Friday, June 23, 2006

Bored in Paradise

That there is my favorite picture I took from Kauai, looking down the valley to the Na'Pali coast. I don't think I've ever had a view so striking. And yet, there in the midst of paradise, as in many areas of America, there is apparently a large and growing chrystal meth problem. Why can't they just get high on nature, with great hikes like this to enjoy on the island? The answer comes from the book I mentioned yesterday - Stumbling on Happiness - which I actually read on the way to Kauai. Habituation. That is the psychological term for diminishing marginal utility - if you see views like this everyday, you quickly become jaded - maybe it takes a little longer to become jaded, but you get there nonetheless.

I remember seeing a group of teenagers on a prior trip to Hawaii who looked bored out of their skulls - people from all over the world flocking to their island to steal a piece of paradise - and like most any teenager from most any place, these kids couldn't escape that island fast enough.

Anyway, there were two concepts from the book I plan to file in my little rolledex of erudite cocktail party converstation tidbits. The first was what the author called "language squishing." The idea is basically that we all are equipped to describe, and more importantly to feel, the highs and lows of life in much the same way, but the language we attach to certain experiences is a function of the range of experiences we have. Someone with limited experience might attach the same language of joy to the simple eating of a piece of cake as I might to the view of the coast depicted in the picture - we'd both identify these two very different experiences as being the same on the old happiness meter. The cake eater has to make the same rankings of happiness over a much smaller range of experiences, and so the language gets squished - what he merits to be fantastic the worldly man rates as mildly pleasant.

The opposite of the "language squishing" concept is "experience stretching" - once you experience something new, you have to stretch the language out from its previous bounds - eating cake may no longer be the greatest earthly experience. Your previous range of experience is now found rather wanting, and so eating cake will never deliver the punch it once did. This of course implies that experience stretching is not necessarily a good thing for your overall happiness, unless you can maintain the ability to experience those things at the top end of your scale.

The concepts I think provide the basis for explaining things that otherwise seem inexplicable. In India, for example, extremely poor people look like they are quite happy, and somilar observations are made by Westerners who travel or live among those in Third World countries. They seem no less happy than wealthy westerners, and quite a bit more happy than poor westerners. For the poor in the US, for example, the standard of living is such that they can afford TVs, and so they have a glimpse of what a richer life is like, but not the ability to experience the fruits of that life directly. So their experience scale is stretched through what they can see, but at the same time they can't afford to experience the things they desire directly. Poor people in India generally don't have cable.

I think it also provides a cautionery tail for child-rearing: expose your kid to too much of your own wealth, and you stretch his experience to a level he probably won't be able to achieve through a good portion of his early adult years. He becomes spoiled for good reason. That is why when we left them behind on our way to Hawaii, we were doing them a huge favor. That is the kind of selfless parenting we are all about.

Finally, back to bored chrystal meth using teens in Hawaii - people have different levels of preference for experience stretching in and of itself. Some are content with the range of experiences they've already had; others not so much. Those who aren't, and who cannot afford to stretch it in beneficent ways, probably seek to stretch any way they can, including with drugs. Or Chartreuse, whatever the case may be. Still others may be content at some level of experience beyond their current level; whereas others will constantly need to upgrade. If you constantly need to upgrade, I think you again run into trouble.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

NBA Playoff and Father's Day Thoughts

Three comments on the NBA playoffs:

1) The NBA playoffs are a random walk, but the ESPN analysts are chartists - they look at the last day trend and extrapolate forever. Dallas handles the Heat easily in Games 1 and 2, and all you hear from Legler and Anthony are how Dallas is the greatest team ever, and that the Heat have nothing. Three games later it is nearly the opposite story. Same thing happened Pistons-Cavaliers. You should watch these guys with Ludlow & Kramer in the picture in picture - the analysis is as equally irrelevant.

2) The Game 5 call was ridiculous. But in the course of any one game, there are bound to be a lot of questionable calls, so while it is natural to focus and the last pivotal one, it is not necessarily fair. That being said, I think the NBA playoff championships should change its format - they should institute a sudden death overtime that extends until one team goes up by at least 10 points, with overtime triggered anytime the regulation spread is not at least 10 points. Right now, you have three games that the Heat won, which I would argue do not provide statistically significant evidence of superior play. All noise, no signal. This is why, of the four major sports, basketball is ultimately the least satisfying (while at the same time being the most entertaining).

3) Love Dwayne Wade, love Shaq. Not a big Pat Riley fan. Love Avery Johnson. Not a big Mark Cuban fan. So I really didn't care who won. Wade wins a championship with Shaq clearly on the downside of his career - so how does Kobe feel about that? Another reason to love Flash.


Jake gave me a card for Father's Day with sentences that he had to fill in, like "My dad's favorite food is ___." He filled in broccoli. Other fill-ins were similarly off point. The last one: "I wouldn't trade my dad for __." He filled in "food." Great, I rank marginally above string cheese in the eyes of my kids. Sometimes I feel like they don't understand me at all. They just don't know who I am.

I read a book recently called Stumbling on Happiness (I highly recommend), which billed itself not as a how to book for achieving happiness, but rather as a guide to understanding, years down the road, why achieving all of those things you thought would make you happy ended up not working. Anyway, the author comments that happiness in marriage declines while kids are in the mix; it is higher before they come along, and higher after they leave, but generally doing things with your own kids rates low on the satisfaction meter for most people.

I think there is some truth to this, but I view these years as an investment for down the road. You don't appreciate boredom until you have kids, and when my life is boring again, I suppose I'll savor it. Of course, achieving happiness is not the same as feeling like your life has meaning, and so while one might have more fun without kids (though I don't think I would), you don't get the same sense of generativity out of the freedom to go to the movies on any given night.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Undocumented Inebriated Vehicle Operators

"For every bin Laden or Al Zarquawi we knock off, there are a thousand ready to stand in his place."

"We still haven't focused on the main goal - killing or capturing bin Laden or other top leaders of Al Queda."

Take your pick of Democratic talking points depending on the news of the day: if we manage to bag a big leader like Zarquawi, well he's just one head of the hydra. And prior to that success, when we've spent five good years capturing and killing scores of terrorists, we're told all that matters is whether or not we got bin Laden. Of course we haven't gotten bin Laden yet, but when we do expect to hear how by blowing him to bits has spawned 1000 more bin Ladens.

Interestingly enough, if you try to google "number of Al Queda killed or captured," you'll have a hard time finding any data. I couldn't. Google "number of US forces killed in Iraq" and you get a lot of hits - in fact the BBC reported just 2 hours ago that the US just suffered its 2500th casualty. On the face of it, of course no casualties are good, so the fact that they keep occurring is bad, and from this we can infer that things are not going well, or at least not as good as we'd like. But wouldn't it help to know a running total of the guys we've sent to the grave? Don't you think that type of information would be necessary to make an informed opinion about how the war is going?


Patrick Kennedy has copped to a plea of driving while under the influence of perscription drugs. Is that what they are calling it these days? How about as an alternative, we just say he was an undocumented drunk driver; it avoids the stigma of saying that he was driving drunk illegally, but nevertheless doesn't suggest that the DA was stupid enough to believe Kennedy's obviously perjured statement to the police. And it would be in line with the sensitivity with which we treat illegal - er, I mean undocumented, Mexican workers. And why stop there - how about undocumented non-consensual fornicators for rapists, or does that have too much of a religious right judgmental tone to it? Pimps could be undocumented sex brokers. The possibilities are endless.


In political scandal news the party of corruption - the Republicans, if you are not paying attention - are getting off free on the Karl Rove treason. Hate to beat a dead horse, but it seems to me that the leak couldn't have been illegal - if it were, it seems there is ample testimony pointing to those who leaked it, enough to charge them with a crime. Much ado about nothing.

Meanwhile, the party of integrity and ethics - the Democrats, if you are not paying attention - got one of their members caught with a couple hundred grand in bribes stuffed in his freezer at home. The House, including the craven Republicans, have circled the wagons around this guy decrying that the separation of powers entitles congressmen to be able to store that much money in their freezer without drawing FBI scrutiny. Of course, the real defense of this guy stems from two facts - he's from Louisiana and he is black. By everyone's reckoning, with only a couple hundred grand in his freezer, he is the least on-the-take politician in Louisiana history, and therefore his being targeted is an example of egregious racial profiling.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


There is a particularly annoying Volkswagen commercial getting significant airplay these days, wherein a young good-looking, and apparently self-actualized couple is driving around in their Passat, passing other German-branded car owners, each equipped with a megaphone, who say things like: “I am compensating for my inadequacies” by driving an expensive German-engineered car.

The commercial asks you to accept basically two things: 1) that a German-engineered car is a German-engineered car, and so any difference in expense is not indicative of differences in quality; and 2) given 1, if you own something more expensive than a Volkswagen, you obviously have problems that you are trying to conceal by purchasing status. Or perhaps the problem you have is precisely that you are trying to purchase status. But this can’t be it – because presumably some people would like to convey the image that they don’t care about status – and if the commercial is correct, purchasing a Volkswagen will allow you to convey your indifference. It’s a catch 22, because if you don’t care about status, you shouldn’t care about signaling your lack of concern with it.

And then, to top it off, they end the commercial by announcing that Volkswagens have the “lowest ego emissions of any German-engineered car.” Now, this can be interpreted two ways – you can still be an egotistical ass even if you drive a Volkswagen – you are just less of an egotistical ass than a BMW driver. Or perhaps we are just meant to assume that everyone knows German cars are better than Japanese or American cars, and so this is the only reliable car you can drive without being pompous.

If I were another German car manufacturer, I’d take the chance to hit Volkswagen really below the belt, and have an advertising campaign with the tagline: “BMW - Less cooperation with the Third Reich than Volkswagen,” and have Germans riding around in Volkswagens in SS uniforms.

In any event, the general concept of the commercial – the concern for status – is a subject that I often think about, and find myself thinking about more and more, especially as I am coming up to my 20th high school reunion. Here is the thing about status – we usually go from place to place in life looking to climb in status, but every time you do, you find yourself surrounded by a cohort wherein you no longer stand out. And you mostly compare yourself to people in your cohort that you are surrounded by, which also changes typically with the change in status. You move to a richer neighborhood, and you are no longer the richest in the neighborhood. You get into a select college, and you are no longer the smartest kid in the class. Etc.

This means that the “I’ll show you” motivation for climbing a wrung on the status ladder is a rather shortsighted motive, because in fact you won’t show anyone – if you climb, you typically leave, and because you are out of your old world, nobody really cares or knows what you’ve made of yourself. The other sometimes unfortunate consequence is this – you can never really enjoy your own success because once you climb, you very quickly change your point of reference for comparison.

For example, I just read the book The Smartest Guys in the Room, about the fall of Enron. That company had guys leaving jobs that paid in the low 100K range becoming millionaires many times over in a fairly short period of time. But quickly what mattered to these guys was not the fact that they had quite unexpectedly achieved financial independence; instead each was obsessed with their wealth and compensation compared to others in the company.

I leave you with one quote from that book that had me laughing hysterically. Andrew Fastow, the crooked CFO, was starting to feel the heat with the WSJ publishing a very critical article before the walls came tumbling down on Enron. His brother wrote him the following e-mail:

“We know, without a doubt, that there was nothing inappropriate with your involvement with LJM while serving as an officer of Enron. We support you 100%. Anyway, we both found the content of the article to be extremely suspect. If you were really making millions from LJM, there is no way you’d let your brother continue to drive a 7 year old Toyota Camry.”

Friday, June 09, 2006

India - Coming Home

Back again, in a separate Air France Lounge, on my way home. With only 2 days in Delhi, I effectively figured out how to beat what would otherwise be significant jetlag caused by a 91/2 hour time difference – I did it by more or less not sleeping at all – not on the flights to Delhi, not while in Delhi, and so far not on the way back from Delhi. Sure, I’ve got bloodshot eyes, and I don’t know whether I’m coming or I’m going, but this would happen to anyone who stays awake for 100 straight hours, independent of whether they hop flights to and from Delhi in the course of the sleeping fast.

I can’t fall asleep on the flights because of the huge opportunity cost of doing so while flying business class on Air France. How many chances do you have to be waited on as an American by French airline attendants for 30 hours in the course of a week, asking for one more of those hot wet towels, seeing if they can bring me another drink, asking them what part their parents or grandparents played in the Vichey regime. These are the reasons a comparable priced fair on Air France is always a huge bargain.

My one episode of restful sleep is interrupted rudely by a phone call from Vijay, in what is becoming a tradition. In all three trips I’ve made there, he’s woken me from a dead perfect sleep to ask what time to pick me up. This time it is kind of a pleasant surprise – because I didn’t think I was going to get him. Apparently he is the number 1 driver for this company, and my New York based client, who has some clout in the company, snags him for herself, and I’m left with some guy Mihandar. But on day 2, for whatever reason, he is free to be my driver. The last time I was here, he wasn’t my driver at all, but every morning he would call me, wake me up, and tell me not to take a ride from the guy who apparently snaked him in getting me, saying – “Jon, don’t take ride, he a bad man. Do you want a slushee?” OK, the last question he didn’t pose, but for three straight mornings I was told not to take a ride from this other guy. Anyway, I ride in the front seat when I’m with Vijay, one of those little things I do for the little people.

Vijay has become a father since I last saw him, with a daughter who is a couple months old. The day after I leave, he is headed to get married to his current wife. He’s already had a “love” marriage, which apparently he and his wife never mentioned to their families, and now they are to be wed again in an arranged marriage. Of all the possible arranged marriages in a country with a billion people, I tell him how lucky he is that the marriage was arranged with his current wife. What are the odds? The humor doesn’t translate. He tells me that he has a picture of the two of us hanging in his apartment. I would tell him I have a picture of us posted on my blog for all the world to see, but then I’d have to explain a blog to a guy whose first language is Hindia, and who makes $30 a month. That said, he does have a cell phone.

Indian’s live on cell phones – there is no etiquette in business meetings there to turn off the ringer or to leave it unanswered when it rings. Kind of annoying. I’d be in the middle of some ridiculous soliloquy when the guy I am looking straight at grabs the phone out of his pocket and starts talking to the person on the other end. It’s always business, never personal, but still. No one else even so much as blinks. No apologies are offered for the delay. It’s just understood that the cell phone takes priority over live people.

I nearly missed my flight out of Delhi, despite being 2 plus hours early for a 12:40 am flight to Paris. But the upside is that I figured out why India is a third world country, albeit one growing rapidly. The reason is this – the people in India, in deciding how best to hawk their services in the labor market, have almost uniformly decided that the most pleasing job must be checking passports and customs forms in airports. You’d think an oversupply of labor in this market would be good, because you’d never have to wait in a line, with thousands of customs agents there looking to get lucky enough to be chosen by the lesser number of would-be passengers. The problem is that they’ve lined them all up sequentially and you have to show your documents to each and every one of them, one at a time. No exaggeration here – I had to show my passport and boarding pass at least seven separate times prior to boarding the plane. Let me tell you something – you never need one of those hot wet white towels as much as you need one after showing your passport to a million Indians hellbent on having you miss your plane.

The Air France lounge here gave me some serious false hope. With a four hour layover, after a nine hour flight packed with Indians who have yet to discover deodorant, a good douche would be great. And here in the lounge is a douche for public use, the first I’ve ever seen in an airport lounge, but unfortunately it is out of order for the month. Douche is the French word for shower, so when in Paris it is my preferred term of use, but still each time I write it I hear the Butthead voice in my head saying – “he just said douche.”

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Going to India

Sunday, June 4

9:30 am Paris time, 3:30 am DC time, and I purposely did not sleep on the flight over. I’ll arrive in Delhi at 10:00 pm, which I think is like 11:30 am DC time. On my way to India for a quick two-day trip that seems ill-fated from the start. First, I decide to look for my passport on Wednesday, needing it Friday morning in order to get a visa from the Indian consulate. Go to the normal drawer where I keep it in my dresser – turn the thing upside down several times over to no avail, and head into work in a slight panic. I start to poke around to make sure that if I cannot find it when I return home that night, there will still be enough time to pull the rabbit from the hat, get the passport, and get the visa. My situation quickly becomes desperate, with several expediting services all but laughing at me, until one finally gives me a ray of hope at 3:30. If I have passport photos, my birth certificate, plenty of cash, and the necessary applications filled out and placed in a sealed envelope by the post office to their office by 5:30 pm, I’ll have a brand new passport early Thursday afternoon. So do I gamble that I can find the passport with a thorough search, or run around like an idiot for two hours assembling the necessary documents?

I choose the latter, because running around like an idiot comes more naturally to me, and call the Wife of Hatcher in a panic to ask that she deliver my birth certificate. As she’s en route, I head to the nearest passport photo place, three blocks away. The birth certificate is delivered and I head to the post office at Washington Square, arriving at 4:26. After an infuriating 15 minutes in line, I met with what I expect to be met with – a look of total confusion on the face of the post office worker, who tells me I’ll need to talk to a supervisor; like all post office supervisor, this one seems to prefer to do her supervising as far away from people as possible. After about five minutes I finally speak to her, and she informs me they only do the passport thing by appointment between 9 and 11, and that no one can validate the application now. So I am gambling after all. I am still an idiot, but at least I’m not running around like one.

I get home. Grab the axe out of the garage, contorting my face into my best Jack Nicholson Shining impersonation, and head for the dresser. Actually, I head upstairs and calmly start examining whether a document pushed out of the top drawer of the dresser could have fallen within the dresser itself. Sure enough, I am peeking under the skids of the drawer, when I see an old receipt. I see if I can reach for it with my fingers, and successfully jerk it out. As I do that, the passport comes into view. Alleluia! Lucky me, I win a trip back to New Delhi, no doubt to reunite with my old friend Monella, first name Sal.

Second incident, proving that choosing not to be cheap is sometimes (though rarely) a good decision. Rather than face the $2 ATM charge for using another bank’s machine in the airport, I hoped to go swing by the grocery store on the way to the airport to use the old check card to buy a penny candy and get the necessary cash without charge. Instead, because I am paranoid about missing my flight, I decide I’ll just get the money in the airport. In my wallet I have a spare house key to get back into the house, which I feel certain will trip every alarm in security and subject the Hatcher to his second full-scale proctological experience in his young life (many of you know the first), so I smartly tuck said wallet into my handy carry-on bike messenger bag. Wizz through security without incident, and trek the 5 miles of moving walkways to my terminal in Dulles to the nearest cash machine.

Check pocket – slight moment of panic – ah yes, now I remember, it is in my bag. Check various compartments of the bag. No luck. Slight panic ensuing. Rip out contents of said bag. More than slight panic ensuing. Leave my bags in the Air France lounge, and do the five mile trip back to security in record time for a guy in Reef flip flops (which replaced the still sorely missed Patagonias). First guy I ask knows exactly what I am talking about, and needs to find a supervisor to go retrieve my wallet from lost and found. The supervisor for airport security gets trained in the same way as those in the postal service, because it is another five minutes before anyone answers to the title.

I get my wallet back and head the five miles back to the Air France lounge in hopes that I can still do something crude in front of French people, like stuff as many free croissants into my shirt pocket as possible. So you see – if I were cheap, I would never have discovered the wallet falling out of the bag – and would have shown up in India without any money or credit. Of course that puts me in league with about a billion people there, but they don’t have reservations at the Trident Hilton. Lucky me, I am assured of going to India without any fear of having to work off my hotel bill, and so I am free while there to concentrate on my hourly offerings to the great Hindu god, Porcelain.

Now I am in the Air France lounge in Paris trying to anticipate and thus avoid the next disaster.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Surfing USA

Day 1 surfing lesson in Hanalei Bay, location of the second most travelled-to wave on the planet among surfers in the know, on the island of Kauai. Kauai makes Maui look like Jersey City (I say this having never been to either Maui or Jersey City, but I know I am right). Hanalei Bay is home to 5 of the top 40 surfers in the world, and to the Hatcher for one day in May. The wave looks small, I know, but that is part of the magic of the place - it is an optical illusion that distorts all pictures and reduces the perceived wave size by a factor of 10, so what looks like a 2 foot wave is actually closer to 20 feet.

Day 2 of surfing, at Secret Beach, where the waves are about 7 feet, and the optical illusion is slightly different - the camera gets the wave height accurate, but makes pasty balding white guys from Jersey look like tan dark-haired Polynesians. Among the highlights of the trip was a conversation with a 20-something bleach blonde surfer with a vocabulary of about 25 words, who ended every sentence with either "stuff like that" or "something like that."

Example: "Yeah, I've been all over the world - California, Bali, stuff like that. Bali is great - you can get lobster for like $3 and something like that. But it's a third world country and stuff like that." If they ever do a remake of North Shore, this guy has to play the role of Turtle.

****************************************************************************** is doing an NBA playoff tournament of composite franchise teams picking the best players from each franchises history, and having people vote on the match-ups. Any given player can only be on one team. So in the East, the Celtics (Bird, Russell, Cousy, McHale, Parrish, Havlichek, Cowens, others) were the one-seed. The Bulls and Pistons were the 2 and 3 seeds, respectively, and the Sixers were the 4-seed.

The Sixers have Chamberlin, Irving, Barkely, Iverson, Cheeks, Andrew Toney, and some others as well. Despite having only 2 championship teams in the franchise history (1967 and 1983), those two teams were arguably 2 of the most dominant teams ever. The Sixers went 12-1 in the playoffs in 1983 (best winning percentage in playoff history), in the heart of the Magic, Kareem, Bird, McHale era, sweeping the Lakers in 4 games in the finals. They finished with a 65-17 record, and would arguably have won 70 games had Malone not been injured toward the end of the season. The 1967 team was 68-13, and beat the 8 time repeating champion Celtics 4-1 in the Eastern conference playoffs. They should have been the 2-side, with a legitimate 45 percent chance to knocl off the Celtics.

The voters poll had the Bulls beating the Celts in the Eastern Conference finals. Total joke. A Bulls team that needed 7 games to dispense with horrible Knick teams year in and year out, and got spotted 10 points per game for the "Jordan Rules", beats the all-time Celtic greats. One spin-off story by a guy on imagined a Celts-Bulls match-up prior to the voters poll, with the Celts winning when Russell blocks a Jordan game-ending attempt to win the game. The better ending would have been him blocking it from six feet away, and getting called for the foul, with Jordan hitting two from the line for the win.

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