Pauvre Marie

People do love to simplify things. Complexity is, well… entirely too complex. And so here you have the average American’s concept of the French Revolution: Marie-Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake” when her people were starving, so the people revolted and they chopped off her head, thus doing away with the French Monarchy.

Here’s one of the many problems with that, though. It’s fairly certain that Marie-Antoinette never uttered that famous quote, which has become the epitome of upper class indifference.

According to this article in History.com, that quote, in similar forms, had been rattling around and placed squarely on the shoulders of various female royals for 23 years before Marie-Antoinette had been accused of saying it. In fact, it was a thing three years before she even married into the monarchy.

And according to one biographer, she was actually an intelligent woman who donated to charity and was sensitive to the poor. But will any of us remember her for that? I’m thinking no.

Okay, yes, she overdid it in terms of the lavishness of her lifestyle. But she got married and left home at age 13, and was sheltered from the world and cosseted to an unforgivable degree. Not that that justifies her behavior, but I think it explains it.

She also had the horrible luck of becoming queen at a time when the French economy was in a death spiral. To say that that was 100 percent her fault is a little much. And she came from Austria, which much of that time was France’s enemy. She also had a reputation for promiscuity, which would have been simply winked at if she were a man.

So despite her outrageous behavior at times, I honestly think her head rolled simply because she was one of “them” at a time when the “us-es” had had it up to here, and she was also a powerful, sexually active woman, and to this day that is not acceptable to a lot of people.

When I think of Marie-Antoinette, I try to think of the fact that she adopted 4 very underprivileged children. That’s pretty impressive. And she went to her death with dignity and grace, which couldn’t have been easy while being jeered at by the crowd.

So, the woman was problematic, yes, but also complex. Shades of grey, not black and white. So I say poor Marie, because it must be maddening to be considered the poster child for the French Revolution, and even more maddening to be remembered for having said something stupid that you never said.

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A New Unit of Measurement: The Quagmire

My Dachshund, Quagmire, is 31 inches from nose to tail tip. (Eight inches of that is tail.) The reason I’m telling you this is that I find I often use him as a very precise unit of measurement. This is important, so pay attention.

It takes 2 1/2 Quagmires to span the width of our king-sized bed. I know this because he often inches me from one side of it to the other in the course of a night. It’s critical to know how much bed you’ve got left. Safety first.

I also know how many Quagmires a Quagmire must be from the front door before I can open it. (Four.) If I don’t take this into account, he’ll bolt outside and head straight into traffic. I don’t know what it is about the highway that intrigues him so, but it’s a wonder he hasn’t been squashed flat.

I’ve also learned the hard way that all dog bowls must be at least 5 Quagmires apart or chaos will ensue. He’s very territorial about his kibble. Believe me, it isn’t pretty.

He only has to run about 6 Quagmires before he reaches the end of my extension leash and practically yanks my arm out of its socket.

We’ve had to install 10 Quagmires-worth of fencing to keep his sneaky little butt out of the strawberries and tomatoes in the back yard.

There aren’t enough Quagmires in the world to keep us from smelling his musk when he has rolled in something dead. He seems quite proud of this.

You can throw a toy about 5 Quagmires away and he’ll chase it, but he’ll only bring it about 1 Quagmire of the way back. A retriever, he is not.

The interesting thing about this unit of measurement is that it increases to 40 inches in the vertical. Despite his stubby little legs, he routinely jumps chest height. So you always have to consider the vertical Quagmire before leaving any food unattended. As far as he’s concerned, anything less than a Quagmire above the floor is community property.

But the very best part about this measurement is that it only takes one Quagmire to fill my heart with love.

Quagmire

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I Miss Afterschool Specials

When I was growing up, about once every 5 or 6 weeks during the school year, late on a weekday afternoon (hence the name), ABC would air an Afterschool Special. Oh, how I looked forward to those shows! They really were special. They made me feel like someone was actually thinking about me and wanting to tell me what I needed to know.

They could be about just about anything. Divorce, girls in sports, bullying, blended families, stuttering, alcoholism, reproduction, death, foster parents, weight, secrets, popularity, puberty, friendship, teen pregnancy, drugs, STDs, child abuse, suicide… you name it.

And in retrospect, an amazing cast of stars popped up in these little stories. Actors included Will Smith, Adam Sandler, William H. Macy, Wil Wheaton, Michael Jackson, Marisa Tomei, Michael York, Beau Bridges, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patty Duke, Rob Lowe, Kristy McNichol, and Jodie Foster. You just never knew who was going to show up in your living room. It was really kind of exciting.

Nowadays an ABC Afterschool Special wouldn’t work. Kids don’t watch live, network TV anymore. They aren’t bound by viewing schedules. They probably don’t even have to consult the TV Guide. They watch what they want, when they want.

It kind of makes me happy that I grew up when I did. I’d have hated to miss out on all those age-appropriate life lessons, courtesy of ABC.

Oooh, but I just discovered a bunch of them are on Youtube now! I may have to take a walk down memory lane!

Afterschool Special

The Ultimate Zero Sum Equation

It’s rather interesting, when you think about it, how much time we waste worrying about how much time we’re wasting. I mean, what a waste! That time would be much better spent being wasted in some other way.

Time marches on. Life is the ultimate zero sum equation. You can expend all the energy you want in trying to be efficient, trying not to waste time, working, planning, plotting, organizing, or watching cat videos on Youtube, but in the end, time is going to pass regardless. It can’t be stopped. We’re all going to get older and eventually die.

Am I suggesting that we should just give up and give in to those cat videos? On the contrary, I think the way we spend our time is important. If we focus on giving joy to others, and trying to make the world a better place, and doing the things that we love the most, then it will have been time well spent.

But stop beating yourself up over it all. Just be in the moment. Just live.

Because you can’t control time. You can’t “spend it” or “save it”. You can only experience it. So make it the best experience that you possibly can, and stop stressing out over it all.

time marches on

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Inclusion Vs. Exclusion

You’re welcome.

Such a simple, elegant phrase. Such a kind and decent concept. I don’t know why so many people struggle with it.

There are so many out there who make it a point to say just the opposite. You’re not welcome. You shouldn’t be able to come here. You can’t buy my cake. You should sit at the back of the bus. You shouldn’t be allowed to marry the person that you love. You are not welcome to be a part of our club. You shouldn’t have the right to vote. You can’t rent my apartment. You don’t belong here. America used to be great when we didn’t have to treat you with respect. How dare you speak up? We get to control what you do with your body. You must be walled off. You must be silenced.

We see it everywhere. In the red MAGA hats, in the “lock her up!” chants, in the attacks on innocent people on the streets. We see it in the hatred that oozes from the mouth of the very man who is supposed to lead this country. You’re not welcome. You are an enemy of the people.

Hate makes you look ugly. It reveals the disease in your very soul. It makes us all so much less than what we could be.

When you hate, when you marginalize people, when you try to prevent people from having the same rights that you do, you cause suffering in this world. Why would anyone want to do that? I will never understand it as long as I live.

When you find yourself in a place of inclusion, where people are welcoming and accepting and embracing of your unique qualities, it’s such a freeing experience. I’d rather be wrapped in a rainbow than beaten by a tiki torch any day of the week. That should be obvious. Why isn’t it obvious?

I’m feeling very ineloquent about this whole subject compared to the conversation Ellen Page had with Stephen Colbert recently. Check out the video here. It’s really worth watching.

Thanks, Lee (and Ellen Page) for inspiring this post!

Not Welcome

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“This is Marketplace”

True confession: I have a voice fetish. A charming accent, a well-placed glottal stop, a deep and smoky whisper… these things undo me. The right voice could almost make me vote Republican. Almost.

Fortunately, when I’m in the throes of voice withdrawal for whatever reason, I know that help is on the way in the form of NPR’s Kai Ryssdal, the host of their weekday program called Marketplace.

Incidentally, is it a job requirement that you have to have an unusual name to work for NPR? Just wondering. I mean, Ira Flatow, John Hockenberry, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, Andrei Codrescu, Joe Bevilacqua, Jad Abumrad, Hyunh Burritoso, Mandalit del Barco, Corey Flintoff, David Folkenflik, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, Yuki Noguchi, Sylvia Poggioli, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, Shankar Vedantam, Doualy Xaykaothao, Lakshmi Singh, and whatever happened to Snigdha Prakash?

But I digress. Where were we? Oh, yeah. Voice fetish. In the opener, just before the music swells, Kai says “This is Marketplace” and you can just hear the sexy smile in his voice. It makes me want to pull off the road and take a cold shower. That’s all I need. After that, I’m good for at least 24 hours.

I’ve comforted myself with the assumption that this guy probably has a face for radio. Surely he can’t be as gorgeous as his voice. No way. Impossible. The gods do not rain that much favor down upon one individual. But in looking for a picture for this blog post I see that, no, yowza… the voice definitely fits the face. Why he’s not on TV is beyond me.

Hoo. I need to go home and kiss my husband. Like… immediately. (And his voice and good looks are nothing to sneeze at, either. How lucky am I?)

Now, don’t even get me started on Morgan Freeman or Sam Elliott…

Kai Ryssdal
Kai Ryssdal

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Microinsurance Could Transform the Face of Disaster Recovery

I absolutely love being in awe of friends. Recently, my friend Areiel Wolanow did a presentation before British Parliament, so you can imagine how proud I am to know this man. Actually, no you probably can’t, because my pride is off the charts.

Areiel is the Managing Director of Finserv Experts, a consulting firm that applies its expertise in technology to help transform businesses. One such area of expertise is in blockchain services. This is where things start getting completely over my head.

It seems that blockchain can take out the intermediators between producers and consumers, thus saving both of them time, effort, and money. (This makes me think of travel agents. Who uses them anymore? Now we can search for our plane tickets over the phone. I’ll let Areiel explain if I’m getting the gist of it below.)

But Areiel has put an even more humanitarian spin on the blockchain idea, by working toward using it to make insurance available to those who couldn’t otherwise access or afford it. Imagine, having your whole life wiped out by a tsunami, for example, and because you got some microinsurance from a phone app, you can now use another phone to get a payout that will help support you for a year while you get back on your feet. I don’t know about you, but I think the world could use fewer FEMA trailers! This could make that happen.

But I’ll let Areiel explain it in more detail.

The View from a Drawbridge: Please explain in layman’s terms, what microinsurance is.

Areiel Wolonow: In the most simple terms, microinsurance is simply insurance for small amounts.  But beneath this simple idea are some very powerful effects.  For instance, less than 9% of people in the world have health insurance, and unplanned health spending is one of the leading causes of people going into poverty.

Historically, it has not been possible to provide insurance to people in most parts of the world.  There are two main reasons for this:

  • The cost of administering an insurance policy isn’t that much different regardless of whether the policy covers two hundred dollars or two million dollars. As a result, insurance companies cannot afford to provide policies for smaller amounts without charging premiums that would be exorbitantly high.

  • When it comes time to pay a claim, the costs of paying the claim can often exceed the claim itself. For instance, when a tsunami Indonesia or flooding in Bangladesh occurs, the only way insurance companies could pay claims was to literally send someone out in a helicopter with a briefcase full of cash.  This is a very slow, unsafe, and expensive way of doing business, and adds even more cost to the premium.  Even the most socially responsible insurers could not avoid a pricing policy that was deeply regressive, charging the highest percentage premium to the people who could afford it the least.

What’s happening now, however, is that technology has ways of addressing both of these problems.  A combination of blockchain and mobile technology makes it possible to originate and service insurance with a minimum of human intervention.  Machine learning and integration to weather satellites makes it possible to pay claims immediately when a tsunami, flooding, or other natural disaster happens without the time and expense of having humans investigate the claim.  In the insurance industry, this is called parametric insurance, and it’s a game changer because everyone wins – the company saves huge amounts of cost investigating claims and the customer gets paid right away rather than going through the long and sometimes confusing claims adjustment process.

Technology also helps when it comes to paying the claims.  Most parts of the world now have reliable mobile wallets  (in fact the penetration of mobile payments in Indonesia and Bangladesh, even amongst the poor, far outpaces the US; this is one of many areas in technology where we are falling further behind).  This makes it possible to pay claims directly into people’s mobile wallets.  No more helicopters and suitcases of cash.

Can you tell me more about how your company, Finserv Experts, is working with blockchain to provide microinsurance solutions for natural disasters in Indonesia?

Finserv Experts is a small consultancy that I founded about 2.5 years ago, after being with IBM for nearly 12 years.  We provide both advisory and solution delivery services for transformational financial services.  For almost that entire time we have been supporting one of our clients, a regional insurer,  on a project to provide microinsurance in Indonesia.  The pilot for this program has been successfully running for two years now, and as a result our client and we have been asked to consider building a platform for scaling our solution nationally.

How will this transform the way that communities recover from natural disasters?

It is actually quite difficult to comprehend the enormity of impact that availability of insurance can have on a community.  The first impact is the effect of the insurance itself.  In our pilot program, the insurance policy is bundled with small business loans.  If a natural disaster occurs, the policy pays off the loan as well as providing the policy holder an equivalent of one year’s income to help them get back on their feet.  This is a meaningful change all by itself, but the follow-on impacts are even greater

  • The existence of the policy makes these small businesses much more creditworthy. Tsunamis, flooding, and the like are common enough that investors will often demand huge price premiums in exchange for providing loan capital; in many cases they won’t be willing at all.  The existence of this policy makes others more willing to lend money, and at more reasonable rates

  • In the same way, the existence of these policies makes it much easier for people to start new businesses. A study in Tanzania showed that of all one-person businesses in the country, only 2% would ever grow to the point that they had ten employees, but that 2% was the source of over 25% of all new jobs created.  Imagine what a difference we could make if, by making it possible for more people to start businesses, we could move that to 3%.   A small change in the success rate would have a huge impact

  • The biggest change of all, however, is land reform. A surprising fact is that even in some of the poorer regions of the world, there are many people who could afford to buy a home, but are unable to obtain a mortgage because banks will not provide one without insurance.  Access to locally insured mortgages could quite literally be a path out of serfdom for millions of people.

As the threat of global warming increases, the world will experience even more natural disasters. Are you planning to branch out to other countries?

Absolutely.  We are already working on plans to scale our solution beyond Indonesia, but we still have to focus on making Indonesia successful first.  Also, our plan calls for working with local partners in each country.  Enabling local success is the right way to go for both social and commercial reasons.  The whole reason I got into financial inclusion in the first place was the realization was that all the monetary aid in the world, however well intentioned, wasn’t even making a dent in world poverty – there is too much corruption, and aid isn’t sustainable – even the most charitable people in the world can’t keep giving and giving and giving.  Sustainable eradication of poverty only comes through local success.

Have you considered making it possible for people to microinvest in providing microinsurance to people in third world countries? Perhaps something along the lines of the microloans people like me can provide to participants in Kiva.org, only with some sort of minimal return on the investment? I know a lot of people who would like to be investors but don’t have the huge sums of money that investing usually requires. Do you think blockchain could also be used in that way?

I think about this a lot actually, but have been leery of doing anything because of how hard it is to provide a level of transparency that I would find satisfactory if I were an investor myself.  A good number of the world’s microfinance are simply scams, while others charge their lenders rates that are regressive if not outright extortionate.  Blockchain may indeed be very useful in providing the necessary transparency, as well as enabling a business model that allowed for much lower rates, both for loans and insurance premiums.  The initial results look very promising, but I want to see them proven a bit more before making any grandiose claims about what might be possible.

Is there anyplace where people can read and/or hear your presentation to Parliament?

These sessions are filmed, but it normally takes 6-8 weeks before they are published.  I will let you know as soon as the video is up on the site.

Thank you, Areiel! I’ll post the link here when it comes available. And I have to say, I’m even more in awe of you after this interview than I was before it. Keep up the good work!

1200px-US_Navy_050102-N-9593M-040_A_village_near_the_coast_of_Sumatra_lays_in_ruin_after_the_Tsunami_that_struck_South_East_Asia
A village near the coast of Sumatra lays in ruin after the Tsunami that struck South East Asia

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