It’s been awhile, I hope you and your family are doing well. We certainly are, which is why I am writing you today.
I will be sixty-one in a couple of weeks, and find myself exactly where I want to be in life, and you are a big reason why.
We have been here in Westport for almost fifteen years, and decided this Spring to remain here indefinitely.
This is most significant: the first time in my life - ever - that I felt this way. Growing up in a Navy family, we always knew the stay was temporary. Then college, the Air Force, and a corporate career based on flexibility. As for Westport, we have attempted to sell the Inn several times, and we always thought we would leave here within a year or two. My roots were so shallow you could see them float.
After living in California, Colorado, New Jersey, Hawaii, Alaska, Florida, Texas, New York, Washington, Kentucky, Alabama, North Carolina, Jamaica, Korea and Morocco, and traveling through Europe, Mumbai, and Japan, we have doubled down on our original decision to live in Westport. The past three years we traveled the South-East in a travel trailer during the off-season, and considered several options for our future: live on a sailboat, purchase a cabin deep in the woods, or simply live in the RV year-round after selling the Inn. The experience brought us back ‘round to where we are, and the decision to stay.
Here’s the Inn as of yesterday. You can see our travel trailer in the back:
The decision to remain in Westport couldn’t be made without the multiple professional experiences I enjoyed (or suffered through) all those years, or all the places I have lived and explored. Otherwise I would wonder what I was missing, or what else I could do, and would grow restless.
Quality of Life
My quality of life is fantastic. During the busy season (May - October), everyday I do most of the housekeeping and laundry, manage all the reservations, meet and greet all of the guests, all of which I mostly enjoy. The work keeps me physically active, and busy enough that I don’t work on major literary projects, but find time to complete a 30-minute lesson in Spanish everyday (half way through a 20-month program), work out once or twice a week, read every night, train both my dogs in the park across the street, listen to music most the day, and nap almost every afternoon.
My napping partners, Baron on the left and Mr. Darcy on the right. The grandchildren I will never otherwise have. :)
I don’t waste time in meetings, commuting, or waiting. I dress how I please, always in comfort. Everything I do benefits the business or me (reading, writing, listening to music, working out, taking walks). I spend more time thinking about things that matter (to me). Things that are eternally relevant (art, science, philosophy), as opposed to the ephemeral (current technology, fashion, news, corporate politics).
I own a bookstore, one that does a great job subsidizing my reading habit:
Below the image of the bookstore, my personal, permanent library, books I will (or have) read and re-read:
I have read 153 books in the past three-1/2 years, including the following this past year:
Philosophy of Science
Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn
The Counter-Revolution of Science, F. A. Hayek
Criticism and the Growth of Knowldege, Thomas Kuhn
Philosophical Foundations of the Three Sociologies, Ted Benton
Darwinian Shift - Kuhn vs Laudan, Caroline Picart
Oxford Book on Modern Science Writing, Richard Dawkins
Edge of Evolution, Michael Behe
Dinosaur in a Haystack, Stephen J. Gould
Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking
Origins, Neil DeGrasse Tyson
In the Shadow of Man, Jane Goodall (signed copy)
Song of the Dodo, Quammen, David
New Humanists, Brockman, John
Confessions of a Philosopher*, Bryan Magee
Discourse on Thinking, Martin Heidegger
Heidegger’s Being and Time, E. F. Kaelin
The Philosophy of Schopenhauer*, Bryan Magee
Postmodern Condition, Jean-Francois Lyotard
Beyond Aesthetics, Stuart Sim
Hearing Secret Harmonies*, Anthony Powell
Angels on Toast*, Anthony Powell (the 12th novel in his Dance to the Music of Time)
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
Dying Animal, Philip Roth
Dangerous Writing, biography of Mary McCarthy by Carol Brightman
Justine*, Lawrence Durrell
Balthazar*, Lawrence Durrell (first and second volume of his Alexandrian Quartet)
Fan's Notes, Frederick Exley
This is not the end of the Book, Umberto Eco
Sea, John Banville
Forbidden Area, Pat Frank (mid-fifties thriller by the author of Alas Babylon)
Paradise of the Blind, Duong Thu Huong
Passing, Nella Larson
Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller
Terminal Paradox (novels of Milan Kundera), Maria Banerjee
Last Evenings on Earth, Roberto Bolano
Cities of Salt, Abdelrahman Munif
Occasional Writings, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Rasselas, Samuel Johnson
Rumor of War, Philip Caputo
Trumbo, Bruce Cook (biography of Dalton Trumbo)
Human Action*, Ludwig von Mises (for the second time after thirty years)
Kamikaze Hunters, Will Iredale (history of the British fleet in the Pacific during WWII)
* in my permanent library
The off-season (starting pretty much today) allows me to pursue more thoughtful activities (like writing this email). Despite working at Amazon the past three Nov/Dec’s (a fantastic experience, BTW), I completed a detailed review of the textbook Evolution, developed and submitted to the Federal Dept of Transportation the most potentially significant work of my life (The Traffic Panacea Proposal, something that if implemented would drastically change the world for the better, and save millions of lives), and a 59-page essay The Value and Validity of Marxist Literary and Cultural Criticism: What is it Worth Today?
In previous writing seasons, I wrote The Altruistic Libertarian - Advocate for a Genuinely Free Society, my singular work of political philosophy, and The Literary Novel: Why (and How) You Should Write One - by an Unpublished, Unknown and Very Successful Novelist. These two represent my most significant works of non-fiction (The Humble Executive a distant third).
For the first time in three years I don’t need to leave Westport or work for Amazon, so have even more time. After completing this note, I owe Bob, a former guest at the Inn and a long-time correspondent, a response to the Marx essay, as it was originally written based on his specific request. He sent me an awesome response plus a marked up copy of my essay with line-by-line comments. But more importantly, I get to focus on my sixth novel, War of Eternity. The prologue and epilogue were drafted half a dozen years ago, most of the planning is complete, and I am looking forward to diving back into it. November 3rd formally kicks off the writing season for me.
To express how important creative literature is to me, consider the following from my retirement letter of 2012:
I began writing novels with a general idea of what I wished to accomplish; twenty years later I exceeded those expectations by a full magnitude. I have succeeded far more than I ever hoped.
I wrote novels because I admire them. I would be happy having written any one of the five. I like all of them. Each one is a favorite, in a different way.
Kafka insisted we shouldn’t write books that “make us happy”, but I did. He goes on to say that “A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” I strove to do that as well, by engaging what I consider the most important questions: What is the meaning of life? The nature of good and evil? The future of humanity? The proper way to live one’s life? What values should we pursue? What really matters?
Not everyone considers such things, or believes they are important or even decidable. Often they simply accept what they learn in nursery school. Or later in life they adopt a system wholesale (Christianity the most obvious example in our culture, but Marxism or Rand’s Objectivism might also serve). Some people struggle with these questions their entire life, and ultimately decide that answers do not exist. “It’s the journey that counts, not the destination.”
Well, I found answers. Made discoveries. Learned the truth. After twenty years, five novels, and millions of words, I know what matters. What makes evil, and why. What it all means.
That’s right – for me. While the questions are universal, the answers brutally personal. Singular paths, distinctive destinations. My long creative journey was unique, as unique as the novels themselves. While I carefully planned each novel, I didn’t plan—or necessarily expect—the subsequent discoveries.
Not that I claim any particular originality, in thought or fiction. Certainly what I have expressed has been expressed before, has been thought before, in ways arguably similar.
What I now know doesn’t necessarily pertain to anyone else. Pieces of it might. But you cannot simply be told the truth; probably can’t be told anything of genuine value. Such things must be created within. The material for the internal construct might come from elsewhere; another mind, a striking experience, a treasured book. But before a crucial insight can be harvested, it must be fertilized and grown within one’s own internal fields.
Since 2012 I have been mulling the implications of my personal discoveries. Given that I had ‘retired’ from writing novels, it may seem odd that I am so invested in this one, but it represents a stark confrontation with genuine evil. Can such a confrontation bear aesthetic fruit? I expect it will.
This is where the war will be fought, in my seat of creative genius (the image of the desk):
Note two prominent images above the desk:
- the three figures in black and white on the wall to the right are the Brother’s Karamazov done by my daughter Alexis -- Dmitri, Alexi, and Ivan, from left to right.
- top center, Angelus Novus by Paul Klee, once owned by Walter Benjamin (you will find his collected works in my permanent library). This is what Benjamin had to say about the painting:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.
It may be helpful to know that Walter Benjamin, a German Jew, committed suicide on the border between France and Spain in 1940 attempting to flee Hitler’s hordes.
The small painting to the right of the computer (you can’t really see any detail) is Vermeer’s View of Delft. Speaking of Vermeer (perhaps the greatest artist ever), here are a few of his finest:
You can’t really see any detail in my office image, but at the top left is a series of photos by Richard Avedon titled In Memory of the Late Mr and Mrs Comfort. Here is one my favorites:
On the wall over my bed is a painting by Thomas Cole, Expulsion from The Garden of Eden.
You can see Adam and Eve towards the lower left.
This shit really mean something to me.
As I mentioned above, I listen to music almost all day. Right now, for instance: 4 Non Blondes. Now Audioslave. All day. My principle play list is over ten days long, with another playlist for reading, and one for working out. The only serious regret I have in my life is not practicing music. While in school I played for seven years and quit. Now all I play is the iPod. In my perfect balanced life, performing music would be a part of it. Alas….
I work once or twice a week during the busy season, and three times a week in the off. My standard workout begins with forty minutes of martial arts (more on that below) followed by two hours or so of strength training. For some reason I prefer doing everything in one session, including:
- chest (5 routines)
- legs (7 routines)
- back (7 routines)
- shoulders (4 routines)
- abs (3 routines)
- arms (2 routines)
Each routine consists of 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps each.
I studied the martial arts for eight years, from 1982-1990, including the following styles:
- Goju Ryu Karate (Okinawian)
- Tang Soo Do (Korean)
- Kuk Sul Wan (Korean)
- Tae Kwon Do (Korean/American)
- Hsing-I Chuan (Chinese)
- Pu Kua (Chinese)
- Tai Chi (Chinese)
My first experience with the martial arts, Goju Ryu Karate, spoiled me. Sensei Chinen moved to Okinawa from Japan as a child during WWII, and ran a traditional dojo in Spokane, Washington, a rare thing. Most Americans won’t remain in such a school. It’s too hard and testing for promotion takes place rarely, making progress seem slow. In contrast, in Korea you could go from beginner to black belt in a year (the normal duration of our duty there). After testing once in Tang Soo Do (the style Chuck Norris made famous) and receiving a green belt (I arrived with some training) I refused to test again, so left Korea a green belt.
After two years (the first three styles mentioned) I joined the American Tae Kwo Do Association (ATA) after returning to the States from Korea. My final duty station was near Sacramento, and knowing I would soon be moving to San Diego, I found a school that I could join and retain my membership after moving. Two years later I earned my black belt.
The three Chinese styles I studied under Mike Patterson (see group photo below - he’s the blond fella in white) for four years (BTW, you can see me bearded back row to the left). I joined his school after becoming disillusioned with the ATA - where black belt classes were focused on growing the business, not furthering ones understanding of the art. Having witnessed serious Tae Kwon Do in Korea, I knew better.
In the ATA, tests were almost monthly, costing extra (supporting the business). It wasn’t simply white, yellow, green, red, black: for each belt, there were intermediate ranks, represented by black stripes, up to three, on the belt.
In general, testing consisted of performing the latest form (there were ten total in the system), sparing for a few minutes, and breaking a 1” pine board. With several people testing, the black belt testing session might last an hour or so. Theoretically, they could ask you to perform any one of the ten forms you were supposed to know, but they never did, so you only had to do the latest.
(An aside: I met Alexandra in this school, and the first time I saw her the thought went through my mind: “I’m going to marry that girl.” But then shook my head no, I didn’t even know her. And we didn’t get along in the school, as we both the same rank and ultimately tested as black belts together, and all along the way competed with each other.)
Moving from the ATA to Mike’s school was dramatic. After six months I was twice as powerful as before. I didn’t wear any rank for two years, and then tested for the first time (at Mike’s invitation), for a green sash (rank went white, green, brown, black). Two years later I tested for brown sash (again, when Mike thought I was ready). During that test (I was the only testee) I had to perform every form in the system - 30 or so. I had to explain what any combination of postures meant, and what principles were involved. Generally, each posture is a combination of footwork, defensive motion and a strike (as opposed to single “techniques” in previous systems). I learned several hundred unique postures within the various forms and exercises. I had to endure several combat sessions, often with multiple opponents. The testing was thorough and intense.
Had I remained in the area, and in the school (I moved away in 1990) I doubt I ever would have been invited to test as a black belt. It wasn’t important enough to me; I wasn’t willing to dedicate the time and attention that would have been involved to reach the necessary level of competence.
In addition to Hsing-I (the system I tested in) I learned one circle form of Pa Kua, and a short form of Tai Chi, forms I practice every week.
Mike Patterson is the most talented and competent person I have ever met in any setting. World class. Check out his demonstration of ‘iron body’ in the link below. (I trained with the others in the video, John Cotter and his younger brother, and attended both of their black belt tests.)
The internal nature of the Chinese systems allows me to practice them as long as I can walk, unlike the external Karate/Tae Kwon Do systems that are so hard on the body and unnatural.
This winter I was compelled to use my skills after being attacked by a much larger man after my dog attacked his. I pushed him in the chest as he tried to hit my dog, telling him, “Don’t hit my dog!” He lost his shit, and swung at my face. I easily avoided it, but as I stepped back I tripped, as Baron was huddled behind my legs and I fell over backwards. The guy jumped on top of me, and while pinning me with his left forearm across my chest, attempted to pound me in the face, over and over again. But he hardly touched me, as I warded off his fist so that it kept sliding off the side of my head, never leaving a mark or bruise. He finally quit and let me up, walking away. The entire time I remained perfectly calm, with no desire to retaliate. After all, my dog fucked his up pretty good, so I couldn’t really blame him. Even if I kept my feet I don’t think it would have turned out any different. He wasn’t trained, and I doubt he could have hurt me, so there was no reason to hurt him. But who knows. I wasn’t thinking, just responding.
The third part of my routine consists of running, 40-60 minutes on a treadmill, or a 4 mile course here in Westport.
After studying Spanish in middle school, high school and college, I swear by Pimsleur: the absolute best way to learn a new language, if you wish to actually converse in it.
School was such a waste, learning grammar and vocabulary entirely disconnected from actual use. After years of academic study, I am light years ahead after only ten months (with another ten to go, per my plan).
As you can see in the image, I have Spanish (Latin American version) 1 - 5. Each consists of 30 30 minute lessons, designed to be done one a day consecutively. So each unit represents one month of lessons, so five months total. I am just finishing the second round (repetition is necessary for me) and plan going through it twice more.
Aside from wanting to finish something I started 50 years ago, I also study language to exercise my brain. As I age, this becomes increasingly important. No doubt it’s harder now, but I am making good progress, evidence that learning is actually taking place.
After 20 months I expect to be functionally fluent, capable of getting along well in any Latin America country. At that point it’s possible I revert back to German, something I worked on on and off for several years, with Pimsleur German 1, 2 and 3. Perhaps I obtain German 4 and 5 and do another 20 month program. The older I get, I am sure the tougher it will get, but I suspect straining the brain is a critical step in putting off any form of dementia (at least theoretically). Losing my mind is the only thing I truly fear losing.
I don’t have much of a social life, allowing me to pursue so many other things. We have been largely ostracized by the community (many long stories) so I maintain very few social obligations. I meet a thousand people each year as Innkeeper, and even like a few of them. We endure both the best and worst in people, as you might imagine.
We have developed some lasting friendships, however, people who visit every year and spend quality time with us. I also maintain correspondence with a few, so that is rewarding.
Locally, I spend almost zero time socializing. When I greet guests and make them comfortable, that’s work. Occasionally I spend more time with them than absolutely necessary, when it seems right for them and myself. But we don’t entertain, and we don’t accept invitations to socialize. I go to the annual book sale at the library across the street, but I go to buy books, unlike most of the people who attend. Last year I went to a piano recital performed by Dan Linder, a young man who used to work for me. He is exceptional. His sister was there. I hadn’t seen either of them for years. I took pictures as they are both models for characters in my novel, so it was good getting a fresh impression.
Unlike more social beings, I commune mostly with the dead, and the near dead.
I play two games, online (free) poker, and fantasy football. Gary Lansford is an excellent poker player, and I often ask him about situations. I play somewhere between 50 - 100 hands a night while I read, my stakes ranging from $80 million to a max of $340 million, currently sitting at around $130 million. The higher stakes games are quite competitive, and when I play poorly or don’t pay proper attention, I lose.
As for fantasy football, I currently manage about 25 teams, at least 15 too many. I got a little carried away this year.
I am also a big Seattle Seahawks fan, so follow the team fairly closely. At 6-2, they are doing well, but the record is better than the team, unfortunately.
I also watch Netflix and Amazon Prime daily (when I eat, if no other time). I favor the new shows that run seasons at a time, without the restrictions of TV. Violence, language, nudity (including full male frontal) and sexual situations are all inbounds. That makes these shows creative, well-written and compelling, and allow for more complex projects, ones often based on novels. These shows are far more diverse, including many non-American, non-white, non-male characters, and many locations and societies other than Los Angeles or New York. This is the treatment that my novels would require in order to give them full justice.
While I still enjoy good to very good TV shows (Bosch, Justified, In Plain Sight, Life, Lie to Me, Person of Interest, Blacklist, for instance) the productins I consider exceptional include:
1 - The Expanse. Sci-fi, political, awesome special effects, interesting story and characters, currently rewatching first three seasons in anticipation of the season 4 coming out in mid-December. They attempt serious drama, and mostly succeed. The female characters are awesome, one of the noticeable trends in these exceptional productions.
2 - Godless. Traditional Western, but on steroids. Fantastic writing, story, characters, action, and ending. Violent, gritty, mostly charmless.
3 - Altered Carbon. Another sci-fi, incredibly creative and beautiful. Charming, violent, complicated and satisfying. A murder mystery wrapped in social wars of the immortals. I was drawn initially to this series by the lead actor, who co-starred in The Killing, another fantastic series based on a murder in Seattle. The ending was the most incredible ending for a crime drama ever.
4 - The Patriot. Just finished re-watching both seasons. The closest thing to literary art I have ever seen. Absurd, funny, sad, profound, charming and surprising (sometimes shocking). A genuine work of screen art. On rare occasions I find myself in awe that somebody wrote something so outlandish, creative and effective. The mood, the nuance, the absurdity, the characters, the music. Simply amazing.
Bonus mention: Mind Hunters. Relates the story of how the FBI behavior unit was formed. Incredibly well done and quietly dramatic. They get the late 70’s just right (I know cars from that time and I didn’t see one mistake). The soundtrack is great, and at one time they were playing Meatloaf’s Two out of Three Ain’t Bad, and was so sure I caught them in an anachronism, but found out Bat Out of Hell came out in 1977, far earlier than I remembered.
Special Mention: Firefly, and the follow-on movie Serenity. A wonderful balance of sci-fi, charm, fun characters, and humor. A Joss Wedon production, they screwed up and aired the second episode first, completely confusing the market, resulting in a cancellation after one season. A genuine shame, because the first episode is awesome. I love this series, and have watched it too many times to count, along with the movie Serenity. Overall it’s not nearly as serious or technically well done as the shows mentioned above, but works perfectly for me. Some great scenes, lines, and resolutions. Once again, the female characters are diverse, strong, admirable, and stereotype breakers.
These shows I watch and re-watch with pleasure.
I wake up everyday where I want to be: in Adirondack Park overlooking Lake Champlain. Fresh air, clean water, no traffic. The view from my front window: Lake Champlain, and the Green Mountains of Vermont.
Anywhere I go, I am surrounded by trees, rivers and rocks. My favorite is Poco Moonshine, an awesome rock I admire every time I drive past. In the winter ice climbers (insanity!):
I live, work and play exactly where I want to be. While the perfect climate does not exist, I prefer Westport to everywhere I have lived (and that’s saying something.) We get more clear skies and calm days than you might think, all year. The storms can be fantastic (rain, snow, wind) and we get four distinct seasons, each one possessing their own charm. We get a few hot/humid weeks in summer (my least favorite weather) and a few brutally cold weeks in Winter, but for the most part I can run outside all year, and walk the dogs without limitation.
Given how our parking is arranged, I have very little area that requires shoveling during snow storms, as the city keeps the streets clear. Just a small stretch of sidewalk, the entrance to the Inn, and some room for the dogs out back. Quite manageable.
Unlike other places I have lived (Denver, New Jersey for instance) I don’t commute in the snow, getting locked up in traffic. I can stay home and enjoy the snow without having to drive in it. If the power goes out (the only real inconvenience) I crank up the generator and plug into the building, running the furnace and water heater. Eazy peezy.
Generally, we don’t suffer from catastrophic weather events: no earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes or floods. The worst regional issues are related to ice storms, and then the danger is prolonged power outages (which we have suffered). But that’s pretty much it.
Anthony’s Avocado Ranch
Once we committed to remain in Westport, I started Anthony’s Avocado Ranch, something that gives me an inordinate amount of satisfaction, growing these trees from seeds:
As for family, I have the perfect wife, partner and friend: Alexandra makes everything here possible. She is the creative genius to my steady presence. She does the maintenance, the rebuilding, all the new design, while I do the easy routine stuff. For instance, here is her latest project, our new shop “Inn-cantations”:
Tea, crystals, New Age, Wicca, and lots more interesting stuff. Only weeks old, the shop has the highest hit rate (people and purchases) than any thing we have attempted in the past.
Alexis, my oldest daughter who lives in NYC, visits with her husband months at a time, most recently the entire summer. She is a graduate student doing interesting academic work in the occult. We get along great.
My youngest daughter Shannon lives in Alabama, and we see her every year, but we have grown apart and resentments have developed. She is the only fly in my otherwise sweet ointment of a life. I wish things were better, and hope they will improve in the future.
Over the years we have struggled balancing investment with an uncertain revenue stream. The recession of 2008 was particularly tough on us. But in the past few years we have stabilized the business into a sustainable operation, and just finished our best season ever. Even if things get a bit tougher in the next couple of years (economic down turn, increased local competition) we think we will do fine. We have minimized our cost structure while excelling in customer satisfaction (our online reputation is sterling). Nobody locally can match our efficiency and/or quality. In a few years we will be debt free and cash rich (relatively).
Circumstances permitting, once we reach our financial goals in the next few years, we hope to travel to Europe and Asia during the offseason. That will be the perfect finale to our Westport experience, assuming we can accommodate the pets.
So thank you, George, as the contract you offered me at TXU funded the Inn’s purchase, and much of the further investment we made in it. Your decision to commit to me at the time led directly to where I find myself today. I wouldn’t be on this path, with such a fulsome life, without it. I realize my lifestyle is quite modest in many ways, and unimpressive, but for me, truly a kingdom of one.
Am I happy? Not really, but then again, I wasn’t made to be happy: I was made to know, and the two aren’t compatible.
Am I content? Not entirely, and never will be. I will always be striving for something.
Am I fulfilled? Absolutely, and that’s pretty much the best I can hope for.
So thank you.
But that’s not the only thing worth mentioning. Hiring me at Capgemini provided essential financial help at a critical time, and resulted in crucial experience that completed my political philosophy. What had before been largely an academic understanding of government involvement in commercial operations, the Cap experience made crystal clear, giving me a new confidence in my political philosophy.
Unfortunately for you, it took too much time at Cap for me to realize the difference between commercial operations and state government. As a result, I made things unnecessarily difficult for you, and for that I am sorry. It’s been almost four years since I left Cap, giving me plenty of time to reflect, and there are many things I would change about my professional behavior, given the chance, primarily to have made things easier on you. Please accept my heartfelt apology for that.
Getting fired from Capgemini was completely justified, and I harbor no ill-will, only gratitude for the experience. In many ways, I insisted, after making it clear that they had to choose between Steve and me. I escalated in skip levels to express my judgement. The organization had to make a decision. From my perspective, it didn’t matter what they chose: if they got it wrong I didn’t have a future there anyway.
While I think they picked the wrong person to retain (in terms of what was best for Cap), they needed to do one or the other. In fact, they should have fired me much sooner, but they didn’t because I was leading the most important program at the time.
It started with the planning deliverable in June that DIR indicated they wouldn’t accept with the current information we had. As you may recall, I shared that with you long before it was due, and we met with Sally a week prior to convince her that what we had was the best planning information she would get. She wasn’t convinced.
Not much later, Billy insisted on changing the process for consolidating servers. By this time, I was committed to fulfilling whatever DIR wanted, regardless of how unproductive it might be. In this case, the process changes were designed to allow DIR to point the finger at whatever organization (Cap, Xerox, agency) was holding up a task in a particular project. Billy was explicit about that. Several issues with this approach (from a commercial perspective):
1 - The purpose of process change is to improve the process: reduce defects, cycle times, hand-offs, cost. In this case, the changes added administrative tasks and hand-offs, making the process more costly, not less. Given #2 below, this simply exacerbated the lack of success consolidating servers.
2 - the underlying assumption for making the change was invalid for multiple reasons: first, the root cause for the ongoing failure of the consolidation process was the decision by Xerox to drastically reduce project management resources for consolidation, not the prolonged times that delayed the process. In addition, regardless of where in the process a particular server stood, it was the project manager’s responsibility to deal with it. But given the lack of project management resources, and the additional burden put on them by the new process, the precise status of a server at any given time was always problematic, rendering the new process changes irrelevant (relative to why the changes were made in the first place).
3 - the same planning resources that would have been consolidating servers during this time (Cap, Xerox) were sidelined working on new processes, despite Billy having committed to me that he was only addressing the planning process. As a result, we sustained several more months of stagnation consolidating servers.
Anyway, sometime in the Oct/early Nov timeframe, I was tasked for implementing the new process. Laszlo project managed the implementation, and it was fairly straight forward: Cap would prepare the documentation and perform the training. We had three weeks to go live.
On Thursday morning of the first week I was informed that the process work wasn’t complete: several key issues hadn’t been resolved, and we didn’t have the necessary information to complete the documentation, let alone the training. The right thing to do (from a commercial perspective) would be to delay implementation by two or three weeks, the amount of time necessary to routinely (that is, effectively) resolve the remaining issues prior to implementation. So that’s what I did. Or tried to.
I sent out the note sitting in the Thursday morning meeting we had every week (Cap, DIR, Xerox). Everyone threw a fit, and they decided to drop everything anyone was doing and resolve any remaining issues immediately. While this is a high-cost, low-effective option (presumably all those impacted were already working on something important, and we will never know what commitments were broken, or the actual organization cost to the decision) it was a viable option. We spent the next two days working on the process, everyone we needed ordered to drop what they were doing and participate. This didn’t make much difference to Cap or DIR, but certainly had a negative effect on Xerox.
My behavior in this incident was roundly criticized, and cited as one of the reasons I was fired. What I could have done to avoid the criticism was to push on with the implementation, force a broken process down Xerox’s throat and simply blame them when it didn’t work. That would have been politically par for the course. But would have been commercially irresponsible.
Those were my two options (delay or forge ahead) as far as I knew. I didn’t have the authority to do what actually took place. Melvin even agreed that without my notification of delay, it wouldn’t have happened as it did anyway. I suppose instead of announcing a delay to implementation, I could have recommended that we stop all other work and focus on maintaining the schedule. In hindsight, that would have been perfect. But I never considered it because it was a bad idea, from a commercial perspective. But politically ideal.
After taking the new process live, Billy attempted to gain traction with the new planning process, without success. DIR wanted every non-consolidated server assigned to a move group with a detailed project plan for consolidation. They actually re-negotiated the contract for Cap and Xerox to pay big bucks for a plan instead of actually consolidating servers. Cap would get something like $300-600K for a completed plan (I don’t recall exactly how the deliverable was broken down) and Xerox even more.
At this point, something interesting happened. During one of our meetings, Steve objected to the structure and timing of the new planning approach. He prompted a heated argument with Billy, who got visibly angry, almost shouting. It’s not that Steve was wrong - in that what he suggested could have been done, perhaps would have been better, but the decision had already been made. The revised contract reflected that decision. Doing what Steve argued would actually delay the payout of the deliverable to Cap. It was an amazing spectacle, one I couldn’t attribute precisely to ignorance or base stupidity.
Anyway, after Billy struggled leading the new planning process, with lots of hand wringing and finger pointing, I went to Billy with a proposal: let me do it, I suggested. Billy didn’t have the organizational skills or temperament to succeed. He would make demands, then attack those who didn’t produce what he wanted.
This was late December, perhaps the first week in January. After consulting with the Cap program team, I developed a plan on how to effectively proceed. Billy agreed, and we took it to leadership. After getting another rash of shit from all sides (Sally barking at me about being an ‘Alpha Male’ after I insisted that one of us, not both, had to take the lead) they finally agreed. I was to take point on completing the planning process for all non-consolidated servers, with Billy overseeing and serving as my escalation point.
Everything was lined up: Cap and Xerox would get paid once the planning process was complete. The effort was labeled as the number one priority in DCS. The message was sent to all agencies, everyone expected to be onboard.
The main challenge for us was to work with the agency to determine the precise fate of every non-consolidated server, to make a detailed plan many months before the necessary information was available, and to make adjustments on the fly when something changed (which happened every week). Given that the information required simply didn’t exist, and never would in a fully credible manner this far ahead, the planning teams organized the servers as best as possible, to create a template that would ultimately pass muster.
We would bundle the plan (every move group a project plan in Clarity, with dates, status, etc.) along with ancillary information DIR required. If the status of any server changed, we were required to issue a change order to update Clarity. This took place on a regular basis as the agency moved applications around, and/or decided to decommission a server instead of consolidate it. We had several plans rejected by Billy in the early stages, until we learned what he was looking for. Once he approved the plan, it went to the leadership of Cap, the agency and Xerox, supposedly setting that plan into stone, a commitment.
During this program we discovered a star in Gary Lansford. After he finished with his agencies, he helped complete the others. He was amazingly effective.
By mid-January I presented the detailed plan, one that consisted of 31 individual projects (one for each agency) with a program completion date of 3/31/15. Jeff was overall program lead, with the Cap program managers responsible for their agencies. I held status meetings Mon-Thu at 5pm, the meeting conducted by Jeff, and attended by Cap, and the Xerox planner. Any issues within any project was escalated via Jeff to me within hours, and if necessary (I don’t believe it ever was) I went to Billy to put pressure on Xerox or the agency. Billy didn’t attend the status meetings. As I recall, nobody from Steve’s team did either, although they were invited.
When I first presented the program to leadership (that Thursday AM meeting) I was met with open skepticism. Going forward, every Wednesday night I sent an updated status, and then presented it in person the next morning. The status, unlike the typical (and largely meaningless) green, yellow, red, I presented instead a one page graphic that showed all 31 projects, each with 15 or so tasks and 4 or 5 key milestones, each with the scheduled date and current status: in progress, completed or not started. Any jeopardy to a task was shown in yellow. We never had a task turn red.
And this is a good example of why I had to be fired. It was simply too embarrassing to have myself and Steve on the same account. Steve wanted to use a traditional status board for each agency, and he wanted his team to decide the status of each project. But he wasn’t responsible for the program, I was. Also, his team did not attend my daily meetings, so I don’t know where Steve thought he was getting his information. We argued about this internally, with no resolution, and me making it clear I intended to proceed as before. That same day we met with DIR, and Steve brought it up again, and we had the same argument, this time in front of the client. I refused to budge, and when DIR seemed to side with me, Steve left the room in a huff.
Deeper into the program, perhaps a month later, I gave my usual briefing on Thursday morning, the room still unconvinced that we were actually making the progress I asserted. The next day, a Friday, for some reason (one I never understood) Steve presented in one of those higher level agency meetings, a jeopardy against an agency that simply didn’t exist. The leadership of the agency was incensed, as by all of my accounts, they were cooperating fully and making the necessary progress. What a mess.
So now we are in February, I am leading the most important and visible program in DIR/Cap/Xerox, the decision had already been made to fire me, but there was too much on the line to take me out of my leadership role. If I missed the March due date, that would be a perfect opportunity to let me go, so I suspect that was the plan from the beginning. They didn’t think I would succeed, and that would make my termination routine.
From a commercial perspective, this entire effort was largely a waste of time, for the following reasons:
1 - there is an optimal time to put a detailed project plan together, typically within a short time before that project begins. Setting project dates eighteen months in advance is useless.
2 - the resources didn’t exist, on the Cap or Xerox side, to maintain the projects once they were approved. Within weeks or months, they would become dated, incomplete, and unusable.
3 - again, the same resources dedicated to putting this plan together were many of the same resources that would be needed to actually plan the actual consolidation of servers. So another six months wasted.
Despite the commercial uselessness of the effort, DIR was willing to pay for it, so what difference did it make to Cap? We were going to get paid, and DIR’s money would spend.
By late February, it became apparent to DIR (and Cap) that we were actually making progress, we were on time, and it was likely going to get done. In mid March, Melvin asked me if we would get done on time (within the next two weeks), and I convinced him that we were on track, that only a few loose ends needed to be completed, that pending final approval of the final packages, we would make 3/31/15. The next day I was fired.
Which makes total sense. It was obviously my achievement (although I suspect Jeff got the credit), nobody else could have done it, so they couldn’t wait to fire me until everybody was receiving congratulations for a job well done.
But it worked out great for me, because those additional three months made a big financial difference for me. Also, as I mentioned above, I learned so much. After reflecting specific examples from Cap in my book of political philosophy The Altruistic Libertarian: Advocate for a Genuinely Free Society, I summarized as follows:
In this hybrid organization—part state, part commercial—the lack of credible operational data (quality, process, production, productivity), financial indicators (cost, margins, revenue, returns), and the absence of business cases (financial models that developed various scenarios for specific products and markets used by decision makers to decide on future investment), made it impossible to make proper decisions, ones that would ultimately benefit the end user, the state tax payer. The organization was inefficient, unable to deploy new products and services, slow to introduce technical upgrades, and generally dysfunctional. Progress was painful, slow and costly, to the point that several state agencies sought IT support outside the conglomerate, despite the state mandate. And it wasn’t anybody’s fault. The executives, managers and engineers were generally competent, hard working and conscientious. The fault lies in the structure of the contracts (the incentives and damages largely unrelated to genuine business performance), the political nature of environment (the criteria for management decisions based more on somebody’s opinion than sound operational criteria), and the lack of any alternatives (the state agencies were captive customers). In that situation, it is impossible to operate at minimally acceptable commercial standards, ones that would provide any decent return for the state’s ongoing and perpetual investment.
Ludwig von Mises, an Austrian Economist, argued as early as 1922 that a socialist economy would not work, due to the absence of ‘economic calculation’. A market economy provides prices (updated constantly), interest rates, profit and losses, and the ability to judge over time what is commercially effective, and what isn’t. Such information doesn’t exist within a government organization attempting to accomplish commercial goals.
The same issue on an economy-wide scale pertains to within an organization operating in a complex technical and commercial environment. This is how I put it (under a slightly different context) in The Humble Executive:
Imagine yourself as the quarterback of a football team, and you need to call the play. But you don’t know:
· what down it is
· what yard line you are on
· how much time is left in the game
· the results of the previous ten plays (or the last 100)
· what the score is
What play do you call?
You can’t manage what you don’t know, and in a complex business, you don’t know what you can’t measure. Executives that go to work and receive inadequate indication of operational and financial performance might as well be wandering the moors in a deep fog at night with no light or compass. They have about as much chance of finding their way home in those circumstances as the business has of sustaining itself.
In DCS, we couldn’t agree on what was most important, or what made the most difference. Priorities changed on a weekly basis, depending on what Sally or Dale thought at the time, the last conversation they had that convinced them, the ad hoc and anecdotal basis for most decisions. We didn’t know what anything cost, what it was worth, or how to prioritize activities. We argued about the meaning of one metric or another. Among the separate entities, there was no common purpose, no agreement in principle. It was all unhelpfully abstract and obscure. In this environment, there was no final authority, as in a commercial organization (where the customer, and how effectively products and services were provided over time, delivered ultimate dispensation). DCS, supported by Texas tax payers, could proceed indefinitely, regardless of how ineffective or costly the services were provided.
For example, when Xerox decided unilaterally to deploy a new back up system, they (DIR and Xerox) could not determine how to charge the Agencies for the new service. Nine months after going live with the first agency, they still didn’t have a pricing system. The first agencies for the first months didn’t pay anything. After that, they devised a price “freeze” based on previous service levels, a solution that pleased nobody. For all I know, they still haven’t figured it out.
As for what to measure, and what it meant, I struggled from day one to apply genuine commercial standards to every aspect of our programs. Late in 2014 I discovered a way to measure the actual age of the virtual servers. For general purposes, they were aged based on the day they were turned up. But this didn’t account for age of the actual frame, the more relevant factor from a physical refresh perspective. With this new approach, I had a study made of the past six months, which showed the average age of all the servers in the environment, and how that changed month to month. While the primary server refresh metric might be the percentage of servers over the target age limit (five years), showing the trend of aging servers seemed highly relevant from a server refresh perspective.
Not entirely surprising, the data showed the average age increasing over the past six months. Sally’s response? And I quote precisely: “I never want to see that chart again.”
Now consider the central program to DCS, server consolidation. DCS was based on the strategy of collecting all the agency’s servers into the two data centers. This would reduce cost, enhance security, and presumably provide additional flexibility for software changes and improve reliability. This made sense to me, and seemed a worthy effort to make.
The results? More servers were actually consolidated in 2013 than 2014, something like 306 and 302 respectively. Does anyone know, or care, how much consolidating those servers cost the tax payers of Texas? Two years to consolidate around 10% of the total? And how does that compare with the added value of the consolidation? In other words, did the effort deliver more value than it costs? No one will ever know.
Last I heard, the program was considered a success, as the target of 75% consolidated was reached by the target date. This is both unsurprising and largely meaningless (other than politically). Unsurprising because we figured in early 2015 that the target would be reached without consolidating another server, given the rate of new server builds and the rate of decommissions. Meaningless, because reaching that goal still left some 1500 servers unconsolidated.
Alternatively to Cap, at TXU, you could see the business results of my efforts, even when you, Bob, Leslie or Herb didn’t know, or necessarily understand, what I did, or how I did it. Not that everything was perfect or even ideal, only that the cost reductions and improvements in service (network outages, for instance) could be clearly ascertained. Unlike anything I may, or may not, have accomplished at Cap. The difference was enlightening for me, and provided the final piece to my political philosophy.
In part due to my experience at Cap, I am a rare thinker that can combine academic and real-life experiences into a coherent political philosophy, one with sturdy ontological and epistemological foundations. (Most academics have zero real-life commercial experience, often times resulting in groundless abstractions and opaque complexities.)
So thank you again, George, for providing the opportunity at Cap. In addition to the financial benefit (critical for us at the time) the experience put me in the middle of a real-life laboratory that contributed significantly to my political philosophy, and my confidence in holding it.
Regards, from a truly grateful,
Humble Executive. Literary Artist. Altruistic Libertarian.
Quality of Life - October, 2019