Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Neighbors' Pond

The houses across the street are more expensive than my own and have more landscaping and a nifty pond. I would need to be fifty percent more wealthy to afford one of them.

Whenever I take a walk to the east, I like to take a peek at the pond. I think that this does no harm. After all, when I enjoy the scene, I am not robbing the rightful owners of their own enjoyment. Neither am I breaking the tenth commandment. I don't covet the pond. Coveting involves possession, and possession involves upkeep. A quick peek is enough for me.

First Melancholy Cure

Tomorrow I am having lunch and taking a train ride in the mountains with some friends from work. No doubt we will also find time for a stroll in the woods. I expect to satisfy four of the six curative categories from The Anatomy of Melancholy:

Diet: good food at a mountain inn
Air and environment: cool mountain air and scenic beauty
Exercise of mind and body: an invigorating stroll with pleasant companions
Rectification of passions and perturbations of mind: cheerful conversation


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Medieval Chinese Hospitality

Marco Polo mentions two radically different customs of hospitality in the China of the thirteenth century. In a province in the far west, a stranger was treated to excessive hospitality:

"A man does not think it an outrage if a stranger or some other man makes free with his wife or daughter or sister or any woman he may have in his house. But it is taken as a favour when anyone lies with them. For they say that by this act their gods and idols are propitiated, so as to enrich them with temporal blessings in great abundance. And for that reason they deal with their wives in the following open-handed fashion. You must know that when a man of this country sees that a stranger is coming to his house to lodge, he immediately walks out, telling his wife to let the stranger have his will without reservation. Then he goes his way to his fields or vineyards and does not return so long as the stranger remains in his house. And I assure you that he often stays three days and lies in bed with this wittol's wife."

In the south of China, a stranger was treated much differently:

"If it happened that a gentleman of quality, with a fine figure, or a 'good shadow', came to lodge in the house of a native of this province, they would murder him in the night, by poison or other means, so that he died. You must not suppose that they did this in order to rob him; they did it rather because they believed his 'good shadow' and the good grace with which he was blessed and his intelligence and soul would remain in the house."

I suppose that both of these medieval Chinese customs have died out during the past seven centuries. All the same, if I ever visit China, I think that I'll stay in a hotel.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Kubilai Khan (You bet he khan!)

I'm about a third of the way through the Penguin Classics edition of The Travels of Marco Polo.

Marco Polo began his journey to the court of the Great Khan, Kubilai, in 1271 and returned to Venice after twenty years. Later, in 1298, Polo was a prisoner of war in Genoa. He was evidently incarcerated in the thirteenth century equivalent of a minimum-security prison, because he found sufficient leisure to collaborate with a romance writer named Rustichello of Pisa in writing down his memories of the Near East, Persia, India, and Cathay.

Polo's account of his actual day-by-day travels sometimes tends toward the formulaic. He took a practical businessman's notice of the distances between regions, the classes of inhabitants -- mainly distinguished by religion -- and the products marketed within the regions. A sample:

"Let us turn next to the province of Yarkand, five days' journey in extent. The inhabitants follow the law of Mahomet, and there are also some Nestorian Christians. They are subject to the Great Khan's nephew, of whom I have already spoken. It is amply stocked with the means of life, especially cotton. But, since there is nothing here worth mentioning in our book, we shall pass on to Khotan, which lies to the east-north-east.

Khotan is a province eight day's journey in extent, which is subject to the Great Khan. The inhabitants all worship Mahomet. It has cities and towns in plenty, of which the most splendid, and the capital of the kingdom, bears the same name as the province, Khotan. It is amply stocked with the means of life. Cotton grows here in plenty. It has vineyards, estates, and orchards in plenty. The people live by trade and industry; they are not at all warlike."

Rustichello, realizing that this material needed punching up, periodically injected fanciful digressions taken from legends or popular Venetian romances. These enhancements probably bolstered the book's marketing appeal back then but generally annoy the modern reader who is in search of historical accuracy and insight. However, at times during their collaboration Rustichello seems to have prodded Marco Polo to mine his memories for more detailed description or a deeper analysis of a foreign culture. Some wonderful narration resulted. A sample:

"He [Kubilai Khan] has many concubines, about whom I will tell you. There is a province inhabited by Tartars who are called Kungurat, which is also the name of their city. They are a very good-looking race with fair complexions. Every two years or so, according to his pleasure, the Great Khan sends emissaries to this province to select for him out of the most beautiful maidens, according to the standard of beauty which he lays down for them, some four or five hundred, more or less as he may decide. This is how the selection is made. When the emissaries arrive, they summon to their presence all the maidens of the province. And there valuers are deputed for the task. After inspecting and surveying every girl feature by feature, her hair, her face, her eyebrows, her mouth, her lips, and every other feature, to see whether they are well-formed and in harmony with her person, the valuers award to some a score of sixteen marks, to others seventeen, eighteen, or twenty, or more or less according to the degree of their beauty. And, if the Great Khan has ordered them to bring him all who score twenty marks, or perhaps twenty-one, according to the number ordered, these are duly brought. When they have come to his presence, he has them assessed a second time by other valuers, and then the thirty or forty with the highest score are selected for his chamber. These are allotted, one by one, to the barons' wives, who are instructed to observe them carefully at night in their chambers, to make sure that they are virgins and not blemished or defective in any member, that they sleep sweetly without snoring, and that their breath is sweet and they give out no unpleasant odour. Then those who are approved are divided into groups of six, who serve the Khan for three days and three nights at a time in his chamber and his bed, ministering to all his needs. And he uses then according to his pleasure. After three days and nights, in come the next six damsels. And so they continue in rotation throughout the year."

Notice that the Great Khan's rating scale for feminine beauty topped out at the "perfect 24". Modern man settles for the "perfect 10". This coarsening of standards during the past seven hundred years reflects poorly on Western civilization.

The Great Khan knew what he wanted and he knew exactly how to get it. The sophistication of his three-stage concubine evaluation process is comparable to that of the finest quality control processes used nowadays in building satellites. If the Great Khan insisted on a "20", nobody was going to fob off an "18" on him.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A taste of world history

To prepare for reading The Travels of Marco Polo, I have been quickly traversing world history from the paleolithic to the rise of Venice. By this I mean sampling the history of early Indo-European migrations, ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, ancient India, ancient China, Classical Greece, the Roman Empire, the rise of Islam, the Byzantine Empire, and finally the Mongol empire. I nibble on a few facts and a few key dates and then move on. This is the hors d'oeuvre approach to history. I'm not proud of being a historical dabbler, but at least it keeps me away from the television.

As my primary reference, I chose a book called History of the World by J.M. Roberts of Oxford University (1993). The book is a historical survey written with clarity and perspective and livened by flashes of dry British humor. I can illustrate this humor with a brief excerpt in which Roberts discusses the persecution of Christianity by the later Roman emperors:

"Christians noted with some satisfaction that their persecutors did not prosper; the Goths slew Decius and Valerian was said to have been skinned alive by the Persians (and stuffed). But Diocletian did not appear to draw any conclusions from this and in 303 launched the last great Roman persecution."

Monday, July 19, 2010

Balancing work and family

I have had conversations with several young men on how to strike a healthy balance between work and family. These young men, all of them engineers, find that their work schedule tends to expand and crowd out the time that their families deserve. I have offered them two defensive strategies to protect family time.

The primary defense I suggest to a young engineer is for him to take ownership of his schedule. This requires him to plan out a detailed, day-by-day work schedule for the coming three weeks or so. This schedule should be sane and have enough margin so that family time will not automatically be sacrificed if any of the usual office mishaps or snags pop up. This schedule should then be updated each week. As part of the scheduling process, it is good for the engineer to discuss this planning with his wife and agree upon goals for family time during the coming three weeks. (These discussions generally help to reduce wifely surprise and aggravation and the resultant nagging.)

Some engineers, whether from timidity or laziness, passively wait for their boss to hand them a schedule instead of actively influencing the scheduling process. This is a mistake. A good engineer should be a problem solver, not a lackey. The first step to solving a problem is to define the problem properly. The engineer needs to define his schedule problem in terms of getting the work done while still protecting family time.

Once the engineer has created his three-week schedule, he needs to explain/sell this schedule to his boss. If the detailed schedule is reasonable and supports the overall project schedule's delivery milestones, his boss will usually concur. After all, his boss has plenty of headaches of his/her own and will likely be grateful that the engineer is taking responsibility for planning his own work. The boss's concurrence yields the happy result that the detailed schedule now becomes the basis for the boss's expectations. If snags arise, the detailed schedule gives the engineer a credible way to quantify consequences and propose mitigation (e.g., adding manpower, reducing scope of the effort, or using some of the schedule margin held by management to avoid a day for day slip of the final delivery date). In the absence of a detailed schedule, there is less accountability. A boss could insist on keeping the final delivery date fixed and expect the engineer to donate his free hours (family time) to overcome the snag. This is often expressed in the tiresome words: "You're a professional. We expect you to do what it takes to get your work done."

The detailed schedule is not a perfect defense. There are sometimes legitimate crisis situations that call for extraordinary effort: viz., urgent proposal writing to capture new business, meeting the final deadline for a system delivery, and responding to major calamities. These crisis situations are typically short and intense, a matter of several exhausting weeks. The engineer ought to do what is necessary to deal with the crisis. However, if an engineer finds himself continually working in crisis mode, it is a clear sign of management incompetence or an industry in trouble. (I worked in perpetual crisis mode right before the synthetic fuels industry collapsed in the 1980s. My copious amounts of donated time profited me nothing.)

The second defensive strategy to protect family time is to inform your boss of family plans and obligations ahead of time, such as: "I'm taking the family on a boat trip next weekend." The idea is to define a discrete period of family time and remove it from consideration as open time that work can spill into. Most bosses will hesitate to ask you to work extra hours if it means explicitly telling you to cancel your plans.

All in all, the key to life balance is valuing family time enough to intentionally preserve room for it as you arrange your work schedule. Scheduling becomes a bit more difficult but the rewards are great.