigh of relief and he handed me my shiny new voyage de passage, my ticket to the world, I reflected on my mental image of the fictional cold-hearted criminal who had stolen it and then to the very real, very heartbroken young microbiologist who wished to continue his work for a couple years in the states.  And suddenly I understood concretely what the consul was trying to explain to me.

I tell this long story to illustrate a few things. Firstly, I am sometimes an absent-minded professor. Thomas is now deemed 'official passport carrier' whenever we travel and I make every attempt to be more 'careful', more 'responsible' and simply less of an idiot.  Secondly, I have come to realize that my imagination can sometimes get the best of me.  But most importantly, I was reminded of this story when I came across this chart today, and it disturbs me how few Americans are able to see other countries.  Not only have I gotten a rich education from traveling that I have woven and integrated into my life back home.  But I also learned a great deal when I lost my passport and took that unexpected and eventful trip to the consulate.  It was then that I had a rare glimpse, I was able to see the world through non-American eyes.  For a few seconds, I was the outsider looking in.  An American passport is something to be treasured; it is now one of my most prized possessions when once I had taken it for granted.  Thus, that experience has not just given me an appreciation for my wonderful navy and gold ticket to the world, but has also reaffirmed my love for my (much envied) homeland.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Odd Architecture & Odd people

For as long as I can remember I have had the strangest of fixations, obsession really, with strange architecture. In high school, I lugged around a book of Gaudi's buildings and carpentry religiously. I have a thing for small doors and half addresses.  I've dreamed of secret portals and hidden pathways. Maybe it's that I'm, admittedly, eccentric.  Maybe it's that there is always something else to discover beyond the readily apparent or the standard measure of things. 

Someone recently sent me a Myers-Brigg test.  Turns out I seem to be a ENTP, a visionary, whatever that means and whatever weight that actually carries.  Maybe that's the explanation. I see things others don't.  However I'm hard pressed to believe that I, or most people fit into a 4x4 grid.  But I guess to treat these things as Thomas does, 'it's like a fortune cookie, take what you want, leave the rest".  He, while we're on the subject seems to be an ENTJ, a born leader, apparently they comprise under 4% of the general population and 80% of executives. Sounds apropos to me.

So back to the crux of it, it is probably no wonder, when I fell on a picture of one of Derek Diedricksen's designs, Gypsy Junker (love the name) that I became transfixed on the intricacies. To me many of his structures look a little too survivalist--- as if you would grab your shotgun and canned food on your way out to the shed.  But this one is, dare I say, beautiful.

I dream of building my own treehouse one day.  Not the conventional father-son-log-cabin type, but the adult-electrified-spiral-staircase kind, where maybe I can peer out my looking glass window from my reading knook and imagine a future that hasn't been created yet.  ENTP, I guess that's a pretty good fit too.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Game Changing: Gay Marriage

This is one fantastic step in the right direction.  From a strictly legal and political standpoint though I am not sure that equal rights should be entirely legislated through the justice department.  It might be a way for Obama to toe in to the deep dark abyss of Conservative encroachment on civil rights and rather than doing top-down enactment, he gets foot soldiers all over the US, and the movement will almost feed bottom-up.  But if you're going to go, go big, right? Or is it, celebrate the small victories?

As far as my own personal views about gay marriage in general, I've never understood the argument that same-sex marriage would somehow dilute the meaning of my own. However, I do feel that the meaning of marriage is often bastardized by straight couples who get married for the wrong reasons or hold to antiquated gender roles. I live my life by the principle of live and let live.  But beyond that, it just serves to reason that a gay couple should have the same medical and tax and human rights as their straight counterparts. 

I've often said that Thomas and I would do quite well to be 'partners' and act as if we were a gay couple---we would be freer to break the binds of strictly consigned gender roles imposed on us by society because we are a 'straight married couple'.   We might all do well to have more gay couples join the married population.  Maybe they would mix things up for us 'straight folk' and help lower the divorce rate.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Microfinance and Yunus

The social business model introduced by Yunus, the current scapegoat of Bangladesh bureaucrats, has intrigued me for some time.  For a spell, I worked with a micro-finance consortium that served low-income people in the New York city area.  I have since, taken a keen interest in the field--- I've read books (I highly recommend Bornstein's), I've taken seminars. 

Firstly, I'll go on the limb and say that I could never quite stand Mohammad Yunus' books.  I found them to be self-promoting and primarily for main stream marketing about the ideals of micro-finance.  But, that doesn't negate the fact that the man is a genius and has helped millions of Bangladeshis rise out of poverty, I've just always had a personal distaste for both of the former pursuits (ie. self-promotion and marketing), though I can see the need.

He created a new space in the market, where the poor without collateral could get loans to run businesses, to become self-sufficient, get their children educated, and break the cycle of poverty.  The old model of banking does not work for this strata of society.  Even in the US, with the relative ease and availability of non-collateralized capital, the poor use check cashers for pay-day loans.  They are charged beyond usurious rates and are never really able to pay off their debts.  The poor really do get poorer, and it's not their fault. Yunus' ideas were revolutionary. 

Beyond Grameen bank, he has discussed the creation of social businesses.  The thesis of the argument is that corporations and their shareholders really only care for the bottom line.  Though many will claim triple bottom line pursuits (money, social good, environmental impact), the first will always be paramount given the predominant interests involved.  On the other hand, philanthropy and the non-profit world is a broken model.  Their sources of income are usually government grants, non-profit grants and donations.  The foundations spend so much energy just in fundraising that it often eclipses the greater mission.  I've always been annoyed with the fact that non-profits are not run efficiently like businesses. They do have financial statements, why do they never really tend to them? Additionally, we've all seen what happens with the 'trickle down effect' when the wealth dries up.  So this new hybrid model of business would serve the gen Y's like me--- we could serve our ambitions and our need to improve the world.  It would allow someone to sell widgets that would improve the lives of the world's most vulnerable.   Do well and do good?  Really!?

So the micro-finance industry has stumbled quite a bit recently, it's something I expect to happen with social enterprise too.  Just like the lumbering corporation vs. the agile start-up, the innovators and early adopters are the most idealistic and pure hearted--- then you have profit-minded mimicry. Many "micro-finance institutions" are really usurers without vested interests in the communities they are serving.  Dare I say, regulation is needed, both for micro-finance and social business.  I wouldn't say that it should be done by the Bangladeshi or Indian governments themselves, but maybe by the international MFI community maybe the UN could help.  The world is flatter than ever, and we can no longer look to local unstable governments, particular those in current economic and political disrepair to regulate international trade and finance. 

And maybe, as any great founder, Yunus should realize his own limitations and give way to growth beyond himself.  After all, that is what sets a founder aside from regular business owner, his or her ability to put the good of the company ahead of his own ego--- growth to the point of your own obsolescence.   I'm sure it will be no small feat for Yunus when the time arises.   However, by no means should he be forced into it for political motives, so I'm not so sure that time is now.

Friday, February 18, 2011

My Love Affair with Curly-haired Operatic Heroines

Fleming as Armida @ the MET
We're seeing Armida at the MET tonight.  We saw Tosca a few weeks ago.  The common theme that runs between these librettos, that carry them really, into the hearts and minds of the viewers is the protaganista, the woman.  These are the characters that many females aspire to be, and men avoid scorning.
Mucha's Salome

I have always been fascinated by these strong, deceitful, curly-haired powerhouses (and so has my husband, thankfully ;o).  For him, I think it started with the beautiful firecrackers on his Bensonhurst block growing up, as he refers to them, the 'real Brooklyn hitters'. For me, it's a little more complicated.

You can see a patchwork of it in the art I've always admired.  I particularly gravitated to Mucha paintings as a kid and then, as I got older those paintings in the main hall of the European wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that seem to all depict swarthy curvaceous muses. And then later still, I fell for the operatic divas. The rare women I saw represented in any media, who sort of looked like me.

Regnault's Salome @ the MET
But if you go further back, for me it goes a little deeper and it really started with the biblical stories I was so defiant against in grade school.  As an independent-thinking, rebellious, heathenous young girl in an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva, I bucked and revolted against the hypocrisy I saw so apparent in the classes taught by Rabbis.  I was a pain in the ass.  I hissed and argued.  Yet in my moments of silence in these formative classrooms, I came to identify with the strong female characters in the stories we read--- the heroines.  These are the kindred spirits who made me feel that I belonged in that world that felt so alien and shepherded me towards adulthood as a woman, a Jewess and a game changer.

Life is a circuitous path--- I seem to say that often nowadays.  The Orthodox yeshiva world I couldn't understand or fit into, that I resented so much in my youth, now comes to inform the person I am today in very eccentric and eclectic ways.  And I wouldn't change a thing.

So we are going to see Armida tonight, I hear Fleming is fantastic in the role. And by the way, my Hebrew name is Abigail---look her up, she's a pretty fierce chick.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Man vs. Machine

Watson wins! Our fears will soon be realized, an Asimov-ian apocalyptic world where the machines take over rendering humans obsolete (picture: matrix, terminator, irobot). 

But I wonder why we are so surprised.  This has been happening since the industrial revolution.  Since assembly lines and silo-ing of careers and industries, humans have become increasingly more reliant on machines to aid and automate and less so on our own creativity and ingenuity.  We have become encyclopedic specialists and line workers; a system that worked really well for corporations, industry, professions. It suited the people well enough--- out of that we got labor laws, 40 hour work weeks and weekends. Then along came the transistor. And the world we have come to accept, makes us increasingly uneasy. Now our machines can cull, sort, and distribute data more efficiently and with greater speed than their masters. Events like this Jeopardy contest remind us of our deepest fears about technology and these objects we have come to rely upon so heavily in our daily lives.

During my college years I did academic research on neural networks. Given certain assumed inputs from previous cases, the system can 'learn' methods of detection and patterns.   It can then develop a certain expected result given it's 'training'.  At the time we were getting fantastic results, using the network to rapidly spot micro-calcifications in mammography.  The network made a radiologist almost obsolete.  Almost. 

Pattern recognition is the human specialty.  We assess and analyze better than any computer because what it really boils down to, the source of genius, is creativity.  The computer needs the inception, the question asked, and then the likelihood, especially given more refinement of the system, it will be able to answer it correctly.  In contrast, the human can pose a question, and that for us mere mortals is elementary, my dear Watson.

In the post-micro-processing-fiber-optic world, I see humans coming back to their rightful place, as thinkers, innovators and inventors and using the machines to do the rest.

Sign me up.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Lost Thing (Clip of the Short)

In an industrialized world of metal and rivots a boy finds a 'lost thing' and invests himself in finding it a suitable home and placing it where it belongs.

We live in a fast paced age. Many times people forget the value of wonder and imagination in one's life. Also, we have this uncanny need to categorize and label objects and people for the sake of simplicity.

It might be helpful if we all got better acquainted with 'lost things' occasionally.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

NY Tech Innovation Community

Recently, I was involved in a discussion about the NYC innovation community.  The most interesting questions that came up were:

1. What the biggest impediment to NYC becoming the best place to create and build an innovative start-up?
2. What are the main goals I would want to see achieved within the community?

My thoughts are as follows:

1. Stigma. New York is populated by smart people with ambition to do great things, change the world, and find fame and fortune in the process.  But that substinative ambition is often eclipsed by income generation and careerism.  This happens, I believe, partially because starting something in NY takes a great deal more wealth (and guts) than most other parts of the country/world and partially because more fortune 500's are headquartered here than any other city.  As Sinatra said 'if you can make it here you can make it anywhere'; that's a great deal of pressure.  So New Yorkers (many transplants, who come to 'make it big in the big city') become disillusioned, fear sets in, and entrepreneurial ambition is forgotten.  And to say one is an 'entrepreneur' or aspiring to be one, it is often met with the kind of cynicism and jokes that were common in the 90's when one would say 'consultant'.

So, yes, it would fantastic if the perception in NY of entrepreneurship in general changed, though that trend is not likely to happen quickly.  However, innovative start-ups are a class unto themselves and they should be differentiated as such.  There is new world order coming in the wake of devastating unemployment, the great recession, and the new messages from the White House that innovation, invention and engineering are hip and these virtues, above all, are what will keep the US competitive.

New York could and should be at the front of it.

2. Though I would consider myself beyond technophilic, I have always been skiddish about social media.  I don't blog, I don't tweet, I barely keep up a current facebook presence though I am entirely comfortable expressing myself both in writing and verbally. Though many times it seems like an invasion of privacy, I believe, it all primarily stems from a deep seated feeling that it is all instantaneous self-promotion. Who wants to know what I'm working on at the moment?  What if I'm not working on anything? Who really cares if I find this article interesting?  This is something I believe to be endemic amongst smart, forward thinking women.

I once attended a women's political training held by the Eagleton Institute.  There, many heavy-weight female political players were on a panel and the mayor of Highland Park, NJ at the time Meryl Frank (now U.S. representative to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women) spoke about an interesting observation.  She said, men wake up one day, look themselves in the mirror and think, "I think I'll run for senate".  No matter her leadership experience, passion for change, and credentials, most women aren't wired that way. I believe it's what a psychologist would call, 'impostor syndrome'. That is one of a few barriers I'd like to help break down.  Women are an untapped well of technical capital.

I hate to belabor the point and sound like more of a feminist than I am (I am the purist of equalists), but if I was intimidated and was afraid to be exposed in the community, and nervous about self-promotion, I know there are others. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Tiger cubs vs. Free spirits

"This point was picked up by Larry Summers—hardly known as lackadaisical in personality or parenting style—who pointed out in a debate with Chua at Davos that if Karen Zuckerberg and Mary Gates had been tiger moms, they never would have let young Mark or Bill leave Harvard to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams, and we might not have Facebook or Microsoft (though America would probably have two more very competent dentists or lawyers)."

What we also have to remember is that there is selection bias in the Chinese system.  Not that I am excusing the American statistics, or saying China isn't doing better.  But China hen-pecks students, sends them to special schools in Shanghai, vetting their best, leaving the rest to be uneducated rural peasants.  So their statistics are quite skewed.
The critics of this article shouldn't take it so literally. Yes, being a Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg is one in a million.  But what about the hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs of start-ups you've never heard of who are changing the world as we know it.  Let's all agree that America would do better to be a little more creative AND a little more quantitative. What is that quote-- "Never let your education get in the way of learning"?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Future of Medicine

It seems to me that there are other drivers beyond price as to why a person would not want a personal genome mapping. Firstly, it would be a fairly terrifying situation to realize that one has a fatal disease for which there is no known cure or treatment. Talk about 'wait and worry'. Additionally, maybe I am a cynic, maybe I'm paranoid, but I am not yet confident that now or anytime in the near future can we protect our genetic information from health and life insurance companies. Say you get a genomic mapping, what is to stop a life insurance company from supoenaing the documents or claiming that you lied about your known ailments on medical disclosure forms when it comes time to claim death benefits.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Start-up America DOA

Interesting dilineation regarding types of entrepreneurship.  I've
been thinking about this quite a bit recently, Kauffman sees the
distinction, the start-up world sees the distinction, but it seems Joe
Public, and thus, the government lumps all entrepreneurs into the same
category.  There is no clear way to separate someone who opens a bagel
shop from someone who is designing the next great nano-chip which
makes it all the more difficult for the public sector to encourage
"innovation", "scalability", "entrepreneurship".

I think he summarizes it really well.

"Next time the talent shows up for a Startup America initiative, they
ought to be getting offices, not sound bites."

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Women: Consumers of Television Media

Most days I 'work outside the home'. I hate to use that phrase, as I think that the dilineation is backwards and contrived. Some days I am fortunate enough to use my laptop and take calls from a desk in the comfort of our own home.  I sometimes wonder, if I were to do that every day, would I 'not work outside the home'?  My husband also occasionally works from home, which more men and women do with an increasingly connected world.  Could there ever be a time when someone would label him in that way?

Even when I have the opportunity on days I work from home, I have always been averse to watching daytime tv, I was never quite sure why, but it kind of depressed me, for really inexplicable reasons. It wasn't until a recent snow day, my husband and I were both sick, relegated to the bed. After watching together anything we could find, between snoring REM cycles: 'teen mom', 'kathy lee and hoda', 'lxny', I realized concretely what had been bothering me. It wasn't just that the networks expected the watcher to be a woman, but it was more the 'type' of woman these stations assumed me to be for being home in the middle of the day. And more than programming to their audience, it seemed as if they were creating the audience, fostering a certain way of thinking.

The programming and marketing is almost entirely geared toward women.  This is seemingly logical given the fact that most stay-at-home spouses, parents and those who care for the elderly are the women of the household (a separate matter, for another time). However, I take issue with the overwhelming message that this media seems to convey to women. To start, those who created the advertising campaigns didn't make the effort to be clever, to play to a woman's wit and humor to convince her into a purchase. All the ads, whether for anti-aging wrinkle cream or direct marketing antidepressant medication ("ask your doctor", talk about something that should be illegal) or cleaning products for your never-tidy-enough home plays rather transparently to every woman's basest fears, anxieties and insecurities. They keep her perpetually fixated on her evaporating youth, rather than her growing wisdom, her feelings of the moment rather than hope for the future, her home, rather than the world around her. And then, when the commercial break ends, the blaring message is, that the world is capricious and she should be terrified of everything that could so easily penetrate the walls of her home, her family, her health.

Most recently I was watching an episode of Dr. Oz, a leader in his community, brilliant doctor, and a scion of public health. Yet, as I watched the show the predominant message was: worry about your weight, your eating habits, your cholesterol, 'take metamucil ladies', 'try hypnosis to change your mood based behaviors toward eating', take sam-e, drink tart cherry juice, press acupuncture points. On a recent episode of kathy lee and hoda, hoda asserts 'we know everyone is blue this time of year' and then proceeds to fixate on fashion and celebrities. The news channels blare all the daily horrors from child bullying & suicide to threats of biochemical attack, not to mention 'next we'll tell you what's under your sink that will make your child autistic', 'how do you know if he's cheating'. And don't forget 'shop, shop, shop, ladies'. There is even a birth control commercial that shows every life choice as an item on a department store shelf to be purchased. The American woman is taught that her purse will cure anything that ails her, that consumerism will fill that deep void she's feeling--- pharmaceuticals, the newest clothing trends, personal care products, health foods, home (re)decorating, self-help books.

The resounding message is, focus inward, the world is a dangerous place, do anything to pacify yourself daily, just don't look out that window, don't engage with the world around you. Ironically, women are continually reminded to concentrate on things they can't necessarily do anything about. There's the old anon proverb "grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the strength to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."  If a woman is to listen to her marching orders from media, she would confuse the first 2 mandates of that message and forget the last. Which to me, is the definition of hopelessness, continually trying to fix things that she may not have the ability to fix and may only cause her to focus more inwardly. If she is to conform to what is being asked of her, she would be relegated to perpetually mending that hole ridden fragile lace of which we, women are apparently made.

One of the proudest roles for many women to attain is protector of her home, lioness of her den, which of course can't be done without seeing to her own health and well-being, but let us not forget the internal strength required for that role and additionally that women have also always been stewards of their communities, change-makers, innovators, nurturers and teachers.

Why aren't these shows focusing on the capacity of women, the top of Maslow's hierarchy? Why isn't a woman being shown that she can be an activist, build a business, cultivate an art portfolio, study music or a language, write a book, spark a social enterprise, lead change... start a revolution?

To quote Rudyard Kipling's 'If',"If you can fill the unforgiving minute. With sixty seconds' worth of distance run - Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, And - which is more - you'll be a [Woman] my [daughter]!"

Ladies, run with me.