Monday, November 30, 2009

Music Break

Renee Fleming sings l'adieu des bergers.

Virgin Galactic's White Knight

Wired has an intriguing report on Virgin Galactic's plans to put private citizens into space:

In a year, maybe two — barring any test-flight glitches — people who have the right financial stuff will be rocketing daily into space for a few minutes of sensory overload and ego gratification. It may not be the colonization of Mars, but as Siebold says, “did the Wright brothers have Boeing 747s in their consciousness when they flew at Kitty Hawk? No, but it just grows from here; what they achieved made that possible.” If Virgin and Scaled Composites succeed in making this huge technical leap, a trip to suborbital space will have been reduced to nothing more than a pricey Tilt-A-Whirl for grown-ups.

Climategate and Trust

Clive Crook at The Atlantic has reversed his earlier stance on Climategate:

Remember that this is not an academic exercise. We contemplate outlays of trillions of dollars to fix this supposed problem. Can I read these emails and feel that the scientists involved deserve to be trusted? No, I cannot. These people are willing to subvert the very methods--notably, peer review--that underwrite the integrity of their discipline. Is this really business as usual in science these days? If it is, we should demand higher standards--at least whenever "the science" calls for a wholesale transformation of the world economy. And maybe some independent oversight to go along with the higher standards.

[HT: Instapundit]

An Electronic Pearl Harbor

Once a skeptic, Ira Winkler now believes that an Electronic Pearl Harbor is "very possible." An excerpt from his CSO article:

There is a perfect storm brewing where the skills and resources required to launch a significant attack is being drastically lower. Depending upon the effects of a possible worm on the smart grid boxes, and the vulnerability of the generators, there can be a combined attack that does have strategic impact.

Getting By

Many managers and supervisors don't study management. This neglect does not stem any disdain for knowledge. It arises from a level of comfort. They often don't realize how much better they could be at their job.

Their organization judges them "good enough" (and even "outstanding") and they heartily agree, sometimes falling back on the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" maxim. After all, they have plenty to do as it is. Why add management classes and books to their schedule?

They are getting by without realizing they are getting by. Their situation resembles that of a C student who is given an inflated grade and eventually mistakes C work for that of a B or an A. All will be well until the day that a higher level of performance is indeed required either in daily work or to gain a promotion and they run into a serious competitor whose scores were high and uninflated.

Most of us have, at one time or another, slipped into the "getting by" mode.

If we are fortunate, we know when we are doing so. If we do not know, some day we may be in for a big surprise. In today's ultra-competitive world, the individual is unwise to rely upon the employer's willingness to provide the training that is needed for the development of management skills. You are - you can groan now - your own brand and you don't want the product of You to be at the back of the pack.

Quote of the Day

Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.

- Steven Pressfield

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pre-emptive Surrender

"Let's see now. It's agreed that we'd prefer to maintain certain standards but if we do so we might get sued or accused of insensitivity or picketed so it's clear that we need to take another approach."

"What's that?"

"We'll announce some new standards - ones that we can say have been blessed by our attorneys - and those standards will reduce the risk of conflict.

"In other words, we'll cave in."

"No, not cave in. You see, if we fought and then settled, you could call that 'caving in,' although I think it may simply be accepting reality. No, what we are doing is not a surrender on their terms, but a series of policy adjustments on our terms."

"But you said that we are adopting this approach instead of seeking to maintain standards. That sounds like a surrender to me."

"You're missing the point. The point is that unless we are willing to fight it out and spend money on lawyers and go through some pretty unpleasant stuff, we will eventually be forced to accept their demands. Rather than do that, I am proposing that we make our demands a version of their demands. That way, we win, at least from the standpoint of perception."

"And you believe that perception is reality, right?

"Oh yes. Absolutely. That's what really matters. Others can debate about substance. I'll take perception any day."

"And while you're crowing about perception, the standards will in fact have been shattered."

"I wouldn't put it that way, but you may if you wish. I don't want to argue about it."

Survival Quiz

Outside magazine gives its survival quiz.

I won't discuss my score other than to note that it is in dead man territory.

Cabinet Appointees

A fascinating chart at Cultural Offering of the prior private sector experience of Cabinet appointments.

Pay Me with a Chicken

Here's a sign of the new economy: a new web site devoting to facilitating barter deals.

Great name.

[HT: Liz Handlin]

Psych Games

Dr. Helen Smith points to a Forbes article on why banks may give warm greetings to would-be robbers.

I saw a similar report some years back on how even an extremely small fence discourages trespassing.

Nick Hornby's Travels

I am on a train from the south coast back to London. Across the aisle, three elderly passengers, two women and a man, buy coffee from the trolley.“What you do,” says the elderly man to his friends, “Is, you sip through the hole in the top of the lid.”The two elderly women give it a go, tentatively at first, and pronounce themselves amazed and delighted at this technological breakthrough.“I only found that out myself when I went to Hastings,” said the man.What happened in Hastings? I wish I knew.

Read the rest of Nick Hornby's tales from the road.

Drawing Outside the Lines

Donald at 2Blowhards is discussing ideological inconsistencies.

I suspect that most of us have them. Abigail Thernstrom once commented that when she's in a room full of conservatives she moves to the Left and when she's in a room with liberals she moves to the Right.

I can understand that.

Historical Fiction List

In what are sure to be controversial choices, Rebecca Stott gives her list of the five best books of historical fiction.

I'd add - no great surprise here - the Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars; Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman which gives us Russia during World War II; and, hey, why not War and Peace?

When I was young, historical fiction was common. Kenneth Roberts, Harold Lamb, and Thomas Costain provided clever ways of learning history without reading history. Their books may be worth another visit.

Quote of the Day

The thoughtless are rarely wordless.

- Howard W. Newton

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Climate Change Emails

Perspectives on the leaked climate change emails:

The Wall Street Journal

The Guardian

The Times of London

The New Republic



The Christian Science Monitor

Keeping It Simple at In-N-Out Burger

Jeff Rose on the secret of In-N-Out Burger:

In-N-Out doesn’t need to run advertising to build its fan base. Word of mouth advertising from its cult fans (people like me) has grown the In-N-Out name into the behemoth that it is today. When the chain opened a new location in Arizona, there was a four hour wait to get their mouth on the prize.

In-N-Out has also made the prime time. It’s made appearances in such flicks as Swinger and The Big Lebowski and TV shows Arrested Development and The Simpsons. Stars such as Angela Jolie, Beyonce’, Paris Hilton and Tom Hanks have openly shared their infatuation with the burger joint. When the New York Giants were in town for Super Bowl XLII, coach Tom Coughlin ordered In-N-Out for lunch for the entire team. Now that’s one cool coach!

[HT: Political Calculations]

Forcing People to be Free

From a BBC documentary on Isaiah Berlin's concept of positive and negative liberty.

When Good Bosses Talk

My post on what good bosses hate to see is up at U.S. News & World Report.

Being Your Own Ump

Bravo to Eric Felten for a great column on ethics, umpires, and modern sports. An excerpt:

Dartmouth protested, but the game was over. Cornell could have adopted the modern moral standard that anything the ref allows is allowed. Instead, when the game films showed conclusively that Cornell had won on an extra, illegal snap, the players, coach, athletic director and university president agreed to forfeit the game and did so graciously. Coach Carl Snavely sent a telegram to Hanover, N.H., saying that Cornell "without reservation concede[s] the victory to Dartmouth with hearty congratulations to you and a gallant Dartmouth team." Dartmouth wired back that it accepted the victory and saluted its "honorable and honored opponent." As Arthur Daley wrote in the New York Times that week: "Cornell had the sportsmanship to yield a success it felt it had not rightfully earned."

Non-Techies of the World, Unite!

We were floating the Yakima River in his guide quality drift boat south of Ellensburg, Washington. We were miles from anything remotely resembling civilization. Rock canyon walls were on either side of us. Bear with me as I try to explain this strange thing.

His “Blackberry” rang. It was blue and I asked him why it wasn’t called a Blueberry. He shook his head with that ‘dealing with an elder’ despair look I get a lot these days. It was another realtor who called to say that the sellers he represented had agreed to my son’s client’s changes and he had the signed documents in hand.

Read the rest of What Would Dad Say here.

Growing Cyber-Threats

Writing in City Journal, John P. Avlon on cyber-threats:

First your cell phone doesn’t work. Then you notice that you can’t access the Internet. Down on the street, ATMs won’t dispense money. Traffic lights don’t function, and calls to 911 don’t get routed to emergency responders. Radios report that systems controlling dams, railroads, and nuclear power plants have been remotely infiltrated and compromised. The air-traffic control system shuts down, leaving thousands of passengers stranded or rerouted and unable to communicate with loved ones. This is followed by a blackout that lasts not hours but days and even weeks. Our digital civilization shudders to a halt. When we emerge, millions of Americans’ data are missing, along with billions of dollars.

The Annual Dickens Debate

Okay, this is a subject of great dispute in some circles. Which film version of A Christmas Carol gets your vote?

Reginald Owen? Alastair Sim? Albert Finney? George C. Scott? Patrick Stewart? Bill Murray? Michael Caine and The Muppets? Mr. Magoo? Mickey Mouse? Jim Carrey?

Bonus item: The trailer for Scrooged. [I confess that I've never seen the film.]

Quote of the Day

Can you imagine Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak taking a break to read Dress for Success while wiring the first Apple computer? Try to picture Bill Gates consulting the book Success! when launching Microsoft. Michael Korda's 1977 book featured drawings that illustrated do's and don'ts for conveying the image of a winner. One pictured The Loser's Jacket Pocket. This pocket held three pens and a glasses case. The nerd look, in other words. At the very time that his readers were studying how to avoid looking like a loser, Korda's loser look was common among those who eventually enjoyed the most success of all - on the author's own terms. A 1978 picture of Microsoft's eleven scruffy founders that's posted on the Internet is labeled, "Would you have invested?"

- Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes, "Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins"

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Kill the What?

Be honest.

Once you've seen this and this, could you ever hear the original music without thinking of the less distinguished "versions?"

Burj Dubai

A look inside the tallest skyscraper in the world. I almost get dizzy looking at it.

Update: And the Dubai debt is shaking markets.

Another update: More from the Financial Times.

Putting Traffic in Perspective

Before you grumble about your daily commute, check out the traffic in Paris and Rome.

But, of course, the award winner is India.

Another Earth?

It took humans thousands of years to explore our own planet and centuries to comprehend our neighboring planets, but nowadays new worlds are being discovered every week. To date, astronomers have identified more than 370 “exoplanets,” worlds orbiting stars other than the sun. Many are so strange as to confirm the biologist J. B. S. Haldane’s famous remark that “the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” There’s an Icarus-like “hot Saturn” 260 light-years from Earth, whirling around its parent star so rapidly that a year there lasts less than three days. Circling another star 150 light-years out is a scorched “hot Jupiter,” whose upper atmosphere is being blasted off to form a gigantic, comet-like tail. Three benighted planets have been found orbiting a pulsar—the remains of a once mighty star shrunk into a spinning atomic nucleus the size of a city—while untold numbers of worlds have evidently fallen into their suns or been flung out of their systems to become “floaters” that wander in eternal darkness.

Mere Chance?

Jim Stroup dissects some guidance by Marcus Aurelius on God and chance:

That’s why Aurelius’s words are so gripping for us – even calming. Because we can’t imagine that there is no wisdom in them. There really is no reason to believe that chance rules – or, perhaps, that it inevitably always will. There is too much force in our irrepressible insistence that we do – or can – mean more than that.

Happy Thanksgiving!

This is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. [I note that because many readers of this blog are in other nations.]

It is a holiday that finds the vast majority of the people in the United States crowded around tables. Black, white, American Indian, Asian American, Hispanic, gay, straight, believers, atheists, whatever - all take the day as a time for gratitude; a great moment to gather with family and friends.

Although roast turkey is the traditional main dish, I know of many families that have other choices. Among the alternatives I've heard of are lasagna, goose, ham, lamb, tamales, and - in one unforgettable example - tofu.

The stuffing for the turkey can be even more exotic. Stuffing snobs exist and their tastes can range from the chestnut traditionalists to more daring ones involving chile peppers.

A similar variety can be found in desserts where pumpkin pie competes with pecan, chocolate cream, apple, and sweet potato.

I won't even get into the whole canned versus fresh cranberry sauce debate.

Regardless of your location or nationality, please accept my best wishes on this day of thankfulness.


P.S. And if you've got any great Thanksgiving recipes, send them to me.

Swan? We'll Do That Next Year.

A food historian outlines which items were probably on or off the menu at the first Thanksgiving:

Ham: There is no evidence that the colonists had butchered a pig by this time, though they had brought pigs with them from England.

Sweet Potatoes/Potatoes: These were not common.

Corn on the Cob: Corn was kept dried out at this time of year.

Cranberry Sauce: The colonists had cranberries but no sugar at this time.

Pumpkin Pie: It's not a recipe that exists at this point, though the pilgrims had recipes for stewed pumpkin.

Quote of the Day

Countless Victorian-era engravings notwithstanding, the Pilgrims did not spend the day sitting around a long table draped with a white linen cloth, clasping each other's hands in prayer as a few curious Indians looked on. Instead of an English affair, the First Thanksgiving soon became an overwhelmingly Native celebration when Massasoit and a hundred Pokanokets (more than twice the entire English population of Plymouth) arrived at the settlement with five freshly killed deer. Even if all the Pilgrims' furniture was brought out into the sunshine, most of the celebrants stood, squatted, or sat on the ground as they clustered around outdoor fires, where the deer and birds turned on wooden spits and where pottages - stews into which varieties of meats and vegetables were thrown, simmered invitingly.

- Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Music Break: Cinema Paradiso

Like fine film soundtracks? This is one of the best.

Bradley on Shakespeare

This will take many of you back to college days: The complete text of A.C. Bradley on Shakespearean tragedy. [I read the book while an undergraduate and found that it brought a certain amount of order to the universe.] An excerpt:

In approaching our subject it will be best, without attempting to shorten the path by referring to famous theories of the drama, to start directly from the facts, and to collect from them gradually an idea of Shakespearean Tragedy. And first, to begin from the outside, such a tragedy brings before us a considerable number of persons (many more than the persons in a Greek play, unless the members of the Chorus are reckoned among them); but it is pre-eminently the story of one person, the 'hero,' 1 or at most of two, the 'hero' and 'heroine.' Moreover, it is only in the love tragedies, Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra, that the heroine is as much the center of the action as the hero. The rest, including Macbeth, are single stars. So that, having noticed the peculiarity of these two dramas, we may henceforth, for the sake of brevity, ignore it, and may speak of the tragic story as being concerned primarily with one person.

The story, next, leads up to, and includes, the death of the hero. On the one hand (whatever may be true of tragedy elsewhere), no play at the end of which the hero remains alive is, in the full Shakespearean sense, a tragedy; and we no longer class Troilus and Cressida or Cymbeline as such, as did the editors of the Folio. On the other hand, the story depicts also the troubled part of the hero's life which precedes and leads up to his death; and an instantaneous death occurring by 'accident' in the midst of prosperity would not suffice for it. It is, in fact, essentially a tale of suffering and calamity conducting to death.

1 Julius Caesar is not an exception to this rule. Caesar, whose murder comes in the Third Act, is in a sense the dominating figure in the story, but Brutus is the 'hero.'

Metaphor as Power Plant

Rather nice: A video of Leonard Bernstein lecturing on music at Harvard.

Random Thoughts

Rudeness is inexcusable. Perfection is paralyzing. To be ethical is to be judgmental. Large government = small citizens. Sometimes, a command decision is needed. The strong should protect the weak. There is such a thing as evil. Humility can be both a virtue and a vice. On occasion, all of us are dumber than one of us. If you stand by and permit injustice when it was in your power to prevent it, you should be damned. Smugness is lethal. You need to thank someone today. In addition to a few friends and enemies, we have many quasi-friends and quasi-enemies and most people don't think about us at all. One of the challenges of life is overcoming the effects of high school. If you sense it is, it probably is, especially if you sense something is bad. We look at so much and notice so little. Some of the most dangerous people are those who want to save the world. There should be workshops on how to avoid being too clever. Character won't break you, but style can be darned expensive. Study your opponents and try to learn their names. History is the key subject and all others are secondary. Read the minutes of the last meeting. Better yet, write the minutes. Learn how you learn. Listen to fools but don't argue with them. Be kinder than you think you should be. Don't think weakness discourages attacks. If you have to hit, hit hard. Try to look at the sky at least once a day. Learn the names of trees and birds. Laugh at yourself. Refrain from cruelty, no matter how you dress it up. Have a passion or two. Know your weaknesses. Forgive yourself. Study your own language. Learn to read people. Help someone without their knowing you've helped them. Be patient. All will be well.

Quote of the Day

The older I grow, the more I listen to people who don't say much.

- Germain G. Glidden

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Living Large

From Cool Tools: You know you're in trouble when you use one of these to carry your lunch to the office.

Memory, Books, and Eco

I'm around a quarter of the way into Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

So far, the novel is fascinating. An antiquarian bookseller in Italy loses his memory and tries to recover it by revisiting publications, people, and experiences. He can recall some historical facts in great detail but the names of his wife and children are initially beyond his grasp. Phrases from various books he's read come jumbling into his speech. And this woman? Was she his mistress?

Different and thought-provoking.

Crash Test

Check out this crash test at Eclecticity: A 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air versus a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu.

Very impressive.

The Morning After the Nightmare Before

Cultural Offering looks at a preventable nightmare and asks some probing questions. Some examples:
  • Did we not visit anymore, assuming that they were a "safe" bet?
  • Did we not speak up when we had a nagging suspicion that something was wrong?
  • Did we not call to see how they were doing?
  • Did no one notice the silence?

It reminds me of an American Indian saying: Listen to the whispers and you won't have to listen to the screams. Except in the case of clients, they usually won't scream. They'll just go away.

Puritan Joy

Amy Henry, writing in The Wall Street Journal, suggests that the Puritans have gotten a bad rap over the years. I agree. They deserve more than a few toasts at Thanksgiving. An excerpt:

Contrary to the misconstrued Victorian concept of 'Puritanism,' an idea C.S. Lewis calls "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy," the original Puritans, serious as they were, embraced not only hard work, but the pursuit of joy. Lewis, opposed to this inaccurate view of the Puritans, would agree with writer, Richard Bernard, who said Christians "may be merry at their work, and merry at their meat." Thomas Gataker wrote that Satan was the one who would try to convince people that "in the kingdom of God there is nothing but sighing and groaning and fasting and prayer," but the truth was that "in his house there is . . . feasting and rejoicing." Lewis, further debunking the myth that Puritans never had fun, said "bishops, not beer, were their special aversion." The Puritans pursued joy, the very antithesis of depression, even in the midst of hardship, believing they were firmly in God's hand, not forgotten and never forsaken.

Chicken Scratches

I have the actual letters that a relative of mine wrote during his service in the Union Army during the Civil War. His handwriting is beautiful. My mother and my grandmother both had marvelous handwriting.

My father's handwriting, on the other hand, was quasi-legible.

Mine is worse.

It was on its way down by the time I entered law school. Three years of scribbling about court cases put a bullet through it. [I don't know what my wife's excuse is. She uses letters that appear to come from another planet.]

I often see better handwriting than mine, but seldom encounter the truly beautiful handwriting that must have been commonplace in the 1900s. In those days, if you wrote at all, you probably did so with a "fine hand." I slow down and try to emulate those letters and my sentences look as if I was having a seizure.

I can read those Civil War letters. My descendents will have a rough time deciphering many of mine. That may be a blessing.

Quote of the Day

The legibility of a male manager's handwriting is in inverse proportion to his seniority. The less legible a male manager's signature is, the higher his rank and the more education he has had.

- Russell L. Ackoff and Herbert J. Addison

Monday, November 23, 2009

Collaboration and Consensus

Start with the alternative with the most votes and ask: “It looks like this one got the most votes – how about if this one stays for now?” If everyone agrees, then circle it. The go to the alternative with no votes, or the least, and ask: “OK, this one didn’t get any votes – can we eliminate it?” If no one objects, draw a line through it. If someone strongly objects – ask why. Give them time to make their case, and then move on to the next.

Read the rest of Dan McCarthy on how to maximize collaboration and reach consensus in less than an hour.

[And no, it doesn't involve a whip.]

Throwing Stones at the Army

Employment attorney John Phillips on the criticism currently being directed at the Army over the Fort Hood murders. An excerpt:

I’d be shocked if psychiatrists in government and in the private sector don’t transfer colleagues with less than stellar reviews from one department to another or one affiliated practice or hospital to another. The person becomes someone else’s problem, and the confrontation and possible lawsuit over firing a doctor is avoided. I’m guessing that doctors are “passed around” much more readily than front-line supervisors.

Revenge of the Bird

Makes you want to avert your eyes: Deep-fried turkey disaster videos.

[HT: Instapundit]

10 Rules for Thanksgiving

I wrote this several years ago. It is back by popular demand:
  1. Thou shalt not discuss politics at the dinner. There is next to no chance that you'll convert anyone and any hard feelings that are generated may last long after the pumpkin pie is finished. Why spoil a good meal?
  2. Thou shalt limit discussion of The Big Game. This is mainly directed at the men who choose to argue plays, records, and coaches while their wives stare longingly at the silverware. The sharp silverware.
  3. Thou shalt say nice things about every dish. Including the bizarre one with Jello and marshmallows.
  4. Thou shalt be especially kind to anyone who may feel left out. Some Thanksgiving guests are tag-alongs or, as we say in the business world, "new to the organization." Make a point of drawing them in.
  5. Thou shalt be wary of gossip. After all, do you know what they say when you leave the room? Remember the old saying: All of the brothers are valiant and all of the sisters are virtuous.
  6. Thou shalt not hog the white or dark meat. We know you're on Atkins but that's no excuse.
  7. Thou shalt think mightily before going back for seconds. Especially if that means waddling back for seconds.
  8. Thou shalt not get drunk. Strong drink improves neither your wit nor your discretion. Give everyone else a gift by remaining sober.
  9. Thou shalt be cheerful. This is not a therapy session. This is not the moment to recount all of the mistakes in your life or to get back at Uncle Bo for the wisecrack he made at your high school graduation. This is a time for Rule #10.
  10. Thou shalt be thankful. You're above ground and functioning in an extraordinary place at an extraordinary time. Many people paid a very heavy price (and I'm not talking about groceries) to give you this day. Take some time to think of them and to express gratitude to your friends and relatives. Above all, give special thanks to the divine power who blesses you in innumerable ways.

The Power of Slow

Have you ever experienced the power of doing something so slowly that you notice each component and can see the change in the environment and in you as each part gives way to another?

Speed, of course, has its appeal and yet, unless it is an emergency, I'd prefer the days when we took the train and not the plane to New York, when a letter would arrive and a reply would not be expected for days, when lunch was not rushed, and words were to be savored and not tweeted or blasted. I look back now at various times and experiences and wonder about all of the good things I must have shot past.

Street Smarts Alerts

What are street smarts? They are those bits of wisdom earned through careful observation of - and exposure to - how the world really works. They often leave scars and vows never to repeat the experience, but their guidance is invaluable. Your street smarts alert starts to sound when:

  1. You've arrived at the important meeting and two key people have suddenly and mysteriously bailed out.

  2. A report goes into extraordinary detail on every point but one.

  3. An executive asks that a completely unnecessary opinion on a topic be put in writing.

  4. The person who promised to round up support on a project announces that he's having a tough time getting appointments.

  5. The phrase "Trust me" is used more than once in a meeting.

  6. A strategy is based on a complicated series of events that would make the best pool shots of all time look simple.

  7. As you listen to a proposal, you keep wondering, "What does this mean in plain language?"

  8. A decision that could have taken one week has not been made after four months.

  9. A noted opponent of a project wants to join the project team.

  10. The advocates for a major program keep insisting that it be approved without extensive examination.

Quote of the Day

Our local congressman admits his opponent resembles Abraham Lincoln - if you can imagine a short, fat, dishonest Abraham Lincoln.

- Bill Vaughan

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Homer's Poetry

Here is an interesting project:

A community reading of Homer's "The Odyssey" at Villanova University.

Somewhere, Handel is Smiling

I have a feeling that this is one singer of Handel arias who may persuade large numbers of young men to give classical music a second look.

The Real Thing

At The Economist, a remembrance of the great Peter Drucker:

The most important reason why people continue to revere Drucker, though, is that his writing remains startlingly relevant. Reading “Concept of the Corporation”, which was published in 1946, you are struck not just by how accurately he saw the future but also by how similar today’s management problems are to those of yesteryear. This is partly because, whatever the theorists like to think, management is not a progressive science: the same dilemmas and difficult trade-offs crop up time and again. And it is partly because Drucker discovered a creative middle ground between rival schools of management. He treated companies as human organisations rather than just as sources for economic data. But he also insisted that all human organisations, whether in business or the voluntary sector, need clear objectives and hard measurements to keep them efficient. Drucker liked to say that people used the word guru because the word charlatan was so hard to spell. A century after his birth Drucker remains one of the few management thinkers to whom the word “guru” can be applied without a hint of embarrassment.

A Math Teacher's Humor Break

Rowan Manahan's presentations blog shows a video of a math teacher's special Halloween presentation.

Very impressive. Not slick. Just dedicated.

Miscellaneous and Fast

Great Philosophers Break: Aristotle

Martha Nussbaum on Aristotle:

Dalrymple on Le Corbusier

Theodore Dalrymple discusses the architect as totalitarian:

At the exhibition, I fell to talking with two elegantly coiffed ladies of the kind who spend their afternoons in exhibitions. “Marvelous, don’t you think?” one said to me, to which I replied: “Monstrous.” Both opened their eyes wide, as if I had denied Allah’s existence in Mecca. If most architects revered Le Corbusier, who were we laymen, the mere human backdrop to his buildings, who know nothing of the problems of building construction, to criticize him? Warming to my theme, I spoke of the horrors of Le Corbusier’s favorite material, reinforced concrete, which does not age gracefully but instead crumbles, stains, and decays. A single one of his buildings, or one inspired by him, could ruin the harmony of an entire townscape, I insisted. A Corbusian building is incompatible with anything except itself.

No Match

James Lileks has a humorous slide show of classic matchbook covers. It's been a while since I've seen a business using matchbook ads. Hmm.

I sort of liked the chocolate bar

Portfolio gives its nominations for the 10 worst holiday gifts.

Another Future Olympics Sport

WE ARRIVED AT NEW DELHI'S Shanti Home hotel late at night, en route to Nepal, six men and a manager with almost zero experience about to belly-flop right into the 27th World Elephant Polo Championships. Thrilled to learn that he had America's elephant-polo team in his midst, and of course having no idea how important this actually was, Rajat, the Shanti's charming and mustachioed proprietor, gathered his staff in front of a statue of Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of learning and the arts.

Read the rest of Josh Dean's article from Outside magazine here.

Sensory Dispensary

My Thermos has closed (sigh), but its author has moved on to a new site: Sensory Dispensary.

Check it out.

Great Philosophers Break: Plato

Miles Burnyeat on Plato:

[And yes, I'll soon be posting a similar series on Aristotle.]

Five Novels about WWII

Antony Beevor picks a list of five works of fiction about World War II.

I'd add:

  • Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

  • Treblinka by Jean-Francois Steiner

  • The Wall by John Hersey

  • The Secret of Santa Vittoria by Robert Crichton

  • An Operational Necessity by Gwyn Griffin

  • King Rat by James Clavell

  • Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld

  • Mendelssohn is on the Roof by Jiri Weil

  • The Winds of War by Herman Wouk

How many great ones have I missed? [Let's throw in all of the Alan Furst novels.]

Quote of the Day

No man who is in a hurry is quite civilized.

- Will and Ariel Durant

Friday, November 20, 2009

Caine Speaks Texan

A thoroughly enjoyable interview with Michael Caine in which he talks about learning American accents and getting old.

The Pirate Problem

Business Week looks at the increasing problem of piracy:

As ransoms increase, so too have the pirates' ambitions. No longer do they merely operate in waters close to the Somali shore or in the Gulf of Aden. They have targeted ships much further out on the open sea. On Nov. 9, they attacked a 360 meter (1,180 foot) Chinese tanker some 1,000 sea miles off the Somali coast. The tanker was able to evade the attackers, but the case illustrates anew that the pirates have broadened their hunting grounds to such a degree that complete protection from warships is no longer possible.

Stop Watch

A powerful post from A View From the Ledge.

Our prayers are with you, Jeff.

Ayn Rand Interview

With the recent boost in the sales of Atlas Shrugged in mind, this 1959 interview by Mike Wallace of Ayn Rand is rather interesting.

Better Meetings

My post on 7 moves for effective meetings is up at U.S. News & World Report.

Getting Hired

Liz Wolgemuth gives a variety of insider secrets to getting hired.

Execupundit note: Recognize that a job search is a numbers game. You cannot just apply for 20 jobs and expect to land one even if you are highly qualified. Increase the odds by increasing the applications. Yes, it is a pain but unless a helicopter miraculously appears, that is the path up the mountain.

Covey on Trust

Here's an interesting essay by Stephen M. R. Covey on how the best leaders build trust. An excerpt:

I approach this strategy primarily as a practitioner, both in my own experience and in my extensive work with other organizations. Throughout this learning process, have identified 13 common behaviors of trusted leaders around the world that build -- and allow you to maintain -- trust. When you adopt these ways of behaving, it's like making deposits into a "trust account" of another party.

1. Talk Straight
2. Demonstrate Respect
3. Create Transparency
4. Right Wrongs
5. Show Loyalty
6. Deliver Results
7. Get Better
8. Confront Reality
9. Clarify Expectation
10. Practice Accountability
11. Listen First
12. Keep Commitments
13. Extend Trust

Immigration Changes?

Employment attorney John Phillips on the new effort for major immigration law changes.

Is it a surprise that the package includes amnesty?

The Knee-Jerks and Palin

Slate magazine is just one of the countless media outlets convulsing with St. Vitus’ Dance over that demonic succubus Sarah Palin. In its reader forum, The Fray, one supposed Palinophobe took dead aim at the former Alaska governor’s writing chops, excerpting the following sentence from her book:

“The apartment was small, with slanting floors and irregular heat and a buzzer downstairs that didn’t work, so that visitors had to call ahead from a pay phone at the corner gas station, where a black Doberman the size of a wolf paced through the night in vigilant patrol, its jaws clamped around an empty beer bottle.”

Other readers pounced like wolf-sized Dobermans on an intruder. One guffawed, “That sentence by Sarah Palin could be entered into the annual Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest. It could have a chance at winning a (sic) honorable mention, at any rate.”

But soon, the original contributor confessed: “I probably should have mentioned that the sentence quoted above was not written by Sarah Palin. It’s taken from the first paragraph of ‘Dreams From My Father,’ written by Barack Obama.”

The ruse should have been allowed to fester longer, but the point was made nonetheless: Some people hate Palin first and ask questions later.

Read the
rest of Jonah Goldberg on the Palinophobes. I think he has it right. She is a politician. She should stand or fall on issues. (Issues? Remember those things? They were pretty important in the days before personality-driven politics.)

Andrew Sullivan has come unhinged on Palin. Reading his blog is like watching a train wreck.

Avoiding the Life-Draining Beast That Hides in a Box

Try it. You'll like it.

Portly and Productive

Joe Queenan believes it's time to stop picking on fat people. An excerpt:

Lost in all this is an appreciation of how much the chubby, the plump, the tubby and even the massively overweight have contributed to society down through the ages. Henry VIII, whose rupture with the Catholic Church was a pivotal moment in history, was by no means immune to a case of the munchies. Johann Sebastian Bach, viewed by many as the greatest composer who ever lived, was a charter member of the Clean Plate Society. Queen Victoria, who presided over a golden age such as no nation had experienced since the collapse of the Roman Empire, certainly didn't miss many meals. And anyone who has ever seen a statue of Gautama Buddha realizes that he too knew how to hold up his end of the feedbag.

Fine Dining: The Inspection

One afternoon last month, a woman in her early thirties, with shoulder-length blond hair and large brown eyes, arrived at Jean Georges, on the ground floor of the Trump International Hotel, in midtown Manhattan. The restaurant, which is owned by the chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and is one of the highest rated in the world, has an understated d├ęcor, with bare white walls and floor-to-ceiling windows. The woman took a seat at one of the tables in the center of the room. She wore a light-blue dress with a high neckline, little makeup, and no jewelry. There was nothing remarkable about her appearance, and her demeanor was quiet and unassuming, as if designed to deflect attention—a trait indispensable for her profession as an inspector for the Michelin hotel-and-restaurant guide.

Read the rest of John Colapinto's article in The New Yorker .

Quote of the Day

I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself.

- General Robert E. Lee

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Gilbert on Churchill

Take a break and listen to Sir Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill.

Formidable. Marvelous.

Good Company

Cultural Offering points us to Nicholas Bate at his best.

Bate is a quick read and a long thought.

The Exceptions

A wise man once observed that the young men know the rules and the old men know the exceptions. Schooling may hammer boundaries into our heads, but years of dealing with life's setbacks and adversaries tell us when to write against the lines.

I believe I've grasped many of the exceptions and yet sense there are many more to come. There are days when the ocean of one's ignorance seems impassable and the only sailing craft is a willingness to learn. History and philosophy are great navigation charts, but in a superficial, let's pretend as if facts don't matter, climate, the people who should be studying the charts the most are on the beach.

As attention spans shrink, how can knowledge thrive if it requires prolonged focus?

Talking about Values

I am convinced that many organizations and teams would be better off if, as a matter of course, they held discussions on key values. For example, these meetings could explore how management and employees regard:
  • Honesty
  • Loyalty
  • Trustworthiness
  • Courage
  • Fairness
  • Respect
  • Civic responsibility
  • Competence
  • Candor
  • Reliability
  • Caring
  • Initiative

In my experience, employees hunger for such discussions. The values may be on some poster in the break room, but people wonder about how they are translated in the board room or the conference room or out in the field. And they aren't going to learn it solely through example. Open discussion is required.

Quote of the Day

Obviousness is a property not of statements that require no proof but of statements made by those who are unwilling to have them questioned.

- Russell L. Ackoff

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On the Road

My hotel room has a unique alarm clock.

Instead of a buzzer or music, it makes noises resembling the sound of someone breaking into your room.

I must admit that it is rather effective.

My worst hotel experience, security-wise, took place somewhere in the Carolinas, where a client with usually impeccable taste booked me into a largely abandoned hotel similar to the one in "The Shining." I arrived around ten at night to find the huge lobby darkened but for a small light over the registration desk and a clerk who made Norman Bates seem normal. My room, once I found it, was down a long, barely lit, corridor and throughout my trek there was no evidence of any other guests. The bed, drapes, and chairs appeared not to have been used in a very long time. The bed sheets cracked from age. The highlight, of course, was when the door wouldn't completely close, much less lock. I piled chairs and luggage against it and went to sleep.

Business travel: Highly overrated.

Quote of the Day

It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And, often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true.

- William James

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When Personalities Overcome Issues

At some point in their climb up the ladder, many would-be leaders and leaders learn how to say what appears to be something without saying anything. Their weasel word vocabulary expands and their natural tendency is to avoid candor. Candor is glue and they want wax because for these individuals, principles are flexible in the extreme. As an old folk song went, "And this be a law that I'll maintain until my dying day sir, that whatsoever king may reign, I will be the Vicar of Bray, sir."

Note the number of issues in which certain political figures couch their language so they can go in either direction - and I mean exactly opposite ones - and then observe how many of their supporters will continue to support them no matter which direction they choose. This is a dangerous development. Personality trumps substance. A form of tribalism defeats analysis. We move away from the egalitarianism of merit and toward an aristocracy of style.

Clearly we've had this before, but I don't recall it being to this degree. Very troubling.

The Yuma What?

I am conducting some management workshops in Yuma, Arizona today and tomorrow.

Yuma is famous for its legendary territorial prison, which means the local high school has the most unusual team name in the United States.

How Wild is Too Wild?

I knew an executive who wore a beard amid a bunch of close-shaven wonders, swore like a first sergeant in a group that frowned on swearing, chain-smoked cigars in a smoke-free workplace, and was brutally frank when others were searching for just the right words to tell Darrell that he's an idiot. This wild man was promoted on a regular basis.

Sure, he was highly competent, but there were other choices just as and perhaps moreso. Why did upper management keep him around?

My guess is that he amused them. He was the walking embodiment of everything they wished they could be but could not risk due to minor concerns such as career dreams, college tuitions, and mortgages. When the Conventionals knew he was going to be present at a meeting, you could see them brighten up. They couldn't wait to hear what the Resident Wild Man was going to say. He'd walk in like a movie star and they loved it when he blasted one of their peers and the peer loved it as well. The abuse was a harmless form of alligator wrestling and everyone always made it out of the pit.

So what could he have done to cross the line? He could have acted like he meant it. They tolerated his act just so long as they thought it was an act and that beneath it all he really respected them. Had they suspected that he really thought they were talentless slugs, they might have been offended. For his part, he knew when to stop and he also knew that he had to produce the goods.

It's an odd world out there. Remember, poetry can trump prose.

Quote of the Day

It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.

- Yogi Berra

Monday, November 16, 2009

Music Break: "Raised on Shotguns"

Back by popular demand. Hank Williams Jr.: A Country Boy Can Survive.

Bad First Jobs

Ask Uncle Bill explores why a bad first job is good for you.

Nudging the Board

The warnings have been sounded. The board meets. Management speaks. And nothing of substance is done. Some board members retreat to coffee shops or bars to bemoan the inaction. Among them, no doubt, are some who will seek to water down or defeat any attempts at action once they are made.

Shelley Berman once had a great comedy routine about an airline passenger who, after seeing flames shooting out of a wing engine, remains silent because he'd rather die than make an ass out of himself.

So the board keeps its cool.

There are people who would rather be cool losers than unsophisticated winners. That's why anyone who raises an alarm in a business meeting has to do so in a relatively calm fashion: "These are the facts. Here is the history. This is the likely result."

You'll be up against powerful myths, so your strategy must resemble a funnel through which the facts and logic will lead to one inescapable conclusion. You can overstate nothing because the other side will be looking for anything that smacks of alarmism or a vendetta. They will be eager to claim that emotion fuels your arguments so you must, if anything, resemble an amiable and even boring accountant but most importantly, a relentless accountant.

This does not mean that you need be on the defensive; indeed, don't be the only person doing the explaining, but avoid rudeness and accusations. [Remember "relentless."] Be wary of distractions and the temptation to strike in areas that do not matter. Find their weakest points and then gently demonstrate how those are in dire need of change.

If this is done well, no one need be embarrassed, although some may choose to be, and the focus can shift to the next stage. A group win is better than an individual win. And that fits in with your goal: To be quietly effective.

The Kyoto What?

The American has a review of the long and winding road of the Kyoto Protocol. An excerpt:

The story, at least on the international side, is complicated by our actual history with Kyoto, which is not as simple as some greens would portray it today. Rejection of Kyoto—in 1997, three years before Bush’s election—was a rare moment of bipartisan consensus on climate policy; the Senate voted unanimously (95-0) against its basic tenets, and the Clinton-Gore administration never submitted it for ratification. (Even a little-known state legislator from Illinois named Barack Obama voted to condemn Kyoto and prohibit the state from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.)

Underdog Culture

From a classic Joe Queenan article:

I like movies about underdogs as much as the next guy. This may be because my father was an underdog, as were two of my uncles, my cousin Francis, and a childhood friend who got hit by a bus. As a child I was infatuated by films like Shane (underdog farmers versus unscrupulous cattle ranchers), Gone With The Wind (dapper, underdog slavers fight the forces of virtue), On The Waterfront (underdog dock workers fight slimy gangsters) The Magnificent Seven (underdog campesinos hire underdog gunfighters to fight overdog banditos) and Spartacus (underdog slaves foolishly pick a fight with the entire Roman Empire). Later, I moved on to such classic David-and-Goliath set-tos as Chinatown (underdog private eye combats a villainous real estate developer), Shampoo (underdog hairdresser battles unruly bangs), Flashdance (steel-welding underdog seeks job as a ballerina) and Broadway Danny Rose (underdog talent agent fights to get meaningful work for underdog clients who, because they make elephants and poodles out of balloons, are no longer in great demand). Over the years, I also marvelled at the exploits of my favourite movie stars in such films as The Men (wheelchair-bound underdog fights for respect), All The King's Men (underdog northern Louisiana cracker becomes the second most powerful man in the United States by going to the wall for other underdog northern Louisiana crackers) and All The President's Men (massively outgunned underdog reporters with fabulous hair take on Richard Nixon and the rest of his close-cropped henchmen). I also devoured such classics as The Seventh Seal (underdog humans fight the Grim Reaper), Lawrence Of Arabia (underdog Arabs fight nasty Turks for freedom), and The Bridge On The River Kwai (underdog stiff-upper-lip POWs make life miserable for their cruel, neurotic Japanese captors.) So it's not like I don't enjoy movies about underdogs.

Miscellaneous and Fast

Crikey steveirwini

There's a new snail in town.

"I See Rude People"

Dr. Helen Smith looks at a new book about courtesy and Laura Claridge provides a list of books about etiquette.

Fine efforts.

[A modest start would be caning for anyone who talks during film and stage performances.]

Quote of the Day

Your responsibility as a Ranger leader is to confirm what you think you know, and to find out what you don't.

- U.S. Army Ranger Handbook

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Systems Thinking

Speaking of the power of "and," here is a treat:

Russell Ackoff on systems thinking here and then here and then here.


"And" may be one of the most important words in the workplace. You and your boss. You and your peers. You and your goals and expectations.

Its importance is heightened because of our tendency to treat conduct as if it were in a test tube. We are reluctant to explore the addition of new ingredients and tend to throw responsibility back on the individuals.

But when we are up in the middle of the night, tending to our stomach acid, it is often our relationships that are the cause. We grapple with the question of "and."

Why look past it?

Time Out in the Old Pueblo

I'll be at a meeting in the Old Pueblo for part of the day at the Arizona Historical Society. For those of you who are non-Arizonans, the "Old Pueblo" refers to Tucson and honors its history as one of the oldest cities in the state.

I went to college in Tucson at the University of Arizona and became steeped in local attitudes. To many hard-core Tucson residents, Phoenix is the Great Satan, a overpopulated and polluted locale filled with land developers and growth maniacs; in other words, the same way many Phoenicians regard Los Angeles. [Phoenix and Tucson are very different politically. One wag called Tucson "the Venice Beach of Arizona politics."]

Anyway, I like Tucson. Its desert is beautiful, the climate is cooler, and I see and think of history every time I visit. Truth be told, the two cities could learn a lot from one another.

Finding a Way

Miller's Rule states that whenever a person is advocating a position that appears to be irrational, you should try to conceive of what reality would have to be in order for that position to be rational. By understanding the other person's reality, you can better determine whether or not perceptions can be changed and agreement reached.

A simlar quest can be taken when resolving problems or conflict. If person A is taking a position that seems to be irrational, rather than dismissing it as foolish or unrealistic, person B might explore (1) what would have to be done to that position to make it rational and workable and (2) is that change within our grasp?

That is how alliances are made between dreamers and pragmatists.

Quote of the Day

Organizations are no longer built on force, but on trust.

- Peter Drucker

Friday, November 13, 2009

Understated and Great

When the movie season seems filled with previews of special effects extravaganzas, there is a quiet power in this trailer for Schindler's List.

Fairy Tales and Fables

My post on fairy tales and fables in the workplace is up at U.S. News & World Report.

The Nature of Problems

How does a problem appear in your mind?

Is it an adversary to be overcome? A puzzle to be solved? A pebble in your shoe? A machine part that needs polishing? A mystery to be measured and unveiled? A demon? A disease? A challenge? An opportunity? A mosquito, an elephant, a gorilla, a gnat, a snake, or some other creature?

How we picture our problems determines how we address them. And do we "address" problems or "solve" them (There's that puzzle again) or "overcome" them?

When you are determining the nature of the problem, the fact that you think of it in a certain way will either be a clue to, or will cloud your view of, the real problem, for problems can hide in the mists of our own reasoning and cloak themselves in our pictures.

Cormac McCarthy Interview

The Wall Street Journal has a marvelous interview with novelist Cormac McCarthy. The film based on his novel, "The Road," is coming out this month. [I've already praised the book in this blog.] An excerpt from the interview that immediately told me Cormac is my kind of guy:

WSJ: But is there something compelling about the collaborative process [of film making] compared to the solitary job of writing?

CM: Yes, it would compel you to avoid it at all costs.

Quote of the Day

Remember . . . an order that can be misunderstood will be misunderstood.

- Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Less is More

A clever ad agency in New Zealand has figured out the appropriate use of Paris Hilton's picture.

"Do It Again."

Tom Wolfe recalls a dinner with Hunter S. Thompson.

Justin's Old Man

What Would Dad Say has a report on one of the most famous - and amusing - Twitter authors out there. One of the tweets:

“Oh please, you practically invented lazy. People should have to call you and ask for the rights to lazy before they use it.” from web

Get Up Each Day and Go At It Again

Cultural Offering gives some basic rules from an unsung American hero. A sample:

Leave your work problems at work and your home problems at home - I've written about it before but he often explained that he hung his work problems on the mailbox outside.


Any article that starts with an Avanti Studebaker has my attention:

Tucker Viemeister on where beauty meets utility. An excerpt:

Beauty has different meanings in different cultures and eras--but everybody has some idea of beauty (even the Hell's Angels). Although humans can't agree on specific examples, we do all share a general formula for beauty: It has a very pleasing physical sensual element combined with mental enlightenment. "Aaaahs" and "Ah-has." It's the combination. There is an intellectual component to a beautiful person and an emotional component to a beautiful mathematical proof. The experience of beauty is the result of the convergence of body, mind, and soul. Form and function melt together. Art and science dance.