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My name is James. I grew up in a large family in the Pacific Northwest. I've lived in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Kansas, and Russia and love to travel. So far I've been able to visit Eastern Europe, Central America, Puerto Rico, France, and (of course) Canada and Mexico. Asia is next on my list.
I have too many hobbies and interests to count. High on the list are gardening, singing, learning languages, messing about with computers, and biking, paddling and hiking the great outdoors. I currently live with my wife and three children in far north Idaho (think Canada) where I am a business manager for Coldwater Creek, a women's retailer.
July 12th, 2001
The era of the personal blog is fading.... Facebook has for good or ill taken the place this blog used to occupy. Come see me there!
December 14th, 2009
Lately I've taken to listening to the BBC in Russian. I'm hoping to increase my comprehension and vocabulary so that my weekly Russian lessons go a little smoother. So far it has really helped. What I've noticed is that people on the radio have a tendency to talk really fast, and to use a lot of colloquial expressions; both of these things are very useful for language acquisition.
One of my frustrations with learning Russian while living in Russia was the lack of real intensive practice there. You'd think that living in a culture and being immersed in daily life would give someone the best opportunity to learn a language, but it really isn't enough to develop full fluency, unless you have a dedicated language teacher and a forum for asking questions and practicing. Plus, you can live in a country and even interact normally without actually speaking or listening that much, depending on your profession. I'm hoping that by immersing myself in the rapid-fire conversation of radio, I can push myself to the next level, even without the convenience of living in Russia.
October 3rd, 2008
I returned from Denmark a week ago. It's been a whirlwind trying to get over jet lag, get back to work and catch up on everything at home. The last few nights I've been hammering out a paper to report on the conference I attended on Social Banking in Europe. It's been so crazy that I haven't had time yet to write my impressions of the trip.
The first week in Denmark was spent cycling alone across the main island, starting in Copenhagen and heading gradually westward toward the mainland. It was the kind of solitary week that I really need once in a while to recharge my batteries. Denmark is a lovely country for cycling, and the quiet peaceful miles gave me plenty of time to think. When I get more time I'll post some photos from that week.
When I arrived at the conference near Arhus, I was thrown back into the world of people. There were over 80 participants from all over Europe, with a few from India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and South Africa. I was the only American. It was an extremely diverse group, but there were a number of young people around my age and we had some really positive conversations. About social banking, about our cultures, and about life in general.
I realized at the conference that I am basically starved for intellectual stimulation. No person can be summed up with a single label, but I definitely have an "intellectual" side (i.e. having intense conversations about topics that most people find inane). And it's clear that I am not getting enough time with that part of my personality, because I just soaked up the conference like a sponge. It was fantastic to hear so many divergent viewpoints, so many conflicting opinions, so many intelligent people with something to say and the courage to back it up with action. It was like the university experience some people talk about but that I didn't experience in my conformity-minded church college. I was really inspired.
Now I get to come home and turn that inspiration into action myself. I'm still not sure where to start. I love the idea of being in a community where I can express my opinions openly and be understood, and even challenged. I also know that I and my family have a lot of other needs that are wonderfully met by the community we belong to now. It's a balancing act. I suppose you never find the perfect balance, but I definitely have another arrow in my quiver that I'd like to use a little more often.
Another note: I brought a book along and read it on the airplane. "Steppenwolf" by Hermann Hesse. It was incredibly timely. The book addresses the whole idea that people do not have a single personality or "side", but that they are many-faceted and very complex. I highly recommend it to anyone who is even a little bit interested in exploring the concept of "self" and self-perception.
August 9th, 2008
Yesterday I spent an hour at the public library, alone, browsing through the aisles. The public library has been one of the most constant institutions in my life. At some point in my early childhood I became closely attached to books. I think I probably saw reading as a way to create an identity: I would read well and be smart, other people would be popular, athletic or cool. The small library in our Oregon town struggled to find a permanent home. Sometimes it was in it's own rented space at the strip mall; other times it was tucked away in a nook at Safeway, or relegated to the Bookmobile. But in each location I have strong and positive memories of visiting the library and finding a sense of identity in the books.
My relationship with libraries and book stores since childhood has grown even closer. During high school I would ride my bicycle 15 miles one way just to visit the larger public library of a neighboring city. My grades as a college freshman were poor partly because I couldn't stay away from the enormous university library, where books on subjects other than those in my classes kept me up late on weekends. While my classmates were discovering the social liberation of college life, I was discovering five floors of seemingly endless shelves, with nooks and corners all to my own on Friday nights. As a working adult, I make a habit of visiting the local libraries in any town where I travel. I have been in huge library palaces in New York, dusty oppressive libraries in St. Petersburg, tiny forgotten libraries in Russian villages, and creaking, musty libraries all along the plains of Kansas. I've sought aloneness among the crowds at Powell's in Portland, and in the silence of a basement room that I optimistically call my own library.
I've come to realize that it is not necessarily the books themselves which make libraries an attraction: it is the aloneness. I have an extraordinary need to be alone during my free time, and the dark, twisting labyrinth of shelves provides the needed space for my thoughts. I dislike crowded libraries, and will even stoop to hiding in the children's section if it means that I can think undisturbed.
The last few years have kept me more aloof from the library. I spend most of my time working outside, creating the landscape and finding solitude in manual labor and the outdoors. When I do return to the library, I immediately sense that old feeling of coming home, of belonging to the quiet stillness of the place. And I realize that even though I've changed, the books are still inside me, and will always welcome me back.
June 8th, 2008
Friday night I went down to Spokane to see my mom, who has been busy with her estate sale. She had an incredible turnout the first day, and when I arrived most of my dad's stuff had been sold. I did have a chance to walk through the shop and think about dad and all the memories associated with each remaining item. It surprised me how a simple object can bring back a flood of thoughts and associations. It's strange that the most important memories of our lives can be so well defined and remembered by association to trivial physical objects. Walking through dad's shop I can still see him in there, puttering around and looking for a misplaced tool in a sea of mechanical detritus. In the last few years some of my best moments with him were out in the shop or in the garden, talking about things we shared in common. I'll miss him. And, ironically, I'll miss the junk that reminds me of him.
March 10th, 2008
I've recently be re-introduced to the world of fifth-grade math, thanks to my cost accounting class. When was the last time you looked at a story problem? My team member and I spent two hours last night poring over problem sets from our textbook. Here's a flavor of what my course offers in the way of accounting problems for the MBA student.
"Jane and John decide to start a lemonade stand. They offer three products: Products A, B, and C. Jane buys lemonade powder for 3 cents a pound. John buys pre-stirred lemonade at a dollar a liter. Jane buys lemonade on a cash basis, John on an accrual basis. Using the actual absorption cost system, calculate to the milligram Jane and John's sales and productivity given that weather is 10 degrees cooler than normal and the cost of lemonade increases based on the consumer price index, minus exchange rate adjustments for imports from Australia. Note that Jane speaks only pig Latin so all communications with John must be done via braille cards."
This kind of problem actually has a solution, and if you spend about two hours cooking up assumptions and allocating costs, you can come up with a defensible answer. It's just that my brain has been programmed by my Protestant capitalist ethic to recoil in horror every time I see work that adds zero value and takes an infinite amount of time to complete.
So I ended up doing something I've never done before. I looked at the syllabus and calculated how much my grade would go down if I didn't finish every problem. Turns out that a 1% grade hit to avoid 10 hours of work is just about right.
March 6th, 2008
I try not to write too much about my professional life in this blog; I have a hard enough time explaining my work to my wife, let alone everyone else. However, I think it's safe to say that anyone who works in an office and does any kind of analytical work also finds that they spend a lot of time in front of spreadsheets. Thanks to Microsoft, that spreadsheet is very likely Excel.
My introduction to Excel was during my first job out of college as an analyst for Payless ShoeSource. It took about a week in that position for me to realize that a good part of my success depended on my skill using Excel to transform meaningless numbers into actionable business projects. People who knew Excel got promoted, and people who didn't ended up working in HR.
It's no exaggeration to say that I spent the next two years almost wholly devoted to becoming an Excel pro. The great thing about working for a big company is that in the beginning of your career (if it's structured right), most of your time is spent learning. I think during those two years the actual amount of time I spent "working" in the traditional sense was less than 50%. The other half was spent experimenting, building, and rebuilding until I knew Excel and related technologies in and out. Since those days, not much has changed except the venue. Excel continues to be the tool de rigeur for anyone doing even marginally serious analytical work. At my current employer, I've spent a good portion of my time training the next generation of analysts how to master the secrets of Excel and VBA, and it is still the most important indicator of success in our analyst group.
However, anyone who has plumbed the depths of Excel also knows its limitations. Many people try to use Excel for jobs to which databases are much more suited; accordingly, I've had to become an expert in SQL and database design. But the user-side of any analytical tool is still going to be Excel, whether you want it to be or not. I've seen multi-million dollar systems languish because users simply copy and paste the results to Excel for manipulation, then paste them back when they're done massaging the numbers. Excel is simply more flexible than nearly anything you can think of, especially in a world of inflexible, user-unfriendly business software packages.
But Excel can't do everything. I ran into a problem about six months ago. I had built the latest incarnation of our company's item forecasting model in Excel. It was really an amazing tool, full of nuance and flexible to the n-th degree. And incomprehensible to everyone except myself. And, even for an old Excel hand, making any substantial changes required not only an expert knowledge of Excel, but hours of error-checking to find the inevitable problems. The cost of maintaining the model had escalated to where only a few people in the company would even know how to approach fixing an issue. With Excel's help, I had outsmarted myself.
Enter Quantrix. Part of my job is to keep up on the latest technologies that might prove useful for our business. One day I stumbled across Quantrix, and my life has not been the same since. I'm not kidding.
Quantrix does most of the things Excel does. But the fundamental premise is much different. For one thing, developing analytical models takes about half the time as Excel, and the time savings increases the more complex the model becomes. Need to add scenarios? Just add a new dimension. Changing the formula for net sales? Change it once, and it propogates throughout the whole model. Need to build a relationship between departments and sub-departments? Add another matrix, and Quantrix remembers the relationship and applies it to every formula. It's brilliant.
Now I'm in selling mode. Here are some key features:
No more two-dimensional spreadsheets. Add as many dimensions as you like, and give them real names like "Product" and "Time".
Pivot dimensions in rows and columns just like a pivot table. But it's still editable!
Write formulas once, and watch them applied to thousands of cells. Errors are immediately pointed out to you.
Create multiple views of the same data, and all remain editable and linked together.
Since discovering Quantrix, I use it more than Excel. For me, that's a change on the level of emigrating to a new country, or becoming a Mac user. It's revolutionary.
Check it out.
March 1st, 2008
A couple of weeks ago a friend at work invited me to play racquetball for the first time. We have a racquetball court at work but I'd never thought to use it before. I've been playing 3 times a week since and love it.
I think the main attraction is hitting this very dynamic ball over and over... it's a stress reliever. Just the action of hitting something is so out of the ordinary. And it's a great sport to practice alone (which always appeals to me). It's like a high speed game of ping pong where you can't lose the ball.
February 24th, 2008
The last few months have been full of thoughts of my dad, who passed away last fall. It's interesting how his death has affected me and my outlook on life. While I cannot honestly call myself a philosopher, I have attempted over the last 5 years or so to delve into my own beliefs and try to formulate my own philosophy of the world. As many who know me well can attest, this has involved a lot of change in my religious orientation and my attitude toward the idea of God.
I think the main thing that religion can impart is a strong sense of hope. Especially in my Mormon upbringing, death marked a sad but ultimately temporary separation. For those that believe, God will make everything work out for the best, if we only have the patience to wait. I know this gives a lot of comfort to many people and is probably one of the strongest arguments for the religious life.
With my dad's passing I found myself without this traditional religious comfort. Many people would find this very depressing (and have told me so); I suppose this is because many people don't have enough experience with atheism or atheists to know how they might deal with death's finality. For my own part, I find myself more and more understanding this event through Buddhist teachings about individuality. Perhaps an analogy will help explain.
If I see a cloud, I say, "there is a cloud". It is distinct from other clouds by its shape, contours, color and position in the sky. However, each moment that passes the cloud changes. At first the changes are very small, and I can still identify the overall shape and color of the cloud. After an hour, the cloud is gone, and in its place are more clouds. Am I right to bemoan the loss of the cloud? The matter from which the cloud consisted has not been destroyed. Rather, it was my characterization of the cloud as an individual thing that caused my suffering at its passing. The cloud never existed; what I saw was a mischaracterization, the temporary manifestation of something that is really a part of everything.
Christians might see in this analogy a reference to the separation of body and soul that happens at death. Being a materialist (in the sense of believing that the natural world is the only world), I might say that my sadness at my father's death is caused not by his passing, but by my misunderstanding of the actual nature of human life. Was the soul of my father truly a thing distinct from nature? Of what did my father consist?
This question helps me realize that people are not so much substance as they are cause and effect. My dad had experiences that made him distinct from other people, but he was also constantly changing as his experiences changed. The dad I remember from my early childhood is not the same man I remember in his last hours of pain and sickness. Similarly, he did not consist solely of his body or soul, but of his effect on others, and the memories that I still carry from his life. His existence was not concentrated in his physical body, but was diffused throughout the world, both before and after his death.
I'm certainly no expert on Buddhism or any other religion for that matter, and the idea that the "self" doesn't actually exist in individuals is very difficult to think about (namely because it is impossible to think about anything without characterizing it as something distinct from other things). Perhaps my beliefs are a bit mystical, but they have helped me find understanding regarding my dad's passing and my own reaction to it.
January 31st, 2008