Thursday, January 15, 2009

Apple Inc. is a Village, not One Man

Apple Store, Annapolis 59426

Business writers once again turn to Apple, Inc., focusing their attention only on Steve Job's health. Famous analysts and popular columnists seem to enjoy looking through murky tunnels and guessing what might happen to Apple in the CEO's absence. They appear blind to accomplishments achieved by all the other people that make up Apple's greater community. The actual performance of Apple Inc. seems to hold no value for pundits and many investors alike.

Here is a quick overview of Apple facts for the last 12 months. Keep in mind that the U.S. economy has been in a recession for this entire period:

  • Sales Growth of more than 35%
  • Income Growth of more than 25%
  • Nearly $5 billion dollars in income earned on $32.5 billion dollars in sales.
  • A Net Profit Margin of nearly 15%
  • Return on Equity of 27%
  • $25 billion in cash on-hand.
  • 67% of nearly 900 million shares owned by institutions.

These are facts, not idle speculation. It is true that these numbers are constantly changing. It is also true that Apple products are gaining market share even as the overall market appears to be shrinking.

Yesterday a network engineer showed me how he can keep track of his network traffic using his iPhone and a very secure application. My friend opened an iPhone application and quickly entered a few Unix commands.

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The person serving the table beside us saw this demonstration and pulled out her iPhone. She wanted to prove to me how easy it was to keep in-touch with other college students by text message. She told me that phone service with unlimited text messaging on other phone services cost only $10 a month a less. She told me that she can easily do Internet job searches (she will not be waiting tables after graduation) with the iPhone Safari browser. "Using the Internet with other phones is not that easy."

The owner of the restaurant came over to briefly join our discussion. He was not there to get his employees back to work. He wanted to demonstrate how easily he could view the images on his restaurant's security cameras using his iPhone. He said this ability has thwarted multiple theft attempts in just the past few months. His insurance rates have been reduced as a result.

A man that invests in the Foreign Exchange markets recently pulled out his iPhone to show how easily he could buy and sell currency. An artist showed me how she landed two commissions by using her iPhone to promptly choose and send samples of her art to buyers.

I do not own an iPhone, yet. I have operated my photography and technical writing businesses for the past 4 years using an Apple G5 tower. More recently, I replaced an older Sony laptop with a far more reliable MacBook Pro.

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Apple Inc. hardware and software make sense to me and my friends. We trust the work of all Apple employees to help us manage our businesses and even parts of our personal lives.

Every single one of us knows that we are living beings subject to all the forces that act on organisms. We also know that we are part of societies and communities that only succeed through the efforts of everyone involved. One person can make a big difference but it takes entire villages to make a society. Apple Inc. is one such village.

Tim Cook is once again going to be the new village chief. We all wish Mr. Jobs a speedy recovery as well.

Previous Articles on Apple, Inc.:

Apple's Future

Using Your iPhone To Avoid Traffic


Washington Post Article
Fortune Magazine: When Tim Cook Ran Apple
Financial Times Article

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Will America Split, Again?

A Russian professor, Igor Panarin, has been predicting for more than 10 years that the U.S. will soon break-up into smaller parts.

America Split

When I first heard about Professor Panarin's theory, like most U.S. citizens, I found the notion of a national break-up absurd. The United States is so tied together by our families, our highways, our corporations and even our debts that the thought of a split along any lines defies the imagination.
Then again the U.S. intelligence agencies and Soviet people found the concept of the dissolution of the Soviet Union unimaginable until it happened almost overnight.

In the past the unity of the U.S. has been threatened by events large and small. Sarah Palin and some friends in Alaska breached the subject not too many years ago. People in Puerto Rico and New York City also pondered the notion of more autonomy at one point. Our nation did fracture along distinct lines during the Civil War. 600,000 lives were lost in the effort to stitch us back together. Igor Panarin's theory is hardly without historical precedents.

Everyone who studies history is aware of how the British or Roman Empires crumbled under the twin weights of failed internal bureaucracy and assault from outsiders. There is no shortage of cracks in the current system we live under. Our rapidly rising debt to other nations including China and Japan has weakened the U.S. position considerably. I know we have the mightiest military and most commonly used money in the world but guns and dollars alone will not be enough to keep us together.

USS Freedom docked in Annapolis 076524

It is not out of the question that 49 states may balk at the idea of bailing out deeply indebted California, for example. The Rust Belt, running from Milwaukee to Pittsburgh, is crying out for bailout money that simply is not in the U.S. Treasury. If China says "no" to our next loan request (treasury certificates) what do we do next?

On another note, Florida is looking and sounding like a foreign country already. Utah has marched to the beat of a different drummer for way more than a century. We really are just a motley collection of minor nations sharing a common currency, flag, and army, in many respects. That individuality possessed by each state actually brings strength to the union. Minnesota's farmers and miners balance out Massachusetts' bankers and Louisiana's oil fields and so on.

On other levels you can already see huge cracks developing. Businesses that have been open for ten or twenty years are closing their doors. Some of the biggest firms including General Motors, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Sears appear to be navigating some very choppy waters these days. At parties I sometimes get invited to I notice the wealthier guests looking more and more like they are not getting enough sleep. Bankers, lawyers, and real estate agents usually did not worry this much when I was just a boy. (If you want to know how someone like me gets these invites perhaps this earlier post offers a clue.)

My neighbor was a bank branch manager last year. He greeted me as a server in the restaurant where my lady-friend and I shared a salad last week. Another neighbor has taken to baking cookies at 3AM. Still other people living near me argue about money at all hours. I can't help but know these things, they are happening right before my eyes.

I counsel people in my community. It is something I learned to do at a young age. People in grief, people in trouble with the law, guys AWOL from the Army, locals just out of prison, and even people in rocky marriages somehow end up on my doorstep or a bench on the waterfront. There have been those who jumped in the water, in December and January. A fella that worked at the local package goods store took that plunge most recently. A tragedy you can see playing out on such a person's face, at least I can.

Other people come to me with computer problems but end up needing help coming to grips with social issues. One such young acquaintance that has been in and out of prison has finally decided to change his ways. His choice of time to become optimistic about the future could not have been worse. The only jobs offered to him so far are in dish washing and crime.

The people who have recently lost children are the most heart-rending cases for me. Those and the servicemen in-between tours of duty. Each has seen too many lifeless faces on people that were once so close to them. Our participation in foreign wars weakens this nation, though it appears to make our soldiers more experienced, better prepared for the next civil war.

Mariani, Haiti 00007

I sometimes dig back to my years in Haiti and India and relate how I learned to understand my neighbor's grief on a daily basis. Revolution and death are not something most Americans of this generation are used to seeing on a large scale. As we age we watch our parents go and maybe a relative or friend passes away but infrequently. In places without good health care life is less certain. America could start to break-up faster if we cannot fix our system of providing health services, both mental and physical.

In conclusion, I do not seriously think the U.S. will shatter all at once. I also do not think that Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Toyota, Safeway, or even our military will be the glue that keeps all 50 pieces sticking together. If we work closely with our neighbors and friends, on a local and international level, we will get past these difficult times. We need to counsel and comfort our friends and family members. I look more towards the farmers, auto repairmen, nurses, hairdressers, schoolteachers and, yes, even the bankers, lawyers, doctors, and real estate agents to keep stitching up the torn edges of America. President Obama does not have the toughest job to do in this country, we the people do.

US Capitol 12231

Thursday, January 08, 2009

If Obama Decides To Build Will They Come?

Recent comments made to a Washington Post article about new infrastructure spending raise a very large issue related to digging ditches. For years now many construction projects, involving hard physical labor out in the extreme hot and cold, have employed recent immigrants. However recent right-wing political voices as well as the recession have discouraged the immigration of laborers from poor nations. Will the current U.S. workforce be physically ready to put down their iPhones and laptops and pickup a shovel when the time comes?

Construction work actually requires great stamina and specific skills.

Building a Rural Hospital 00001

These are talents many U.S. citizens do not possess. Construction labor positions require physical strength, a strong work ethic, extreme caution, and the ability to tolerate harsh weather conditions. In addition to manual laborers, there will be huge requirements for civil engineers, foremen, welders, carpenters, heavy equipment operators, truck drivers, electricians, pipefitters, and other tradesmen commonly found at all large construction sites. A quick check of these occupations finds many job openings unfilled in several of those fields.

Abu Dhabi or Annapolis?

It is true that the collapse of construction industry, residential and commercial, has put many skilled laborers out of work. However there remains a shortage of truck drivers, welders, and civil engineers, not to mention people holding valid work papers, willing to lift a shovel all day long.

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The supply of unemployed U.S. citizens willing to put down their pride and pick up a shovel is critical to a major part of President Obama's economic recovery plan. In the 1930's many of the people that took jobs at the highway, bridge, and dam construction sites were in far better physical shape. They arrived at WPA sites after long hikes on the road, often coming from failed dustbowl farms. They were so poor that the possibility of 8 or 10 hours of hard work really appealed to them. They left families behind to work for months in National Parks and sleep in old bunkhouses.

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Americans are among the most overweight people in the world. Fat people have a tough time working outside all day in the hot sun. Our work ethic has devolved to meet the requirements of service jobs done behind counters, over telephones, and at computer workstations. The people that arrive to work the late shift at food processing plants, shipment processing facilities, and other remaining factories are often recent immigrants and people from urban neighborhoods.

Almost every time I visited a major construction job in the past five years I also heard Spanish being spoken. This new boom in infrastructure spending may bring a tremendous boost in employment to a group that has suffered the largest job losses in the past few months. Hispanic voters turned out in huge numbers in the last election to support President Obama. Election day could turn out to be their lucky day.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Secret Lives of My Plants and Life in Old Puerto Rico

It's funny how much I feel like a parent to my very old house plants. I care deeply about my 4 avocado trees, palm tree, and two cactus. One of the avocado trees is actually 22 years old. Should I make it move out and find a place of it's own?

These plants feel like children to me for many reasons. They entirely depend on me. I make sure they get enough water, sunlight, and food. If I were to die, they would too and they know that. The oldest avocado truly relates to me and has literally grown over the place where I usually sleep, and the spot where I work. Yes, it is that big.

Avocado and MacBook 077481

The two cactus are each 15 years old. They sometimes fight, over little things like water and sunlight. They are strong-willed and think they can live without me. Really they do need me for at least a few days each month.

The younger avocado plants are very scared of their much older brother. They like each other but not the cactus, oh no.

The palm is a loner and really has no friends except me. It probably thrives, with such large leaves, off the carbon dioxide I exhale.

These plants have all managed to survive for weeks without water when I have to travel on business. They are naturally drought-resistant species but more-so because I have unwittingly trained them. All except for the cactus would really prefer a little water every day. Each of my plants has a very distinct personality, like all living creatures.

Avocado trees seldom live longer than 14 years so my oldest is quite a miracle at 22. All the avocados are rare in that they were started from pits of avocados I bought at the market. That probably means they are all hybrids and cannot reproduce. No farmer in his right mind would ever have raised trees that cannot bear fruit for this many years. For me they represent children I will probably never get to raise, human lives that did not happen.

No matter, these plants are alive. As living things they have brought joy and purpose to my otherwise quiet life. There is a mystery to the ways that all living things are intertwined, the way lives get started, and the way they end. We cannot expect to solve all those mysteries and that is perfectly fine with me. For now it is good just to be needed.

There is a deeper history to this small crop I am now responsible for. When I was young man I moved to the tropics to assume responsibility for a very obscure USDA research farm.

My Life in Puerto Rico

While working in Santa Clara, California in 1978, I received a strange letter forwarded by an old friend. The letter was handed to him by a total stranger while my friend was vacationing on a beach in Puerto Rico. It was clearly written to me and contained a line, "The farm is yours, these people need you. Don't worry about the Spanish. Good luck. An old friend." There were some other personal details in the letter that only my friends could have known.

Included with the letter was a hand-drawn map to a small farm located on the western end of the island of Puerto Rico. Naive young man that I was, I quit my job in a circuit board factory and bought a one-way ticket from San Francisco to San Juan. The decision would forever change my outlook on the world.

I took an L1011 aircraft that turned out to be the final time that particular flight from SFO to SJU would be flown. We stopped over in Los Angeles and then flew all night to San Juan. In San Juan I transferred to a small twin-engined plane that took me to an airport called Ramey Base. We hit some very bad weather on the inter-island flight and it seemed likely that we might crash. The funny young Dutch pilot never lost his cool and landed us safely on a massive old U.S. Air Force base runway.

I had to show my little map to several taxi drivers before one understood the directions and agreed to drive me all the way to my new home.

On A Mountain Farm

Moca Map

From early in 1979 until early 1981 I lived in the hills far above the city of Aguadilla, in western Borinquen. Borinquen is the real name for Puerto Rico. My farm was an almost forgotten USDA project intended to re-introduce local crops into a region heavily dependent on the U.S. food stamp (couponés) program.

When I arrived, the farm was mostly planted in varieties of avocados, bananas, and a kind of potato known locally as the yamé. I taught the people about organic gardening and they taught me people skills and how to use certain medicinal plants. Some of this information dated back to the days of the original Taino native population. It is those social skills that I really treasure and have attempted to use every day of my life since.

To this day, people are still amazed to learn that I was once a poor country mountain farmer in the Caribbean. The Puerto Ricans I met often told me that I was living the life of a hibaro. You see, the USDA checks intended for my maintenance costs there on the project site never reached me. The previous project manager never resigned and apparently continued to receive those checks. I actually did not know for a very long time that I was supposed to receive a project manager's stipend. I lived each day in the mindset of subsistence farmer who happened to do some teaching on the side.

The USDA officials took over a year to realize the error and another year to get the checks redirected. By that time I had to move back to Pennsylvania, to avoid being caught up between Los Macheteros and various law enforcement agencies. I never received a penny for my services and yet I lived a very special existence in the community.

I was only twenty years old at this time and spoke no Spanish whatsoever when I first arrived in San Juan. Looking back on those days in Barrio Voladoras I now realize that I lived much like a priest or an ascetic monk. My farm was located on a very steep hillside in a poor region. At first my neighbors did not know what to make of the young Americano farmer that suddenly appeared in their close community. As they learned my work ethic they gradually grew to enjoy having me contribute to their daily lives.

Few of the locals spoke any English where I lived, except the children. They were taught English in school but rarely used it at home. When I first arrived I did not speak Spanish. Nobody cared. We spoke in smiles until my vocabulary expanded from single words like "ola, senor, pan y agua, por favor, gracias." Communication progressed this way until a crafty visiting minister from South Carolina briefly taught me a form of Biblical Spanish, using an old Spanish bible. To this day I do not know what my initial voice sounded like to Puerto Rican ears but they eventually understood my Spanish, once they stopped laughing. I eventually picked up the local Latino.

I lived far up in the steep mountains near the small town of Moca, almost equally distant from the major cities of Aguadilla and Mayaguez. My concrete USDA house had a deep foundation, it was a former pillbox built during the Great Depression as a civil defense measure. It was situated at the intersection of two foot trails that crisscrossed the island in those days. These foot trails had been used for hundreds of years actually and were hard as concrete.

The Importance of a Sharp Machete

My farm or finca was located about a quarter mile off the nearest paved road. It ran along steep hillsides leading down to huge fields of sugar cane. I awoke at sunrise every day, the rooster outside my window always made sure of that. After morning bath and meditation I would eat some fruit, finish yesterday's milk or homemade goat cheese, strap on my always sharp machete and go out to work the farm.

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It was weeks before I learned how it was that my machete stayed so sharp day after day. In the early evenings my neighbor's son, Arcenio, quietly walked down to my tool shed and removed the nearly three-foot long sword. This was the time of day his father sharpened all the tools on a foot-powered grinding wheel. He would sharpen my machete along with all his others because, "The most dangerous cutting tool is one that is not kept sharp."

It was very hard work from almost sunrise until noon siesta. When the sun became too unbearable I went back to my house, ate a small lunch, and rested in a hammock hung in the shade until early afternoon. A light rain shower often reminded me that it was time to go back to tending the goat, planting, picking fruit, and teaching my many neighbors. After all, this was Puerto Rico, one of the most crowded places on the planet.

The neighbors were the reason I stayed for two years despite getting no pay and hearing almost no spoken English, plus having few friends my age. Other people from the States did come to live on the project farm from time to time but most of them never seemed to adjust to the tropical life or to warm to the neighbors. They wanted a cheap vacation from the snow and cold up north, but no part of the very hard daily work and sweat that tropical farming represents. Besides, we had bee hives out on the farm and more than a few wasp nests so most visitors considered the terraced plots rather uninviting.

Local growers, on the other hand, constantly stopped by to learn about the way I was farming. They loved to watch me remove a panel from the beehive, from a distance of course. They thought it was funny how I used a wheelbarrow to go collect cow manure when chemical fertilizer was only 3 dollars for a big sack.

They laughed when I tried to grow peanuts in small circular mounds, insisting the rats would eat them all. But I was taught to plant by the moon's cycles and my peanut harvest was huge. I was informed that the insects would eat all my lettuce, spinach, and cabbage if the tropical sun did not burn the leaves first. I sprayed the leafy vegetables with a special hot pepper sauce and then draped the plots with pieces of an army surplus parachute.

Over the months people carefully taught me how to keep tropical bees, cultivate avocado, banana, yamé and many traditional uses for native plants. I raised goats for milk and cheese, just like those around me. Spices actually grow wild all over the island, or they did then. They even called these places the "Spice Islands." I learned to harvest spices fresh and use them in dishes immediately, old dried spices from a supermarket lost all value to me from that point forward in my life.

An Island Shared

They all shared their island back then, fences were only for cow pastures or schoolyards. One of my neighbors had an agreement with the previous project manager that allowed him to graze his cow on a small field of grass below my fresh water spring. In exchange I received several quarts of still warm raw milk every day. People taught me to heat the milk slightly before drinking it. I made cheese from any spare milk that remained at the end of the day.

The farm came with a irascible goat. That creature also gave milk sometimes. The extra goat's milk made a wonderful cheese too.

There was a big problem with alcoholism in my community. Rum was cheap and some people even brewed their own in secret stills. I drank some of this rum cana once and never drank any more liquor of any kind the rest of the time I lived there. Occasionally friends bought me a Corona beer or two but that was not very often.

I did not welcome drunks or drug addicts to my farm though they sometimes appeared. My neighbors were always looking out for my welfare and had a way of convincing ruffians to leave as soon as their habits were made evident. Men, women, and teenage boys in the country all carried some form of long, curved sword or "machete" like I did in those days. It was the most important tool on any farm. Everyone knew exactly how to use them.

Habitual criminals and violent alcoholics were sometimes locked up in tiny one-room prisons built outside the rural communities. Village ladies, probably their mothers, brought prisoners a plate of rice and beans once a day. Once I saw a police truck pick up one of these people and take him to a bigger prison. It was not long before someone else was placed in that cell.

Such wonderful people they were, the old rural farming Puerto Ricans. On holidays the men pulled out brass instruments and guitars and played salsa music that sounded like Tito Puenté. Women of all ages put on colorful dresses and people danced in the streets.

San Juan was considered a great distance away since the major highways were not finished at this time. The cities were feared for the crime they represented. Eventually most young people went down to the coast to find work in the new prescription drug factories or tourist hotels. Tourists in their big rental cars seldom made it up the steep narrow roads to my barrio.

How To Gain Trust

There is often one question people ask over and over again about my years in Puerto Rico: "How did I gain the trust and confidence of the Puerto Ricans?" The answer, as you might imagine, related to my daily behavior. For example, they appreciated the great efforts I took to quickly learn the Puerto Rican Latino spanish they spoke. It is not Castilian Spanish, not by any means. Actually my neighbors were mostly descendants of Corsican immigrants. Since I learned some French as a boy, my personal vocabulary ended up being a creole of Latino, French and local slang words. This suited and rather amused the locals of Corsican descent. They told me I talked like their grandparents.

One or two other small but important acts cemented my position into the community. Only a few months after I arrived found a wallet by the side of a local road. There was over one hundred dollars in cash, credit cards, pictures, and even a few winning lottery tickets for small sums, like ten or twenty dollars each. I knew they were winners because the owner had written notes on the tickets to that effect. A few neighbors sometimes did the same thing as it was a long drive to the lottery redemption office in Mayaguez.

I went to my local Cash and Carry store and showed the owner the driver's license from the wallet. He immediately recognized the man. He also knew very well who I was. Because Puerto Ricans love to gossip everyone in the region seemed to know who I was in those days. He said this man stopped in his store about once a week. This was not surprising since the store also sold lottery tickets.

I handed him the wallet and asked if he could return it to the owner. He agreed to but quickly looked in the wallet. He reminded me that there was money in the wallet. He seemed very surprised that a poor country farmer would return the wallet with the money. I told him that I knew the exact contents of that wallet and expected it to be returned to the owner as I had found it. I also told him my mother once taught me that no good would come from stolen money.

The owner of the wallet turned out to be the brother of the local chief of police. My honest act was actually written up in a story in the local newspaper. A few days later a very rotund Chief of Police walked up to me, put his huge arm around me in the local town square, and told me that I was now his good friend. "Any time you need any assistance, any time anyone tries to bother you, you will have my immediate help." Those were his words, as translated by my friend who understood spoken Spanish better than I did in those early days.

Tropical Beekeeping is Hard Work

Flower with Bees, Easton 27404

Another important thing I did was spend a few hours every week helping a local coffee farmer named Sebbio Mendez. To grow coffee commercially you also need to keep bees, lots of bees. Senor Mendez was in his eighties and all his sons had gone to the city long ago. Although he was still a very strong old man, he needed some help harvesting all that honey and picking coffee beans on his finca. I worked there in exchange for honey, sweet peas, plantains, and eventually even entire bee colonies. Those very full hives eventually changed the face of my small farm entirely. Fruit tree production literally doubled the season after we moved two hives onto my farm.

There were a few tough things about working bees in the tropics. First, you need to harvest honey at the hottest parts of the day, using a centrifuge. Sebbio's centrifuge was an old hand-cranked type. Instead of taking siesta I would walk more than three kilometers to the coffee plantationjust before noon. About halfway there this extremely old woman always made me stop at her farm to drink some cool water. Her name was Senora Mendez.

Senora Mendez was one of the most friendly people I ever met the whole time in Puerto Rico. She had few remaining teeth and disliked wearing dentures. She would put them in only to talk. Her features were more like those of American Indian woman than those of my neighbors. She was quite thin too. There were more wrinkles on wrinkles on her face than you could ever imagine. When she smiled, which she often did, her whole head seemed to be a part of the smile. She rather beamed energy, instead of simply sharing her smile.

The first time we met she asked me where I was going at the hottest time of the day. She smiled and almost laughed when she learned I was going to work as a beekeeper up the road. She asked me about the coffee farmer but she was more eager to hear about the children that lived all around my farm, and the children that I saw during my walk up the steep hill to her house. She wanted to know how many little boys and girls I saw at different houses, and how old I thought they were. I found this odd but over the months I gradually learned to take a mental census of the mountainside families as I walked along. I knew Senora Mendez would quiz me about the children so I tried to remember as much as I could.

She was older than 110

I later learned that Senora Mendez was more than 110 years old. She was Sebbio's mother. She was also the matriarch of most of the families living on the mountain. The old lady wanted to know so much about the children because they were at least her great grandchildren.

Most of the books in the local library were written in Spanish, though the public library had a some English copies of Hardy & Dickens I had already read. Oh, I also had four years worth of Organic Gardening magazine the former project manager left behind, an absolute treasure trove! Los Testigos (Jehovah' Witness) and Hare Krishnas walked through the nearby village every few months. They left behind their materials which were usually promptly destroyed by the devout Roman Catholics living all around me.

It was almost a year before I learned the USDA wanted a model farm there to serve as an example to the local people that families could live well just eating and selling the food from about 1/2 acre of land. Every day hundreds of people came mostly silently walking down through the middle of my farm or right across the center, on trails so hardened you would have thought mud had turned to concrete. USDA managers showed up in new Jeeps on the farm twice the entire time I lived there. They dropped off paper forms, some poorly written guides recommending chemical fertilizer and told me I was doing a great job. They left after about an hour, showing little concern for the details of my hard work.

After my first year as a rural farmer Ronald Reagan was elected and promptly turned off the food couponés the Puerto Ricans all lived on in those days. I just kept working my farm with the sharp machete and now thickly calloused hands. At first I gave away extra food but quickly learned I had to sell or barter my extra produce in the marketplaces alongside the other farmers. Any farmer seen giving away food was seen as upsetting the system. It was unnatural and it hurt the other farmers. People bartered more and more as the tax people started showing up at more farm markets.

Hunting for Space Aliens

One afternoon a German scientist saw me walking along a road near my farm. He was an astronomer. He offered to drive me to see "the largest telescope in the world." It was actually near Arecibo, not too far a drive from my farm at all. When we got there I was surprised to see that the telescope was not an ordinary telescope but a huge valley in the mountains. The valley had been smoothed out and covered with mirrors and all kinds of cables.

We walked on a trail around the edge of this "radio telescope" not far from a funny little motel built up there in the mountains. The weirdest thing of all was when this astronomer told me the telescope was built not only to search for new stars but also to look for space aliens. I did not believe him and figured he was giving me a cover story so I did not think it was some secret military project. However, there was only one security guard at the gate and he waved the astronomer's car right past without stopping us at all.

Disaster Strikes, Twice

Hurricane David Track

Two hurricanes struck the island while I was a Puerto Rican. Hurricane David destroyed the first six months of work on my farm and years of work on every other farm for miles. I remember the howling winds went on for hours. The coconut trees all whipped back and forth, occasionally sending their nuts flying like bombs.

My neighbors that lived in wooden houses all came to stay in my concrete house. Each family occupied a corner of the small house or a spot on the floor until the house was full of very wet, smelly people and even whimpering dogs and shaking goats. We finally put the goats and dogs out in the cooking room next to the house.

Another storm, Hurricane Frederic, passed right over my farm not long after David. I recall going outside in the middle of the storm when the winds completely stopped. A friend and I walked up to a hilltop to see if the storm was over. The refugees staying my house insisted that we stay put but we were young and foolish.

From the top of the hill we climbed we could see a wall, like a huge black, curved curtain, extending for a mile or more. At first it was not easy to see that that this curtain was slowly moving towards us. I started running back to the house and urged my friend to run with me. He insisted we had more time to watch. As I ran down the hillside I looked back and saw the curtain swiftly pass over the peak where my friend was. I barely made it back to the farm house. The winds kept grabbing at me like strange hands extending out of the curtain. I was trying to walk by leaning so far forward it seemed comical. The refugees literally had to pull me though the door as the winds swept me right off my feet.

The ladies cooked all the rice and beans and vegetables I had in the house until the propane tank ran out of fuel. Strangely enough we ran out of fresh water. It was too dangerous to go outside and get more from the cistern or spring. I managed to start a wood fire out in the cooking room, standing there with the goats and dogs. We boiled rain water collected from a leak and cooked up some corn meal that remained. The little children were fed that.

My friend did not make it back to the farm for hours. We finally saw him through a crack in the front door. He was naked and clinging fast to a swaying fruit tree in the yard. He entire body was covered in cuts and bruises. The next day we managed to get him to a hospital where they were able to save his life. Later he told us he remembered holding onto trees until the wind pulled him away. He said he got near the house several times only to be thrown hundreds of feet away and had to start crawling back all over again.

When the storms ended we went outside to a completely changed world. Many wooden houses were completely gone. The trees had no leaves and no fruit. At the bottom of the hill we found a massive pile made up of tree limbs, fruit, dead animals, and parts of the neighbor's homes. A few people living near us had even been killed.

We all worked together as a community to clean and rebuild the region. In a strange way, the storms had scrubbed the land of all the garbage and pruned all the trees. This was actually a good thing for the land in Puerto Rico, though I dared not mention it to anyone.

The old beekeeper, some friends, and I started moving any beehives that survived the hurricanes to locations all over the region. He kept telling me in Spanish that the bees would heal the wounds from the hurricane, it is ancient knowledge. It is true the surviving trees were heavy with fruit many months later.

Walk Across The Island

In my last weeks there I hiked almost the entire length of the island on foot. It was during dry season that I packed a small pack and decided to walk all the way across Puerto Rico, through the mountains. It took about two weeks but so many people learned about what I was doing that I had to leave the roads and hike in the forests and fields just to be left alone.

At one point a man picked me up and showed me a small story from a local newspaper that he said was about the "loco Americano" hiking across the entire island on foot. Since I did not read Spanish I had no idea if he was telling me the truth but I suspect he may have been.

Although I started out from the village with a friend he quickly gave up with sore feet and took a publico car back. So I walked alone most of the way, even climbing the highest peak, Cerro De Punta. The army soldiers based there aimed their guns at me. They thought I was a militant perhaps because I wore army surplus khakis. Foolishly, I kept walking towards them since I wanted to be able to tell others I had climbed the highest mountain on the island.

Their nervous leader saved my life and ordered them to lower their guns, but only after I explained to him that I was just a "tourista from Philadelphia." He talked to me for several hours after that while two soldiers spread the entire contents of my backpack out on a big table. It turns out some other people were recently shot dead doing exactly what I was doing. The top of the highest mountain in Puerto Rico is the location of a very important military communications tower.

I spent most of the night up talking with those lonely army officers. They insisted that I sleep on a cot in a small concrete room rather than camp on the mountain peak that night. The next morning I was allowed to continue my island hike, it was mostly downhill from there to the city of Poncé.

Not longer after that incident on the mountain top I was picked up by none other than the Commander of Police, of all Puerto Rico. He insisted I take up his offer of a ride in his large police truck. We talked for hours while his assistant on the back seat searched every inch of my backpack. He invited me into his home to meet his wife and stay the night. We sat up late talking about his Borinquen, true name of Puerto Rico. I recall the brilliant galaxies crowding the evening skies and the tiny but loud frogs called "coquis."

The next day the Commander drove me to a trailhead leading into a giant forest. He gave me a very detailed map and assured me that this trail was safer place to hike.

From there I did my best to follow the trail until I reached Luquillo Beach, by hiking through El Yunque Rainforest. El Yunque was one the most dense rainforests in the world, at least in those days. The ranger that threw me a rope and saved my life when I got trapped down in a huge washout told me that it rained more than 300 inches a year that place. He also told me that if it had rained when I was down in that giant ravine my body would have been swept all the way to the coast.

The island of Borinquen is a much larger place and wilder place than it looks on a map.

Independista Movement, Los Macheteros, and Much More

There is so much more for me to tell about my days in Puerto Rico. There was my relationship to the leaders and members of the Independista Movement and Los Macheteros, and please note, they are not the same group, not at all. Activists in the latter group were the reason I had to leave Puerto Rico in 1981. They destroyed all the fighter jets at the Air National Guard base in San Juan. Apparently some of my neighbors were involved in that incident. The Comptroller of Puerto Rico, who had become a friend over the years, came and picked me up late one night in late January or February. I have never returned to that island since those days.

The Puertoricanos I sometimes encounter in New York marvel at my experiences. They tell me that simple rural lifestyle is all gone now. Few if any people farm for a living, except on some commercial farms or some old people. Names like Linissa, Sebbio, and Arsenio are seldom given to babies any more. If you walk to the towns with a machete hanging from your belt they will arrest you. I imagine they are telling me the truth but my memories remain sharp from the days of my life in the West Indies.

If anyone is interested in learning more about my life as a farmer in Puerto Rico please let me know and I will take the time to write more of it down. These are far more pleasant adventures than my years in Haiti or India. I can assure you they will not give you the nightmares that my experiences near Calcutta or Port au Prince gave some of my listeners.


T.H. Williams

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Missing in Action and other Missing Persons

Oceana NAS 00013Blue Angels over Annapolis 32831

Today's Washington Post mentions the case of Navy Lieutenant Michael Speicher. Lieutenant Speicher was shot down over Iraq in the first Gulf War. There are so many different possibilities in the Speicher case. Here are just a few:

1. The long silence from Iraqi sources, who could possibly reap a reward, makes it almost certain that this man died from injuries or in prison not long after being shot down.
2. Iraq has been turned upside down looking for WMDs and U.S., British or other foreign captives with no sign of Speicher. Three letters on a prison wall does not make a case.
3. In Islamic society deceased people are buried quickly, usually the next day, no matter who you are.
4. It is likely that only a very few people knew anything about the fate of this pilot. Many Iraqis have died in the violence and from natural causes in the meantime.
5. The massive shock and awe bombings destroyed hundreds of government structures, burying many of the occupants, including prisoners and their guards in some cases.
6. There are many cases of prisoners being held for decades, like the Japanese citizens kidnapped by Korea. But there has been no change of government in North Korea during that time. Secrets often are only revealed when those who torture are finally removed from power.
7. Prisoners sometimes "go native" and adopt their new culture. This happened to a few people captured during the Korean War and even World War II. After many years they really do not want to be discovered, perhaps due to shame or simply because they are now content where they are. While I seriously doubt this is the case with Speicher it remains a slim possibility.
8. Years ago a relative of mine in the service disappeared from a beach in Saudi Arabia while preparing to go scuba diving. Evidence seemed to indicate murder but the Saudi government, like most, do not like bad publicity. The Saudis suggested that my relative went scuba diving alone instead of waiting a few more minutes for his diving buddies to arrive. Anyone experienced with scuba diving knows how absurd that story sounds. My point is, the real story often gets buried with the body so that some bureaucrat can save face.

American servicemen go missing and get killed during overseas non-combat assignments more often than the general public is aware of. A significant percentage of those cases, like missing persons cases in every city, never get solved. Our government also does not like to parade statistics related to missing servicemen or citizens. Unlike many places however, this data is available for research in our country. News sources are more likely to publicize these details than civil servants.

The Washington Post on Navy Lieutenant Michael Scott Speicher.

Dry Tortugas National Park 49373

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Why Bother Marketing in Virtual Worlds?

After reading the press and public reaction to SecondLife you probably think, hmm someday all this will pay off for somebody but certainly not now and perhaps not for ten years. Why should my company bother with this virtual reality community thing when it may be years from becoming a real, significant marketplace? Your business needs to reach a customer base that may not become active in an online community like SecondLife for 5 years, if they ever enter the medium at all.

Decisions exactly like this made the rounds of corporate conference rooms throughout the 1990's. What are we doing about this Internet thing? Should we even try to sell our products on the Internet? Exactly how many people are using the Internet today? What are they using it for? Are people actually buying things on the Internet? Will they ever trust the Internet enough to use their credit cards on it? Maybe some people are using it in the U.S. but what about the rest of the world? Most internet connections are so slow it will never be very useful for more than text and small pictures of our products. Does this sound familiar to you?
Koi 15783
Belonging To A Community

Similar comments were tossed around by corporations discussing eBay, Google, iTunes, and then YouTube. It seems that innovations related to the Internet are becoming adopted by larger and larger audiences at an ever-increasing pace. Most of the successful new ideas depend on greater bandwidth and larger amounts of creative input. A key formula to each of these sites is that they allow many people and organizations to actively participate with few limitations. Finally, the users of a site must quickly begin to feel that they belong to a community.

The early Internet was a collection of community bulletin boards. America OnLine and Mr. Case built a business on this idea of community. The Internet has changed since those days but people still seek out sites that give them that feeling that they belong to something larger. MySpace is a perfect example of this long-standing web trend. Even little Wikipedia lets most everyone get involved.

Content Is King

For a web site to succeed it absolutely must keep users returning for more. To do this consistently, web sites must constantly provide new content. The demand for new content is so critical that most major web businesses do not depend solely on large teams of artists and developers. Sites like eBay, Flickr, YouTube, and SecondLife provide the space and leave the creative work to the user community.

eBay lets the whole world display the contents of their closets and their showrooms. A Google search will turn up the good, the bad, and the ugly, organized by the folks at Google, of course. iTunes may be tightly controlled by Apple Computer but any company that wants to sell their music on iTunes seems welcome. Nearly anything goes on YouTube but copyright restrictions are rapidly being implemented by their new owner.

SecondLife meets all these criteria. It draws the user back for more interaction. It is constantly changing. It allows users to create new content. It definitely gives the participants a sense that they belong to a community.

Will SecondLife Endure?

The bulletin boards of the early internet are almost gone now. The AOL Search concept evolved into a Yahoo search tool which became a Google advertising machine. E-mail is slowly being supplanted by Instant Messaging. SIM City, Entropia, Warcraft, ActiveWorlds, There, and others preceded SecondLife in the virtual space. Virtual worlds are rapidly evolving and maturing away from their massively multiplayer on-line game (MMOG) origins. Something will definitely come after SecondLife. That is the nature of the web.

Any business that is unsure about making an investment in virtual reality should rest assured that their efforts will not be in vain. Your marketing, sales, and perhaps even your new product development teams will be taking a step ahead of the competition simply by learning to move around in this new space. When competition to SecondLife appears, and be sure it will, it is likely that connections will be engineered. Instant Message (IM) services are a great example of this. At first you could only send an IM to friends on the same service like Yahoo or AOL Instant Messaging. Eventually market forces prevailed and IMs now traverse multiple platforms.

There are many reasons Jeffrey Bezos, Mitch Kapor, and Pierre Omidyar have invested in Linden Lab's brave new world. Return to this space to learn more ways your business can benefit from these new developments.

NOTE: This column is part of a series on new developments in virtual reality. The first article was Why Do Business In Second Life?

Other posts on SecondLife and the online games business:

Suicide, Murder, and Virtual Worlds

Why Bother Marketing in Virtual Worlds?
Why Do Business in SecondLife?
Virtual Reality in Second Life
India, Google, God, and Technology


The Washington Post on government use of avatars

Gawker post on SecondLife as a pyramid scheme

Why I like To Tell Stories

I may never figure out the real reasons why events happen in my life but it will not be for lack of trying. It is the ultimate puzzle; our own existence. Besides, I rather enjoy solving puzzles.

The people that really know us, along with those who think they do, are usually mum about the subject. People do watch other people and attempt to figure them out. That is a very common sport. In fact, for many folks, watching other people is about the only thing they do outside of normal routines.

The Jolly Flatboatmen 19774

Television certainly contributes to this society of watchers instead of doers. So many people are lulled into the easy prospect of passively watching actors and other famous people streaming past as they act out preposterous scripts. Some even swoon over certain actors, dancers, or musicians. Other people love to cheer on their favorite sports celebrities or teams. Still others might shout at politicians while they deliver speeches on television, but most simply watch quietly. The majority of people leave it up to other people to make public displays of any kind. The sum total of people who actually do something, anything, in public, is rather limited.

Certainly there is no shortage of kids performing with their skateboards and young lovers on park benches. With the proliferation of digital cameras, it may seem as though everyone is attempting to become the next Steven Spielberg. In reality it is mostly young people uploading videos to YouTube or placing personal images on their FaceBook pages. As they grow older, most people learn not to make a spectacle of themselves.

It may be for a lack of creativity or perhaps stage fright but the majority of people seldom choose to do anything that might cause them to stand out from the crowd. You risk failure or ridicule or maybe even the loss of your job in these days when everyone carries a recording device inside their telephone. Most of us seem to like the narrow confines of our comfort zone.

If you speak out any subject you take the risk that other people might talk about you. People may discover a weakness or a prejudice you otherwise secretly harbor. There are even individuals that might try to use these uncovered personal details to exploit you in some way.

Somewhere along my path in life I learned that it is important to go out once in a while and have fun. I take that risk of being ridiculed. I express my gut feelings. I even create and embellish my various expressions, and possibly, just possibly, entertain a few people. I do this mainly for one important reason, so many people appear to me to be very stressed out by life's problems.

Telling a good story well is a great way to relieve stress. This is one reason why story-telling is such an ancient art. Shakespeare and Plato certainly did not invent the practice of spinning a good yarn. The telling of epics was once the only way the history of civilizations was handed down from one generation to the next.

It actually still is.

Historians may wish to believe their realm is almost an exact science but that is far from the truth. So is much of so called "recorded history." In truth the history we learn is really one version of the story told more often than all the rest.

The people with multiple college degrees that record the events known as "official history" find themselves picking and choosing certain parts to include. Historians and other writers select the events and the people that are most often remembered. They also like to select good accomplishments over the bad, in many cases.

For example the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, also owned slaves. From all we have been told President Lincoln was truly a great leader and certainly deserves his place in history. However, like most successful people in his day, for years Lincoln kept black servants working for his family to which he paid very little or nothing at all. So did Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and many other people.

Slavery and various similar practices were extremely common more than 100 years ago. People that considered themselves "free" including many Northern laborers were actually paid very small sums in exchange for very hard work. It is true that those people, unlike slaves, were usually free to walk away from their jobs. Slaves, on the other hand, were required by law to be returned to their owners upon capture.

Many business owners did keep and exchange detailed records of troublesome workers. They would not hesitate to advise others not to re-hire those that had proven unreliable in the past. Today we call these "credit reports" or "work histories."

There was also a system of debts. People that were paid small wages often accumulated relatively large debts. It was not unusual for their employers to be the ones that extended the loans that became these debts. Debts were and still are enforced by courts. If you quit a job and refused to repay your debt to an employer you could be sent to jail. This also still happens today.

Getting back to history and story-telling and Lincoln's place in both, it appears that good story-tellers are also often very successful people. If you can rattle off an exciting tale of adventure and intrigue you can often acquire a captive audience. Remember that most people prefer to watch and listen rather than stand up and be the show themselves.

Many people are bored with the lives they lead, they want to be entertained. People are quite willing to pay for entertainment like cable TV, books, and movies. Tickets to theater productions that are very good often sell out. Entertainers that draw people into business establishments, like pubs or nightclubs, are paid for that service.

So it pays to learn to spin a great web that becomes a tapestry of human experience, even if it only pays a little. And still you might end up with some debts which require you to create more tapestries. People you know may even repeatedly invite you to events based on how much they enjoyed the last time you visited. After all, people still enjoy having a good story teller around to break up the monotony. History certainly has proven that to be a true statement, hasn't it?