TV Top Picks #13: Engineering the Future: 3 Episode Series

The first of these 3 one-hour films is on wind power. I was instantly hooked.  In just over 50 minutes, you get amazing views into the interior workings of massively large wind turbines; learn extraordinary details on how they are made and what it takes to locate them.   At first I was a bit put off on having to join a new streaming service, this one called “CuriosityStream” to watch it, but that turned out to be an unexpected bonus.  If nothing else, watch this first episode on the engineering revolution going on in wind power and let me know what you think.

Before I tell you a tad more about these documentaries, let me explain CuriositySteam.  It was new to me, but apparently over 13 million subscribers have already discovered and signed up since it began in 2015, founded by the guy who created the Discovery Channel.  You need to subscribe, and it’s $2.99 a month or $19.99 annually for an HD subscription, although right now they have special $11.99/yr. offer.  Having cut the cable on our COX programming, I’m saving about $90 a month.  Being able to spend my subscription dollar on precisely the content I value and want to watch versus paying for massive amounts of programming I had no interest in is a no-brainer.  The way I figure it, I can sign up for another 25-30 monthly streaming services (Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, etc.) and I am still getting better value for my subscription dollar.  CuriosityStream offers thousands of documentary films across a variety of categories like science, history, mathematics, technology, robotics and nature. Think of it like the online version of The Great Courses, much more entertaining and less academic, but still authentic and accurate.

The 3 episodes in the Engineering the Future series are Wind, Aviation and Fusion, each one just under an hour.  Production quality is some of the best you will find.  Narration is done by David Attenborough and Patrick Stewart.  Interviews are conducted with scientists and engineers at the leading edge of research and production in each of these three areas, and scripted in a way that is easily understood for non-engineers like me. This is all new, cutting-edge stuff: one of the wind farms was just completed and brought onto the electric grid in the fall of 2020.

Were they that high?

jumping motorcycle

When visiting John Binder, one of the “old pharts” in Frank Del Monte’s orbit of British bike aficionados, I discovered a distinguished set of classic motorcycles and a spotless garage/workshop.  Holding 45 motorcycles at one point, John’s recently cut his collection to just over a half dozen exceptionally special and historic bikes.  These are carefully set up at various workstations making it convenient for his meticulous restoration work.

Full size pic below

After a tour and hearing the histories and stories of each bike, we lounged in his shop, reminiscing about younger days riding and racing.  Photos on the walls show John racing on Catalina Island in the mid-’50s and at Ascot Park Raceway in Los Angeles. These photos, mostly black & white, are impressive. John’s face is clearly visible; his left leg kicked out as he leads a cluster of racers in vintage helmets on numbered bikes, sliding around a corner.  While John admits to not always ending at the top of the podium, he nearly always finished close to the winner.

Full size pic below

In this photo of him at Ascot Park, in a half-mile TT (Tourist Trophy) Race, John finished in the #3 position, riding his 250 C-15 BSA (#238R). Winning the race and pictured just a few feet ahead of John in the photo, is Gene Romero, #121.  Romero was sponsored by Triumph and later Yamaha factory racing teams. He won the 1970 AMA Grand National Championship and the 1975 Daytona 200.  Romeo was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.

I recently come across some old photos showing my early humble racing attempts.  Unlike John, few of my efforts were sanctioned by anyone.  Of greatest surprise was seeing how those huge jumps on our makeshift motocross course had shrunk in the pictures to just piles of dirt maybe 5-6 feet high. Somehow in my mind, I transferred those early riding experiences to something looking like the modern stadium-style motocross course.  While nothing could be further from the truth, the photo at the top of this piece shows me appearing to have launched myself near the peak of my house.  More cringe-worthy than the height, is the total lack of protective equipment – helmet, boots, padded jacket, gloves.  Invulnerable in those days, my suspicion is we all can recount moments that in retrospect we’re a bit surprised we survived.

At one point my motorcycle mechanic and former motocross racer directed me to a friend of his who had a farm where they’d constructed a make-shift practice motocross track.  The quarter-mile track was complete with several large mounds of black dirt and a section of smaller whoops and several tight, steeply banked turns. It was a completely informal and fun place to practice motocross riding skills.  After a few weekends I was beginning to get the hang of things. One Friday night I was talking to a young woman at a bar.  Certain the site of me flying high over mounds of black dirt would impress her immensely and melt her heart, I invited her to where we practiced and drew her a map on a cocktail napkin. Practicing the next morning, I kept looking down the road leading to the farm, hoping to see her car appear, and eventually, it did.  Timing my moves carefully, I rode the track slowly until the car with this young woman and her friend parked and they’d walked a bit closer to the track. Then I pulled out all the stops and let it rip.  I hit each jump to ensure maximum altitude.  I most certainly must have cleared 15 or 20 feet in the air.  I slid around the corners with the back wheel spinning furiously, sending a stream of dirt flying. Pretending I’d noticed them for the first time, I rode the bike over to where they were standing, locking the rear brake as I slid to a stop close to them, letting the tall bike with its 36 inch seat height lean over so I could get a leg down with my 29 inch inseam. I dismounted, pushed the bike back straight and onto its side stand, and removed my helmet and smiled. She and her girlfriend rushed up to me, giggled, and she said, “Wow, that’s amazing. You looked just like those monkeys in the circus riding ponies over those jumps.”  As you can imagine, this was not the effect I was going for, but I had to admit, on these very tall bikes with the suspension set to provide maximum cushion for landing softly, my short legs did not come close to reaching the ground.

Like a lot of riders, I went through a track-day phase when living in California.  When trying to channel MotoGP racers like Kenny Roberts, seeing photos of myself on the track, I look more like Kenny Rogers, the country-western singer. I wrote a story about one of the track schools I attended and chronicled that experience here.

Looking back on how we rode, I sometimes wonder if those hills and jumps were bigger or smaller than they were in our minds.

I first observed this time impacted disorientation when revisiting a favorite family picnic spot from my youth. Now in our twenties, my brother Leif and I joined our family at a park near Taylors Falls, MN.  The park sits along the St. Croix River, outside of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul. We’d come here when we were kids, perhaps when in junior high school.  The picnic area provides easy access to the river for swimming, and lots of hiking trails leading to the high cliffs rising above the river.  I reminded my brother as youngsters, we’d hiked these trails and launched ourselves into the river.  “Maybe we can find the spot from where we jumped,” I said as we headed out.  After less than 15 minutes climbing the trail through the trees, we were a good way up the cliff.  As we approached a clearing we cautiously approached the edge. I got on my knees to crawl a bit closer, Leif was brave enough to slowly walk to the edge, and we both peered down at the churning water below.  Then we retreated about 10-15 feet back to confer.  “This couldn’t be where we jumped, could it?”  We both concluded this was far too high above the river, it couldn’t have been the spot.  One could get seriously hurt hitting the water from this height. One more peak over the ledge and we both agreed, we couldn’t have jumped from here.

As we were about to turn around, we heard the voices of young kids, coming up the trail.  They were running, approaching rapidly, yelling, and carrying on as kids do.  Not knowing how many there were or how fast they were going, we stepped back out of the way, to let them pass.  The first skinny kid of about 8 years old glanced to the right and noticed us but did not miss a step, as he ran toward the edge and launched himself into the river, arms flailing and yelling.  In just another second or two, another flash passed, making the same jump, followed by 3 more.  Whoosh… whoosh… whoosh they went.  Leif and I slowly approached the ledge again, looking down at the five young kids in the water, laughing, splashing as they swam toward the shore.  After a moment of silence, I mumbled, “Well, maybe we did jump from here. We must have been nuts.” 

Ascot Park Race with Gene Romero (#121) leading. John Binder (#238R) is just behind him and to the left, on his BSA 250 C-15
John Binder, bike #51, racing on Catalina Island in 1958. As always, John ran near the front of the pack, nearly always in contention to win.

Embracing Ambiguity

Rich Marin

My good friend and riding buddy, Rich Marin, writes a daily blog post/newsletter called The Old Lone Ranger.  Rich is highly disciplined and writes 1,000 words, every day.  Rich and another friend, Philip Richter, inspired me to start my newsletter.  Philip’s site and blog is the Turtle Garage.  On Saturday, January 9, 2021, Rich’s post was titled “Getting Big Enough. It again made me recognize and appreciate different ways people look at the world.  While ostensibly about his size and the sizes of people in general, toward the end of the piece Rich crossed into a discussion about the changes 2020 and COVID have brought to our world, the disorientation and unpredictability of things and reactions to that.  You can read his full post here.

The part of his post inspiring this response is:

“And yet, who among us does not know people who surprise us with their ability to handle the whirlwind in ways that startle us. I know people who get frazzled in steady states, but who blossom and thrive in chaos. That seems counter-intuitive and almost inexplicably unnerving, but it’s true. I attribute it to a phenomenon I observed long ago in someone close to me. I concluded that I am a linear thinker for whom logic adds clarity. This other person did better handling chaos than order. They were random thinkers, people who could sense patterns rather than reason through sequential logic. I am certain I hit on a very real attribute characterization with this observation.”

While fairly certain Rich is not talking about me, I thought, “Well, I resemble that remark.”   One of the many things Rich and I have in common is being self-aware. But my trait of tolerance for ambiguity and desire to keep pushing ahead in times of uncertainty was something I only became aware of later in life.  Even after becoming aware of it, years passed before the implications of how it might affect my career dawned on me. Eventually, I figured it out after leaving the stable cocoon of employers like AT&T, CDC, and IBM and into the world of early-stage tech startups.  I was finally professionally fulfilled in this environment where the arrival of new technology or a competitive announcement could require an overnight reassessment of every assumption about our business.

In his post, Rich observed that some people “get frazzled in steady states.”  Frazzled wasn’t how I would characterize my feelings.  My dissatisfaction when working for large, “steady-state” companies was frustration with the agonizing slowness of getting anything done, the number of people required to buy-in before moving forward, and my colleagues overwhelming satisfaction with the status quo and rabid fear of upsetting the apple cart.  So, maybe it was frazzled, but it felt more like frustration, numbness, and exhaustion to me. It was probably why I only lasted about 5 years each in these big companies.  The daily grind of working with people who did not appear to care or understand the key drivers of the business and what we needed to transpire to move forward drove me crazy.  Working side by side with people who got their professional fulfillment from an ability to leave the office at precisely 5 pm every day with an absolutely clear desk, is what eventually did me in.  And just so we are clear, not everyone in large organizations behaves or thinks this way, and certainly not Rich Marin.

It was just six months after leaving IBM that my recognition of the “Aha moment” Rich describes occurred.  We were living in Croton-on-Hudson, NY.   I was acting as the half-time VP of Marketing for a start-up in global trade in Connecticut and had a consulting contract with a venture firm in New York City and spent one day a week there.  Many evenings I’d attend events on what to do about this new, weird, chaotic, nebulous, and probably powerful new thing called the Internet. It was at that point I realized professionally, for the first time in my life, I was completely happy, satisfied and thrilled with my job. I couldn’t wait to get up every morning.  It was non-linear, unstructured, totally lacking in certainty, and yet, in my mid-40s, I was finally doing what I was good at.

To be fair to myself, earlier life circumstances had forced me into a professional life of only working for large companies. The risk to my family of not having health insurance was too high. My health history and what insurance companies viewed as adverse “pre-existing conditions” made me uninsurable, except when bundled into a huge group policy only available through large employers. I remember riding the train back from the city one afternoon, staring out the window at the cakes of ice floating in the Hudson River and thinking how if every one of my current income sources were to instantly dry up, I would be able to find something else quickly, and it would probably be better than what I was doing now.

I spent the rest of my working life with early-stage start-up companies.  While far from dependable in the long-term sense, my work was always satisfying and gratifying. I hated to lose and felt real angst and fear when we’d run out of options and had to close up shop.  But even then, I knew I was doing the right thing.  Rich is correct about the new pressures coming from a world seeming to be constantly evolving, complexities of the web and where to go for reliable information, and a polarized political landscape that keeps getting worse even when we think it is already as bad as it can get.  Rich concluded that the biggest challenge may be to find something that isn’t changing. He may be right, but I’m not sure it matters to me.  While I may not thrive on ambiguity, I’ve learned to get comfortable with it.  Perhaps he’s right – it’s my nature.

TV Top Pick #12: Dirty Money (Netflix)

I found DIRTY MONEY, a new series on Netflix, shortly after watching the amazingly funny Netflix send-off of 2020 called “Death to 2020.”  If you’ve not watched it yet, do so. Death to 2020 resulted in at least a half-dozen belly laughs and more subtle snickers than I could count.  But now onto Dirty Money.

What makes Dirty Money great is each one-hour episode packs a full documentary movie.  The level of research, quality of the writing, visuals and skills of the interviewers are some of the best you will find on television today. This is genuinely in the same league as 60 minutes and similar top-notch documentary efforts.  I found the characters show-cased in these highly compelling stories, down-to-earth, real and articulate.

Each of these stories has two sides, and they do an incredible job of presenting both or at the very least, having both sides fully articulate their rationale for what they are doing.  In the Payday episode, I started with admiration for the drive and determination of an entrepreneur who built a business, then began seeing the impact his business model and approach was having on the lives and personal situations his business actions caused his customers. Then I see the entrepreneur fighting for his rights.  As the guy who trained him to race put it: “If you’re racing in a series, and there’s a big thick rulebook for white drivers, and a tiny little rule book for Native American drivers, you’re going to start hiring Native American drivers.” At first I admired his ability to have found a loophole to exploit, but then you realize that the loophole is illegal, and you see the gyrations the company has to go through to hide the way in which it cheats, and then they take you back to where you see precisely how little people are deceived and ripped off and the impact on the company and its employees.  It goes back and forth, with a bit more being revealed in each scene.  I suspect some will end up siding with the victims and others with the company founder.  That says more about you and your values than the people in the film.  Rotten Tomatoes reported 100% of critics gave the series a positive review.

The series has two seasons, with six episodes each.  They can be watched in any order.  So far I’ve watched the following ones.  Here are a few brief comments on each.

Season 1, Episode 2: Payday.  About Scott Tucker and the Payday loan business he builds from scratch, but then loses when he crosses the legal line.

Season 1, Episode 5: The Maple Syrup Heist.  The great Canadian maple syrup heist is about how (and why) someone manages to steal thousands of barrels of maple syrup. Unlike most crime dramas, this one really happened.

Season 2: Episode 1: The Wagon Wheel.  I bank at Wells Fargo Bank.  After watching this, I want to switch banks.

Season 1: Episode 3: Drug Short. Tells the story of Valeant Pharmaceuticals and is one of the best stories in this 12 episode line up.  This is an amazing story, remarkably told.  Were it not for a relatively small discovery and a failure of a company to quickly notice it and cover it up, no one would ever be the wiser.  You will learn about some of the built-in checks and balances with public companies.

Season 1: Episode 6:
The Confidence Man.  If you’re a big Donald J Trump supporter and don’t want to know any more about him, you might want to skip this one.  The episode chronicles Trump’s long business career, before he became a politician, in great detail. It charts most if not all of his business initiatives and results – where he did remarkably well, and the areas in which he did not. It also provides new insight into how he manages, some of his special talents and capabilities.

Season 1: Episode 1: Hard NOX.  This is about the Volkswagen emissions scandal.  As an owner of one of the TDI engines targeted in this story (ours is in an Audi Q5 and Audi is owned by Volkswagen), we’ve dealt directly with the results of this scandal.  Again, the story of what Volkswagen did and how they were exposed is absolutely riveting television. This episode is one of the key reasons I am so high on the series.

Season 2: Episode 3: Slumlord Millionaire.  This documents the rise of Jared Kushner from an heir in a prominent real estate empire to a top White House advisor.  Make no mistake, this is one exceptionally smart young man and the country will be hearing from him for years to come.