19 December 2009

Free Wi-Fi at McDonald's - Will the latest trend in wireless Internet stick?

This is reprinted from Discovery.com from an blog posting they asked me to write for them.

As Mark Twain once remarked "(t)he reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

The same could be said of Wi-Fi. Over the last decade, efforts to provide free Wi-Fi to the general public -- usually a citywide plan -- have revved up, and then stalled, with many projects dying out completely.

But now there's a new trend with chain restaurants like McDonald's and Panera Bread offering free Wi-Fi to its patrons. Will this stick? I think yes.

Many businesses use Wi-Fi to draw potential customers in by providing way stations of connectivity for those of us who carry our “offices” in handbags and knapsacks. As we spend extended periods of time in coffee shops, diners, and now even McDonald's, we become potential buyers of whatever they’re selling.

And from the consumer’s point of view, demand for connectivity is growing. People use a phone for emails, tweets, music, way-finding, checking the weather, and gathering new and mundane information. We’ve come to expect access. Businesses are hearing the call and offering connectivity just about everywhere.

I recently flew on Virgin America Airlines, which provided me with the ultimate connectivity thrill. Virgin, along with Google and GoGo, provides free Wi-Fi during this holiday season. When it is not free, the price varies by the length of the flight, the highest price at $12.95. I would pay that amount to have connectivity. It was amazing to do Facebook in motion and from 36,000 feet. My son wrote his contacts, “I am on a plane, and I have Internet.”

Mobile providers embrace connectivity by offering “smart phones” which come with a data plan to keep one connected to the Internet. The advent of applications or “apps” is probably the biggest driving force behind user growth of the iPhone. Verizon and T-Mobile hope the Droid-enabled phones will do for them what the iPhone has done for AT&T. Just look at the commercial touting the largest 3G network in America and Verizon’s spoof of it.

“Hyperconnectivity,” as I like to call it, once the domain of a small number of people like me who are never without a device, be it a laptop or smart phone, is catching hold in the general population. My 86 year-old father wants to purchase a laptop and install Wi-Fi in his home. If my father understands that Wi-Fi provides connectivity to the Internet and wants it, mainstream America is not far behind.

But free Wi-Fi, or even expensive Wi-Fi, will never be in all places. Neither broadband nor 3G connectivity are as pervasive as either AT&T or Verizon maps portray them. Access to high speed Internet connectivity is still quite limited to urban and high-density suburban settings. Friends who live 10 miles from Amherst, Massachusetts do not have home-based broadband nor do others who live in St. Lawrence County, New York. In rural America, a fast food joint or a coffee shop offering free Wi-Fi access is few and far between. Given that 79 percent of Americans lives in a suburban or urban area, it may be a while before the other 21 percent (roughly 59 million people) enjoys the manifold benefits of ubiquitous connectivity.

And what of all of those Americans spending more time at McDonald's surfing the Web and buying more fries than they might have otherwise? I predict a new trend: obesity related to eating too much food while using a laptop at a free Wi-Fi spot. Call it digital obesity.

Glenn Strachan is an international and domestic development expert who specializes in ICT, broadband and health information systems and has traveled to 98 countries. When not Twittering (@glennstrachan) or Facebooking, he reads email on glenn@glennstrachan.com.

08 December 2009

The Loss of a Brother - Merrill Strachan, 1944-2009

She didn't have to finish her sentence, "Glenn, I have some very sad news..." I started saying "no, no, no, it can't be" but, in reality, I knew that something was wrong before I even placed the call to Sue, my brother’s wife. Our call ended and a sea of tears streamed down my face as I walked the two tenths of a mile back to work. I was barely conscious of the people I passed as I was walking back to work with the ear pods still connected to my ears but nothing playing on the iPhone being held in my hand.

I walked into work, ascended the stairs and saw the person overseeing my consultancy. He knew immediately what had happened and graciously led me to a seat and asked what I needed. I said that I needed a moment to think about what I should do next. My brother was dead: Husband for 44 years; father to nine children; grandfather of 20 children; foster father to four; brother to two and son of one, well, actually two.

Merrill's life started in the midst of World War II, born to my mother and an aviator/pilot stationed in China, flying the “Hump”, part of the CBI (China, Burma, India) corps serving General Stillwell in support of the Nationalist Chinese. Word arrived to Merrill's mother in late April, 1945 that her husband's plane had been shot down over Burma and that there were no survivors. The truth is more likely that the load in the plane was too heavy, and that there was not enough fuel to get over the hump - the Himalayas. I discovered this little piece of history when I was in my thirties. The science of load and aviation fuel balance was a guessing game rather than a science back then.

The war ended, and eventually, on some fateful date, my father reconnected with someone he'd known in school where he also knew her husband, Merrill's father. My father has told us that once he saw Merrill as a very young child he knew what he had to do - he married my mother and Merrill had the only father he ever knew. Merrill became a Strachan, no longer a Hoyle. Two years later Bob joined our family and seven years later I was born.

An early memory of Merrill is the role he served as a surrogate father to me even when my father was around. I once stepped on a pin and started crying. He pulled it out of my foot and told me that I should be wearing shoes - in the house. To this day I still don’t quite understand why he told me that, but he certainly said it with conviction.

It is no secret that Merrill held strong feelings. He set his mind on something and that was his decision. He was intelligent and made certain that people knew so. Some people might consider that characteristic as arrogance, but I only found out two years ago that Merrill was accepted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a full scholarship. Merrill chose to attend Lafayette College to be closer to his girlfriend, Sue Earl, mother of his nine children. Was that an ill-fated decision? What would his life have been like had he been a graduate of MIT? The truth, as I believe it to be, is that his love of Sue Earl played a much bigger role in his life than his decisions about college.

Sue Earl graduated with Merrill from High School. Merrill made a decision that Sue was the woman with whom he would spend the rest of his life. If Merrill was cocky, Sue was soft-spoken, the glue that would eventually hold together a family of eleven through the best and worst of times. Sue had, and still has one of the most amazing laughs I have ever heard. She is a beautiful woman and Merrill was lucky to have her beside him for so many years of his life.

Merrill came from a small family and I believe he may have never fully felt connected to us, his brothers, father and a mother who was, to say the least, a source of contention and consternation, despite the fact that our mother loved Merrill, and was his biggest supporter. I grew up in Merrill's shadow as she always raved about how smart he was, bragging about his accomplishments in High School and College. Despite our mother’s love for Merrill, they didn't seem to be able to be in the same room for very long without ending up in a huge argument. Our mother loved to argue and my brother Merrill was not one to ever yield, at least at that point in his life.

So Merrill found Sue, who came from a family of eight children. He was enveloped by the love and support of Sue's family and he became the smart and supportive older brother-in-law. At the same time Merrill and Sue started building their own family one child at a time every two years.

Merrill played a huge role in my life when he permitted me to stay with him, despite his own growing family and distinct lack of space when I needed a place to live as I could not live with my mother. He became my father again and I had to live by his rules. I traded accommodations for childcare and spent a great deal of time with my nephews and nieces, taking them to the beach, going out for ice cream, and preparing supper when Merrill and Sue were working late. I became part of their family.

I believe the worst day of Merrill's life came the day that his son Joey died while swimming in their backyard pool. I drove over to the home of Sue's parents and found Merrill in the living room crying. It was the only time in my life I have ever seen him shed tears. It was also the only time in my life I ever held him in my arms. I was a 21 year old holding my 34 year old brother for a brief moment in time. He became very self conscious of the moment and walked away. No father should ever outlive their child.

From that point in time my life intersected through Merrill and Sue's lives like a thread weaves itself through a cloth. I always returned to their home as often as I could, staying there when there was room -- and there always was room. I felt connected to my brother Merrill, despite the fact that he was more an Earl than a Strachan. That was his life, and his big family neatly interlocked with all the children produced by the Earl family. I was always invited to their huge family gatherings, but I also knew that I was an outsider to a seemingly very insular group.

I told my Supervisor that what I needed was to get to my father before he found out that his son was dead. He asked me whether I was certain that I could get into the car and drive to New York - will you be safe, he asked? I said I could do it. I must do it! It was my duty. I barely recall driving but do remember making lots of phone calls. I was the one who called my brother Bob in Atlanta and told him that Merrill had died. I said that I was going to New York to be with Dad. The call to my father arrived sooner than expected. My father called me on the phone and said that Jim, Merrill's son, had called him and told him about Merrill. We spoke for a bit, and I said I was on my way. My father said that he was fine and that I need not come up. I said "Dad, your son has just died and I want to be with you!" Normally it would have taken six hours to drive from Washington, DC to Freeport, New York, but this time I made it in less than five.

While I was driving my tears would come and go. The car lights around me had a glow which seemed to be sending fragments of light in all different directions. Clearly the tears in my eyes were playing a significant role.

More calls. Should I take Julian with me to California? His mom said that if Julian wanted to go, then she would support the trip. I want Julian to be there because this is his family, my brother's family -- the Strachans of Orange County. I also wanted him with me for support. I wanted him to earn his adult wings. So a decision was made to take Julian out of school for a week in order to attend my brother's funeral.

Oh yes, the call to my daughter, Isabel while I was driving and barely able to compose myself. "What‘s wrong, Daddy?" she asked me. "My brother died, Belle" flowed out of my mouth, unsure of whether she could handle that news. Her response was quick - "My Uncle is dead." And then she asked me, "Are you OK, Daddy?" I said that I was not and then cried so hard that I had to hang up without saying goodbye.

As I was driving I remembered this past June when Merrill flew out to Freeport, for no apparent reason, other than he knew that my brother Bob was going to be at my father's home. I also joined them. The three of us were together for the first time in perhaps 20 years. We did things together. We went to our old neighborhood and reminisced about who lived in what home. It was a great moment for me to be with both my brothers. It felt like Merrill was a Strachan again and we were a family, albeit a small one. Mostly gone was his bravado, but he still had a need to seem like he was the smartest of the bunch. The one area Merrill granted me was all things computer. He was always asking for my help with his computers because he knew that it was my domain and I appreciated that respect. I was always asking him car questions so there was a balance between us. We had a great time together, the three of us and our father.

I saw Merrill several times after that in California -- I am constantly flying back there because I have clients on the West Coast -- and my last time with him came in September. I was alone with him and we were sitting by his pool. I took the time to reiterate to him what I had told him several times in the past – to see a doctor. I said the fact that he was winded after walking for a short period of time concerned me. I told him that I believed that he had congestive heart failure. Merrill was his usual self, telling me that he was fine. He shrugged it off, as he often shrugged off many things which he would rather not hear. I remember walking out of his house and saying goodbye to him. He stood on the sidewalk waiting for me to drive away and he waved at me. That was it. The last time I would see him alive.

When I arrived at my father's house and he was calm. My father is a fatalist who believes that all things happen for a reason and that we must simply go with the flow. He said that he preferred to remember Merrill as he last saw him rather than attend his funeral. He told me that he had one responsibility in life right now which was the care of his partner, Herta, who is in the ever advancing stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He pointed out how much better it was for Merrill to go the way he did rather than the slow death process of Alzheimer’s. He said that Merrill's heart attack, followed by his bypass operation, gave him nearly two complete weeks of joy knowing that everyone was there supporting him. He said that Merrill was surrounded by love right to the last moment of his life.

So here I sit writing this blog whose story has not yet come to an end. My brother was able to convince my father to go to California and attend my brother’s funeral. We get on a plane tomorrow, my son and my father together. I imagine that it will be like a beehive of activity with everyone paying the most attention to Sue, Merrill's wife of 44 years, she being the glue that bonds it all together. All the love that she gave to my brother and her children has brought her to this most difficult point in life. My father believes that there is nothing more painful than losing your spouse. Others believe that the loss of a child is the greatest of all losses. Now Sue and my father have endured both.

03 December 2009

Saving Money on AT&T Service Post Facto

My iPhone was bought hastily in September, but in the short amount of time I have owned my phone it has become indispensable to me. It follows me like my shadow and I utilise my apps with great precision often joking with my friends and children saying "I have an APP for that." What I did not realise when I purchased my phone is that I had the $75 worth of phone services plus the data plan. I incorrectly thought that I had the unlimited plan. Fortunately enough my bill for the first month fell within the restricted minutes of 1350. The next month I was shocked when presented with a bill for $460. I went over my 1350 minute limit by 320 minutes @ .35 per minute for in, and out bound calls. I tried to change my behavior and make fewer calls during peak times and more during the free times which are 9p - 6a. Unfortunately for me I did a bang up job, but for AT&T revenue rather than cost savings for me. The latest bill came in at a whopping $650.

I finally got serious and checked the website and saw that for an additional $20 I would have UNLIMITED voice service. I contacted AT&T and said that I wanted to understand why they do not alert people to a better plan when it is obvious that the end-user would save money. Clearly I know the answer, but it had to be asked. So I was generously passed onto someone who really did make my day. She said that since I had upgraded my service plan to unlimited calls the night before, that she would arrange for a WHOPPING credit of nearly $500. Was I happy with her? You bet I was. The funny part is that she was not surprised by the call and clearly deals with lots of people making the same call and request.

So the lesson for those of you with AT&T service, and perhaps other providers, is to call the company if you go way over your allocation and see whether they can work something out. Since I do not happen to have a spare $500 just sitting around, it was a good call, actually a great call.

01 December 2009

Proud Father Moment

My son, Julian, responded to a letter he saw printed in a local newspaper which suggested that Muslims not be permitted to join the military, but if permitted, they should be subject to more stringent oversight than non-Muslims. Here is the letter my son sent to the paper.

Keen letter

I was ashamed by the publishing of Mr. Keen's letter (The Capital, Nov. 19). It is bigoted and myopic.

Every single citizen of this wonderful country has the right to feel as though no one is better then they. By targeting a certain group of people because of their religion, the state would be breaking the First Amendment right of freedom of religion.

All American citizens also have the right to join the military, regardless of ideology, although some groups of people are disallowed due to sexual preference.

This country is a mixing pot of differing ideologies, and the country is made better by the mixture of people.

If one is to target Muslim extremists why not target Christian extremists, like those who bomb abortion clinics, because they are both equally as dangerous to the stability of our nation.


It is rare when a parent is able to hear, let alone see, the private thoughts of a teenager. More rare is when you see that they are standing up for a concept which you yourself strongly support. Pretty Cool.

21 August 2009

Confessions of an International Development Consultant

At the risk of crying in my beer, an odd concept for me given that I do not drink alcohol, the life of an International Development Consultant, at least this International Development Consultant, is far from being a bed of roses some believe it might be. From the moment I could imagine a life for myself it involved travel. I wanted to see the world and experience what it is like to live abroad as part of a society other than American. I have been "on the road" for decades having found a career which helped me realize my dream -- computer consultant par excellence

Two expressions come to mind as a warning for those who also wish such a life: the first being "be careful what you wish for"; the second a Chinese proverb "May you live in interesting times." Nothing could be truer than these two expressions, at least as they relate to the life I have led working outside of the USA. First, and foremost, in order to be able to spend extended time overseas, consultants must have the ability to place their life on hold, the part which exists inside the USA. They must literally push the hold button on the phone, get on a jet and start a new temporary life -- different country same survivor skills.

Once we land "in country", we slow everything down in our head, walk a bit slower, notice things a smidge more. Search for the commonalities between the new country and previous countries. We look for creature comforts such as someone sent to pick us up at the airport instead of running the gauntlet of finding a taxi, negotiating a price, and getting delivered to the right place -- all done in a mixture of hand signals and perhaps a little bit of English depending on where we have landed. The International consultant is most vulnerable during these first moments at the airport -- we must adapt quickly or we will get ripped off, and I hate being ripped off my cabdrivers.

Adaptability is the key to working overseas. One must be malleable to whatever confronts him -- small or big. The hotel check in is the next challenge. Will we have a nice room with air conditioning or heat; will it have rock like pillows; will it have more than a flimsy sheet; will the room have a door or a curtain which hides your bed in a hallway? I have suffered from all of these insults to the system countless times. Endless stories of poor accommodations for those of us who eschew the comforts of Hiltons, Sheratons and other, more glamorous stations, in order to save money for the project with which we are assigned to help.

Check in at the hotel is complete and all we want to do is sleep if we were unable to do so on the plane. Quite often we land early in the morning and are expected, like a sprinter shooting out of the starting blocks, to immediately go to work. There is time for sleep later, someone is paying a lot of money for an expert and we are immediately thrust into that role. We are expected to make an immediate impact, people have been awaiting our arrival, the clock is ticking, make immediate sense of things and move forward. The day is done, and now we decide between eating or sleeping in a zero sum scenario. Often desperate for sleep, food loses out and sleep rules the night.

Adaptability again! Our second day at work, assignments at hand, we try to feel out the people with whom we are working. It is important NOT to be a know-it-all, but we are getting paid to be such. It is all in the presentation. I always choose cordiality over brute force. Build consensus and try to fit in. It is a better overall approach to being a successful International Consultant than being remembered as the jerk from America who came and ordered rather than taught.

Depending on the length of the assignment, we must be prepared to create a semi-sustainable lifestyle. Going out late at night and getting up early is a perfect formula for either getting sick quickly, or burning out short of the endpoint of the assignment. I try to remain vigilant with my time schedule maintaining some semblance of order such as dinner by 7pm, at the latest; time for a walk; time for sit-ups or some form of exercise; and time to wind down the day and get to sleep at a reasonable hour. Not much different than being in the USA, with the exception of being alone.

I have learned to live a solitary life. The people with whom we work have their own lives. They don't have time, nor is there an expectation that they will spend what little spare time they have after working hours keeping us company. So alone we must be and we must be able to sustain this for a long period of time. The assignments we are given are called "Short Term Technical Assistance" but short term is just a word which means anywhere between a few days to 6 months. Unless we are able to adapt quickly, loneliness can be our greatest enemy. I have learned to force myself to get out of the "hotel" and experience some of the ambiance of where I am "living." I force myself to meet people -- not something which comes easily to me in the USA but a necessary survival skill overseas. I move around. I bring my soccer cleats and goalie gloves in search of a venue. I once showed up at a crappy field outside of Kampala, Uganda and did exactly this and it was very rewarding, not to mention a shock to the Ugandans. This helped me in Albania, Montenegro and especially in Macedonia.

Ah the loneliness! It is what separates the good consultant from the poor. Loneliness, and the ability to place life on hold, go hand in hand. Doing a two week consultancy is a piece of cake -- like a sprint. An eight week assignment is more akin to trying to swim underwater across a long pool -- one holds their breath as long as they can tuning out all other thoughts other than doing your job well enough to satisfy the in-country staff and the employer, and also endure the long time away from your life, which has been frozen in place back in the States.

At some point our time draws to an end, and we start to think about going home. I try to put these thoughts off, like a marathoner at mile 22 trying not to think about the fact that he still has 4 more miles to run. All of the sudden the end has come and we head to the airport. We close down our temporary life. We say goodbye to people who we will likely never see again. We go out that last day and make certain that we have purchased all the gifts we need to bring back with us to help jump start our "real life."

Finally on the plane, we hope we get some sleep, because returning to the States is like that moment when one exits the water exhausting your last bit of oxygen, that point when you hear your heart beat in your ears; that gasp for air along with the realization that you made it all the way to the other end of the pool underwater.

The director in our head yells ACTION and we pick up where we left off. We are once again surrounded by the people we left behind whose lives went on while we were away. For some, that absence was difficult, for others they say "Where ya been?" I get, at most, 10 minutes of time to tell people about the temporary life I just lived after which I am expected to become a full fledged participant in the "permanent" life I have within the USA. Travel enough and you will not know which one is temporary, and which one is permanent.

14 August 2009

Dispatches from Israel/Palestine - Epiphany Realised

`Why use the term “epiphany” to describe that I finally “Got it!” It was all right in front of me, I just couldn’t understand it until three things happened. One person told me that there was a war in 1967, the Jordanians lost, and the people in East Jerusalem have had 42 years to prepare for “eminent domain,” the right of the government to seize property – a right that all governments worldwide practice.

Another person explained the following:

‘You ask a good question which warrants an answer beyond 140(?). We were the nation of Israel before we were ever known as "the Jewish people." Yes, we practice a religion that is the root of Western civilization, but we are not simply a religion. Jews have always been a nation. We were liberated as a nation from Egyptian slavery, we received the Torah on Mount Sinai as a nation, and we entered the land that G-d chose for us as a nation. In the year 70 C.E., (C.E.???) our Holy Temple was destroyed and we were banished from our land. King G-d banished his prince, the nation of Israel, from the palace. Since then, we have been praying three times a day, everyday, to return. Furthermore, we knew from the prophecy in the Tanah (known as the Old Testament to Christians) that we would indeed return. The nation of Israel would once again have sovereignty over the land of Israel, and one day, our Holy Temple would will also be rebuilt. The independence of 1948 was like the King allowing the prince back to the palace—on a trial basis. Borders were indefensible, economy and infrastructure were weak, the newly gathered exiles held their collective breath to see if our nation would be allowed to stay permanently. The answer from came in 1967, when in six days our nation defeated the entire Arab world, and increased our hold on our Promised Land to include defensible borders.

Life is sacred, and we Israelis have no joy in seeing the stateless Arabs suffer at the hands of terrorist leaders. These Islamic zealots teach five year olds on children's TV that the highest goal in life is to kill Jews. They have Mickey Mouse knockoffs telling children to shed their blood in defiance of the Jews. Regardless, we try to help these Arabs held hostage in camps by the terrorists. We try to help them while at the same time asserting our G-d given right to our Holy Land. In a long answer to your short question - yes, it's worth it.

Let me digress for a moment—I asked a question on Twitter: why a piece of Germany was not cut-out as part of post WWII reparations to create a country where European Jews could go and live in peace. I did some research prior to asking this question and discovered that there were approximately 9 million Jews living in Europe, not counting those living in Russia. These Jews were living their lives, just as those around them did, working in all walks of life. Some were very rich while others were very poor. In Romania, 600,000 Jews lived in Bucharest and Iasi , the latter being the Jewish cultural epicenter of Romania. Similar populations of Jews lived in Saloaniki, now called Thessaloniki, Greece. We all know that there were large populations of Jews living in Germany, Austria, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, France and the list goes on. These Jews may have considered Israel the promised land but they lived lives wherever they were, which was likely where their parents, grandparents and previous generations all lived. They were as tied to their homes as their non-Jewish neighbours. So if there was a trickle of a migration of Jews from Europe and Eastern Europe to Israel, but not a mass migration, then I can move to the next point. A terrible pogrom befell upon these same Jews of Europe and Eastern Europe n the form of Adolf Hitler and his ill-conceived desire to solve the Jewish problem. [Your time sequence is hard to follow; you start out talking about post WWII and now we’re in the middle of Hitler? What happened to the Jews between 1935 and 1945 sands as one of the greatest crimes against humanity alongside similar strategic pogroms in Russia, Cambodia, Sudan and Rwanda, to name just a few. In 1945, as the world realized what took place in the death camps, the United Nations was created and the world devised a c plan of reconciliation of sorts, and used the previous “contract” put forth in the Balfour Declaration. Palestine would become a Jewish state which would welcome all Jews seeking protection against persecution. In 1949 the Nationalist Chinese left their last threshold of land in Mainland China and moved to Taiwan where they too created a haven for Chinese seeking a “safe port.” Except for religion as a prerequisite to entering a country, these two migrations bare a lot of similarities.

The trump card came from my Twitter friend who provided the religious imperative explanation, for why Palestine was the “Promised Land” and his explanation is stated above.

A light bulb went off. I am not a religious person, so I cannot appreciate the fact that a religion can have as one of its tenets a promised land. That for thousands of years, the Jews, had a mandate of ownership of a land called Palestine and Israel throughout history. There was no need to carve out any land within post-World War II Europe because there already was a land which belonged to each Jew living throughout the world and in 1945, it was a protectorate of the British government called Palestine. Jews made their voyages to Israel and the book Exodus describes these journeys. British opposition to the migration of Jews to Israel eventually evaporated as bridges, trains, buildings and eventually humans were bombed and killed in the name of statehood. Eventually the state of Israel was granted its sovereign status as a country when the United Nations voted on the issue and immediately created a safe haven for Jews; concurrently that same UN decision created the Palestinian issue.

There are UN camps for displaced Palestinians still standing to this day, nearly 62 years later. A temporary situation lasting 6 months or less often becomes permanent. Lay on top of this the Six-Day War in 1967 and you have a victor and a loser. The latter group has never ever been fully capable of organizing itself into a viable governmental and national body, perhaps due in part to the way Israel has co-opted its way of life, and also its own inability to come to terms which each other and share a common goal of statehood and how that should be accomplished. Look at the West Bank versus Gaza saga and it is clear that two tribes cannot agree with each other enough to establish one strong government, and instead are handicapped by two weak institutions vying for power.

Since my arrival six weeks ago and inculcation into all things Israeli and Palestinian, I have been looking for a complex answer when, in fact, it was simple; I just didn’t have the religious understanding to see it. The Jews are Israel and Israel represents Jews worldwide. End of the story. But is it really the end of the story? Religiosity is as individual and personal as the way in which a person subscribes to and interprets a religion. Furthermore, it creates a concept of religious relativism—each person must, by definition, be as correct in his interpretation of his religion as the next person.. The only way to win the game of religious relativism is through disseminating the “proper message,” collecting adherents and controlling a large swath of public opinion. This is the case, for example, with the religious right in America which seeks to convince me that abortions are against the will of God and that, unless I accept Jesus as my Savior, I end up in Hell.

In Israel, the reason Israelis are able to take away the homes of the residents who lived here prior to the creation of Israel as a nation-state is that this is a promised land. Unless you are Jewish, the land underneath your house does not belong to you. It is that simple. Add to that that Israel defeated the Arab armies in 1967 and won back the rest of the promised land. Islam offers that unless one is Muslim, one is an infidel. An infidel’s life is unimportant than a Muslim’s. It is not the individual Muslim who believes that my life is less important, instead it is the larger driving force, lead by the leaders which have the largest followings. Christians killed Muslims and Jews alike during the Crusades. Muslims killed Orthodox Christians and Jews as they marched forward with their expansion. Throughout time,the cult of religion has been a driving force behind the deaths of millions of people worldwide. It is the oldest struggle in man’s short history on Earth.

The Johnny Nash lyric I can see clearly now the rain is gone describes my enlightenment at this point in time. As long as religion is wielded to subjugate , there will never be a peace.

08 August 2009

Dispatches from Israel - Religious Observations

A few years back I went on several safaris——in the Masai Mara of Kenya, the Serengeti of Tanzania and in two national parks in Uganda. I saw the “Big Five” animals, and the one thing that I remember more than anything else was the magnificence of the river crossings the wildebeest and the zebra made. Both animals know to find the shortest crossing point and when they did, hundreds of thousands of them would wait for just the right moment to cross. The slightest noise and they would retreat. I checked this once by clapping my hands as I was watching them wait for that perfect moment. The challenge for these animals was that they knew that crocodiles were waiting for them. If they moved en masse, the group’s chance for survival was far better than if one lone animal made the crossing. Once one of the wildebeest made a move to cross the river, they all acted as a single organism. The "crocs" picked off the babies, or those on the edges of the herd. Eventually the herd made it to the other side, albeit minus some of its more vulnerable members. This migration happens every year as the animals search for new supplies of grass upon which to feed.

In Jerusalem, there is a road not far from my hotel which divides the Muslims’ area from the Jews’. The road leads to the Damascus Gate through which Jews pass to make their way to the Western Wall to pray at the holiest Jewish shrine in the world. I went to the Western Wall one Friday at sunset and observed as Jewish families made their way on the road. Hundreds of people were dressed in religious clothes, the men wearing either a black fedora or a round flat bushy hat that looked like a cake carefully balanced atop of one’s head. All the men had Hasidim curls, the young boys still with light hair had blonde curls while the older men had black or graying curls.

Unlike any other day, Friday is the holy day, which begins at sundown. To help secure the safe passage of the Jews along this road on Fridays, there is an overabundance of police, with rifles held at the ready who make certain that nothing happens. The massive numbers of people making their way to the Wall reminded me of the wildebeest and zebra pilgrimages for sustenance.

I joined the migration to the Western Wall and walked through the ageless passage ways of the Old City of Jerusalem until we got to what looks like the convergence of 14 different lanes of traffic into 2 lanes heading into the Lincoln Tunnel across the Hudson River in New York. I broke away and took the high road so that I could look from above at the plaza in front of the Wall and the throngs of people. From up there I observed that the Israeli Defense Forces were everywhere, protecting the assembled from attack. Everyone who enters the plaza passes through metal detectors which are set far back from the Wall to protect the people milling about the plaza should something happen.

This trek is repeated daily by some, while others make it every Friday as the sun begins to drift below the horizon. The length to which those who make this trek are protected is amazing. It made me think about what it must be like to be Jewish and weather a history of torment and anti-Semitism spanning over 2000 years. To survive the murder of six million Jews during World War II. Yet, every day people make their way to the Wall, honoring their faith and creed, and paying homage to their relatives and ancestors who sacrificed so much.

As I exited the Old City and returned back up the road to the hotel, people were still making their way in the evening light to the Wall. The police were still there protecting the route. Within minutes I was on the other end of the road in another world where only non-Jews go—Arabs, Palestinians, Christians and tourists.

04 August 2009

Top 10 Reasons for Attending SOCAP09

10. Great food thanks to Heidi (You have to meet Heidi although she couldn't smuggle in
any Mountain Dew for me I still think she is the best)
9. Great venue. I cannot imagine a nice place to hold a conference.
8. You get to see the event organisers and help staff really try to make this a
meaningful event
7. The free time allocated over the 2 1/2 days really made the conference worthwhile
6. An opportunity to meet your never before seen Twitter and Facebook and other social
media friends
5. A magnificent array of speakers
4. So much good stuff that you have trouble selecting between GREAT AND GREAT
3. You get to see Jerry Michalski organise a free flow of ideas on the last day. For
me, this really made the event incredibly worthwhile and unique.
2. Making friends with people who believe in the same ideas as you and finding a
synergy to come together and work on future activities
1. What better way is there to spend three days with some of the most creative people
you will ever meet.

19 July 2009

Dispatches From Israel - Miscarriage of Justice?

My Palestinian host and I were sitting at, of all places, Kentucky Fried Chicken, when he decided to tell me his story, which he had only alluded to in the past week. He knew that I might recount his story and I assured him that if I would protect his privacy and never use his name or his image. Each of my Palestinian hosts has been forthcoming with their personal experiences about what it is like to live in Israel as a Palestinian. So, there we were, sitting at KFC, and he started by saying that once he spent nearly 6 months in prison. His crime? He rented a flat within the home he owns in East Jerusalem to someone from Ramallah. He said the police came to his home and informed him that it was illegal to permit someone from Ramallah to live in East Jerusalem without first getting authorization. The policeman gave him a citation and said that all he needed to do was pay a relatively small fine and that would be it.

My host has recently returned to East Jerusalem after living overseas for several years, and was not well-versed in the latest rules and regulations governing who could and could not stay in East Jerusalem. Unfortunately someone within the Israeli justice system made a decision to pursue this “crime” with vigor and make it an example to others. My host told me that it took two years to prosecute his case and his lawyer kept telling him not to worry. When the Israeli justice system was unwilling to plea bargain, my host realized that he was in big trouble. When his day in court came, the judge said that since my host was so well educated he had no excuse for not knowing the law. He was sentenced to 6 months in jail and fined 15,000 shekels or $3800USD.

He explained to his lawyer that if he couldn’t work he couldn’t pay the fine so the sentence was reduced to 6 months in prison without being fined. Remember, his crime was allowing someone to live in a place he owned. My host kept negotiating and asked to be placed in a prison close to East Jerusalem so his family could see him every weekend. The first prison he was sent to was in northern Israel, 2 or 3 hours away from his family; it was overcrowded, and loaded with hard-core criminals. My host is an educated gentleman of slight build, and likely never had had to defend himself from physical harm. He also feared that someone might inject him with drugs; each week the prisoners were drugs tested and he was afraid that someone might inject him just to make his life difficult. The jail was so overcrowded that at night one might not get a bed and have to sleep on the floor. He was allowed a plastic bag in which he could store some toiletries, but had to keep vigilant over the bag or it would be stolen. Rats came out at night and once someone awoke screaming when a rat skittered over his back. He barely slept during the first couple of weeks. My host contacted his lawyer and asked him to arrange for a relocation. The Israeli prosecutor knew that my host had specific skills and asked him whether he was willing to use them, and live at a hospital. My host asked whether he would have a room, and a sheet to cover himself at night. It was amazing how quickly one missed things like a bed sheet when deprived of it. When he was relocated, rather than use his skills, he was tasked with jobs that no one else, other than a prisoner, would do.

His lawyer petitioned to have the sentence thrown out by the Supreme Court and discovered that the judge who presided over his case wrote the verdict in such a way that it could not be overturned. This meant that my host would have a criminal record and be unable to work for any Israeli-based company. Yet people committing worse crimes received shorter sentences. He came to the realization that the Israeli justice system was using him to make a point to other people in East Jerusalem. Fortunately for my host, he did receive credit for good behavior, and his sentence ended sooner than expected. At the end of his story, the other Palestinian hosts were as shocked as I. They had not heard the story before and were incredulous.

More recently, my host was informed that his house in East Jerusalem is scheduled for demolition. He has been fighting that order and has made a temporary arrangement to pay a fine and to enter new architectural plans to remedy the “problem” with his home – a problem as defined by the Israeli justice system. It is a horrible situation: he cannot leave East Jerusalem or his home with be torn down, but he works in Ramallah and must endure the daily holdup at Israeli check points. He is a gentle man who simply tells me his story without any overt signs of hatred and illustrates the life of a Palestinian under the Israeli system.

Before the 1948 agreement, his family owned a substantial amount of land which has since been confiscated. Now his home in Jerusalem is next. A few days after telling me his story at the KFC, my host dropped me off at my hotel and pointed out that I was staying directly across the street from the court house where he had been sentenced to prison. I went up into my room and opened the curtains and looked out at the court house. Justice, oppression….I wondered whether there would ever be a resolution to the conflict in this part of the world. According to my host, the answer is no. You cannot undo taking peoples’ land away, restricting their freedoms and making their lives miserable. This is just his story, and each one of my hosts has his own story.

17 July 2009

Jerusalem and Discovery

It takes a lot to surprise me after traveling to 96 countries. During my travel I have seen hundreds of cities and have a long list ones I love, and those I don’t. For my first nine days in Israel I have been working 12 hour days and what little time free time I did have was spent walking around Ramallah and Nazareth. I thought Nazareth was an amazing town, full of historical sights and small back alleys filled with fruits, deserts, clothing and lots of people --Nazareth is part of the religious pilgrimage tour. What I discovered within a few moments of entering the Old City of Jerusalem was that Nazareth is to Jerusalem what hamburger is to filet mignon. For someone like myself, who has always wanted to visit Israel, it is clear that I was ill prepared for what I found in the Old City of Jerusalem. I was uncertain where the Old City was located so I asked for directions and was told to go out the door, turn right, then left and walk to the wall. I thought that the shops and stores I was passing were part of the Old City, but then I saw the flow of people walking towards this huge wall and entering through an archway which led them into the Old City. I guess I was in the old “new city” but have since found out that there already is a “new city”. Old cities are not new to me – I have seen the island of Rhodos and its “old city.” I loved walking the back “steps” on Hong Kong Island leading me past seemingly ancient stores as I walked up a non-ending set of steps. Oh, and Istanbul, and its market which could keep you occupied for several days. As I walked through the entry way into the Old City, I had no idea what was awaiting me. It was immediately apparent that this was something rather special. The shops were carved out of what was once a solid rock. The walkways were a combination of stones and cement heading downhill for as far as I could see. I was definitely on the main route but just about every 100 feet there were paths leading to more shops. It was a true labyrinth and I was afraid of getting lost. When I am new to any place, I tend to slow down and notice everything, mental breadcrumbs as I call them. I walked up an alley until I felt I had gone far enough. I didn’t take any branches off the branch but instead simply returned to the main path and continued with my Old City discovery phase.

I went deeper and deeper into the old city. I saw rug stores, jewelry, roman antiquities, fruit stands, food stalls, clothing and churches. I joined a tour group for a few moments and discovered that the alley they were about to walk up was the oldest section of the Old City. I also learned that the church we were standing in front of was 700 years old. The arches I walked through were built between 1537 and 1542. If I go one direction I will see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and another way to the Western Wall and yet another to the Dome of the Rock. All of this exists within relative feet of each other. This is, as the guide book states, “above all a holy place.” I am not a religious person, but I did decide to walk into an old church and listen to the service. It was in Spanish so I did get the gist of the service - “Our father, who art in heaven” but in Espanol. It was somewhat calming for me to attend the service. I started writing a blog in my head and was anxious to return to my computer and write about the joy of discovery I had in the Old City. I started to head back, thinking about stopping at the English language bookstore I passed. I was thirsty, so I stopped to grab a soda. I asked how much the soda cost and the shop owner, who was probably 20 years old, told me five shekels. I handed him a ten shekel coin and he told me it was no good. This was the third time that someone had told me this, but I knew that there was nothing wrong with the ten shekel coin, so I asked for it back and I then handed him five 1 shekel coins. I asked him if they were any good and he said yes and placed them in his drawer. He then said, “let me see your ten shekel coin and I will show you why it is no good.” I thought he was being nice, as I have found everyone to be, but then he threw the coin in his drawer. I asked him to give me back the coin and he just stared at me in a non-responsive manner. Someone else came into the store and his attention was now on them. I interrupted him and asked for my $2.5 dollars back – I really asked for the coin, but that is the exchange rate against the US dollar. Again he ignored me so I said that I would get another soda if he was not going to give my money back. I got the soda, and walked out of the store with two diet cokes. Yes, I know, I should have just walked away, but more than anything, I hate being played for a dupe. Doesn’t matter what country I am in, I just hate being ripped off.

I walked out of the store and was about 50 feet away from the store when he grabbed me from behind. Yes, I knew he was coming, but I was not going to start a physical fight. He tried to grab the can out of my hand and I asked for my money again. Trust me, he spoke English very well. He grabbed once again for the soda, but this time he knocked it out of my hand and it hit the ground and burst open. I turned away from him and walked away. As I did I could see that a number of people had stopped to watch the standoff between a merchant and the American. All of the sudden the joy of being in such a beautiful location had quickly soured. I left the walled city and then sat down and felt that last bit of bright sun on my face. I played the whole thing through my head over several times and realized that I probably should not have done what I did, but it was so clear what he had done to me that I just simply couldn’t let it go. As the adrenaline ebbed away, and regained my composure, I thought about how beautiful the Old City was, and realized that all I lost was $2.50.

I walked backed the same way I came, following my mental breadcrumbs. I stopped at the bookstore again and purchased my most favourite newspaper, the Herald Tribune. I also purchased the Lonely Planet Guide to Israel and Palestine and then read the part about Safety and Security in Israel. It says that you should protect yourself from theft. Oh well, it won’t ever happen again.

P.S. The picture is of the vendor's shop who "ripped" me off.

07 July 2009

Dispatches from Israel - Country 96 and Palestine

10th July 2009

I love the book Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castaneda. Ixtlan is about the journey of the "sorcerer" or warrior or man of knowledge and his experience of trying to return to the metaphorical hometown of Ixtlan. The story is firmly entrenched in my memory. For me, it serves as an allegory for one who wishes to return home absent the knowledge of what one has learned since leaving. A return to Ixtlan is an attempt to return to an innocence which one loses as one grows older and forever changed. Instead of searching for knowledge, it is an attempt to return to what I once was, but I have been forever changed and cannot be the way I used to be.

The reality for me, like most Americans, is that Israelis and Palestinians are people who live far away and their influence on my life is remote or indirect, if at all. To some degree, this ignorance is akin to wearing blinders or sweeping dirt under a rug. At some level we are all interconnected if not personally, then by the events which spin off like hurricanes from the coast of Senegal. When I was in Senegal during hurricane season I realized that there was an absolute correlation between the weather in Senegal and a hurricane spawned many miles away which might kill hundreds or thousands of people.

In many ways, this trip to Israel and the West Bank affords me a privilege of trying to appreciate firsthand a different perspective of reality---a reality beyond newspapers and the talk of pundits, We would like to believe that the plight of the Palestinians is like weather in Senegal, or dirt under the rug. We do not pay attention to it – we ignore it – or even worse, our upbringing inures us to the plight of the Palestinians. Why should I worry about Palestinians, or Sudanese, or Aung San Suu Chi when my local life is burdened enough without borrowing the troubles of the world. Many Americans don’t pay attention to geo-political issues and, as such, are unable to connect the dots and understand why we should be concerned about the plight of the Palestinians who have been made landless with the full support of every American president since Harry Truman. One could argue that America’s unilateral support of Israel has led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the deaths of over 4,000 American soldiers. The person I was before traveling to Israel and the West Bank would have suggested that America has to maintain this position because it serves as the guarantor of Israeli security, the only means of preventing genocide of Jews.

When I first went to Africa I was daunted by the enormity of the problems it faces as a continent. I came away realizing that people could spend an entire life trying to make a difference and then find their work ruined in a day by a single raid.

The Jews and the Palestinians each claim thousands of years’ worth of ownership in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The U.S. since Jimmy Carter has exerted pressure on Israel to resolve the issue. I asked my Palestinian host why Egypt was able to broker a peace with Israel, its mortal enemy, while the Palestinians have not yet. Even the Irish were finally able to stop 400 years of the “fighting and dying” cycle. He explained that Egypt only displaced 1% of the Palestinian populace with the peace accord while the “6 Day War” in 1976 and the creation of Israel in 1948 displaced nearly 98% of the Palestinian populace. “There is no answer, no resolution?” I asked and he shook his head, “There cannot be.”

I learned yesterday that the city of Haifa is emblematic of how things might be throughout Israel and the West Bank. In Haifa, Jews, Muslims and Christian live in what can be described as peaceful coexistence and tolerance of one another. “So why not everywhere, “I asked? “Because Haifa is different from anywhere else in Israel – a different history – one where even though the Jewish population is predominant, Christians and Muslims are given equal opportunity to live and live within the same complex as Jews. In East Jerusalem and many other points throughout Israel, the homes and livelihoods of Palestinians have been destroyed without any form of compensation.” Is the need to create and protect a homeland for the Jews so great that it can only be accomplished at the expense of the Palestinians?

I find myself wanting to return to Ixtlan and forget what I have learned thus far, and live in denial or ignorance. But that is not possible or realistic: life is too short not to try to make it a more harmonious one for our world’s children who will inherit the legacies we leave behind.

9th July 2009

My Palestinian host's voice quivered somewhat as he began to tell me the story of his families particular plight with the Israeli government. I asked him if there was any way to find a middle ground and he said no. "The struggle now is how well the Israeli government can go about tightening the restrictions on travel and land ownership for Palestinians." I am torn between my impression of Israel when I was a child and what I see now. This is the world's oldest continuing struggle in many ways. I have always supported the right of Israel to exist and now I see how that is happening. The pattern seems, unfortunately, very similar to what happened in South Africa under the apartheid. It is complicated, believe me, to understand the landscape; it is difficult to wrap my brain around all of this.

My host continues with his story about how the Israeli government has a tear-down order on his house unless he pays $50,000, which he has been doing over time. The land his family once owned has been confiscated and turned into to housing for others. His is not the only story being told to me as we drive our car into Nazareth. Another Palestinian colleague is telling me about a permit to build her house up, which is the only direction permitted, and it has been eight years since she started the process and many thousands of dollars. If she were Jewish instead of Palestinian, it would take no time and cost very little. Then the Christian gentleman who's been teaching me about the history of the Bible shows me points of historical interest in Nazareth. It turns out that the Christians live with the same restrictions as the Palestinians. The pecking order starts with Jews and ends with Palestinians.

My host from Jerusalem says that he would like to live in Ramallah and keep his home in Jerusalem. Doing so would mean that he would lose his home in Jerusalem forever and he would be restricted in his movements once he took up residency in Ramallah. Another person in the car tells me that he has never spent a night in Nazareth before because he has not been permitted to travel into this region. “Can you imagine that I have lived here, in Palestine, for 42 years, and yet I have never been to Nazareth before now?”

For two hours, perhaps ever longer, I listen to the stories of being Palestinian inside of Israel. They are complicated stories and recounted by four different people who share similar experiences. The irony is that all four individuals work professionally to make the West Bank and the Palestinian territory better places to live. One of my hosts explains that the Israeli government impedes development work each and every day by dictating where he and his colleagues can go, when they can go, and what they can bring into the country. They are working to improve the delivery of medical services throughout the territory, which seems to me like an activity which everyone including the Israeli government could support.

When we are finished with dinner, one of the people at the table asks me whether I will tell my son that I have been to countries 96 and 97, the latter being Palestine. I don’t know how to answer. "What does it take to be considered a legitimate country?" he asks. It is a discussion which I don't know enough about to pursue.

8th July 2009

As we drove north through the Jordan Valley, I could see Jordan just on the other side of the presently dry Jordan River. My mobile phone kept shifting from Jordanian providers to Israeli providers. With each shift I received a welcome message and encouragement to enjoy Jordan and Israel. I also saw a lot of rocks. Like the lunar landscape, this land seems absolutely impenetrable. “Why would people fight over this useless land” was one of the thoughts going through my head. The road was perfectly smooth but circuitous as we went around small mountains which were mostly barren except for the Arab settlements on the edge of Ramallah and then the Israeli settlements in the Israeli protected areas. In many ways the terrain reminded me of Greece – a million rocks per every mile. We drove past terraced hills with olive trees. Every so often there were large expanses of Sunflower plants dried up by the sun awaiting the crews who will empty the dead plants of their seeds. At some point we came upon young palm trees in the earliest stages of their growth. They reminded me of the pineapple farms in Hawaii. The further we drove the taller the trees became until at some point there were literally miles of tall mature Palm trees. I saw a sign for a Kibbutz and was reminded of my childhood when some of my Jewish friends left the USA to fly to Israel to work on a Kibbutz. We passed teenagers who were hitch-hiking. Again I was reminded of my friends who, at a young age, went to Israel and hitchhiked their way around the country. We came to a sign which said Haifa 40km and Nazareth 39K and I was so excited. I have always wanted to go to Haifa and I felt that I was almost there just seeing the sign. We paused our trip for a few minutes and I left an air conditioned vehicle to step out into the dessert heat. I felt at home. It was dry and very hot. Just outside the rest stop was a bus stop with 4 teenagers, seemingly Israeli, trying to hitch a ride to some unknown point. Two boy and two girls taking turns sticking their thumb out hoping to catch a ride. I thought about how hitchhiking had become an anachronistic behaviour in the United States due to safety concerns. They kids certainly didn’t seem to care about that issue – perhaps it is still absolutely safe to hitchhike in Israel – especially with four friends together. I did wonder about whether anyone would pick up 4 kids, but you never know. I was so excited to feel the warmth. In my mind it can never be too hot but it can be too cold.

We continued on the road towards Nazareth and Haifa until we turned north to Nazareth. All along our route were small factories, kibbutzim, and palm trees. The rocks became less plentiful and it was clear that the land had been carefully manicured to maximize the usefulness of the rich dark dirt. If memory served me correctly, America Jews were drawn to the kibbutzim for two reasons; the opportunity to live in Israel and the chance to be part of the building of a modern Jewish state called Israel. Each Kibbutz was a collective operation which eventually served the interests of the State of Israel by contributing to its growth which eventually transformed the lunar landscape into a modern, self sufficient country.

Coming to Israel and the West Bank has presented me with the difficult task of reconciling what I learned as a child, what I read in papers and books, and the reality of what I see when I look out the windows of the van in the company of Palestinians. I was asking questions all along our drive and the answers created a great sense of cognitive dissonance. I was born in New York and raised among a large Jewish population. Many of the people I knew throughout my childhood were Jewish and through them I learned about the Holocaust and the subsequent building of Israel. I realized during this trip that the memories of the holocaust were still fresh when I was learning all about Judaism. The expression I learned was “Never Forget” from people who all had family members killed in Europe. While I could not fully appreciate the pain and loss that these people went through it certainly left a strong impression upon me. I was born in 1957 just 12 years after the discovery of the death camps and 9 years after the creation of Israel. As I drove towards Nazareth all of this was going through my head. Instead of thinking about the biblical stories of Palestine, I was viewing the miracle of the post WWII settlers of Israel. I was also quickly learning the reality of being a Palestinian inside the land formerly called Palestine and renamed Israel in 1948. One of the people in my group was telling me that his father lived in Palestine prior to 1948. He lived in East Jerusalem which remained untouched until the 6 day war in 1967. At that point, Israel created buffer zones between itself and its enemies which sought to remove it from the face of the map. Unfortunately, this instantly created a “hostile” group of people within the borders of Israel – the group called Palestinians.

My host, a Palestinian, told me that everything was politically driven. I learned that the West Bank is divided by letters: A, B and C. The letter “A” refers to the areas which are administered by the Palestinian authority and policed by them as well. These areas were off limits to Israelis. Then there is area “B” which is administrated by the Palestinian authority but guarded by the Israeli military. Finally, there is area “C” which is controlled completely by the Israelis. I learned that Israelis do enter into area “A” and are not troubled, but the same cannot be said for Palestinians entering area “C”. They must receive a visa and the amount of time they can remain in that area is highly regulated. This is how the area called Palestine is bisected. Then there is Israel proper where the movements of Palestinians are even more regulated. Both sides, the Palestinians and Israelis, have their story. I am no stranger to national struggles having lived in the former Yugoslavian republics of Macedonia and Montenegro. The battles of the Ottoman Empire, the Greeks versus the Macedonians, the Muslims versus Christians are still playing out today and Palestinians inside of Israel represents the seemingly mother of all conflicts. But for me, this is just a ride through the Jordanian Valley to Nazareth. I am just enjoying the view and the variability of the land itself. It is so difficult to reconcile my childhood teachings about Israel and the political view which permeate every answer given me by my hosts. I have to respect their view, but I know that a Jew within Israel would have a different response. I guess this is not dissimilar to the United States where conservatives and progressives are unable to agree on most topics.

I finally arrive at my destination, a beautiful hotel in Nazareth atop a large hill with a strong wind cooling down the day. I jump into the pool and swim for 20 minutes. I get out of the pool and place my seat at the edge of the patio which overlooks the valley through which I drove. The sun is in my face and I close my eyes and relax. I try not to think about the political, or the work I have to do the next day, I simply try to think about the fact that I am finally in Israel, the country I have always wanted to visit.

7th July 2009 - Ramallah

There are two types of countries -- ones which have real milk and ones that have boxed milk which does not pass for real milk. I found real honest to "Adonai Eloheinu" milk in Ramallah and that is very good. Thanks to a friend of mine living in Ramallah who directed me to the right place. Life can be so simple!

7th July 2009 - Ramallah

Today I am in Ramallah which is located in the West Bank within the Palestinian territory. When I go to a country where English is not spoken I try to take things very slowly. I walk slower and I try to observe everything around me. I make certain to leave mental bread crumbs so I can find my way back to my hotel and avoid the terror of getting myself completely lost.

It is difficult to ignore the political realities which greet all who come to the West Bank, but today I am just someone who is walking through the streets trying to get a feel of the old city and not interested in the political. I have traveled extensively around the world and my mind instantly compares a country to previous countries I have visited. Walking around Ramallah is not much different than walking through the old parts of Cairo, Istanbul or even Pristina, Kosovo.

Old cities share common traits: crowded sidewalks overwhelmed with street merchants selling anything from fruits and vegetables to the latest DVDs in front of stores which are selling jewelry, food goods, clothing and spices. Every side of every block in Ramallah has a money changer. There is a vibrant fruit and veggie market which was nice to walk through. I wanted to buy grapes and cherries but held back thinking that I might not get a good price. When I was in the middle of the market my senses were a little more alert because I have been warned about walking through the public market areas. But the people I walk past do not care about me, only about getting to where they are going. Clearly some merchants instantly realize that I am not from the West Bank, or even Israel, as they say “Welcome” and ask me to visit their store. Some children also realize I am not one of “them” as they too say “Welcome” as I pass them on the crowded sidewalk. I cut my hair and grew a beard in order to better fit in, but I guess there is no mistaking me for someone other than a foreigner. After I lost my fear of getting lost, I was able to just take things in. I walked past a spice store which literally took my breath away as it overwhelmed me with the aroma of a myriad of spices. It reminded me of Sri Lanka and the old Indian section of Singapore. I walked past a blind man selling cigarettes placed on a tray strapped around his neck and sitting firmly on his chest. I wondered how he knew what he was selling and whether people were nice to him. Children with shopping carts vied for customers, seeking them to help carry their goods back to home. These children were very competitive with each other for business and were clearly not nice to their competitors. An old woman sat on top of a watermelon selling the same. She had a cardboard crate over her head to shield her from the hot sun. Teenage boys tended hot ovens in the bakeries – one made the dough and the other tended to it when it came out of what appeared to be an ancient oven. I could feel the ovens' heat standing 20 feet away from them, and the teenage boys were standing within 2 feet – hard to imagine how hot they must have been. Amidst all of this, cars are driving all around pedestrians and constantly tooting their horns, trying to make forward progress on streets incapable of managing the cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles and the people dodging between all of them to get to the other side of the street. It is a competition to see who has the loudest horn and can beep it the longest. Normally the cacophony would drive me nuts, but today I am simply an explorer in Ramallah and take in all the plentiful sights and sounds.

23 June 2009

Sustainability and the New Economic Order

I am not an expert in either macro or micro economics other than the fact that I studied both at university, and have managed budgets of several million dollars during my lifetime. What I do know well is the concept of sustainability learned from my work overseas on United States Agency for International Development activities. The concept of sustainability stipulates that any activity promulgated by a USAID funded project should, by definition, be sustainable once the USAID mission closes down funding for any particular project. I learned that my concept of sustainability and that of USAID can vary by 180 degrees. My first major lesson in sustainability came in Grenada. The United States decided to provide this poor Caribbean country with a large influx of aid following the “invasion” in October, 1983. It is likely that the United States spent nearly $100m trying to “rebuild” the country in what was our first, of many to come, exercises in “democracy building.” One of the myriad of activities was to build a new road around Grenada and two cross island roads to replace the wholly impassible roadways which had potholes filled with 55 gallon oil drums. Upon my arrival in Grenada, no car was able to drive faster than 10 miles an hour, and even the shortest of trips were painfully slow due to the lack of consistent road surface. Morris-Knudsen (MK), formerly a big player in international development, was hired to build the roadways. MK got to work on this task and the mess and mayhem created was beyond anyone’s imagination who had not worked, or lived, in a developing country. By the time of my arrival in Grenada, I was a seasoned professional when it came to understanding the ways of the developing world. I was not shocked by the roads given how bad the roads were in Asia from which I had only recently moved. I was, however, new to the USAID world and the concept of sustainable solutions. The building of the roads by MK provided me with a lifelong lesson which I like to share with people who are new to development. With the roads freshly completed, and the visit of Ronald Reagan completed, the stormy weather began, and the brand new roadwork was soon chipped away at an alarming rate. The reason you ask? MK had not taken any steps to divert the flow of water under the road into culverts or a sewer system. Within 6 months, the once pristine roads were in tatters. I asked someone at the USAID office why MK had neglected to build water diversion into the new road system and was told the following, “it was not part of their contract.” So MK had bid specifically on building approximately 125 miles of roads and its proposal was selected because it met the USAID specified criteria announced within the request for proposals (RFP) which did not include the diversion of water. MK was selected because they, most likely, provided the lowest cost proposal – no wonder. So there it was, an unsustainable solution staring everyone in the face, yet no move was made to adapt the project on the basis of knowing, without a doubt, that the roads were going to quickly erode away. And they did, rather quickly. Patches were applied, potholes became abundant, and the 55 gallon drums reappeared as the speed limits fell.

Why the lesson in sustainable solutions?

The American economy is in tatters, similar to the roads in Grenada. The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to “fix” the dikes which are springing leaks everywhere. The expression “too big to fail” has become a mantra in Washington, New York and other world capitals. From what I read in my econ classes, the key element which differentiates America from the rest of the world is free enterprise coupled with the chance of failure. It is the risk of failure which often drives people to success. My grandfather had a business which was very successful. His family, immigrants, came to America to build a life girded with a strong desire to succeed or risk failure. There was never the thought of the government coming to the rescue if he did fail. The same is true today with hundreds of thousands of small and medium sized businesses which may fail and will not receive any form of resuscitation. However, AIG, the largest insurance conglomerate in the world is too big to fail. For the past 10 years AIG took on riskier and riskier financial instruments in order to provide value to its shareholders. The U.S. government has stepped into the fray and become the modern day Sisyphus, providing billions, if not trillions of dollars to help companies which are “too big to fail.” While I consider myself a socialist, I am a fiscally conservative socialist who believes that it is not the role of the government to save private sector companies such as General Motors, Bank of America or Bear Stearns. In the world of international development, one must create a sustainable project or accept failure and realize that “all the king’s horsemen couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

It is odd that USAID is constantly stressing sustainable solutions while the head of our government is supporting non-sustainable, batten-down-the-hatches and be-prepared-to-take-on-water solutions. What happens if these measures to stave off the economic failure of America do not succeed? What is the fallback plan? Would it not have been wiser to have allowed companies, who made stupid mistakes and risked it all on the bottom line, to fail? Would our economic institutions and business sector be stronger had we allowed these companies to fail? What is the price of failure? The unemployment rate would probably skyrocket beyond the present 10% level. Michigan and California would fall into whatever the equivalent of Chapter 11 is for a state, but, in the end, perhaps a few years from now, wouldn’t the American economic footing be better and more sustainable? I recognize that I say all of this at the risk of being called a conservative, but I am certainly not that. We are not building sustainable solutions. Are we, as a government, simply “buying" our way out of failure only to feel the full brunt at some point down the line? My concern is that Obama might become the Jimmy Carter of the 21st century. Jimmy Carter came into office when inflation and interest rates began to skyrocket. While he is one of the greatest statesmen of our time – he did bring together Sadat and Begin to create a peace accord which stands today between Egypt and Israel – he ignored the economy during his presidency and, as a result, gave us only 8 years of a democratic presidency during the last 28 years. If Obama is not on top of this economic crisis, and he is unable to make it over that last wave – think of The Perfect Storm and that very last wave which sank the Andrea Gail – and this will likely usher in conservative leadership for another three decades. I did not like Ronald Reagan at all, but he did say one thing which remains as true today during the presidential candidacy debates with Jimmy Carter – “It’s the economy!”

Americans have put up with two simultaneous wars and elected the first minority candidate to the presidency, a progressive who represents a real chance for change, but once the middle class of America fails economically they will vote for anyone who promises to get them out of the morass. While Obama inherited a nasty mess from George W. Bush who will likely go down in history as our worst president, he may be the next Jimmy Carter and some nameless Republican will ride in on a white horse to save the day.

I travel all over the world and the United States, and see a lot of roads with potholes which need fixing. Whoever resolves the financial crisis must remember to design and implement a water diversion solution.

19 June 2009

The Twitter Oxymoron: Isolated Connectedness

I was on assignment in Albania for 3 months at the end of 2008. I had been to Albania a number of times before, so it was not new to me. My assignment was an extension of the work I had done in neighbouring countries such as Macedonia and Montenegro related to telecommunications. While I was technically assigned to work within the Ministry of Education I was, in actuality working for the benefit of the Deputy Prime Minister and his boss. The goal was to design an approach to provide 2800 schools with Internet access, and determining the best model to accomplish this goal. Unfortunately for me, the assignment was not going well for a number of reasons most of which were out of my control. I found myself 6 time zones away from the East Coast and all alone. I decided to break my sour mood by writing stories about Albania and tweeting them to my Twitter group of about 500 people. I tried not to let on how bad things were going, but I found solace in being connected to a group of people for whom I could post stories about my everyday life in Albania -- after all, not many people get to Albania. I did not receive any return tweets so I wrote a specific tweet out of sheer desperation basically stating that tweeting was like the tree which falls in a forest when no one is there to see it fall. I felt alone in Albania and I was using Twitter as a wall against which I could throw my observations but no one responded. The following day there were at least 15 messages awaiting me letting me know that my tweets were being received and that I should continue to share my stories and pictures from Albania. While it didn't make my job any easier, it did replenish some of my optimism and spirit.

Since returning from Albania I have met some of those people with whom I share a Twitter bond. I enjoy meeting people who I either follow, or follow me. But here is an observation about Twitter and Facebook. When I was in Albania, my use of Twitter did not come at the price of not spending time with someone in the flesh -- someone with whom I have a real interactive face to face relationship. On the other hand, when I use Twitter in the United States is does mean that I am not interacting with the people around me and that is a choice that can bring with it unintended consequences. I fully admit that I love Twitter, and I use Twitter every day and worse, I feel a sense of loss when I am not posting a message, or even more, every single day. I love finding articles and sharing them within my group on Twitter and Facebook plus I love writing blogs of all lengths. The truth of the matter is that I find it difficult to reconcile the time commitment I give to all of this. I am keenly aware of how Twitter is playing a significant role in making people aware of the riots in Iran; the earthquakes in China and Italy; the improvement it brings to many businesses, NGOs and governments. I can honestly say that I get “it” but it is no doubt that unless we make a living at "selling" social media solutions or we simply have nothing more urgent in our lives then we must stipulate to the fact that Twitter isolates us just as much as it connects us.

A few weeks ago I was sitting in the back of the auditorium listening to a political process at my daughter's school. The candidates for class president and vice president were making their stump speeches which shared many of the same desires. They all spoke about how they would like to have a bit more time each day to spend with their classmates. They wanted to accomplish this by extending the lunch period by 15 minutes and the end of school by 15 minutes. Each candidate also wanted students to be able to use their phones during lunch, and listen to their Ipods during lunch and the 5 minute period between each class. I was struck by the incongruity of their desires -- they want more time to be social yet, at the same time, they want to be able to use the tools which would isolate them from each other. It is fortunate that the school is unlikely to change its ways and acquiesce to the "demands" of the rising 8th graders. I don't want my daughter to be isolated from the children around her. She needs that social interaction in order to become a more mature and loving person. It is interesting to see how technology is used by young, and old, to distract both from social interaction.

I am writing this passage because I had the extreme pleasure of listening to a presentation made at the 140 Character Conference by Laura Fitton (@Pistachio), founder, oneforty inc. and co-author of Twitter for Dummies. Pistachio was one of the first people I followed and she shared with us a very compelling story about her love affair with Twitter. She recounted that she went through some very difficult times and that her Twitter friends provided comfort to her during three very difficult weeks in her life. It was then that I was struck by the incongruity of Twitter. She found solace from her Twitter mates, some who even came to her and lent her support. But what did Pistachio give up in order to develop those relationships with people near and far? I intend no slight to Pistachio at all, I am just trying to make a point about Twitter specifically, and technology in general that it creates the oxymoron of isolated connectedness. I am as guilty as anyone else who spends time on social networking sites, perhaps even more given the extensiveness of my participation. Just other day my son was sitting next to me using his laptop to access Facebook as I was using mine to access Twitter. Am I a bad influence? Am I a neglectful father? I think that the next time I find myself doing this I will close my computer and see whether the two of us can actually communicate in real time rather than through emails and IMs.

08 June 2009

When "Friends" are Forever

I was driving my car running some things through my head, one of which was an informational dump from someone I knew 35 years ago. I was so intent on parsing it through my brain that I turned off the radio, closed the windows, turned on the AC and just thought about what she had done, in a single message, and what it made me realise. We live in a moment in time when it is possible for us, those who are over 40 to reconnect with anyone we ever knew if they have left some type of cyber-trail. What makes this so unique, is that our children will not have an issue with this because they leave bread crumbs everywhere they go and it is not an oddity for them to be fully connected to people around them be they friends, foes or otherwise. I located an old friend just today who used to fly me around the San Francisco region in a Cessna 150 as long as we split the cost of aviation fuel which was all of $3.50 at the time per flight. I asked her to friend me and the jury is still out on whether she will friend me back. So I live with the anxiousness of whether she will, and then wonder what I do next. How does one go about bridging a 33 year gap and then add to it that we were more than just friendly acquaintances – I am left totally discombobulated. Will she wonder whether I am trying to reconnect with her? What will her husband think if she has a husband? Will my first message be "So Anthea, what's been happening since the last time we flew to Monterey Bay?

I pity people who have accounts on all the various social media sites because they are in constant discovery of "new" old friends who may, or may not connect with them. So as I was driving, I was thinking about the note from Joanne detailing what has happened to her life since we last saw each other and said our seemingly last goodbye. She was able to distill her life into four very neatly ordered paragraphs covering her parents, marriage, children and professional life. Oh, and a final note saying "I am an obnoxious know-it-all, but I think I was like that even when you knew me." So now what? Once you open yourself up to another person online, do you simply dump your life details and move on to the next person? Do you meet them somewhere for lunch or dinner? Do you aggregate the demand and set up a reunion type event for multiple people? Who writes the playbook about this kind of stuff? What is proper etiquette?

Back to my children who will, of course make non-cyber based friends, but it is more likely than not that they will remain cyber-connected with no end in sight as long as Facebook et al remains a vital application. What happens if Facebook suddenly dies, and with it we lose all those cyber-based connections? While that seems unimaginable, old technology is constantly displaced by new killer apps. Someday the IPhone will seem as crude as those cell phones we see in movies from the 1980s. When I graduated high school during ancient times relationships ended, that was it! We went off to college, at least I did, and made new friends, and when college was over, I went to graduate school and made new friends leaving behind the old. I left graduate school and moved overseas and made new friends. Along the way there were people I really missed, but life was, at least to me, a process of moving forward and never looking back. Facebook, Myspace, Linkedin, Google, and an entire cacophony of cyber-tools make it so one never ever really has to leave anyone behind. It used to be expensive to make a telephone call and reconnect but now we have Skype and you can reach anyone anywhere for virtually no cost at all. We live in a connected world except for those who eshew technology - the luddites.

The fact is that our children, let's say people 30 and under, have lived in a world where computers and connectivity and the Internet have been as ubiquitous as bicycles, walking to school and writing letters and mailing them were to us. Remember what we thought of someone whose family didn't own a TV set? They were odd and more than likely shunned, or at the least considered strange. No child today between the age of 10 and 30 can really be without a computer because without the requisite technological skills, they will be held back professionally. So my generation is the last one which is able to use the excuse that we didn't grow up with a computer and society takes pity on us. I honestly hear the following within IT circles - "just wait 10 years and they will all be gone." When we are all gone, and out of the game, everyone will know how to use a computer, understand social media, be able to remain connected with every single person they have met throughout their lives but will they be able to communicate on a human level? I can see the future, "Have my bot contact your bot and schedule a date for when we can meet."

In closing this discussion, let me make something perfectly clear. I love the ability to reconnect with people from my past. I have been very fortunate in reconnecting with people who really played a significant role in the past. My concern is what happens to the 90 percent of people who friend you and did not play a significant role in your past. What do you say to those people, the ones who played a minor walk on role in your life so many years ago? Do you not accept their offer of "friending" on Facebook? Do you simply leave them hanging? As someone who was an outsider way back then I tend to accept every invite because one can never have too many friends in a cyber world.

22 May 2009

Twitadvocacy and Moe's Southwestern Grill

It started when I ate at Moe's SouthWestern Grill for the first time. I noticed that by the end of the meal we had a baseball size collection of aluminum foil used to cover each of the items we purchased. My son was playing with it and we threw it across the table a couple of times. It came time to leave Moes and we disposed of the other garbage and then the foil baseball. I decided that I liked Moe's because it was good food, it was inexpensive, and I was able to have my kind of burrito without all the mess which usually accompanies a more traditional burrito. We went back, and once again we were left with a ball of foil and I decided to call Moe's corporate headquarters and ask them about their recycling policies. I went to their website and found out that Moe's is a franchise operation, I figured that out actually before seeing the site, but my suspicions were validated. I called once and left a message. I called the next day and left a message. I called a third time and spoke with a woman who said that she had never been asked to respond to a question about recycling and would call me back. She never did.

I went to Moe's several times after calling and then I decided to jump into action using Twitter as my advocacy tool. I established a new Twitter account @MoesSouthWest and used the Moes logo as my background and a different Moe's logo for my avatar. I then type a few messages using the best hash tags such as #moes and #recycle and finally #obama just in case. I used my regular account to do similar tweets and then also made a point of explaining this action on Facebook. I used an excellent programme called Hootsuite which allows you to write tweets from one, or more accounts, at the same time. Twitter and Hootsuite really helped me in my effort to make a point about the waste of tinfoil and at the same time ask people to either leave the foil on top of the garbage can or take it home and recycle it.

In less than 24 hours I received a Twitter friend request from Dan Barash • Director, Research & Development, Moe's Southwest Grill. After accepting his invite, he did a direct message to me saying that he wanted to speak with me. We connected on the phone and he spent the next 30 minutes telling me about how he is the person responsible for planning green packaging for the Moe's food line. He told me that he contacted the PR folks at Moe's to let them know about my messages and told them that he would reach out to me in Twitter.

Dan explained that since they are a franchise centric operation that it would take time before green is adopted throughout all of the stores. Each store must decide how to provision its offerings and those are purchased from Moe's corporate operations. The cost of going green would add to the bottom line which means that each store has to choose to either “eat the costs” for going green or raise the prices to cover the costs. The latter option seems more likely, but it is a difficult balance right now given the present economy. Moe's does provide a low cost and mostly healthy meal option for people like me who have children.

Dan Barash asked that I be patient and I said that I would be somewhat patient, but in the interim I would still tweet messages to my group asking them to “Take the Foil Home.” I said that it was unlikely that many people would follow my request and Dan disagreed saying that Twitter does have the power right now to inform people into a collective and bring about consensus.

The power of Twitter evidenced itself within 24 hours and it showed that people are using Twitter to search on very specific subjects, in the case of Dan Barash, he looks for anything related to Moes. The other element less obvious was my ability to grab the @MoesSouthWest Twitter name and use it to support my goal,