Europe 2016 – Part 1

Nicole and I met shortly after I returned from a month-long stay in France, in 1997. Two friends, who I’d known since kindergarten, and I were part of a choir that toured France, and we arranged to head over about a week early so I could show them Kandern, Germany — the little village my family lived in when we spent a year in Germany. I was 14 when we lived there; my 9th grade year was spent at Black Forest Academy, a boarding school for missionary kids, where my parents worked for the year.
Of course I regaled Nic with stories of life there, and of the more recent trip, and as we grew closer, I promised her that one day I would take her to Europe.

I also promised her that I’d take her to Asia, and warned her that I fully expected my career to move me to the States at least once. We were 17, but she seemed interested in my big plans, and apparently decided she could put up with me for awhile…

19 years, two trips to Asia, and 3 jobs in 3 different States later, we finally pulled off the Europe trip part of that plan! The week prior, I had to participate in a conference in Orlando, so Nic took the opportunity to head to Ontario to get the kids settled in with Nana and Papa and visit her family. At the end of the week, temporarily free of kids and work responsibilities, we each made our way to the Detroit airport, meeting up just a couple hours before our direct flight to Paris. We took advantage of a status perk and spent those hours in relative luxury in the Delta Skyclub, sipping free wine and making sure our gadgets were all charged.

We landed in Paris early in the morning on Saturday. We were told we couldn’t check into our hotel until 2, but when we arrived mid-morning in our tiny rental car at our little lodging just outside the touristy part of town, our room was ready. By 2, we’d had a nap, unpacked a little, and were ready to explore. We had taken a bit of a gamble and pre-paid for a parking spot somewhere near Notre Dame (the directions weren’t super clear!) The spot turned out to be a small parking garage directly underneath the square in front of Notre Dame. After overcoming some communication challenges due to my rusted-beyond-repair French language skills, we secured our place with in/out privileges, and were well positioned to spend 2 days seeing the city.

20160618_122402699_iOS 20160618_134928926_iOS

We saw Notre Dame and the Louvre on day 1, and on day 2 walked across town to the Arc de Triomphe, stopping at a street side cafe to rest our feet and sip tea, then to the Eiffel Tower, stopping at a little bakery to carb-up. Despite being obvious tourist traps, prices were reasonable everywhere we went. We saw the Louvre for 15 euros each, went to the very top of the Eiffel Tower for 17 each. Food was, of course, great and also reasonably priced. We even took a bike rickshaw back from the Eiffel Tower for around 12 Euro. Paris isn’t the world’s cleanest city, but there’s amazing architecture and history, mixed in with the modern. Traffic was nuts, but crowds and lines were only a problem at the Eiffel Tower. Also security was elevated due to the Euro Cup, with armed soldiers posted at strategic spots throughout the city, or attentively strolling through courtyards looking for suspicious activity. None of these things were enough to detract from our stay — it was really quite beautiful and peaceful.

20160619_072917408_iOS 20160619_093053461_iOS

And 2 days was all we needed. On day 3, we drove our tiny, manual-transmission Peugot through rush-hour traffic, into the French country-side, and off toward Kandern…

2016: Travel

Our kids believe that when they’re a grown-up they’ll be able to do whatever they want. We haven’t yet had the heart to explain that being a grown-up means you rarely get to do what you actually want. You do have more choices — but even when you have discretionary time, turns out you also need discretionary finances to do most things.

That means you usually can do one set of things — and not another. For 2017, we decided we’d focus on the house, so for 2016 we chose to do some traveling.

In February we took a very nice family vacation to see my parents in their very nice new home in Grand Cayman. The kids were delighted to see their grandparents, and Nic and I were delighted that a friend from my parent’s Bible study group happened to be away for the week, and graciously gave us her apartment — giving Nicole and I evenings to ourselves for the whole week, while the kids were all tucked in at my parents place.

Grand Cayman was a tropical paradise, with beautiful beaches all around. We went on a submarine tour of a coral reef, snorkeled in a little cove, swam with turtles in a turtle farm, and tackled huge waves that kicked our butts more than once. It was a perfectly timed escape in February, that gave us a break from our first Ohio winter.

In June, Nicole and I are getting away kid-free again. For the past 5 years, we’ve missed celebrating our birthdays together, and we’ve missed a couple anniversaries in there too. Summer just always ends up sending us in different directions. This year we decided we’d pre-empt any other plans, and get away together. I’ve been promising to take Nicole to Europe since we started dating (in 1998!) and I’m finally making good. We’ll fly into Paris and spend a few days seeing the sights, then drive to my old home town of Kandern, Germany, before flying home from Zurich. We’d love to see more, but since we have to budget my vacation time carefully, 7 days was the best we could pull off. This time the kids will stay with Nic’s parents in Canada.

And finally, assuming there’s money left in the travel fund, we hope to go west. We’re all dying to meet the kids new cousin in Calgary, and we’ll try to squeeze in some visits with other good friends while we’re out that way. We miss the west coast!

If we had unlimited time and money, and could really do whatever we wanted, we would do even more. We’ll get in a camping trip or two this summer, and plan to stay a little more grounded next year. I’m sure there’s lots of places around here to explore — but the world is too big a place to only ever experience one tiny part of it!

So I Reserved a Tesla Model 3

Last Friday I became one of the 325,000 people who plopped down $1000 US to reserve a Tesla Model 3 — a car that won’t be delivered to customer #1 until late 2017 at the earliest. I’m probably customer number 324,999 so I won’t be getting mine any time soon (2019 would be optimistic!) So why bother?

Aside from the obvious desirability of a bleeding edge, super cool car that doesn’t use gas and goes further on a charge than any EV (actually available or even just announced) from any other manufacturer (including GM’s lipservice Bolt, and BMW’s ugly and overpriced i3), the Model 3 is a symbol of change.

The pre-announcement of a car that isn’t finished yet, from a company with a track record of missing shipment targets at their existing scale (which is orders of magnitude smaller than what they’ll have to hit to even come close to fulfilling their first 325,000 pre-orders) isn’t the change I’m talking about. In fact, their approach looks a lot like a Kickstarter: put some money in to fund development, and if the product is successful, you’ll get a chance to buy it later. The reservation revenue won’t even touch their billion-dollar-a-year burn rate (although it won’t hurt), but it does give them the ability to fairly accurately forecast demand, and secure additional funding as necessary to meet it. Like any technology start-up, they’re betting against the future, and with the reservation approach, they’re inviting their customers to bet with them.

Model3

Unrealistic valuations against potential customers does sound a lot more like Silicon Valley than Detroit — and this gambling-man’s approach to business is certainly one of the uglier sides of the tech sector. But if that’s a part of the change that needs to happen in the automotive industry, then I’ll take it. The fact is, your car (yes, you — unless you already drive a Tesla) is a mess. Its not the build quality or process — thanks to companies like Toyota, manufacturing in North America is the best its ever been. Its the software: its been modified, revised, patched and rushed out the door annually — introducing new features (“infotainment” and “telemetrics”) without ever really cleaning up what came before or refactoring for evolution in underlying technology. The results are obvious and frightening — problems that are expensive and difficult to troubleshoot, vehicles that can be hacked remotely via the wireless connected car stereo (because the stereo runs on the same bus as your brakes!), and bizarre, archaic toolchains that most techs (who are not also software engineers) need specialized training to use. And these are the vehicles that are to become self-driving in the near future??

Teslas are not immune to problems — in fact, reliability has plagued them. But with a drivetrain that amounts to 1 or 2 electric motors, a battery, and a steering mechanism — almost in its entirety — and a high-tech on-board computer on clean, new technology that reports detailed useful information both to the driver and to the remote support team, the most complex problems can be fixed by swapping parts on the spot. Tesla represents a fully modern vehicle that can be managed like a computer — something a generation of new “techs” can understand — with new features added with software updates, that can be rolled back if bugs are discovered.

And I’ve barely touched on the fact that it runs on electricity, instead of exploding gasoline in front of your face and shooting the smoke out the back.

I love my Saab, and by the time my Tesla is ready, my sweet ride will be over 10 years old. If its electronic in my car, I’ve probably hacked it. But its obvious, to anyone who knows where to look, that our current vehicles are based on ancient technology: a rickety platform wobbling its way into the 21st century, bolting on new features that were never designed to work together, until it locks up on the highway and kills someone. Tesla’s Elon Musk may look more like a tech startup founder than a car company president, but the dude went from sleeping on couches to landing re-usable space-ships, and in his spare time he’s the catalyst for change in an industry that’s long overdue. He can have my $1000 for the promise of a future car good enough to replace my Saab. I’ll take that bet.

Besides, its fully refundable.

Hooli is about making the world a better place, through minimal message oriented transport layers…

One of the best things about my last employer is that almost anyone in the company who had a good idea would be allowed to try to run with it. “Entrepreneur” was a valued part of the culture. That didn’t mean the idea would be implemented, but no one would stop you from trying. In fact, there’s a process to help, that starts with a document (the fabled “6 Pager“) — and dozens of revisions and reviews. If the document survives increasing levels of examination up through the ranks, then a high-level blessing was enough to form a team and take a run at it. There’s no quibbling about budgets — although every idea gets less resources than was originally estimated (frugality breeds innovation, or so the leadership principle claimed) so you always start behind the eight ball. But basically every product and brilliant quirk of that giant retailer started this way: someone with a good idea, who was empowered to try it.

Not all companies work like that. Some cultures value employees who follow instructions and don’t rock the boat. Some leaders think its disloyal to speak up about a problem that needs to be solved, or that embracing potentially disruptive innovation causes more pain than its worth. When an organization begins to change and begins to put leaders in place who will engage with those trouble makers with ideas too big for their station, old companies become young again.

Disruption is scary… and its inevitable. When the product that provides the life blood of a company is threatened by some new technology, the easiest thing for a big company to do is to try to kill that new technology. Witness cable companies desperately clinging to their broadcast video business model in the face of the Internet, or the automotive industry trying to prevent the direct sale of electric vehicles to consumers. But change is inevitable, and those who don’t embrace it eventually lose to it.

I was fortunate enough to move from an employer who values entrepreneurship to one who is beginning to embrace its own disruption — and finding that to do so requires empowering individuals and small teams to try new things. And I’m grateful that what I learned in my last job prepared me for where my new employer wants to go. It took 6 months of learning, evangelizing, planning, designing and pitching — most of that in PowerPoint, instead of a 6-pager. But as of this month, I have a team… working on my idea!

And not just any team: I got a team of really, really smart people. I have a former NASA engineer, a Phd in engineering, a physicist, and a former nuclear engineer. I’ll also have a visual designer, a fresh young developer, and dedicated QA. We’ll all report to a business leader who gave up his old gig to champion this plan, and we’re working with an architect who reports directly to our CTO. Like at my old employer, we’re giving ourselves a year to build a product — from sketches on a white board to a device on the shelves. Its audacious and disruptive and innovative. Its makes life better for our customers, and it helps change the way teams work here. And even though it took a little longer than I hoped to get it going, our leadership embraced the approach and empowered us to try it. And I couldn’t be more excited (and a little scared) to be the product owner for something new.

So I Tied an Onion to my Belt – 2015 Edition

Another year down: another big move, another set of trips and adventures, new schools, new jobs… 2015 was a full one. Since this annual post has become a tradition, and is getting close to the only post a year, it seems like a re-cap is in order.

We had an inkling early in the year that the winds of change were blowing. We didn’t know what direction they were headed, but there was a sense of urgency that we needed to close things out. Truthfully, we always knew our time on the west coast would be limited, but we felt like we had a lot left to see. We squeezed in as many trips as we could as the weather got nicer, and started praying in earnest about what was next. We explored the Olympic Peninsula, flew to San Diego to visit Lego Land with my parents, got back to BC a couple times, and even pulled off a summer road trip with some sweet friends down to Oregon, where we saw Crater Lake and the Oregon Caves.

IMG_0558

I had a few casual discussions with some folks in my network about where I might be able to apply my professional skills, and even flew to California on my own dime to attend a conference from an old employer, and see if maybe there was something interesting to sink my teeth into there. We knew it would mean a move back east — but we’d kinda made peace with that. When we decided to accept the job offer, we determined that this time we were going to roadtrip cross-country and see as much as we could.

It ended up being two road trips for me. One on my own, to start work and scout out the area. The other, with the family, with stops in Yellowstone and Mt. Rushmore — and a couple other less memorable places, was a wonderful experience that we’d recommend to anyone.

The new home is great, on a couple acres of property in a township that reminds us very much of where we both grew up in Canada. We can get to Nic’s old home to visit with family in about 5 hours of driving (as opposed to 5 hours of flying!), and we still get paid in US dollars — which is a plus. However, while the base income is comparable, and the cost of living is lower, gone are the days of semi-annual bonuses big enough to buy a new car. Our tour on the west coast got us to all our financial goals, with rapid growth and intense work. Now we’re forced to be a little more deliberate, and to move at a pace that is a little more drawn out. This is true of both the new job, where things move much slower than I’m used to, and the new income, where the “Christmas bonus” was measurable in hundreds of dollars (“don’t buy a pool” said my new boss, when indicating what to expect!)

But these limits are a little more “normal” than what we’ve grown accustomed to. And maybe normal isn’t a bad thing. If we’re careful, we can still do the things we want. This coming year we plan to visit my parents in Grand Cayman (with the kids), go to Europe for our 15th anniversary (without the kids), and visit friends and family (including my new niece!) on the west coast (with the kids.) Add to that some of the smaller adventures that come from being a part of a community — parties at co-workers houses, the county fair, season passes at a water park, our friend’s new hobby farm, road trips to Ontario and to revisit old stomping grounds in New York — and normal life might be OK.

In 2016, maybe we start to settle a little. Figure out how we’re going to get the kids through school. Figure out what life looks like for Nicole when all 3 are off to school all day every day. Figure out how we can serve others where God has placed us. And maybe, figure out how to infuse my new workplace with some of what I learned at my old ones…

In the past, we’ve planned our goals 1 to 3 years out. Now we’re starting to think about 15 — Eli in college, the house paid off, money in the bank for travel… Seems a lot riskier to plan for changes that far away, when we’ve been used to change at a much higher rate. But as we did then, we’re learning to leave the planning to God, and make our focus about obedience with what He puts in front of us. Whatever happens in 2016, we’re confident that His will is good and perfect, and that we want His plan — not ours.

I Dream of Pi

Rapsberry Pi is a tiny computer on a board that uses fairly modern technology, and costs about $35 (or less!) It has nearly infinite use, many of which I’ve been interested to play with — but just haven’t had the time.

I found the time recently, though, when I came across a project to use the Pi as a bridge between an old game console and a modern network. Its not just limited to game consoles though. In the early days of these interwebs, we used to have to dial-in a service provider using a phone line, and this crude device that turned computer messages into screeching sounds — and then back again. We called this thing a “mo-dem” (modulator-demodulator), and it opened up the world to us… very, very slowly.

If I had a hobby (and really who has time for hobbies) it would be computer history. I’m fascinated by old computers, and the innovation, engineering and passion that they represent. On every printed circuit board, burnt ROM chip, and floppy disc full of bytes, is the mark of some team somewhere that helped change our culture, inspired new ideas, and created a platform for my generation to invent and create upon. Sometimes in a very literal way — inside every old Macintosh you can find the signature of the team members who flew a pirate flag and turned a computer into something that anyone could use.

Anyway, the Pi is 30 years of innovation, shrunk down into a board that fits in your hand, and runs any software you can dream up. A guy in England took an old hack for getting the Sega Dreamcast online, and jammed it onto the Pi. And thanks to this whole Internet thing, I got to work with him and help make it into something that anyone can use. Its not the first time I’ve gotten involved in a project that existed only in cyberspace — I did US testing and QA for the eSID, another clever hack from an ex-Saab engineer in Sweden. But on this occasion, I was able to help with debugging code a little, which I rarely get to do anymore.

s-l1600

Dubbed the DreamPi (Dreamcast + Raspberry Pi), you plug in a USB modem, and hack a 9v battery onto a phone line. The Dreamcast (or any old device) thinks its dialing a ISP from yesteryear, while the Pi pretends to answer a call, negotiate the connection, and accept imaginary account credentials. Then it serves your modern home network up to the Dreamcast as fast as the old modem will drink it up. After a little troubleshooting and a bit more Internet fakery to shield the Dreamcast from long-dead servers and web technology it can’t possibly understand, a sizable catalog of formerly deceased online games — from the first console to really take the Internet seriously — is now back online.

Ben and I have been getting pretty good at soldering, and we bundle up all the pieces and sell them on eBay. All the instructions and software are freely available online, but for people not comfortable with Python and a soldering iron, a ready-to-use kit can be had for a fairly reasonable price. We don’t really make any money on them — after I give Ben and eBay their cut, I basically break-even. But there’s satisfaction in extending the life of technology beyond what it was expected to do.

We are those who do not disconnect the values of their minds from the actions of our bodies.

If you’re reading this, odds are you’re rich. You might not believe it, and your bank statements may disagree, but go ahead and plug-in your household income here, and you’ll find that you’re probably richer than 60% of the world — or maybe much more.

I say this because I realize that my little clan is spoiled rotten. Never mind the house in the country, or some savings in the bank — we’ve got 3 good meals a day, and a warm beds to sleep in. These are luxuries that millions of people don’t have.

Unfortunately, we’ve chosen to live in a monoculture that neatly shields us from the pain elsewhere in the world — until it rips through our comfort zone with the picture of a 3 year old little boy, drowned on the shore, the result of his family’s desperate attempt to escape from their war-torn home. The fact is, from our little white conservative township in Ohio, we could completely hide from the anguish of our neighbors.

But that’s not how we want to raise our kids. My son’s tears as he processed the image of that little boy dead on the beach reminded me that I don’t want him to ever stop feeling that pain and empathy. But more than that, I want my kids to understand that the weight of that feeling indicates responsibility. That it’s OK to have a comfortable home, and enjoy the things God has given you, but it’s not OK to horde those things to ourselves, to hide from the hurting.

But despite our relative wealth, and an admittedly sin-burdened desire to use it for others, the most frustrating thing is the impotence. As families in North America, we live in the safest, most comfortable place we can afford, as protection for our children — a nest, to insulate them while they learn and grow. But that isolation removes us from opportunity to help. We work hard at jobs to provide for our families, but those (rarely only) 40 hours every week effectively prevent us from applying our time elsewhere. Our necessary focus on the needs of our children demonstrates to them that we are unable to help meet the needs of the hurting.

I believe this frustrated desire to help applies to most Christians in North America, but we’ve personally worked hard to get and keep ourselves free of financial obligation, and prepare for whatever action we’re called to. Still, this distance between what we desire to do and what we’re able to do given our responsibilities, is highlighted by our church hunt here: do we attend the large church with active, engaging children’s programs, filled with other kids just like our own, where they’ll learn age-appropriate Bible lessons from loving teachers who will genuinely care about their spiritual needs? Or do we spend our Sundays in an urban church, where one harried older lady tries to manage the chaos in children’s church, while the hurt and the lost are ministered to in simpler, more basic ways — and teach our kids to give of themselves every Sunday?

How do we teach them to be in the world, being the hands and feet of Jesus, when we ourselves don’t even know how to balance that with meeting the needs of our own family — and the all-consuming activities which are required to meet those needs? We wouldn’t rob our own children of the spiritual and physical provision they need, just to flail helplessly against the overwhelming and insurmountable need of others. Nor would we want to rob our children of examples of, and opportunity for, love in action.

All I know for sure is that is that we cannot teach them inaction. We cannot demonstrate to them that they are entitled to what has been provided to them. We know that we are not; that everything we have is an undeserved gift. We know that all we are entitled to is the responsibility to share what we have with those who are in need. Ayn Rand wrote (for very different reasons!) “We are those who do not disconnect the values of their minds from the actions of our bodies.” What values we wish to impart to our children must be demonstrated by our actions. Jesus’ brother James said it a different way: “Faith without works is dead.”

We must not teach our children a dead faith — no matter how comfortable that teaching may be. Our prayer right now is that we can find the right actions to apply to our faith, and the right balance of application to both demonstrate to, and nurture, our kids.