Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ledbetter Questions

Writing in National Journal, Stuart Taylor raises questions about the Ledbetter fair pay case and the new law:

But some critical facts -- ignored by the media and Congress -- belie their portrayal of the case, as detailed in my June 9, 2007, column.

First, Ledbetter waited more than five years after learning that she was paid substantially less than most male co-workers to file her Title VII claim for back pay, compensatory, and punitive damages. Second, by that time a key supervisor -- whom she belatedly accused of holding down her pay raises after she rejected his sexual advances -- had died. Third, Ledbetter chose not to pursue a claim under the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which has a much longer time limit (three years) than Title VII but does not (yet) provide for big-bucks damage awards.

Fourth, her years of poor performance evaluations, plus repeated layoffs that affected her eligibility for raises, convinced a federal magistrate judge (although not the jury) that her relatively low pay did not prove sex discrimination. Maybe Ledbetter was a victim of discrimination, as the jury found. Maybe not. The evidence is too stale to allow for a confident conclusion -- which is one reason the justices ruled against her.

"Poo Powers Oslo Buses"

The city of Oslo is converting 80 municipal buses to run on biomethane captured from human waste, a novel, if somewhat disgusting, approach to cutting CO2 emissions and meeting Norway's ambitious plan to be carbon-neutral by 2050.

Beginning in September, the two sewage treatment plants in Norway's capital will collect methane, a byproduct of the microbial process that breaks down sewage, and pump it into city buses. City officials say the switch will cut fuel costs and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by both the treatment plants and the buses.

Read the rest of the story here.

[HT: Erica Johnson]

Thoughts from an Extraordinary Leader

Guy Sorman has written an absorbing portrait of General David Petraeus for City Journal. An excerpt:

“My ideas are drawn from our historical memory,” Petraeus says. “At one time, the American army combined the art of war and that of administration”—during the “Indian wars” of the nineteenth century, for example. (The Army retains a positive view of the civilizing purposes of those wars, very different from how Hollywood portrays them.) And when the Army repressed the rebellion in the Philippines in 1900, Petraeus points out, it “fought extremists and, at the same time, built schools, hospitals, and roads.” Another of Petraeus’s inspirations is the French army in Algeria. It is important, he says, not to repeat its errors: torture and attacks on the local population. But it is also important to emulate what Petraeus considers its successes: “bringing security to the people, benefiting them in concrete ways, and living among them.” Petraeus has written the preface to the American edition of Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (by David Galula, a French officer in Algeria in 1958) and made the book required reading for all officers. He never tires of watching Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, a cult film he shows to all his visitors.

The Spending Bill

For the amount spent, we could have given every unemployed person in the United States roughly $75,000.

We could give every person who had lost a job and is now passing through long-term unemployment of six months or longer roughly $300,000.

Read the rest of Ben Stein here.

[HT: Real Clear Politics ]

The Architects Present

Recently, I sat in a board meeting listening to a presentation by a team of architects. They were describing the glories of a building project that the board will eventually be asked to approve.

There was PowerPoint, of course, as well as the obligatory architectural model, and the passing around of responses ("Ed, can you handle that one?"). This was a seasoned architectural team and yet, admirable though their project may or may not be, they made some basic presentation fumbles:

  1. The PowerPoint slides had ridiculously small fonts and were far too busy.
  2. The color of the slides made some of them hard to read.
  3. The chief architect ended each paragraph with "Okay?"
  4. He kept referring to one aspect of design - as a result, overstating its appeal - and made much of its permitting the view of another building that would be erected nearby. When asked just what the other building was, he had to pass the question to someone in the audience; a small but not good moment.
  5. The presentation was at least 15 minutes too long and lacked passion. There were far too many moments when the audience could have easily asked "So what?" I suspect many of them were silently doing so. All the right words were uttered and yet the presenters didn't seem to believe them.

The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book has won the 2008 Newbery Medal honoring literature for children.

If you have not read Gaiman, I strongly recommend his novel Neverwhere.

Quote of the Day

Attributes like biggest, fastest, tallest, cheapest, easiest, toughest, newest, cleanest, and the rest only matter when they matter to the customer. Even more important, they only matter when you can deliver an overwhelming distinction.

- Seth Godin

Friday, January 30, 2009

Shark Fight

My post on how to fight the office shark is up at U.S. News & World Report.

Shultz on the Crisis

In recent times, we have failed to save enough to finance our own investments. This is true of Americans as individuals and families, but also of our biggest collective effort -- the federal government. Deficits, acts of dis-saving, have, with the exception of a few years, become chronic. When we support our activities by financing from abroad, we are selling to others a piece of our future. So, with all due recognition of the immediate need to encourage spending, let us not forget the long-term need for a return to a pattern of higher savings.

Read the rest of George P. Shultz, who has headed the State, Labor, and Treasury Departments.

Music Break: Friday

This sort of reminded me of my office:

The Cure singing "Friday I'm in Love."

Ledbetter and Records

Employment attorney John Phillips looks at the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and its impact on records retention.

When the dust settles, that may be the area most affected by this law.

Quote of the Day

If you are the same today as you were three years ago, you're out of it. If you're not going to be a lot different this year than you were last year, you stink. Don't let anyone say, "Good old Harry. He hasn't changed a bit in the last five years.

- Jack Welch

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Lovely Melody. Great Frog."

Okay, blame this on all of that Box of Frogs talk.

Refugee Run?

As Ignatius J. Reilly would put it, "What an egregious display of bad taste."

[HT: Instapundit ]

Who Wrote "In My Life?"

Nicholas Bate will love this: A professor uses math to decode Beatles tunes. An excerpt:

It is here, in a cluttered mathematician's office, under blackboards jammed with equations and functional analysis, that one of Western culture's greatest mysteries has finally been solved: Why has no one been able to replicate the first chord in The Beatles' pop hit "A Hard Day's Night"?

Not stopping there, this sleuth is using math in his quest to answer an even more-elusive question, about the contested authorship of the Fab Four's "In My Life."

For Love and Money

From an enduring column by Ben Stein about love and economics:

High-quality bonds consistently yield more return than junk, and so it is with high-quality love. As for the returns on bonds, I know that my comment will come as a surprise to people who have been brainwashed into thinking that junk bonds are free money. They aren’t. The data from the maven of bond research, W. Braddock Hickman, shows that junk debt outperforms high quality only in rare situations, because of the default risk.

In love, the data is even clearer. Stay with high-quality human beings. And once you find that you are in a junk relationship, sell immediately. Junk situations can look appealing and seductive, but junk is junk. Be wary of it unless you control the market.


A great difference between Europeans and Americans is that Europeans are generally disposed to see religion more as a problem than as a solution. There are important caveats, to be sure, but the generalization holds. This is made evident in a number of ways. To take an obvious instance, there is the dramatic disparity between church attendance in Europe and the United States. In recent years, a number of scholars have challenged the claim, based on survey research of almost a century, that 40-plus percent of Americans go to church each week. Perhaps the statistics, gathered in various ways, are inflated, but the interesting question is why Americans who don’t go to church regularly claim that they do. They think they should. For most Americans, it is the normal and approved thing to do. People are sometimes better understood by what they think they should do than by what they do. In Europe, going to church is to be in a self-understood minority; it is to take a stand, even to be countercultural.

Read the rest of Richard John Neuhaus here.

21 Ways to Drive Off Customers

  1. Be surly.
  2. Pop chewing gum.
  3. Ignore them.
  4. Don't even attempt to accommodate their requests.
  5. Follow an obvious script.
  6. Have a confusing web site.
  7. Over-promise.
  8. Under-deliver.
  9. Push costly accessories.
  10. Consider your needs instead of theirs.
  11. Smirk at their questions.
  12. Use jargon.
  13. Pass the buck if they surface a problem.
  14. Be overly familiar.
  15. Get angry.
  16. Never apologize.
  17. Don't treat them as individuals.
  18. Have a phone system that resembles the Berlin Wall.
  19. Discourage complaints.
  20. Overcharge.
  21. Take them for granted.

Music Update

Can a long and happy life be lived without encountering Box of Frogs?

My Thermos provides info and reminds us of Toad The Wet Sprocket.

Proportional Deference

An excerpt from George F. Will's advice to the loyal opposition on how to respond to the stimulus package:

The opposition's third duty is to assert inconvenient truths, one of which is that the truth shall make you modest. There never is a moment when an open society that wants to remain such does not need the wisdom of Friedrich Hayek, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who said: "The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design." So the deference accorded this president should be proportional to his willingness to acknowledge that neither he nor anyone else can know whether the stimulus will work.

Henninger on Geithner

In a must-read column, Daniel Henninger finds virtue in the Geithner exception. An excerpt:

Washington is falling to the level of a Web-based video game. Everyone is expendable. Treasury secretaries and presidential advisers are a dime a dozen. Put differently: The job-protected and gerrymandered lifers are driving out the competition. More often than not, Washington's worst people are destroying its better people.

Quote of the Day

Each day, every day, there will be challenges. Happiness is the choice I make at any particular point as to how I handle that situation. I can choose to be a victim. Or I can volunteer to make the best of the situation. Victim or volunteer: I choose.

- Nicholas Bate

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Miscellaneous and Fast

Wally Bock analyzes leadership and "deliberate practice."

Managing Leadership on creating businesses.

Pragmatic Euphony discusses caste in the Indian Army.

What Would Toto Watch? on the snubbing of Gran Torino.

Politically incorrect:
The blog at Go Daddy.

Bill Rigby on
job cuts at Boeing.

Philip Terzian discusses Andrew Wyeth.

Is Roger Ebert a member? The Burt Reynolds & Friends Museum.

Jillian Bandes on
graffiti in museums.

No surprise: The difference in media coverage of the presidential inauguration.

At The New Yorker: Some authors remember John Updike.

Lego: Great moments in lego art at Eclecticity.

Clarity Rules on PowerPoint abuse.

True Films likes Meerkat Manor.

Faux Coverage?

You’ll have to excuse me this morning. I’m very annoyed. Last night when I got home from work I received another communication from the insurance company that handles medical for my corporation. They’re very, very good at communicating, this insurance company. What they’re really not very good at is ever paying a single nickle in benefits to policy holders, at least without a knock-down, drag-out fight.

Read the rest of Stanley Bing here. Be sure to read his last paragraph.

Advice to the Young

Pretend that you are talking with a person who is new or relatively new to the workplace.

What advice would you give?

I would tell them:
  1. Study people. There are few jobs that do not require people skills. You don't have to become a back-slapper, but you need to be able to work well with others. You also need to be able to spot the weasels.
  2. Learn to listen. Strive to grasp what the person means and not just what was said.
  3. Gain a reputation for reliability. In many fields, reliability will get you further than genius.
  4. Prepare to be surprised. If your plans don't permit you to adjust to changing circumstances, then you have not planned well.
  5. Know where to draw your ethical boundaries. There are times when you have to say "No" and stick with that answer regardless of the cost.
  6. Persist. You will have set-backs. You will blunder. You will get depressed. Forge an iron-clad determination to keep moving forward.
  7. Don't believe in miracles. If one knocks on your door, then good for you, but when it knocks, let it find you working.
  8. Always be learning. You are probably tired of hearing this, but your time in school was just the beginning of your education.
  9. Ask for guidance. You'll be surprised at how willing most people are to help you. And when you ask for their advice, listen carefully to what they say and what they don't say.
  10. Don't be too harsh on yourself. Be as tolerant of your own mistakes as you should be for those of others.

Smile When You Say That

Daniel Freedman is in search of offense with a touch of class. An excerpt:

The real shame about the inappropriate utterances coming from royals and politicians these days is how boring they are. It used to be the case that if you were going to offend, you’d do it with a touch of class. Churchill, as with most things in British politics, led the way. The day before he delivered his famous Iron Curtain address at Fulton, a ceremony was held dedicating a bust of him. When a buxom Southern lady told him, “Mr. Churchill, I traveled over a hundred miles for the unveiling of your bust,” Churchill gallantly responded: “Madam, I assure you, I would gladly return the favor.”

Bring Us a One-Armed Economist

I'm shocked!

Business Week reports on the division of opinion among economists on the stimulus package.

It brings to mind Harry Truman's quip that he'd like a one-armed economist because economists always give their advice but then note that "On the other hand. . . ."

Quote of the Day

Without haste, but without rest.

- Goethe

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike, R.I.P.

Very sad news: Novelist John Updike has died.

The "Rabbit" series revealed his deft - and often humorous - grasp of the details of everyday life. When he was good, he was very, very, good.

[HT: Arts & Letters Daily]

Besieged by Lawyers

All around us are warnings and legal risks. The modern credo is not "Yes We Can" but "No You Can't." Our sense of powerlessness is pervasive. Those who deal with the public are the most discouraged. Most doctors say they wouldn't advise their children to go into medicine. Government service is seen as a bureaucratic morass, not a noble calling. Make a difference? You can't even show basic human kindness for fear of legal action. Teachers across America are instructed never to put an arm around a crying child.

Read all of Philip K. Howard's article on how modern law makes us powerless.

Quote of the Day

Wisdom is knowing when to speak your mind and when to mind your speech.

- Evangel

Monday, January 26, 2009

Drug Thugs and Mexico

A murder in the Mexican state of Chihuahua last week horrified even hardened crime stoppers. Police Commander Martin Castro's head was severed and left in an ice cooler in front of the police station in the town of Praxedis with a calling card from the Sinoloa drug cartel.

According to Mexico's attorney general, 6,616 people died in drug-trafficking violence in Mexico last year. A high percentage of those killed were themselves criminals, but many law enforcement agents battling organized crime were also murdered. The carnage continues. For the first 22 days of this year the body count is 354.

Read the rest of Mary Anastasia O'Grady on the outgunning of Mexican law enforcement.

Before the Class

I'm teaching a workshop today on Equal Employment Opportunity.

It's a "Europe in one day" sort of class in that it covers a bunch of subjects which by themselves could merit separate workshops. We move along quickly and uses lots of case examples so I can raise the level of paranoia as to how easy it can be to slip into an EEO violation while giving the class participants confidence that they can spot and prevent potential problems. As a minimum, I want them to know when they should get on the phone to HR or their law department and get guidance.

We start with a quiz that they discuss in groups and then, as the class moves along, they get the answers. We review the quiz answers one more time at the end to make sure all is clear.

The entire subject of EEO is a fascinating one and so I'm always pumped for the class but I still set aside time before the start to get into the zone. "How can I make this better?" is a constant for me and it is usually linked to "How can I make this clearer?" The audiences vary enormously and usually contain a mixture of departments. The material has to be clear to the new supervisor as well as the seasoned executive.

One comment that I've gotten over the years is "I'm glad you don't talk down to us." It makes me wonder what else is out there. I try to pitch the level of the class right down the middle so, if need be, I can elaborate on the basics while not boring those who have already received training on the subject. Even those who have gone to other classes may need a refresher.

Clarity is a challenge but the fast pace helps. It is like a party: If all goes well, they don't notice the preparation.

And preparation is at least 90 percent of the program.

Quote of the Day

The principles of war could, for brevity, be condensed into a single word - "Concentration."

- Basil Liddell Hart

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Biz Travel: The Motel

I'm on the road and pondering the lessons of business travel.

Make that "Pondering why I just violated a lesson of business travel."

Earlier today - in a fit of being overly cautious - I made a reservation using a number for a motel where I'd stayed before. The reservation agent announced that the motel has changed hands. Bells and whistles should have gone off at that stage, but I trudged on through the phone call and booked a room.

Later today, as I walked into the lobby, other alarms were ringing. The overall appearance of the place had deteriorated. The staff was fine but not impressive.

And then I saw it.

Right behind the front desk was a permanent sign:

"We apologize for the train noise."

Now I've seen some pretty catchy customer service signs before, but this is not one of them. In fact, it may be one notch above "We apologize for the gunfire in the parking lot."

A rush of memories soon came down the track. The train noise, as I recall, wasn't all that bad, but I can probably plan on Casey Jones chugging through around 2 a.m. For some odd reason, I'd failed to delete this phone number from my page of hotel listings. I now wonder why I ever listed it.

Which causes me to recall a key distinction between good and poor hotels/motels: The good ones are quiet. You don't even think about noise. They have thick walls and the clientele is not the sort that chooses the middle of the night to debate marital problems or rearrange the furniture.

My sole salvation for this evening may be the product of age. Since my hearing was much better the last time I was here, I may get up in the morning and ask, "What train noise?"

Nonjudgmentalism Update: "Che"

So Che tiptoes around both the atrocities and the ideology that are central to the guerrilla leader's life. Soderbergh can't feign ignorance — he claims to have spent years researching Che for the film. And what did he discover during that time? I could hazard a guess, but, conveniently, Soderbergh's already informed us himself: "He was a hardass! This is what I learned." A voice in the crowd shouts back that Che was a murderer. "OK, fine," Soderbergh responds, which ought to tell you something: "OK, fine," is the response I might give when the bartender tells me he's out of my favorite whiskey, not what I say when someone tells me that a person I just complimented is a murderer.

Read the rest here.

The Japanese Art of Packaging

Cool Tools looks at a visual guide to Japanese packaging.

Fortune's Best

Always interesting: Fortune's list of the best companies to work for.

Quote of the Day

Faced with all these constraints, line managers struggled to devise ways to get around the system. Instead of transferring an employee from one job to another, a process that took days of shuffling papers, the employee would be "loaned" (technically, detailed) to the new post. Instead of firing incompetent workers, they would be given undesirable assignments in hopes they would quit; if they didn't, at least they were out of the way. If a manager wanted to promote an engineer but discovered that the higher grade only could be given to a person with supervisory duties, a new subunit - say, a Widget Branch, consisting of three people - would be created so that the promoted engineer could "supervise" it.

- James Q. Wilson, Bureaucracy

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Self-Doubt and Success

Tim Ferriss has some reassuring words on the nature of self-doubt.

California's Problem?

Shannon Love believes California may have passed the tipping point:

This is the condition that California and other states with powerful public-sector unions find themselves in. California has ~2.3 million unionized government workers and ~18.6 million civilians. With so many people organized with a laser-like focus on increasing taxes and spending, the private working citizens of California find it nearly impossible to prevent government workers from voting their own paychecks.

In effect, government workers have hijacked democracy. Instead of state employees working for the people, the people now work for the state employees. As far as the state government is concerned, people in the private sector work merely so that they can be taxed for the benefit of the tax consumers. They’ve entered a condition not unlike like that of pre-industrial serfs.

[HT: Instapundit ]

Serious Dash

Tom Nolan on why "The Thin Man" should be taken seriously:

Hammett was too good an artist and too much of a professional by now to write the same book more than once. In "The Maltese Falcon," he'd more or less invented the private-eye novel -- and exhausted its hero's moral options by the final scene. In "The Glass Key," he'd produced an existential fable, years before Sartre's or Camus's. By then, there was nothing left for him but comedy (albeit a comedy with fangs). And after "The Thin Man," there really was nowhere to go for a writer born in 1894 who had served his country in World War I, become disabled with tuberculosis and would serve again in World War II. "If you are tired you ought to rest, I think," Hammett wrote in a fragment of one last attempted novel, "and not try to fool yourself and your customers with colored bubbles."


My post on the advantage of having in-house problem-spotters is up at U.S. News & World Report.

Quote of the Day

Success covers a multitude of blunders.

- George Bernard Shaw

Friday, January 23, 2009

Freedom of Speech in The Netherlands

Even before Fitna was released early last year, Doekle Terpstra, a leading member of the Dutch establishment, called for mass rallies to protest the movie. Terpstra organized a coalition of political, business, academic, and religious leaders, the sole purpose of which was to try to freeze Wilders out of public debate. Dutch cities are riddled with terrorist cells and crowded with fundamentalist Muslims who cheered 9/11 and idolize Osama bin Laden, but for Terpstra and his political allies, the real problem was the one Member of Parliament who wouldn’t shut up. “Geert Wilders is evil,” pronounced Terpstra, “and evil has to be stopped.” Fortuyn, van Gogh, and Hirsi Ali had been stopped; now it was Wilders’s turn.

Read the rest of Bruce Bawer on the Geert Wilders prosecution.

Why Employees Don't Go to HR - continued

Employment attorney John Phillips provides great insight on why employees don't go to HR.

This is a core subject for HR professionals and should be periodically discussed.

At Least Aretha Was Live

Pretend that you are in charge of the presidential inaugural ceremonies.

What would have been your decision on this?

[HT: Althouse ]

Pragmatism's Problems

Pragmatism is usually accepted as an unquestionable virtue. It contains, however, some potential problems.
  1. Pragmatism can be a convenient cloak for opportunism. The self-described pragmatist may easily shift principles in the guise of necessity. Doing whatever it takes to get the job done can mean precisely that, even if ethical values need to be bulldozed in the process. During the Kennedy administration, a bastion of pragmatism that produced more than its share of problems, even the Peace Corps director had a sign on his desk declaring "Good Guys Don't Win Ball Games."
  2. Pragmatism can lower performance standards. The pragmatist seeks whatever works, not what is the best. In this sense, pragmatism can be fast and clever and yet harmful over the long run. The pragmatist does not wish to look very far in the distance. Doing so takes time.
  3. Pragmatism can encourage a "can do" attitude that sacrifices action for thought. Rushed decisions may appear to be bold and yet in retrospect, it would have been better of someone had adopted former Secretary of State George Shultz's dictum of "Don't just do something, stand there."
  4. Pragmatism can be tiring. The rushed nature of pragmatism can be exhausting. Decisions are often made on the run instead of being carefully vetted and processed. This can draw decisions upward that should have been made at a lower level. After a while, the key decision maker can be worn out by the number of decisions; a victim of upward delegation.
  5. Pragmatism can encourage hubris. Matters do not appear to be that difficult because they've been inadequately researched. Their ramifications have not been clearly identified. Dissent is regarded as a failure of will.

Quote of the Day

We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.

- Winston Churchill

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Guidelines for Mistakes

A set of simple guidelines on how to make mistakes:
  1. Ignore your intuition.
  2. Rush.
  3. Rely on a complicated plan.
  4. Trust in luck.
  5. Delegate and don't use interim deadlines.
  6. Don't review the basics.
  7. Assume that everyone has the same goal.
  8. Fail to define key terms.
  9. Let image trump substance.
  10. Continually create new procedures.
  11. Issue complicated guidelines.
  12. Play by your adversary's rules.

Unless You're Selling Burgers, Of Course

Seth Godin on what marketers really sell.

I Prefer the Dynamic "Calvin Coolidge Model"

Political Calculations has the latest on the Obama action figures.

The Danger Zone

It is reported that one of the most dangerous parts of a car trip is the last few miles to the destination. The driver is tired and the guard is down.

You can find that danger zone elsewhere. Which part of a novel is most likely to be botched? The ending. In some cases, the flubbed conclusion may have been planned from the start although some novels leave the impression that the writer simply didn't know what to do with the characters. Whatever the reason, if a novel is going to crash, it will likely do so in the last few pages.

Some common elements of danger zones are:
  • Fatique
  • Lack of focus
  • Boredom
  • Abandonment of the plan
  • Thinking too far ahead
  • An assumption that details can be ignored
  • Hubris
  • Undue haste
  • Complacency

Any others?

Urban Life: The Elevator Trap

A condensed look via security cameras of Nicholas White, who was trapped in an elevator for 41 hours.


Quote of the Day

As a young firefighter, the author (very lucky) worked for such a company officer. He was smart, tough, and nice. He was the Chairman of the Board of the business of our company and he minded that business. He had a crew cut and on one arm (very big) he had "U.S.M.C." and on the other "Mom." (Those tats provided a quick and accurate snapshot of him.) He hadn't gone to graduate school, so he talked in nice, short, understandable sentences. If he liked what you were doing, he told you to keep doing it. If he wanted you to start doing something, he told you to start. If he wanted you to stop doing something, he told you to stop. He listened to his crew, took care of us, and brought out the best in everyone. He was very patient with mistakes as long as they were new ones. Virtually everyone who worked for him got promoted (or else).

- Fire Chief Alan Brunacini

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Book Review: Notes on Democracy

Dissident Books has issued a new edition of Notes on Democracy by H.L. Mencken.

The book was originally published in 1926 when the caustic Mencken was perhaps at his most influential point as a journalist and social commentator. These essays reflect both his love of liberty and his wariness of the "mob-man" who extol democracy while supporting tyrants: "What is worth knowing he doesn't know and doesn't want to know; what he knows is not true. The cardinal articles of his credo are the inventions of mountebanks; his heroes are mainly scoundrels."

Mencken was hard to categorize and it will be the rare reader who finishes any section in Notes on Democracy without wincing, often because of suspicion that Mencken may have struck a nerve. ("The average American doesn't want to be free. He simply wants to be safe.") At the same time, he can be enormously entertaining:

"I have alluded somewhat vaguely to the merits of democracy. One of them is quite obvious: it is, perhaps, the most charming form of government ever devised by man. The reason is not far to seek. It is based upon propositions that are palpably not true - and what is not true, as everyone knows, is always immensely more fascinating and satisfying to the vast majority of men than what is true. Truth has a harshness that alarms them, and an air of finality that collides with their incurable romanticism."

Both the American Right and the Left claim Mencken as one of their own. Anthony Lewis writes the afterword to this volume and Mencken has long been the patron saint of The American Spectator. Dissident Books has done us all a favor by bringing this long-absent volume to light. Mencken said he knew of no man who believed in liberty as much as he did. For all of his faults, the old curmudgeon may have been right.

The Ego Curtain

I once heard a speaker describe his ego as a heavy curtain that would block out the light every time it was drawn over his windows.

The ego becomes a barrier when:
  • Our sales materials are more about our credentials than about the client's needs.
  • We are so busy thinking of our clever response that we fail to listen to what the other person is saying.
  • Our preoccupation with status causes us to get sidetracked from our mission.
  • Our eagerness to avoid individual blame for blunders makes us discount how such avoidance can harm our organization.
  • Our emphasis on image leads to extra costs that come at the expense of substance.

Quote of the Day

The rational actor who insists on staying a rational actor when his world has reverted to the ways of the jungle is not, in fact, acting rationally.

- Lee Harris

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Music/Photography Break

A video with the music of Aaron Copland and the photos of Ansel Adams.

Wonks Gone Wild

Writing in New York magazine, Bradford Plumer has a variety of wonkish solutions : High CEO pay? Have them bid for their jobs.

No Wonder I Love Coffee

Among the 200 test subjects, those who consumed the equivalent of seven cups of coffee a day were found to be three times more likely to have hallucinatory experiences than those who consumed less than a single cup a day.

Read the rest of the National Geographic article here.

Historic Experiment

Fortune sees a lot of spending and no play book:

When President Obama sits down today at his Oval Office Resolute desk (Queen Victoria's gift named for a British frigate), he will have on hand $350 billion in just-pledged rescue money for the nation's financial system - and the very likely prospect of a $825 billion-plus "economic recovery" package landing on his desk for signature within a month.

Waiting for the Regulators

Business Week believes - safe guess - we are entering a new era of regulation:

How should companies get ready? At the most basic level, "the best thing for a company to do is make sure their compliance house is in order, so they are prepared when a federal enforcement officer comes calling," says Scott H. Segal, a partner at Bracewell & Giuliani, a law and lobbying firm.

King's Prediction

Martin Luther King Jr.'s prediction of a black president.

Best Wishes to President Obama

Barack Obama is a sort of mystery.

Some of his most ardent supporters insist that he will take the nation in direction A while others feel it is obvious that he'll go in direction Z.

At least one of these groups is in for a surprise.

My modest hope is that this highly capable man will be treated with more decency, fairness, and courtesy than was his predecessor. That, in itself, will be a major step forward.

Farewell to President Bush

Farewell observations from:

Susan Estrich

Christopher Hitchens

Elizabeth Holtzman

Mark Impomeni

Patrick Keller and Duston Dehez

Charles Krauthammer

Howard Kurtz

Andrew Roberts

George F. Will

Quote of the Day

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

- Alfred North Whitehead

Monday, January 19, 2009

Executive Pencil

Cool Tools reviews the Tri-Conderoga Executive Pencil.

Because, after all, executives can't have just a regular pencil.

McWhorter Interviews

Eclecticity points out some nifty interviews with John McWhorter, one of the more interesting writers on race issues out there.

Why Employees Don't Go to HR

There must be one out there but I've yet to find an astute Human Resources director who could honestly declare, "Our employees have no reluctance to come to us with their problems."

Here are some reasons why employees don't want to go to HR:
  1. HR is a notorious gossip-mill.
  2. HR lacks the clout to take on an abusive department head.
  3. HR's first tendency is to side with the organization and rarely with the employees.
  4. HR cannot - or will not - protect employees against retaliation.
  5. HR is more interested in being right than in doing right.
  6. HR lacks the expertise to solve the problem.
  7. HR is a mysterious and distant group and its members are seldom seen out in the field.

Remembering Dr. King

"But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here."

Read all of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Quote of the Day

When an audience does not complain, it is a compliment, and when they do it is a compliment, too, if unaccompanied by violence.

- Mark Twain

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Daily Decisions

Here's one to run off and keep above your desk:

Cultural Offering lists the daily decisions that make a difference.

One of my favorites:

Be "Here" - I am amazed by the number of people in meetings, out, at work, wherever, who aren't really "here." They are always somewhere else. A very important choice that, made correctly, pays huge dividends.

Problems and Solutions

I have concluded that a large part of management is determining which problems resist solution because, despite their being identified as problems, they are subconsciously embraced as solutions to other problems.

We err in searching for a solution to one problem without also looking for a more constructive solution to the problem our pressing problem was meant to resolve.

Quote of the Day

A problem well stated is a problem half solved.

- Charles Kettering

Saturday, January 17, 2009

HP Netbook: An Unexpected Virtue

Wired reviews the HP netbook and finds virtue in blandness.

Following Steve Jobs

The Wharton School faculty members weigh in on the need for a succession plan at Apple:

"He really is the face of the company," says Kendall Whitehouse, senior director of IT at Wharton. "When you speak to Apple employees, there is always a lot of talk about Steve and what Steve wants. It's palpable. That has generally been a positive thing for [Apple]. Jobs was the centerpiece for refocusing the company and brand" following his return.

Andrew Wyeth, R.I.P.

On the death of artist Andrew Wyeth:

The American Spectator

Terry Teachout

[HT: Arts & Letters Daily]

The Lincoln Standard

Robert McHenry examines the high standard set by Abraham Lincoln in his inaugural addresses. An excerpt:

These words, these sentences, to say nothing of these sentiments, were from a man of the most obscure birth, with almost no formal education and (we moderns have to remind ourselves) no speechwriters. Had Lincoln never sought public office but only written on public affairs, he would be remembered as a political thinker and writer of the first water. That his later writings are shaped by searing experience and the unimaginable weight of responsibility as much as by his stylistic mentors—Shakespeare and the King James Bible—explains the poignancy that we feel so strongly in them today. To those literary models he added his own clear thinking and plainspokenness to what he once called the “specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse.” Some would argue that he was the foremost American prose writer of his century, perhaps sharing the honor with Mark Twain.

Plus, he saved the Union.

Quote of the Day

The character that takes command in moments of crucial choices has already been determined by a thousand other choices made earlier in seemingly unimportant moments. It has been determined by all the "little" choices of the past - by all those times when the voice of conscience was at war with the voice of temptation, [which was] whispering the lie that "it really doesn't matter." It has been determined by all the day-to-day decisions made when life seemed easy and crises seemed far away - the decisions that, piece by piece, bit by bit, developed habits of discipline or of laziness; habits of self-sacrifice or self-indulgence; habits of duty and honor and integrity - or dishonor and shame.

- Ronald Reagan

Friday, January 16, 2009

Full Disclosure from HR

My post on what would be in full disclosure statements from HR departments is up at U.S. News & World Report.

Well Timed Advice: Tim Berry

Tim Berry has a timely post on current choices:

I picked this up from the American Express OPEN forum: Fear Is Easy, But Hope Is Smarter. Are those the only choices? How about carefully planning the right responses. Taking action. Reviewing the situation, revising the plan, focusing on priorities, making it through the downturn and out the other side?

Music Break: Feminist Classic

A feminist classic from the world of country and western music.

Political Calculations Best Blogs Discovered in 2008

Political Calculations, a must-read blog, gives a list of the best blogs they discovered in 2008.

Good stuff.

The Price of Mac Cool

Daniel Akst looks at the cost of Macs and concludes that "cool" is associated with "cash." An excerpt:

Most of the cool people I know use a Mac. My sense is that they like to think of themselves as egalitarian sorts unencumbered by snobbery -- rather than, say, brainwashed cultists obsessed with class-signaling. Yet at today's absurd prices the Mac is even less than ever "the computer for the rest of us." Instead it's a well-designed status symbol for the elite -- another way that people with money can distinguish themselves from hoi polloi.

Quote of the Day

Corporations don't compete, business units do.

- Michael Porter

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Fear and Comfort

One thing I learned early on in my consulting practice is that the individuals and organizations who are in greatest need of training or coaching are the least likely to request it.

Just as extraordinary performers train, practice, and train some more, so too do extraordinary organizations. They are not afraid to entertain the possibility that other approaches might be as good or even better than their customary practices; indeed, like bold explorers, they relish the thought of finding an unknown shore.

A common characteristic of people and organizations who are closed to development is fear. They may believe that improvement is a reproach; a criticism of prior conduct. They may have been clearly told that new ideas are unwelcome and the best way to keep out of harm's way is to stay invisible. It is difficult to dispute their view of reality because in some dysfunctional organizations there is a reasonable basis for such fear. That does not, of course, excuse the decision to permit the organization's limitations to restrict personal development. Building personal strength can be one of the first steps toward escape.

There is another possibility that is sometime seen. Fear is absent but all ambition has been subdued by comfort. That might be the most dangerous state of all.

Read Your Fiction

Wally Bock reminds us of a link between success and reading fiction.

I strongly believe that reading fiction increases creativity. One carefully read chapter of Dickens a day can work wonders.


I don't know about your area but the high temperature today in Phoenix is expected to be 79 degrees.


Double Standard?

Cultural Offering looks at the press coverage and analysis of the Treasury nominee.

Apple's Core

Business Week looks at Apple without Steve Jobs.

So does Fortune.

And Forbes.

Quote of the Day

You don't build it for yourself. You know what people want and you build it for them.

- Walt Disney

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Steve Jobs Update


I am sure all of you saw my letter last week sharing something very personal with the Apple community. Unfortunately, the curiosity over my personal health continues to be a distraction not only for me and my family, but everyone else at Apple as well. In addition, during the past week I have learned that my health-related issues are more complex than I originally thought.

Read the rest of the letter to the Apple staff .

Miscellaneous and Fast

Waiter Rant goes to the dog park.

Film noir time:
The trailer for The Bribe.

Cool Tools looks at the Sony Shortwave Radio.

Donald at 2Blowhards: When flattops encountered jets.

Jalopnik: The top 11 concept cars at the 2009 Detroit Auto Show.

Spare Us from This Prediction: The President will use PowerPoint.

Bronson's Career Advice

Po Bronson returns to the question, "What should I do with my life?" An excerpt:

There is no one-perfect-thing each of us is meant to do on this planet. Give me a break. Where'd that myth come from? If someone repeats it, throw a glass of water on them. For each of us, there are dozens, hundreds of careers, any one of which could provide you a sense of meaning and goodness. You don't have to find "The One," you just have to find any one.

"Don't Be Stupid."

Daniel Henninger offers a modest proposal and wonders how so many bright people could be so dumb:

Only one other area of modern life produces this unprecedented error rate: the World Wide Web. Could it be that in the world of money, the information highway was the road to ruin --

Illuminated screens are fun -- and pernicious. People have long believed that if they see or hear something on TV, it must be true. This credulity has transferred exponentially to the PC screen, the cell-phone screen and email. Sophisticated people send fake news stories or photographs from the Web to everyone on their distribution list, until someone debunks it. Then it happens again. Something about information on screens reduces skepticism.

Trojan Horses

You can find Trojan horses in workplaces.

Beware. These creatures appear to expand the power or prestige of the recipient but actually sap it.

They are welcomed by the politically inexperienced and politely rejected by those who are more savvy. The latter know how time and resources can be greedily consumed by the ravenous beasts and that any glory associated with the extra responsibilities will quickly fade. They also understand that these "extras" are often presented without an increase in funds so the ultimate effect is that of a budget cut.

Even if additional money is given, the Trojan horse frequently brings another negative: controversy. Some breed litigation. They also are high maintenance and attract the attention of vexatious people.

I spent several years of my career fending off these so-called gifts. Some were offered by enemies; others by innocents who were genuinely perplexed at any rejection. They assumed that anything that increases the size of a department also increases its power and influence. They missed a basic truth: size, power, and influence are very different things.

Less can indeed be more.

Quote of the Day

But here is a funny thing. Democracy has not crumbled into anarchy or ossified into a tyranny of the majority, as its enemies expected and as many of its friends feared. Capitalism has not been its own executioner, as Marx predicted it would be. And the intellectual regime built on boundless, centerless criticism has not destroyed itself or degenerated into babble. In its very strangeness, its messiness, and its amorphous vastness lies its redemption.

- Jonathan Rauch

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Reclusive Sleuth

Terry Teachout on his 40 years with Nero Wolfe:

Having subscribed to Time at the tender age of thirteen with the avowed purpose of widening my cultural horizons, I promptly hopped on my bicycle, pedaled to the Smalltown Public Library and checked out a copy of Trio for Blunt Instruments, a collection of three Wolfe novellas originally published in 1964. I picked it because I liked the title, but no sooner did I start reading than I found myself fascinated by the complex relationship between Wolfe, the orchid-growing, woman-hating genius who never left his New York brownstone save under compulsion, and Archie, the wisecracking man of action who did Wolfe's legwork and served as the narrator of their published adventures in private detection.

Not Profitable Until When?

Here's some more on the Chevy Volt.

That $40,000 price tag may become a really dark cloud.

The Fool's Prayer

The royal feast was done; the King
Sought some new sport to banish care,
And to his jester cried: "Sir Fool,
Kneel now, and make for us a prayer!"

The jester doffed his cap and bells,
And stood the mocking court before;
They could not see the bitter smile
Behind the painted grin he wore.

Read the rest here.

Where the Values Hide

Listen carefully enough and you can hear the hidden values whispering in the workplace.

Some people value freedom. Others would gladly sacrifice that for security. Some want predictability, but others prefer excitement. Some stress equality of opportunity and are denounced by those who demand equality of result. Still others hunger for fairness, although they often get hazy when asked for a definition of just what "fair" is.

Many search for something new, anything really, just to break the monotony. If they've been around long enough, money may be less important than a challenge or the chance to mentor a new person. A surprising number want to do their jobs and then go home at five to purge their minds of anything related to the job. Lengthy speeches about meaningful work do not reach them.

Some scorn ambition. Others worship it. Many are so consumed by technique that they forget substance. Legions that once marched for the mission may have shifted their loyalties to turf. Many specialists and technicians share the same god as many executives: themselves.

Given this diversity of opinion, emphasis, and values, it is amazing that we get anything done.

Quote of the Day

Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch; nay, you may kick it about all day like a football, and it will be round and full at evening.

- Oliver Wendell Holmes

Monday, January 12, 2009

Bashing the Victim

In Paris, the state-owned TV network France-2 broadcasts film of dozens of dead Palestinians killed in an Israeli air raid on New Year’s Day. The channel subsequently admits that, in fact, the footage is not from January 1st 2009 but from 2005, and, while the corpses are certainly Palestinian, they were killed when a truck loaded with Hamas explosives detonated prematurely while leaving the Jabaliya refugee camp in another of those unfortunate work-related accidents to which Gaza is sadly prone. Conceding that the Palestinians supposedly killed by Israel were, alas, killed by Hamas, France-2 says the footage was broadcast “accidentally.”

Read the rest of Mark Steyn on anti-Semitism in Europe . . . and elsewhere.

Warhol, Spielberg, and the Future

Andy Warhol interviews a young Steven Spielberg.

Bianca Jagger looks on.

This might be a good video to view whenever you start to question your own abilities.

All I can say is it's good Spielberg's father didn't bring home a razor blade.

[HT: Jonathan Wade]

The Endangered Fabric

We go through each day thinking we see the same things. The same commute, the same traffic, the same interactions on all scales, day in and day out. Things seem to proceed much as they always have. We believe they always will. But the fabric of our societies and our economies is a good bit more fragile than the forces that cause us to spin and orbit reliably around our star.

Read all of Jim Stroup's essay here.

Rule Stupor

George F. Will explores how fear of litigation has changed - warped - our society:

Someone hurt while running at recess might sue the school district for inadequate supervision of the runner, as Broward County knows: It settled 189 playground lawsuits in five years. In Indiana, a boy did what boys do: He went down a slide headfirst -- and broke his femur. The school district was sued for inadequate supervision. Because of fears of such liabilities, playgrounds all over America have been stripped of the equipment that made them fun. So now in front of televisions and computer terminals sit millions of obese children, casualties of what attorney and author Philip Howard calls "a bubble wrap approach to child rearing" produced by the "cult of safety." Long Beach removed the warning signs because it is safer to say nothing: Reckless swimmers injured by the tides might sue, claiming that the signs were not sufficiently large or shrill or numerous, or something. Only a public outcry got the signs restored.

[HT: Robinson and Long ]

Schmoozing Impaired

Schmooze. To chat idly or gossip.

- The American Heritage Dictionary

My father was never much of a schmoozer.

All of his children were taught three things:

1. Be honest.
2. Keep your nose to the grindstone.
3. Don't give any alibis.

Schmoozing never entered into his strategies. I suspect that he regarded it as a fancy way of goofing off. If he knew how much a brief phone here and a meeting for coffee there could contribute to long-time efficiency, he never let on. That may have been so obvious to him that he deemed it unworthy of mention, especially to children who seemed addicted to sloth.

Those of us who grew up in households where tales of the Great Depression were common, learned early on that there were grasshoppers and ants and when winter arrived, it was better to be an ant. We have to overcome this almost genetic aversion to small talk in the workplace. We need to remind ourselves that time devoted to getting to know others and letting them know ourselves is usually time well spent.

Quote of the Day

I'll give you a definite maybe.

- Samuel Goldwyn

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Honda Insight

The new Honda hybrid will be released on Earth Day and will cost less than a Toyota Prius.

Wired gives a preview.

Minding the Gaps

The tendency to think of projects as boxes or separate entities can cause us to miss the material that lurks in the gaps. We may overlook the importance of "both/and" rather than "either/or."

Much confusion resides in the gaps. Who is responsible? How do the boxes fit together? How do and should they "interact?"

Experienced workers almost instinctively know the contents of the gaps. They know both the rules and their exceptions. Unfortunately, such knowledge is frequently regarded as soft.

Training tends to focus far more on box knowledge than on gap and interaction knowledge. Pay more attention to that soft material and watch performance soar.

Extolling Thrift

Mather was a classically severe Puritan, but advocacy for such financial restraint wasn’t a radical message at the time. His wary admirer, Benjamin Franklin, would soon translate this Christian idea of debt-free stewardship into a populist language of daily thrift and its rewards. Where Mather warned that debt encouraged self-indulgence, Franklin emphasized that it restricted autonomy and success. “Be industrious and frugal,” he wrote, “and you will be rich.” Franklin’s American version of thrift, intertwined with the ideal of independence, runs throughout the country’s history, buoyed by such varied figures as Mark Twain, Henry Ward Beecher, and John Kenneth Galbraith.

Read the rest of Ruth Graham on the culture of thrift.

Crisis Management Rules

Emily Thornton, writing in Business Week, notes the new rules of crisis management, but they seem a lot like the old rules.

Quote of the Day

Failure is only postponed success as long as courage "coaches" ambition. The habit of persistence is the habit of victory.

- Herbert Kaufman

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Grotesque vs. Realistic

An example of why Flannery O'Connor should always be remembered.

Bizarre Humor Break: Humphries' Flashbacks

You may visit a lot of blogs this weekend, but you will never see anything like this:

Australian politics in the 70s as seen by Barry Humphries.

Credit, Culture, and Future at the CIA

Novelist Charles McCarry reviews the work of the Central Intelligence Agency:

As an old man who remembers the intellectual exhilaration and the pleasure of having done good work that characterized the CIA when it was young, I wonder if it might not be better to speak and think in terms of restoring its culture. Allen Dulles, the first director under whom I served, seemed to want to recruit every bright young person in America, and once he had hired them, to give them every opportunity to use their brains to the utmost. Freedom of speech was the rule regardless of differences in rank. Ingenuity in the field was valued and rewarded. A mentor lurked in nearly every office. Significantly, that CIA had no headquarters; its people were scattered all over town in ramshackle temporary buildings and rented quarters.


My post on career Siberias is up at U.S. News & World Report.

Quote of the Day

Executives spend most of their time on finance and turn the rest over to functional professionals whose main concern is to protect their own turf and pride. It is hard to find any of these who are more interested in the company as a whole than in the success of their own functions. It is as if they feel they have to get reelected all the time.

- Philip B. Crosby

Friday, January 09, 2009

Improving Young Minds

The task for the 2009 Official Rube Goldberg Contest has been announced.

[It may have something to do with Congress and the economy.]

The Road to Monticello

“I labour grievously under the malady of Bibliomanie,” Jefferson wrote in 1789. Like the opiomane, the bibliomane is hooked on his drug, and it is amusing to find Jefferson, as an aging addict, pushing his habit on younger souls, ever eager to share with them the narcotic that eased his own path through life.

Read the rest of Michael Knox Beran's review of a new book on Jefferson.

Unusual Film Fare

Get ready for the weekend.

True Films looks at Man on Wire and Encounters at the End of the World.

Destructive Rewards

Suzanne Lucas gives some thoughts on when a work reward is totally unrewarding:

At the end of the day, after taxes, she had enough money to buy pizzas and soda for her family. That's not a bad thing. What was a bad thing was the implication from her boss: "We value your 80-hour weeks and successful project as much as you might value a pizza with extra cheese!"

Paging John Galt

Stephen Moore believes more of our politicians need to read a libertarian classic :

The current economic strategy is right out of "Atlas Shrugged": The more incompetent you are in business, the more handouts the politicians will bestow on you. That's the justification for the $2 trillion of subsidies doled out already to keep afloat distressed insurance companies, banks, Wall Street investment houses, and auto companies -- while standing next in line for their share of the booty are real-estate developers, the steel industry, chemical companies, airlines, ethanol producers, construction firms and even catfish farmers. With each successive bailout to "calm the markets," another trillion of national wealth is subsequently lost. Yet, as "Atlas" grimly foretold, we now treat the incompetent who wreck their companies as victims, while those resourceful business owners who manage to make a profit are portrayed as recipients of illegitimate "windfalls."

Stress Reduction and the Lifeboat

You're trapped in a lifeboat with an obnoxious project.

As you tend to other survival tasks, the project's hungry eyes never give you a moment's rest. You're sure that if your guard is relaxed for a second, the project will consume your time and your spirit, bones and all.

Unless you are chained to the project, throw it overboard.

Be merciless. Watch the project splash about as the sharks close in. Hit it a few times with an oar just to show you're serious.

Now lean back in the boat and watch the clouds for a few minutes. Let your mind float above so it's looking down at you. What is that on your face? A smile.

How can you advise that? Aren't there projects you cannot escape?

Yes, and yet on so many occasions, we increase our stress with unnecessary complications. We are the ones who overpromise, who impose the tight deadlines, and who insist on making rocky road when all the client wants is vanilla. Why does that project look so intimidating? Because we have been feeding it with our complications. As time passed and stress increased, we fed it with our fears.

But what do you do if a project cannot be thrown overboard?

The answer is obvious. You chop it into manageable pieces. You stop making yourself out to be some Super Hero who can fly faster than a speeding deadline. As a reminder, print out this observation from Pablo Picasso and keep it nearby:

You must always work not just within but below your means. If you can handle three elements, handle only two. If you can handle ten, then handle five. In that way the ones you do handle, you handle with more ease, more mastery and you create a feeling of strength in reserve.