Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Real March Madness

There are estimates that March Madness will cost businesses $2 to $4 billion dollars. That's a lot of change. But, it's about as much as we spend every week for the war in Iraq. In the five years the war has been waged, we could have run 50 tournaments every year for the same cost! And it would have been legal too.

If only Bush & Cheney were basketball fans -- maybe they would have been too distracted to start the war in the first place.

P.S. The Jayhawks are in the Sweet 16 again.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Tax Dollars for Religion

Every year, the City of Redmond, Washington sponsors an Easter Egg hunt for children (the "Eggstravaganza") on the day before Easter. It sounds like a fun event -- for those who celebrate Easter. But I'd like to know why my tax dollars are paying for a religious event. The planners apparently think they have morphed it into a non-religious event by not using the word "Easter" in the title or publicity. I think that's hogwash.

When I was young, I saw my parents and others fighting for the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. They were doing it for me. I thought to myself that their fight would mean that I wouldn't have to do the same thing when I grew up. Boy, was I wrong.

While this post is largely about a specific event in Redmond, Washington, the problem and my commentary is pretty universal -- from the Bush White House to cities across America, the First Amendment is routinely ignored. And those people doing the ignoring have a lot of reasons. Let's take a look at some of the ones for this event:

It's not an Easter event. Then why is held the day before Easter every year? Coincidence?

Easter isn't even mentioned. I haven't been to the event, so I don't know if that's true, but it's irrelevant. If we have a tree decorated with ornaments, a visit from Santa Claus, and we exchange presents on December 25th, do I have to tell you that it's Christmas?

Eggs were part of spring celebrations before Easter; Christians appropriated the symbols. Sure, that's all true -- most celebrations and symbols from most religions were appropriated from things that came before them. Why does that matter? The fact is that Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny are now part of the Easter celebration.

It's not promoting religion. If you make this argument, I'm sure you believe it. But that doesn't matter much -- the question is not whether you think it's religious, but whether it promotes the religion or precepts of the religion to anybody. Like perhaps impressionable young children, who could easily come away with the idea that Easter (and therefore, Christianity) is a good thing -- after all, they got free candy.

It's not very religious. There's no "very" test in the constitution. You can't be constitutional by only promoting a religion a little bit.

It's all in fun. Funny, but I don't remember the part in the Bill of Rights that says we don't have to follow the constitution if it's done in fun.

It's not a city event -- it's run by the Redmond Senior Center. The Senior Center is part of the city. If they are running the event, then it's a city event. The city's web site says it's sponsored by the city.

It's not a Senior Center event -- it's run by some seniors and they have a right to do it. If a select group of citizens wish to run an event, religious or otherwise, then I'm not going to stand in their way. They certainly have a right to do it. But they need to rent the facilities, like any other group (this is pretty explicit in Washington State law), and city staff and resources can't be used to organize or promote the event.

It's not funded by the city. Yes it is. The Senior Center is the city. Earmarking funds for a specific group within the city doesn't change the fact that they are public funds. There's a fee for the Eggstravaganza and those collected fees become city property. Where does that money go?

Here's a test that I like to use.

Substitute the KKK, Nazis, or Devil Worshippers into any situation and see if you have a problem with it. If you do, then it's not ok. You can run through the arguments above and see if you think they would allow the city to sponsor a KKK event. Or you can try this:

The City of Redmond sponsors a KKK ________ every year at the Redmond Senior Center. Your kids can even ________ with Mr. Nazi.

Fill in each blank with the worst thing that you can think of that would fit what you know of these groups. Now take away the words KKK and Nazi, but leave the filled-in blanks. Does that make the idea any less offensive? Or any more legal?

To be clear, I have no problem with the existence of Easter Egg hunts (or any other religious activities). As I said at the top, I'm sure that kids who celebrate Easter find them fun. Whatever your religion is, I will fight for your right to practice it. But, I definitely have a problem with public funds being used for any religious purpose, no matter what the religion is.

Whether you are religious or not, whether you are Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Baha'i or Pagan, your freedom is diminished whenever the government promotes any religion.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Who is the Greatest Entrepreneur?

I'm an entrepreneur. I've been one since my first startup in 1983, my stint at Microsoft notwithstanding. But my own accomplishments certainly pale in comparison with the greatest entrepreneurs. Recently, I've been thinking about someone who might be considered the greatest entrepreneur of all. Is it Steve Jobs? Bill Gates? Jeff Bezos? Sergey Brin or Larry Page? Or maybe it's someone from a previous generation ... Andrew Carnegie? Thomas Edison? Henry Ford? P. T. Barnum?

Literally, "entrepreneur" means "one who undertakes." On the web, you can find almost as many different definitions for "entrepreneur" as there are entrepreneurs. The dictionary definitions are pretty narrow. Merriam-Webster defines an entrepreneur as:

One who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.
Even Wikipedia's definition isn't a good description and partially defines it as a personality type. I guess I'm not surprised. After all, entrepreneurship partly defies description. Here are some traits that I've culled from a variety of web sites:
  • Someone who starts a business.
  • Someone with the talent for seeing opportunities and the abilities to develop those opportunities into profit-making businesses.
  • Someone who undertakes opportunities without regard to the resources currently available.
  • Someone who starts a business to follow an inspiration or vision.
  • Someone who sees a niche that needs to be filled and builds a business to fill it.
  • Someone who develops new markets, introduces new technologies, new industries and/or new products.
  • Someone who is an educated risk taker.
  • Someone who continually seeks opportunities and/or different methods of operation.
  • Someone who will do whatever it takes to be successful in business.
  • Someone who invents a business that works without them.
These traits are not mutually exclusive and you can decide for yourself which you agree with and which you don't. It's the last one, borrowed from this blog post about author and business guru Michael Gerber (pointed to me by my friend Mohit, also an entrepreneur), that inspired this post.

I think that we in the technology world are biased toward those entrepreneurs that introduce new technology. But it seems to me that the heart of an entrepreneur is building a business and the details of that business are less important. The entrepreneur must build something that they understand. And that's the point that leads me to think that perhaps the greatest entrepreneur is ...

Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett built Berkshire Hathaway from a tiny company to one of the world's largest. But the home office has just five people in it. I'll skip the usual superlatives about his success. Just look at the list above and you'll see that Buffett scores on almost every one. About the only one he misses on is the "visionary" one, but I personally don't see that as essential for an entrepreneur since I've known plenty of successful entrepreneurs who weren't visionaries.

In a large sense, Buffett created value out of nothing and, unlike all the ".com" entrepreneurs we're constantly hearing about, Berkshire has intrinsic value -- its continuing value isn't based on having Buffett around. If you don't understand what intrinsic value is, I recommend reading an annual report from Berkshire's very spare web site. It's pretty different from the typical annual report. The owner's manual is also a great read.

You can certainly argue that Buffett has plenty of resources available today, though he doesn't run his business like he does. He didn't stop being an entrepreneur just because he's been successful. His only real indulgence, an airplane, was divulged in his annual report in mock tiny print and named the Indefensible.

Being entrepreneurial gets harder the more resources you have, so Buffett does things a little differently. He looks for people who know how to build businesses and have built them. He looks for businesses that have been built to fill a niche and he buys them, giving them extra strength to fill the niche. He looks for other entrepreneurs. Of course, by Berkshire Hathaway standards, these entrepreneurs have to be running billion-dollar businesses.

Buffett was the richest man in the world for years, until Bill Gates passed him. But, Buffett passed Gates again this year. Buffett has committed to giving away 85% of his wealth, in annual installments of 5% each year, and guess where it's going -- to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In typical Buffett fashion, he said that he wanted to give the money to experts at giving.
"Compare what I'm doing with them to my situation at Berkshire, where I have talented and proven people in charge of our businesses. They do a much better job than I could in running their operations.

"What can be more logical, in whatever you want done, than finding someone better equipped than you are to do it? Who wouldn't select Tiger Woods to take his place in a high-stakes golf game? That's how I feel about this decision about my money."

That's good advice for any entrepreneur.

Update: Corrected misspellings (thanks, Scott).

Thursday, March 13, 2008

They Think You're a Loser

What is with the anti-smoking spots with the tag line "You can’t rely on cold turkey alone"? That is so negative! If you're not familiar with these ads, they run in Washington State. I don't know if similar ads are used elsewhere.

Here's what the ads are really saying...

  • You're an addict.
  • You're a loser.
  • You can't possibly do it yourself.
  • You need us.
If I was a smoker, that would make me feel just super. It reminds me of all the religious "twelve step" programs where step 1 is essentially "I admit I am powerless" or "I admit I cannot help myself." Yeah, that's the way to motivate people to take control of their lives!

The web site that the anti-smoking spots link to (which I will not link to here) says "You can't rely on cold turkey alone! To successfully quit smoking or using other tobacco products, it is important to make a plan." Elsewhere, it says "Make a plan. Double your chances of quitting." Well, which is it? Nobody can rely on cold turkey? Zero doubled is still zero, so that can't be true. Clearly some people can quit cold turkey and I know of plenty of people who have and never smoked again.

Here's what they should be saying...
  • If you want to quit smoking, quitting cold turkey is hard.
  • There's no shame in asking for help.
  • We want to help you.
The program (paid for by us taxpayers) may be great, but their ads do them a disservice.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

It Must Be Spring

At 7:23 PM tonight, Adam heard a robin chirping in our yard and, by the dimming light of twilight, we could just barely see it pecking at the ground, looking for food. If not for its red breast, it would have been hard to spot. It may not be the first robin of Spring, but it's our first robin of Spring.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Michigan and Florida, Oh My!

What is it about Iowa and New Hampshire that they feel they have the right to be the first in the nation to vote in the presidential primary season? What makes them special?

I know I'm just one of many to say this, but I figure why not add my voice? I've heard two arguments -- tradition and "they take their role seriously." I think that's ridiculous. The tradition is only in their minds and I can tell you for a fact that the rest of the country takes it just as seriously as the people in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The Washington Democratic caucuses were filled with serious voters. In my precinct, there were ten times as my voters as four years earlier, when Kerry had already locked up the nomination. I've heard this same comment repeated all over -- when voters in any state, not just Iowa and New Hampshire, have a chance to have their voice heard, they step up. Everybody in the country should have that chance.

And by what stroke of genius did the Democratic party decide to disenfranchise the voters in Michigan and Florida, two must-win states with a combined 44 electoral votes. And for what? To protect Ohio and New Hampshire with their combined 11 electoral votes? Now the Democrats are scrambling trying to fix it so that Michigan and Florida voters will get their voice heard after all, because they don't want disgusted voters to stay home in November. Wouldn't it have been better (and cheaper) to get it right the first time?

I'm not sure what the best alternative is. Maybe it's a national primary system. Maybe it's a rotating system from election-to-election. Maybe there's another imaginative solution. What I do know is that this way isn't fair and doesn't work.

I have a simple proposal for next time around. Every state just needs to pass this simple law:

The State of ___________ will hold its Presidential primaries on the Tuesday at least seven days immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election, whichever is earlier.
That wording, by the way, isn't accidental -- it's taken from what New Hampshire uses. Pass it in just one state and you have what computer scientists call a race condition, with each state racing to be first. In a computer, the system shuts down, forcing a reboot. That's what we need here too.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The MacGyver Health Club

My health club is run by a guy named Angus MacGyver. While I'm sweating away on my home gym, he's running all over the world, building cool gadgets, saving people, and protecting democracy.

I recently picked up MacGyver - The Complete Series and that's what I've been watching while I work out. I'm almost through the first season.

MacGyver fits my definition of a perfect workout video:
  • Simple plots, enjoyable stories.
  • Interesting enough that time on the treadmill (the most boring part of my workout) goes by quickly.
  • Not interesting enough that I stop my workout to watch, or that I can't wait until my next workout to see how an episode ends.
  • Can be listened to during times that I'm facing away or can't conveniently watch the screen.
I loved MacGyver when it was originally on and it's still fun to watch. It is what it is.

In related news, the Discovery channel show MythBusters recently did a MacGyver episode for their 100th episode, which I watched with my son, who is a big fan. I was sorry to see that some of the tricks just didn't work. You can't blow a hole through a wall with a teaspoon of sodium and water. But, the final part of the show was particularly cool. Adam and Jamie were given a series of MacGyveresque challenges, the last of which was to make something that could signal a helicopter at 100 feet. They were sent to a fake campsite that consisted of a lean-to and all the raw materials to make a potato cannon, along with a bunch of other stuff. They weren't told what to do. They ignored the potatoes and, instead, they used the tarp and structure of the lean-to, plus some rope, to make a 10-foot tall kite. And it worked! The essence of MacGyver at its best.

And, in case you were wondering, yes, you can stop a sulfuric acid leak with chocolate candy bars.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Giant Steps vs. Giant Steps

A friend's blog post on John Coltrane's Dakar inspired me to write this.

I have two versions of Giant Steps, the original Coltrane classic, originally released in 1959, and the Tommy Flanagan remake, released in 1982. Flanagan played on the original album (on all but one track) and he did the remake in honor and memory of Coltrane.

John Coltrane's Giant Steps       Tommy Flanagan's Giant Steps

Because I have both copies in iTunes, its easy to intersperse the versions and compare them. I started writing up a track-by-track comparison but then I realized that's just my opinion, so I'm going to do this differently....

I was surprised by the similarities and differences. Coltrane opens with Giant Steps and closes with Mr. P.C., while Flanagan opens with Mr. P.C. and ends with Giant Steps. The numbers reflect this: Coltrane's Giant Steps is vibrant, a great opening, while Flanagan's is delicate, good for a coda. On Mr. P.C., Coltrane's version is awesome, but Flanagan's is distinctively different -- it really sets the tone for hs album, especially the opening, where the substitution of piano for sax changes the whole tenor of the song (the other number where this is the case is Syeeda's Song Flute).

I have the reissue of the Coltrane version which has some alternate tracks, so I interspersed them as well. In general, they were not as good. The alternate take of Cousin Mary had some excellent passages that I liked better than the original but it was weaker overall. Countdown, which is only on the Coltrane album, is the only one where I liked the alternate take better and it's close there. The original is shorter, tight, and wonderful, but the alternate gives me more to enjoy.

Overall, I enjoyed the experiment. They are both great albums. If I had to pick a favorite overall, it would be Coltrane. That's not too surprising.

NOTE: Amazon has multiple copies of the Coltrane album, at different prices. I don't know the difference, but I've linked to the cheaper one above. For the Flanagan album, Amazon only has an expensive import available (the non-import says it's not available).

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Samite Was Great

As I mentioned earlier, we saw Samite of Uganda at the Kirkland Performance Center tonight. We were not disappointed.

He started off the concert holding a tiny kalimba, a thumb piano, that was about the size and shape of a small teapot. The music that came out of it was amazing and all he was doing was moving his thumbs. He must be really good at texting!

He was joined in concert by a drummer, who played three or four different types of drums and some other percussion instruments, plus a guitarist who played both guitar and bass and some more percussion instruments. In the second number, he showed pictures of a trip back to Uganda a year ago. They started out making sounds that sounded like birds, monkeys, and other animals in the jungle, with whistles, flute, percussion, and voice. Amazingly realistic and it slowly morphed into a song, interspersed with jungle sounds at times.

He played two different 100-year-old kalimbas with keys that he said were made out of bicycle spokes pounded flat with a hammer, as well as a kalimba made out of a sardine can. But he also used modern technology, with a solo a capella love song in which he used live looping to harmonize with himself. It was nice (and surprising) to hear a couple of numbers that I knew, including "Nakku" from Pearl of Africa Reborn. But all of the music sounded instantly familiar.

He gave a pitch for a group called Musicians for World Harmony that takes "the healing power of music" to refugee camps, orphanages, and other places like that around the world. He said they entertain and they replace guns with musical instruments.

All in all, a great show. I would happily see him again anytime. We bought two CDs that he signed afterwards. I'm looking forward to them.

Samite: Tunula Eno
Samite: Embalasasa
Tunula Eno