Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!

One path has deceit, selfishness, cynicism, cowardice, cruelty, pettiness, materialism, manipulation, narcissism, tastelessness, and insincerity.

The other has trustworthiness, integrity, generosity, caring, kindness, loyalty, respect, courage, fairness, frugality, gratitude, self-discipline, and self-sacrifice.

If we can keep on the latter and stay away from the first, then all of our New Years will be happy.

Just the Way

This is starting to be a New Year's tradition on this site: Fred Astaire (and Ginger Rogers) with "Just the Way You Look Tonight."

First Paragraph

Standing barefoot and bare-chested in a moonlit tidal pool, the muscular Hawaiian watched the fat man approach, carrying a canvas backpack, slipping on the wet rocks as the roiling surf crashed offshore. The fat man yelled something but was drowned out by the thunderclap of a wave against the volcanic shelf.

- From Riptide by Paul Levine

The Stillman Touch

A clip from the upcoming Whit Stillman film, "Damsels in Distress."

Never Steal a Geek's Laptop

Rick Knowles gives the story from crime to investigation to apprehension.


If one is to make any resolution at all, does it make more sense to resolve to do or to be?

It can be argued, of course, that there is no difference between the two because being consists of doing. The counterpoint is that being is broader and takes in a multitude of behaviors which, if not addressed, may subvert a less comprehensive list. I believe another advantage of the "being" side is that it is more positive and thus more appealing.

If I want to be a successful executive, bricklayer or parent, the ultimate goal will not be attained immediately and yet playing the role of one who will eventually achieve it can be assumed instantly.

By doing, we become. By being, we do.

Wyeth and Pyle

A sizable portion of my childhood was spent looking at the work of N. C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle.

Anderson Layman's Blog features both of those great illustrators here and here.

Godin on The Lizard Brain

Seth Godin analyzes why we resist getting it done. It reminds me of other theories that suggest we resist perfection because we fear completed work. So much of our behavior follows its own odd logic. If you could buy a car so mechanically sound that you would never need another car, would you want it? Or would you still want to purchase another car several years down the road if only to relieve the boredom?

Quote of the Day

He who shuns the millstone, shuns the meal.

- Desiderious Erasmus

Friday, December 30, 2011

Plan That Work!

From The Onion:

FORT WAYNE, IN–Julie Smalley, a 43-year-old Fort Wayne-area office manager, avoided completing any work whatsoever Monday, when she spent a majority of the day composing to-do lists.

Shopping for Killer Fireworks in Naples

There should be nothing – and no one – within a radius of 200 metres. But I made the mistake of leaving the video camera only 50 metres away to get a better shot of the explosion. On top, I placed the directional microphone that I would later find on the ground, smashed by the shock wave. That’s the effect of the “spread bomb”, this year’s trending firework in the markets of Naples and thereabouts. It’s available under various names in a range of shapes and sizes but the fire power remains pretty much the same – the equivalent of ten large homemade bangers.

Read the rest here.

Humor Break: Larry Miller

Miscellaneous and Fast

Carmen Lombardo gets down with "Boo Hoo."
Wally Bock: Your New Year Do's.
Elton John: "Take Me to the Pilot."
The Screwtape Letters is going on stage tour.
Shawn Coyne tells a very interesting story about sales and human nature.
HR Capitalist: A letter from a lawyer.
The Hammock Papers: Some advice from Gertrude Stein.

Justice in the World Update

At Althouse: Don't tease the frog.

Going Boldly

At Anderson Layman's Blog: A peek at - and a good deed by - William Shatner.

The Artist: Less is More

From a review of the final film to be released in 2011:

It falls into the long tradition of movies about the movies, and centres on an established film star and a beguiling young actress in late Twenties and early Thirties Hollywood, during the rise of the talkies. But, while the plot and setting instantly bring to mind Singin’ in the Rain, this film pulls in the opposite direction to Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s visually and sonically ravishing screen musical. Rather than being a celebration of colour and sound, it’s a eulogy for monochrome and silence; less a showcase of what film can do than a reminder of what it can be.

Party Time

Art Contrarian looks at the work of Todd White.

Conflicting Goals

It wouldn't make sense to have an all-you-can-eat buffet at a fat camp, would it?

Well, if that question seems odd consider how often departments operate with conflicting missions. One department emphasizes results while another's focus is on process. One pushes saving money while another scoffs at that low-bid mentality and advocates higher quality. One is people first and yet another is mission first. Many proclaim the customer is king while their peers think the customer is really a bit of a nuisance.

The more those conflicts can be put out on the table and reconciled, the better. I don't mean some "split the difference" solution that is convenient but resolves nothing. A courageous choice of which trumps which under which circumstances needs to be made.

Think that's too divisive? If you don't make the choices openly, they will be made covertly and in a manner that does not take into account the organization's larger purpose.

Quote of the Day

Whatever you've done to become successful, it won't be enough to keep you successful.

- Joe Calloway

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Great Film Introductions of Characters

"The Third Man"

First Paragraph

Between 1814 and 1846 a plaster elephant stood on the site of the Bastille. For much of this time it presented a sorry spectacle. Pilgrims in search of revolutionary inspiration were brought up short at the sight of it, massive and lugubrious, at the southeast end of the square. By 1830, when revolution revisited Paris, the elephant was in an advanced state of decomposition. One tusk had dropped off, and the other was reduced to a powdery stump. Its body was black from rain and soot and its eyes had sunk, beyond all natural resemblance, into the furrows and pockmarks of its large, eroded head.

- From Citizens by Simon Schama


Larry Winget offers 10 Anti-Resolutions for the New Year. An excerpt:

1. Last year is OVER – let it go. No good comes from dwelling on the past.

2. Don’t whine about the bad in your life. Whining prolongs the problem and irritates the rest of us.

Music Break: When I Die

In response to the family member who alleged that I have not posted enough country songs, here's some Tanya Tucker to get you moving.

Get Ready for Auld Lang Syne

Start preparing your vocal cords for your solo on the big night.

Dougie MacLean
shows how the song should be sung.

Robert Burns would be proud.

Barcelona: "That bothers you?"

Back by popular demand: The trailer for "Barcelona."

Narrowing the Analysis

Questions during a consulting project:

What is the situation that has been described by the client? [I use the term "situation" because some clients never have problems; they have situations.] What are the rewards and attitudes that contribute to the situation? What are our assumptions? What are the goals? What is needed? What is desired? What is not wanted? How has the matter been handled to date? To what extent have the corrective actions improved or worsened the situation? Why is that the case? What is the unmentioned item that everyone talks around? Why don't they want to address it? Is that item the real problem? Is there a tendency to blame a person rather than a practice? Is there a single problem or has the situation been created by a combination of practices? To what extent is poor performance inadvertently rewarded? Why is it being rewarded? How do people perceive the matter? Is their mental picture keeping them from seeing reality? How are you regarding the matter? Is your own mental picture a blinder? Are we in the right room or has prior analysis taken us on a detour? What environment must be present to give recovery a chance? What are the time factors? Do they want a serious fix or a quick fix? Is a solution really wanted? What solutions would make matters worse? Is there the capacity for a cure? What is the ideal response? What is the best possible response? Given all of the above, what is reality and what is the solution?

Now, boil all of that down to a paragraph.

The Interpreters

Consider your own experience with various professionals and one quality is probably displayed by your favorites: They know how to explain things in plain language.

That ability stands them in contrast to peers who may possess equal or greater knowledge yet use jargon and arcane descriptions. It is easy to suspect that lofty vagueness is a simply ruse to hide ignorance. It certainly blocks the conveying of information.

I've heard that medical schools sometimes train doctors on bedside manners. All professions and trades could use training in translation skills since they are a key part of communication.

Learn to translate and you have given yourself a major competitive advantage.

Quote of the Day

Meetings are rather like cocktail parties. You don't want to go, but you're cross not to be asked.

- John Kenneth Galbraith

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

First Paragraph

Late afternoon on Christmas Eve, the year I was eleven, my father took me with him across the river. I can't remember exactly what the hurry was, but he was a busy lawyer, and he needed some papers signed by a rancher who lived on the other side of the Missouri. So off we headed, west across the bridge from Pierre and north through the river hills.

- From Dakota Christmas by Joseph Bottum


I started on December 28, 2005.

It has been a true pleasure and the long-distance friendships that have been made along the way are especially treasured.

Your support is deeply appreciated. So long as you keep reading, I'll keep writing.

FutureLawyer Approved

FutureLawyer has the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and he is gushing. I may send him a photo of my phone as soon as I stop using it to drive nails and open bottles.

Big Otto

Art Contrarian
looks at von Lenbach's portraits of Bismarck.

Vandalism in the Valley

There is indeed something of the Dark Ages about all this. In the vast rural expanse between the Sierras and the Coast Ranges, and from Sacramento to Bakersfield, our rural homes are like stray sheep outside the herd, without whatever protection is offered by the density of a town. When we leave for a trip or just go into town, the predators swarm.

Read the rest of
Victor Davis Hanson's disturbing account.

The Appeal of Precision

It was the perfect angle, the right word, the exact gesture that made the difference.

Whenever you encounter precision in a "whatever" world, you recognize it. The precise sparkles like a diamond on black velvet.

Low quality reveals indifference. High quality reflects care.

Quote of the Day

Watch what people are cynical about, and one can often discover what they lack.

- Harry Emerson Fosdick

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

First Paragraph

"Days of wine and roses," said Wilt to himself. It was an inconsequential remark but sitting on the Finance and General Purposes Committee at the Tech needed some relief and for the fifth year running Dr. Mayfield had risen to his feet and announced, "We must put the Fenland College of Arts and Technology on the map."

- From Wilt on High by Tom Sharpe

Music as Therapy

What type of music do you play when you want to improve your mood?

There are the
usual candidates and often they work but, in my case, anything by Aaron Copland starts the recovery.

Entertainment Break

The trailer for "Notorious."

SunBelt Update

Writing in Forbes, Joel Kotkin hails the comeback of the SunBelt.

The Gratitude Goes Both Ways

Many thanks to Tanmay Vora for
his kind words and great blog.

Too Connected

FutureLawyer has The World's Most Honest Family Christmas Card.

Not my family, of course. We're still using papyrus.

Running Low on Children

Mark Steyn on birthrates and government spending. An excerpt:

...The problem with the advanced West is not that it’s broke but that it’s old and barren. Which explains why it’s broke. Take Greece, which has now become the most convenient shorthand for sovereign insolvency — “America’s heading for the same fate as Greece if we don’t change course,” etc. So Greece has a spending problem, a revenue problem, something along those lines, right? At a superficial level, yes. But the underlying issue is more primal: It has one of the lowest fertility rates on the planet. In Greece, 100 grandparents have 42 grandchildren — i.e., the family tree is upside down. In a social-democratic state where workers in “hazardous” professions (such as, er, hairdressing) retire at 50, there aren’t enough young people around to pay for your three-decade retirement. And there are unlikely ever to be again.

Power to the Sonic

CoolTools checks out the Colgate Sonic Power Toothbrush.

The Regret Trap

We urge others to be of a forgiving nature, then ravage ourselves with recriminations. Left unchecked, our lives can be consumed with regret and that habit produces little of benefit. Consider the variations of Commission and Omission:

  • Done

  • Undone

  • Spoken

  • Unspoken

  • Forgotten

  • Remembered

  • Lost

  • Kept

  • Studied

  • Not studied

  • Emphasized

  • Neglected

  • Believed

  • Scorned

  • Embraced

  • Ignored

  • Succeeded

  • Failed

Quote of the Day

To preserve our independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude.

- Thomas Jefferson

Monday, December 26, 2011

First Paragraph

American self-belief is like a force of nature, awesome and inexorable. It turned a dream of liberty into a functioning nation, and placed that nation's flag on the moon. It drew settlers across the seas in the tens of millions, and liberated hundreds of millions more from the evils of fascism and communism. If it has occasionally led the United States into errors, they have tended to be errors of exuberance. On the whole, the world has reason to be thankful for it.

- From The New Road to Serfdom by Daniel Hannan

Finding a Passion

Many years ago, I was teaching a workshop at a hotel in the Midwest and discovered that it was the meeting site for a group of historians whose sole focus was the French Revolution. Papers, books, panels, and presentations were dedicated to the topic. The elevators and hallways were filled with arguments about Danton, Mirabeau, and Robespierre.

I was impressed.

Passion for a subject and the desire to learn as much as possible about it has a special attraction, partly because of the implicit acknowledgement that the final word has not been spoken. Even those of us who are required to perform most of our work as generalists need at least one subject into which we dig more deeply than others. Of course, many people find their passion not at work but in a hobby. [Theodore White wrote that to determine someone's true interest, you should discover what their undergraduate major was in college, presumably before they got sensitive to the job market.]

A test for determing your passion: What can you enjoyably discuss for hours? If you didn't have to worry about money, what would you do?

Quote of the Day

To accomplish great things, one must be with the people, not above them.

- Montesquieu

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Minor Manufacturing Skills for the Holidays

All parents will agree with Cultural Offering's proposal for honesty in advertising. I recall finishing the assembly of some arcane toy which had completely ludicrous instructions, at 2 a.m.

To Each and All

A Very Merry Christmas!

Quote of the Day

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

- 2 Matthew 10

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Ghost Story of Christmas

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Read the
rest here.

Related Mistakes

  1. Thinking something is very easy...because you've never done it.

  2. Thinking something is incredibly difficult...because you've never done it.

    I wonder which is more common.

Paper Monster

I have been saving too many papers and have resolved to reduce the volume by at least a quarter. My goal is by one half. And by Tuesday at the latest.

The stacks, like the blob out of the old Steve McQueen film, creep up on you. Given time and neglect, you'll be surrounded by papers of no use now but of potential use later, at least that's your cover story. These morale-lowering, depression-inducing, hills and files are hardly reassuring. For every occasion when you say, "I'm glad I saved that" there must be fifty when you are stunned the item is still around or you are wondering what induced you to hang onto it in the first place.

My mother was a champion hoarder of Olympics caliber. A child of the Depression, she would keep things on the premise that they might be needed or traded some day. One item that I've kept in memory of her is an old burglar alarm key to which she'd attached a note: "Doesn't work."

That says it all. Bring on the trash bags.

First Paragraph

It was sometime early in 1986, the first year of the decline of my firm, Salomon Brothers. Our chairman, John Gutfreund, left his desk at the head of the trading floor and went for a walk. At any given moment on the trading floor billions of dollars were being risked by bond traders. Gutfreund took the pulse of the place by simply wandering around it and asking questions of the traders. An eerie sixth sense guided him to wherever a crisis was unfolding. Gutfreund seemed able to smell money being lost.

- From Liar's Poker by Michael Lewis

Personal Chores

Study yourself. It will be a life-long course. Don't let admirable long-term plans keep your focus so heavily on the horizon so that you trip over the immediate. Always know how much time you have. Count on a project taking at least three times longer than you originally planned. Don't be too quick to forgive yourself but be able to do so. Avoid haters. Try to have a good laugh at least once a day. Never quell on bad experiences. Move on from them. Become a gourmet of life's beauty. Don't rush; speed is often over-rated. Learn something unusual once a month. Look for the story behind the story. Recognize that "No" often has an expiration date. If something is too easy, there is a reason and it's usually not good news. Elude the cheap fashions of our times. Search for great people who are not celebrities and never confuse greatness with celebrity. Craft a philosophy. Don't assume that societal progress is ordained. Chop back the jungle every day. Know the symptoms of inertia. Watch out for once-impressive programs that have become skeletons in new suits. Never take your future for granted. Relax as seriously as you work. Cultivate courage and kindness. Be noble.

Quote of the Day

Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.

- Last words of Steve Jobs

[Note: Corrected from previous post.]

Friday, December 23, 2011

Music Break

Mark O'Connor with a unique performance of "Amazing Grace."

Bate, Basics, and You

Cultural Offering discusses the importance of the basics and cites a master. An excerpt:

The world is full of the latest and greatest. "Data analytics" we scratch our head over, "best practices" that leave us wondering best for who? Crap masquerading as leadership. Confusing garbage served up with a nod and a wink as advice.

Family History Addiction

Years ago, my mother and one of my aunts started to do some serious research on our family history. They produced sizable notebooks that could be easily updated. Eventually, they were able to trace the family far beyond the American Revolution and back to Europe.

It was a major but invaluable project. There are English, German, and French branches on my side (with some Irish and Scottish as well) while my wife's family brings in Hungarians and Slovenians. There are rumors of a Turk but they have not been confirmed.

The entire process resembled a detective story, complete with dead-ends, skeletons in the closet, and breaks. At one point, my aunt contacted a German priest about some records and learned that the German side of the family was conducting its own search. They soon joined forces and huge amounts of information began to go back and forth across the Atlantic.

One of my sisters has now jumped into the game and is making rapid progress. It is an odd hobby, but thoroughly addictive. Once you find an ancestor out there on the fringes, you immediately wonder, "Where's the rest of that family?"

Quote of the Day

What is the use of running when we are not on the right road?

- German proverb

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Bishop's Wife

One of my favorite Christmas films is "The Bishop's Wife" and yet I never encountered it as a child. [The title may have scared me off.]

I understand that there was some initial confusion as to whether Cary Grant and David Niven should switch parts. Fortunately, sanity prevailed. Loretta Young was also excellent - here are
the three of them in a non-trailer trailer - but the big scene stealer was Monty Woolley.

Miscellaneous and Fast

The Hammock Papers has a prayer by Thomas Merton.
The New York Times: Untouchables rising via capitalism in India.
Anderson Layman's Blog: The great Paul Lynde.
Commentary: Thomas Sowell, peerless nerd.
Kottke has a video on unusual modern dance. [I think that may be a relative.]


Labels are tools of convenience. It is understandable why we use them. Unfortunately, the objects of labels are not always immutable. If I call a hammer a hammer, it will be a hammer next week or even five years from now, but f I call someone a fool or a jerk, I may blind myself from seeing that person's wise or decent behavior.

There are, of course, people who so consistently demonstrate a certain quality that the label makes sense. Any behavior to the contrary is a rare aberration. Why waste time searching for it? There are two points of caution for the workplace:

1. If the person deserves the full-time version of a negative label, why is that individual still around?

2. If the person is a part-time practitioner, don't assume that the negative behavior is full-time. Sometimes the whiner or griper has a good point. Problems are not always surfaced by saints.

Periodic Review of Products That Work

An incomplete list:
  1. WD-40
  2. Pepto-Bismol
  3. Aspirin
  4. Swiss Army Knife
  5. Kindle
  6. Bose Sound System
  7. Band-Aids
  8. Aqua-Velva
  9. SuperGlue
  10. Bon Ami
  11. The American Heritage Dictionary
  12. Columbia Desk Encyclopedia
  13. Windex
  14. PaperMate Profile ballpoint pen
  15. Cross pen
  16. Tilley hat
  17. Circa notebook
  18. Moleskine notepad
  19. Starbucks Doubleshot Espresso
  20. Oreos
  21. Burberry trench coat

Who's an American Indian?

America's first blood quantum law was passed in Virginia in 1705 in order to determine who had a high enough degree of Indian blood to be classified an Indian — and whose rights could be restricted as a result. You’d think, after all these years, we’d finally manage to kick the concept. But recently, casino-rich Indian tribes in California have been using it themselves to cast out members whose tribal bloodlines, they say, are not pure enough to share in the profits.

Read the rest of David Treuer's column here.

The Staff Album

Amid the hubbub of the holidays, I recalled a department director who kept a photo album of all 350+ of his employees. Under each photo was the person's name and job title. Other info could be jotted in.

After six months on the job, he could call half of his department by name. After a year, he knew them all.

The album was not a gimmick. It was part of his overall approach. He not only knew his employees, he cared about them. They recognized that.

A simple thing, an album, and yet it represented a very powerful idea.

Quote of the Day

Heroing is one of the shortest-lived professions there is.

- Will Rogers

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Return of My Thermos

Good news!

My Thermos is back in operation. Aside from having one of the greatest blog names ever, the site was always fun and informative.

First Paragraph

General Taddeo Bottando's triumphantly successful campaign towards the unmasking of the shadowy English art dealer, Geoffrey Forster, as the most extraordinary thief of his generation began with a letter, postmarked Rome, that turned up on his desk on the third floor of the Art Theft Department on a particularly fine morning in late July.

- From Giotto's Hand by Iain Pears

Art Deco Break

Art Contrarian looks at the style of Wyndham Lewis.

Groupon Math

Political Calculations has a device for calculating your Groupon discount coupon offer.

Close Encounter with a Gorilla

At Althouse: A brief visit with a silverback and his family.

Mug for Your Next Physical

Available at The Onion.

Get Ready for Middle Earth

Looks marvelous: The trailer for "The Hobbit."

IE and Its Alternatives

Studio 1c examines browsing alternatives to Internet Explorer.

I think the biggest rap on Internet Explorer is that it is more prone to picking up viruses and malware. That is no minor problem. The "user unfriendly" argument seems unfair. I've used Firefox and Safari and don't find them to have any notable superiority on that point.

Management Improvement Carnival - II

Tanmay Vora has posted the second part of the Annual Management Improvement Carnival.

Fear Factors

I have a friend who loves scuba-diving. He was describing some great dives and, perhaps sensing my reaction, asked if I would be interested in going along on one. I politely begged off, noting my aversion to sports where one of the possible downsides is being eaten alive.

Now before you send me all of the statistics on how safe scuba diving really is and how sharks are misunderstood and lovely, let me assure that I've read the literature and watched the videos. Itinerant scuba divers go door-to-door in my neighborhood spreading the word. Besides, all of that is irrelevant. My point is that this same friend freezes in fear at the thought of having to write a report in much the same way that others shudder when required to give a speech.

Now I think those fears are quite odd - I write reports and give speeches frequently and without trepidation - but for those folks, their fears are as real as my concern that somewhere there is a Great White with my name on its fin. [The first seven minutes of "Jaws" said it all; all the rest was commentary.]

When dealing with others, we should take their fears into account and not declare that they are foolish. Our logic doesn't not count in their world but if we can dissolve or minimize their concerns, we will quickly gain the status of ally.

That is a nice title to possess.

The Email Problem

Over the past couple of years, I've seen several major problems that were created or exacerbated by the extensive and loose use of email.

The distance that brings out trollish behavior on the Internet has a near but less extreme relative in email messages. You can find email exchanges that never would have become sarcastic or insensitive if the two parties were talking face to face or over the phone.

It is as if email has become synonymous with "abrupt message." People focus solely on the text and forget the tone. Sometimes, the text itself is questionable. If haste makes waste, rushed makes rude.

Unless we are willing to dedicate the time to craft the right tone, the use of email should be curtailed. Even if time is given, it should never be used to discuss sensitive topics. Email saves no time if it produces conflict, confusion, and hurt feelings.

Quote of the Day

In the old days, it was not called the Holiday Season; the Christians called it "Christmas" and went to church; the Jews called it "Hanukkah" and went to synagogue; the atheists went to parties and drank. People passing each other on the street would say "Merry Christmas!" or "Happy Hanukkah!" or (to the atheists) "Look out for the wall!"

- Dave Barry

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Urban Development Legends

The history of local economic development is a story of academic fads. The 1960s, when I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, were the heyday of growth poles and multipliers, of econometrics and mathematical modeling made possible by powerful mainframe computers. For a city, the key to generating jobs and income was to lure strategic industries by offering them tax breaks, loans at favorable rates, promises of infrastructure development that would benefit them, and so on. This approach would propel the entire local economy forward, the theory held, so long as the city picked the right industries. On a corridor wall in Penn’s Wharton School building was plastered a huge input-output table of the Philadelphia economy, which would help planners make the right choices. The direct and indirect employment effects of any investment could be precisely predicted. It was all very scientific.

Read the rest of Mario Polese in
City Journal.

Happy Hanukkah!

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. May the coming year bring much happiness.

Humor Break: More Tweets from @youthcaptain

Rob Long releases more of the early tweets from the new leader of North Korea.

For a Little Intrigue

I never got into the Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, although I gave them a valiant try. It was a relief when John Le Carre's books arrived. Le Carre's work, as in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, had the authenticity of boring bureaucracy and no gimmicky devices. After wolfing down those early novels - his later work has had less appeal as he seemed to reflect The Guardian's editorial page - I picked up some Eric Ambler and was embarrassed at my delay. Ambler could be uneven, but when he was good (See Journey Into Fear), he was very, very good.

So to sum up, if you like a great spy tale or thriller, here are some authors to check out:

Eric Ambler

Len Deighton

Frederick Forsyth

Alan Furst

John Le Carre

Robert Littell

Charles McCarry

Gerald Seymour

Daniel Silva

I have not read but have heard good things about the work of Alex Berenson and Vince Flynn.

Who's missing?

Why They Leave

Eric Jackson writing in Forbes with the top ten reasons why large companies fail to keep their best talent. An excerpt:

1. Big Company Bureaucracy. This is probably the #1 reason we hear after the fact from disenchanted employees. However, it’s usually a reason that masks the real reason. No one likes rules that make no sense. But, when top talent is complaining along these lines, it’s usually a sign that they didn’t feel as if they had a say in these rules. They were simply told to follow along and get with the program. No voice in the process and really talented people say “check please.”

Quote of the Day

The darkness of the whole world cannot swallow the glowing of a candle.

- Robert Altinger

Monday, December 19, 2011

Old Dog

I messed up my wrist today, possibly while lifting a briefcase out of the car. I'd buy the liniment that my parents used to slap on strained muscles except that product, with its label promising cures for a multitude of ailments, may no longer be available due to some pesky legal restrictions. I may be able to find it in the back of an abandoned dry cleaning store.

The other day I was commiserating with an old lawyer who had, as the phrase goes, taken a fall, how you get to a certain age (another conveniently vague phrase) when you notice bumps and bruises that seem to have come from nowhere. This produces a certain caution that was not needed in earlier days when the body was less prone to play tricks.

Stretching across a car and using a couple of fingers to snag a heavy briefcase has just been added to my growing List of Things to Think About.

The Third Man

Instapundit cites Josh Trevino’s tweet of the year: “I’d like to think God let Havel and Hitchens pick the third.”

World Affairs Update: Youth Captain Tweets

Interested in the new leader of North Korea?

Rob Long has been following his tweets for some time.

Letting "True Grit" Go to Your Head

Yes, you can buy "The Rooster" from Baron Hats. [With or without the pinch-hole.]

Hip Caveat

“When needed, they would emerge from their cubicles, make a tempting meal, and attract their next victim.”

Russian Burger King: Bring on the Unicorns and Rappers

This Russian ad for Burger King made me realize how drab my local Burger King is.

I wonder if the ad is being played on a loop in Lenin's cell in hell.

Management Improvement Carnival

Tanmay Vora is hosting the Annual Management Improvement Carnival.

Breaks and Barriers

We've all heard of people who got a break that produced a major career opportunity. Perhaps someone mentioned a job opening or some wisdom was conveyed that turned the person around. Breaks can be minor encounters that result in enormous good. You are, as the line goes, in the right place at the right time.

What receives less recognition is the break's opposite: the barrier. The barrier may also come from a brief event or encounter, but it hinders careers. Recently, I saw this illustrated in a conversation. A man mentioned that he had not pursued a particular job because he'd heard that there was a rigid selection requirement that he did not meet. I happened to know about that job and assured him that the rumor about the requirement was untrue. In fact, he greatly exceeded the qualifications.

Since that conversation, I've wondered about the number of careers that have been shaped by an arbitrary decision, a rumor or a perception that created an unnecessary barrier. There can be a tendency to inflate the unknown and a hesitation to pin down reality. That is why in so many cases it makes sense to push forward until you get a clear and final "No."

It may turn out that the "No" does not exist.

Quote of the Day

Resistance is not out to get you personally. It doesn't know who you are and doesn't care. Resistance is a force of nature. It acts objectively.

- Steven Pressfield

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Gift Tip

Don't forget The Great Courses.

Miscellaneous and Fast

Nicholas Bate on mental fatigue.
all-swagga: Free life lessons from an old-timer.
Peter Robinson, Christopher Hitchens, and Newt Gingrich
discussing the war on terror.
Wally Bock:
On chef's recipes and management books.
Michael P. Maslanka: Don't fight the frame.
Elinor Wylie: "
Wild Peaches."
The website for "Baseball, Dennis and the French."
George Will: Carl's Jr. Restaurants crunches the numbers.
FutureLawyer: He's coming for you.

Vaclav Havel, R.I.P.

Isn't it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.

- Vaclav Havel

We have lost a hero .

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Not-So-Small Things

Cloudy night. Slight chill outside. Dean Martin is singing Christmas tunes in the background. A searchlight scans the skies. Our geckos are hibernating but some snails guard the front porch. A good book awaits. The family is doing well. We get a tree tomorrow. Cup of hot chocolate? Yes, that might be nice. Thank God for all blessings.

The Gift of the Magi

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

Read the rest of the
O. Henry story here.

Once in Royal David's City

By the Choir of King's College, Cambridge.

Click Click

Between Amazon and a few more exotic locales such as the Vermont Country Store, I figure my Christmas shopping can be handled in an hour of clicking with plenty of time to spare.

This is how it should be.

The thought of trudging through regular stores has little appeal. I might have to visit a Bed, Bath and Beyond for at least one gift but once that trek is over, all will be completed.

Since my family asks for little - there are monks who are more materialistic - the gift list is short. We are long past the days when my exhausted wife would give detailed accounts of fruitless searches for the latest Transformer toy while I sipped coffee and pretended to listen. (Just kidding!)

Now I do most of the shopping and we are much more mellow. And what is the sound of mellow? Click. Click.

First Paragraph

Small Beginnings. The principle of the oak tree, and the secret of the successful artist, politician, sportsman. Nice and easy does it. A box of Woolworths watercolours for your birthday, a volume of Churchill's speeches, a cricket bat or a pair of boxing gloves in your Christmas stocking. And then the slow awakening of genius.

- From The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson

Radio Flashbacks

likes the Sangean FM/AM Pocket Radio. Memories are sparked of my first transistor radio which only got AM back in the Jurassic period.

Book Suggestions

Books make great gifts. Here is a condensed and diverse group of my recommendations:

  • Edward Abbey: "Desert Solitaire"

  • Godfrey Blunden: "The Time of The Assassins"

  • Michael Burleigh: "Moral Combat"

  • Charles Dickens: "Bleak House"

  • Martin Dugard: "Into Africa"

  • Loup Durand: "Daddy" and "Jaguar"

  • Ben Elton: "Dead Famous" and "Popcorn"

  • Alexandra Fuller: "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight"

  • George MacDonald Fraser: "Flashman"

  • Carl Hiassen: "Tourist Season" and "Skin Tight"

  • Gabriel Garcia-Marquez: "Love in the Time of Cholera"

  • Romain Gary: "The Roots of Heaven"

  • Gwyn Griffin: "An Operational Necessity"

  • John Hersey: "The Wall"

  • Howard Jacobson: "The Making of Henry"

  • Thomas Keneally: "A River Town"

  • Elmore Leonard: "City Primeval"

  • Hilary Mantel: "Wolf Hall" and "Beyond Black"

  • Gerald Seymour: "Rat Run"

  • Paul Theroux: "The Great Railway Bazaar"

  • Rose Tremain: "Restoration" and "The Road Home"

  • Anthony Trollope: "Barchester Towers," "The Way We Live Now" and "The Warden"

The Great Rodent War

Winter means war around here. This is a one hundred year old house. That means many ways in and many ways out for little critters who enjoy the warm comfort of a basement drop ceiling.

There are two worthless cats in this house. I'm not sure what they would do if they were to somehow catch a mouse. They eat cat food; they don't even like people food so I'm not sure why I expect them to be mousers.

Read the rest at
Cultural Offering.

Quote of the Day

A politician can borrow $20, pay back $10 and declare you're even 'cause you both lost $10.

- Cowboy saying

Friday, December 16, 2011

Humor Break

More from Steven Wright.

Friday Nights

I discovered as a college student that the productivity of my Friday nights determined the productivity of the weekend.

Old habits die hard. I still find that if I fail to make progress on at least one important item on a Friday, then the weekend suffers. The flaws in that logic are easy to spot - I could adjust my time to compensate - but are there any similarly strange schedule rules that you follow?

Vora: The Quality Manifesto

Quality consultant Tanmay Vora's blog is always worth reading.

You can get Tanmay's "The Quality Manifesto"
free here.


They were not being stubborn or difficult with one another and yet they had meeting after meeting to iron things out and each time staggered off to marvel at how obtuse the other side was.

It was much later that they learned their goals were completely different.

Worst Case Scenario Thinking

Most of us who can create worst case scenarios have little difficulty doing so.

The house keys were not simply misplaced, they were lost. They were not simply lost, they were found by a burglar. And then the burglar got drunk and decided to sell them to a serial killer.

Given half the chance, our imagination becomes a runaway train rolling through a landscape of disasters.

A gentle reminder: What are the real odds of that worst fear coming true? Probably pretty small. Why worry as if it is a near certainty?

First Paragraph

Bystanders have no history of their own. They are on the stage but are not part of the action. They are not even audience. The fortunes of the play and of every actor in it depend on the audience whereas the reaction of the bystander has no effect except on himself. But standing in the wings - much like the fireman in the theater - the bystander sees things neither the actor nor audience notices. Above all, he sees differently from the way actors or audiences see. Bystanders reflect - and reflection is a prism rather than a mirror; it refracts.

- From Adventures of a Bystander by Peter F. Drucker

Christopher Hitchens, R.I.P.

Hitchens was a figure out of Shakespeare who wrote like an angel and was an independent thinker. He was gloriously wrong on some things but right on many and was always a pleasure to watch. He will be missed.


The project will demand creativity and a willingness to tackle new ideas. I'm not sending it to a committee or even a subcommittee and have to worry about the group dynamics. I know of one person who has the background and insight and who is uninhibited by old assumptions. He'll produce an excellent product - even if I disagree with parts of it - so it's going to him.

This is going to be neat.

Quote of the Day

You can get all A's and still flunk life.

- Walker Percy, The Second Coming

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Future Hit in the Middle East

Althouse has the trailer for "The Dictator."


Should have said something, done something, spoken up, told them I disagreed, challenged their arguments, raised the roof, complained, pounded the table, refused to leave until it was addressed, stopped being so damned agreeable, let them know that I knew what was happening, scoffed at their assumptions, stopped being deferential, and pressed the point.

And all in words of one syllable.

First Paragraph

When the rooster crowed, the moon had still not left the world but was going down on flushed cheek, one day short of the full. A long thin cloud crossed it slowly, drawing itself out like a name being called. The air changed, as if a mile or so away a wooden door had swung open, and a smell, more of warmth than wet, from a river at low stage, moved upward into the clay hills that stood in darkness.

- From Losing Battles by Eudora Welty

Short Comedy Break

With Steven Wright.

The Spark

It was not that they were pleased with the process that brought them to this point, which was one of uneven performance. They had not considered the process at all. Anyone who did so was a bit suspect and regarded as a wet-under-the-ears critic who would know better once experience had been acquired. They were correct in a way: individuals who subdued troubling questions and chose to fit in were often, after several years, devoid of any questions at all.

Of course, many talented newcomers quickly surveyed the landscape, then departed, figuring their time was better spent elsewhere. But the good news was there were some of the experienced hands who knew the flaws and were frustrated; all the while waiting for someone else to speak up.

One day, someone did. That was when things began to happen.

On the Ramparts

Back by popular demand: Howard Jacobson defending Christianity.

Quote of the Day

Incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession.

- Norman R. Augustine

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dakota Christmas

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.

You can now get Joseph Bottum's memorable article on Kindle.


Music Break

A man enjoying his work: Celibidache conducting the Romanian Rhapsody No. 1.


Sorry I missed this earlier from CNN Travel: 9 great places to be a recluse.

Break Out

Everything won't be in order. There will always be more items to prepare or study. You may sense that tomorrow would be a better time or perhaps even next month. That old companion Failure will be waving to you at the gate and promising to catch up. But if you are wise, you will keep moving and will shrug off the excuses that tug at your elbow. It will not be a short trip and every step will count. Expect delays, frustration, depression, and weariness. They are all part of the journey and those tales of a smooth path are myths. Watch the sky. Listen to the world and enjoy the small things. Savor your progress. This is your time.

Use it.

Not Fair

At Anderson Layman's Blog, some thoughts on fairness from P.J. O'Rourke.

Having spent a large portion of my life helping organizations prevent and address illegal discrimination, alarm bells go off when I hear cries for "fairness." It is far easier to determine whether there was discrimination - and that's hard enough - than to decide what's fair. "Unfair" often boils down to "something that doesn't benefit me."

Pulp Days

Widely circulated pulp fiction magazines such as Argosy once provided opportunities for new writers. We lost a lot when those magazines disappeared.

Quote of the Day

Culture is what we do when we do not consciously decide what to do.

- Russell L. Ackoff and Sheldon Rovin

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gift Suggestions

Cultural Offering has compiled a great and diverse list. Truly something for everybody.

Great Advertising Slogan Series

For a doctor's office:

"We don't weigh you in."

Knowing the Ropes: 27 Questions

A few things to learn quickly on any job:

  1. How can you make a positive difference?

  2. What will get you fired?

  3. Who are the key players?

  4. What are the alliances?

  5. What are the ongoing competitions?

  6. Where do you learn the most?

  7. Which ball must never be dropped?

  8. What is the jargon?

  9. What goes unpunished by management and yet is frowned on?

  10. Where is Siberia?

  11. Who are the stars?

  12. Why are they stars?

  13. Where is the fast track?

  14. What does it take to get promoted?

  15. Will a path to advancement have to be created?

  16. Which assignments are pluses?

  17. Which are minuses?

  18. What is the boss really like?

  19. What can you learn?

  20. What are the professional backgrounds of people?

  21. Are you in a hole or on a ladder?

  22. Which co-workers will drag you down?

  23. Who knows the most about certain subjects?

  24. What is the real organization chart?

  25. What is a reasonable pace?

  26. How long do people stay in your job?

  27. What are the priorities?

First Paragraph

In an ideal world, your job as a manager would include setting goals and acquiring the resources to achieve them. But you don't live in an ideal world, largely because there are people like you in it.

- From Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook by Scott Adams

George Costanza, Architect

Those of you who followed the Seinfeld sitcom will recall that hapless George Costanza liked to impress people by telling them that he was an architect. George liked the idea of being an architect. He liked the prestige.

He just didn't want to do the work to become an architect.

So it goes with many of us. We like the idea of being in a position but we don't want to dedicate the evenings and weekends that are necessary to achieve and maintain the position.

If seats in the United States Senate were always filled by appointment, there would be a very long line of applicants. When considering our dreams, it would be wise to ask, "Is this a real goal - one for which I am willing to work extremely hard - or is this a Costanza goal?"

Of Course It is Gray

Of course it is gray. That's why we hired you. If your job were only to make choices between black and white, we might as well use a computer program.

No, it is not clear. Your responsibility is to sense which rules are in stone and which can be ignored. It is to create and not simply follow precedent. It is to make command decisions when facts are missing and time is short; all the while knowing that a legion of second-guessers may stroll in later after a good dinner and question why you did one thing and not another.

That's why you were hired: to handle that gray stuff.

Can you do it?

Quote of the Day

Leadership cannot really be taught. It can only be learned.

- Harold Geneen

Monday, December 12, 2011

First Paragraph

Something dead strange has happened to Christmas. It's just not the same as it used to be when I was a kid. In fact I've never really got over the trauma of finding out that my parents had been lying to me annually about the existence of Santa Claus.

- From Adrian Mole: The Lost Years by Sue Townsend

Very Slowly

Take a job that would normally be stressful and rushed and slow it down. Approach each component with care and deliberation. Appreciate the skill of the moment. Take some joy in the doing and keep your mind from drifting to the next task.

When finished, you may discover that you did not spend much more time than usual; indeed, you may even find that you spent less and yet the pleasure was so much greater and the stress was gone.

Sometimes, our worst boss is ourselves.

30 Good Mood Films

If you were to pick some films to boost the spirit of someone who is down (or yourself), what would they be?

My own quick choices:

  1. Local Hero

  2. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

  3. The In-Laws (the version with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin)

  4. A Night at the Opera

  5. Strictly Ballroom

  6. Cinema Paradiso

  7. The Muse

  8. Moonstruck

  9. Radio Days

  10. Harvey

  11. Napoleon Dynamite

  12. Animal House

  13. A Shot in the Dark

  14. My Favorite Year

  15. A Day at the Races

  16. Bell, Book and Candle

  17. The Egg and I

  18. Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

  19. Groundhog Day

  20. Sideways

  21. Galaxy Quest

  22. O Brother, Where Art Thou?

  23. Other People's Money

  24. The General

  25. The Freshman

  26. The Secret of Santa Vittoria

  27. Play It Again, Sam

  28. The Full Monty

  29. Bowfinger

  30. Arsenic and Old Lace