A Yellow Light on the Dashboard of Life

This page written circa 3 May, 2004.

There is this old story used to reassure the depressed Westerner of his good fortune. What is the most important thing to a human? Well, breathing is most important. If you are at risk of drowning you pretty well concentrate on nothing else but keeping your head above water. Once you can breathe, having food to eat comes next. After that, shelter. If you are miserable because you cannot manage to organise a matching pair of socks to wear to work, your worries are feeble in the grand scale of life, not really sufficient for you to ruin your happiness. This view of the world is good for putting problems into perspective.

I am sitting in the study, adding a few touches to a small model railway that I started building about 8 years ago, reciting to myself that it is Edwin, not me, that is the train fanatic. You would accept that easily if I tell you that this railway was started to utilise some N-scale rolling stock and locomotives that I bought on a European trip in the late 1980s, that it is styled to remind me of a trip I took with Kay in about 1995, and that this thing is so small it packs into a box about 15cm by 15cm by 2m. The harder evidence to explain away is why there are now two new Z-scale layouts in the cupboard, two more under the table in various degrees of completion, and a nearly-completed glass-topped table behind me that contains a zoo with a train running around it in miniature under the glass. I have this queue of model projects in progress, all awaiting deliveries of exotic things, like 200:1 scale zoo animals that are made to order in some small German business. I am also putting together an AtomFilms-inspired short film project with some colleagues.

Nevertheless, it is true that it is Edwin who has a fanatical, exclusive, obsession with trains. The reasons for this plethora of projects (that happen to include trains, because they can and because it pleases Edwin and me) leads down a more sinister path of thought than a bit of railway indulgence.

When a company is expanding, it is a good place to work. There are new challenges arising, new people arriving, plenty of resources to get the job done, and of course perks and raises for the able. I observe that the same rule applies from households to cities to states to countries: Growth is good, stagnation bad.

The Scott household has fewer renovation projects these days. We largely have the house as we want it. There are some rooms upstairs with trite wallpaper, it is peeling a bit in Merinda's room, and the East fence is propped up with planks. However, wallpaper is low priority and Kay's domain in any case, and the fence will be a paid job shared with Lou next door. There is not a lot of domestic work that demands my attention. My train and woodwork projects (I have made a new table for garden dining, though we do not have a great need for one) create the "growth" of the household.

Fascinating challenges at work all but dried up last year. There are others about Tech Center with time on their hands. My response has been to address the stated long-term goals in Tech Center, and develop higher level designs, serious IP that will give Agilent revolutionary new capabilities and products in years to come. The problem is that the tight financial conditions that onset in 2000 have not lifted, at least not for Tech Center. Thus my project does not go ahead, and I divert that creative energy homeward instead.

It has been reported to me that the VP said "I am getting tired of killing Phaser". Phaser is my project. The problem is that this sentence can be taken two ways... does he mean that he realises the value, appreciates that no matter how often he has to refuse to fund the project it reappears because his people cannot bear to let it drop, but is strung for cash so repeatedly he can't bear it any longer? Or does it mean he wants the project to go away permanently because he cannot see any hope or any use for it? My Phaser plan would give us prototypes for a fraction of the usual instrument development cost, and the applications are so wide that while no exact market exists, there are several markets into which we might expect it to make inroads. In short, it is a commanding prospect to solve our Innovator's Dilemma. In spite of widespread, grass-roots support, it is not going anywhere.

The increasing concensus is that too few people were laid off, leaving extant groups with too little cash after the salary bill to undertake interesting discretionary projects. Increased transfers of manufacturing to Malaysia add to the expectation that the next round of layoffs will be very painful. All in all, Tech Center is being squeezed so hard it cannot grow. It is stagnating.

California has a similar problem. In spite of having state income tax and sales tax (while places like New Hampshire and Nevada do not) it is deep in debt. Businesses are moving out, even Agilent is pushing all it can to Malaysia. I think of California as having spent way too much on petty do-good legislation, but in truth it is not clear where the money goes. It is clear that it is shrinking, while places like Nevada are growing at breakneck speed. A person with common sense and no roots would be looking at leaving California.

One tends to associate right-wing political parties with fiscal responsibility, but Bush follows Reagan in utterly mangling the country's economy. (Leave aside its international reputations on matters military, human rights and protocols green.) Geoff calculated in a recent meeting of 5 people that there ought to have been over a quarter of a million dollars of national debt to be paid by the people in that room. I pointed out that I would leave when the payments came due. Real soon now there will be serious national financial problems, inflation, fall in the US$, stagnation in some sectors.

When I gripe about the apparent waste of turning my creative energies to things like making portable model railways, superfluous if beautiful tables, and 90-second movies, you might think at once that I am getting upset about having socks that do not match. It isn't the odd socks, it's the suggestion that there is a dragon in the next room, a dragon that has been so far content to eat only my laundry, but that is likely to get hungrier soon.

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