Friday, September 9, 2011

Where I Was on 9/11

Everyone has a story about where they were on September 11th, 2001. If you live on the East Coast, chances are you were just arriving at work when the news hit. For those in New York City, the experience was a first-person one. All you had to do was look out your window to know something was going on.

The horror unfolded in stages. The first plane hit the World Trade Center, and the prevailing view was that a terrible accident had occurred. Then the second plane hit. The nation and the world struggled to get their collective heads around what that meant. Clearly, this was no longer an accident. Then, just as people were getting used to that idea, the first tower collapsed. Then the second tower came down. For many, time stood still. The workday became irrelevant. Office workers huddled around televisions, transfixed. One can only imagine what life was like for those inside the airplanes or the World Trade Center towers.

I was in a very different situation at that moment. I now recognize what a uniquely American situation it was: I was washing my Ferrari.

I'd been in Lake Placid, New York with a group of Ferrari enthusiasts. We were on a four-day drive with wives and girlfriends, lodging at some of the region's most celebrated inns: The Woodstock Inn in Woodstock VT, The Pitcher Inn in Warren VT, and The Lake Placid Lodge in Lake Placid. At each of these establishments, we instructed the chef to pull out all the stops. There were some seasoned diners in our group who would not be easily impressed. They were not disappointed.

I was more than a participant in this adventure. I organized it. I met most of the participants through the Ferrari Club. They came from as far away as North Carolina to partake in my tour. I had spent the previous six months arranging the details. Driving routes were tested. Emergency road service was put on standby. I even had special shirts and jackets made for everyone. For my efforts, I was rewarded with a free ticket, whereas the other couples each paid thousands of dollars to participate.

They could well afford it. The group comprised highly successful entrepreneurs, self-made types with a passion for cars. That description would fit over 99% of the members of the Ferrari Club of America, whereas the public generally equates Ferraris with rock stars, professional athletes and others with more money than brains. Ferrari owners tend to be mechanically-inclined, and they are drawn to these cars partly for Ferrari's unwavering engineering mandate: the relentless pursuit of performance at any cost. The owners also like that they are supporting a cottage industry in Italy. In few other places in the world will you find such dedication to automotive craftsmanship.

I got up early that morning. It was a cloudless day, and I wanted my Ferrari looking good for the day's drive. So I drove from the Lake Placid Lodge over to my mother's home to give the car a wash in her driveway. Midway into the car wash, I saw something I'd never seen before: two F-16 fighter jets screamed over the house at an unusually low altitude. Moments later, my cell phone rang. A friend in Connecticut called to tell me about the first jet hitting the World Trade Center.

Several years later, I learned that I actually know one of those F-16 pilots. He and his wingman were on their way to patrol the airspace over New York City.

So while we were indulging in the most American of dreams, America herself came under attack. We felt safe in our splendid isolation, but there was no escaping the fact that life as we had known it would never be the same.

Monday, August 29, 2011

I'm Back (on Facebook, that is)

I reluctantly returned to Facebook this week after an eight month hiatus. Actually, my publisher set up a new Facebook page for me, as well as a fan page for my new novel, Dance of the Innocents. When publishing a book these days, social networking is akin to breathing. Avoiding Facebook would be like avoiding the English language.

This time around, though, I'm taking a very different tack. Rather than building walls of privacy around my Facebook page, I'm making it as public as possible. What's changed is the kind of information I'm willing to share. My goal is to inspire my Facebook friends with what I've written, with the hope that they will be moved to share my work with others. As a first-time author, social networking is a natural way to spread the word.

So, by all means, put in your friend request on my Facebook page. You'll be the first to hear about my book events and other developments.

Care to check out Dance of the Innocents? To learn more and to order a copy, go here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Messing With An Icon

Yesterday, Volkswagen unveiled its redesign of the iconic New Beetle. As VW explained it, they wanted to make the Beetle more masculine—which is another way of saying, they want more male buyers. In the process of refocusing the car for a wider market, I believe they sacrificed an icon. They should have just let the Beetle die a dignified death.

When a prototype of the New Beetle first appeared in 1995, the stunning bauhaus design captivated the public. The New Beetle paid homage to the original Beetle and eclipsed it at the same time. The New Beetle's sublime elegance was consistent inside and out. Every detail of the car played in concert with its design theme. Clearly, this was not a car designed by committee or by a marketing department. The result was a product reminiscent of the iPod or iPhone, and the New Beetle carried the same cachet. The New Beetle was an instant classic.

In recent years, VW attempted to massage the New Beetle's design with new bumper designs and fender creases to try and nudge the car in a more masculine direction. They shouldn't have bothered. The first production version of the New Beetle was a near-perfect design. These attempts at improvement only blurred its image. This latest revision is a complete remake of the New Beetle, now called simply, the Beetle.

USA Today Article

The marketing department's complaint about the New Beetle was that it was a "girls' car" and was therefore missing market share. This female identity problem raises a broader question about how we as a culture identify with our cars, and how we use our car's image to project things about ourselves that may or may not be true. For example, we see young married women driving over-sized SUV's—cars they wouldn't be caught dead in if they were single. Likewise, the short balding gentleman in the Corvette would never have considered such a car when he was young and virile. We wear our cars, the same way we wear fashions. Sometimes the goal is to remake ourselves into something we wish we really were.

I speak from experience about this subject, because I've lived at the extremes. I've owned several Ferraris over the years. I love the design and engineering philosophy at Ferrari, so that explains my interest in them. While many people who can afford a Ferrari won't buy one because they feel it will make them appear ostentatious, I went ahead anyway. The point of driving it wasn't to impress anyone. I just loved the design, the sound and the road handling.

But it wasn't that simple. Even with my good intentions, the hours spent behind the wheel of a Ferrari did affect my connection to my world. The Ferrari transported me into a universe that was clearly more fantastic than the one I actually lived in. I became noteworthy simply because of the car I drove. And this is a bad thing, you ask? It's only a bad thing if it stunts your growth and clouds your vision. In this way, a car can be like a drug. I instinctively knew it was time for a change—to get the horse back out in front of the cart again, so to speak.

I sold my last Ferrari a few years ago. No regrets. Its replacement caused a number of friends—people who had based their fantasy lives on mine—to launch into full blown identity crises. The Ferrari was replaced by a New Beetle in appliance white. It's the original 1998 version, before VW tried to improve it.

Sometimes less is more.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Denying the Inevitable

The nuclear calamity in Japan has already got many people re-thinking the inherent risks associated with nuclear energy, a form a energy that until last week was enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Suddenly we're seeing nuclear energy through a new lens. Sure, this is an extraordinary set of circumstances, with a 9.0 earthquake and a 30-foot tsunami—conditions which might not happen again in the next century. But what this event makes plainly clear is how fragile nuclear power plants are, and how they operatate on the principle of denied inevitability. That is, everything that goes on at a nuclear power plant is essentially postponing the inevitable. It is not a truly fail-safe system.

To illustrate my point, I'd like to mention another piece of modern technology that exemplifies denied inevitability: the Segway. When the self-balancing Segway hit the market, I thought it was a wonderful blend of mechanics and computer technology. My 75-year-old mother was one of the first to own one. I spent a fair amount of time riding the Segway, and I became quite proficient at it. The Segway's self-balancing technology is quite extraordinary. It just takes a while to completely trust it. I was a major proponent of this two-wheeled marvel right up until it sent me to the Emergency Room. That's when I realized that there is a fundamental flaw in the engineering concept behind the Segway.

Here's the problem: The Segway is, technically, always about to fall over. Its balancing ability is entirely dependent on its internal computer, sensors and motors—unlike a bicycle which relies mostly on physics for balance. When you ride a Segway there is no room for machine error; everything must be working perfectly. To account for this, the Segway has a backup computer and its motors have dual windings. If it senses a problem, the Segway instantly switches to its backup system. But if the problem is a software glitch, you might be going down, as I did. When you ride a Segway, you are constantly denying the inevitable.

At Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant the inevitable is a meltdown. Without a functional cooling system, a meltdown is the default mode for any nuclear power plant. Even the spent nuclear fuel stored deep in holding pools must be cooled continuously or the water in the pool will boil and evaporate, allowing the nuclear fuel to catch fire. Nuclear plants are designed with multiple cooling systems to reduce these risks, but the risk level never goes to zero; we are always pushing back against the inevitable.

It's high time that we reviewed our nuclear power plant design philosophy and begin building plants that are truly fail-safe. When dealing with nuclear materials, there is no room for denial.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

It seems every few years we have another personal communication technology available to us, something to make our lives more efficient. Theoretically, we should be more productive and have more free time as a result of these inventions. And we should be happier, too. But those payoffs just aren't materializing. Instead, we simply take on more work. We allow technology itself to set the bar, often for reasons that have nothing to do with efficiency.

A prime example can be seen with the phenomenon of texting, the preferred method of communication by today's teens. Only a few years ago, we had a generation of teens that spent hours a day on the telephone. For many, texting has replaced the telephone—even in situations where the telephone would be many times more efficient. Granted, there are some situations where texting is an ideal communication medium. But having lengthy conversations via text is painfully inefficient. So why do teens do it? I asked a friend of mine, Vermont psychologist, Dr. Steven B. Mann.

According to Dr. Mann, our culture is experiencing a new wave of anxiety, caused by the repeated use of these indirect communication technologies. Texting—like email—allows us to converse without the fear of emotional repercussions, such as saying the wrong thing or being perceived as insincere. The more someone avoids the telephone and replaces it with texting, the more anxiety is created. We now have a generation of young people who don't know how to talk to one another, particularly to someone of the opposite sex. Furthermore, texting lowers one's inhibitions, allowing relationships to progress at an accelerated pace. It's a formula for trouble ahead.

Another example of this new age of anxiety can be found in people's use of smart phones. Go to any bar in America or to a vacation resort, and you will see people compulsively checking their smart phones for email. Are they really that busy? According to Dr. Mann, people have become hyper-sensitive to their social environments, especially when they are alone. The fear of encountering a situation that requires emotional engagement keeps them glued to their smart phones. Email provides a ready escape. The more compulsively people check it, the more anxiety they create.

Technology itself is not at fault—the problem is our use of technology. We must make choices about which technologies and how much of them actually make life better. The answers may vary for each of us, but just because something is there, does not mean we should or must use it.