Thursday, July 29, 2010

It's So Easy, Fleeing Green

I was extremely surprised and pleased to find out this morning that an article I had submitted to NASA Tech Briefs was accepted and published today through one of their online channels, Green Design & Manufacturing.

My article, "Generating Energy Innovation: Disrupting the Alternatives" explores the current state of several mainstays of alternative energy (solar and wind), and how recent advances hold promise to not only challenge the convention energy complex of fossil fuels, but also disrupt the green movement itself.

All too often in the industries and technologies in which I work, I see that the pursuit of technical innovation is sometimes blurred with agendas that are adjacent to the goal, and often pose something of a distraction.

In the case of alternative energy, many in my generation were introduced to the coming energy crises (more as a function of population growth rather and increasing energy utilization) by educational films such as Frank Capra's "Our Mr. Sun", part of the classic Bell Science series. Over the years, converting to alternative energy sources became a brand identity with the green movement. It was the responsible thing to do, because it meant we would be using less oil. However, using less oil was never the original goal. Solar energy was looked to as a supplement that could delivery far more of our growing energy needs, if it could be harnessed more effectively.

Some of the latest developments in solar and wind technologies are figuring out just that. In this article, I've written about several companies that are on a rapid track to compete with and displace conventional energy sources, not because they want to save the planet, but on the basis of yield and profitability. For these and other companies like them, saving the planet is a (great) fringe benefit - and one we'll be able to celebrate for generations.

It's a reminder that in the pursuit of any technical innovation, that knowing when and how to (re)prioritize design opportunities and constraints can mean the difference between myopically satisfying an agenda, or having the clear vision to fill a much greater need.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Dead Write

I've been away from here for a long while.

I'm picking up my writing again for selfish reasons. As self-indulgent articles go, this one unfortunately goes right to the top. Normally I write for an audience, whether real, or imagined, and certainly I've received feedback over the years that some of my articles have been worth the ink they're printed with. However, in this case, there's a personal block I need to clear, and in order for me to get back to writing for any other purpose, I need to write this article for myself.

The event which brought my writing here to a stop up until now took place the night of December 16th, 2009. Ironically, I was in Minneapolis that night, which as a few of you know, had the distinction in my travels where I received some very sad news about a life-long friend, some years earlier. On the 16th of December last year, I was the end of a long day and near the end of a long quarter going into the holidays.

I had started to unwind a bit in my hotel room when I received a call from my stepbrother in Connecticut, urging me to call my father and stepmother's house right away. Something had happened, he didn't say what, but he was rushing over to their house and the local fire and police departments were already there.

I called the house. I forget who answered the phone but I was quickly passed to my stepmother. Her voice was almost inaudible and very shaky.

"Jimmy, your father's dead...
..He did it."

The next 54 hours before I slept again are still a blur, as was the week that followed. I don't for a moment claim to have a special corner on personal pain and suffering. As human beings, we all sign up for our share, and unfortunately, many of us get a boatload, independent of any measure of fairness.

For me, that week in December going right into Christmas is filled with the cries of my stepmother's grief in my head, backgrounded by constant Christmas carols in the multi-terminal hub at the Minneapolis Airport (MSP).

I flashback daily to the bedroom as I first saw it when I arrived in Connecticut: stripped of everything but a bedframe and a dresser, sitting on plywood floor-boards stained with my father's blood that had soaked through from the carpets. Standing at the dresser, I still (in my mind) go through papers and heirlooms I've long since processed (ironically which included an inordinate amount of Marine Corps marksmanship medals).

The wake was on short notice and without a body or a casket. The state coroner's office wouldn't be able to release the remains until the investigation was complete (possibly after Christmas). These were just a few in a long series of surreal events I never thought I'd be experiencing, and they continue to this day, whether as memories or as extensions to the continued fallout from that week.

There are a lot of additional contexts that make this experience very difficult for me. I'm not going to detail them here (either in this article, or even possibly on this blog), but I think I owe this article, and myself, a frame for perspective. In short, much of the contexts involves my father's demons and his inability to deal with a loved one's terminal illness, not just once, but now three times in his life. It involves previously unknown letters, photos, and stories from long ago that I continue to discover, and never knew before December. The discoveries continue to shed light on how incredibly broken my father's relationships became, often through his own actions, and the effects they've had and continue to have. These and other contexts, have radically changed my understanding of the past and present. They have changed my understanding of myself.

Cosmically speaking, none of this matters. Entropy maximizes and chaos ultimately reigns supreme. No person, state, society, planet, and ultimately, no universe has or will matter one bit in the grand scheme of things. In the absence of faith, life is merely a statistical aberration of non-existence. The sticky part becomes functioning on a human timescale and living entirely in a statistical aberration.

For me, that means taking what lessons I can from last December (and since) and somehow learn from my father's mistakes, not just from the obvious tragedy and fallout, but from where things started to go wrong that I was never able or allowed to see. It's not an immediate process, it is (for me), life long. My father worked long and hard throughout his life to provide for his families out of his sense of responsibility, love and honor. Provision was one of his innate goals. Sacrifice was often a tool of choice, because it aligned with the three senses I just mentioned. Unfortunately, for many reasons, he became far too accustomed to the act of sacrifice, and lost sense of what he was sacrificing.

I've known for nearly forty years that this event was likely to happen because my father told me so. He made it a point to tell me over and over again that if his health ever declined to the point where he couldn't take care of himself, he would not inflict that burden on anyone else. Knowing that this was coming for so long, didn't change for one moment the horror or surprise when it actually did. In his mind, my father was making an honorable self-sacrifice. In reality, it had long become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

More than six months after my father's suicide, I'm moving forward with one lesson that stands above all the others:

Making a large sacrifice is a sign that you didn't recognize the small ones you needed to make sooner.