Monday, March 30, 2009


No, I'm not suffering from writer's block. I'm suffering from "I know no one is interested in my thoughts" block. Or at least, "I'm not sure even what I want to write down here" block. I'm loving Asimov, and I've continued to find the academic reading I've gotten into pretty fascinating. I'm becoming, well... an academic. I'm finding more and more as people ask me what I want to accomplish, I can explain it, and I can refer to examples of what I've seen in research that might lead me down my own topical paths in the future.

So yes, I have plenty on my mind to write about. I am just still formulating the thoughts too much and reading too much to really commit those thoughts to the Internet.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


"Speech, originally, was the device whereby Man learned, imperfectly, to transmit the thoughts and emotions of the mind. By setting up arbitrary sounds and combinations of sounds to represent certain mental nuances, he developed a method of communication - but one which in its clumsiness and thick-thumbed inadequacy degenerated all the delicacy of the mind into gross and guttural signaling." - Isaac Asimov, Second Foundation

I must say, that passage (along with others that are similarly insightful), jumped out to me even as I read it. How clearly it describes the human condition. He goes on to explain that essentially all the misunderstandings in history from small squabbles between friends to full on wars could be traced to this very problem: we don't understand each other. If we could read each other's thoughts, the need for subterfuge - the need to be deceptive - would be eliminated as moot. Instead, we are left with ambiguity, uncertainty, confusion, and so much more. Would the world be a better place if we could see into each other's thoughts? I'm not sure, but I can at least see why Asimov admired the idea of telepathy as an improved form of communication. I wonder if that was what it was like before the Tower of Babel confounded the language of man. Indeed, is that what it will be like in the afterlife?

Perhaps this post begins to show why I am loving these books. They are very insightful, and extremely thought provoking. Certainly, there are some anachronistic elements given the era in which the books were written, but I am amazed at how well his story holds up even with fifty years of scientific development in the interim that would change the way he saw the future. Again, I regret having taken so long to join his fan club, but at least I'm there now.

-- Robert

Monday, March 23, 2009

The 300 Club

No, I have not hit a little stitched leather ball with a stick three hundred times, but I am now writing my 300th post. No, it will not be "300 things about me" or even "what were the first 299 posts about". I just felt like pointing out I was writing my 300th post.

There. I did it.

Whew, now with all that fanfare out of the way - please stop blowing the party horns - we can move on to more important things. Whatever those might be.....

Drawing a blank, too, eh? Well, okay, my problem is I probably have four different subjects going on in my head all at once, and they don't make for one post. At least two of them are very retread type material - moving and school - but I have a legitimate question for the moving one: anyone with advice on movers, I'd love to hear good and bad. Horror stories always make for a great comment stream at the very least. Feel free to use it for posts on other blogs, but point me to them at least. School, well, yeah, I know people are somewhat tired of hearing about it.

I'm also thinking about these great Asimov books I've been reading - well into the fourth book of the Foundation series - Second Foundation - and ran across a great passage I want to write a full post about. So people can ignore that one, too.

The last thing I am thinking about is my lovely weekend, as well as my wife's. She went to a great conference with a friend while we husbands watched the friend's daughter - my wife had the baby and my parents had our two older kids - and mostly relaxed at a nice condo. I love to see how these conferences help my wife because they are so edifying. I would love to write about one of her takeaways, but I won't steal her thunder.

So, for those keeping score: I could write four separate posts, and I might still make two from this one, and I have to wait on a potential third... but at least I wrote a fresh, original post.

-- Robert

P.S. No, I am not at all bitter that people aren't commenting. Truly, I'm not. I don't expect it on my "same song, twenty-fifth verse, this one's bad but so was the first" posts about my own reflections as we prepare to go to Texas. Those are for me. Any comments are welcome, but not expected.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Problem Solver

A few weeks ago, I posted about the book Strengthsfinder 2.0, and I listed my five strengths. The accompanying book Strengths Based Leadership breaks all the strengths into categories - executing, influencing, relationship building, and strategic thinking. One of my strengths was influencing - maximizer, my strongest, which basically means I love to find my own strengths and the strengths of others and maximize them. Another was in relationship building - individualization, which means I see people distinctly and not as a stereotype. The other three fell into strategic thinking - strategic (seeing solutions), context (learning from the past), and futuristic (looking to the future). Basically what that says to me is that I look at people individually, and at problems individually, I find the people who can best meet it given their skillset, and I organize a group to create a solution based on past experience and future desired outcomes. Basically, I solve the problem.

I have always been a problem solver. I loved solving logic problems, crossword puzzles, and math quizzes since I was little. When it came to people, I was the friend who people came to for tutoring, help with relationship troubles, or suggestions of how to deal with a teacher they were not seeing eye to eye with. I have diffused countless squabbles between peers just because I saw a way to find peace, or at least resolution. The biggest problem with being a lifetime problem solver: solving the problem of wanting to solve the problem.

I really have been working at being a better listener. I can be a great listener, and when I choose to use that ability, some people even think it's one of my greatest abilities. I think it is because I have really worked on it in my life, not because it necessarily comes natural to me. Lately, though, I find myself overtalking people again far too much. I want to "solve the problem" in what they're saying - even if they're not presenting one. I also tend to over-personalize: I have an amazing ability to make almost any story about me. I hate that I do it, sometimes even as I do it. Yet I see the connections between other people's stories and my own so readily, it's hard not to want to say, "Oh, this is how I dealt with that problem." Again, I do it even when they're clearly not asking how to solve it. It's especially annoying when they're not even talking about a present problem, but something from years back.

So I am writing this post as my personal pledge: I am going to do my best to stop overtalking, stop making the story about me, and stop solving problems without being asked. If I come close to that goal, I'm sure I will learn from the exercise. Who knows I might even learn to solve another problem.

-- Robert

Thursday, March 19, 2009


If all goes according to plan - famous last words, right? - we will be moving in about 100 days. And thus, as quick as we can blink, our future goes from the amorphous "what if's" of unknowing to the more concrete "what next" of being short on time. Fortunately, my wife and I are both pretty good at getting a lot done in a little.

Am I being too cryptic? I guess I just feel like I'm about to start packing my bags so I can check them in at the airport before the proverbial flight of life takes us to the next destination. The metaphor is a stretch, but the feelings are similar: I find myself thinking "I will be there". Whenever I am waiting to board a plane, I feel that sensation. The same goes for the anticipation just before a play or a movie - I am about to experience something. That semi-anxious excitement - the juicing of the moment - draws my senses into greater focus. Now I just have to calm the excitement enough to accomplish the tasks still requiring my attention here. Not the least of which is getting the rental house packed, the moving company arranged, and figuring out just how much there is to be taken with us. I do not discount the tremendous help my wife will be on all those tasks, but those are things on my mind to somehow coordinate in the time remaining so that we can just perform the plan and hope to be done in time.

The biggest problem with such a plan? Knowing when to start so it can all happen in time to leave but not disrupt life too much in the meantime. This move is a greater undertaking than our previous two (or three, really, counting the smaller in-town move to the rental) because the first was made cross-country but with limited stuff and the second was just across town but did not require complete removal nor one big trip. This move will requires both getting it all and getting it all at once.

Somehow, I will try to think of something else to blog about. I just hope this post begins to show how filled my mind is with thoughts of the future, which I'm sure anyone still reading is utterly sick of.

-- Robert

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Where Else Would This Group Come Together

Yesterday I sat in the presence of a banker, a car dealer, a janitor, a researcher, a teacher, a Wal-Mart greeter, a computer expert, a prominent politico, a nursery owner, many retirees, some unemployed folks, and well... quite a lot of the rest of humanity.

Yes, I had a jury summons. And I have it again today. I'm getting in some good reading time on Asimov at least. I did not get called yesterday, and perhaps I won't get called today. Whatever the case, I find it quite surreal to see such a group of people all in one place. For the record, the nursery man, janitor, car dealer, and politico all made the grand jury, with the car dealer serving as its foreman.

Welcome to the legal system in action.

UPDATED: Today, instead of naming off forty people to include in the jury pool, they named off sixty to let go - until tomorrow. At least we're all getting rich off $15/day or whatever they pay us.

-- Robert

Monday, March 16, 2009

When a Plan Comes Together

I know there's a great movie line about how wonderful it is when a plan comes together. I can't remember it just now, but I must say, I definitely love seeing many different elements of life form into something clear and connected. The final piece of the puzzle is forming for Texas: we got approved for a home loan, and we found the perfect place to get a home. We'll be building in the neighborhood we most wanted, just across from the pool and park area, so it's like having a giant yard with a pool without having to maintain it. The house will be done almost exactly when we wanted to move in, if they can start in a week or two. Truly, the blessings that have come as we have worked toward this point have been amazing. We are very fortunate, and we are very excited.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Conversations With an Angel

I have to write this post right now. I am talking with an angel. My son, just nine and a half weeks old, is telling me all about heaven. At least, that's what he must be saying as he murmurs sweetly to me. I am so lucky to know this little guy, let alone call him my son. He's such a happy, good-natured spirit. I look forward to getting to know him in the years to come.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Athens Bound

Today we're all heading up to Athens, GA, and the The University of Georgia. My wife had been wanting to run a 5k to get her running kick-started again (pun only slightly intended) after our son was born, and they are having one tomorrow. I also wanted to go thank my recommending professors in person for helping me get into Texa Tech, plus I love any excuse to see Athens.

Athens was a place of redemption for me in so many ways. When I was miserable at my first college, I found a home there. When I wanted to give back more because I had been just a shell of myself in the two years I spent there after transferring, I was able to shine. I joined the church there, got engaged there, and saw the future that we are about to embark on there. More than almost any other place I've ever been, Athens feels like home. Even the town where I grew up in feels less like home now.

So yes, I am looking forward to a lovely weekend in a great town. It will probably be somewhat of a farewell tour, though. I have no idea when I'll next be back.

-- Robert

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pushed And Pulled

Last night my wife and I saw what I would describe as a fairly poor film. It had its moments, but for the most part it did not hit the mark I believe it was going for. Still, Push did make me think about something - perhaps as my mind was trying to wander away from the screen.

In the movie, there are people who can "push" thoughts into others heads. How often do people try to do that in the real world? How often are we expected to believe ridiculous stories: "I did not realize that gift of hundreds of thousands of dollars might be considered taxable," or "I want to find the real killers," or even "I did not have... relations with that woman." Seriously, people try to push their version of truth into our minds all the time. Maybe that's why the truth has become so amorphous to most people - they think truth is almost totally subjective, free from a set of definite rules or mores. What we're left with is a lot of gray area for what is right, what is wrong, what is real, and what is phony.

Is it any wonder that so many people feel lost? Is it any wonder that materialism drives so many decisions politically as well as individually? Status matters more than truth to many - if a white lie (or a completely false application) gets someone their dream job, who or what does it hurt? It hurts a lot of people, in point of fact, but since "everybody's doing it" many people overlook it.

I digress. It's amazing what can cross my mind when a movie gets weird or boring. Maybe the thought just got pushed into my head, "This movie isn't terrible. It's great. It makes you think deep thoughts."

Or maybe I'm just trying to justify the money I shelled out to watch it.

-- Robert

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Happy Birthday, Ellie

Today is my wife's birthday. We have decided that between the need to celebrate the Texas Tech offer, the need to have a lovely date, and the birthday itself that we shall go to the Melting Pot with a couple of friends. We save it for really special occasions -this will only be our third trip. Still, for a wife as wonderful as mine, it was easy to want to treat her.

She has supported me every step of the way in pursuing my dream. Through the sudden flight to California, the applications to so many schools, the reading of academic literature ad nauseum, the trips to two schools, the recounting of numerous conversations and interviews with professors and students - she has encouraged me constantly. With the sudden decision to sell our home last summer before the first applications were even started, the exodus to in-laws, the later move to a tiny rental home, the fight with mice, dealing with so much of our stuff being in storage for all these months - she has kept her chin up. Now we face the prospect of having to move in to a tiny house, if we're even lucky enough to get a loan for one, and she has remained positive and faithful. We both know the Lord has had a great hand in all these steps - I feel like I ought to write a post just to list them for myself one more time - and yet she helped me remember him one more time, "Robert, if God wants you to go to Texas Tech, then should you wait for the offer to start turning down other schools?" She was right: I needed to be willing to have faith, but just as I made the commitment to do just what she suggested, the offer came (another miracle time amazingly).

This is a post about her, though, not me. I marvel at my wife some days. She does so much to raise our three beautiful children right. She works with each of them to make sure they get what they need. She spends hours thinking of those needs. She wears herself out and gives up so much of herself to do these things. I just hope I haven't kept her like a caged bird in this small town these past few years. I know being in a college town will invigorate her as much as it will me. I am looking forward to the first day we move in. For now, I will simply continue to count my blessings for her patience and understanding. I still don't always know what took me so long to follow this dream. She's known it was meant to be since we met, really, or at least since I was in graduate school before. She's never let me forget it, and I love her for believing in me.

So to my wife, on your birthday, my love, thank you for these six years we've been together, nearly six years of marriage, and more than seven of wonderful friendship. Thank you for being who you are. Most of all, thanks for marrying me.

-- Robert

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Bump in the Road

With newly accepted offer in hand, Friday I began contacting bankers - through Lending Tree, through email, and by phone - to determine what I needed to get pre-approved for a loan.

They all began their responses with some version of, "In these tough economic times..."

Yet I pressed on. I would not be dissuaded from trying to buy instead of rent when I knew I would not be one of those people foreclosing in a year or two. No, I know I will make good on any loan I receive. Finally, two of them seemed interested in helping me, and one seemed like she actually thought she might succeed in the attempt.

If nothing else, we could rent something, but we would just rather not lose all that rent that could be built up in equity. We would also rather buy in this great buyer's market and hope to sell in a few years when it has had time to recover. If we just live in a small place, we should be fine. We just might have to make very efficient use of any space we have (think, IKEA).

I'll say one thing: it's exciting to be at this stage. Having the decision behind us is much easier on the psyche. Now we can plan a lot more of our future. Once we have our housing lined up, we'll be even more able to focus forward. Then comes the major job: moving.

One step at a time for now, though. Anyone with the magic answer for bankers in this market, I'm all ears.

-- Robert

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Official Offer

I was going to update yesterday's post after I received an invitation from the school I had a phone interview with - I had not expected that invite for another week - but today's message makes that a moot point. I received a phone call from the Ph.D. coordinator at Texas Tech University letting me know I have been officially accepted. He also let me know what my compensation would be as a doctoral student (they call it salary, other schools call it a stipend), which makes the offer complete. I will receive a letter later today with all he said in writing, but it is nice to have the personal touch of a direct contact.

So, I now know where I will be headed next fall: Lubbock, TX, and Texas Tech University. We loved our visit. My wife made a great connection with the wife of my future professor, and I connected well with several. We loved the town, the church, the temple (it will be great to have it only a few minutes from our home), and really everything about it. Most importantly, I prayed about it the entire time I was at my in-laws, and I received a blessing from my father-in-law. In that blessing, I clued in to the word "guidance" as much as anything else. The very next day, one of my professors replied to my email to encourage me strongly to accept the offer if I felt right about it, and another went from telling me to wait to agreeing that I should probably accept it. I already felt the answer was to accept, but with the blessing and those two emails I saw more than coincidence. I saw an answer to prayer.

So, in a few months, we will move to Texas, one of the last places in the country I ever imagined living. We'll be among the thousands of windmills, the tumbleweeds, and the flatland, but most importantly, we'll be among people who care about us and want to see me succeed. I never imagined my search would come to such a great place, and yet here I am, grateful for the guidance I have received from mentors and friends, but also thankful I - no, we - had the faith to follow the Lord's will a few months ago.

-- Robert

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

More News

For anyone still wondering, I have now heard that I am finalist from another school. I had an excellent phone interview with them, and I anticipate being asked to fly to meet the rest of the Ph.D. committee, if I don't stop them from inviting me. I enjoyed the good advice the professor gave me to read books instead of articles before I get to school because I won't have time to read them once I get going, but I'll want to. So I ordered one of Joseph Schumpeter's books that is very often cited, and also Frank Knight's book. After I get done reading Dr. Hunt, I may have time to get in another Asimov book before those arrive, but if not I'll probably start reading them next.

One of the first schools to contact me let me know I was their top candidate, but they are working to get funding arranged. The committee at the school where I anticipate accepting is meeting today, so I expect to hear something more concrete from them by the end of the week, if not today. I still have no word from the last two on my list, but I suspect they may have gone in a direction that excludes me. If that is true, I am fine with that because I have found a real home where I plan to accept. Unless something goes terribly wrong, I should be announcing my new school very soon.

-- Robert

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Self Interest

Economics often assumes that all individuals act in their own self interest. The movie A Beautiful Mind showed how much of a breakthrough it was to even question such a belief, in fact. The subject of the film won a Nobel Prize for Economics for showing that people will often act in their own interest with regard to a group. Yet most economics classes teach the idea that markets move because individuals will always act to help themselves.

Thankfully, we, as individuals and as a group, are not required to act as automatons of economic function. We have a great moderator to our self-interest: morals. Many people will not take advantage of someone less fortunate because their own ethics will not let them. A study in the book I'm reading even demonstrated that 40-60% of people will refuse a "free ride" when offered it. They will insist on paying some fair value for the good or service.

Todd, my co-writer, once told me that his friend in the vending business found the highest profit margins in what he called "honor baskets". He would put out some candy or other item with a sign that said asked for the payment to be dropped in the box. Some theft occurred, but the fact that he made money showed that people did pay when it would be easy to steal. Newspapers are sold on the honor system in many places - put in the requisite money and only take one paper. All these evidence a goodness in most people - a basic moral code - that prevents them from acting only as hedonists, driven by their wants above all else.

To me, that is a beautiful thing to learn from research. Certainly it throws a monkey wrench into certain theories that requires a great deal of reformulation, but what a great problem to have. Accounting for morality - what a discipline.

-- Robert

Monday, March 2, 2009

Theory Versus Practice - an Age Old Debate

This week, thanks to a great conversation followed by a wonderful after dinner chat a week later, I got turned on to two authors. One is the great Isaac Asimov, one of the fathers of science fiction writing and a brilliant writer. Certainly others have suggested I read his work over the years, but since this professor helped me remember that one of my favorite writers, Orson Scott Card, admires him and told me how wonderful the Foundation series was, I decided to finally pick him up. I immensely enjoyed my first Asimov book, Prelude to Foundation. The second author he recommended by sending me a copy of his book A General Theory of Competition is Shelby D. Hunt. His intent in sharing Dr. Hunt's book was more to familiarize me with the mindset of my brilliant future professor, should I go to that school. I have just started on his book, and I noticed a connection I doubt this professor expected me to make, if indeed he made it himself.

Both books, it would seem, take notice of the problem that arises when theory is put into practice. Asimov's whole book centers around a mathematician who, once he presented a paper on a theory he developed, becomes the center of attention for many powerful groups. He continually tries to explain how impractical his theory is to actually use - it is simply something he believes would be possible, if a great deal of information were ever able to be summarized. Since no one person or even a large group of people could expect to bring that data together, though, it is therefore "possible but impractical". He repeats that phrase a great deal. There is a lot more to the book to make it a wonderfully enjoyable read, but his quest throughout centers on making the impractical usable.

Dr. Hunt's book, just as the title suggests, puts forth a general theory of competition. He hopes to include various groups of research under one larger area he calls "Resource Advantage Theory". He notes in the introduction that one of the flaws of the theory of perfect competition within the school of neoclassical economics is how imperfectly it predicts real world events. Theory should, according to one of his sources, "explain and predict phenomena well" but the theory of perfect competition is notoriously bad at predicting problems because perfect competition rarely exists in the real world.

And that's where I thought, "That's the rub, isn't it?" Theory sounds great in the ivory towers of academia. Studying phenomena - events, people, transactions, etc. - and extracting meaning from it - that is the work of scholars. Great theory, though, one would hope, can actually be put into use but what scholars even call "practitioners." I know I have spent many conversations with various parties - my father especially - discussing the problem of expecting a theory learned in a class to apply to an actual situation. Will a decrease in supply automatically mean an increase in price? Will an increase in demand mean the same thing? Neither of those things are a given, simply because there are more variables in the equation of life than just supply and demand, especially supply of and demand for one particular good or service. Economists failed to predict the burst of the Internet Stock Bubble quickly or well, and the danger housing market crash leading to a huge recession in the general marketplace went largely unnoticed until it happened. The reason is because humanity, in all its facets, is an unpredictable force. Asimov's mathematician hoped to find a way to predict the future of a people based of some known starting point. He felt it was impossible, even twenty-plus thousand years into the future with all the made up innovations in his world.

So how can we, or perhaps I should say I, hope to find some theory to predict the outcome of certain events? I'll have to do some research, I suppose. Some research, and maybe a little experimentation in the form of suggesting my ideas to actual businesses and business people in the hopes of seeing those theories in action. For now, I just hope I can learn the science of research, which is exactly what Dr. Hunt might teach me. I am glad I took the advice of a great professor and read both these amazing writers.

-- Robert