Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Must Reading: Barry on 2008

Dave Barry reviews the key events of 2008. An excerpt:

The Iowa caucuses produce two surprises:

• On the Republican side, the winner is Mike Huckabee, folksy former governor of Arkansas or possibly Oklahoma, who vows to remain in the race until he gets a commentator gig with Fox. His win deals a severe blow to Mitt Romney and his bid to become the first president of the android persuasion. Not competing in Iowa are Rudy Giuliani, whose strategy is to stay out of the race until he is mathematically eliminated, and John McCain, who entered the caucus date incorrectly into his 1996 Palm Pilot.

• On the Democratic side, the surprise winner is Barack Obama, who is running for president on a long and impressive record of running for president. A mesmerizing speaker, Obama electrifies voters with his exciting new ideas for change, although people have trouble remembering exactly what these ideas were because they were so darned mesmerized. Some people become so excited that they actually pass out. These are members of the press corps.

Caught Napping

This falls in the "news you can truly use" category.

[HT: 2Blowhards ]

CEO Crystal Balls

Chief Executive has a collection of comments from CEOs about the upcoming year.

All bright people but . . . .

Bah, Humbug!

Is there a more worthless holiday than New Year's?

It has to be right up there with Groundhog Day.

Back to the Melting Pot

Critics who branded the book as a work of undisguised nativism missed an essential point. Huntington observed that his was an "argument for the importance of Anglo-Protestant culture, not for the importance of Anglo-Protestant people." The success of this great republic, he said, had hitherto depended on the willingness of generations of Americans to honor the creed of the founding settlers and to shed their old affinities. But that willingness was being battered by globalization and multiculturalism, and by new waves of immigrants with no deep attachments to America's national identity. "The Stars and Stripes were at half-mast," he wrote in "Who Are We?", "and other flags flew higher on the flagpole of American identities."

Read all of Fouad Ajami's essay on the views of Samuel Huntington.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Quote of the Day

Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.

- John Milton

Preaching or Greeting?

Noted employment attorney John Phillips gives his analysis of an interesting case involving "Merry Christmas" versus "Happy Holidays." An excerpt:

The employee insists that her religious beliefs prevented her from contributing to the secularization of Christmas, so she asked for an accommodation, something she’s entitled to as long as her belief is sincerely held and the accommodation doesn’t cause the employer an undue hardship. Some employment lawyers/bloggers are siding with the employer. For example, see here and here, because saying “Merry Christmas” isn’t a tenet of religious faith, or the employee wanted to use her employer’s telephones to push her own faith.

I’m hesitant to take sides in The Christmas Wars, but I’m also hesitant to blow off the employee’s complaint. An employee doesn’t have to show that what she believes is a tenet of her church but of her own personal faith. Moreover, the employee’s willingness to continue the regular greeting seems to thwart the argument that she wanted to use the phones to preach rather than greet.

Learning from Criticism

One of the most important questions for any individual or organization is "Where might the critics - or potential critics - be right?"

The question does not automatically assume that any criticism is valid. Analysis may reveal no basis at all. Some critics seek only to wound, not to heal. Often, motives are elusive.

But the willingness to consider just where the criticism might be correct is crucial if serious improvement is to be made. The smartest organizations don't call on their lawyers and consultants after disaster has arrived; they check with them earlier and ask them to identify soft spots. They do the same with their employees and periodically review policies and procedures in order to catch areas that, although once safe, have become risky.

Is this practice common? Not in my experience. Far too many executives and managers fear such introspection, thinking that identifying a potential problem area is a confession of bad management. Organizations that encourage such fears are following a recipe for future disaster.

Human resources departments are not exempt from this cuisine. They may have found that once a major problem arises, upper management - which has a short attention span on personnel issues - is more interested in its prompt solution than in eventually learning how and why the problem was created.

Blame can be placed somewhere out there, on an individual or an external agency, rather than on the professionals who should have caught the trouble in its infancy. I suspect that the total annual cost of this failure to practice early detection runs into billions of dollars.

And yet this negligence is accepted as the natural course of business. That is both sad and unnecessary.

21 Dumbest Moments in Business in 2008

Fortune picks the dumbest moments.

[I still think the criticism of the auto execs for their infamous private jet flights was a cheap shot.]

Quote of the Day

[He] is the Vladimir Lenin, the Mao Tse-tung, and the Ernesto "Che" Guevara of business.

- Tom Peters, mistakenly thinking that he has praised a Home Depot executive.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Life - and Work - in Perspective

The Chadian rebel groups, of which there are at least half a dozen, formed largely along ethnic and familial lines, are not known to single out aid organizations for attack, but they are loosely organized, indifferently disciplined, and well armed. Some rebels, and also some Chadian Army recruits, have been known to freelance as hooligans and coupeurs de route—highway bandits—when they are not soldiering. The week before I arrived, in the middle of a sprawling refugee camp three miles from this field office, a U.N.H.C.R. worker named Ali Abderaman watched two young men in white robes walk past the Toyota Land Cruiser in which he and a driver were sitting. It was eleven-thirty in the morning. Abderaman saw the men pause, exchange a few words, and come back. To talk, he thought, but they drew out AK-47s concealed in their robes and pointed the muzzles at his head.

Read the rest of Jonathan Harr's article from The New Yorker on international aid efforts in Chad.

Health Update

Despite reports to the contrary, I have not yet returned to my swimming regimen.

Laid-Off: Beyond the Numbers

New York magazine looks at the lives of some people who have been laid-off. An excerpt:

I arrived at the office at 8 a.m. like every other morning, and I saw my boss in the hallway. He said an HR person had called him, and he was concerned. A half-hour later, he was laid off. Then an HR rep called me in. People around me noticed my body language; I was unable to speak. HR read the “laid-off script” to me. I’d worked with these people for eleven years. Some looked sad; they couldn’t make eye contact. I just sat there thinking of how to tell my wife the bad news and being scared of not having health insurance—we have two small children and one on the way.

Crime and Creativity

In September, a robber disguised as a gardener pepper-sprayed an armored car driver using a pesticide sprayer and ran off with a bag stuffed with $400,000 in cash. When police arrived seconds later, they found the sidewalk crowded with dozens of men decked out in the same attire as the perp: blue shirt, Day-Glo vest, safety mask and glasses. While the cops hacked through a forest of suspects, the real perp fled to a nearby creek and escaped in a waiting inner tube.

Turns out the unwitting decoys had been lured to the crime scene by a Craigslist ad that promised construction work to those showing up in a "yellow vest, safety goggles, a respirator mask … and, if possible, a blue shirt."

Read the rest of Wired on the seven best "capers" of 2008.

Clarifying Positions

There can be something very appealing about a person who tells you, "I disagree with your position," especially when such direct communication is contrasted with the flaws of subterranean opposition.

The subterranean types aren't always traitorous or conspiratorial. They may sincerely regard their behavior as part of the due diligence of a thorough professional. Their technique, however, is to provide an outward appearance of neutrality or mild support while raising one objection after another. This approach would be fine if they were genuinely neutral, but often they are not.

In order to avoid an erosion of trust, it helps if team members identify their biases early on when examining a proposed course of action. No one gets to "pass." The categories are:
  1. Strongly opposed under any circumstances.
  2. Strongly opposed but willing to change.
  3. Leaning toward opposition but willing to change.
  4. Genuinely neutral.
  5. Leaning toward favoring but willing to change.
  6. Strongly in favor but willing to change.
  7. Strongly in favor under any circumstances.

Naturally, this only works if the individuals are honest. Some may resist announcing a position until more information has been received. If they are genuinely neutral, they have that category as an option. Others may feel that any early labeling will inhibit the free exchange of ideas. In my experience, the free exchange is expedited by a clear picture of where people stand.

This approach builds on the open opposition, if provided in an honest and supportive manner, is far better than actual or suspected opposition that is hidden.

Quote of the Day

We must use time as a tool, not as a couch.

- John F. Kennedy

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sowell's Writing Technique

Economist and prolific author Thomas Sowell gives some advice to writers. An excerpt:

Instead of trying to be someone that you are not, be the best at what you are. My own writing practices are the direct opposite of that followed by these prolific and renowned writers. I write only when I have something to say. The big disadvantage of this is that it can mean a lot of down time. There are manuscripts of mine that sat around gathering dust for years without a word being added to them. How then have I managed to write more than 20 books within the Biblical threescore and ten years?

My own particular idiosyncracy is writing several books at once. I may reach the point where I have nothing whatever to add to a manuscript on Marxism or affirmative action, but am bursting with things to say about late-talking children. I go with what has seized my attention and inspired my thoughts at the time. There are days, perhaps even weeks, when I have nothing worth saying in print about anything. I keep a backlog of unpublished newspaper columns on hand to send out to the syndicate during such times, while I go to Yosemite or just hang around the house printing photographs or otherwise trying to keep out of mischief.

What's on Your List?

Peggy Noonan reflects on books read in 2008.

The Uncolorful

Residents of Phoenix, Arizona, when asked to explain their city, often define its attractions in terms of what it is not.

It is not hectic or dirty. You don't have to shovel snow in the winter. The people don't have the rushed unfriendliness that you encounter in many large cities. The local government, for the most part, is not corrupt. It's not as expensive as California or New York. Although in the desert, Phoenix is not very far from the pines or the beach.

It is a definition of an un-city more than its own distinct personality. Despite that, Phoenix is a very pleasant place to live.

Some individuals share that quality. Why should Jack or Maria be selected for promotion over the more colorful or charismatic candidates? They are not bold, but they won't get you into trouble with bizarre schemes. They won't turn in the stunning sales figures but neither will they turn in lousy ones. They may be bland, but they won't embarrass you. In short, they are steady producers. They won't let you down.

We should not underestimate those qualities. Just as baseball teams rely on the base hitters more than on those who can pop the ball over the fence, most organizations are built on the uncolorful. Compared to many of his successors in the Oval Office, Calvin Coolidge looks pretty good.

Quote of the Day

Rather than order, the prevention of disorder was the essence of naval life. Written Admiralty instructions required the boatswain and his mates on each ship "to be diligent . . . and see . . . that the working of the ship be performed with as little noise and confusion as possible." The ship, in fact, is to be worked in silence or near silence. The repeating of orders was thought to be a symptom of slightly inadequate management.

- Adam Nicolson, Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

For what's it worth, I agree with the critics. Slumdog Millionaire is a marvelous film.

It is a Dickensian reminder of what story-telling should entail.

Miscellaneous and Fast

Waiter Rant on old people, computers, delis, and karma.

A new book on reporters and religion.

What sort of communist left Sinatra off of the 100 greatest singers list? [I'm not sure, but he's destined to sleep with the fishes.]

Seth Godin discusses
the value of competition.

Roger L. Simon on
the passing of Harold Pinter.

Claire Berlinski sees
a looming crisis in Turkey.

Motivational speech: Northwest Passage.

Karl Rove on the President's reading list.

Health food recipe: Peppermint Bark cookies.

Business Week on the worst predictions about 2008.

Sweat Update: Via Michael at 2Blowhards, 10 things your gym won't tell you.

Why Won't Those Idiots Subscribe?

I agree with Paul Mulshine that blogs will not replace newspapers, but his Wall Street Journal article does contain an indication of why so many newspapers may be in trouble: contempt for the customers. An excerpt:

Millions of American [sic] can't even pronounce "pundit," or spell it for that matter. On the Internet and on the other form of "alternative media," talk radio, a disliked pundit has roughly a 50-50 chance of being derided as a "pundint," if my eyes and ears are any indication.

The type of person who can't even keep track of the number of times the letter "N" appears in a two-syllable word is not the type of person who is going to offer great insight into complex issues.

Accusations and Counter-Accusations

My post on workplace accusations is up at U.S. News & World Report.

Quote of the Day

I strive to be brief, and I become obscure.

- Horace

Friday, December 26, 2008

A City Sinks

Before I'd left, I'd asked an acquaintance if he was from Detroit. "Indeed I am," he said, "Give me all your f--ing money." Another colleague, always mindful of my desire for maximum material, suggested, "You should go when it's warm, you'd have a better chance of getting hurt."

Read the rest of Matt Labash on the slow death of Detroit.

Cultural Nudges: Heritage and Museums

After seven years of service, Cole, the longest-serving chairman in the 43-year history of the NEH, is leaving to head the American Revolution Center at Valley Forge. America has thousands of museums, including the Studebaker National Museum (South Bend, Ind.), the Packard Museum (Dayton, Ohio) -- yes, Virginia, there was a time when automobile companies were allowed to perish -- the Hammer Museum (Haines, Alaska), the Mustard Museum (Mount Horeb, Wis.) and the Spam Museum (Austin, Minn.) featuring the sort-of-meat, not the Internet annoyance. There is, however, no museum devoted to the most important political event that ever happened, here or anywhere else -- the American Revolution.

Cole says there will be one, at Valley Forge. It will be built mostly by private money, for a tiny fraction of the sum of public money being lavished on corporations. Perhaps a subsequent iteration of "Picturing America" will feature a thought-provoking photograph of the gleaming towers that currently house, among other things, General Motors' headquarters. Looming over Detroit's moonscape desolation, the building is called the Renaissance Center. Really.

Read the rest of George Will's column.

[HT: Robinson and Long ]

Trapping Eels

In the workplace, we are used to parting with people whose job performance is unacceptable.

A more difficult question arises when someone has a viewpoint that is repugnant but who, to date, has not translated those thoughts into formal actions. For example, if an executive expresses a low opinion of employees in general, should upper management be compelled to wait until that opinion becomes a tangible, formal decision or is a pre-emptive strike permissible? What if the executive uses a racial slur, but the remark is behind closed doors and there is no evidence that the conduct has "gone public?" That latter, far more serious example takes us out of the realm of management and into illegal discrimination territory. It's an easier call.

We can argue, of course, that voicing an opinion is conduct. These are not unexpressed thoughts. Furthermore, the opinions are now on the record, so to speak, and could be cited as evidence of management indifference if the individual continues to misbehave.

The person's overall record should be considered and yet, in general, I find such individuals to be walking examples of the need for employment at will. I recall one executive who was as slippery as an eel in his ability to avoid a clear violation of company policy but who was widely felt - due his general demeanor - to be a complete bastard.

He would have been able to elude any attempt to pin down a specific violation. In his case, termination without cause would have more accurately been termination without specifically-describable cause. Either way, he had to go.

Quote of the Day

We haven't got the money, so we've got to think!

- Ernest Rutherford

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Classic: Dylan Thomas

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

Read the rest of A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas.

Merry Christmas!

A Very Merry Christmas to All of You!

Music for the Day

Handel's Messiah by the Robert Shaw Chorale.

Quote of the Day: Christmas

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

- 2 Matthew 10

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Put It in Writing

The Verbals prefer briefings over memos. They like fast meetings versus staff papers.

The Visuals like to see it in writing. They get nervous with ideas just floating above the room and are eager to see them preserved and thoroughly analyzed in a decision paper.

I'm a Visual.

Even if the Verbals send a memo here or there, those messages often resemble ad hoc hallucinations. I want to see their thoughts consolidated with options, pros and cons, and a specific recommendation.

I mention this because of a recent experience with a gang of Verbals; bureaucratic muggers who aggressively bat you with one idea after another but get nervous at the utterance of one word: "Analysis."

I'm sure they can tell monster stories of paper-happy Visuals who bog things down with "On the one hand" and "On the other hand."

If we can reach middle ground, both of our management styles will improve.

The Leno Factor

Rob Long recounts how a brilliant idea, in time, gained stature. An excerpt:

I was 28 then, and like all 28-year-olds, I had no idea exactly how stupid I was. So when I found myself standing next to the president of NBC during the filming of an episode of "Cheers," I offered my solution to his network's crisis.

"You know what you should do?" I said, brimming with self-assurance. "You should move the 'Tonight Show' with Jay Leno to 10 p.m. Think of all the money you'd save."

"That's a pretty stupid suggestion," he said to me.

Back by Popular Demand: Ogden Nash

In Baltimore there lived a boy.

He wasn't anybody's joy.

Although his name was Jabez Dawes,

His character was full of flaws.

Read the rest of Ogden Nash's The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus.

Quote of the Day

Hitch your wagon to a star.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Embracing Electric?

Check out Toyota's electric concept car:

No one's saying much about the car beyond confirming it is purely electric and smaller than a Prius. "It's a concept we are bringing to the show basically to confirm our interest in electric vehicles," spokeswoman Jana Hartline says, according to the Detroit Free Press.

In Praise

Here is one reason why so many of us read Cultural Offering:

I'm spoiled when it comes to church. I admit it. I grew up in a church that never captured my interest. I strayed from attending in my teen years and then I met Jack. Jack was my future father-in-law. He captured my interest. His sermons ignited my interest.

I think about this because of my new litmus test for churches, compliments of a recent experience: No PowerPoint presentations. From now on if someone asks me to attend a service, my first question will be "Do you ever feature PowerPoint presentations in the service?" If the answer is yes, I'm staying home to read the Book of Common Prayer - the 1928 version. I like the "quick and the dead," language.

"Fraudulent Conveyance"

"But the longer the Ponzi scheme has run, the less money is going to be available. Because the only way a long-running Ponzi scheme can keep going is by paying off early investors."

As Evans puts it, "The sad part of it is that it usually works out that your primary source of recovery is innocent people who put in their money early and got their money out -- and are asked to return it."

More from Fortune on Madoff .


James Bowman, writing in The New Criterion, on getting politics out of politics. An excerpt:

Nowadays, if you’re a bureaucrat who doesn’t like the decision some other bureaucrat has made, your first recourse is to moralize the difference between you. The other bureaucrat, you insist, is not just mistaken in his judgment of the public good, he is wicked and corrupt for ignoring the advice of "scientists" — whose scientific knowledge, as we have seen, comes with no more political skills than are vouchsafed to non-scientists — in making specifically political decisions. Politicians of the other political persuasion who know quite well that this is not the case will pretend to believe you all the same and thunder, along with The New York Times, against the unconscionable, immoral, indecent behavior of their political enemies.

Economic Gangsters and Global Poverty

One side believes in the “poverty-trap” hypothesis, which says that the world’s poorest societies are incapable of providing themselves with even the most fundamental preconditions of economic growth. Their only hope is to receive a massive jolt of foreign aid that will break the cycle of poverty, plant the seeds of economic growth, and begin the process of development.

The other side argues that this theory neglects the baleful impact of bad governance. All too often, foreign assistance winds up lining the pockets of embezzlers, warlords, and thieves. Even if it does reach people in need, it provides a short-term fix that does not translate into long-term prosperity and material independence. So before we send money to the poorest corners of the globe, we need to make sure that the recipient countries have effective legal, political, and social institutions.

Read more of The American article about the new book by Edward Miquel and Raymond Fisman .

Quote of the Day

We got up the first three strings of our lights the weekend before last, and another two last weekend, at which time we threw away the rotted Halloween pumpkin. I might have gotten more lights up by now except that the remaining three strings are not working. To fix them you have to go through and find the burned-out bulb and replace it, and there are a lot of bulbs in a string, and the whole enterprise is one of those things that lead Daddy to point out that this is really the sort of job Mommy does better, and Mommy claims that she doesn't know how to do it because she wasn't raised in a colored-light family. This is a cop-out, and unworthy of her.

- Michael Kelly

Monday, December 22, 2008

7 Management Gifts for Employees

What can management give to employees? Here is a short list of what many of your employees might suggest:
  1. Get rid of abusive managers and co-workers. They drag down morale, increase stress, and drive off good people.
  2. Give us decent compensation. Our pay doesn't have to be extravagant, but it should be reasonable.
  3. Tell us what's going on. Keep us briefed so we don't have to rely upon the rumor mill. Don't lie to us or treat us like children.
  4. Ask us for ways to improve our jobs. Later, show us that you really listened.
  5. Drop the empty words. Remove any gaps between what you say and what you do.
  6. Examine what you reward. We notice when office politicians are favored over steady producers.
  7. Make our work meaningful and efficient. Structure our job responsibilities so we can see how we directly contribute to the larger mission. Remove anything that makes it harder for us to do our jobs.

Godin on Who Helps

Great advice from Seth Godin on determining who can really help you.

And it's not always the head honcho.

Back by Popular Demand: I, Pencil

I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone—if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Read the rest of Leonard Read's essay here.

Quote of the Day

The man who works and is not bored is never old.

- Pablo Casals

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Anyone who has owned a dog can recognize the brilliance of this scene from The Triplets of Belleville.

"Smutty, shower-room nonsense"

Jeremy Irons breaks loose on falling television standards:

The spiralling standards of our nation’s broadcasters, in particular the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand “Sachsgate” scandal, is making his blood boil. “I just thought, this is smutty, shower-room nonsense. Why is it on the radio? Surely it can’t be in the name of actually building and nurturing a society that we value and that will be admired by people. I think there is a way of showing manners and behaviour that we would hope people would have in life in our broadcasting.

“It doesn’t mean it all has to be middle-class, shire-orientated behaviour. But good manners and kindness are what hold our society together. And I would think that broadcasting would try and convey that. If we don’t have respect for each other then everything breaks down.”

Inside the Presidency

National Geographic looks Inside the Presidency. An excerpt:

Food comes from various Secret Service–approved commercial suppliers, but also from farmers markets and occasionally just the grocery store. Sometimes the White House chef will stop in at a local butcher on the way to work and pick up a last-minute chop for the President's dinner. Wine, always American—the White House stopped serving French wine in the Ford Administration—comes directly from the wineries and includes offerings from Virginia and Idaho as well as California. (White House Francophile customs died hard: Mamie Eisenhower once had her favorite apple brown Betty listed on a state dinner menu as Betty Brune de Pommes.)

Nowhere versus Australia

I saw "Australia" the other day. Despite the best efforts of Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman as well as a talented director, those are three hours I'd like back.

It's a shame. The previews looked promising and, I thought, how can you botch a film about Australia? They managed to do so through cliches, cheap emotional ploys, and terrible special effects. It ran around an hour too long.

In comparison, consider a film that I've mentioned here before: Nowhere in Africa, an outstanding movie with fine performances, a powerful story and a great soundtrack. It had no big-name stars and a smaller budget but the ultimate product is far superior.

Of course, this may be one of those "because of" rather than "despite" situations.

Arrogant and Rude

May my foe be arrogant and rude.

Let him (or her, for there's no sex distinction) believe that his incredibly deep insight should be immediately acknowledged by all within shouting distance.

Let his demeanor signal that all peers are peers in name only.

May he ridicule the most gentle members of our group so even those who favor his position will be embarrassed.

Encourage him to overlook flaws in his reasoning and help him to remain rigid when such flaws are exposed.

Guide him into anger when it is least seemly and most likely to cloud judgment. Let him shun any acts of generosity or compassion.

Convince him that he is the one and the only and that the rest of us are fools.

I cannot ask for more.

Quote of the Day

Any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will be quickly supported by studies prepared by his troops.

- Warren Buffett

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Music Break: Loreena McKennitt

Loreena McKennitt is marvelous.

The Terminator and Friends

General Motors now has a market valuation about a third of Bed, Bath And Beyond, and no one says your Swash 700 Elongated Biscuit Toilet Seat Bidet is too big to fail. GM has a market capitalization of just over two billion dollars. For purposes of comparison, Toyota’s market cap is one hundred billion and change (the change being bigger than the whole of GM). General Motors, like the other two geezers of the Old Three, is a vast retirement home with a small loss-making auto subsidiary. The UAW is the AARP in an Edsel: It has three times as many retirees and widows as “workers” (I use the term loosely). GM has 96,000 employees but provides health benefits to a million people.

Read the rest of Mark Steyn's essay on Detroit, newspapers, California, and Caroline here.

True Films

Kevin Kelly, who also writes Cool Tools, has a great site for those who are interested in documentaries and similar works: True Films.

A recent post is about Michael Palin's film on "New Europe."

Blagojevich Meets Kipling

Claudia Rosett, in response to the recitation of Kipling by the Governor of Illinois, has fashioned a new version:

If you can keep your job while all about you
Are fielding bribes and blaming it on you,
If you can duck the Feds while all men doubt you,
And bleep-ing show the charges are untrue,
If you can fight and not be tired by fighting,
Or, being wiretapped, profess surprise,
Or argue that there will be no indicting
Because it’s all a bleep-ing pack of lies.

[HT: Robinson and Long ]

Remembering Kindness

My post on the kindness of colleagues is up at the U.S. News & World Report site.

Quote of the Day

Man is born to live, not to prepare for life.

- Boris Pasternak

Friday, December 19, 2008

An American House of Lords?

Charles Krauthammer on the trend of dynastic succession. An excerpt:

Having given this additional leg up to the rich, we should resist packing our legislatures with yet more privileged parachutists, the well-born.

True, the Brits did it that way for centuries, but with characteristic honesty. They established a house of Parliament exclusively for highborn twits and ensconced them there for life. There they chatter away in supreme irrelevance deep into their dotage. Problem is that the U.S. Senate retains House of Commons powers even as it develops a House of Lords membership.

The Meeting

The meeting goes on.

The same point has been made by different people several times and by the same people at least twice.

The meeting continues.

Eventually, fatigue and the fact that there is nothing more to say will spark a desire for some sort of conclusion. That will be proposed by the team leader or any of the members. The terms will be pawed over and, if the group is fortunate, agreement will be reached.

"Reached" is the key word. It may appear that the course of action could have been achieved within five minutes from the start of the meeting, but that is wrong. The meeting process must take place first. The prolonged exchange is one of our tribal rites. Avoiding it is taboo.

As a congressman once noted, "Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it."

What seems minor is not.

Snowman Saga

Write a book about snowmen and things might get a little rough in the marketing arena, but should they have gotten this rough?

An excerpt:

Total miles traveled for the book tour : 1,435
Total number of History of the Snowman books sold on tour : 41
Number of states visited : 7
Number of ways I could have been more productive : 1,000,000

[HT: The Other McCain ]

Quote of the Day

We never reorganize without a good reason. Of course, the fact that we haven't reorganized in six months is a very good reason.

- Vice Chairman of a Fortune 100 Company

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Miscellaneous and Fast

Adverts: The best (and very worst) of Adfreak, 2008.

Business Week on the Madoff scandal.

Part 1 of
Ben Stein on retirement. [He also has a book on the subject.]

Photo of Kashmiri Muslim women.

Lehman: Fortune looks at three days that changed the world.

Bernard Goldberg on media bias and the election. [HT: Ed Driscoll ]

Tanked: Just the toy for your next blitzkrieg.

Building on his New Yorker piece: Malcolm Gladwell discusses quarterbacks and teachers.


Too true: "The One Semester of Spanish Love Song."

[HT: Hilary Wade]

The Unpersuasive

You're going into a meeting in which you have to be persuasive.

Your first job is to avoid being unpersuasive. A major mistake is to let a passionate commitment to a particular point of view create an image of stridency. Do emotional appeals work? Sure, but the safer and more responsible approach is to combine reasonable tone with a logical position.

How is that done? There are several ways:
  • Acknowledge weak points. Credibility drops when advocates appear to argue that their side has no flaws.
  • Avoid overstatement. Puffing can be easily spotted and its use raises a question of how many other assertions lack substance.
  • Speak with one voice. All team members should be on script.
  • Use visual aids in a professional manner. Sloppy slides will imply sloppy analysis.
  • Don't be too slick. To paraphrase Spencer Tracy, it's okay to act but don't ever let them catch you doing it.

Fiction and Reality: The Voysey Inheritance

There are two versions of "The Voysey Inheritance" available -- Mr. Mamet's adaptation from Vintage and Harley Granville-Baker's longer original scanned into Google Books. Both are transfixing reads against the unfolding backdrop of the incredible Madoff revelations.

There is this obvious question: Across all the years of wondrous returns from this Wizard of Oz, didn't a small cloud of question pass through the mind of, say Jeffrey Katzenberg or Steven Spielberg or Carl Shapiro to ask, How is he doing this?

Daniel Henninger has a fascinating column on a play for our times.

Quote of the Day

When you combine ignorance and borrowed money, the consequences can get interesting.

- Warren Buffett

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Limits of Swearing

Early this week I was in a supermarket stocking up on light bulbs, which I seldom replace until they all fail and I have to find my way out of my office by feeling the furniture, swearing all the way.

But I wouldn't swear if children were present. Perhaps I should. Swear words are only words and a case can be made for children hearing as early as possible the language of the world they will grow up in.

I wonder, though, if that case is very good.

Read the rest of Clive James on swearing in public and in comedy.

[HT: Arts & Letters Daily ]

Culture Break: Corelli

A little Corelli for the season.

No Decline, Thank You.

Robert D. Kaplan believes decline is overrated. An excerpt:

The proper analogy may be the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and 1858, after the orientalists and other pragmatists in the British power structure, who wanted to leave traditional India as it was, lost sway to Evangelical and Utilitarian reformers who wanted to more forcefully Christianize India -- to make it in a values sense more like England. The reformers were good people: They helped abolish the slave trade and tried to do the same with the hideous practice of widow-burning. But their attempts to bring the fruits of Western civilization, virtuous as they were, to a far-off corner of the world played a role in a violent revolt against imperial authority.

Yet the debacle did not signal the end of the British Empire, which expanded for nearly another century. Rather, it signaled a transition away from an ad hoc imperium fired occasionally by an ill-disciplined lust to impose its values abroad -- and to a calmer, more pragmatic and soldiering empire built on trade, education and technology.

Gaming Capitalism

While the dynamics as described by game theory indeed do not result in the general dissemination of optimal outcomes, in the real world the suboptimal ones we manage to generate are usually quite good enough. Surely they are substantially better than would obtain in the absence of any mechanisms at all for the communication of as much information as is obtainable and discernible through the workings of the markets.

But not always. Sometimes, as we attempt to serve our various individual interests by gaming our interactions with others through the capitalist economic system, things can spin out of control. So, to what extent do we all share in responsibility for the the current crisis? Is it simply the inevitably periodic consequence of our economic coexistence?

Read the rest of Jim Stroup at Managing Leadership on gaming theory and capitalism.

Holding Your Tongue

Ground rules for holding your tongue:
  1. Not every remark deserves a response.
  2. Irritating e-mail messages should be answered later or not at all.
  3. A cheap shot is not worth the price.
  4. If in doubt, don't.
  5. Beware of ascribing motives.
  6. Give others the benefit of the doubt.
  7. Always understate your case.

Quote of the Day

The behavior of an organization can best be predicted by assuming that it is under the control of a cabal of its sworn enemies.

- Robert Conquest

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bouncing Back from Success

It is well known that staying on top can be more difficult than getting there.

A championship athletic team that vanquishs the competition one year may not even come in third the next. Bouncing back from success can be as challenging as bouncing back from failure.

Why is that?

Here's a list of some common culprits:

  1. Hubris. "We're great. Who's going to beat us?"

  2. Fatique. "We're tired. Let someone else be Number One for a while."

  3. Contentment. "Fame is overrated. We have enough rings and trophies."

  4. Factions. "I put up with that prima donna last year in order to win the championship. I'm not doing that again."

  5. Companions. "I've got some new best friends and they all love me. I think."

  6. Last year's plan. "There's no need to reinvent the wheel. Let's run the same plays."

  7. Hidden adversaries. "I'm sure all of those folks who sacrificed to help us last year will want to do it again."

Ponzi and Company

Daniel Finkelstein, writing in the Times of London, on how Ponzi schemes succeed and fail:

The key moment in the criminal career of Frank Abagnale - the conman played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me if You Can - came when he saw the way a Pan Am pilot in uniform was treated. He obtained a uniform and a fake ID card and set to work. It proved much easier to get money, girls, food, free flights when wearing a uniform. Want to know how Madoff managed to ply his trade without being properly questioned? Want to know why the regulators didn't bring him to book? He was dressed in the city equivalent of a pilot's uniform. The authority of his big company and his intimidating reputation clothed him.

But it was the maths that undid him. He chose the wrong con. Ponzi schemes collapse. It is almost mathematically impossible for them to keep going for ever. They are, incidentally, a particular feature of rising markets and come unstuck in downturns. Not all cons come unstuck like this. The mark doesn't like to be thought an idiot or greedy or a crook. So they often keep quiet or even side with the con artist. Even Ponzi himself kept some of his fans. I bet Madoff does too.

Quote of the Day

I am a believer in punctuality though it makes me very lonely.

- E. V. Lucas

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Good Egg

Mrs. T, with whom I watch a lot of old movies on TV, pointed out the other night that I have a pronounced weakness for the sort of woman known to fans of P.G. Wodehouse as a good egg. Alas, Wodehouse never described any of his good eggs in detail, but Raymond Chandler carved the type in stone when he wrote about Anne Riordan in Farewell, My Lovely:

She was about twenty-eight years old. She had a rather narrow forehead of more height than is considered elegant. Her nose was small and inquisitive, her upper lip a shade too long and her mouth more than a shade too wide. Her eyes were gray-blue with flecks of gold in them. She had a nice smile. She looked as if she had slept well. It was a nice face, a face you get to like. Pretty, but not so pretty that you would have to wear brass knuckles every time you took it out....

Read the rest of
Terry Teachout here.

Friends: Have a Happy Network

We found that social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy people within them that reach out to three degrees of separation. A person's happiness is related to the happiness of their friends, their friends' friends, and their friends' friends' friends—that is, to people well beyond their social horizon. We found that happy people tend to be located in the center of their social networks and to be located in large clusters of other happy people. And we found that each additional happy friend increases a person's probability of being happy by about 9%.

Read the rest here.

The Office: Performance Appraisal

In my opinion, the British version of The Office is far superior to its American spin-off.

Here is a clip of the boss, David Brent, giving Keith his performance appraisal . Be sure to watch it all the way through.

Weasels: Actual and Perceived

There is an honesty in the person who openly and directly opposes you that is far preferable to the less bold soul who, to use Elinor Wylie's words, has a smooth, ambiguous smile with lips that never part.

Some adversaries can be enjoyed and even liked. That cannot be said for the weasels who deny their opposition while doing everything possible to hinder and destroy your progress.

All of which raises the subject of weaselhood. There are two types of weasels: actual and perceived. The actual weasel truly does intend harm and employs slippery tactics in order to further that goal. The perceived weasel may not be a real weasel but indecision coupled with opportunism and a desire not to offend can exude the scent of weasel and thus destroy trust. Neither type has the attraction and integrity of a declared opponent.

Perceived weasels can be rather sad creatures since no den is their home. In an effort to be attractive to all minds, they fail to understand their own. Their worst sins are committed in the name of idealism and their introspection is so weak they don't even blush during acts of betrayal.

At least the actual weasel has the advantage of knowing what he or she is about. Actual weasels will not insult you by cloaking reprehensible behavior with sincere declarations of idealism. That is their odd form of integrity.

Quote of the Day

But, good gracious, you've got to educate him first. You can't expect a boy to be vicious til he's been to a good school.

- Saki

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Gift Ideas

Cultural Offering has some great gift suggestions. An excerpt:

Knives from The Knife Channel - I wish I could embed a clip from The Knife Channel but, alas, I can't find a sample of this experience for readers. If you can tune in The Knife Channel, it is worth a watch and a purchase. Last year, I bought the "100 knives for 100 dollars" collection and Christmas came early to our house as I sorted through the box of treasures with four 17-year-olds, an 11-year-old and a seven-year-old. Within one week, we had been to the emergency room and patched up a few messes. I gave away many of the knives and everyone seemed pleased. I watched last night and my wife must have noticed the gleam because she called me off the potential $15 order preemptively.

Culture Break: The Classic Unconventional Christmas Movie

Instant flashback: The trailer for A Christmas Story.

[Some background material on the film is here.]

Scott Adams on Today's Workplace

Anne Fisher at Fortune interviews Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip. An excerpt:

Q. If Dilbert were real, would he still have a job?

A. No. I'm drawing a series right now where he gets laid off and he has to go through a really tough bunch of interviews to try and get another job. At one point he is asked whether he would take a bullet for a prospective employer and they make him go to a firing range to prove it.

Which Will Be Done?

Consider if your own experience reflects this.

A public event is planned. Which of the following items are most likely to be fumbled or completely neglected?

  1. Buying something glitzy for the main entrance to the event.
  2. Getting the press releases out on time.
  3. Designing a new logo for the ads.
  4. Placing the ads in the proper publications.

[Answers: 2 and 4. Unless carefully monitored, gloss will receive greater attention than substance.]

Tribune Falling

Struggling to make changes that will attract the young and other readers with short attention spans has everywhere failed to bring salubrious results. In the case of the Chicago Tribune all that has been accomplished is to make the paper -- with more color photography, shorter stories, more features, less hard news -- seem more like USA Today, of which the world does not need more than one. This has brought greater discontent among loyal Tribune readers and done little to bring in new readers. I am not a regular reader of the Tribune, but when I do pick up a copy these days it feels like nothing so much as holding the local evening television news in my hand, and that's not a happy feeling.

Read the rest of Joseph Epstein on the tribulations of the Chicago Tribune.

Quote of the Day

Colleagues of [accused Ponzi scheme operator and investment firm owner Bernard Madoff] said he was fair to those he dealt with and generous to charities including the Special Olympics. Mr. Madoff treated employees well and loved to take friends and colleagues onto his 55-foot fishing boat, called Bull, said Frank Christensen, a retired BYSE broker.

"I really think very highly of him," said Mr. Christensen. "People make mistakes."

- From a front page article in The Wall Street Journal, December 13-14, 2008

[Execupundit tip: Always check the name of their boat.]

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Picking the Most Likely

Writing in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell examines how we determine who is the most likely to succeed. An excerpt:

A college quarterback joining the N.F.L., by contrast, has to learn to play an entirely new game. Shonka began to talk about Tim Couch, the quarterback taken first in that legendary draft of 1999. Couch set every record imaginable in his years at the University of Kentucky. “They used to put five garbage cans on the field,” Shonka recalled, shaking his head, “and Couch would stand there and throw and just drop the ball into every one.” But Couch was a flop in the pros. It wasn’t that professional quarterbacks didn’t need to be accurate. It was that the kind of accuracy required to do the job well could be measured only in a real N.F.L. game.

Not Your Traditional Corruption

Reform gets identified with well-educated people who are comfortable with laws that say city jobs should go to the person who is best qualified. After all, educated people usually are the best qualified. Regulars know that regular people sometimes need a little help. Under this kind of ethic, steering rewards to friends and family becomes a virtue. As Mayor Richard J. Daley once famously exclaimed when caught trying to shovel city insurance business to one of his sons (not Richard M. or Bill Daley), "Any father who doesn't do for his son isn't a good father, and if they don't like it, kiss my ass."

A Chicago alderman once complained to me about modern reform hiring laws -- the line was so good, I borrowed it, unembellished, for a novel -- "What's this world coming to when a guy can get a job for a stranger more easily than he can for his brother in law?"

Read the rest of Scott Simon on the new low in Chicago politics.

Quote of the Day

You want to know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way!

- Sean Connery in "The Untouchables"

Friday, December 12, 2008

Miscellaneous and Fast

Is Hefner behind the PETA ad campaigns?

Get in a good mood: Dusty Springfield.

Death by E-Mail:
Ten things never to put in e-mail. [HT: Mark Polino ]

Cool Tools has a piece on
SuperSculpey Firm polymer that will make you want to head for the art supply store.

RiseSmart has some tips
on making a career transition at 55+.

Lost style: John Huston interviewed by Dick Cavett.

Let the man smoke: Ron Rosenbaum on the downsides of presidential cold turkey.

Party pooper: Suzanne Lucas on
why the holiday party is not a party.

Two conservatives
criticize Justice Scalia on originalism. [This is a tad confusing. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I thought Scalia criticized originalism in his essays on judicial decision-making.]

Himmler was already booked: The love affair with Che and Mao.

Bureaucratic Games

My post on "When You're Blocked by the Office Bureaucrats" is up at U.S. News & World Report.


There's a pattern here:

Christina Hoff Sommers on The War Against Boys, Roger Kimball on The Dangerous Book for Boys, David Murrow on Why Men Hate Going to Church, and, most recently, Guy Garcia on The Decline of Men.

Racist Comments: Off-Duty and Not to Co-Workers?

Employment attorney John Phillips looks at a case that raises significant issues:

It’s clear that your employees can’t make racist remarks at work or direct them toward coworkers. If an employee does this, he can be disciplined or fired. What if the remarks are put in writing while an employee isn’t at work and mailed to random people across the country? Can he still be disciplined or fired?

As reported by the Columbus Dispatch, there’s a new lawsuit that may provide an answer. An employee of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency was fired after he sent letters with racist comments to hundreds of college students at Ohio State, Notre Dame and the University of Rhode Island. He’s filed sued, claiming that his discharge violated his free speech rights.

Out of a Sopranos Script

Corruption in Illinois is like snow in Minnesota. Hardly news. Mr Blagojevich, in fact, became the fifth of the past eight governors of the state to have been indicted. That's a higher proportion than among professional footballers. Heck, it's a higher proportion than among immediate members of Mob families.

Read the rest of Gerard Baker, writing in The Financial Times, on the scandal du jour.

[HT: Real Clear Politics ]


I once supervised a man who'd escaped a dictatorship. Although he had enjoyed an distinguished career as an attorney and as the vice president of a major corporation in his country, he'd had to flee and leave his family behind. He lived in a small apartment near our office and walked to work. A large chunk of what he earned was sent back to his family. When the dictator fell, he returned to his homeland and, I'm happy to say, was able to regain considerable status and happiness before he passed away.

Another refugee I met had been expelled from his country after being subjected to the less-than-tender mercies of the police state. He'd arrived in his new country with next to no money but with a solid reputation as a scientist and a dissident. He rebuilt his life and has written a series of books. He still lives frugally in a drab neighborhood of a major city.

I sometimes think of these two men and of the torment and challenges they had to overcome.

The memory usually comes to mind whenever people complain about their career.

Sussex Carol

Refinement and style from, not surprisingly, Cultural Offering.

Quote of the Day

Honor: nobleness of mind; scorn of meanness; magnanimity.

- Samuel Johnson

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Seize the Fire!

Okay, I haven't finished this yet but I'll say without hesitation, if you like history and are interested in leadership, get a copy of Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty and the Battle of Trafalgar by Adam Nicolson. Two excerpts:

No one who met Nelson thought he looked like a hero should. Lady Spencer, sophisticated wife of a distinguished First Lord of the Admiralty called Nelson "a most uncouth creature." His general appearance, she thought - and this was a woman who loved and admired him - "was that of an idiot."


The asymmetry between British confidence and Franco-Spanish despair, at the very beginning of the battle, is the governing condition of Trafalgar. The battle was lost and won before a moment of it was fought. This was a meeting the British had desired for at least two years, a chance to establish their command of the world ocean. But it was a meeting which their enemies, as they quite explicitly repeated in dispatch after dispatch to Madrid, Paris and on to Napoleon's mobile headquarters then in Germany, did not desire at all. The French and the Spanish commanders knew, as if it were their destiny, that a catastrophe awaited them.

Miscellaneous and Fast

Stanley Bing likes the auto bail-out and National Review doesn't. [HT: Real Clear Politics ]

$38 million for Judge Judy? Greg Beato looks at the "justice porn" industry. [HT: Arts & Letters Daily ]

Vodkapundit has discovered the true artistic quality of Mad Men.

American Heritage: Annette Gordon-Reed on Hemings, Jefferson, and love.

But he sure can dance: Best ever moonwalk.

Cartoon break: Pirate medicine.

Inspiring, schmaltz, or both? An
interview with God?

Alvaro Vargas Llosa on
Slumdog Millionaire.

Always produces a smile: Overheard in Chicago.

Not your typical small town: Trailer for Fellini's Amarcord.

Children's Books

Thinking of buying some children's books?

Joseph Bottum provides an excellent review of the genre :

The real push, however, came with the late Victorians and the Edwardians. Think of all the books from this era that you’ve read and given as Christmas presents, over and over again. Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. The Wizard of Oz and The Wind in the Willows. Peter Pan and Anne of Green Gables. Rudyard Kipling, Beatrix Potter, E. Nesbit, A.A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson: This was the golden age of children’s books.

Quote of the Day

I have never seen pessimism in a Company prospectus.

- Sir William Connor

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Creativity Update: Ol' Man River and Other Gems

The famous Hammerstein story is the one where Mrs. Jerome Kern and Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein are attending a luncheon party. Making the introductions, the hostess says, “Mrs. Kern’s husband wrote ‘Ol’ Man River,’” at which point Mrs. Hammerstein interjects: “My husband wrote ‘Ol’ Man River.’ Mrs. Kern’s husband wrote ‘Da-da dee-da.’”

Read the rest of Mark Steyn's review of Amy Asch's book on the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein.

Carol Break

Back by popular demand: Once in Royal David's City.

The Mouse is 40

Check out the photo of one of the first computer mouses [mice?]

[HT: Vodkapundit ]


I recently read an account of the apprehension of a criminal. The author criticized the actions of the police, noting they could have done this and they delayed in doing that. He neglected to mention, of course, the downside of alternatives and failed entirely to appreciate both the confusion and clarity of being there.

Let us favor the person who has to make decisions on the spot and who lacks the calm reflection of the critic who, tucked in a cozy study and armed with the knowledge of how things turned out, can toss darts and then draw a target around them.

Most decisions of any real consequence involve large amounts of confusion and flat-out ignorance. The choices are far from obvious and one thing after another that should happen doesn't. If an active opponent is present, then a hostile party is vigorously working to thwart your best efforts. Multiply that many times over and you can understand why a good general is akin to - and often faced with greater challenges than - a brain surgeon.

Some of the tendencies to second-guess the person who is in the field are due to what I call The James Bond Phenomenon; i.e., the belief that in first-rate operations everything clicks into place and all problems are anticipated and wonderful gadgets are available to dispense with any special difficulties. Those who've had to make such decisions know better. In the real world, the information is sparse, the timing is rapidly muddled, the component that was supposed to be in place has gotten lost, and the opposition just changed the rules.

Those who have to make the tough decisions know that while they might get credit if their actions are successful, they will almost certainly, in the guise of constructive criticism, be excoriated if they are not.

That is the price of leadership, but acknowledging its presence does not excuse critics who do not begin to understand leadership's challenges.