Will the torch be passed?

March 30, 2009

Jack Ganssle-March 30, 2009

In 1973, I read Dove, a remarkable book about Robin Lee Graham's five-year voyage around the world in a small sailboat.1 It had never occurred to me that one could sail a small vessel such vast distances. He related stories of remote islands and peoples that fired my imagination, many of which were eight miles below my plane as I was on a business trip to Australia at the time. I swore I'd someday follow in his wake. Just a few years later, I pointed my ancient wooden sloop south, bound around, but that dream was shipwrecked north of Cuba. Although the fire still burns, the golden chains we weave have kept my sailing wanderings mostly confined to both sides of the Atlantic.

This February, I finally circumnavigated the planet, though in a week at 600 knots. The trip didn't slake my desire to sail around this astonishing planet we inhabit. But my visits with engineers in India and China make me wonder if, as John F. Kennedy once said, "The torch has been passed to a new generation..."

Engineers tend to be pessimistic: we're paid to do worst-case analysis on our products, to find ways these systems can fail, and to increase margins to mitigate against such failure. We plug exception handlers into the code to handle awful events and do FEMA studies to ensure inevitable problems won't hurt users. We run code coverage, complexity analysis, lint, and far more to find those lousy problems that we know are lurking, just waiting to wreak havoc.

Sometimes that pessimism creeps into other aspects of life. What if those investments tank? Who will intervene if the kid crunches the car while Mom and Dad are out of town? Does it make sense to keep a chunk of money in the home safe in case there's a bank holiday?

I console myself that confronting these branching possibilities is a form of risk management. My wife wonders why I can't assume we'll follow a straight and easy path.

And so I'm distraught at the current financial meltdown. Is this a world-changing singularity or just a needed correction? I know nothing of economics, but after living through many recessions, this one feels different. In other troubled times, we were urged to "whip inflation now," to wear cardigans, or to spend like drunken sailors. Today so many dire warnings--nay, sheer hysteria--emanate from Washington that panic seems the only reasonable recourse. Most of us have become pretty cynical about scares pronounced with pseudo-gravitas by our elected representatives, but the new zeitgeist seems to be one of fear, itself. The markets and economics baffle me, but even if one filters out 90% of CNN's recession news the near future looks awfully scary. Looking further ahead, I can't help wondering if this recession will lead to a transformation in the world order.

I did say I'm a pessimist.

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