Friday, March 30, 2012

People Read This Apparently

So a funny thing happened last night when I was at Dinner Club.  Dinner Club is essentially a bunch of people getting together for dinner and drinking a lot.  You all probably call this "dinner" but this is DC and it needs to have an air of exclusivity.  And so one of the people there, Fareha, said that she would read my blog when she was working and overseas and feeling down to cheer her up. It was an odd moment for me.  Reminding me again that I'm glad I blog and its cool that people enjoy it as much as I do.

It reminds me of when I was a DJ in college.  Now unlike most DJs, who are hacks and sound like this:

But college radio is different.  DJs only have 1 show for a 2-3 hour time slot per week.  And the shows vary all over the board.  I used to have the show before the Polka Guys who were locals from the community who had the most popular radio show by far on the station. So there was no continuity and most people did a show because they liked playing their music.  I started with the amazing time slot of 6-8AM on Sundays, which I probably missed 30% of when I overslept. 

But when you're in the small studio with carpet on the walls and ceiling, and talking into a microphone and playing songs from the actual DC Cab soundtrack on LP, you could quite easily forget that people were out there.  I mean I had friends who might set their alarm and then snooze through the show, or a girlfriend who might listen out of pity, but that was about it.  Everyone one else was unknown to me.  So when we asked people to call in and the phones lit up.  (Literally the phone is connected to a strobe light so the DJ can see it when the music is really loud)

That sort of feels like this blog.  Which I must admit makes me usually feel like the end of Doogie Howser when NPH is typing away on his monchrome screen.  Except people do actually read this.  So thanks for reading and sharing.  I realize that between Facebook and Lobster Porn, there's a lot of places you could be on the Internet and I appreciate you stopping by my small head space. 

P.S.  Fareha and her fiancee Chris are getting married and their union is like an awesome force of good in the universe.  So on Memorial Day weekend, if the air seems a little cleaner and the people a little nicer, its because these two do gooders, probably covered in henna, have just said I do. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Downward Spiral of Office Locations

Good Afternoon.  I'm writing to you from a non-descript building in McLean, VA. Not because I'm doing secret work but more because all of the buildings here look the same.  This place is terrible.  But let's start from the beginning.

18th and K NW
When I first arrived in our nation's capital, my office was located at 18th and K St.  Right in the heart of DC.  If K St. sounds familiar its because it's known as the home of lobbying in DC.  There was an NGO in our building which took most of the building and they once had a Sherpa conference.  I thought that was pretty cool.  Though I wondered if the attendees had to bring the podium, speakers, chairs and water glasses with them.  I was able to walk to my office in about 15 mins.  Not since my one year in the North End, did I get to walk to work.  It was awesome.  And because it was awesome, it only lasted about 10 months.  The office, which used to be Henry Kissinger's after he left government, apparently cost $20,000 a month.  And our new corporate overlords were not really excited about paying that.  So, then we went to.....

Crystal City
As an area, this place isn't terrible.  I now was driving, but it was a reverse commute and it was right across the river from DC, and there was parking.  So overall I didn't really complain.  I had a great view too, of the Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the approach path of DCA as well as the railroad and I-395.  It was a kickass view.  But overall, Crystal City is a terrible place.  It was designed in all its concrete glory by an evil mastermind named Charles E Smith.  You can read his obit here.  The buildings are all interconnected, which is great if you live in Duluth or Minot, ND.  But in DC, there's no reason to have to walk from your office to your car or to Potbelly.

I really do think that the place, built in the late 60's, was an answer to some sort of nuclear winter.  There's restaurants, a supermarket, a theater company, doctors, dentists, shrinks, and most importantly a Dunkin Donuts.  If you want to feel like a commuter in a rat race, work there.  Later I got moved to an office with a terrible view.  In my company, as in others I'd guess, more senior people get window offices.  I would trade all of these windows for the cube I had at 18th and K.  Finally, due to a transfer I landed in McLean.

This is a really rich (per capital income around $83,000) and white (80%) area.  The CIA is located in the Langley area of McLean.  And of course, there's Tysons Corner, which is actually two malls that are huge.  One for normal folks and one for diplomat's wives who are trying to get rid of blood diamond money and the like.  Thank God we have stores for that.  Anyway, McLean is part of Northern Virginia that has seen a population explosion as people have been pushed further out to find homes.  There's no mass transit here, but in VA that's almost a given.  The Silver Line which is supposed to connect to Dulles is being built, snarling traffic in every direction.

But this place is an Edge City, a term coined by Urbanist Joel Garreau in 1991.  I read his book in college, and it was pretty interesting.  Basically an Edge City is a conglomeration of uninteresting glass or steel office buildings that spring up outside major cities that usually combine mixed-use commercial and some residential.   Garreau has five requirements to be an Edge City:

  • It must have more than five million square feet (465,000 m²) of office space. Such an area can accommodate between 20,000 and 50,000 office workers - as many as some traditional downtowns.
  • It must have more than 600,000 square feet (56,000 m²) of retail space, the size of a medium shopping mall. This ensures that the edge city is a center of recreation and commerce as well as of office work.
  • It must be characterized by more jobs than bedrooms.
  • It must be perceived by the population as one place.
  • It must have had no urban characteristics 30 years earlier.

I don't know about you, but that sounds terrible.  And it is.  To even call this a city is insulting as no one walks anywhere and there's no diversity or mass transit or real identity.  I had to go to the mall to get fitted for a suit for my brother's upcoming wedding and ran into these people from some office who had driven there to have their exciting lunch at P.F. Changs.  I wanted to smother them with my jacket, to ease their pain.  Blech.  

Hoping to return to living and working in a city, soon.  

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Power and Problem with Passion

I was trying to see if I could get one more "P" word in there, but I just couldn't.  So sorry.  Today is an interesting day.  Technically, the contract I'm working on is ending today which puts me out on the street.  However, I should be able to switch over to an existing client that I've been working with.  I gotta get out of here. Pondering billable hours is not fulfilling.

But back to passion.  So I have realized that passion is like a drug, or a girlfriend.  You can feel the highs of highs and everything is roses and unicorn farts.  But then when you crash, things suck, like really suck.  And you want to get back that passion to feel it again, but eventually you crash again.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

So I have heard back from all of the Kivans (their term) I emailed and I'm feeling quite good.  I have a conversation with their VP of Marketing on Monday to discuss an idea I have for a Kids program, which I think is pretty cool.  As typical with someone with ADHD, I am great with ideas.  And great at operations.  But horrible with implementation.  It reminds me of one of my favorite South Park episodes.
Anyway, so in talking to these people from Kiva and Opportunity Fund over the course of this week, I'm just learning to take a deep breath and enjoy the moment.  I'm trying to find a balance that allows me to get paid and work and yet also be fulfilled and passionate about things.

Still totally hooked on Kiva.  You can even see the people I loaned money to on the blog, in the left column.  Maybe it will inspire you to give some coin.

It's 80 degrees in DC in mid-March.  I fear that July might be hot enough to melt the sidewalks.  Pray for us.  Or try and stop carbon emissions with a cap.  Probably have better chance of praying though.

Monday, March 12, 2012


So it's been really nice reading the comments and emails that have come in, and I appreciate the support.  I would like to ask people to spend $25 of someone else's money, which sounds pretty easy. 

Just click here:

And then find someone in a country of interest or in an area of interest and loan away..... Do make sure to give Kiva a little something for the effort though. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Really Great Weekend.

In many ways, I struggle with what this blog is.  How do I combine my personal interests, like transportation and flying with my work, which is currently consulting?  More often than not, this blog also serves as my personal journal, which is weird because it’s public.  And my story isn’t very exciting or interesting, like people who are going through difficult times or working in the foreign service and looking to share their experiences.  But with all of the social media outlets that I use like Yelp, LinkedIn, Facebook and increasingly Twitter, I have found that while these provide outlets, they rarely provide a release or vent for my feelings or concerns.  I realize that this means that a reader base is hard to accumulate because this thing veers all over the place, but in a way I think that makes it more interesting. 

One of my problems is that I mean to blog much more and get behind and then the thing I wanted to talk about becomes the three things I wanted to talk about or 10 things.  Well, this past weekend I had an experience that requires blogging.  As a matter of fact, I’m typing this from 35,000 feet to a Word document just to make sure I get all of this down.

So I am a member of an online community called Milepoint.  The site was created by frequent flier guru Randy Peterson, who’s an incredibly kind man originally from Iowa.  The site allows people who belong to travel affinity programs (Starwood Preferred Guest, US Airways Dividend Miles, Hertz #1 Club Gold, etc) to talk with each other and answer questions and share ideas.  These questions can get really detailed, like what the best seat on a United 757 in the international configuration in First class.  These are people who love flying and travelling and will build up miles just so they can fly to Canada to see a friend for a weekend, because with this group, you’re friends can be all over the globe.  But this story isn’t really about Milepoint, per se.  Its about Milepoint’s relationship with Kiva. 

Maybe you don’t know about Kiva, or are vaguely aware. is a site that allows you to microlend.  This means that someone, in a country that has no financial system (Zambia) or a country where banks won’t give small loans to persons without a decent credit history (United States), cannot get money.  A typical loan on Kiva would be $700 for Marisol in Paraguay who has a food stand near a factory and wants to purchase a refrigerator to increase the types of goods that she can sell.  So I would go onto Kiva and lend her $25 (default donation) I can also see who their field partner is, which is the NGO that is providing them the money and support in country, in addition to the repayment terms of the loan.  Generally the repayment terms are 6-18 months.  And I would get my $25 back in my account in random increments like $2.75 in April and $4.50 in May. The video below is called Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Microfinance and it's pretty wild.  

Now, unlike DonorsChoose, which is another fascinating and awesome website that allows you to donate money to classrooms so they can buy supplies that aren’t covered by the budget, you are loaning the money in Kiva.  With no interest.  And the chance that the loan might default because Marisol’s food stand might be destroyed or she might have a death in her family and be unable to repay the loan.  Which means you don’t get your money back.  But most of the people I know consider their loan more of a donation anyway.  You have the option of withdrawing your Kiva funds as they are repayed, but over 90% of users choose to recycle or reinvest them in other loans. 

Various groups form Lending Teams on the Kiva website and they “compete” to see who can recruit the most members in a month or who can raise the most money.  It’s not really a competition because the act of giving is the reward, but people do like to see their team do well and get some attention.  Milepoint has a team.  An active team.  A really active team.  In the last 2 months, I’ve made about $400 in loans.  Sounds like a lot.  However in context, the Milepoint team of 650 people has raised $2.1 million dollars over 12 months.  Fastest growing team in Kiva history.  So, there was a meeting this weekend in San Francisco, where Kiva is headquartered that brought members of the Milepoint Team who could attend and Kiva Leadership and employees together.  We of course, wanted to meet these people and answer some questions we had and talk to them.  They wanted to find out who the hell we were that raised 2 million bucks in a year and wanted to talk to us.  It felt like two odd groups sizing each other up. 

Pause story…..
I think that passion is one of the most amazing things in this world.  Passion can allow people to do things for little money, sleep or food or water forever.  It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy gets slapped.  I had passion twice in my life.  I can tell, because my voice catches in the back of my throat and I start to sound like Bill Clinton asking people to picture a world…. The first was in college when I was working on this concept called the Poughkeepsie Institute that was going to bring students from Marist, Vassar, SUNY-New Paltz, Duchess Community College, the Culinary Institute of America and Bard all together.  It currently existed in a class that had students from all six schools and focused on issues in the local area.  But I envisioned a think tank, and a foundation that could bring in capital from these schools, intellectual and monetary, to help revitalize a city that had fallen on hard times.  I saw a building where students would come from all of the schools and mix with each other, which didn’t happen normally.  I also imagined a place that could help the City of Poughkeepsie with human capital in everything from investing to marketing.  A mini-consulting firm pro bono consisting of students and faculty who could help the city.  I even went so far as to meet with the Mayor, the Economic Development Director to look at spaces in the city that were vacant and that the city was interested in getting rid of for a song to get them developed.  But then, the Vassar advisor put the kibosh on the whole thing, angry that I’d struck out on my own and scared that the program was getting out of his control.  And it was…people were believing.  It was a beautiful thing.  But it didn’t last and and ended up with me yelling “Go Fuck Yourself” and storming out of the advisor’s office in tears. 

The next time I felt passion was when I had this idea about changing the way colleges raise money by being much more connected to their alumni.  I won’t go into it now, but it lost steam when people didn’t return emails or calls, and those that did basically said it wouldn’t work because the college gets decent money now without much work. 

So about 45 of us met with Kiva on Friday and Saturday.  I was already in San Francisco and so I got to tour their office and attend a happy hour.  It was over $3 cask ales at the Public House that I began to suspect this weekend was going to be different.  The people from Kiva I was talking to were just amazing people.  Many of them had left their jobs paying a lot more in the private sector.  They were fun and committed and I wondered if I lived in San Francisco, if we would hang out, even if I never worked at Kiva. 
Over the course of the 2 days, we brainstormed with them and they shared with us their visions and their concerns about growth and remaining true to their mission while expanding into new areas.  Kiva introduced the ability to microlend to the United States a few years ago, and that caused some anger among their lender base who thought that the U.S. with it’s large collection of wealth should be the last country that Kiva should launch in.  However, as the Occupy Wall Street movement has shown, that awesome amount of wealth is quite poorly distributed, no pun intended.  The manager of their US portfolio, spoke about how unlike international microfinance, the goal in this country was to get people loans to help them establish credit and a history of strong repayments and then to graduate them to the existing financial system.   She was pretty kick ass.  She got extra points for knowing about the Eastern Shores of Maryland and Virginia. 

People are really generous on our team.  So generous in fact that Kiva has had to modify their systems to allow for greater lending.  One of our members, was tired of clicking the $25 when he really just wanted to fund all agriculture loans in Africa for $100,000.  Think about that.  Even more awesome is that as a team we concentrated our money lending over the weekend for maximum effect, dubbed a money bomb.  This bomb was devastatingly effective.  It brought in $300,000 in 48 hours.  As an international team we benefit from being able to count the days by starting in Asia and ending in Hawaii.  It’s cheating, but I don’t think anyone minds.  That $300,000 is more than any team has loaned in a month! It’s staggering to think about actually.
So here I sit, at 35,000 feet, having finished my breakfast in First Class.  (Review: Frittata A-, Potatoes: B, Sausages: C+) On the way to the airport at 5:45 AM, I had already sent emails to the Kiva founder, Matt Flannery, and the Kiva President, Premal Shah, and their Development Manager, Erin Geiger trying to keep the conversations and relationships going and to let them know that I’m all in.  I’m a relationship person and just like in work, I believe you can tell a lot from a person by who they surround themselves with. The stunning thing to me about this weekend is that before Thursday, I supported Kiva to help Marisol buy a refrigerator. And now I want to support the organization that is Kiva.  I want to help Chelsa and Betsy and Josh and Martin, and Maika and Ali and all of them.  I have no idea what this means, to be honest.  I’m not sure I would want to work for them.  I’m not even sure what I could do for them, asides from being someone in the office that everyone liked, but in that way, I might as well be a dog.  I have skills but they generally revolve around dealing with people and managing people, which Kiva seems to have under control. I’m not even sure that have any interest in keeping a connection with me that’s more personal than my relationship as a lender to their borrowers and MFIs(Micro Finance Institutions).

I just know that based on my previous signs like my voice kept catching in my throat, and crying as I type this, that I’m hooked.   But there are much, much better tears than they were 13 years ago.  I feel like the Double Rainbow guy.
So worst case, I don’t get responses from Matt, Premal or Erin.  And I end up just connecting to them through one-way methods like their blog or their Twitter handle.  I’d be okay with that, because they have given me something so magical, even for such a short time.  They have reminded me that there is nothing I can’t do.  And they have reminded me how it feels to be with like minded people.  And to bring it back to 13 years ago, I’ll need profanity again.  It feels really fucking awesome. 

P.S. I have this post topped out at 4 pages.  I’m curious if anyone got this far, and if they did, what were their thoughts on the story.  Was it too long?  Did it make sense.  This has sort of been a kind of stream of consciousness thing, so I’m not sure that it is interesting to anyone, besides me.  And even I simply needed it as a place to put my feelings into words.
P.P.S. I need to tell you about Charlie Schumacher, but that will be another post.  I gotta wrap this up.  The woman across from me is wondering why this business guy is working on a document for the last hour and has suddenly begun to cry.  Thank God I’m not brown.  They’d probably detain me.  

P.P.P.S. (Seriously, this is actually gramatically correct) Premal emailed back, thanking me for the friendship.  I got it when I landed at the Charlotte Airport.  I also got the last seat for First Class on my next flight. I'm taking all of these things as a sign that I'm on the right track.