Thursday, December 31, 2009

They'll Be Dropping the Pinecone in Flagstaff

Alas, I will have missed the celebration in Flagstaff, Arizona this year with its own peculiar twist on the lowering of the ball. The Arizona Republic newspaper reports:

Each year, Flagstaff celebrates New Year's Eve in its own special way: Outdoors, in the cold, with a large pinecone dropping to bring in the new year.

The 6-foot-tall, 70-pound gold-and-silver aluminum pinecone - it looks like a big Christmas-tree ornament - is lowered from the balcony of the historical Hotel Weatherford. The pinecone drops at 10 p.m. for families and again at midnight. Music plays, while thousands of chilly revelers cheer.

The owners of the Weatherford came up with the idea in 1999, to help celebrate the hotel's 100th anniversary. The first pinecone was a tricked-out trash can.

Laid-back Flagstaff residents embraced the event and there are now even souvenir Pine Cone Drop shirts on sale at the Weatherford to help fund the celebration.

George Friedman's Predictions

Always interesting even when you disagree: STRATFOR'S George Friedman discussing his book on the next 100 years here and here.

A Tepee in Afghanistan

Michael Yon: New Year's Eve, Arghandab, Afghanistan:

On this small base surrounded by a mixture of enemy and friendly territory, a memorial has been erected just next to the Chapel. Inside the tepee are 21 photos of 21 soldiers killed during the first months of a year-long tour of duty.

Music Break: The Platters

Because style is timeless:

The Platters with Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

Blog Lists

It is an honor to be on the blog lists compiled by Cultural Offering and Nicholas Bate.

Both are extraordinary blogs that I visit daily.

"The Truths Americans Used to Hold"

A republic is not worth dying for just because it is prosperous—not if its self-satisfied citizens live like pigs. Nor is a republic worthy just because its citizens enjoy political freedom—not if those citizens dissipate their freedom in decadence, promiscuousness, and self-centeredness. Indeed, no republic will last long that ceases to strive for nobility of spirit, virtue, and self-sacrifice. Put another way, tyranny begins within the mind and the soul. If in that mind and soul there is no moral difference between the truth and the lie, and no moral difference between deeds good in themselves and deeds evil in themselves, then what is the argument for preferring liberty to tyranny? Opinion soundings show that a great many Americans no longer can express, or even recall, the ideas, specific virtues, and moral strivings on the embodiment of which this republic depends for its continuance.

Read the rest of Michael Novak, in the first of three installments, on the truths Americans used to hold.

Auld Lang Syne (With Lyrics)

Burns would be pleased: Dougie MacLean from his Tribute album.

The Great Unmentioned

I recently finished reading "The Time of the Assassins" by Godfrey Blunden, a novel about people caught between the competing forces of the SS and the NKVD during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine.

It is one of the best novels I have ever read.

The book was in a stack of used paperbacks purchased years ago. I recall thinking the subject might be interesting. The jacket touted it as a "classic" but that term is overused.

Not in this case. "The Time of the Assassins" is indeed a classic.

And that caused me to wonder: Why isn't this book better known? I don't have the answer. There is the chance that its clear-eyed view of both the Communists and the Nazis was not favored in circles that were willing to give the Communists a pass and yet that doesn't make sense because "Darkness at Noon" found a large audience. Some might point to a bias against Australian authors, but Blunden was a journalist who also wrote for TIME magazine. You might think the book would have gotten more press.

Which raises the issue of why some writers and thinkers - and yes, executives, managers, and employees - get enormous attention while others of equal or greater caliber do not. The PR wizards will rush forward with charts and PowerPoints to give their pitch. I've no doubt that it has a lot of merit.

And yet, there is often something more subtle at work. Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin have alluded to the fact that it is not enough to be mentioned; if one is to attain a certain level of fame then the mentioning must be done by the right people at the right time and, in some cases, for a prolonged period of time. Conversely, a negative report from an influential person at just the wrong moment can have an effect far beyond what it deserved. I recently remembered an executive board meeting of a community group several decades ago in which one executive's career was greatly altered by a few seemingly off-hand comments made by a higher-up who felt the exec wasn't ready for promotion. A quick zap and the board was on to other candidates. No deep analysis or weighing of the pros and cons. Nothing to see here. Move along, folks.

Just as we can be surprised to learn that a celebrated leader is actually an empty suit, we can be shocked to find work and individuals of enormous talent toiling, as the phrase goes, in obscurity. Who are those people? They are The Great Unmentioned.

Quote of the Day

The usual way of doing things often gets in the way of doing things.

- Russell L. Ackoff and Sheldon Rovin, Beating the System

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Year's Resolutions: Lowering the Bar

For those who get demoralized at unmet New Year's resolutions, here are a few new ones to consider:
  1. Eat more chocolate.
  2. Gain at least three pounds.
  3. Misplace your keys.
  4. Hear about some celebrity and wonder, "Who is that?"
  5. Go another year without reading "Ulysses."
  6. Confuse Monet and Manet.
  7. Avoid beets.
  8. Let unread magazines stack up.
  9. Boycott the samba.
  10. Do something really stupid.

Resolution Wary

Theodore Dalrymple has resolved to make fewer resolutions:

But then, of course, something will come between me and my resolution: a deadline, for example. However much I would like to be tidy, a deadline that I have to meet is more urgent, more important and - at least in the short term - more lucrative. After all, I can always catch up with the resolution after the deadline has been met.

But that is the problem with New Year's resolutions: One can no more comply with them intermittently than a woman can be a little bit pregnant. They are like jealous gods who will brook no deviation from the ancient propitiatory ceremonies. They allow no compromise; they are absolutist in their demands. They are like Old Testament prophets.

Peep Show

Kit Eaton at Fast Company with more than you will ever want to know about airport full-body scanners.

100-Day Plans

Writing in Fortune, Nadira A. Hira on an interesting management strategy designed to inspire innovation:

Fahrenheit's answer to that is "100-day plans." Every 100 days, everyone gets together, locks the doors, ditches the cell phones, and sits down to a company-wide strategy session.

Together, they set the company's goals for the next 100 days. And they go around the table to hear how each staffer -- execs included -- did on his personal deliverables over the last 100 days. They ask each other questions, weigh in with their own perspectives on their colleagues' work, and do lots of ribbing, reflecting, and cheering.

Preserving the Image

I often quote Charles De Gaulle in my coaching sessions. (It may seem strange, but my clients are used to it.)

When asked about his efforts to maintain his image, De Gaulle once said, "There are many things I would have liked to do but could not, for they would not have been fitting for General De Gaulle."

I use that observation to urge a level of discretion; an appreciation that leaders are not running their own shows but have a larger group of stakeholders.

At the same time, however, the General's point applies to guarding and demanding a certain level of respect. De Gaulle, while leading the Free French during World War II, knew the limits of his forces. That awareness made him all the more zealous in his efforts to preserve the image, hollow at the time, that he represented a major force. Whereas he might have readily conceded points had he more power, he believed his limited resources required him to demand the respect due the head of a great nation lest his remaining power quickly disappear.

Fighting to protect an image can be a tough call. You don't want to appear petty or egotistical. De Gaulle's advantage was that his efforts to protect France's role were understandable. Although many critics would speak of De Gaulle's ego - which was considerable - the more knowledgeable ones were aware of the larger purpose in his behavior. In short, he did not defend his status because of a strictly personal desire but because he knew it was necessary to achieve his mission, the preservation of France. He knew that, at that time, he was France.

And that raises the question of when it is wise to guard what may seem to be minor, ego-related items in the workplace. Few people will admit to a small, strictly status-enhancing, purpose. They will claim that the corner office is necessary for some larger good. Or they need an expensive company car. Or a driver. Or better office furniture.

The answer may be found by considering whether the person both needs and deserves the extra status. You need not save a nation to deserve a lot of respect, but there should be a high level of demonstrated competence or all of the gold will turn to tarnished brass. At the same time, if you completely ignore the significance of image, you will have bypassed a source of real power, and legions of individuals who don't know your true worth may underestimate it.

Quote of the Day

Why do questions matter more than answers? If you don't ask the right question, it doesn't matter what your answer is. And if you do ask the right question, no matter what your answer, you will learn something of value.

- Alan M. Weber

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Music Break: Handel

Dmitri Hvorostovsky sings "Ombra Mai Fu."

Dictator Cards

Don't show these to your CEO: Dictator greeting cards.

"But Now Fresh Idiocies Are In Store"

Christopher Hitchens eloquently expresses what many of us are thinking. An excerpt:

It's getting to the point where the twin news stories more or less write themselves. No sooner is the fanatical and homicidal Muslim arrested than it turns out that he (it won't be long until it is also she) has been known to the authorities for a long time. But somehow the watch list, the tipoff, the many worried reports from colleagues and relatives, the placing of the name on a "central repository of information" don't prevent the suspect from boarding a plane, changing planes, or bringing whatever he cares to bring onto a plane. This is now a tradition that stretches back to several of the murderers who boarded civilian aircraft on Sept. 11, 2001, having called attention to themselves by either a) being on watch lists already or b) weird behavior at heartland American flight schools. They didn't even bother to change their names.

Sharp-Dressed Man

It may be the sinus medication or an overdose of cough drops, but this report immediately leads to thoughts of whether this tune can be incorporated into the training of airport security personnel.

Geek Logik

Political Calculations has tools on how to handle Geek Logik.

You can get answers to the following items and more:

What Are the Chances Your Marriage Will Last?
Picking the Right Date for Valentine's Day
Should You Call in Sick?
Are You Too Good for Your Job?
Should You Buy Something (or Not)?
How Many Cups of Coffee Should You Drink This Morning?
How Many Beers Should You Have at the Company Picnic?
Earth Live: Walk, Bike or Drive?
Should You Say It on the Grapevine?
Should You Start or Stop Procrastinating?
Should You Apologize?
Should You Lie?
Is Your Personal Grooming Adequate?
Should You Quit Your Job?

The Changing World of Work

In Chief Executive, Owen Sullivan explores the changing world of work and its implications for leaders. An excerpt:

Since 1990, the global labor market has doubled. By 2050, the world population will be over 9 billion. But in spite of this, employers face an HR paradox: How to find the right people at the right time in the right place – and fill the gap in the midst of plenty?

The implications of this are that older workers will be more prevalent and we will need to find ways to keep them engaged in the workforce longer. There will be an increase in multi-generational workforces and managers will need to learn how to navigate the nuances of each generation.

[Execupundit note: Prior to the recent economic downturn, one of the challenges was the middle manager glut; i.e. the large number of highly skilled middle managers who were "all dressed up with no place to go." Due to layoffs, that pressure may have been eased but organizations still face the question of how to retain extraordinary people when there are fewer opportunities for advancement. Special assignments, training options, and flexible schedules may help but customization will be crucial.]

10 Worst Films You Were Suckered into Seeing

Law professor and blogger Ann Althouse has started compiling a list of the ten worst movies of the decade.

I disagree with some of her choices; e.g. "Sideways" and "Little Miss Sunshine". Her readers' comments turned the focus into the "worst films we were suckered into seeing by gushing reviews." I like that slant but let's not limit this to the decade. I'll start off with:

  1. The English Patient
  2. Titanic
  3. Dances with Wolves
  4. Out of Africa
  5. Good Will Hunting
  6. True Grit

Blind Luck

Writing in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane reviews a new book on Grace Kelly and notes this great moment in personnel selection decisions:

It was a combination that appealed to the director of “Taxi,” Gregory Ratoff. He liked the look of Kelly, all the more so because, in his view, the look was that of a plain Jane. According to Kelly, “I was in the ‘too’ category for a very long time. I was too tall, too leggy, too chinny. I remember that Mr. Ratoff kept yelling, ‘She’s perfect! What I love about this girl is that she’s not pretty!’ ”

"We got tofu here."

This spot on the Toyota Border Patrol is absolutely great.

Being Productive While Sick

I'm still ill but today I've shifted from the Exhausted in Bed stage to the Quite Tired But Wanting to Be Productive one.

I'll see how long that lasts.

Anyway, the productive part is the challenge. I'm not in the best voice to call clients, serious e-mail is approached with caution, and it doesn't make sense to go to the office and infect others.

But since the mind is wandering anyway, why not jump on its back and jot down various ideas for new products, twists on established ones, and matters to discuss with various people? The points may be amusing later - How could I have thought that would work? - and yet thinking with the fences down may produce some breakthroughs or guides leading to them.

In-between naps.

Quote of the Day

Those who speak most of progress measure it by quantity and not by quality.

- George Santayana

Monday, December 28, 2009

Business Pundit's List

Business Pundit gives its list of the top 75 business blogs of 2009.

Sherlock Holmes Break

We have had some dramatic entrances and exits upon our small stage at Baker Street, but I cannot recollect anything more sudden and startling than the first appearance of Thorneycroft Huxtable, M.A., Ph.D., etc. His card, which seemed too small to carry the weight of his academic distinctions, preceded him by a few seconds, and then he entered himself—so large, so pompous, and so dignified that he was the very embodiment of self-possession and solidity. And yet his first action, when the door had closed behind him, was to stagger against the table, whence he slipped down upon the floor, and there was that majestic figure prostrate and insensible upon our bearskin hearthrug.

Read all of The Adventure of the Priory School by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Defining Athletics Down

"This was a great athletic performance."

Yet another sporting event that I missed in 2009.

Dave Barry: 2009

Check out Dave Barry's The Year in Review:

The big health story in April is the rapid spread of swine flu, a dangerous new virus strain developed by the makers of Purell. Public anxiety over the flu increases when Vice President Joe Biden, demonstrating his gift for emitting statements, declares on the Today show that he would not recommend traveling by commercial airplane or subway. A short while later, White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs assures reporters that he is ``not aware of any `Vice President Joe Biden.' ''

In another embarrassment for the White House, New York is temporarily thrown into a panic when Air Force One flies low over Manhattan for a publicity photo shoot. Responding to widespread criticism, Gibbs notes that President Obama inherited Air Force One from the Bush administration.

"Fevered Imaginings": The Apple Tablet

Writing in Business Week, Arik Hesseldahl explores possibilities but ultimately gives an ultra-cautious prediction about Apple's tablet. An excerpt:

Apple may throw everyone a curve ball here. Imagine an Apple tablet about the size of a 11-in. spiral notebook with an iPhone-like touch screen. How about the ability for the machine to recognize voice commands and dictation of text? A built-in video camera and maybe a mini-projector for meetings would be nice. And if the reports of Apple's discussion to land print media content in the iTunes store are true, how about an easy-on-the-eyes display for reading electronic magazines and books?

China Rising?

Niall Ferguson on the tilt East:

“Western Ascendancy”: that was the grandiose title of the course I taught at Harvard this past term. The subtitle was even more bombastic: “Mainsprings of Global Power”. The question I wanted to pose was not especially original, but increasingly it seems to be the most interesting question a historian of the modern era can address. Just why, beginning in around 1500, did the less populous and apparently backward west of the Eurasian landmass come to dominate the rest of the world, including the more populous and more sophisticated societies of eastern Eurasia?

My subsidiary question was this: If we can come up with a good explanation for the west’s past ascendancy, can we then offer a prognosis for its future?

Put differently, are we living through the end of the domination of the world by the civilisation that arose in western Europe in the wake of the Renaissance and Reformation – the civilisation that, propelled by the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, spread across the Atlantic and as far as the Antipodes, finally reaching its apogee in the age of industry and empire?

[HT: Real Clear Politics]

Isolated Journalism

If you get your news from the sources most Americans do, you will not know that India recently test-fired the Agni II, an intermediate-range, nuclear-capable ballistic missile. Nor will you know the test’s results, which were reported all over the subcontinent but not in America. You will probably be unaware of Sergei Magnitsky’s death in a Moscow prison, or of who he was; the news was barely reported in the United States. You will not know that former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic’s trial for war crimes and genocide was suspended, since that doesn’t appear to have been reported in the U.S. at all. Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan combined have accounted for less than 5 percent of the news hole this year, according to Pew Research. Aside from China and Iran, which make occasional cameos, the rest of the world is disappearing from American consciousness, as the New York Times’s list of the ten most e-mailed articles routinely confirms. Top stories at last glimpse: “Catching Tuna and Hanging On for the Ride”; “Payback Time: Wave of Debt Payments Facing U.S. Government”; “Why Exercise Makes You Less Anxious”; and seven other domestic items.

Read the rest of Claire Berlinski here.

Under the Weather

Note the time.

I'm fighting some bizarre sinus infection; the sort that causes you to stare at the ceiling as you ponder which part of your face will hurt next. Am going to shuffle back to bed before I start posting really strange stuff.

Best Blog Lists

Matt Rutherford gives his list of the ten best blogs out there.

[Special congratulations to Nicholas Bate!]

An Institution Leaves

Eclecticity points out that Robert Morgenthau is retiring.

And he's leaving at the ripe young retirement age of 90!

Vive la France!

Charles Murray goes after the stereotype that the French are rude:

First, a taxi driver points out that it’s a long way around to get to Gare du Nord, and there’s a Metro stop right next to me that will get me there much quicker and cheaper. I forget to retrieve my Metro ticket after going through the turnstile (you need it to get out of the station). A woman chases after me to give it to me. On the train, I look confused about where to get off, and another woman asks if I need directions. At the Gare du Nord, a very confusing place, still another woman patiently gives me thorough directions. I head off, go down an escalator, am looking around for the not-at-all-obvious sign to the airport train, and suddenly there she is again, apparently having decided I looked too stupid to be trusted to get there on my own. Good call. She walks me all the way to the platform.

I will brook no more dissent. Vive la France. Vive la Paris. And watch out if you start to go after the French in my presence.

The High School Class Dream

You know the dream. You are suddenly back in school and the English final is in an hour and you realize that you forgot to attend class all semester. How could that happen? You anxiously wander around trying to figure out how to tackle a test for which you are utterly unprepared. Eventually you recall that you graduated and this worry over a test makes no sense.

A common dream, but it misses the chance to be truly frightening. For example, was there a high school class on decision making? If so, I missed it. And was any classroom time spent on handling adversity? I must have ditched that day. What about a session or two on how organizations operate? No? Well, surely some instructors covered the essential subject of "people skills." Hmm. Not quite.

If we had those dreams, we might never wake up.

Quote of the Day

Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.

- Mark Twain

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book Thought

If you are interested in a novel that is a beautifully written examination of good and evil, check out Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Going Droid

David Lagesse at U.S. News & World Report looks at Google's Android phones and is impressed:

Although a year late, the Google phone is living up to its promise. Phones based on the Web giant's Android software appear ready to challenge the iPhone, BlackBerry, and Nokia brands as a leading contender in the smartphone wars. A slew of Google phones have suddenly descended on the market, with dozens more expected to arrive late this year and early in 2010.

Orson and Company

Truly strange: Orson Welles, with a chorus, and "I Know What It Is To Be Young."

Gone But Not Missed

Here's an old Outside magazine article by Jason Gay lamenting the disappearance of the angry bike mechanic.

Although he exerts a noble effort to make those characters and their record store counterparts seem necessary, even beneficial, it is hard to cover up the fact that they are jerks.

Steve Jobs is extremely happy with the tablet. Pass it on.

Writing in Business Week, Philip Elmer-DeWitt on the rumors regarding the Apple touch-screen tablet and a new product announcement scheduled for January 26.

Adventures of a Low Impact Man

Matt Labash attempts to live a drastically reduced carbon-imprint life style:

The way the experiment works is that each day emphasizes new actions, which then roll over to the next day, so that by the end of the week, all actions are working in concert, and you've been transformed from a conspicuously consumptive carbon monster into a virtuous person who can then go on to lecture less virtuous people about how they're destroying the earth.

Daemon by Suarez

Cool Tools points to a breakthrough science fiction novel and its sequel:

Every once in a while a science fiction book unleashes a vivid, important alternative vision of the future that has not been fleshed out before. Daniel Suarez does that with Daemon, a fasted-paced thriller about a world in which a virtual bot takes over. Sort of a digital Armageddon, only worse. It's a techno-thriller more informed than a Tom Clancy novel, more plausible than The Matrix, more graphic than War Games, and more thought-provoking than Neuromancer -- yet it introduces a science fiction future new to all of them.

The Targeted

Victor Davis Hanson on the war the wannabe rich. An excerpt:

Again, most of those targeted are not the already rich — a Warren Buffett or Bill Gates — but millions of the wannabe rich. They may have achieved larger-than-average annual incomes, but they’re not the multimillionaire speculators on Wall Street who nearly wrecked the American economy in search of huge bonuses and payoffs. Most are instead professionals and small-business owners who take enormous risks in hopes of being well-off and passing their wealth on to their children.

Start with the Customer

We start with the customer and we work backward. We learn whatever skills we need to service the customer. We build whatever technology we need to service the customer. The second thing is, we are inventors, so you won't see us focusing on "me too" areas. We like to go down unexplored alleys and see what's at the end. Sometimes they're dead ends. Sometimes they open up into broad avenues and we find something really exciting. And then the third thing is, we're willing to be long-term-oriented, which I think is one of the rarest characteristics. If you look at the corporate world, a genuine focus on the long term is not that common. But a lot of the most important things we've done have taken a long time.

Read the rest of the Newsweek interview with Amazon's Jeff Bezos here.

Living Large

Some lives are like fiction.

In this case, an Elmore Leonard novel.

[HT: Dave Barry]

Quote of the Day

I don't expect everyone else
To be perfect.
Only those who work with me
And my family, of course.
That's not unreasonable
Is it?

- From "Perfect" by Harry Newman Jr., Behind Pinstripes

Friday, December 25, 2009


Evening approaches. It's currently 56 degrees here in Phoenix. Will this brutal winter never cease?

To Each of You

Merry Christmas!

Quote of the Day: Christmas

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

- 2 Matthew 10

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Music Break: Caruso

A recording of Enrico Caruso in 1916 singing "O Holy Night" in French.

Dusting Off History

There was a study several years back that found a sizable number of people associate history with boredom.

Someone apparently committed "history" on them in high school, where they were hammered with dates and names until they lapsed into a catatonic state. The excitement of history was carefully removed and put in a jar in the janitor's closet.

Which brings me to a question that I'm tackling due to involvement with a local history group: How can we make a history museum more interesting?

Art museums can sell beauty and - let's be blunt - good taste by association. There's a certain snob appeal. The botanical garden is not peddling plants so much as events held in a beautiful environment.

History museums offer old stuff in a glass box.

What can we do to reach and excite our audience? I've got a few ideas but am interested in anything you might want to pass along.

The Word on Word

The penalty is a fine of nearly a third of a billion dollars, which is significant enough to slightly dent MS's bottom line. But the injunction granted against Microsoft also requires the company to excise the infringing XML code from the on-sale version of Word. Within three weeks. Or, and this is the absolute shocker: Microsoft must stop selling Word.

Read the Fast Company article on how Microsoft responded. [In short, they're still selling Word.]

The Dirty Bomb Diaries

A film being distributed via the Internet: The Dirty Bomb Diaries.

[HT: Idea Anaconda]

Miscellaneous and Fast

Quote of the Day

My idea of the ideal jury is twelve Irish unionists deciding the case of my client, Patrick O'Brien, a union bricklayer, who was run over by Chauncey Marlborough's Rolls-Royce while Marlborough was on his way to deposit $50,000 in the bank.

- Melvin Belli

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Music Break: Judy Collins

Modest Needs

Via Business Pundit and CNN, information on Modest Needs:

I’m excited that somebody made it so easy to help people stuck in a personal financial crisis situation (these days, there are many). CNN has more:

Here’s how it works: People e-mail their requests — help with rent or a car repair or a medical bill, for example — to Modest Needs, whose seven-person staff researches and verifies their legitimacy. The vetted requests are then posted on, where donors can choose which ones they want to help fund. Once the funding level is reached, a check is sent out.


Peter Wehner, writing in Contentions, looks at hermetically sealed attitudes:

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said, “Rather than sitting here and carping about what Nelson got for Nebraska, I would say to my friends on the other side of the aisle: Let’s get together and see what we can get for South Carolina.”

And Majority Leader Harry Reid has said, “I don’t know if there is a Senator that doesn’t have something in this bill that was important to them. And if they don’t have something in it important to them, then it doesn’t speak well of them.”

Darkness and Koestler

He was placed in solitary confinement. For many weeks, he was not allowed out of his cell, a chamber six and a half paces long. He was verbally abused by the guards, ignored by the prison authorities, and led to believe that he had been sentenced to death. At night, he listened to men crying for their mothers as they were dragged out of their cells to be shot. Once, he heard a priest, accompanied by guards, going from cell to cell leading prisoners out to be executed. When they reached his door, the priest began to fumble at the bolt. “No, not this one,” a guard said, and they moved on.

Read the rest of Louis Menand's article on Arthur Koestler in The New Yorker.

Dakota Christmas

Writing in First Things, Joseph Bottum with some Christmas reminiscences:

Sometimes you catch sight of a turn, heading off into the distance—a dirt track or a county road at right angles to the highway, as you drive along those straight, miles-long lines you find only in the West. And you know you’ll never go up it, never come back to find where it leads, and always there remains a sense, as you roll past, that maybe this time you should have turned and followed that track up into the distant hills.

Her hair was the same thin shade of gray as the weather-beaten pickets of the fence around her frozen garden. She had a way with horses, and she was alone on Christmas Eve. There is little in my life I regret as much as that I would not stay for just one cookie, just one cup of tea.

Wanted: Hunter Gatherer

Rowan Manahan, who is an expert on the subject, has found the origin of the job interview.

Quote of the Day

Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.

- George Orwell

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Son: "I don't know what to get Dad."

Daughter: "Get him a book on how to dress."

Living Well

You'll enjoy these:

Verging on Pertinence takes us to Paris for a snack in the park and then waxes philosophical about aging and biscotti. An excerpt from the latter:

The biscotti are a treasure-trove of life's hard experiences to be enjoyed in little nips, followed by a chewing and mulling over. To the biscotti you must bring your own liquid, coffee, tea ,or your mouth's juices so you can wear down time's hardening of things gone past. The madeleine? A young man's cookie, malleable and without the hard inner core of substance. It is the elemental biscotti, flour, eggs, water (o.k. an almond or two for additional mulling over), that serves le penseur best. Time and heat. Twice. That's what life, aging, and cookies are all about.

Border Story

My friend Axel Holm is the director of the Pimeria Alta Historical Society based in Nogales, Arizona, which is located right next to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. [Axel writes a memorable newsletter for the group.]

The above photo, which was taken in Nogales around 1900, shows the marker indicating the border. The photo is from the Society.

Got Medieval

If you like history sites, check out Got Medieval.

It even has personals: "Let's just say you won't be the first beggar to carry me across the stream."

Failure Study

Here's a very interesting article: Writing in Wired, Jonah Lehrer on the neuroscience of screwing up. An excerpt:

How did the researchers cope with all this unexpected data? How did they deal with so much failure? Dunbar realized that the vast majority of people in the lab followed the same basic strategy. First, they would blame the method. The surprising finding was classified as a mere mistake; perhaps a machine malfunctioned or an enzyme had gone stale. “The scientists were trying to explain away what they didn’t understand,” Dunbar says. “It’s as if they didn’t want to believe it.”

The experiment would then be carefully repeated. Sometimes, the weird blip would disappear, in which case the problem was solved. But the weirdness usually remained, an anomaly that wouldn’t go away.

This is when things get interesting. According to Dunbar, even after scientists had generated their “error” multiple times — it was a consistent inconsistency — they might fail to follow it up. “Given the amount of unexpected data in science, it’s just not feasible to pursue everything,” Dunbar says. “People have to pick and choose what’s interesting and what’s not, but they often choose badly.” And so the result was tossed aside, filed in a quickly forgotten notebook. The scientists had discovered a new fact, but they called it a failure.

Trouble at the Pole

Mindless entertainment: Santa's Snowglobe lets you inflict various punishments on the elves.

[HT: Ad Rants]

Blogging's Gifts

Cultural Offering has a post on the gifts of blogging and every point rings true.

This is an odd little pursuit. We bloggers are often tapping away at strange hours, surfacing this point or that link. The contacts with readers and other bloggers make it worthwhile. I am especially sensitive to your presence because this blog does not neatly fit into a category. There are many fine business blogs out there but their focus would drive me nuts. I have to lapse into other topics on occasion and operate with an iron rule: If I find an item to be boring, it won't go in the blog. It's a tad subjective.

A word about readers: Although most sites have the occasional troll, this one has been extremely fortunate. Its readers span the ideological range and the globe. They are polite and thoughtful. I am often remiss at responding to the comments, not because the opinions are unworthy but because my schedule is pressing and I am a sloth. If I ever dash off a response that seems indifferent or thoughtless, I assure you that was unintentional.

Please know that you are valued.

Quote of the Day

A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.

- Francis Bacon

Monday, December 21, 2009

Music Break: Gould and Bernstein

Back for the season: Sometimes, the only appropriate word is "Wow."

Strength Through Adversity

Historian David McCullough speaking of early American risk-taking.

Novak on Three Concepts

Michael Novak on:
An excerpt from his essay on Personal Liberty:

In our time, alas, many people have come to think of human liberty as the ability to flow with their instincts, let go of restraint, and do what they feel like doing. Such people like to invoke animal images of their dream of liberty: They are “born free” like a lioness on the African plains or “free as a bird.” They look on animal nature as innocent and unrestrained, separated from social customs, traditions, mores, and moral rules imposed from outside the animals’ own instincts, urgings, and longings. Woody Allen very neatly expressed this sort of impulsiveness when he said, “The heart wants what the heart wants.”

But is this not a paradoxical claim? Some people claim to be compelled to follow instinct. They claim to have lost the liberty to persuade their hearts, lost all will to resist, lost all ability to do anything other than what the heart wants. We all know that pull of the heart. But true liberty demands that we open ourselves to other pulls and other persuasions, while listening to the calming voice of wisdom. Experience teaches us, in this way, that human liberty is not constituted by bondage to impulse, even to prolonged and seemingly irresistible impulse. Such bondage describes the liberty of wild animals, but it does not describe the liberty available only to the fully developed human animal—the free person.

Food Fights

All the kill-joys can now remind us that every mince pies taking us, crumb by crumb, to an early death. To be honest, if it means one less year of being lectured to by grey, humourless nutritionists who know the calorie content of a toe-nail clipping, then pass the brandy butter.

Dr. Max Pemberton, writing in The Telegraph, on the war against the obese.


SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance is the sequel written by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner to their highly successful Freakonomics.

Imagine that you're at dinner with some very bright friends who like to draw fascinating and seemingly unlikely connections between various events. You may argue with them and concede different points and yet your overall reaction will be pure pleasure.

SuperFreakonomics is great fun for those of us who believe in the law of unintended consequences. Push in here and look for the reactions elsewhere. Levitt and Dubner discuss a collection of connections. Which was safer? A New York City filled with automobile traffic or one where horses were the chief mode of transportation? (Go with the cars.) Why may patients of the better doctors have a higher death rate? With all things being equal, who is more likely to gain tenure, professor Albert Aab or professor Albert Zyzmor? How do the habits of some prostitutes resemble department store Santas? What were the effects of the September 11 attacks on traffic fatalities? On the spread of flu? On investigations of the Mafia?

The book is a grand exercise in looking for the unintended, in considering how what may seem positive or negative can have the opposite effect. It should serve as a caution to those reckless souls who believe in grandiose plans. Levitt and Dubner would say, "Be careful. You might just get what you asked for."

Ignoring Beauty

And here, it seems to me, is where beauty matters and how. Over time, people establish styles, patterns, and vocabularies which perform, in the building of cities, the same function as good manners between neighbors. A “neighbor,” according to the Anglo-Saxon etymology, is one who “builds nearby.” The buildings that go up in our neighborhood matter to us in just the way that our neighbors matter. They demand our attention, and shape our lives. They can overwhelm us or soothe us; they can be an alien presence or a home. And the function of aesthetic values in the practice of architecture is to ensure that the primary requirement of every building is served—namely, that it should be a fitting member of a community of neighbors. Buildings need to fit in, to stand appropriately side by side; they are subject to the rule of good manners just as much as people are. This is the real reason for the importance of tradition in architecture—that it conveys the kind of practical knowledge that is required by neighborliness.

The Bill's Reviews

Comments on the healthcare bill from:

The "New" Politics

Nelson also secured full and permanent federal funding for his state to extend Medicaid eligibility to everyone below 133 percent of the federal poverty level. The bill would require all states to do so, but Nebraska alone would not be required to pay a portion of the additional cost after 2016.

- The Washington Post

The Signal

Have you ever disregarded the uneasy feeling that is trying to tell you that something is wrong?

I have. And when the event that the feeling was warning of comes to pass, I've often vowed never again to make that mistake.

But then the schedule gets packed, deadlines loom, and it seems only wise to brush aside featherweight concerns. After all, larger issues beckon.

One solution: Before concluding any major decision, ask yourself if there has been any sense of unease, no matter how small. If so, fashion an approach that would reduce or eliminate that concern.

Later, when the results are in, consider if the minor change made a difference. I predict that in many instances, it will have made a big difference.

Quote of the Day

Don't worry about avoiding temptation - as you grow older, it starts avoiding you.

- The Old Farmer's Almanac

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Bad Vibrations, Hookers, and Polar Bears

Mark Steyn on the vibes from Copenhagen:

. . . Remember that story a couple of weeks ago about how Danish prostitutes were offering free sex to Copenhagen delegates for the duration of the conference? I initially assumed it was just an amusing marketing cash-in by savvy Nordic strumpets. But no, the local "sex workers union" Sexarbejdernes Interesseorganisation, was responding to the municipal government's campaign to discourage attendees from partaking of prostitutes. The City of Copenhagen distributed cards to every hotel room showing a lady of the evening at a seedy street corner over the slogan "BE SUSTAINABLE: Don't Buy Sex."

"Be sustainable"? Prostitution happens to be legal in Copenhagen, and the "sex workers" understandably were peeved at being lumped into the same category as such planet wreckers as Big Oil, car manufacturers, travel agents and other notorious pariahs. So Big Sex decided not to take it lying down. Yet in an odd way, that municipal postcard gets to the heart of what's going on: Government can - and will - use a "sustainable" environment as a pretext for anything that tickles its fancy. All ambitious projects - communism, the new caliphate - have global ambitions, but when the globe itself is the cover for those ambitions, freeborn citizens should beware. Nico Little, a Canadian leftie at the Rabble Web site, distilled the logic into a single headline:

"Hookers Are Killing Polar Bears and Now You Can't Water Your Lawn."

Wise Gifts

Have not read this in years: O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi.

Biz Reading: Fast Company

Fast Company gives its list of the Best Business Books of 2009.

Loretta, Cary, and David

The non-trailer trailer for the marvelous film, The Bishop's Wife.

The Tree

Today we make the dreaded Christmas tree purchase. I've learned to stand back and let my wife decide; intervening only if she's leaning toward a disaster.

The real work, of course, comes back at home when the limitations of the tree stand become apparent. I'll thrash around on the floor like a giant beetle, adjusting here and twisting there, until the tree is reasonably vertical. That done, my wife takes over again and decorates it and, truth be known, always does a great job. Tasteful, beautiful, and well-coordinated.

Unlike the trees of my childhood. There were five kids in my family, not a lot of money, and we attacked the tree with an assortment of ornaments bought here and there. There was lots of silver tinsel and debates were held on the virtues of the metal version, which hung better and could be rolled into a ball to throw at your brothers and sisters, versus the plastic type, which could be stretched and used as a stress reduction device.

We experimented a great deal. One year, my mother found some bizarre bargain basement product that involved a can of spray glue and small styrofoam balls which were supposed to resemble snow. (I suspect that product was sold only in desert cities.) You'd spray a branch with glue and then drop on the styrofoam and - voila! - you had a branch with styrofoam balls glued to it. It had limited appeal.

Many of our decorations were flawed in some way. Three-legged reindeer were common. And the bulbs were either those old super-hot large suckers or ones with glass, syringe-like, tubes that seemed far too scientific to be fun. We would rig everything up and then light it up.

The tree always looked great.

Shark Schedule

Stanley Bing describes a schedule of sleep deprivation:

One major lesson I’ve learned, and it’s not a good one, probably, is that I can actually function on three or four hours, not just now and then, but consistently. Some days I need to close my door and faint for a couple of minutes to set things right, a habit I’ve been pursuing since I was new to the corporation. I used to sleep on the floor with my head right next to the closed door, so that if anybody opened it I would be slammed in the head and wake. Sounds stupid, I know, but it worked. “What are you doing down there?” they would say, and I would reply, “Looking for a cuff link. What’s up.” And life would go on.

And one reader (Steve from Anaheim) comments:

Dude! With your unconventional sleep pattern philosophy, You have a bright, bright future at Northwest Airlines! I suggest you sign up for Pilot training right away!

Quote of the Day

The spirit of liberty . . . is the spirit which is not too sure it is always right.

- Judge Learned Hand

Friday, December 18, 2009

Rethinking Job Boards

What Would Dad Say questions the value of job boards. An excerpt:

Only 3% of jobs are filled by ‘mega’ job boards such as Monster, Careerbuilder, and HotJobs. They are not only expensive and bloated, but they simply do not deliver quality candidates. Equally as detrimental for employers, the pay-to-post job boards are filled with old, outdated job listings, work-at-home scams, phishing jobs, scam jobs, identity theft postings, and other garbage listings which seriously erode the user experience and potentially a company’s employment branding. This means, as well, that aggregators such as Indeed and Simplyhired that do nothing more than mash all of those bloated, polluted databases into a giant pile of garbage are equally as counter-productive.

Music Break: Bikel

Singing about Hannukah: The great Theodore Bikel.

Overprotection Update

Another quiet and sad moment in the long march to a society of weaklings.

Protecting Tiger

A very disturbing story from The Wall Street Journal on whether a deal was made to protect the image of Tiger Woods.

And Then Some

My post on the importance of the extra touch is up at U.S. News & World Report.

Kindness and Unity in Bangor

John Phillips has some touching observations at the Bangor, Maine International Airport. It is certainly a contrast with the points made in the previously posted Peggy Noonan column.

Bangor is the airport where numerous troops going to or returning from Iraq or Afghanistan stop over. It’s not unusual for there to be what seems to be hundreds of military men and women roaming around the airport, using computers, talking on cellphones, getting a bite to eat, or just hanging out with each other.

Each time troops fly into or out of Bangor, the Maine Troop Greeters are there. Composed of veterans and Mainers who want to show support for our troops, these greeters bring handshakes, hugs, blankets, Bibles, cellphones, flags, snacks, and other gifts of friendship for these brave young people whom almost not a single greeter knows. There’s no telling how many times the greeters say “Thank you” or “God bless you” or “Good luck, or “See you when you return.” It’s a model workplace of friendship and support.

Civility, Coarseness, and the State of Society

I'd like to see a poll on this. Yes or no: Have we become a more vulgar country? Are we coarser than, say, 50 years ago? Do we talk more about sensitivity and treat others less sensitively? Do you think standards of public behavior are rising or falling? Is there something called the American Character, and do you think it has, the past half-century, improved or degenerated? If the latter, what are the implications of this? Do you sense, as you look around you, that each year we have less or more of the glue that holds a great nation together? Is there less courtesy in America now than when you were a child, or more? Bonus question: Is "Excuse me" a request or a command?

Read all of Peggy Noonan's column here.

Looking for the Answers

For some of us, there is a quiet fascination in how organizations really work.

A biologist may study tree frogs and amoeba; we prefer watching executives, first-line supervisors, middle-managers, and frustrated but brilliant employees. We look for the silent signals, the mating calls, and the marking of territories.

But most of all, we look for the hidden trails that are used to get from Point A to Point B and beyond. Those can only be discovered if you look for the intangibles that are created by a new or vigorous execution of the basics.

George Washington knew of this when he said, "Take two managers, and give them the same number of laborers, and let those laborers be equal in all respects. Let both managers rise equally early, go equally late to rest, be equally active, sober, and industrious, and yet, in the course of a year, one of them, without pushing the hands under him more than the other, shall have performed infinitely more work."

Finding the answer to that mystery is what drives those of us who are possessed by the study of management.

Quote of the Day

One of the great myths associated with brainstorming is that people will recognize a good idea when they see it. The truth is that it is extremely rare that a breakthrough new idea is recognized for its brilliance when first uttered. New ideas are almost always flawed in some way when they first appear. As Albert Einstein once said, "If at first a new idea doesn't seem totally absurd, there is no hope for it."

- Patrick J. McKenna and David H. Maister, First Among Equals

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dining Out on Medical Marijuana

Zach Patton reports on the Ganja Gourmet restaurant in Denver, where you show your medical marijuana card and can get all sorts of pot-laced dishes.

Report from Afghanistan

The good news is that a tiger doesn’t need to completely understand the jungle to survive, navigate, and then dominate. It is not necessary to know every anthropological and historical nuance of the people here. If that were the case, our Coalition of over forty nations would not exist. More important is to realize that they are humans like us. They get hungry, happy, sad, and angry; they make friends and enemies (to the Nth degree); they are neither supermen nor vermin. They’re just people.

But it always helps to know as much as you can. This will take much time, many dispatches, and hard, dangerous work. Let’s get started.

Read the rest of Michael Yon's overview on Afghanistan.

Uncle Sugar

I just got a free golf cart.

Actually, it cost me $6,490—but the dealer, Colin Riley of Tucson, Ariz., points out that there's a $6,490 federal tax credit on such vehicles. Riley runs ads that say: "FREE ELECTRIC CAR … !"

Some consumers probably assume it's a car-dealer scam, but it's not. It's an Uncle Sam scam.

Read the rest of John Stossel on free stuff from Uncle Sam.

Music Break

Time for some nostalgia:

Duane Eddy and Denis Solee play "Rebel Rouser."

Managers, Race, National Origin, and Hiring

Workplace Prof Blog, one of the best law blogs out there, reports on an intriguing study regarding managers and hiring. It is the sort of report that raises more questions than it answers but is interesting nonetheless. An excerpt:

The Journal of Labor Economics has an interesting study in its most recent issue (October 2009) about the patterns of hiring that managers of different races exhibit. According to the study, white, Asian, and Hispanic managers tend to hire more white and fewer black employees than do black managers. The article, Laura Giuliano, David I. Levine, and Jonathan Leonard, Manager Race and the Race of New Hires not only documents the pattern but also offers some explanations:

Using more than two years of personnel data from a large U.S. retail chain, the study found that when a black manager in a typical store is replaced by a white, Asian or Hispanic manager, the share of newly hired blacks falls from 21 to 17 percent, and the share of whites hired rises from 60 to 64 percent. The effect is even stronger for stores located in the South, where the replacement of a black manager causes the share of newly hired blacks to fall from 29 to 21 percent. . . .

Adversaries But . .

They are adversaries but:
  • They will only push so far because they sense a day may arise when a reluctant but worthy ally will be needed;
  • Each secretly admires the other;
  • They've grown to enjoy the sparring more than they could ever savor a total victory;
  • They serve as an unpaid Total Quality Management consultant for one another;
  • They don't take it personally;
  • Their jousts are carefully choreographed for the education of their staffs;
  • If they didn't have an adversary they would have to invent one.

Quote of the Day

Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth.

- Samuel Johnson

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Western Art: Cowboys, Indians, and More

Barrymore Laurence Scherer has a Wall Street Journal piece on the work of Charles M. Russell and the appeal of Western art:

The Denver Art Museum's current exhibition of the paintings and sculpture of Charles M. Russell (1864-1926) may just inspire a new appreciation for Western art as a whole. It certainly goes a long way to re-establish more widely the reputation of a gifted artist probably best known through prints and book illustrations. Featuring more than 60 important works, it is the first major retrospective of Russell's oeuvre, including oils, bronzes and mixed media, as well as personal objects and delightfully illustrated letters.

[Execupundit note: The spirit of Russell lives on at the Cowboy Artists of America.]

Rathbone and Laughton

The power of voice and word: Basil Rathbone and Charles Laughton read two Christmas Stories.

Sinner in the Hands of an Angry Public

Back in the early days of "Saturday Night Live," the character Father Guido Sarducci (aka the comedian Don Novello) tried to explain the wages of sin to a secular, consumer society. As Father Guido described it, we all accumulate a certain balance in our heavenly bank account ($14.50 for every day we live, though he never said if this was inflation-adjusted), but we suffer withdrawals when we misbehave. Father Guido purported to know exactly how much each transgression cost us. A stolen bag of potato chips was $6. Lying cost us $10. An embarrassing sexual act? Just 35 cents but, as the good father pointed out, it added up if you did it over and over again.

Read the rest of Steve Malanga on Tiger Woods and the wages of sin.