Sunday, March 31, 2013

March 28, 2013: iLess Karma Lesson

I ended the February letter with what I called a Random Interesting Quote: “The future is just a whole bunch of what you do right now strung together.”  It is also an apropos opening to this month’s letter.

I used this quote because I liked it and it seems to be true.   If you have a vision for your future, your behavior in the here and now influences that future.  It is always the here and now.  So, if you want to be thin, eat properly and exercise in the here and now.  If you want to advance at your profession work in the here and now to efficiently and effectively get things done.

This all can be made more complex by including education, talent, aptitude, attitude, fate, and luck.  But, the basic concept is simple.  What you do in the here and now has consequences.  This is also a basic principle of karma. 

I never have truly learned the basic karma lesson.  I am not sure what the basic karma lesson is but I get the occasional lesson to remind there is a lesson and that I do not fully comprehend it.  It has been long enough, that I am fairly certain I will probably never learn.  But, the lessons keep on coming with unpredictable irregularity.  Today, I got one of those lessons, maybe two.  Nah, I am sticking with one as they are related.

I had three successive meetings today at 7:30 am, 9 am, and 11 am.  The first two were networking groups; the third was at a client.  I was on my way from meeting two to meeting three.  I was futzing with my phone and for some reason not yet using my Bluetooth ear bud.  The sun was in my eyes and I instinctively slowed down.  The car behind me was tailgating me.  When she had a chance she swerved like she was passing and slowed down to my speed.  When I glanced over, she was had her left hand to her ear like a phone, her head was moving like a comical bobble head doll, and she was mouthing blah, blah, blah.  OK then.  Then, after she was sure that I had seen her, she pulled in front of me and slowed down.  That did not make me happy.  Infant that I am, I pulled in front of her but maintained my speed.  In my rearview, I could see that she was still doing the phone thing.  The rear window of my 4Runner tinted but… it is a power window.  I lowered it and made an obscene gesture; the only one people actually use these days.   She kept at it and so did I.  I sped up and she slowed down and that was the end of it.  She turned into a speck in my rearview.

I did not give another thought until I get to the client and went to retrieve my iPad from my briefcase.  It was not there.  Really?  I thought maybe, actually I hoped maybe that I left in on the seat of my car.  I went out to look.  Nope, not there.   I called Paul at whose offices meeting number two had taken place and, yes, my iPad was there.  I could not get back there today to retrieve it.  Paul offered to take it home where I could pick it up tomorrow.  As he lived about an hour away from me, I opted to just retrieve it Monday from his office.  I actually chose to go a weekend without my iPad.  Wow.  I did sense a little playful karmic slap.  OK.  I figured I deserved it for my boorish and infantile behavior.

I had another appointment downtown after the client.  On the way home, my iPhone just died.  It just went blank and black.  I could not turn in on which, of course, I tried like fifty times.  I plugged it in to the car recharger and again… nothing.  Come on man, my karma infraction was not that bad.

There are several ways to look at this.

Karma vs. Probability:  Is this really Karma, God, or the universe teaching me a lesson?  Or is it just chance?  What is the probability that my cell phone dies?  What is the probability that I would leave my iPad someplace?  What is the probability that both happen on the same day?  After all I am a statistician.  We are supposed to study chance events and see if the events are rare or not.  Let’s assume there is a 1% of each of these events occurring.  The probability that they would both happen on the same day is around 1 in a thousand.  That actually seems about right once in three years or so.  So, is this chance?  Karma? Both?

Having both left and right brain, I would say it is both.   When did the rare event occur?  It happened on a day when I needed to be reminded of how to properly behave as a human being (per my own definition of course).   I might argue that I need to be reminded of that on a regular basis making the event not all that rare.

Relative Karma:  Earlier I noted “Come on, my karma infraction was not that bad.”   I flip someone off, who might have been partially deserving of such, and my iPad is magically and mystically removed from my briefcase and ethereally transported to form whence I came.  Then my cell phone dies later in the day.  Was this lesson so important?  There are murderers and drug dealers out there who could most definitely use karmic lesson or ten.  OK.  Maybe they are beyond redemption and the universe doesn’t waste its time trying to help them help themselves.  Maybe, they get karmic lessons but it is just they are so intensely bad they do not even acknowledge the lesson. 

You would think that politicians might benefit from such.  Everyone in the Senate, where they cannot seem to pass a budget, ought to go a weekend without their iStuff.  Let them suffer without text messages.  Let them have to wear watches because they cannot use their cell phones as watches.  Let them have to suffer without Angry Birds on their iPads.

Maybe others do not believe in Karma in this world and so nothing happens.  That would explain the Hitlers, Talaats, and Stalins.  If I flipped someone off and suffered through a weekend without my gizmos, these other guys should have suffered from excruciating painful skin eating viruses.  Their transgressions were far worse than mine.  If karma really exists, I suppose their karmic payback will occur in the hereafter or upon reincarnation depending on what one believes happens after death.

Why me?  Why not me? If one is a valid question, the other is equally valid.  Perhaps, everyone gets these lessons but only some of us actually pay attention and note them.  The better question may be why I am paying attention.  Why am I paying attention?  Why am I noting these kinds of occurrences?

What the heck is Karma:  This probably should have been done first.  Wikipedia defines karma as “the concept of "action" or "deed", understood as that which causes the entire cycle of cause and effect.” has four definitions.  The version that best approximates the way I have been using it here is:  action, seen as bringing upon oneself inevitable results, good or bad, either in this life or in a reincarnation.”  I suppose when I do not act in a way I deem as appropriate or proper, there are inevitable consequences.   There have been enough examples where I could actually buy into this.

The way I think of karma is that emotional inter-relational bank account (thank you Stephen Covey).  One is advised to work toward a positive balance.  This happens by behaving well and treating others well.  Others will, mirror your behavior when they deal with you.  Overall, you will have a positive karmic balance in your emotional bank account.  If you actually pay good deeds forward, the positive balance will increase.

On the other hand, rudeness breeds rudeness.  Despotism breeds hatred in the general direction of the despot.  These behaviors result in a negative karmic balance. 

I am Armenian.  I tend to believe in and focus on the negative consequences only.  Behaving well is the status quo.  It is neutral.  In other words, I do not have the same evidence that the “pay it forward” model works for me in any positive way.  It just keeps me out of trouble.  I only notice my emotional account when I behave badly or rudely.  Case in point what happened today that is causing me to go iLess this weekend.  Perhaps, karma only exists if a person believes it exists and then only in a way they believe it.  I find it easier to buy into the “if I behave rudely, the universe will do something to remind me.”   I rationalize this to a combination of Armenian negativity and inherent guilt. 

Religion and Karma:  Ah yes, I have to touch on this.  Karma is an eastern, Buddhist, mostly Indian concept (I am feeling good about being able to freely admit my ignorance).  Karma is kinda close to fate.  Fate is not a concept that I fully accept.  It is a touchy subject in all religions.

We invoke fate when we cannot explain something, usually bad, that we cannot explain.  We invoke fate by calling it God’s will. 

Maybe there is a complex combination of chance, karma, free will, and God’s will in this life.  If this is the case, no wonder it is so confusing to the vast majority of us that prefer one dimensional versus four dimensional explanations.              

Humor in Karma:  I do not mind these karmic lessons because there is a certain amount of humor to them.  The lessons certainly give me something to write about.  My transgressions are idiotic and the lessons get the point across with no real harm especially if I do not let me ego get too involved in all of this… which again is part of the lesson.

It is very likely that I will get some emails regarding this posting.  The emails, which I will assume are well intentioned, will try to help me understand the right religious perspective.  Some will want to help me correctly understand what karma really is from the Buddhist and Vedic perspective.  Others will wonder why I proselytizing for something other than whatever religion they devoutly believe in.  This will both humor and irritate me because I am proselytizing anything here.  I am playing.  I am musing and I am most certainly meandering (as no doubt will be noted by Ara Topouzian).

The part that will be most humorous to me is the few emails I get will be proselytizing themselves.  But they will shed no light at all on chance, karma, free will, and God’s will in this life.

There are men and women who have dedicated their lives to explaining this all in the context of philosophy and theology.  One thing that I have experienced is that no one can easily explain how this all meshes.  Invariably more structure and complications are created to make this square peg fit into whatever round religious hole they are trying to jam it into.  It is theological quantum physics.

Maybe it just is.  God just is.  Chance, karma, free will, and fate may all be part of it in a constantly changing probabilistic model that I will never ever comprehend. 

With the kind of chance, karmic, and fateful lessons I just wrote about.  I see elements of whimsy in the cosmic design.  I admire that.  I find a degree of comfort and peace in that.

I was able to survive a weekend without either iPad or iPhone.  Imagine that.  The funniest thing about all of this was the last twist.  Before trying to repair or replace my phone, I plugged it in once more.  This time, the third time I tried to recharge it… it actually recharged giving the impression that all along the battery was simply drained. 

Closing:  When looking up the quotes on karma, I found half of quotes coming from movie and television celebrities.  I can see how karma can appeal to folks in a business with such a high level of politics and so many emotional ups and downs.  I did not include any of their insights here.

This is not the first time I wrote about this.  In June 2005, my monthly letter was Karma Koncerns.  One thing is clear after reading that older letter and re-reading this one… I am a very slow learner.

Karma Kwotes

How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours. ~ Wayne Dyer

You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

~ Steve Jobs

When you see a good person, think of becoming like her/him. When you see someone not so good, reflect on your own weak points.
~ Confucius

Like gravity, karma is so basic we often don't even notice it.

~ Sakyong Mipham

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Hugo Chavez (1955 - 2013)

      Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías passed away on March 5th. He was 58 years old. I was surprised by the outpouring of pro-Chavez emotion that was on Twitter and Facebook when he passed. I was not what one would call a supporter of Hugo Chavez, but I have not been totally anti-Chavez either. I actually found him more comical than dangerous.
       Hugo Chavez led a coup to overthrow the government in 1992 which failed. He was jailed for two years and released. He ran for President in 1998 and won. He held that post until his passing. He won every election since the first with ease. Some refer to him as a progressive democrat. He re-wrote the constitution of the country. Some articles note that he made Venezuela, the third oldest democracy in the Americas, more democratic and progressively so. He introduced Jeffersonian concepts like “the will of the people” into the constitution. He changed the name of the country to the República Bolivariana de Venezuela or Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Chavez was paying homage to the memory and intent of Simon Bolivar the liberator of Venezuela, Colombia (which included Panama at the time), Ecuador, and Bolivia from Spanish rule. Bolivar also teamed up with San Martin in the liberation of Peru. Chavez saw himself as the modern standard bearer of Bolivar. 

     The folks I know in Venezuela were colleagues and friends from my days with Colgate-Palmolive. Not one of them liked Chavez. They viewed him as a populist candidate. The poor supported and loved him. The rich were far less generous in their support and far more vocal in their opposition from my point of view. They viewed him as a dictator and all of his talk of democracy as smoke screen to cover his real intentions: socialism and dictatorship. His famed constitution obviously did not include term limits. The wealthier Venezuelans looked at his admiration of Bolivar as his aspirations to unite the Bolivarian Republics of Ecuador and Colombia with Venezuela. Chavez would, of course, be the ruler this larger country. His relationship with Castro infuriated the Venezuelans I know. They also believe the Chavistas rigged every election.
     Me? As noted above, I actually viewed him more comical than dangerous. Chavez trash talked the US but never fully confronted us in any meaningful or military way. He was amusing. He called George W. Bush a donkey and Satan at various times. He suggested the US infected him with his cancer, that a US weapon caused the Haiti earthquake, and that Fox News was stupid. I loved his warm-up suits in the Red, Yellow, and Blue of the Venezuelan flag (Ecuador and Colombia too).
     Chavez offered to provide free or subsidized home heating oil to the poor here during the depths of the recession. I am not sure if a real program was ever established or if anyone was ever helped. I did get an inordinate amount of emails imploring me to not patronize Citgo which was owned by the Venezuelan national oil company (PDVSA) but which the emails said were owned by Chavez. Presumably the profits were being used to fund… actually they never really said what Chavez was using the money to fund. I was kind of impressed that he kept gas prices to 6¢ per gallon and thus ensuring his populist support.

     What do the numbers actually tell us about the legacy of Hugo Chavez? I perused some articles and websites to glean the following:
  • The population of the country grew from 22 to 28 million during the Chavez years.
  • The GDP per capita was $8,000 USD in 1999. It slipped to a low of $4,800 in 2003 and then has grown steadily to $12,700 in 2011. The growth during the Great Recession was probably due to an increase in oil prices.
  • Unemployment in has generally declined from highs of 18% in 1999 and 2003 to 8.2% in 2011.
  • From 1999 to 2011, Venezuela's daily oil output dropped by nearly 25 percent, from 3.3 million barrels of oil a day to 2.5 million barrels, according to the U.S. Energy Department.
  • The poverty rate fell from 50.4 percent in 1998 to 28.5 percent in 2012, according to the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America.
  • Crime on the other hand has soared. Abductions went from 55 to 1,105 per year during the Chavez reign. Murders have skyrocketed to 67 per 100,000 which is considerably higher than both Colombia and Mexico. Murders averaged a whopping 53 per day in 2011.
     Assuming the numbers were not cooked. There have been decent gains in terms of unemployment and per capita GDP but crime is a huge problem and lack of investment in oil production may be a looming problem. I can see where his populism, some of these results, and his trash talking the US endeared Hugo Chavez to many.
     I look forward to getting feedback on this posting.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Never Give Up!

The cartoon came from
      I just wrote a piece on Not Quitting and here I am addressing the same subject again.
      Witness the cartoon I saw on Facebook and shared.  A stork, or some kind of water bird, is attempting to devour a frog.  The frog, to the apparent surprise of the bird, is refusing to go quietly into that good night... well... in this case the birds stomach.  In an effort of self-preservation, the frog has grabbed and is chocking the birds throat.  The message is "Never Give Up!"
      Indeed.  Never give up.  Keep on fighting.  Persevere.  Keep on keeping on.  Make it happen.  Even the Nike slogan, Just Do It, taps into the same general message.  This, of course, taps into the imperative laid out most notably by Winston Churchill (thanks to Mike Adajian for the quote).

Never give in- never, never, never, never-  in nothing great or small, large or petty-  never give in except to convictions of honor & good sense. Never yield to force- never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
      Who can argue with Churchill?  Who can argue with the cartoon?
      We are all on the frog's side.  We all take the frog's point of view.  Don't tread on me.  Don't try to eat me!  You will regret it.
      Never give up!
      It makes a lot of sense.  However, does not the same thing apply to the bird?  The bird is hungry.  It stalked and hunted down a meal.  The bird plucked the frog out of the water and about to swallow it and... what the heck... the frog starts fighting back and  is actually choking the bird.
      Here is the quandary?  Does the bird give up or does it heed the same "never give up" advice presumably given to the frog.  If it is good advice for the frog, is it not equally good advice for the bird?  Is there a right and wrong here?  Or, is it simply a matter of resolve, will, and probably some modicum of physical strength?
      The advice is, of course, personal.  It applies to each and everyone of us.  That means the advice applies to all.  It is certain that there will be occasions where two people are face to face wanting the exact opposite result with the mindset of never giving up.  Both will not win, both cannot win, one will win the other will lose.  Does the advice still apply to both?  Most certainly it does.  Even if you lose, there is something to be said for giving it your all; for never giving up.
      I am trying hard not to use sports analogies and examples here.  It is too easy and would probably be too cliched.  But the following must be noted.  Every year in every team sport at any level, n teams compete and there is usually only one champion.  Everyone else loses.  Only one out n can win.  So, what about the n-1 teams?  Since we are on sports, allow me to reference Vince Lombardi.  Arguably, his most famous quote is:

Winning isn't everything, it is the only thing.
      OK.  Fine.  I get it.  But with the elimination of ties in the NFL, on any given Sunday half of the teams win and half of them lose.  Almost all believe in Coach Lombardi's quote and adhere to the "never give up" philosophy.  Yet, half of them win and half of them lose and in the end there is only one Super Bowl winner.
     It is, like many things in life, a zero sum game.
     I read a different version of Lombardi quote that wraps it up nicely for me especially in the context of "never give up:"
Winning isn't everything, but the will to win is everything. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Not Quitting

     I was at North Park University the other day.  After teaching, I had to stop by the IT office to have some software installed on my laptop.  I saw a simple sign tacked on a cubicle wall.  It was only an 8.5x11 sheet of paper in landscape configuration with a few words written on it.  It was nothing special either from MS Word or PowerPoint.  But it struck me and it inspired me.  I took a photo of it and now I am writing about it.  The message was simple and, to me, profound and encouraging.  It said:
A Professional Writer is
an Amateur Writer
Who Didn't Quit.
     It is very simple and oh so true.  
     It is my new mantra, motto, or whatever it is we want to call it.  Never ever give up on your dreams, even if you are 90 years old and infirm.  Never ever give up.  A professional writer is an amateur writer who didn't give up.  A professional musician is an amateur musician who didn't give up.  There is no end to what can be substituted for the word 'writer' in this sentence.  What should be substituted?  Whatever one wants.  Whatever you want.  The sign resonated with me, it had an impact on me, because the word writer applied and appealed to me.  
      I am an amateur writer.  Last year was the first year I got paid to write anything.  That has continued into this year.  Now, I have a business card that says I am a writer.  That to me is cool.  I have to keep at it.  I have no choice but to keep writing.  But, this shark has had a taste of blood and this shark wants more.  I would love to get paid for writing more and more.  I would love to get paid a lot for writing.  I do not plan on giving up or quitting on this.
     I belong to a networking group, BNI.  Our chapter had a Christmas party in January with a secret Santa gift program.  I was so delighted with the gift presented to me.  It was a with paperweight or desk accessory (because really who really uses paperweights these days).  It is a rectangular base with a variety of pens and pencils sculpted on it.  The base has the following quote.
Either write something worth reading or do
something worth writing
                                     ~ Benjamin Franklin
      What a perfect gift.   I am clearly on the side of trying to write something worth reading.  I used to think I was not a doer because I did not do the kinds of things I thought doers did.  Doers in my mind, led organizations or armies, they invented things, they built houses, and things of that ilk.  Doers in my mind did something worth writing about.  The best of the doers racked up deeds that were heroic or monumental.   I was never a doer in that way at least not on the scale I thought I should be.  I am getting more comfortable in the "write something worth reading" side of Franklin's adage.  And... I do not plan on quitting.  In fact, I got out a Sharpie and wrote "A professional writer is an amatuer writer who didn't quit" on the back side of the Franklin paperweight.  
      As I cleaned my desk today, I have the Benjamin Franklin paperweight with both of these messages on it front and center just in front of my main monitor.  I will look at every time I sit down... assuming I keep my desk clean.