Star Wars: A Social Commentary

If you’re going to make a prequel to the most iconic, imitated and merchandized movie in modern American culture, you’ve got some pretty heavy decisions to make before doing it.

If you decide to make that prequel end at pretty much the exact moment that the iconic movie begins, and 40 years have passed since you stopped filming the first one, then you’ve got some more decisions to make. And some problems to solve too. Like making people dead or 40 years since aged appear to be neither. Or making spaceships move and sound the same even though special effects technology has been reinvented several dozen times over. I’ll spare you the spoilers. They did just fine with both of those. And as a lunatic Star Wars geek since long before it was cool to be a lunatic Star Wars geek, I loved every minute of it.

I realized something about halfway through my second viewing of it though. Something that you would probably miss, unless you were sitting next to a curious seven year old who got his first WIFI enabled iPad when he was three. It occurred to me, when he leaned over and in his extra loud whisper voice asked, as the heros of the movie were hatching their plan to get their hands on a society saving piece of data, “why don’t they just download it from the cloud?” And there it was. Somewhere between a mouthful of popcorn and a draw on my 90 ounce diet coke, it occurred to me that the fantastic Star Wars drama Rogue One, was an accidental social commentary on the great stagnation of our times.

Chances are, you’re going to need me to unpack that one a bit.

One of the fun decisions that the makers of Rogue One made, very effectively so, is to cinematically keep true to the futuristic technology levels shown in the first Star Wars movie. In the 40 year old Star Wars, there were space ships and light speed travel and special reactors powering things. They had vehicles that levitated and machines that harvested moisture from the atmosphere. There were no wheels inefficiently conquering surface friction on just about anything. Nothing appeared to be burning anything to propel it. And there were robots everywhere with real artificial intelligence to the extent that they had their own limited free will and personalities. In almost every way, it was a glimpse into the far distant future. And what 1977 would have you believe, in a way that recreating it in 2016 makes painfully obvious, is that fantasy future is powered by computer technology that would have been nearly obsolete by about 1995. screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-7-59-36-am

About the same time that the original Star Wars was being filmed in the mid seventies, Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel made his proclamation that would be referred to ever since as Moore’s Law. Moore claimed that computing capability would double every 18 months. Over the last few decades, his assessment has been correct. In the 60’s we sent men 240 thousand miles to the moon and back on a rocket designed to go even further, Mars perhaps, using a navigating computer with 265 thousand times less memory than my Iphone. screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-5-58-30-pmWhich means even a decade or so later when Star Wars came out, what we saw on the screen, cd ROMs with secret plans, buttons instead of touch screens, vacuum tube televisions and data ports you had to plug a giant robot phallus into to transfer info, looked futuristic. Because it was. But when we had to duplicate it and pretend it still was forty years later, it looked, well, kind of silly. 

So what right? Clearly I spend too much time thinking about what things say about us as a society. That’s entirely true. But consider this. In 1969, we were conducting space travel and flying super sonic passenger flights. We had no WIFI or even internet, almost no data storage or computing capacity and nothing that resembled the cloud. Today, my 11 year old operates an iPhone hundreds of thousands of times more powerful than anything we had then, and we haven’t flown super-sonic passenger flight in 13 years. And America is no longer capable of manned space flight. What space flight is happening, is limited to low earth orbit. Because over the last 40 years, the world of bits (computers) hasn’t just outpaced the world of atoms (everything else), they’re no longer even headed in the same direction.

But why?

There’s a few thousand pages you could put into that question alone. But I’ll hopefully leave you wanting more instead. You could take the path that Paypal founder, Facebook Board member and venture capital investor Peter Thiel takes. Thiel who famously critiqued Silicon Valley’s output by saying,”We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” believes that the barriers to entry for industries like energy and automobiles are too high because of things like regulation and a failing education system and a lazy baby boomer generation that rode the coat tails of their parents to a comfy life with no problems to solve. Thiel believes that we have deep societal and government structure flaws that we could overcome, if we get it together to get it moving again. Which is probably why he spoke at the Republican National Convention.

Or you could listen to economist and author Tyler Cowen who takes another spin on it. He thinks we’re pretty much done innovating, for awhile, as an American species. We’ve picked all the “low hanging fruit” over the last 400 years or so, with free land, immigrant labor and technology, now it’s time for it to slow down. And it has.

So who’s right? Thiel? Cowen? I don’t know. As it tends to be with massive systems discussions like the economics of innovation, it’s complicated. But I like to put my mental energy into a space that it’s likely Cowen would find silly and optimistic. It sounds like this. There was a lot of money made in Silicon Valley over the last few decades connecting the world and creating a future that, from a consumer software and electronics perspective outpaced even the great creative mind of George Lucas. And now some of that money is going towards combining the first principles of Silicon Valley-lean agile start up aggression- with old dinosaur industries like automobiles and aerospace. Elon Musk is launching rockets at Space X, putting solar power on houses with Solar City and building electric cars and charging stations at Tesla. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is stealing Musk’s employees to come work for his own space company Blue Origin. And Google is making cars that drive themselves.

The point is this. I don’t know if Cowen or Thiel are right. It doesn’t really matter. Because it’s moving again. And the types of people moving it appear to have the resources to get it moving for real. And our job, as a people, is to expect it to keep moving. And to see the value in progress and innovation beyond things that make our lives easier. It was easy when we had no choice, when we needed to make rockets and technology to keep up with Russia and stave off nuclear annihilation. Without that push we’ve lost a bit of the oomph though. But we need it back. And quickly. 2.7 billion industrialized Asians are going to happen over night. And if we do it with last century’s energy and transportation technology, it’s just another type of annihilation.

It’s time to start seeing the world like a seven year old who looks at a problem and asks with the great curiosity and wonder, “why don’t they just use the cloud?”  In 1977, that was a crazy idea, even for the future. But as Google founder Larry Page said, who was once told the idea of translating all the books in the world into data was crazy, “Good ideas are always crazy, until they’re not.”

And right now, that guy and his buddy Elon are building a zero emission car that drives itself. Which sounds crazy right?

Until the world needs it. Until it doesn’t.



American Vision: Revised Edition

My mother’s favorite poet was Robert Frost. She kept a book of his poems with illustrations on our old wooden bookshelf in the living room of our house in New Jersey. There were a handful of books on that bookshelf that I would pull down and thumb through from time to time. One was a compilation of photographs of Lincoln. Another was an illustrated account of the Kennedy assassination. Another was the story of our accomplishment of space flight. They were huge books, about half the size of me with colorful pictures, worn dust jackets and coffee stains. She’d gotten them in college in the 60’s. They sat on that shelf for decades. Some of them are still there, though she’s long since passed.

Stopping by Woods On a Snowy Evening By Robert Frost

I remember the picture of a tree on the page with Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. It looked like the tree in my front yard. I would read that poem over and over again. There was something about the end of it that just stuck in my head. The part about the woods, “lovely dark and deep.” And the part about life, “miles to go before I sleep”, twice said.  There was beauty in that described moment of peace. And the realization that it was fragile and fleeting and that there was work ahead that made it more so. One last breath of fog in the cold night air while your feet stay still in the snow. And then it’s back to the business of life. Less beautiful. More permanent.

Life moves on. The future is our only constant. And no matter how beautiful or still or comfortable the peace of now might be, you cannot stay in it. The instant you realize it is the now you’re experiencing, it becomes the past. And you must move on. There’s work to be done.

Elections aren’t what make democracy great. They are a messy, imperfect means to an end. Accountability is what makes democracy great. And elections are the best measure of that accountability that we have to do that thing that is so hard to do. Since the days when we wandered out of the woods and onto the planes and further still over the horizon, the process of choosing who we allow to leads us has been hard, costly and not always for the best. The way we do it in America has yielded strong outcomes for centuries though. But it is not what makes us great. The greatness comes in between. After we choose. After we begin our journey again. We’ve got quite a bit of road ahead of us to cover. We’ve got miles to go. No sleep in sight.

There is a world beyond our current myopic focus. Our politics or the Jihad of a small group of foreign, hateful, religious zealots have distracted us. The world is about to remind us that those things weren’t quite the magnitude of threat we’ve faced in the past. What lies ahead, the rhetorical promise of a new arms race and the rise of an eastern power with enough resources to dominate the world for centuries, are far more serious threats. Threats that will force us to remember a time when Russian field commanders had nuclear weapons release authority for the payloads being placed in Cuba, 90 miles from our shores. Or when global imperial powers had the capacity to cripple our military with equal or greater military might of their own. And nothing the last president did, or the one before him or the next one is at fault. It’s the ebb and flow of a global species in which there is rarely a singular power that remains singular for very long.

It’s time to pick our heads up. There are sails on the horizon. And we’ve got work to do.

It’s been 45 days since the American people elected Donald J. Trump president. And it’s another 30 until he is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States of America. We’ve had enough time to reflect on what the election says about us. And what it says about the state of our political discourse. And what it says about our culture. We’ve taken our deep breath in the cold dark woods. And it’s time to move on. And it’s time to move past the what and why’s of what happened. It’s time to ask the better question. What do we want from a Donald  J. Trump presidency? What do we want for America? The answer is pretty straight forward.

I don’t want him to fail. I don’t want him to be the disaster that would prove secretly delightful to those of us who so strongly opposed his candidacy. That justification can only come with four years of failure. Four years of worse outcomes for the American people. Four years of a weaker country amidst the backdrop of a rising China and a belligerent Russia. I don’t want that and neither should you. What I want out of a Trump presidency is the same thing I would want out of any presidency. Success.

Success is a weak word. It hasn’t done the work. The work of success begins with a narrow vision of what right looks like in the end. And if you don’t have one for America, then you haven’t done the work.  And you don’t know anything about the effectiveness of her direction. And if your vision is 1950’s American, it’s a bad one. Success starts with a vision. So I’ll share with you mine. Because a great 21st century America needs to start moving forward in earnest. A great 21st Century America accomplishes the following, no matter who sits in the oval office or what ideas they have about America and her people:

  • 25 Million new jobs created over the next ten years. China is on the hook for ten million a year. They’re still in catch up mode. We can win with a quarter of that.
  • Balance the federal budget by 2030. If you refuse to accept any other outcome, it can be done. But you are going to have to re-define your reality of taxation and government services. If you can’t, your future is already decidedly less great.
  • Eliminate fossil fuels within 75 years. Not through regulation. Through innovation and a better way. 100 years from now people need to laugh at their grandparents for digging dead things up from the ground and burning them for power. Pay attention to what Elon Musk is doing. And root for him to succeed.
  • A complete overhaul to modernize American infrastructure by 2025. I don’t mean repair. I don’t mean upgrade. I mean build again. Better, more innovative, more American. We win with better things and a better way of life.
  • Manned space flight to Mars by 2035. If it sounds silly, then I’d ask you what happens when a people reach their ceiling? They atrophy, or they blast through it. I’m for the latter. Again, watch Musk.
  • Put science, treatment and doctors back at the center of American healthcare. Get shareholders out of the game. Do that in any sustainable way possible.

That’s not an exhaustive list. You could probably find other things. But it’s a start. And we have to start. That’s what a vision looks and sounds like. That’s what making 21st century America great looks like.  It’s more than a red hat and a snappy saying. It’s hard work.

There’s something refreshing about turning away from the messy footprints behind us that got us where we are and turning towards a goal. It’s cathartic. Because you spend time thinking about what you want. So much of American mind-space for the last 18 months has been focused on what we don’t want. It’s time to move on. And move forward.

If you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who the president elect alienated with his campaign rhetoric or personal behavior, I’m not going to ask you to just get over it. But I am asking you to have a vision for what you want. Not simply what you don’t. And it’s entirely fair to assume that in order to realize that vision, it’s mandatory to build some foundation of unity where Americans aren’t living in fear of each other or the government. And if that can’t be done with Mr. Trump, then step one on the vision, is choosing a new leader. So be watchful. We are a nation of people. But we are a government of laws-laws that exist for the betterment of our people. No one is above them. We didn’t elect a king. Only a president.

It’s time to get going now. Feet moving over the snow again…miles to go before we sleep. Miles to go before we sleep.

The Mandatory Future

Once, I was the AUXO. That’s what people called me and that’s what I answered to. It’s one of the fun quirks of serving as a naval officer on a war ship. People just call you what you are instead of who you are. And I was the Auxiliaries Engineering Division Officer on a guided missile destroyer. The Auxiliaries Engineering Division-“A Gang” for short, owned just about every part of engineering equipment on the ship that didn’t actually turn the shaft. Which means my team had to know how to operate, maintain and repair just about anything from industrial grade maritime air conditioners to hydraulic steering units to the toasters in the galley. And they had to do it well, like people’s lives and the national interests of America depended on it. Because they did.

As the officer in charge, I never looked at my enlisted men, Enginemen by trade, as a bunch of people who wished they were me. They didn’t. I never thought that I had succeeded and they hadn’t and that’s why I was where I was, in charge, and they were where they were, doing damn hard work. It wasn’t because I was particularly enlightened as a 23 year old ensign. I simply understood an important truth. That their job mattered. And it was difficult. And that I probably couldn’t do it. I never told them how to fix something. I just made sure that they were resourced and focused enough to be the kind of group that fixed things right. That squared just fine with them. Because that’s all they ever wanted. No more. No less.

Working class America doesn’t want to be management class or professional class or any other class either. Like my team, they want to work. They’re not poor. And they’re not unsuccessful. And they want to continue to be the backbone of our country. They want to continue to be the most productive, efficient and effective group of humans that has ever gathered. They don’t wish they were me, peering out of my Silicon Valley tech firm office surrounded by walls of white boards with “big thoughts” on them. And they don’t want to be “in charge” either. We managers are stiffs. And we don’t know how to do anything useful. And we don’t have any value unless we’re supporting them in doing what they want to do-build and maintain and fix America. It is perhaps the purest, most honorable desire a human can have: to work hard at important work.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis

We’re not going back to making things the way we used to though. We’re not going to employ millions digging holes in the earth or sowing and reaping the harvest or rolling out the last century’s modes of transportation. Those days are gone. We’ve found other ways to make money. We’ve grown finance and healthcare and insurance and real estate and business. We’re about to retire an entire generation that saw their nation grow in strength and their economy boom for almost every year of their life. Their legacy will be fifty years where the only thing that was built was the computer technology industry, by a handful of men, in a small town in Northern California.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analyis

There’s good news though, for those who want to work hard at important work again, even if it doesn’t sound like it. That good news is that we’re in a whole heap of trouble again. And by we, I mean planet Earth. China and India and the rest of the developing world are trying to make their world look like ours. And that’s a problem. That’s 2.5 billion people moving from 18th century American technology and resource needs to modern America. China appears to be interested in doing it overnight. That’s 2.5 billion people worth of cars burning gasoline, power plants burning coal and air conditioners busting power grids. It won’t work. And they don’t care because it won’t be them that runs out of the resources. And there’s only one way to stop it.

21st century America needs to look a lot more like what the people of 20th century America thought it would look like when we went from the first manned flight to leaving the planet and landing humans on the moon and flying back in a short enough span for one person to have seen both with their own eyes. From 1830, to 1930, we went from horseback and drawn carriage to flight sophisticated enough to use in war. Now, nearly 90 years later, most of mankind is still using some form of the same vehicles today that they used then, burning the same fuel. That life, won’t scale. And it’s not because I’m a tree hugging liberal who cares too much about the environment. It’s because of math. And because the nation that will win the next two hundred years is the one that figures out how make power without burning things. That’s the problem. And it’s not an optional one. That’s the good news.

Putting our strong working class men and women back at the center of what we do and who we are as a country means that we’re going to have to start building and making and maintaining things that don’t exist yet, not last century’s things or the things other places have figured out how to build at scale for low cost. When we do, America will once again be tangibly stronger, with better things and a more effective way to live than anyone else. That’s what makes a people great, what they do, not how they feel.

And if you can’t imagine a future where we aren’t burning things to make our power, than you can’t imagine the mandatory future. And if that’s because of your political or financial interests, then you need to go. That’s the swamp I want drained. Mr. Trump, if you’re listening, put your energy and your ego behind driving the change that wins the race for a different power source and you will be remembered for generations as the man who won the 21st century for America. History forgives quite a bit in exchange for outcomes like that.

If any of my three boys wants to throw on the blue coveralls and get to work turning wrenches and solving problems by fixing material things that actually exist, I’ll be damn proud. But if they choose to enter the professional life, the “management class” then I want them to understand that the life my generation chased, finance and law and computer innovation, won’t change the world the way our future needs it to. If they want to change the world, they need to get back to work in fields like engineering and science that enable greatness. Because if the best and brightest of our young leaders keep growing up thinking that they want to get into Wall Street or be a lawyer or even break into crowded Silicon Valley to figure out the next great app that makes our lives nominally easier, then we’re in trouble. Because we’ve decided once again, to stop trying to solve new problems and focused instead on making more money solving old ones.

Fifty years from now if we are a culture of bankers and business managers, then we’ve failed. Banking and management are enablers to greatness. They aren’t the greatness. The greatness that is America is the genius to understand how to solve real problems and the strong back to solve them. We are a nation that makes things.

Of Men and Ideas

Listen to the people in your world that vigorously disagree with you. Don’t try to change their mind. Don’t argue with them. Not yet. Not until you’ve listened. Just listen and seek to understand.

It’s a rare and difficult principle to maintain. I do try to get outside the echo chambers that agree with me as much as I can. But sometimes, I don’t know I’m in one until it’s too late. Recently, around October 8th maybe, I realized that I’d been in one for quite a while. It was one that told me that Donald Trump was personally too despicable to be president of the United States of America. Clearly I was wrong. Because I didn’t do that thing I just said to do. I didn’t seek to understand. I saw the man. And I dismissed him, with good cause to be fair. But I never dug down deep into understanding Trump-ism. I fought the man, never the idea. And that’s a problem.

So what is Trump-ism?

You can find the answer wedged somewhere between Scott Baio and Jerry Fallwell Jr. telling Yo Mama jokes at the Republican National Convention this year. A man named Peter Thiel spoke. Thiel is a billionaire Silicon Valley businessman who is one of the few men in the world who have founded multiple billion dollar corporations. He sits on the board of directors for Facebook. He counts people like Elon Musk as his partners and peers. And if there’s a Mount Rushmore of the modern “dot com” business ecosystem, Thiel is on it. You could write ten thousand words on what’s right and wrong with Thiel and still not be done. You could write another ten thousand on why he doesn’t fit any molds that we like to put people in. I’m not going to do that here. But I’m familiar with him. And as someone who works in the tech world and moves in the Silicon Valley circles, I can get you pretty far with a few sentences.

Peter Thiel has had success listening to what everyone is saying and doing, and going and finding something else, building it before anyone else does and winning before there is competition. He asks aloud in his books and speeches, and urges us to ask ourselves, what truth do you believe, that almost no one else does? It’s a hell of a question, especially in business. He is, after all, Silicon Valley’s contrarian. If you want to know more about him, Google him. There’s loads of stuff, much of it ugly and negative. But as far as this discussion goes, that stuff, is noise. Because it’s fighting the man again, not the idea. His ideas, though, are at the emotional center of Trump-ism, whether or not he ever intended them to be. They can be summed up in two Peter Thiel quotes:

“For a long time our elites have been in the habit of denying difficult realities. That’s how bubbles form.” Thiel is the anti-bubble.


People incorrectly believe that “If you don’t conform (to diversity), then you don’t count as diverse. No matter what your background”

I love it.

When I read those quotes as a business leader and someone who has worked on my own start-up, I get pretty fired up. It evokes emotion. It stimulates me. They are powerful words that speak directly to the psyche of change makers-people who want to drive to a better tomorrow. And when I posted those quotes and his name on my Facebook page without commentary, I got a very heavy dose of feedback about Thiel being a white nationalist and an anti-semite and a rape apologist and an opponent of the free press. All of which may be true. I don’t know. I’ve never been in the same room with the man. But none of the dissenting commentary addressed the ideas he had. Because in a vacuum, they are ideas that are nearly impossible to discredit.

We don’t live in a vacuum though. And right now, those words are being spoken in the Trump-ist echo chamber with great excitement.

So what exactly is that truth Trump-ists believe that no one else does? Except all other Tump-ists of course. Steve Bannon, chairman of Breitbart News and recently appointed chief strategist of Donald Trump’s administration can help explain it. Now, it’s possible that hearing the words Steve Bannon evokes a blinding rage in you and a need to spout out a laundry list of grievances about white supremacy, misogyny and maybe even a twenty year old arrest report for domestic violence. And that’s fine. But realize, you’re doing it again. That’s the man. The man is easy to beat. The idea, well, that’s another thing all together.

So here’s the idea in his words.

America is in “a crisis both of capitalism and the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian west in our beliefs.”

Bannon says that crony capitalism and globalization have eroded the stability of our country and weakened us to the point of crisis. Whether or not he believes it matters far less then what it means. Thiel and Bannon are Trump-ism. They form a combination of contrarian, anti-elite non-conformists, conforming together behind the belief that the key to restoring righteous capitalism is a focus on the return to a Judeo-Christian led world.

If not…it’s going to be China for a hundred years…

That’s the idea. And it comes in the form or a red hat, and a slogan.

It’s powerful idea. And it represents one side of the modern political argument in America today. You couldn’t have sent a worse champion than Hillary Clinton to strike it down if you tried. She was perfect if you were fighting the man. But she wasn’t fighting the man. She was fighting the idea. And she was powerless against it. Perhaps if we had taken the time to understand the idea, we may have thought differently. Perhaps that’s why the Democratic National Committee is in ruins, when most of us thought that it was the Republicans on the edge of oblivion.

That doesn’t mean Trump-ism is right though. In fact I believe it’s quite wrong. But it took a little digging and understanding to get there for me. And in order to do that, you have to be willing to divorce the ideas from the men saying them, especially since some of those men are only saying those ideas because they know they are the ideas that work right now. Because the ideas are not wrong because of the men saying them. The ideas, by themselves, on their own merit are wrong. Dangerously so. And we need to start screaming from the mountain tops why.

First, intended or not, the core argument of Trump-ism, Judeo-Christian leadership of the world, is a substantial part of the argument that white supremacist groups use to further their message. Trump-ism left off the part about racial superiority. Those groups gladly add it back in. And when you deliver the Trump-ism message, and you are willing to accept anyone who believes it, without strong condemnation of those specific groups that add racial superiority to it, it provides oxygen for them to grow and breed and start to normalize and call themselves things like “Alt Right”. And then they form groups that sound snappy like The National Policy Institute. Make no mistake about it.The National Policy Institute is a white supremacy organization. If you can’t get a couple hundred of your members in a room without a bunch of them throwing out Nazi salutes or yelling sieg heil, and the first Op-Ed on your pretty web page is about the folly of desegregation in schools, then you are a white supremacy group.

You can call yourself something else. And you can ooze into the room with lots of other dis-enfranchised people and tell them you are the same. But you aren’t. And unless the leadership of the new Republican Party denounces it and cast it out of their numbers, a dangerous political discussion is on the horizon. Because whether or not to denounce and eliminate from prominence groups that further white supremacist ideology cannot become a political debate.

Secondly, because frighteningly the first part isn’t enough, if the “Judeo-Christian” portion of your message really is the whole message, than that’s a problem. Because that’s not American. America, imperfect in her ways, has been defined by relative inclusivity. Our strength has come from differing people coming to us from places with their ideas and their drive to build something. And my opposition to Trump-ism is grounded on the belief that I’m not willing to give on that. Not because I’m full of love and togetherness and because I’m naive to those out there that want to do us harm. I’ve fought them all over the world in places you’ve probably never seen doing things you’ll probably never do. I’m not willing to give on that relative inclusivity because turning inward makes you weak. And ignoring the skills and ideas that others have, and forcing them to seek other places to have them, makes others stronger. My message of dissent is about making and keeping us strong.

It pretty simple for me.  If that big idea that you have that no one else agrees with, that Peter Thiel disruptive change the world for the better idea, is that the words penned in our Declaration of Independence or in the Bill of Rights are wrong, that all men aren’t created equal and that only some are born with liberties and the freedom to pursue their faiths, then fine, let’s have that debate. And let’s have it in earnest. The fact that middle America, my strong patriotic brothers and sisters that took up arms with me to fight Islamic fundamentalism and other ideologies that threatened our way of life appear willing to have it, hurts me. It hurts me down to my soul. Because I believed, and I still need to believe that we are better than that. And that the principles that I swore to defend with my very life didn’t only apply to me and people like me. They applied to everyone.

So let the debate begin.