For the Week of October 10, 2005
I have been thinking a lot about second acts lately.
Part of it is my work with Voic.Us. I'm having to become a system administrator, at least part-time. I am trying to recruit a staff, some paid and some not. I'm trying to be an executive.
These are roles I never took on before. I wrote about them, I critiqued them, but I never had to play them before. And there are times when they make me tired.
There are other reasons, on my regular tech beat, for me to think of second acts. The great tech companies founded by my generation - Microsoft, Dell, Apple - are all into the second act thing these days. Apple's is highly successful, as Steve Jobs has become a consumer electronics mogul, a content gatekeeper. Microsoft's second act has not been so successful. Bill Gates keeps fiddling with the deck chairs, and in the latest fiddling a guy near my age, Jim Allchin, found himself forced into retirement.
Then there's Dell. I tried to blog about it, but Corante's Movable Type installation was going through the middle aged crazies at that moment so I lost it. (Now it's back up. Version 3.2 is Corante's Second Act.) My point was that Dell had one great idea, mass customization, and that's not working anymore. There's too much service needed on the custom side, so IBM and Linux are making inroads, while the low end is becoming all about mass production and design innovation - Dell's MP3 players are probably headed for the same trash heap as his PDAs.
The second act of the Bush family isn't looking too swift these days either. The assumptions we all grew up with, the assumptions of life and politics we have come to depend on - regardless of which side of the divide we sat on - are all blowing up in our faces.
If it seems like the whole country's gone middle-aged crazy, it has. The Baby Boom is a pig-in-the-python, demographically speaking, and at 50 I'm right in the middle of it, which means the bulk of this country is now middle-aged. The Baby Boom began in 1946, peaked around my birthday, and wound down to around 1963, when my little brother (now 42) was born. The Baby Bust followed, and colleges are now filled with "Echo Boomers" - kids born from 1983-1987 of Baby Boom parents.
The whole country has a "where do we go from here" feel to it. I sure don't want a red sports car. I'm not leaving my wife (who else would have me), and I think a lot of other Boomers feel the same way. But the old ways don't work anymore, and it's tiring looking for new ones once you're set in your ways.
But we must. Eras end, and new ways must be found.
Despite everything - despite AIDS, Vietnam, Reaganism, and all the rest - we've really had a wonderful life. This generation of Americans has been amazingly fortunate. Sacrifice is practically unknown to us.
And that's really the problem, isn't it? We have no history of sacrifice, and no appetite for it. We have always chosen the easy way out, most of us - big houses on cul de sacs, gas-guzzling SUVs, private schools and tax cuts.
My great aunt, who was very proud of her Irish-ness, used to tell us that the Irish Potato Famine was "when all the Irish had to eat was potatoes." Of course, the truth was the potatoes failed from a blight, and the Irish had nothing to eat at all. Her grandfather, John O'Donnell, had been among those who came across then, landing at Fall River in 1846. I visited his grave in 2003, a monolith nearly as tall as I am, carved into the shape of a cross, and the name O'Donnell in big letters at the bottom, with various relatives identified in small letters higher-up.
My great aunt's brother, Edmund, my grandfather, fought in World War I. I have a marker in my yard which once sat in my great aunt's yard, a metal marker with the years of the conflict, a large R.I., and a place for a flag to be placed each Veteran's Day (known during his lifetime as Armistice Day). Edmund O'Donnell died at age 27, in 1927, of kidney failure, caused most likely by the gas he inhaled as a G.I. My mom has only a few memories of him, but from the portrait in my dining room I look like him, in the face, only he had huge, strong hands, the kind meant for hard, physical labor.
The point is that many generations of Americans slaved their lives away so I could have it all. And I have. I went to great public schools, and a great private university. I have a home and a car and a wife who is better-than-I-deserve, plus two kids who get better every day, in every way.
This is not the way life is supposed to be. This is a dream.
For most people these last 50 years have been one horror after another. Latin America has suffered generations of military dictators, drug wars, and grinding poverty. Europe lived through the Cold War. Asia only recently began coming out of poverty, so all the wonders we take for granted are brand-new to billions of people. And then there's Africa, where the median age says that, if you were born when I was, you're dead by now.
We of America's Baby Boom don't know sacrifice. We don't "do" sacrifice. We took from our parents and leave bills for our kids.
The mid-life crises of previous generations have all been about living a little more today.
Our mid-life crisis should be about giving, about making, about paying back, and about (finally) growing up.
What we most need to find, among ourselves and our children, are grown-ups. Grown-ups who will call us to sacrifice, who will inspire trust, who have seen the abyss and know that you can survive going part-way down, if you're strong, and demand strength from yourself.
Most who analyze the recent hurricanes emphasize either the damage to oil, or to the sybaritic lifestyle of New Orleans, filled with gays, and drunks, and cabbies with New York accents.
I think instead of casinos. I think of the Mayor of Biloxi, crying to get his casinos reopened quickly, because Mississippi depends on casinos. Louisiana is nearly as dependent. I sometimes call the states "Pottersville" and "West Pottersville," after the nightmare town without George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life."
I have deep memories of those places. On trips between here and Texas, when driving alone, I deliberately stopped at some of the casinos, to see what was inside. I stopped in Lake Charles, in Baton Rouge, in New Orleans, Gulfport and Biloxi. What I mainly saw there were older people, retirees in their 60s and 70s, smoking like chimneys, shoving quarters into slots, seldom smiling. It was the one demographic Democrats of this era never undestood, the "Casino Elderly," playing at life with the house's money.
And now Mississippi demands tax benefits to open it all up again?
These are conservative areas, very conservative, very Republican. They may go to church Sunday morning, but many spend the rest of their weeks in those casinos. They're the builders, the employees, the beneficiaries, but also, to a large extent, the players. Want some sin to condemn?
But I can't condemn it. I really can't. I only know we can't afford it anymore, any of it. The time has come for all of us to step away from the fruit machines and into the light, to live, really live, a little, in the squalor, and sacrifice for one another before we die.
My great aunt did know the truth, you know. The potato famine wasn't when the Irish just had potatoes. It was when they made the great leap into the unknown. Some of them actually landed, on their feet, and worked hard the rest of their lives, so that we might live.
Leaping is living. Sitting is dieing.
I've got a new job. I'm now editor of Atlanta voic.us, a Web start-up aimed at building a community Web platform with a real business model. I'm also all alone in writing the Open Source Blog for ZDNet. (When this started there were three of us.)
My last non-fiction book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards. Write me for a PDF copy of my latest novel, "Baptists are for Dunking."
On my Mooreslore blog I've written a new novel, "The Chinese Century." It's a story told in real-time, with real characters, but entirely fictional, dealing with the consequences of the falling dollar. I'm beginning a sequal, "American Diaspora," exploring the themes of the first book but with more fictional characters. It's a true alternate history, but set in the present day.
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Best of the Week
Funding effective long-term research -- cutting-edge stuff that helps your bottom line -- is where nearly every company falls down. So Google has a different idea, partner with someone who is already doing cutting-edge research, but who is hard-up for cash. Specifically, NASA.
Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Lab fame, still trying to remain relevant, has announced a program called One Laptop Per Child, which wants to mass produce fully-loaded Linux laptops for schoolchildren in the dveloping world.
The best way to kill a promising technology is to argue about it in standards bodies.
Howard Dean represented reform in 2004, and if he doesn't represent it in 2005 then his party will stand for nothing, and deserve its own destruction.
Palm has been faltering for years.
Young people are essential to technology because they approach problems without preconceptions. Their new eyes often find solutions where older eyes find nothing but problems.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a reporter is to become dependent on press releases. When you do that, you're telling the story the vendors want you to tell. And you're ignoring the story the vendors want ignored.
Crossing the network boundary requires more than a cost-benefit analysis. It also requires a trust-benefit analysis.
Last week's tirade by Motorola CEO Ed Zander, set alongside the nasty noises about Apple from music publishers , Microsoft's noise about its entry into the market and iSuppli's autopsy of the iPod Nano design all point to one salient point. Apple's friends are foreign.
The company now finds itself fighting a rear-guard action by former CEO Brad Greenspan, who wants to buy a controlling interest for more than Murdoch's paying.
The American Diaspora
ZDNet Open Source
Clued-in are Peruvian legislators who passed a pro open source bill last week. At least they'll get attention.
Clueless is the continuing battle between HD-DVD and BluRay which threatens the same hell as the UWB struggle.
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