Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Oh, the Things that I have Learned! – Part 2

© 2024 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Continuing on from Part 1, here is the second set of topics!

History and Geography

See my essay, "August 2022: A Little Bit of History."

For me, history didn't come alive until I started to travel to places that I'd heard about in history lessons or in the news. Standing on the Waterloo or Hastings Battlefields, visiting Dover Castle (from which the evacuation from Dunkirk was managed during WWII), standing on the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream" speech, touring the Colosseum in Rome, or visiting the Cabinet War Rooms in London, all had a profound effect on me. As did visits to the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu in Peru, and the Mayan ruins at Tikal in Guatemala and Chichen Itza in Mexico.

Lessons learned:

  • Watching a video or seeing pictures of a historic place is not like actually being there, where you can close your eyes and "feel" the place.
  • Understanding the history, religion, and military past of a country or area can be educational. I really appreciated this when I spent a day in Bosnia Herzegovina. I read about the Ottoman occupation, I looked at the country's shape, and learned about the languages spoken.
  • Petra, Jordan, is well worth visiting.
  • The Americas were not discovered in 1492; the locals knew they were there for thousands of years! Besides, the Vikings visited much earlier.
  • From time to time, history gets rewritten.

I've always liked geography, and I like to look at all kinds of maps, especially those annotated in foreign languages. Place and country names you take for granted are often different than in English, and unrecognizably so. (See my essay, "What is Normal Part 7: What's in a Name.")

Lessons learned:

  • The earth is not flat; in any event, I have never fallen off the edge! And I have seen the curvature of the horizon from quite high up.
  • I've witnessed the Aurora Borealis several times from 30,000 feet (10,000 m) up while flying overnight from Tokyo to Washington DC.
  • Borders between countries are a man-made convention, although more than a few (partly) follow physical features (such as rivers).
  • Watching a volcano erupt (in Costa Rica) and feeling the ash on my face downwind was quite an experience. However, it's best not to climb an active volcano! While at this very mountain, I met a man wearing a full cast on a broken leg sustained when he attempted an ascent! Why did he do it? Apparently, it seemed like a good idea at the time, especially after a few beers.
  • Standing on a glacier and looking at the places it has carved rock can be humbling.
  • Birds do indeed migrate south during the northern winter. There I was in November on a tour bus crossing the Patagonia in Chile, when we came to a large lake with thousands of wall-to-wall flamingos, busy eating shellfish, which gives them their pink plumage.
  • What seems like a mirage just might be real! On the same tour mentioned above, I saw an iceberg the size of a small house way out in an arid region. It had broken off a glacier in the Andes Mountains, floated down the resulting meltwater river, and run aground a long way from home.
  • When I went down the Amazon River in Peru and saw local kids swimming in water known to be occupied by piranhas, I was reliably informed that there was plenty of other food for the fish to eat that season, so swimming was safe! I for one was not convinced!
  • Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock) is a fine place to visit at sunrise or sunset, especially when you understand something of the local Australian Aboriginal dreamtime.
  • Flying in a commercial jet very close to the level of the world's tallest waterfall (Angel Falls in Venezuela), and not very far from it, was exhilarating, and included in my US$28 fare from Caracas to Canaima.
  • Nature can be very patient, and unforgiving.
  • Not all deserts are as devoid of life as is much of the Sahara.
  • Iceland is green, and Greenland is icy; hmm!
  • Alaska is much bigger than Texas; can you imagine that!
  • When you first land in a city that is at 12,100 feet altitude (3,400 m), like Cusco, Peru, it's best not to race around like you might when at sea-level (so he says after having done so and then vomiting in the street outside the city's main cathedral!)

See my essay, "April 2018: These United States."

My Time with Computers

I was more than four years into working in the field of chemistry when I was first exposed to computing, via a semester course in a programming language, on a timesharing minicomputer. Ten minutes into that first lecture, I knew my purpose in life. At age 20, I was finally passionate about something!

Over the years, I've learned the following programming languages and written programs in them and/or studied them at length: several advanced dialects of BASIC, COBOL, Fortran, DIBOL, C, C++, Java, C#, PHP, and Hack. And I've had a cursory look at JavaScript, Python, and Rust. I've worked on mainframes, minicomputers, and PCs, and on applications for business, mapping, and engineering, among others.

Lessons learned:

  • Don't wait for someone else to pay to train you. Invest in yourself. For example, in most cases, I learned the languages above in my own time and on my own computers.
  • Not every work-related activity needs to result in income.
  • It's OK to not know everything about a topic; for example:
    • I edited a 4-Part, 6,500-page specification that documented the file format of MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Initially, I was concerned that I didn't know enough about each of these tools, but it quickly occurred to me that the sheer size of the project made that pretty much impossible, especially if I wanted to have a life as well!
    • I was tasked with writing a formal specification for the language PHP, yet I had never looked at that language, let alone written a program in it. (The result was a 200-page spec that was well received by the industry.)
    • For 15 months, I chaired the JavaScriptTM standards committee without ever having written a program in that language.
  • I taught myself about formal computer language grammars.
  • I learned how to write formal/precise specifications.
  • I learned how to successfully participate in, and lead, committees. (See my essay, "March 2012: How Committees Work.")
  • While a lot of programming languages have features (and even syntax) in common, there are more than a few that don't look like anything else. A few years ago, I had the privilege of working with a group that was designing a new language. Some things I thought fundamental to programming were missing, such as support for any kind of looping. (That was achieved by making recursive calls to methods!)
  • My time with computers paid out, big time! It led to my designing and programming interesting applications; writing a lot of documentation; becoming a published author; becoming an editor and publisher; developing and teaching seminars; launching my consulting career; and it allowed me to get into the world of formal standards and specifications. The vast majority of my business travel supported these activities, and this led to an exposure and appreciation of cultural conventions and languages, as well as meeting a lot of very interesting people.
  • In the good old days, one could work in the IT world for five years and be "King of the Hill!" However, ever since everyone could own their own computer, things have been evolving so much and so fast, one must constantly be aware of new inventions to remain relevant. That said, the leading edge is generally not the best place to be when managing an IT project that has budget constraints and deadlines.
  • As an applications programmer, don't do critical testing on a remote computer in an unmanned hydro power station located way out in the woods, in the middle of the night. When I crashed the remote computer, two electricians had to be called in to drive out there at 2 am, to reboot the system, and they each got paid for four hours.
  • The way to distinguish yourself from the pretenders is to charge a higher hourly rate. Regarding rates, 30-odd years ago, I decided that beyond (then) US$65/hour, one needed to sell oneself differently. Up to that point, people had an image of how much tangible work product one could produce in an hour. Beyond that rate, one had to convince them one was getting them to a point they couldn't get themselves, or by making their people productive (such as charging US$2,500/day to train 20 of their employees in a new technology).

Politics and Government

In all my years in school in rural Australia, I don't recall much time being spent on civics. And I certainly never developed much of an interest in politics, except perhaps for South Australian Premier (and for some years, my local state representative), Donald Dunstan. (BTW, in Australia, voting is compulsory!) However, once I moved to the US and decided to stay, I started paying more attention, and have since developed a significant interest in the US Federal Senate and the Supreme Court. I've also been known to take a copy of the US Constitution with me on vacation, just for some light reading!

See my essays, "September 2012: A Little Bit of American Civics" and "October 2012: A Little Bit More American Civics."

Lessons learned:

  • For a very long time, I've theorized that the best form of government is a benevolent dictatorship. However, as it happens, most dictators don't start out as benevolent, or if they do, they don't stay that way. In any event, I've decided that it would be most embarrassing to be appointed "King of the World" and not have a plan, so, just in case, I am working on a plan, so I can "hit the ground running!"
  • I really don't like that US law allows sales and other businesses callers to be placed on a "Do not call" list but exempts politicians and political parties.
  • I much prefer the US Congressional system over the British Parliamentary system. Having a CEO for a country makes as much sense as it does for a company. This completely avoids coalition governments and all their problems, as well as paralysis in decision making in a country where big decisions are made by consensus instead of by a single leader.
  • To be elected President or Vice President of the US, one must be born a US citizen; one cannot simply have acquired citizenship later.
  • My baptism of fire in the US was a year in Chicago, where I first learned about the suggestion to, "Vote early and vote often!"
  • Given the way in which men have run the world for a very long time, I'm more than happy to let woman have a try.

There's a story that some years ago, the winter here in the Washington DC area was so cold, that Federal politicians were seen with their hands in their own pockets!

Mark Twain once wrote, "Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself." 

I've read most of Bill Bryson's books. From his "Down Under/In a Sunburned Country" comes the following wickedly funny quote: "… John Howard [who at the time was Prime Minister of Australia] is by far the dullest man in Australia. Imagine a very committed funeral home director – someone whose burning ambition from the age of eleven was to be a funeral home director, whose proudest achievement in adulthood was to be elected president of the Queanbeyan and District Funeral Home Directors' Association – then halve his personality and halve it again, and you have pretty well got John Howard."

Winston Churchill famously said, "Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…'

There is a joke about Gough Whitlam, one-time Prime Minister of Australia, when he was asked, "Do you have a plan to shorten the unemployment lines?" To which he replied, "I'd ask the people to stand closer together!"

To read about my involvement in the 2008 US Presidential election, as an independent, who had just obtained US citizenship, see my essay, "August 2010: Confessions of an Obama Volunteer." Also see, "June 2010: Australia and the U.S. – A Contrast."

Children and Parenting

Adopting a child generally involves a lot of time, paperwork, and sometimes legal expenses. And you can be turned down for all kinds of reasons. But to produce your own child you simply need a partner of the opposite sex and a bottle or two of wine! (For advice on how to do this, see Dave Barry's absolutely hilarious book, "Babies and Other Hazards of Sex: How to Make a Tiny Person in Only 9 Months, with Tools You Probably Have Around the Home," copies of which I have often given to parents expecting their first child.)

Lessons learned:

  • Sometimes the most important things are not regulated, but perhaps they should be.
  • Don't be an enabler. (See "Volunteerism and Philanthropy" below.)
  • I once read that, "Children are for people who can't have dogs!" That is, if you had a well-behaved dog, why on earth would you be messing with kids? Why indeed!

Someone once wrote that, "Children should be seen and not had!" a subtle variation on this version. Also, "While children in the backseat can cause accidents, accidents in the backseat can cause children!"

For my experience at establishing an allowance for my son, see "September 2010: Making Allowances."

ESL/ESOL Tutoring

[The teaching of English to adults has often gone by the terms "English as a second language (ESL)" or "English for speakers of other languages (ESOL)."]

See my essay, "August 2011: Teaching English as a Second Language."

I've tutored three long-term clients in English: A young laborer from El Salvador, an older farm worker from Mexico, and a 30-something university graduate from Afghanistan. And I did it with minimal training. In the first case, the man was illiterate in his own language, Spanish, and he had no numeracy skills. We mostly worked on speaking and reading, with some writing. In the second case, it was all about conversation. And in the third case, it involved reading, writing, and formal grammar. In all cases, we met for an hour each week.

Lessons learned:

  • While having some knowledge of the student's language can be an asset, don't use it more than is absolutely necessary. Afterall, they are there to learn English, so they need to hear and speak it.
  • Although a student might be able to read and write some English sentences, that doesn't mean they understand them. Make sure they comprehend them as well!
  • Don't let a student waste your (or their) time! They need to
    • Arrive to lessons on time.
    • Come prepared to learn.
      • Bring a pen/paper or electronic device to take notes.
      • Bring appropriate materials/handouts from previous meetings.
      • Bring questions about words, signs, and such they have heard/read since the previous meeting.
      • Be ready to engage, be proactive, ask questions, and make mistakes.
    • Do work between meetings.
  • Ideally, visible progress should be seen at each meeting.
  • Each meeting's work should build on or reinforce that from previous meetings.

Volunteerism and Philanthropy

I've been involved with volunteer work and philanthropy for 50-odd years.

Lessons learned:

  • Ignoring external influences (which can sometimes be very significant), most adults in trouble are exactly where they deserve to be based on the decisions they've made or those they have refused to make.
  • Way too many people claiming to be helping, either are not, or are actually getting in the way!
  • Some volunteers aren't committed. My worst experience of this was a woman telling me, "Don't blame me, I'm only a volunteer!" My reply, "You should do your best and take pride in whatever you do whether or not you are paid!"
  • Bureaucracy can get in the way. When I called a non-profit group asking about making a donation, I was told, "We only do fundraising twice a year, and now isn't one of those times" They either couldn't or wouldn't take my money!
  • All the petty (and not-so-petty) politics from a paid job pervade volunteer groups. Some members want to take all the credit and none of the blame!
  • Beware of becoming an enabler (he says from experience). According to Wikipedia, "In a negative sense, "enabling" can describe dysfunctional behavior approaches that are intended to help resolve a specific problem but in fact may perpetuate or exacerbate the problem." Some people must hit rock bottom before they can start saving themselves or be saved by others.
  • It's important to understand Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. People at different levels need different treatment/support.
  • I've learned to practice tough love. When people complain to me about their situation, I often ask the following:
    • Who has the most to gain by having a good outcome? You do! And who has the most to lose by having a bad outcome? You do! So, who should be putting in most of the effort to turn things around? You, of course! So, what are you doing about it? Don't just tell me what you think someone else should be doing!
    • If you aren't interested in yourself, then why should anyone else be interested in you?
  • I very much appreciate the old proverb, "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

See my essay, "January 2013: Starting your Own Non-Profit."

On Being Self-Motivated and, Eventually, Self-Employed

I distinctly remember it was during my final high-school year (in 1969, at age 15) that I realized I was an entrepreneur-in-waiting! Of course, for more than a few years after that, I worked for someone else and (mostly, but not always) followed their orders. (I once refused a direct order from a corporate Vice President, and kept my job!)

At age 18, I bought my first car, a Morris Minor utility vehicle (AU: ute). Not long after, I met an elderly woman who wanted someone to haul away trash from her yard and to clean out some sheds. I took on the job, and as we got along so well, she kept finding things for me to do, and she insisted on feeding me a big lunch each time. I then bought a lawn mower, which I used to trim her grass on a regular basis. This was my first business, and I did it on weekends and evenings.

I learned about a construction site that needed a laborer on weekends to clean-up after the bricklayers, plumbers, roofers, and other tradesmen were done (they only worked Monday–Friday), and to prepare for their next week's work by digging drainage trenches for pipes, and hauling bricks and tiles.

My first professional job was managing a small quality control lab at a vegetable oil factory. After being there for more than a year, I found that management really needed someone to fill plastic bottles with vegetable oil, but they didn't have anyone to do it. I proposed that as I had keys to the plant, I knew how to drive a forklift, and "Mr. Efficiency" was my nickname, I could do it on weekends, when the plant was idle. And as I would do it as a contractor, there were no union problems.

My second professional job was as a lab technician in the pesticide-residues section of a state government food and drug lab. And while the work was interesting and had socially redeeming value (we were watchdogs over the state capital's egg, milk, and fruit and vegetable supply), it left a lot of idle time while lab equipment ran unattended for hours processing samples. I noticed that the agency had no central process for getting repairs done to structural things like plumbing, exhaust fans/fume hoods, and power supplies. So, I offered to be the "go-to" guy, which got me out and about looking for the Public Buildings Department tradespeople in the surrounding building complex. Although there was no monetary gain, I learned the value of creating a job tailor-made for myself without having to compete with others. (In that role, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting with, and talking to, Sir Mark Oliphant, a prominent Australian physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, and who was at the time we met, the Governor of South Australia, the Queen's representative in that state.)

In 1976, I changed careers, moving from chemistry to computer programming (at the South Australian state Department of Highways). A year into that, I saw an opportunity to do something different and challenging with a highway-planning engineer. Once he saw that I was interested in his project, he had me unofficially seconded to him. Eventually, that led to a second project. And, ultimately, to a transfer to the Digital Mapping group. Once there, as well as designing and coding several mapping-related systems, I proposed a plan to make the whole office more productive by having me stay (outside ordinary Government hours) to run stand-alone computer backup each week, which allowed them an extra half day/week of computer access.

In July 1984, having a newly minted Green Card, I went into business for myself as an independent computer consultant. At the same time, my wife and I bought a 3-story townhouse, and our son was born. There was absolutely no room for failure; there was no Plan B! As such, I worked furiously for at least a year doing whatever it took, after which time, I started thinking about working smart; that is, being more efficient. This resulted in two rules, which I have never violated and that I have reinforced many times:

  1. Never, ever hire anyone.
  2. Take as much time off as I can afford. (That started at three months off per year, spread over the year, then grew to six months, and eventually to nine months.)

When I moved to working halftime, someone asked me how I could afford to do that. My semi-serious response was, "I simply doubled my rate!"

See my essay, "October 2011: Starting Your Own Business."

Lessons learned:

  • No matter who you actually work for, you really work for yourself!
  • When you are self-employed, you can do anything, but you have to do everything! In a 1-person shop or small business, you are the technical person, the businessperson, the legal person, ….
  • After my first (and only) time managing staff, I knew that I never wanted to do that again. Specifically, I did not want to be a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a marriage counsellor, or even a motivator. Instead, I was a doer!
  • Something like 80% of all small businesses in the US fail in their first five years.
  • Many small businesses are started by one person, who does not have a Number 2 person who can be trusted to run the business in the absence of the owner. As such, the owner often has little or no time off.
  • Time away from work is important. See my essay, "July 2012: Are You Getting Enough Vacation?"
  • The traditional model of working for many years and then retiring, has never been for me! I do not plan on retiring, ever!


See you in Part 3!