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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Speech: Buttons

Toastmasters projects limit most speeches to 5-7 minutes. This limit provides an opportunity to practice oratory under a time constraint, and gives more opportunities for speeches at any given meeting.  The major disadvantage is that it fails to provide enough time to explore a topic in depth.  This is my most recent speech of February 2012, and it really could have been explored in much greater depth.


On August 18th, 1994, Commander Michael Baker reclined in his seat in the cockpit of the space shuttle Endeavor on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. After months of stressful training, he's waiting for that final moment of liftoff to start the mission. As the main engines ignite his heart starts racing. He can feel the vibration in his bones and he involuntarily tenses up, much like the shuttle assembly which stretches and bends under the forces, as it waits to be released and leap into the air, a phenomenon the engineers call the "twang". T minus, 5, 4, 3...and suddenly...silence. Commander Baker's heart suddenly increases again as he literally sees red all across his control panel. At 3 seconds prior to irrevocable commitment to launch, the computer found an error, and shut down the main engines.

Now consider Hector, as he drives along the freeway, enjoying la musica as it blares from the custom speakers in his low rider. He doesn't see the SUV merge into traffic a little too fast nor does he see the sudden shift in cars as they deftly adjust to avoid a minor collision. All he sees is a BMW 535 cut him off in traffic. Hector es muy furioso. He's just suffered an insult to his beloved car, and also to his manhood. Hector keeps a gun with him, as he's learned any inner city latino needs to command respect. He chases down the BMW and fires two shots into the side of the bimmer for good measure before being satisfied and speeding off.

Finally consider Bob. It's after supper at Bob's suburban home on Tuesday evening. While his wife escorts the children through their pre-bed ritual, Bob painstakingly cleans the dishes and the kitchen. The lemony smell of cleanliness wafts through the air. Everything has to be just right for Bob; there's not a speck on any of the dishes. The silverware gleams and is perfectly aligned in the drawer. The garbage is wrapped perfectly and hidden out of sight.

Bob's wife returns from putting the kids to bed, look at the kitchen and remarks, "The counters haven't been wiped down." Bob is mortified. He's not even finished yet and his wife is criticizing him. He doesn't know whether to be angry or depressed. He's just confused. All he knows for sure is a sense of failure and despondency.

Each of these stories has one thing in common. In each a program is running.

Bob is running a program he learned as a child, that is, he must performs well and to perfection, and in return the world will respond and be good to him.

Hector is running a program that he must interpret any affront as an insult to his manhood, and he must defend his manhood to the point of being violent.

As for Commander Baker, his program isn't nearly as interesting as the program running in the Shuttle Launch System computers. It was running a hugely complex program to get the shuttle into the air safely.
Forty three hours before launch, a button was pressed to start the complex countdown process. At T minus 31 seconds, mechanical and electrical events start occurring at such a fast and furious pace that only a computer can keep track of them. At T minus 3 seconds, while the main engines were coming to full power, the computer was smart enough to just stop.

When Hectors button was pushed, he had nothing in his program to stop him from becoming violent.
Bob's button was pushed some 20 years ago as a child, and despite his program failing all the time, he still doesn't know how to stop it and change his passive behavior.

I wonder, why is the computer the smartest of them all?

One of the reasons the human race has survived is our ability to be self-aware. Unlike most animals, we don't just run instinctual programs. We have the ability to be conscious of these programs. We have the ability to step outside ourselves and control the execution of these programs.

My challenge to you is to step outside your own mind, and observe your programs and your buttons. Can you find places where you need to find the off button?

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