What might of…

I’m trying to read a new book, but it’s slow going.

It’s called One Second After, by Dr. William R. Forstchen, and the basic premise – survival in America, following an EMP attack – is compelling. At least, that is, until you start reading the book.

I was sold by the preface, written by Newt Gingrich. Whatever you might think of his politics, it’s hard to deny that he’s an educated, reasonably literate man who is trying to be a serious person. So it was based largely on his endorsement that I took the plunge.

What a mistake.

I’m about a third of the way through, and so far, it’s been nothing but sophomoric, naïve and predictable. The characters are painfully cardboard, their dialog is stilted, and there’s nothing terribly compelling about any of their interactions.

Early on, the author admits that he’s writing about a town that seems a bit too much like a Norman Rockwell painting, and his self-consciousness is well-founded. The entire cast of characters is straight out of the 1950s. Think Barney Fife meets Stephen King’s The Stand, with a little standard right-wing patriotic fluff thrown in for good measure.

The action centers on the emotionally wounded father, an unsung hero with a military background as yet unproven (but soon, yawn, soon to be proven, you just know it’s coming), a man who is a widower with a couple of daughters, one a diabetic, one a 16 year old dating a boy who acts so much like a boy scout that we’re reminded of the author’s early years spent writing for Boy’s Life.

We’ve got the predictable love interest for our hero, the sexy nurse who is quite a bit younger than him, but not creepily so. He’s already shown her his heroic side, thereby proving that he’s not yet part of the “I need Cialis to be ready for when the moment is right” crowd. This achievement came with a wound that she tends for him while calling him “sir”, a noble scar that he earned by fighting for proper southern behavior while in line at the local CVS.

Finally, he seals the deal by demonstrating his emotional accessibility, breaking down in front of the nurse because of his fatherly concern for his diabetic daughter’s insulin supply, which he just secured by whacking someone over the head with a beer bottle.

It gets better.

There’s a moment when the hero hands a few cans of Ensure to a WW2 vet (stranded in a nursing home without electricity, staff members, food or even running water) before snapping to attention and saluting the old guy. I kept waiting for the  hackneyed “Thank you for your service, sir!”

But all pretensions of one warrior’s respect for another are dashed, because our hero turns tail and abandons the poor old guy to a lonely death, stealing the rest home’s remaining supply of Ensure and running for the hills.

Not just here, but overall, his behavior is a mixture of schoolboy sentimentality offset by angry, chain-smoking, combative selfishness.  And it is in this toxic mix that our hero completely loses the reader’s sympathy, while what remains of our interest in his fate dims even darker than the lights in his electricity-starved world.

At this point, the only reason that I’m sticking with the book (skimming it would be truer) is for the remaining EMP-related disaster scenarios, which are interesting and thought-provoking. But the clumsy plot, laughably cartoonish characters and saccharine dialog are so cringe-worthy that even skimming brings too much sap over the gunwales.

And yes, as hard as it might be to believe, it gets even better.

Apparently, nobody ever mentioned to the author, a man with a PhD in history from Purdue, that the phrase “might of thought” is not quite English. Unless you’re referring to the intellectual fecundity necessary to spawn a particularly mighty thought, an animal which I doubt has often crossed this author’s inner savannah.

I found myself dumbfounded as I ran across variations of this glaring, grade school error.  Amazingly, he doesn’t seem to realize that phrases like “might have thought” are commonly contracted to “might’ve thought”.

Yes, that sounds a lot like “might of thought” when spoken, but both the author and his illiterate editor prove their striking lack of might in their own thought by (in the author’s case) making and then (in the editor’s) missing this type of error, something that would’ve knocked me out of my socks as a 5th grader.

And sadly, this is neither a one-time mistake, nor a typo. I’ve run across many examples of Dr. Forstchen’s profound misunderstanding of written English in this book. Throughout it, he writes no better than the author of some choice graffiti on a truck stop restroom wall.

How is it possible that mastery of middle school English is not simply a given for Purdue’s doctoral candidates? For those in the sciences, I could see an exception or two, but for those seeking a doctorate in history, where the meat and potatoes of the entire program is nothing but writing?  How was this kind of an error suffered to exist at all during his candidacy, or more to the point, how does it endure today in this professor of history at Montreat College?

Apparently it isn’t just Purdue or Montreat that spawn such literary genius. Although I can’t fathom how the publisher, Tor Books, is able to employ editors illiterate enough to miss them, the book contains stunning clunkers like these:

    “We might of lost the fight.”
    “We might of gotten even.”
    “You might of seen that as too forward of me.”

Garbage like this isn’t a question of my being overly grammatical or failing to cut the author some slack for an honest mistake. This kind of thing is ignorance, plain and simple. It is ugly.  Writing this poor is an insult to the reader.  It drags the author’s work into the slush of amateurish, self-published trivia.

And that’s the sad part, because as I skim through the remaining pages, I find myself thinking “Oh, if only it had lived up to Newt’s hype, how great a book this might of been”.

Thank you for choosing Thrifty

It’s really odd: I used to have to choose Thrifty Car Rental when I worked as a full-time contractor for a Bay Area technology start-up. The start-up was playing the usual games (usual for the tech industry, at least) of pretending that all of its employees were actually not employees, despite issuing them business cards and employing them exclusively, full-time, for years on end, isicro-managing their every step, and requiring their daily presence at remote locations at the far ends of the civilized world.

But that wasn’t the problem.

The annoying thing was that, during the years I spent working for them (as the aforementioned full time yet magically independent contractor), I was compelled to choose Thrifty Car Rental while travelling on business. Exclusively Thrifty.

This was because their accountant wouldn’t reimburse for any other pricier brand, or even a portion of a pricier brand. Whether or not I covered the difference, didn’t seem to matter, it was a philosophical thing, apparently. I wanted Hertz, but I would’ve settled for Avis, or even Budget, for crying out loud.  Anything to avoid the stink of smoke, or to have a window that actually rolled up.

But no, she was as adamant as New Hampshire’s state motto on this point. She even said it to me outright: “Andrew, you will choose Thrifty, or you will die.”

But justice prevails, sometimes in the most oddly poetic ways. One afternoon, while processing my expense report, fate turned the tables on her “Thrifty-or-Die” motto, when she suffered a sudden and sadly fatal heart attack. Found face-down on my latest expense report, with her pen poised for approval on my Thrifty receipt, she clearly died a happy accountant, thrifty to the end.

Anyway, I had won the battle, at least in a karmic sense, but in the longer term, I ended up losing the war. This is because once in place, corporate standards are effectively immutable, and so it went with the accountant’s legacy, which was adopted by her successor and enforced with, if anything, an even greater enthusiasm for corporate thriftiness.

So, although (or paradoxically, because) I hated driving Thrifty’s filthy, high-mileage rent-a-wrecks, fate offered me no other choice: I had to rent from them, or walk. Especially after Thrifty-or-Die’s untimely yet somehow noble demise.

And so it was that I went on to become one of Thrifty’s most valued members, a “Blue Chip”, although I often felt like a blue chump, waiting in miserable lines with the other victims, dumped by a wheezing little bus in off- off- off-airport locations, all of us hoping for something with less than 50,000 miles on it and a working radio.

But time moves on, as do employees misclassified as consultants, and eventually I stopped working for that particular Bay Area high tech company, swapping it out for another. At least I didn’t have to travel nearly so much, which meant that my relationship with Thrifty entered an extended, blissful hiatus.

You can imagine my joy when Thrifty unexpectedly sent me an email today, plaintively whining that my Black Friday spending spree hadn’t included renting a 4 year old Ford Fiesta with a broken windshield.

Reflexively, I unsubscribed.  As I have been doing with a lot of other things, lately. But that’s also another story.

Anyway, the oddest thing happened.

After clicking unsubscribe, I found myself in an extended dialog with their website. I’ve learned that in many cases, you have to run this kind of gauntlet to escape from spam-Hell, but this was something of an entirely different caliber.

In most cases, unsubscribing is kind of like breaking up with a stalker: you can’t just respond with a “piss off, we’re through”. Like the stalker, the company ignores your attempt at dialog by shunting your responses to an “unattended mail box”, which is the corporate version of returning your cease-and-desist letters unopened. This way, they can keep on spamming you without guilt, or at least legal ramification.

So, accepting my fate, I dove into Thrifty’s monumental customer survey, working my way through page after page of check-boxes and “share here” dialogues, until the progress bar showed that I was finally nearing the end of what had turned into a minor death march.

And it was at this point, bathed in the light from the end of the tunnel that would surely lead me to everlasting freedom from their spam, that the website told me, simply: “Thank you for choosing Thrifty”.

Which is exactly my point.

I wasn’t choosing Thrifty – I had never chosen Thrifty.  I had been forced to it, driven unwillingly into their dank blue reception areas more times than I could ever recall. Even under hypnosis.

No, instead I had thought that I had finally achieved my shining moment, my opportunity to un-choose Thrifty at least.  I had just gotten done plowing through page after page, unchoosing Thrifty again and again, with liberal doses of “great vengeance and furious anger” worthy of Samuel L. Jackson.

But all to no avail: Thank you for choosing Thrifty

I’m sure you can understand why that canned response, thanking me for doing precisely the opposite of what I had just done, stung as such an insult.

I mean, hadn’t we just engaged in “a productive dialog to improve our customer experience”?  And if so, hadn’t that customer experience software noted any telling trends in my responses, like maybe that I had just been giving them zeroes on a scale of 1 to 10?

Anybody listening in Thriftyland?

Not getting the written responses, that I can understand, as I was dealing with a machine.  But not even paying attention to the check-marks?  What part of “lowest possible customer rating” does not compute?

I guess it’s interactions like this that we all must endure, if only for sanity’s sake. Over and over and painfully over again, we are forced to listen to insincere sincerity and impolite politeness in these corporate interactions, whether online or (worst of all), on the phone.

You know, normally, I try to go with the flow, just clicking, deleting, unsubscribing, spam-trashing, or listening to the blather before saying “No thanks, it’s nice of you to offer it for the 14th time, but I’d really rather not renew my subscription, given that the purpose of this entire phone call is to cancel it. ”

This assault on our patience and the trivialization of our responses has become part of everyone’s normal day. Like dealing with junk mail in the physical world once was, now junk content in every electronic venue imaginable assaults us from all sides.

I guess today was just one of those those times when I found myself enraged by another tedious slog through the double-speak, yearning to slash my way with a machete of truth through the dense jungle of politely meaningless interactions that clutter and waste our days.

Annoyances such as having to fill out lengthy surveys merely to be freed from a “community update” (read, corporate marketing database), or having to listen to diatribes about online security when simply trying to find out why your cable is down, once again… these are things that anger people out of all proportion, because for many of us, they are the 998th of a thousand little cuts dealt out by a depersonalized yet technologically-empowered world, every day.

So sure, in my little rant you can see that I’m climbing a mountain made of many molehills. This was, after all, a singular example from a regular, daily stream of email annoyances.

But I guess that for me, it was the combination of insincerity and time-wasting pedantry that inspired this post. I fell for the bait, I tried to share the truth with a company about my experiences with them. But why did I even bother?

In the end, it was like talking with HAL in the movie 2001: “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.  But thank you for choosing Thrifty.”

What if…?

What if it were all true?

You know, the ghosts, the demons, the dead walking among us. All of the spiritual realities in which at least a portion of mankind has professed belief for all of recorded history, and likely many long millennia in the forgotten recesses of our cultural past: what if they weren’t just a cultural legacy, but instead a spiritual reality?

Tonight is Halloween. In centuries past, long after it had ceased to be the Celtic day of the dead known as Samhain, this was a hallowed evening, being the night before an important holiday (holy day): the solemnity of all souls, a.k.a., the memorial of the faithful departed. Every November the 1st, Catholics around the world would attend Mass in order to pray for their beloved dead, that they might complete the process of post-mortem purification through which all had to pass, before achieving the unblemished spiritual perfection that Christ taught was absolutely required for entry into Heaven.

For most of us, Death is an infrequent visitor to our daily lives. For me, it had been almost unknown for over four decades, at least in terms of close friends or relatives. Then, this past April, Death came for my father.

The experience, this entire process, is something that is still unfolding for me. I’m poorly prepared to write about it in any depth, or at least with any depth of insight. At this point, it’s still a cascade of impressions, unfamiliar experiences, new routines and different perspectives, all centered on a topic and an experience about which I had thought so little, until so very recently.

Eventually, I will write more, or more completely, but for this moment, I will write just enough to convey the core of the idea that’s plaguing me tonight.

My father was one of the millions of post-Vatican II Catholics for whom the Church remained a badge of cultural identity, but for whom it was no longer an unquestioned source of spiritual insight. Maybe in his case, it never really had been.

Taking my cue from his lukewarm example of passion for the faith, I too dropped away in my 20s, fully embracing the secular lifestyle of the 1980s. When a life-changing metaphysical experience brought me back to Catholicism in a very powerful way, I was over 40, newly single, and really ready to change my life.

My father’s life had never really changed – he had just droned comfortably along, attending church every Saturday evening (one of the few changes in the post Vatican II Church that he liked), but never fully participating in either the parish life, or the spiritual life that is part of any fruitful journey of faith, Catholic or otherwise.

I remember taking him to a special place for me, where this spiritual conversion or mystical (some might say miraculous) experience of mine had struck me like a bolt out of the blue. It was a Father’s Day, and he had agreed to come with me on a mini-pilgrimage to a place of great sanctity, a monastery hidden among the pines and the rolling hills of northern Alabama like a chunk of Assisi come hurtling out of the sky to land in the middle of the Baptist Bible Belt with meteoritic improbability.

We sat there, on the cool stone of a medieval-looking niche set into a quiet corner of the magnificently quiet monastic enclosure, after we had attended Mass and then spent time in a contemplative spiritual exercise called Eucharistic Adoration, and we talked about God.

He stunned me that afternoon. He said that his faith in God was based on two things: first, a belief that because God was supposed to be so good, it was unlikely that whatever sins he had committed in his life were of any consequence to God; and second, that he didn’t really believe too strongly in a God who would allow so much suffering to exist in the world.

Coming from the man who had dragged me unwillingly to church every Saturday afternoon for much of my life, this was pretty shocking stuff. All I could do was talk about my own experiences, my own newly-found passion for God and for all things religious, and although my Dad smiled and nodded and made encouraging noises, I could see that each of my points, however passionately delivered, were bouncing off the armor of his indifference like a handful of pebbles hurled against the cold, hard steel of a tank. He just didn’t really care. He didn’t hate God, but he sure didn’t love Him, either. He was just sort of along for the ride, in case all this religious stuff turned out to be true, in the end. And at that stage of his life, the end seemed pretty distant.

Well, life has a funny way of determining its own timelines, and they often run directly contrary to our expectations. Plan to marry at 25, and you might find your spouse at 19, or at 47. Map out your career to peak at 55, and you might find yourself retiring a decade early, or unable to do so, two decades late. And so it was with my father, who had predicted his death at 40, then 50, then 60… only to have a triple bypass and yet ascend to better health afterwards than he had enjoyed in the decades previously.

I had that crucial talk with him at the monastery when he was 77, a more vigorous and confident man than I had known him to be thirty years earlier, and it seemed like he would go on forever.

Until I got that call in early April, about his fall, and that he was in the hospital. My Dad and I talked every afternoon: 7 days a week, at precisely 4:44 p.m., my phone would ring and he’d say “Check in time! I’m still alive: how’re you doing?” And we’d talk. Sometimes for 30 minutes, sometimes for 30 seconds. He always sounded the same, ageless, just as vigorous and sharp as ever.

So you can imagine my shock as I stood there in the hospital hallway outside his room, talking with his doctors after getting off the plane in Atlanta only hours before.

“Mr. Brennan, your Dad is between a rock and a hard place. We can’t do surgery” (he had injured his leg in a fall) “…until his cardiovascular health improves, and that won’t improve until his leg is better and he can exercise more.”

I knew there was something more. I waited.

“But the real problem is his kidneys. His function is declining, and renal failure is a likely outcome.”

I asked what they recommended.

“Hospice.”

I was stunned. I had flown out in the expectation of visiting him for a few days until they got him back on his feet again, then returning home. It was with an icy feeling in my gut that I heard them out.

They concluded with words that hammered my disbelief. “He’s not coming home. This is an unrecoverable situation.”

I signed the paperwork, and they moved him into the hospice. My life changed at that moment, but with nothing of the drama that my father’s did, of course. He accepted his lot with surprising equanimity, telling me that he had already been to Confession with a priest, for the first time in over 50 years.

That was when I really believed that the doctors were right. For my entire life, my father had refused to “confess his sins to another man” as he had put it with an almost atheistic derision. But yet he had, and the peace that had come over him is what eased him into the hospice without a complaint.

The next few days, he seemed to improve. The attention from the hospice nurses, the quiet, private room in a corner of the facility, and the endless supply of chocolate pudding delivered with sincere smiles all cooperated to improve his condition. Although the glum-faced doctors continued to look at his charts and prod the catheter bag, shaking their heads solemnly.

My life was a sudden maelstrom of lawyer’s visits, afternoons spent digging through mountains of unsorted paperwork, evenings drinking my way to the bottom of a pitcher of cheap beer with my newly-found best friend, one of my Dad’s neighbors who I had never met in 20 years of visits, but who immediately proved to be the guardian angel that I was so desperately needing during those blurred, frantic days.

Easter was rapidly approaching, and I remembered with a premonition that both his older brother and a close cousin who was essentially another brother, had both died on Easter Sunday.

Holy week started, and his condition began suddenly to deteriorate. Monday afternoon, I had snuck away from his bedside to run some errands, when I was driving back on I-185 and I got a call from a 706 area code that I didn’t recognize.

“Mr. Brennan – this is the Columbus Hospice.”

Oh great, I think, I just missed it: he died, and now I’m the bad son forever because I wasn’t there for the big moment. A lifetime of regrets stretched out before me.

“Your father wants to talk with you, he said it was critical.”

Oh, this is even worse. Now he’s dying and woke up and I wasn’t there, so we have say goodbye on the phone. Another lifetime of regrets.

“Andrew? I want to tell you something.”

“I love you too, Dad.”

“No, this is important. Something you don’t know about.”

Maybe there was something I hadn’t found in the train-wreck of his office after all. A cigar box full of Krugerrands, a sheaf of Coca Cola stock from the ‘50s, maybe an unlisted bank account or IRA.

“Just hang on, I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”

I was dying of a guilt mixed with sudden anticipation, a strange horror at not being there, brightening with greedy joy at what treasures might be revealed in the next few seconds.

“I wanted to ask you… to bring more chocolate pudding.”  Click.

I laughed, hung up the phone, then sat with him the rest of that afternoon while he dozed.

But the next day he got worse.

The decline was slow but steady, and although I didn’t see a major change hour to hour, I started to see it from day to day.

He had been sleeping a lot, not going through the usual delusional stuff one expects with the dying, but just sleeping like he was very, very tired. Sometimes, he’d come out of those long naps and tell me things about himself that I never knew, or just to ask me my thoughts on religious topics.

In many ways, it was like being back at the monastery in Alabama on that Father’s Day, except that now he was the one bringing the topic back around to God, not me. It was good to talk then, and his insights into things were strangely penetrating. He was very calm, and smiled more than I remembered in many years.

But still, he worsened on Thursday. The neighbor who had become my friend and staunch supporter, Jeff… he was there when I arrived at 7 that morning, a worried look on his face, a lukewarm coffee in his hand.

“He’s gettin’ real bad, Drew. I don’t think that boy’s gonna make it.”

I thanked him for doing the vigil, then took up a chair in the darkened room. Being with a dying person is an exercise of running from crisis to crisis, panic and boredom mixing together into an exhausting cocktail of tension and stress. You don’t know what’s coming up next – you’ve never done this before – and everyone’s standing around with sad eyes asking you what to do next.

That morning, the glum-faced doctor and the worried-looking chaplain both hovered around, seeking guidance from me, which struck me as perverse and puzzling.

“You tell me, you’re the professionals. I’ve never done this before.”

And the answer I got was just “we want to respect the family’s wishes”.

What wishes, I wondered. He wishes he were dead. I wish he won’t suffer.

But you guys won’t euthanize, and the Church won’t allow me to, so we’re all stuck sitting around in sad little circles in a darkened and overly-warm room, waiting for his body to give up the ghost while we’re doing our best to medicate him into a living a little while longer.

They left, and the chocolate pudding sat uneaten on his bedside table. I closed the door behind them, and stood at the windowed door to the garden outside, suddenly noticing the little angel sculpture that sat on the grass next to some struggling flowers.

Which was when he woke up again.

“Andrew” It was whispered, urgent but faint. I was at his bedside without being aware of moving. “I want to tell you something. Something important.”

I nodded. His eyes were open, piercingly blue and suddenly passionately intense, yet his demeanor was oddly humble, almost regretful. “You were right, you know. Right about everything.”

He looked sad, yet comforted and peaceful as said the crucial words. “It’s all true. I can hardly believe it, but it’s all true.”

I was deeply moved by my own realization of what he was saying. “You mean the spiritual realities that we talked about back then, at the monastery?”

He rested his head back on the pillow, nodded heavily, looking into my eyes with regret, regret for a lifetime spent wavering on the lukewarm fringes of the beautiful mysteries of the afterlife, then closed his eyes, and fell into a deep sleep.

I stood there and let his words sink in. My Dad was an executive, an engineer, trained as a tool and die maker, he went to MIT and graduated from Boston University with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering after serving in the Korean War. There was nothing of the religious fanatic about him. He was always scientific, rational, logical and fact-driven his whole life through.

Yet he had just said the most fundamentally earth-shattering thing when it came to his worldview.

He died four days later, on Easter Monday. And those were the last words he ever said.

“I can hardly believe it, but it’s all true.”

The bear has awoken, and he is hungry

The bear has awoken.  After turning inward and hibernating for the past two decades, he has shaken himself back to wakefulness.  And boy is he hungry.  First on the menu was Crimea – a tasty tidbit that Russia’s always considered to be its own, and has now annexed without any real opposition from the US, the EU, NATO or the UN.

The reality is almost childishly simple: the bear saw what he wanted, and the bear devoured it, because nobody was around to make him do otherwise.  Consequently, Crimea is no longer Ukrainian, and barring a serious shooting war, it will never be again.  For a war-weary America, and an economically strained EU (read: Germany) haunted by its own memories of a generation lost in this part of the world 70 years ago, a war with Russia isn’t even in the contingency plans, much less on the first page of Merkel’s agenda.

How did Russia pull it off?  First, by demonizing the pro-western forces who overthrew Ukraine’s corrupt government.  Putin applied the “Fascist” label to his enemies with great understanding of his domestic political audience. Russia soaked Crimea with a generation’s worth of its blood during the Great Patriotic War against the German Fascists: Simferopol, Sevastopol, Feodosiya, Kerch… these places that western reporters struggle to pronounce  are burned into the collective memory of the Russian people with a bittersweet pride.  Is there a Russian alive today who doesn’t nod with solemn respect at these memories, especially when a new , ostensibly Fascist threat was called out on this same hallowed Crimean ground?

Second, the Russians stacked the vote & intimidated the opposition.  Not discussed much in the Russian press these days is the Soviet-era ethnic engineering that guaranteed the recent referendum results.  Even without the injection of a Russian majority in the 1950s following the mass executions and deportations of Ukrainians, Tartars and other minorities, it should come as no surprise that a vote taking place under the sloping noses of Russian BTRs would produce results in perfect alignment with the Kremlin’s will.

Third, the west has absolutely no appetite (or budget) for war. Putin know this very well. He has met with, watched and analyzed his opponents, all of whom are necessarily bound to a shorter time-line given their much more brief political half-lives, and he knows that none of them can play the long game.  Neither they nor their constituencies have a desire to upset comfortable lives or disturb their delicate economies for a mere idea or principle.

The European 21st century view is that history has stopped evolving, and Europe’s borders are set in place.  This was the same view prevailing in salons across the continent precisely a century ago, in the spring of 1914.  In today’s modern, post-war Europe, there is no room for such quaint and antiquated notions like fighting in defense of a nation’s liberty or territorial integrity, if that nation lies beyond the pale.  Europe might fight against a physical threat like terrorism, especially if it involves sending a few troops to a distant place, but will they fight just outside their own backyard for an intellectual or moral ideal that echoes the moral constructs of an earlier century?  No, that is not very likely at all to be the case.

And Putin sees this, very clearly.  More clearly than most western analysts.  He has pored over the results of the cultural and economic studies of each and every nation that might try to foil his plans.  He’s taken their temperature, gauged their willingness to step into the fray.  Having considered all the angles,  he’s come to a result favoring continued national expansion via military means. He tested the west with Georgia, taking the west’s inaction as confirmation, and has taken a more dramatic step in Crimea.  Given the continued reinforcement of our hollow words, he can now can be expected to accelerate the pace in eastern Ukraine.

There, the situation is a near-mirror of the Sudetenland in 1938, where Hitler’s pre-war playbook achieved a similarly bloodless victory of national annexation empowered by shrugging acquiescence.  Both leaders boldly pursued conquest despite the headwinds of lukewarm European bluster.  Grossdeutschland then, Greater Russia now, it’s the same old story, and it follows a predictable sequence of events.

The pretext in both scenarios is based on phony concerns of ethnic violence against a minority population on the edges of the neighboring nation.  But there, they diverge.  Hitler went for a straight invasion, no subtlety.  Putin takes a more incremental approach, creating a crisis by accelerating the perception of a crisis – like a tornado, the perception feeds on itself and creates its own reality.  Putin’s cause is helped by the foreign press, who in their ravenous hunger to fill the 24 hour news cycle, add emotion by dutifully running endless loops of the most violent moments in the political drama performed by Putin’s supporters on the world stage.

The next steps we’ve already seen played out fully in Crimea, and can anticipate to revisit shortly in eastern Ukraine: after an invasion to “restore order”, the Kremlin’s political credibility is enhanced by a wildly skewed referendum confirming the facts already stamped into the ground by 16,000 pairs of combat boots.

Viewing the predictable results, Putin then plays the democrat, shrugging and claiming that “it’s the will of the people” to unite themselves with Russia.  A few weeks of headlines, and it’s all a done deal, bloodless, complete and effectively irreversible.  He gives the west time to  be distracted by latest crisis or social trend, and then he patiently goes back to work restoring the next member of Russia’s once-and-future empire.

This strategy has worked so well for Putin because, like those negotiating with Hitler in the late ‘30s, nations horribly scarred by the First World War, nations understandably anxious to avoid a Second, the western leaders of our time and the populations that empower them not only share that previous generation’s deep fear of another European war, they are utterly frozen in place by the mere thought, a prospect which they cannot consider because it is so alien to all their assumptions about what the future would and should hold for the world.

Europe and especially the USA exclaim disparagingly about Russia’s 19th century methods in a 21st century world, accusing Russia of being the knuckle-dragging Neanderthal on the international block. But they’re missing the point entirely – Russia is not living in the 21st century.  And her leaders couldn’t possibly care less about western hand-wringing, hurt feelings, or being perceived as a nation insufficiently sophisticated for this modern era. They know what works in their neighborhood, their national pride is on the rise, they want their empire back.  And they mean to take it.

Putin judged that his opponents lacked the stomach for real conflict, and events have confirmed his take.  In response to armed invasion, the west isn’t rattling sabers, it’s just jingling pocket change, hoping that the Russians can be bribed into compliance with Europe’s will. To the Russians, this is laughable, but those in the west are doubling-down on this strategy, because the power of the purse is the best (and perhaps only) stick left to them.

Consequently, western pundits advocate freezing the assets of the Russian “oligarchs”, thinking that this will undermine Putin’s support among them: they couldn’t be more wrong.  Although it may be a tragedy in those oligarchs’ eyes when they are barred from spending the Summer in their mansions along the Côte d’Azur, such “sanctions” are trivial, mere symbols, and they’ll probably backfire.

In Putin’s eyes, asset freezing makes these wealthy and influential people that much more dependent on him, and the pressures might help highlight where their true allegiances lie.  Suffering personal financial loss could raise their political capital, aligning them more closely with the Kremlin under a banner of false patriotism.  This is assuming that anything remains in the western banks worth freezing anyway – it’s probably all been whisked away to untouchable locations with a key stroke and a phone call, given the west’s frequent and detailed warnings of its intended courses of action in this arena.

Others have thought more broadly about how to bring the Russian bear to heel, and strategic economic warfare has been proposed in various forms.  Ideas range from light sanctions to those more severe, to outright trade embargoes, and the more adventurous have floated ideas like undermining the currency, literally trying to crash the ruble, and thereby the country, into insolvency.  Setting aside for a moment how these various measures would likely backfire in an interconnected global economy that is excruciatingly delicate, does anyone seriously believe that Putin will pull back from his territorial gains in the Ukraine because of mere economic hardship?

Not this leader. Vladimir Putin is a classic Russian strong man, a macho near-dictator of a type that can be traced straight back to Peter the Great and beyond.  And history shows that the Russians like their leaders that way: strong, defiant, bold and aggressive.  Harsh to their enemies and benevolent to their friends: think Don Corleone, rather than Abraham Lincoln.

If the west does make Russia suffer economically as Putin is trying to restore their formerly great empire, the people will dig in and support him all the more strongly.  The Russians have always suffered, it’s in their blood, it’s part of the culture: a global economic war against them would give it more meaning and focus, but it would not deter them.  Defying the west has the effect of elevating national pride and Putin’s status simultaneously in the eyes of the Russian nation, rather than undermining it.

Where will the bear go hunting next?

The one place I would not want to be today is Belarus, followed by the Baltic republics – the only dike standing between the Baltics and drowning beneath a deluge of white, blue and red banners may well be the dubious (?) security promised by their NATO membership.  I say this not because I doubt NATO’s commitments, but because I think that NATO member status may prove more of a temptation than a deterrent to Putin in this case.

I sense that for Putin, the Baltics’ status in NATO is an implicit challenge, a glove across the cheek, a perhaps irresistible goad to his growing boldness and pride.  After all, these countries were Russian before the First World War, and part of the Soviet Empire for long decades afterwards.  They retain significant Russian minorities today.

I wonder, how much would Russia’s national pride be bolstered by openly defying NATO and the EU by rolling the tanks into Riga?  And what would Putin really risk by staring down the west during a few weeks of high-stakes brinksmanship in the Baltics?

It’s an interesting scenario to game out.  Once our economic sanctions have been tried and found wanting, what then?  Invasion?  Putin’s troops could retreat faster than the west could strike overland, and airstrikes on a modern European city are unthinkable.  Moreover, would the west really consider getting into a shooting war over Latvian sovereignty in the first place?  How about for Belarus?  Forget about it.

So what’s the threat, really?

Russia is a threat to its immediate neighbors, but is this resurgent bear an actual threat to the USA?   Not militarily speaking. Russia remains far outmatched versus NATO in conventional warfare, especially in the air and on the seas (or under them).  Only their strategic and tactical nukes pose a serious threat to the west, but one thing that the Cold War taught us is that nuclear war is the least likely of all scenarios.

No, the threat is more subtle than that, and it’s really a perception problem: our tepid responses to Russia’s blatantly illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea are a threat to us, and our allies.  It’s not just a question of standing up to the bully, it’s a question of knowing what to do, of being able to reach into our national quiver and choose the right arrow.  And we don’t seem to know which one to select.  We appear to be paralyzed with indecision.

Our remaining options are reminiscent of the old joke about how the unarmed British police fight crime. The bobby chases a criminal down the street, blowing his whistle and yelling: “Stop I say, or I’ll blow my whistle again!”

And that’s what the west is doing – blowing a whistle while the bear enjoys his meal and pointedly ignores us.  This interaction between the great powers is being watched very carefully in unfriendly places around the globe.  After all, if a post-Soviet Russia, greatly weakened from its glory days, can thumb its nose at Washington and Brussels with impunity, this after rolling armor across a nation that once aspired to NATO membership and sits astride Europe’s natural gas lifeline, what’s to discourage Putin from restoring the rest of the jewels of the old Soviet empire when and how he sees fit?

Putin doesn’t have to worry about elections, or opinion polls.  He will never be a lame duck or have to ask Congress for authorization to use the military.  Yes, there is the Duma – but talk about a rubber stamp…  Most importantly, Russia has a veto and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, so any peaceful opposition in a global forum effectively ends before it begins.

With a whimper

Sometimes, it’s not wars that change maps. Sometimes maps change because the dread of war stops nations dead in their tracks, freezing hearts with fear when bravery and bold thinking are most needed.

Putin has stared across that shiny long table lined with mineral water bottles, the west has blinked and shuffled its position papers away, and now the bear is contentedly digesting his most recent meal.

While eyeing his next.

The Astonishing Simplicity of Silicon Connector for Box

Somebody once said that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, and I’ve found that Silicon Connector for Box exemplifies the truism. Although it’s very sophisticated under the hood, you’d never know it, because it’s so simple and direct an experience for the user.

Let’s say you use Adobe InDesign, like untold hordes of others. Whether you’re a student or a grey-haired design veteran, you’re probably familiar with building things like brochures, manuals, documents… lots of stuff that gets printed as well as maybe those that don’t, like iPad apps.  But whatever you create, you know how hard it can be to share an InDesign doc with others, especially once you’ve embedded a bunch of images in it.

And, you’re probably using the Cloud for asset storage. If you’re like many other designers, you already have a growing library of image assets in Box or something similar. If you use Box, you’ve got a lot of company, like about 20 million others (as well as over 180,000  corporations),  all around the globe.

If you don’t already use Box, you probably should give it a look. It’s replacing DropBox and FTP servers like wildfire: I’ve found that it works better and it’s more secure, with some serious encryption built in.

Once I made the leap to Box for Cloud storage, the question became: “how do I get my Box assets into InDesign?”  Simple: link them.

Yes, I’m talking live links.  As in HTTP-based links. When you use InDesign with Silicon Connector for Box, you just link your images (or other asset types) from Box, instead of copying them up and down.

It’s extremely simple to use.  Just open up the InDesign doc, drag in your images from the Box window, and you’re done.

Image

Image from Box account, dropped into InDesign.  Five seconds, if that.

Save the InDesign doc, and its http links persist forever. Now, when you share it with colleagues, contractors or your boss, the links just work, no matter where they are, whether down the hall or in a café in Prague.  Inside the firewall or not.  Doesn’t matter – they just work.

You know how it used to be: package, upload, download, unpackage, relink images.  It was crazy, and very time-consuming.  Now all you do is open the InDesign document. Updates are immediate: Box is the only place the images live.

And that’s all there is to it.  You’d wonder why Adobe didn’t add this feature themselves, and I did too. But it doesn’t matter now, because you can add it yourself. And you should.

Click this link for a free trial:

http://www.siliconpublishing.com/contact/boxdemo.php

Full disclosure: I work with Silicon now, and I’ve been a fan of theirs for years before I joined.  So I’m biased… but trust me, this Connector thing rocks. You won’t regret it.

iOS7ucks

I upgraded my iPhone to iOS7, as have millions of others. And I’ve learned that in this decision, I’m far from being alone in now regretting what I’ve done.  The install was pretty quick & easy, even by Apple standards, but  after the phone restarted, I was confronted with a feathery UI that looked like it was still waiting to download the rest of itself.  It was devoid of color, definition, or even fills for the icons.  Everything was traced in with such subtlety, it was like looking at something barely there at all.

I realized with an empty feeling that this was all there was ever going to be to iOS7.  I found it overly simple, devoid of any interesting details.  What had once been rich and beautiful was now visually flat, featureless and effectively monochromatic.

It was puzzling.  The design looked unfinished, as though I’d downloaded a mockup, or a set of wireframes, rather than a finished product.  Until then, Apple UIs had always been simple & elegant, visually very rich and beautiful to look at. There was a great joy to using them. But this iOS 7 stuff was completely the opposite – once sophisticated, it was now childishly simplistic, as though designed on an “Etch a Sketch” and left that way.

Disappointment fades, and we all learn to deal with what is.  Same here.  Now, the real issue in daily usage centers on screen sleep and battery management. This is truly unpredictable. After a 45 minute call earlier today, I was down 50%, from full. I thought that I had accidentally left on my WiFi hotspot and somebody had been leeching my bandwidth, but no such luck. Even the BT was off.  The phone simply gobbles down the power unless you put it to sleep relentlessly.

Under iOS6, this was a multi-day device. Now it’s a long-afternoon proposition.  There have been mornings since the upgrade when I’ve awoken to a dead phone – battery completely drained, not even a red icon left. I really don’t think it sleeps anymore: it seems to be up to various antics all night when it’s supposed to be asleep, like an excited second grader staying over at a friend’s house.  Except that the kid at least has the sense to actually go to sleep before completely running out of juice.  Not so the phone.

Now I double and triple check it every evening after it’s supposedly gone to sleep, or I just hook it up to my laptop, anticipating the inevitable when it decides to start doing its own thing at 2:45 in the morning.

I am told that there are upsides to this upgrade, but I’ve yet to see them in actual use.  Given the nearly invisible UI, I know now that the phone is effectively unusable when wearing sunglasses.  This is a big deal in Phoenix, because if the sun is above the horizon, you’re wearing sunglasses.  365 days a year.  I had the thought that since it’s now illegal to text while driving here on the Anvil of the Sun, maybe that’s where the benefit of this invisible UI comes into play: you’re forced to give up and go hands-free.

But my biggest beef is that there’s no going back. iOS7 is like Hotel California – I checked in, but now I can never leave.  Apparently there was some grace period for folks who tried iOS7 before Apple forced the rest of us to adopt it. Back then, they allowed customers to downgrade to iOS6, if they acted quickly enough after making the mistake of checking it out.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of those lucky early adopters, and since then, the great iron gates of Apple’s wisdom have clanged shut on any chance of a “downgrade” back to usability in the mobile lives the rest of us lead.

So, I’m stuck with it, and you are too, at least until the next “upgrade” is jammed down our collective throats.  Here’s hoping that the title of the article about that experience will be “iOSgr8”.

Day 365

The last day of the year, the turning point, day 365: the fullness of time.

The last three months of the year leading to this moment were like a three-course meal, the holidays piling one delight upon the next.  Beginning with the sweet appetizer of Halloween, we dove into the main course of Thanksgiving, then savored the wonder of Christmas like a dessert.  And tonight we will share a global nightcap, drawing our long evening of indulgence to a close with a final round shared among family and friends.

Glancing at my watch a previous New Year’s Eve, I was struck by how easily the numbers rolled from 23:59 to 0:00 as the calendar plunged back to 01/01 – no other moment in the year sees so dramatic a surrendering of the months and days and hours.  So much fullness of time, so laboriously accrued, so easily surrendered into the past.  Like it had never existed at all.

To the deer browsing in the half-light outside my office window, tomorrow will look much the same as today.  For humanity, our lives ruled by calendars and digits and numbers of every sort, time may wear a sterner mask, but it will be no different for us if we look beyond the figures.  Stopping to savor this passing of the old into the new, we will see little change other than tomorrow’s dawn coming a moment earlier, or the twilight enduring a few seconds longer, as this year yields gently to that.

Day 365 is ending. Time passes yet remains timeless.