Monday, February 28, 2011

Really off the wire

I started this blog with the intention of doing more of the writing I want to do rather than simply the writing I’m paid to do. But a lot what I write never makes it to the blog. The more time passes, the more I realize this is actually by design.

I’ll never forget my cousin’s explanation of why she didn’t want her two pre-teen daughters to get Facebook accounts: because at that age it’s too hard to understand that nothing you put on the internet will ever go away. Ever. I still find it perspicacious of her, but I also find people much older than her daughters have trouble coming to grips with this.

For better or for worse I understand this all too well. Being a journalist in Venezuela taught me to duck out of public debate about the things I covered. This became an almost paranoid obsession that kept me from getting sucked into unnecessary internet pissing matches. I’m equally cautious now that I’m writing about personal experiences, simply because I don’t know whose reading – or who could be reading ten years from now.

Do I want to bare my soul on a blog where a potential employer might be reading? Or what if I want to adopt a kid and a social worker decides to do a few Google searches about me? Is it going to help my case for he or she to know some intimate details about th inner workings ofo my psyche? Of course people put all sorts of things on their blogs, ranging from mundane ramblings to unnecessary details about personal illness to kiss-and-tell emotional psychodramas. Many are comfortable with it.

Not me. In part because, as this blog has helped teach me, I’m a more private person than I had realized. And also because (as my cousin rightly points out) these words will never disappear. As the name suggests, this blog is for writing that’s outside of work, thus Off the Wire. But there are things that are Really Off the Wire.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The end of the line for Carlos (the Jackal)

The Hungarians showed them the door. The Syrians wouldn’t let them stick around. Their Stasi protectors in East Berlin had flown the coop. As Carlos the Jackal and his cohorts quickly learned, there were not a lot of places for armed revolutionaries in 1991.

This chapter in the life of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez’s life was the one I found most interesting out of the six-hour television series on his life. The series, which won a Golden Globe, gives a detailed account of how a Venezuelan Marxist became a champion of the Palestinian cause and a leader of armed Arab resistance against the West. His theatric attacks, particularly the 1973 kidnapping of an entire OPEC ministerial delegation, made him a media star and a darling of the radical left for years. He was feted by the anti-imperialist camp , coddled by Arab governments, and protected by Soviet client states ranging from Syria to Yemen. He walked freely throughout countries that had an axe to grind with the United States as charges hung over his head in the Western world, dealing arms for Damascus or plotting to assassinate Egypt’s Anwar Sadat at Libya’s request.

Until his time came.

This was the first time I felt I had the perspective of people who really lost out with the fall of the Soviet block. Possibly because of my American upbringing I’ve always seen the collapse of the Berlin Wall as a step forward for just about everyone. Even a good part of the Soviet elite managed to repackage themselves as reformed socialists under Boris Yeltsin. I would guess even some rank and file Stasi agents were able to recover from the unification of Germany. But, Carlos, along with his German and Arab counterparts, really just had nowhere to go. Before being hauled off the face trial and eventual conviction in France, Carlos’ last resort was to hide away in Sudan – which around the same time was the redoubt of Osama bin Laden before he was forced to flee to Afghanistan under pressure from the Saudi government.

It’s also maybe telling that Hugo Chavez chose the 2006 OPEC meeting hosted in Caracas to say how much he appreciated and respected “my friend Carlos the Jackal.” An odd venue for such a comment even if it came after nearly 20 years after he dragged Saudi Sheik Ahmed Yamani from Vienna to Libya.

For anyone interested in the life of this bizarre character or a retrospective look at radicalism of the age I’d say the French-produced series Carlos is worth watching. I say that even though I honestly found it too long and the cinematography a bit flat, almost as if it were mean to look TV from the 1970s era that it focused on. I originally thought it was a movie, and was surprised after two hours to discover we’d watched one of three CDs.

I’m also somewhat biased. I’m glad to see the further rise of Edgar Ramirez, the polyglot Venezuelan actor who plays Carlos, after a couple Hollywood movie roles (he’s the sniper who spends an hour of the second Jason Bourne movie trying to kill Matt Damon). Oh – my moment for star struck bragging rights: I chatted briefly with Ramirez once in a Caracas sushi joint to compliment him for his role in a hilarious Venezuelan indie movie called Elipsis done on a shoestring budget (yes, this was before he was cool).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Hunger ... for the overfed

I’m fortunate that I've never confronted Hunger – the gnawing lack of sustenance and the fear of not knowing when the next meal will be. That's convinced me that I should at least understand what it means to be a bit hungry – and why this can be a good thing.

Modern society has taught us that we should respond to any rumbling of the stomach by rushing to shove something in our mouths. This is the backbone of office snacking. Strolling over to the office coffee maker for another cup, stopping by the vending machine with the fake-me-out healthy snacks. Or walking down to the convenience store to grab a Coke and some chips while chatting with coworkers. It provides an immediate change of environment and often a jolt to our system that can shake us out of the doldrums.

This has made us not only more likely to be overweight and diabetic, it has also made us lose a simple biological rhythm that involves us sometimes feeling a little hungry. Being constantly surrounded by food has made us forget how to interpret signals that come from the body and the brain. It was strange for me, after having the newsroom snacking culture so well ingrained into my routine, to remember how different it was in highschool.

Back then we were not (fortunately) allowed to snack in class or much less leave class for a quick trip to the corner hotdog vender. I’d sit in Spanish class doubled over from hunger cramps at around 11:15, counting the minutes until 12:30 when I could tear into my lunch. Those were moments when I felt like I could have eaten an entire lasagna, and probably would have. By 11:30 or so I was no longer really pay attention to it, and by the time the bell rang I had forgotten about being hungry.

I’ve had afternoons when I’ve eaten two slices of cake, a couples pieces of a sandwich, and an orange at 4: 30, only to sit down to eat a full dinner at 7:30 as if I’d not had a crumb since noon. It’s not surprising that I end up feeling queasy and have trouble sleeping on those days. It’s easy to forget that snacking is in fact eating, just like any other time we put food in our mouths, chew, and swallow. But we’re less likely to forget to eat dinner, even if we’ve had its caloric equivalent in snacks only a few hours before.

Exercise is obviously part of striking the right balance when it comes to hunger. But the funny thing about it is that exercising not only makes us hungrier, it makes us feel like we deserve to eat more, which we generally do. I find as soon as I get back from a run I end up munching absent-mindedly about whatever happens to be in front of me. I get this weird buzzing in my head, a psychological fuzz that drags me in the direction of food without my even being conscious of it. I do eat more when I exercise because I need to, but I also try to be aware that it should be more balancing act than an all-you-can-eat gorging.

Of course, the fact that we eat too much is widely studied and understood, but what’s less discussed is that we eat too fast. These two things are not unrelated.

Some combination of our hectic schedules, culture of fast-food and the rise of dinner in front of the TV has left us shoveling food into our mouths with no regard to the quantity and no real perception of the quality. The stomach can’t digest as well when we eat this way, and can’t make as efficient use of the food.

Noticing this I made a conscious effort to slow down when eating and to really think about the food as I was chewing and swallowing. It won’t surprise you to learn that you can actually enjoy the food more that way because you actually stop to taste it. What did surprise me is that I really felt more full when I ate slower, so I ended up eating less. I remember once my wife and I picked up sandwiches for us and two friends. They each ate one in the same time that Isa and I ate half. We ate half as much as they did and we were fine – possibly because we were more focused on the fact that all four of us had spent the afternoon eating chocolate and Brazilian cheese bread.

When I was a kid people made frequent reference to the biological curiosity of how fish eat themselves to death, something that would pop up in the iconic 1980s Gary Larsen Far Side comics. Twenty years later it’s hard to avoid hearing about how people are doing the same thing. Maybe we could avoid the fate of our piscine brethren by thinking a bit more about what it means to eat – and to be hungry.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Technology takes a page out of the Old Testament

As time goes by, I find more and more people asking me why a bibliophile and avid reader such as myself hasn’t bought a digital book reader. I’ve heard just about all the arguments – the convenience, the cost savings, the reduced environmental impact of the paper, the lower carbon emissions from not shipping books. And the more I talk about the less convinced I am that I want a Kindle, I-pad, or Sony reader.

I spent months considering picking up such a device, and even subscribed to a blog that in great detail discussed the relative merits of the different readers. Convinced the digital revolution would over take the paper book during my lifetime, I invited friends over to my house one night and asked them the take home all the books on my shelf, from 20th century fiction to primers on the Iraq war and investigative treatises on espionage.

But I backed out of buying the device for a number of reasons, a number that rose as time went on. The first was to me the most obvious: the Kindle I buy today will within a year look like something from the first Soviet 5-year plan. This is as true in 2011 as it was in 2009 when I first looked into picking up the Kindle. And today’s shinier, lighter, prettier version is going to look ugly and clunky and out of date by the time the next version rolls around. Much like the fancy Motorola Razor phone I got when I first started working as a wire reporter, which was hip enough to attract appreciative oohs and ahhs from friends and even appear in Hollywood movies, only to draw a concomitant level of derision and chuckling when I was still using it three years later.

This particular “device churn” problem is what for me really knocks down the environmental benefit argument of the e-reader. Yes it’s true, no paper, no ink, less fossil fuel used in lugging heavy books around. But over the next ten years the average digital convert will probably own two to three e-readers, which are made with copious amounts of mercury, cadmium, chromium and lead – among the most toxic and carcinogenic substances known to human beings. Most will end up in the trash, dripping those chemicals into the water table over the next hundred years or so. A few will be recycled. Many more will be “recycled” – taken to China where women and children will boil them to extract trace elements of gold and other valuable metals, making small amounts of money great expense to their health.

I once saw a calculation that determined that the Kindle starts to lower the environmental impact of reading vs. traditional paper literature once you’ve read 70 books. I can’t say I’d be able to support or deny that estimate, but I don’t see how you compare reduced carbon emissions from fewer trees with higher rates of miscarriage and birth defects in the developing world. Apples and oranges.

Now that I’ve taken an unfortunately holier-than-thou stance on this subject, I should offer as a salvo that both my brother and sister-in-law now own Kindles, and these are two people who care more about the environment that just about anyone I’ve ever met. I don’t judge them for it or think less of them, or anyone else who might own this device or a similar one.

But (back to the soap box here) I find devices have a tendency to accumulate in a way that reminds me of one of those chapters of the Old Testament like Leviticus or Deuteronomy which is filled with phrases like “so-and-so begat so-and-so, who lived for 40 years and begat so-and-so, so-and-so, who each lived 42 years.” Devices are like this. Not only do we have to replace them every year, but we end up with more and more devices to do the same things.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who’s been knocked off his feet by his new I-pad. The thing’s amazing, he tells me, I couldn’t go back to just having a laptop. That got me curious, what does this thing do that a laptop can’t do?

You can watch movies! Uh, ok. You can have all your music on it! Right, I see. You can surf the web! Some of the web, it turns out, because reading Flash pages is still a problem because of some patent-related pissing match between Mac and Adobe. Anyway, you can probably see where I’m going with this. Granted, the guy’s got kids, his 2-year-old daughter can play games on it, he can leave them in the corner of restaurant watching cartoons, which would be awkward with a laptop.

But I general see that we’re more content to let device populations expand like Old Testament genealogies. I-pods should natural be swallowed into phones, the way handheld GPS devices are falling by the wayside in favor of Smartphones that have Google maps on them. From what I can tell people out there are still buying I-pods and Smartphones, with probably quite a few who own both.

And I find the debate about technology gets really wrapped up in the gadgets themselves and avoids a bigger question about what people end up doing with them. Specifically what most bugs me about the current era of digital readers is the digital rights management ghetto-ization that ties devices to a certain set of books. I buy the Kindle and I can’t get across the paywalls to read what’s in Sony’s digital books library. It would be a bit like a Honda driver not being able to fill up their tank a station around the corner owned by Ford. Right now I can buy used books on Amazon often for less than the digital versions. And I can’t find a lot of the random titles that I want to read in Kindle format, meaning I’d have to buy the device and buy an additional portion of books on the side.

I think the true liberation brought by the digital books revolution will let me read a book in the format I want, on the device I want, and be able to pass it along to someone else as if it were a real book. Under those circumstances I would feel justified in paying for books in digital format. Once these DRM-ghetto walls start to fall apart I think books will look a bit more like the MP3 craze of the late 1990s where people suddenly found they could get the music they want without the record companies getting away.

Until then, I think I’ve probably got more devices than I need.

It's the brain, stupid

I felt obliged to mention my previous post to my friend Francisco, who originally introduced me to the idea of meditating in the first place. I'm delighted that he gave me this typically pithy response and even gave me permission to publish it here. (By the way, here's one place where blogging beats journalism -- I don't have to dress up somebody else's wisdom as my own). Take it a away, Francisco.

"Turns out I married possibly the most aggressively secular Japanese girl out there. We just went to Japan last year and Kanako picked up this book on meditation - big best-seller out there - that goes to extraordinary lengths to strip the practice of any kind of Buddhist theology or traditional imagery or supernatural speculation at all.

It's pitched very deliberately, and very savvily, at people like her: folk who suffered through boring Buddhist ceremonies and smarmy sermons and tons of incense all through childhood and who just have no time for chants or mantras or incense or any of the other overtly religious aspects of it as it's practiced in Japan. And...she loves it!

Actually, she's gotten me back into it this year, after a couple of years of not practicing. And it's like getting reacquainted with an old friend. Though, of course, with Kanako any kind of spiritual rumination just gets an impatient roll of the eyes and a sharp just-shut-up-and-sit-there.

Which, in a way, is pretty refreshing. Cuz universal loving kindness may or may not be all that, but sitting there thinking about nothing does things to your head.

So, to paraphrase my wife: **** lord buddha. Nobody needs him. Three thousand years of hippie bla bla bla have built up into an impenetrable undergrowth of bull**** around what must have been his long-ago insight to the point of making it impossible to discern. In the end, it's not about your spirit, it's about your brain.

So that's my aggressively Dawkinsesque new Atheist Meditator's Manifesto. Hey...it works for me."

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A spiritual collision course

Meditation was not supposed to put me on a collision course with Buddhism.

Granted my entrance into the practice was not motivated by a search for Nirvana but rather a vulgarly practical desire to be more focused and efficient. I can’t say I expected it would become mainstay of my routine or my first avenue into exploring the world of spirituality.

But I haven’t reconciled the Buddhist ideas behind meditation with a modern lifestyle, and am not convinced I even totally agree with what the Bhudda has to say.

I was first introduced to meditation by a friend who is possible the least Zen-attributed individual a person could come across – a full-time blogger with a sometimes disturbing obsession with Venezuelan politics. He recommended a book called Mindfulness in Plain English, which I read it once years ago. My memories of what I had read guided my entrance into meditation and served as a practical how-to for making it a part of my routine.

Despite its association with fru-fru hippies, I found meditation one of the most practical things I’d ever done. It gave me a window into the thought processes going on in my own head. It helped me understand how I was constantly making decisions that I wasn’t aware of, many of which were not very good decisions. It helped me understand how and why I struggled with distraction and what I could do about it.

I bought a copy of the book recently to give to a friend I thought could benefit from the advice. Feeling slightly spiritually unsteady, I started reading it again (I never actually gave it to her) and found a number of things I didn’t terribly like.

I don’t agree that we should abandon our struggles and simply accept life as it comes at us. I don’t agree that people who yell and scream at baseball games are suffering from repressed anger. I don’t think people who play competitive sports are necessarily spirituality imbalanced.

Some of this may be more about how people have interpreted Buddha’s teachings than what he himself said. To that end I admit my ignorance of the original teachings and have to some extent naively accepted the words of his latter day followers as a proxy, which can more or less be summed up as Life means suffering, and the root of suffering is desire.

My problems start once the “radical Buddhism” ideas start to emerge – avoid desiring anything, don’t seek great achievements because you’ll just need more, don’t struggle to improve yourself through spirituality – just accept yourself.

I can see where they’re going with this. The nature of ambition is that it’s open-ended, unceasing, a road with no stopping point in sight. I sometimes dream of an existence where I can just enjoy the simple pleasures of life without the burden of eternally seeking new achievements.

But breaking new ground and overcoming obstacles are some of life’s most prominent virtues, ones that a trance-like Zen state of eternal satisfaction simply can’t replace. I struggle to balance my ambition to achieve with my desire to live in the moment. Of late I’ve let the latter win over, and I’ve noticed the consequence is a desire for more – more struggles, more victories, more awards, more accomplishment – and dissatisfaction that goes with it.

So here I go doing it all wrong again. The more I meditate the more I seem to do what the Buddha is telling me not to. Desiring more, and all the while using meditation as a tool that can let me achieve more. I still haven’t figured out the balance between these two things. Maybe the point is that I never will.

Believe in my theory -- it's wrong

Reading a biography of Warren Buffet led me to an important conclusion that I would have expected to reach – that it can be socially constructive for large groups of people to believe and act on something that’s materially false.

The theorem that I’ve decided is false is called the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, which holds that investors are best served by buying indexes of mutual-fund type packages of stocks instead of choosing individual stocks in efforts to get better returns than the market average. The theory is based on the idea that all publicly available information about a company is already factored into its share price, meaning the market always set the right price for a stock at any given moment. I was for years a believer in this particular theory, but am no longer simply because Warren Buffet has blown the idea out of the water.

After reading Roger Lowenstein’s page-turning biography of the Sage of Omaha, as Buffet is known, I came to the conclusion that Buffet is a guy who simply *knows* how markets work. There aren’t a lot of these in the world, and generally a good deal fewer than those that claim to know. But just about every step in Buffet’s career demonstrates his ability to make money came from being able to understand the intrinsic value of a company and take advantage of the moments when the market for some reason undervalued it. There just aren’t a lot of ways of explaining how Buffet beat the market every year for more than thirty years if he was just throwing darts at a dartboard with stock prices listed on it.

I’ve given up on the idea of markets being efficient, particularly watching the herd mentality of the investment community. But I’m glad I believe all those years even if it was wrong. Because Lowenstein’s book taught me something else – I ain’t Warren Buffet. I do not have the firmness of character to sink millions of dollars into an investment when the whole world is telling me it’s a losing bet, much less buy even more of a stock once my holdings have already slumped 30 percent. I do not have the financial acumen to memorize hundreds of balance sheets and keep the data stored in my head for a decade. I do not have the capacity to learn and study the dynamics of dozens of different industries at the same time.

So that leaves me with the alternative – take what the market gives me. Believing the wrong thing saved me a lot of money. And I think I’d be happy to see other folks avoid losing money themselves by continuing to believe something of questionable veracity.