Sunday, December 20, 2015

An Open Letter to Mr. Barack Obama, President of the United States

Dear Mr. Obama,

I am a naturalized American citizen of Iranian birth. I moved to this country - on my own - when I was fourteen years old. For the past thirty six years, seventy five percent of my life, I've called the United States home and tried to contribute to this country to the best of my abilities. Scrubbing dishes as a dishwasher at $2.60 an hour to pay for college was not glamorous work, but it was required as a first step in achieving “The American Dream” and I performed it dutifully.

Having now been present at the figurative birth of many transformative software products, having contributed - however little - to some of the great commercial successes in the field of computer science for the past thirty odd years, and having played a small part in the generation of billions of dollars worth of American capital - having done these was just part of the job. These are just what I did to make a living. 

However, having raised a daughter who is now a lawyer dedicating her life to helping the downtrodden, I would argue, is tantamount to having paid my dues to this country. You see, I adopted this country long before it adopted me. 

As such, I hope you will forgive me if stand appalled at this new bill, HR-158, the Visa Waiver Improvement Act of 2015. For those not familiar with the topic, here is what NPR had to say about it. Basically, if I may paraphrase, this bill states: “I recognize we have a huge problem within our borders with millions of guns and assault rifles and people getting killed every day. But, as an elected member of Congress, I am going to continue to collect contributions from the NRA - arguably the root cause of the problem at hand - while I target a small subset of the problem by attacking the very same people who have built the foundation of this country for the past two hundred years, namely immigrants. Never mind that a statistically insignificant percentage of immigrants and foreign visitors to this country ever engage in crime - San Bernardino notwithstanding. They just happen to be the only ones I can easily identify and stop at the border. Further, in this pursuit, I am going to create unnecessary bureaucracy and paperwork - in the same misguided way that we created the TSA to ‘find’ terrorists hiding bombs in their shoes and toothpaste.”

Did I mention that one of my cousins designs jet engines, another one is responsible for water for the city of Anaheim, that an uncle of mine is a professor of economics in Atlanta, that my brother in law is a successful money manager on Wall Street, that my sister in law is a pharmacist, that my wife is an artist? We, sir, are not the ones you have to worry about. We didn't come to harm anyone here. We came to build this country. Please treat us accordingly - with a little dignity.

I have traveled the world (forty five countries to be exact) thanks to that wonderful instrument called the American passport. I hold it proudly as I go into every country as a goodwill ambassador for the US, whether I am traveling for business or for pleasure. To be told that I may have to apply for a visa to return to my adopted country the next time I travel overseas is not just a slap in the face, it’s a first step towards creating second class citizens - based on nothing but racist principles. This is especially ironic coming at the same time that Europe is opening its doors and its hearts to refugees from the very same countries.

The immigrants now living in this country lawfully are not the ones you should be targeting. They’re the ones that have helped make this country what it is. A hundred years ago, they were Italians, Chinese, Irish, and Germans. Two generations ago, they were European Jews, they were Japanese, they were Vietnamese, they were Koreans. One generation ago, they were Iranians fleeing the Islamic revolution, Indians coming for their engineering skills, Mexicans fleeing poverty. Today, they are Syrians and Sudanese, Sikhs and Tamils. Nothing has changed but the color of their skins and the place of their birth - neither of which do they have any control over. 

This is not the first time that xenophobia has gripped this country nor is it the first time that such paranoia has resulted in misguided persecution. I don’t need to remind you of the lessons of history nor do I need to remind you that these are not the principles that this country was founded upon. I beg you to stand up to congress, look every one of them in the eyes, and say as loud as you can: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Feel free to replace the word “sir” with “madam” where applicable. A few other choice words come to mind, too.

I have given up trying to communicate with my elected representatives who are supposed to be looking after my welfare. Instead, I’m appealing to you as a man of reason and a decent human being - one that, lest we forget, is the son of a Kenyan immigrant himself.

If this bill becomes a law, let me be the first to stand as a conscientious objector and to refuse to comply with it. But I hope we don’t have to go that far. 

Sincerely Yours,
An American Citizen

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Chapter 11: “You say you did what when you were fourteen?!?”

“I enjoy talking to you. Your mind appeals to me. It resembles my own mind except that you happen to be insane.”
       George Orwell. 1984.

“Stanley Motss: I bet you're great at chess. 
 Conrad Brean: I would be if I could remember how all the pieces moved.”
       Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. Wag the Dog.

“Nick Naylor: I talk for my job – basically.
  Child: Can’t anybody do that?
  Nick Naylor: No – it requires a certain moral flexibility that most people lack.”
       Aaron Eckhart. Thank You for Smoking

The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 11: “You say you did what when you were fourteen?!?”

Okay, it’s chapter eleven. By now, he must start sharing some actual life events if this is to be considered an “autobiography”, right? And, what’s the deal with this being the autobiography of two people? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Who is this Bob guy, anyway? How come he hasn’t shown up for his own biography yet?

All great questions – to be answered in due course. Bob has already showed up in this autobiography in a cameo role and will be back again soon. Meanwhile, I have to disappoint you as this chapter is also about Ben.

At a recent job interview, I was asked what Bill Gates is like in person. After answering, I mentioned in an off-hand manner that I had also worked for Steve Jobs for about a year even though it doesn’t show up on my resume. The short story is that I worked on a new PowerPC based system at NeXT which was cancelled days before it was to be announced – when Steve Jobs decided to abandon hardware and instead standardize on the Intel x86 architecture and concentrate on software instead. In hindsight, this was absolutely the right decision for the company but, at the time, being the hot headed engineer that I was, I left in a pique over the cancellation. How dare they cancel my project? Of course, Mr. Jobs triumphantly returned to Apple a couple of years later and the rest is history.

The conversation reminded me of all the other jobs I’ve had: starting with the dishwashing job at a steak house - at a whopping $2.60 an hour; to the part time programming I did on the side for one of my college professors - at a dizzying $7.50 an hour; to the midnight-to-noon weekend graveyard shift as a sysadmin - at a stratospheric $10 an hour; to the part-time Teaching Assistant gig at college, working with Math students and wondering why and how they had gotten so far without understanding fractions or decimal points in high school; to the part time programming job, every other weekend, fixing bugs in a medical billing application in some arcane language on an ancient PDP10 machine which no one else was either able or willing to touch, at a laugh-to-the-bank rate of $15 an hour. I could keep going but you get the idea.

So many odd jobs, the proceeds therein going to partly fund my undergraduate career as a starving foreign student. The fact that I often held two or even three of these jobs simultaneously seemed natural. Working and studying eighty, ninety, a hundred hours a week seemed natural at the time - a requirement for survival.

Having landed in Boston as a lone fourteen year old, fresh off the boat from a war torn country in the grip of a revolution, I somehow seem to have managed not only to survive but to thrive as well.

The less I say about the old country, the better. I remember skipping school and joining demonstrations in the streets - not because I agreed with any of the revolutionary groups but mostly just to avoid going to school. I remember schools being closed for months at a time due to unrest. I remember the odd feeling of hearing gun shots in the street outside and seeing cars burning in the streets while the TV news broadcasts calmly announced that “all is well” - due to Government censorship. I distinctly remember the day when this policy was reversed and the first time I saw all the violence on TV. I remember reading books about torture, about communism, about politics and revolution. It was eye opening to a thirteen year old. You grow up very quickly in such an environment. My parents, like so many other parents of teenagers, decided that it would be safer to send me overseas to continue my education.

Having already spent a few months in the UK, I arrived in the US with ignorance and confidence: ignorance of the monumental task ahead of me - just to survive in this country - and confidence built out of that ignorance: confidence in my own ability to put up with whatever comes along - to roll with it, so to say. Not being burdened by parents, a host family, or the regulations of a dormitory meant I could - and often did - get into a lot of trouble. Let’s just say there was a lot of underage drinking in bars and dancing in discos. No one ever asked me for an ID back in those days. The only saving grace was that I never got into drugs – too expensive!

Somehow, while all this was going on, I managed to finish the last three years of high school in a single calendar year, even with the hindrance of English as a second language, and arrive in college at age fifteen. Fast forward two and a half years and, somehow, I managed to graduate from college with two bachelor’s degrees - in psychology and computer science - at the still tender age of seventeen. Washing dishes to pay the bills was just part of the equation.

I'm not writing this to boast. Friends and strangers have often wondered in hindsight how I zipped through school so quickly. At the time, it didn't seem like such a big deal. I was just doing the tasks in front of me and happened to do them more quickly than others. What's the big deal? I had much bigger problems to deal with, what with the life of the lone teenage foreign student with minimal funds amounting to not much more than moldy basement apartments shared with four guys you just met last week, a sojourn with an extremely OCD guy as a roommate for a month (we're talking bouncing quarters off of bedsheets OCD), and another apartment with a dangerously tilting floor.

The point is, I've made so many mistakes in life and made so many decisions for the wrong reasons that I'm personally baffled at how I've ended up doing so well overall. Despite this hodgepodge of a background and a similarly checkered career, I seem to have done reasonably well by most measures. I'm thankful for that - thankful to all the people who have helped me along the way.

I've also been blessed with a family that has supported me in all my harebrained ideas and decisions. Picking up and moving across the country for a job I like or quitting a job on the spur of the moment are just a couple of the examples from my professional career. My wife always says, "That's great, honey. You just go right ahead and do it. As long as you get out of the house." 

Ah, she loves me so.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Chapter 10: Redacted

The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 10: Redacted

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Rest in Peace, Pookie!

I knew it was coming and even wrote a preemptive eulogy about it a couple of months ago (this will make more sense if you read that entry first). So why was I so shocked when it finally happened?

I could see that he was getting weaker every day for the past few months, finally weighing in at a mere 5.7 pounds on the day of his death – less than a new-born infant.

And I remember noticing that he sometimes stumbled and fell when jumping into bed, something he never had trouble with in the past.

And I noticed how he had an almost permanent low grade cold these past few months, his nose constantly stuffed. He'd look better for a few days and as soon as we felt comfortable about his health, he would start sniffling again.

And I noticed how for the past few months he became quieter and more withdrawn, choosing to sit by himself under the dining table - instead of his normal routine of snuggling up with anyone and everyone.

Through it all, through all the months of sickness, he never complained – not even once. Even the nurses at the vet - two hours before his death - were amazed by how loving he was, calling him a "purr machine".

His decline was, thankfully, swift in the end. Yesterday morning he started wobbling and dragging his hind legs, had to be carried downstairs, and struggled to stand. He was dizzy, swaying and tumbling backwards, bumping into chairs and doors, barely able to take a single step.

Within an hour we were at the vet. Two hours later, back at home, he died quickly and quietly in my arms as one organ shut down after another. It all happened so quickly that I'm still in disbelief. This ball of love, this bundle of joy is gone and he has left a huge hole not just in my heart but in everyone else’s as well who came into contact with him.

I was convinced he was an angel. No earthly creature could be this loving. I even seriously looked into cloning him - ethical issues be damned. This gene cannot be allowed to die: it's pure love poured into a compact five pound package. I also jokingly claimed I was going to put him up for beatification: Saint Pookie, the patron saint of love.

He was a show cat for the first year of his life, a grand champion, before we got him from his breeder.

Due to some congenital disease (thanks to in-breeding), his jaws didn't open wide enough for him take a good bite. This meant he basically buried his face in the food to get a reasonable sized bite and, as a result, his face was always dirty.

We used to clean him obsessively at first:

But then we realized he didn't care and we loved him even more with his dirty face:

I held it together at the vet and even later – after his death - finding a place to cremate him and driving there. My wife accompanied me at every step. We cried a couple of times but I was mostly in shock and going through the motions. It was only when I got back home that I curled into a ball and cried my eyes out for several hours non-stop.

Not long enough.

Holy fuck. How do people who lose children go through with it? Holy fuck.

I guess I just assumed we would get a few more months with him.

My daughter called. I talked for half an hour like a normal person, hung up, and went back to the fetal position. Several of my friends called and texted. I didn’t respond or told them to go away. I needed to be alone.

In the end he went quickly. His eyes dilated, his breathing got shallower – so shallow that I thought he was gone. I touched him, he gave two long sighs and then he was gone. He must have been in pain, but he never complained.

Last night, I woke up several times with a start, tears forming in my eyes within seconds each time as the realization came back to me. Pookie is gone. My Pookie is gone. My wife reported a similar experience.

Memories keep flooding back to me aided by old photos and videos: of him "hiding" in a box:

Or "stalking" me from under a chair:

Snuggling with us under the blankets - just like a toddler would:

Massaging or grooming one of the other pets in the house (a daily occurrence):

Here is our other cat, Mishka, getting frustrated with Pookie’s perennially dirty face and doing the licking for him:

The memories are sweet and tender. The tears are because I suddenly realize a few seconds into the recollection that Pookie is gone. A huge part of our lives has been extinguished. Sweet Saint Pookie is gone.

Should my wife and I be accused of animal cruelty, I wondered.  Here's a clearly sick old cat. Why didn't you take him to the vet sooner? Perhaps they could have saved him.

We made an appointment about a month ago to take him in for a check-up. Then Pookie spent the entire morning before the appointment purring on my belly, so clearly happy and content that we cancelled the appointment.

This cat was happy. This cat was loved and this cat loved everyone he came in contact with. Call me a sentimental fool for writing an obituary for a cat, but this was no mere cat. He was an angel.

May you rest in peace, Pookie. You gave us so much love and you will be missed dearly.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Chapter 9: Grandfather of the Bride

“If you have an argument with an older person, you should listen to them. It doesn’t mean they’re right. It means their wrongness is rooted in more information than you have.”
       Louis C.K. Oh My God!

“Benjamin: Hey Rosie, am I doing anything right?
  Rosie: You're handsomer than the other dads. Lots of them don't have hair. So that's good.”
Matt Damon and Maggie Elizabeth Jones. We Bought a Zoo.

“Susi: Dad, there’s an old man down here who wants to sell us an 84 carat stone.
  Doug the Head: Where does he come from?
  Susi: I don’t know. Hard to tell. He’s got a thick Russian accent.”
               Tina Collins and Mike Reid. Snatch.

The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 9: Grandfather of the Bride

My parents just arrived last night for a visit - in preparation for my daughter’s wedding next month. A "visit" from the old country, in this case, qualifies for a minimum one month stay given the trials and tribulations of cross-continental travel for two septuagenarian cancer survivors.

It became immediately obvious that my father had suffered a stroke about a year ago – and that all of his many doctors had failed to diagnose this. Even his simplest statements were clear indications of the symptoms commonly associated with strokes: "The left half of my body has had no feeling since the accident" and "I don't remember what happened. Suddenly I was on the ground with a big gash on my forehead that required several stitches."

Okay, so right now you’re thinking this is a story about bad medical practitioners in third world countries. But, as originally promised, this is actually a story about the virtues and pitfalls of stubbornness, the full extent of which will become obvious soon:

-       Dad, how could all these doctors possibly not recognize your symptoms?
-       I agree… They’re useless.
-       Did you tell anyone that the left half of your body had no feeling?
-       No, not exactly. Now that you mention it, I don’t think I ever told the doctors about that.

Having forcibly removed my jaw from the floor where it was now resting, I tried to explain to the old man that he had to actually inform the doctors about his symptoms if he expected to hold them accountable for the diagnosis. The concept seemed foreign to him. For the rest of the day, I kept hearing the TV commercials constantly reminding you to “tell your doctor about all your symptoms. Tell your doctor about all the medications you’re taking”.

But wait a minute, dad. We've been talking on the phone every week. I keep asking you if you've been to the doctor and whether everything is okay.  And you keep telling me you're in excellent shape, no problems, etc. How is that possible if you had this massive stroke and multiple stitches and hospital stays and …?

"It’s not a big deal. I just fell down in the street, broke my arm, and required several stitches to my forehead. We didn't want you to worry, so we said everything was okay.”


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Chapter 8: Father of the Bride - or - Rent-a-Baby

"I don’t get nearly enough credit in life for the things I manage not to say."
       Meg Rosoff. How I Live Now.

“Nick Taylor: If your parents told you that chocolate was dangerous, would you take their word for it? 
  [Children say no] 
  Nick Naylor: Exactly! So perhaps instead of acting like sheep when it comes to cigarettes, you should find out for yourself.”
       Aaron Eckhart. Thank You for Smoking.

"Those are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others."
       Groucho Marx. 

The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 8: Father of the Bride - or - Rent-a-Baby

My daughter is getting married in a few weeks and asked me to say a few words at the wedding. It’s hard not to get sappy at such occasions. After all, I have only one child and I hope she will only get married once – so, by definition, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity: not just to tell her how much I love her and to welcome my new son-in-law to the family, but also to reminisce about her childhood and have some fun in the process.

Once, when she was two or three years old, we found her behind a sofa at home emptying single serve packets of sugar onto potato chips and eating them with obvious pleasure. After scratching our heads for a few minutes, we informed her that this was an unusual choice and that one did not typically mix those two particular food items together. Years later, the story would come back to haunt us as more and more snacks started showing up in the market with both sweet and salty ingredients: chocolate covered pretzels, truffles with sea salt or wrapped in bacon, kettle corn, you name it. It became obvious that we had stifled the creativity of a Julia Child in the making. “I coulda been somebody… I coulda been a contender,” she tells us mischievously when we remind her of the episode. 

Of course, like any other father, I think my daughter walks on water and am very proud of her. Not just because she’s highly educated (how many other kids out there have a doctorate in law and a masters degree in international relations and a bachelors in French literature?) or that she is simultaneously adjunct professor at two universities while also joggling a full-time job, but because that job – and her calling in life – is to help the poor, the downtrodden, the refugees, the immigrants, and the homeless. She is truly helping her community be a better place - first hand.

Even as a college student, she would go off to Africa to work on the war crimes tribunals in one country or to help the refugees in another country. Her favorite topic when looking for a new book to read? Genocide! I once asked her why she chose this path in life. She looked at me like the answer was obvious and said, “It was because of you, dad. You made me watch all those documentaries as a child and you made me read all those books.” I felt at once proud and guilty.

Later, as part of her job, she helped form legal policy and pass regulations to help the homeless and the poor. I used to joke that I didn’t know where she got her social conscience from, given that her father was an unrepentant capitalist but what I came to realize was that she shared many of the same ideals as I do; she just had the guts to act on them. And for that I admire her.

When she was a baby, I made up a secret word to describe her: “bingly”. The word was later broadened in scope to include all things cute and cuddly and is still used by the two of us to signify the sighting of a cute baby at a shopping mall: “Watch out… Bingly at two o’clock”, or an adorable puppy on Youtube. Later I found out that there was a Mr. Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, but by then the word had caught on and we continued to use it in our own way.

The two of us even came up with a great (tongue in cheek) business idea around our obsession with cute babies: Rent-a-Baby. We would open a store at the local shopping mall where parents could drop off their kids to play - just like the ones that already exist in many shopping malls. Except, we would also optionally allow our other customers (newlyweds and couples planning on becoming parents) an opportunity to spend quality time with these same kids - paying us for the chance to "rent a baby" for an hour to see if they're ready for the real experience. Of course, the secret motive behind our business idea was that the two of us - the proprietors would get to play with all the binglies, too.

So my advice to my future son-in-law is to take good care of her. Not just because she is a great human being, but because she is also very bingly.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Chapter 7: The Future - or - The Coming Singularity

“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know.
  It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
       Mark Twain.

"For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals.
 Then Something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination.
 We learned to talk."
       Pink Floyd. Keep Talking. The Division Bell.

Scrofula, a kind of tuberculosis, was in England called the 'King's evil,' and was supposedly curable only by the King's touch. Victims patiently lined up to be touched; the monarch briefly submitted to another burdensome obligation of high office, and - despite no one, it seems, actually being cured - the practice continued for centuries."
       Carl Sagan. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 7: The Future - or - The Coming Singularity

Not a whole lot of "autobiography" in this chapter I'm afraid... mostly musings about science.

In the Law of Accelerating Returns, Ray Kurzweil explains how the rate of scientific learning is not linear but rather exponential: “So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate)."

This is not exactly a new idea. Way back in 1982, Buckminster Fuller said the same thing in his book, The Critical Path. He estimated that it took 1500 years for humanity to double its knowledge of the world – as compared to everything we knew back at the beginning of the Christian Era. The next doubling took only 250 years, till about 1750 CE. By 1900, one hundred and fifty years later, knowledge had doubled again. The speed at which science discovers new facts about the universe around us is getting faster and faster – it’s not linear, it’s exponential. The doubling speed is now between one and two years.

Think about it. We know twice as much about the laws of the universe today as we did two years ago - in every aspect of science, be it physics or math or biology or genetics or evolutionary theory or what have you. And two years from now we will know twice as much as we know now. Wow!

This claim may seem hard to believe at first but a few real life examples will convince you of its veracity. Just look at how far we have come in the last few hundred years in terms not just of scientific advancement but also educational, cultural, medical, agricultural, and every other angle you can imagine. Five hundred years ago, we had just figured out how to print books. Four hundred years ago, we still thought the world was flat. Three hundred years ago, the average life expectancy was still in the mid-thirties. Two hundred years ago, we were still hunting witches. A hundred years ago, most people didn't have electricity, let alone telephones, televisions, or even refrigerators. Fifty years ago, most people had not traveled more than a dozen miles from their homes in their lifetimes, nor had they ever stepped on an airplane. Thirty years ago, almost no one had a personal computer. Twenty years ago, most people were not even on the Internet. Ten years ago, most people didn't have a smartphone.

Today, we have computers that can defeat our best human grand masters at chess (Big Blue), computers that can drive cars (Google), computers that answer our questions (Siri), computers that can translate between different human languages in real time (Skype Translator), and computers that are embedded in practically every aspect of our lives (Internet of Things).

We’re no longer even limited by Moore’s law. Yes, of course computing power is doubling once every year and a half – but we’re not limited to programming just one at a time. The symmetric tightly coupled multi-processor supercomputers of the past decades (the ones that I built my career on) have now given way to the cloud – a loosely coupled collection of elastic computing nodes that work together to solve the hardest computational problems. Why be limited to just doubling the speed of a single processor? Harness a hundred or a thousand computers together and you’re now growing your capacity orders of magnitude faster. Our rate of innovation is limited only by the size of our budget and that of our imagination.

If you are skeptical because those examples are just in the field of computer science, then also consider that we can now clone humans, we have doubled our own life expectancy, we have massively increased crop efficiency, we have cured most infectious diseases, we can grow human tissue (sometimes in the oddest places), we can kill millions of people with a single bomb, we know the history of the universe back to a nanosecond after the big bang, and we’re working on colonizing Mars – all advances in the last hundred years and much of it fueled by our increased technological powers.

We are learning faster than ever in every aspect of human knowledge. The singularity is not just a vague idea. It will happen sooner than we think. If you're not familiar with the concept, I recommend the following passionate two minute video by Jason Silva as well as this Q&A with Ray Kurzweil. For a much deeper dive, I highly recommend The Coming Singularity: When Humans Transcend Biology, by Ray Kurzweil.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Chapter 6: Virtual Christmas - The Festivus for the Rest of Us!

"Frank Costanza: Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had, but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way. 
Cosmo Kramer: What happened to the doll? 
Frank Costanza: It was destroyed. But out of that a new holiday was born … a Festivus for the rest of us!"
     Jerry Stiller and Michael Richards. Seinfeld.

The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 6: Virtual Christmas - The Festivus for the Rest of Us!

I spent the first thirteen years of my life living in Tehran, the capital of Iran. My extended family, though, is from the Persian Gulf area in the South of Iran (Khuzestan province), right across the border from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq.

Tehran is a modern and chaotic metropolis with over ten million inhabitants. It’s also land locked and is situated at an altitude of almost 2000 meters – resulting in warm summers and cold winters with many feet of snow. Khuzestan, my ancestral homeland, however, is hot and dry with average temperatures of 115 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer months, sometimes soaring to 130 degrees in the shade.

The region in the north of Iran, just a few short hours from Tehran and adjacent to the Caspian Sea, is known for its beautiful weather and was a popular summer holiday spot. We used to go there roughly once a year, but equally frequently, we ended up going to Ahwaz (the capital of Khuzestan province) to visit family. And of course these usually ended up being in the dead of summer to cope with our school schedules - not the smartest time to go south, but family usually won out.

I remember spending many happy summer afternoons in Ahwaz with cousins. We used to wander around the town without a care - and didn't even mind the oppressive heat. I'm talking heat that melts the tar on the road. Heat that requires a cold bottle of soda against the forehead every ten minutes.

We tried, intermittently and unsuccessfully, to hide from the heat. Once, on a dare, we watched "The Guns of Navarone" (all two hours and forty minutes of it) three times in a row in the same afternoon - waiting out the blistering heat outside in the dark air conditioned movie house. The evenings, though, were magical. They were enchanting and sultry and loaded with opportunities for mischief.

So far so good. So we visited our relatives in a God forsaken hell hole in the middle of summer. So what?

Here’s the interesting part. Once in a while, we would go to a place called "Atish-ha": literally, "The Fires". These were giant chimneys sticking out of the ground burning excess natural gas from the oil wells.

So we waited for the sun to set and then went to a public area near these massive chimneys. I’m not sure what the temperature was at these locations, but I’m pretty sure it dwarfed that of the afternoon sun. The idea was to find a spot a few hundred yards away from the chimneys and enjoy a nice picnic in the evening. The older folks would camp out here and enjoy the light and the heat of the "fires" while playing cards or backgammon. I suppose I can squint really hard and consider this as the equivalent of the heat lamp seen so often in our backyards today – except multiplied by a thousand.

You have to realize that we are not talking about a park setting here with trees and a lawn. This is a desolate Saharan landscape with nothing but dirt as the backdrop - Mad Max style. Somehow I never questioned it at the time, but the idea seems absurd in hindsight. 

Of course, as children, we used this opportunity to play all kinds of games, the most popular of which centered around getting as close as possible to the fires and staying there for the longest period of time - the desert dweller version of holding your breath under water, with the additional side benefit of frying our pre-adolescent brains like an egg for the duration.

If this had been the U.S., there would have been a restricted zone a mile wide around these chimneys with round-the-clock security guards. This being Iran in the 1970's, not only was there no restricted zone, but we were encouraged by our parents to enjoy ourselves. I'm sure they'd all be in prison for child abuse today, but I have to admit - it was a blast at the time.

But what does any of this have to do with Christmas?

Let’s press the Pause button on this story - and let's fast forward to December 2014, when my wife and I spent a few days this past holiday season with our soon to be in-laws. Forty years later and a life time away, we were welcomed into the warm family embrace of our new relatives – and spent quality time getting to know each other. Let’s be clear, though. They live in Minnesota. It was ten degrees Fahrenheit outside, not considering the wind chill factor. We didn't have much choice but to get to know each other.

We even braved the frozen tundra once or twice to go visit the Amish. I was touched by their simple lives but had trouble convincing myself that such a life of hardship – with no central heating or plumbing, no advanced education or technology – was a reasonable approach to life in this day and age when we’re working on sending civilians to outer space.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed our time with our new in-laws, but the experience left me wondering: Why do we always have to enjoy time with family in terrible weather? Why not opt for “virtual holidays” in the middle of summer instead? We have virtualized everything else in our world. Why not the holidays? Why not have a virtual Christmas in July and be done with it? We can all enjoy spending time with friends and family - and we don't have to freeze our asses to do so.

So here’s my idea… Introducing Virtual Christmas – it’s just like Christmas, only warmer. It's the festivus for the rest of us!

Let’s face it – the Europeans have a much better vacationing system than we do, everyone pretty much taking off for the month of August. We could have a similar month long summer vacation, perhaps starting with the Fourth of July festivities. I claim this results in better productivity in the office by having everyone engaged at the same time (how often do you have to postpone decisions because some random person is on vacation?), but also improves extended family bonds over time by promoting longer family-oriented vacations. Of course, this goes against our 24x7 lifestyles - some services may not be available for the month of July as businesses close for the holidays.

To our new in laws: Welcome to the family. We love you. Thank you for your hospitality, but until we have virtual Christmas in July, I recommend that we get together at our place in California next time for the winter holidays. I promise - We can even go outside without risking frostbite.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Chapter 5: Sabbatical, or Something to that Effect

"I’m on the job 24x7. That’s 24 hours a week, 7 months a year."
       Will Farrell as George Bush. Saturday Night Live.
“I only need you to work half days... The other twelve hours you can do whatever you want.”

"And I know, it's my own damn fault,"
       Jimmy Buffet. Margaritaville.
The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 5: Sabbatical, or Something to that Effect

Someone asked me recently how many hours a week I work - the implication being that I'm a workaholic. I was embarrassed to answer, so I hemmed and hawed and made up some number that would seem decent by Silicon Valley standards if not ridiculous. "I don't know - Let's see... 60? 70?"

The truth is nowhere near that number. It would be easier to ask how many hours I don’t work. The reality is that I work 24x7 - and I suspect many others are doing the same. I find myself thinking about work every single minute of every single day. So, literally: 24x7 = 168 hours a week.

You may remind me about sleep. Ok, at a (generous) average of six hours a night, I guess we can call it 120 hours a week and be done with it.  The truth, however, is that I suspect I'm mostly working while I sleep as well. I'm sure you've had that experience – waking up at three o'clock in the morning with an instant "Aha!" Moment, a recent gnarly problem finally solved - while you slept.

What about family and friends, you might ask. Hobbies? Sports? Sure. I do all of those things too, so let's subtract another thirty hours week and call it even - 90 hours a week.

I can live with that number. But the reality is that every one of those activities - time with family, watching a movie, biking on a lonely road, running a marathon - all happen in the background as I multi-task efficiently, checking my email and the stock market and the headline news furtively every few minutes on my iPhone or laptop or iPad.

You'd be amazed how much work you can do while biking. Just bring along an iPhone. I like to stop once an hour or so for a quick rest and send myself a quick reminder email on the topics I was thinking about for the past hour. Maybe send out an email to get status on some project.

Reading, one of my favorite activities, has become a painful exercise - almost to the point of impossibility. I find my mind drifting every few sentences, thinking about some problem at work or the last email I just glanced at a minute ago - or that pesky text message waiting for a response. It's impossible to concentrate on the text for more than a couple of paragraphs at a time. Multi-tasking has become the norm without us even being aware of it.

When I wake up at three am with a start these days, I hesitate before I reach for the iPad. A few futile minutes attempting to fall back asleep before giving in and checking email. I've had extended and passionate email exchanges with dozens of other executives and engineers - all also up in the middle of the night checking email. Hmmm.... So it’s not just me.

Airplanes used to be the only safe haven - allowing me to disconnect from the Internet (from "The Matrix") for a few hours. I used to land from an international flight with my inbox cleaned, a dozen documents read and a hundred pieces of email handled. Now, even that safe haven has been taken away. I landed from my most recent international flight exhausted - having just spent the past fourteen hours arguing with a dozen people at work - thanks to the advent of in-flight Internet.

So I asked my boss for three months off. Let's call it a sabbatical, shall we? I need to clear my head. Never mind that our company doesn't currently offer such a benefit. He was gracious enough to grant it - and I’m thankful for the time off.

Years ago, I was privileged enough to enjoy a similar sabbatical while working at Microsoft and I spent the whole three months traveling around the world - from photographic safaris in Africa and treks in Nepal to gondolas in Venice and bottles of Barolo in Tuscany.

This time? Not so much. The truth is I'm too busy.

So here we are three weeks into the sabbatical - and what do I find myself doing? I’m writing a business plan, I’m filing patents, I’m doing research, I’m giving keynotes, I’m blogging. My daughter is getting married next month. I have relatives visiting from out of town. I’m too busy to take time off.

The conclusion? It has nothing to do with the job or the company. Our pace of life has changed and we can't go back to the old days. At the end of the day, "It's my own damn fault". And our new electronic online lives are being too efficient in helping me.