28 February 2007

Finding Our Way

Yesterday, I learned what might be the secret to finding one's way in life.

My wife and I were at UC San Diego. We arrived early for our play and I wanted to scamper over to the university bookstore to see what special treasures they might have. This seems like a simple task save for one thing: we San Diegans, apparently struck with guilt about how easy our lives are in this land with the climate of an indoor shopping mall, have a propensity to construct convoluted paths. Horton Plaza, the downtown shopping mall, is constructed so that one can actually see a store across the way but not know how to get there sans the cable and pulley systems that someone like James Bond might carry in his wallet. UC San Diego is similar - a beautiful, big campus that seemingly opts for meandering sidewalks and foot paths wherever it can.

We knew the general direction we wanted to head but we quickly found ourselves in a dead end of sorts. I asked a student, "How do I get to the bookstore?" In a delightfully helpful manner that reminded me of why I love living among humans, she walked us a short distance, trying to describe how one might navigate the convoluted, un-named paths that eventually led to the book store. After a few attempts to describe a route that defied description, she finally turned to me and offered this simple advice.

"Just head in this direction," she said, pointing, "and ask people along the way."

I had to laugh. How perfect was that advice? And how broadly applicable.

None of us can make it on our own. Find your general direction – and then ask for help along the way. As it turned out, I didn't even have to find the bookstore to get my daily dose of wisdom.

27 February 2007

Will the Internet Kill the Newspaper?

Newspapers are losing sales because they have missed a very important shift. Once upon a time, communities shared a worldview and the newspaper reported on commuinty events. The events were the important thing – the story mattered most. Today, we have a fragmentation of worldviews within every geographical community. Within an area like San Diego we have Low Riders and Bio-tech executives, Beatniks and Rednecks, Lawyers and Retail Store Clerks. They may all live in the same "community" but they all have their own worldview. These shared worldviews shape interests more than shared events. The Internet has allowed the emergence of a geography of ideology, a clustering of worldviews. This is proving more attractive to readers than the old geographical clustering of stories and events.

Frontline is airing a report beginning tonight about the news wars – the threat to local newspapers. The problem, according to Lowell Bergman, is that most of the actual reporting is done by local newspapers and the business model that subsidized their investigations is eroding.

Newspapers have been predicated on the notion that there is a truth that can be reported. A problem like illegal immigration, the occupation of Iraq, or climate change is a story to the local newspaper.

For bloggers, by contrast, these kinds of topics are not stories but worldviews. For the blogosphere, a worldview is a shared set of values, a way of making sense of the world. The difference between a story and a worldview is, in my mind, the difference between the old media and the new. Climate change is not a story - it is a way of judging stories.

The technology of the web has allowed a bigger truth to emerge: without a context or worldview, stories are fairly inert, boring, and of little relevance. Shared context is what now forms audiences and market segments - not shared geography. The Internet is a better tool for this than the newspaper.

Newspapers assume that stories matter most. The blogosphere assumes that worldviews matter most.

If you are convinced that the Industrial Revolution is now threatening your habitat, you don't look at climate change as a story. For you it is an important part of your worldview - a paradigm through which you make sense of everything from corporate malfeasance to political corruption to worsening health, the increases in levels of asthma and cancer.

If you are convinced that Western Civilization is being attacked from without and within, you don't see stories of Hollywood's depiction of casual sex or the influx of illegal immigrants or the existence of terrorist training camps as mere stories. These events inform your worldview and determine what kinds of policies, politicians, and initiatives are needed. For those with strong ideologies, the reporting on a story – what is ignored or “blown out of proportion” – is the story.

Such worldviews immediately suggest a political activism in response to events - not nuanced and balanced news accounts. That a news outlet would remain neutral about an invasion of illegal immigrants into our neighborhoods or American troops into the Middle East is something that offends rather than comforts readers of different worldviews. They don’t want calm reporting – they want their outrage validated and echoed in their news sources. Broadcasters like Keith Olbermann and Jon Stewart get this – newspapers, for the most part, still don’t and because of this they are steadily losing readers.

The world of objective news is simply passe. it is being replaced by news with an objective. There is too much information for us to collect even more stories and statistics that are not going to be translated into action. Information that fails to stimulate a change in actions is entertainment and if we want entertainment we can turn to Steven Colbert or Rush Limbaugh.

Now That's Random

2007 had proven to be transformative for Raymond. And all because of one simple thing: he'd set his outlook calendar to random. Going to church Tuesday afternoon at 3 or to the weekly new business meeting Saturday at 2 AM had indeed changed his life.

26 February 2007

Darwin & The Incalculable Productivity of Creativity

I was in some meetings with two heads of a health care company’s new business division who are obese. From what I could glean, they didn’t take the time for exercise largely because they worked so many hours. They’ve compromised their own health as they are busily pursuing business solutions to health problems.

The boundary between work and home has disappeared along with the wires we once needed for phones and computers. Work hours are steadily creeping upwards.

For me, the worst thing about this is that it overlooks what research into the mysteries of the mind has repeatedly proven: gestation is a necessary component in creativity. When people are continually rushed to translate problems and information into solutions, the solutions they arrive at are almost invariably clich├ęd, predictable, and of little value. Research indicates that people need time after immersion in a problem to let it gestate before expecting a breakthrough.

My work with dozens and dozens of organizations has convinced me of this: there is no shortage that creativity cannot overcome. Whether the organization is short of customers, cash, or talented employees, the shortage can be overcome by creativity. Creativity, however, has trouble overcoming a shortage of time. And as organizations become less creative, they feel compelled to work longer hours, which further reduces the level of creativity.

Lest you think this hypothetical, you may be interested to know that Darwin worked only two to four hours a day. Last I heard, his insights had led to research and products worth hundreds of billions - perhaps trillions of dollars by now. You can't calculate the productivity of creativity any more than you can calculate the number of apples in an apple seed.

25 February 2007

Chapter 29 - in which democrats jump into a time machine and the president is revealed to be a dada artist

Joe Biden and Carl Levin have proposed a bill to rescind Bush’s 2002 right to invade Iraq. One can only hope that they next plan to rescind the 2001 NASDAQ market crash.

This may be what separates politicians from mere mortals. We have to decide what we're going to do before hand. They can wait until later, deciding in 2007 to apologize for slavery, attending Holocaust museums while ignoring on-going genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, and deciding in 2007 that they ought not to have invaded Iraq.

Meanwhile, Dick Cheney (who is, rather explicably, never called “Richard") is making noise about military action against Iran. One might think that locking Dick into an undisclosed location would be a higher priority than passing a bill that depends upon the invention of a time machine in order to be relevant.

The point of challenging the Bush administration on the Iraq invasion should be to provoke the articulation of a new worldview in DC – one that actually seems connected to the realities of the Middle East. It might be worth noting that everything that Bush predicted has proven wrong - and not just slightly wrong. It is as if he was asked to name a tune and blurted out the name of a china pattern.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream; I have a fantasy. It is that one day we all learn that the Bush administration has actually been a staged production put on by a collaboration between a media eager for ratings and dada artists who needed money. We'll learn that this entire episode made absolutely no sense for the simple reason that it was intended not to make any sense. At this point, it is the only thing that makes any sense.

24 February 2007

The Futility of Grades and Performance Reviews

Once or twice a year, supervisors all over the world sit down and solve for X in the following equation:
Y * X = 47

X = the employee performance.
Y = the system they perform within.
47 (or whatever value) = what the employee was able to create within that system.

There are so many things that are wrong with this equation, literally.

For one, the value of 47 is itself subject to massive amount of measurement error. The performance of an individual in a system typically results in indeterminate and hard to measure outcomes.

If Y is the value of the "system" in which the individual performs, this system is constantly changing. Even if the company is static, its environment, its markets, its technology are all changing. Y is a dynamic variable, not a static value.

Nonetheless, supervisors around the world are sitting down right now to solve for X. The scariest thing? Most will actually think that they've found "the" value of X and will never realize that as long as they attribute complementary values to Y, they can justify any value of X that they want.

[And yes, alert readers, this is basically a recap of an argument that Deming repeatedly made onto deaf ears. Apparently, the millions of administrators demanding grades and managers giving performance reviews all understand systems, and variability more than the departed Dr. Deming. Either that or they just don't get it and feel compelled to continue with a system of grading and ranking only slightly less archaic than sinking women in water to determine whether or not they are witches.]

23 February 2007

The Bay Area and the Reinvention of Self

I'm on business travel this week, here in Silicon Valley with a client. I grew up close to the Bay Area and lived in Santa Cruz for awhile. I met my wife (a Canadian on vacation at the time) in Los Gatos and our first date consisted of me trying to find the waterfront in San Francisco (to this day I remain directionally challenged).

In my mind, there is a relationship between the beginnings of the free speech movement at Berkeley and the hippies in Haight Ashbury during the 1960s and the Esalen Institute and EST seminars through the 1970s and 1980s and the tech boom here in Silicon Valley in the 1990s.

I don't know if there is another place on the planet where people are so full of possibility - whether it be the possibility of reinventing themselves by a change in thinking ("excuse me while I slip into a more comfortable paradigm") or body ("I'm feeling bored, Barbara. I think I'll ran an ultramarathon this weekend out to Yosemite."), or starting a business with which they expect to change the world and become rich.

Of course, what else would one expect from a state that was largely defined by a Doctor Marsh in LA who was not actually a doctor and a Captain Sutter in Sacramento who was not actually a Captain? Americans who reach the end of the continent have no where left to go but where their imaginations will take them. California is the land of invention - technological, social, and personal.

Presidential Minorities

The front runners for the 2008 presidential campaign are, in no particular order, female, retirement age (72), black, thrice-married, and Mormon.

This just might be extraordinary. It might also represent a turning point. Look around your office to see whether the general work force doesn't have this kind of diversity. Might it be that the presidency has finally become like any other job? A job that can be done by any type of person? Well, any person able to raise half a billion in campaign contributions.

22 February 2007

Headlines You're Unlikely to See

Tony Blair desperate to Withdraw Troops from Iraq before Prince Harry Arrives

This and other newspapers manufacture a kerfuffle between Obama and Clinton in desperate attempt to spur sales.

Like a one-legged woman in a dancing contest

21 February 2007

Will the Nation-State Be Obsolete by 2100?

I wonder if the nation-state hasn't outlived its usefulness.

City-states had largely disappeared by the time of the Enlightenment. By the time that Germany and Italy became nation-states in the late 19th century, most of the West had coagulated into nation-state form. A nation-state had more military power than a city-state and by eradicating trade barriers within the country, nation-states stimulated trade and prosperity. Conditions of the 18th and 19th centuries seemed to make the city-state obsolete; perhaps the conditions of the 21st century will make the nation-state obsolete.

In today's world, the nation-state seems increasingly ineffectual at dealing with real problems. It isn't particularly suited to the major issues of the present. Pandemics, terrorism, financial crisis, immigration, trade, economic prosperity and, of course, global climate change are all issues that thumb their noses at national boundaries. Already in Europe, nation-states are gradually giving more power over to the EU. I suspect that this is a trend (that will, as all such trends, suffer reversals).

It is difficult to think of what nation-states are still uniquely suited to do; they still seem to have a monopoly on starting truly horrific wars. We now have about 200 nations on this little planet. It's not obvious that we can afford for even 10 or 20 percent of them to be strutting around with nuclear-equipped armies. It might make sense to emasculate the nation-state before this creation of ours destroys us.

“If you said, ‘Let’s design a problem that human institutions can’t deal with,’ you couldn’t find one better than global warming.”
- Henry Jacoby, MIT School of Management

20 February 2007

Why I May Register Republican

I may register Republican for the California primaries.

This may give regular readers pause. I am what Europeans would call a conservative and what Rush Limbaugh would call a communist. I consider myself a capitalist who is wary of big business, a fan of democracy who is distrustful of big government, and a Christian who is skeptical of churches. Like most Americans, I have more faith in markets, democracy, and God than the institutions that claim to represent them.

What has most defined my politics since 9-11 is a growing revulsion towards the Bush-led (or is that bush league) Republicans. Bush's attacks on rights in the name of national security seem to me criminal and worthy of impeachment. I still can't decide whether Bush's war on terror is evidence of conspiracy or stupidity and have finally decided that there is no reason that it can't be both. I'm more than slightly annoyed at the fiscal recklessness of this administration, its wild disregard for the science of global warming, and its seemingly odd inability, or unwillingness to separate religious conviction from public policy. I am most appalled at how every Republican of any significance has aided and abetted Bush. So why would I even think about registering Republican?

Because at this point I really don't care a great deal about the differences between Obama and Dodd, Clinton and Kucinich, Edwards and Biden. I do, on the other hand, care a great deal about the differences between a Chuck Hagel who has been brave enough to speak out against the troop surge and a Newt Gingrich who seems to be hoping for World War 3. Such men represent for me very different futures.

The country can only benefit whem the Democrats have reasonable opposition.

This country didn't make its way by adopting a political machine capable of steering only right or left. Sure, the capitalists won the Civil War and the robber barons gained control over most state legislatures in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But those robber barons helped to build this nation by creating the modern corporation and developing our financial markets. Also, they were checked by brave politicians like those Roosevelts and by labor unions and a progressive movement able to rein in some of their worst excesses. This country lurched left and right at various times but has managed, so far, to stay out of the ditch.

Forward movement is not maintained by moving right or left. The ability to turn right or left simply keeps one from driving into the ditch. Unless we can take control of the Republican Party away from the nut jobs, we're going to lose a very valuable asset in this country - the ability to steer right as needed.

The Republican Party is broken. The only reason I may defer registering Republican for now is that as important as it is to repair this broken half of our political system, it is more important to first begin repairing the country.

18 February 2007

Introducing the book - early tech support

Purpose (or, The Road Home)

Purpose is about discovering you and then getting there.

Imagine that you're headed to meet a friend for coffee. En route, you hit a roadblock. The authorities have closed the freeway because of a spill. At that point, you might just call your friend and cancel or reschedule for another time.

Imagine, by contrast, that you encountered this road block on the way home. Likely, you'd look for an alternative route and, even though it took longer than you'd planned; you persevere until you arrived home. It is harder to dissuade us from going home.

Following this analogy, some people find home by following the green lights. This is a strategy that might result in making good time. It is less obviously a strategy that will get you home. In fact, you can try it some day. Some day when you are away from home, drive back. If the green light is an arrow, turn left. If you encounter a green light, go straight. No green light? Turn right. Just keep this up for as long as you had expected to take to get home and see where you get to.

A purpose should feel less like a coffee date, vacation, or trip to work than a trip home. You can be sure to encounter obstacles. At that point, you can give up and start sleeping in the Laundromat, never quite feeling settled or content. Or you can convince yourself that the green lights brought you to exactly the place you should be. Or you can persevere.

17 February 2007

American President - The Game Show

I have a fantasy about a game show for political nerds.

Matthew Mosk predicts that the 2008 presidential campaign will be our first $1 billion political campaign. Personally, I don't think that is such a great deal to spend to decide on the leader of a country with a $12 trillion economy. That is about a tenth of what we spend each year on Halloween candy. But it does raise an important question - if we're going to spend a billion on the media of politics, is this the best way to spend it? Might there be a better way to simultaneously educate voters, raise important issues, and help us to choose the best candidate?

I'd propose instead that we have a game show, something like a cross between Jeopardy and American Idol. Start with lots and lots of people and run them through a series of contests, challenges, and experiences.

The candidate hopefuls would be given tests. Some of the tests would reveal knowledge of the constitution and legal arguments, some an understanding of economics and foreign policy, both theory and current events. Some of the tests would involve simulations - measuring real time reactions to terrorist attacks or financial crisis or managing a deficit.

Other tests would fall into the category of charisma. Candidates would be put before a variety of groups, from small business people to idealistic teenagers, from tree-hugging feminists to flag-waving rednecks. They'd debate one another, handle questions from the audience, and deliver speeches that lasted 2 to 20 minutes.

Perhaps the most interesting segments would involve hidden camera meetings with lobbyists or congress people from the other party. Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and Big Oil and everyone else would meet with our candidates and make their case for support. Republican or Democratic Senators would have to be won over to support the candidate's legislation. We could measure, among other things, how well a candidate responded to the pleas of these constituents or the threats of opposing parties.

The entire process would be transparent. Each round, candidates would be ousted from the process, resulting in a smaller and smaller group. At its conclusion, this process might even result in our getting a candidate who hits on all cylinders - charismatic, attractive, energetic, smart, and gifted with both people and policy smarts.

Once this process had concluded, the candidate would be put onto the ballot of every state. When voters stepped into the booth in November of 2008, along with the choices from the Libertarian, Green, Democratic and Republican Parties would be this new candidate - the viewer's choice. The beauty of this is that it would only be taken as seriously as it is taken. That is, the winner of the game show would only end up on ballots - voters could then decide whether that candidate were a better choice than Ron Paul or Jeb Bush or whoever else the parties had chosen as their representatives.

It's easy to conclude that such a show would commercialize politics, but I doubt it. Political campaigns are already shows - just shows that are too scripted to reveal much.

I, for one, would love to see a candidate think on his or her feet - facing a simulated catastrophe or situation. It would even be fascinating to see who they used for their "life line," what adviser they turned to help craft a solution to the problem of a coup in Mexico or a collapse of the US dollar. I think that a contest that tested candidates on something other than their ability to deliver rehearsed phrases could only be healthy.

In this great country of 300 million people, I refuse to believe that we could not have found better candidates than George Bush and John Kerry. It is time to consider a new process. As Buckminster Fuller said, "Use forces, don't fight them." The American people are fascinated by contests, personalities, and TV. Why not harness this force?
***************
After getting this little idea, I decided that it was unlikely that such an idea hadn't been previously been expressed. It turns out that it has been - at least once. Alan Abbott expressed this idea back in May of 2006. Innovation is dead - google repeatedly proves that there is nothing new under the sun.

16 February 2007

The Canadian Invasion

Right now, American troops are stretched thin. Many are in their third rotation in Iraq. Now, Bush is saber rattling again, suggesting an attack on Iran. Iraq’s population is about 25 million; Iran’s population is about 70 million. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in math to conclude that after attacking Iran, American troops will be stretched thinner than Yul Brenner’s hair.

It is at that moment that our northern neighbors are likely to attack. Sure, Canadians are polite. Or at least they appear that way. They patiently waited about 200 years for independence from Britain, a bloodless event handled with such deference that they left the queen's portrait on their money. Was that polite? Sure, but it was also crafty.

One can only speculate about how long they’ve been waiting for this opportunity to invade. It is well known that Canadians envy our balmy weather and broad freeways. They've been scouting our assets for decades, coming south in motor homes and in tour buses. Once our troops are committed to multiple countries in the Middle East, our own borders will be left vulnerable. It is at that moment that their troops will roll across our border unopposed.

I admit that I have no data to support this accusation, but reliance on data is so quaint. I do have a gut feeling. Those polite Canadians: sitting peacefully on our northern border for hundreds of years only to lull us into a sense of false security. How devious. How shameless. How brilliant.

15 February 2007

Warrior Worship

It is beginning to feel like we're building a culture of warrior worship. Today our politicians and media trip over themselves to laud our brave troops. Perhaps this is heartfelt. Perhaps it is done because of the guilt for treating Vietnam Veterans so poorly. Or maybe it is done out of fear of political reprisal. In any case, it seems to me excessive, dangerous, and even unfair to those troops.

It is true that civilization would collapse were it not for people willing to risk their lives to protect us from fires, criminals, and enemy soldiers. Sam Harris points out that a single psychopath with a knife could theoretically wipe out an entire town of pacifists. It is likely that Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo would have conquered and then divided the world were it not for the resistance of brave soldiers. Tyrants are not checked by their own conscience: they are checked by the courage of others.

But it is worth remembering that the reason that soldiers had to bravely protect our way of life is because soldiers attacked it. Decades after World War 2, we can see that Germans, Japanese, and Italians turn out to be not so very different from Americans and British and Canadians. Architects from any country design buildings and soldiers from any country follow orders to attack. The great thing about soldiers is also the awful thing about soldiers - they are willing to destroy lives and towns in order to accomplish their mission.

We took a relative to dinner about two years ago. He was my cousin's nephew, a Marine serving in Iraq. He'd been injured in the attack on Fallujah and was getting treated at the Navy Hospital here in San Diego for a grenade wound. One of the things that he shared was a tale of how they drove through Iraqi cities in their armored vehicles. They would drive down the middle of the road and Iraqis were expected to get out of the way. If a vehicle followed too closely or didn't move - and ignored their gestures to move aside - they would "light it up" with machine gun fire. He seemed to me, at the time, just a kid too obviously excited with power to understand or appreciate either the moral issues or public relations consequences of this policy. (It is easy to speculate that such a policy would save American lives in the short term and cost them longer term as more Iraqis began to sympathize with insurgents fighting to rid the country of American troops.)

I say this not to paint the kid or his commanding officer as evil. I suppose that after I'd seen fellow soldiers killed by vehicle attacks I, too, would be eager to stay safe. If you are going to risk an innocent life, would you rather it were the life of your men or the life of a stranger? I mention this just to remind you that soldiers with guns are not an obviously or always good thing.

We could vilify soldiers and not have them when we need them. We could deify soldiers and not question their willingness to kill. Either is dangerous.

It seems to me that the only sustainable view of soldiers is one of ambivalence. These are real people who have volunteered for the job. Soldiers throughout history risk their lives; for this they deserve to be considered guardian angels. Soldiers have also been willing to kill and destroy; for this they deserve to be considered brute animals. They can, in the same act, protect one way of life and destroy another. But even to confess ambivalence about soldiers is to be a social pariah, it seems. I can imagine no mainstream politician or media outlet admitting to such ambivalence, admitting to a feeling of wariness towards a group willing to kill in order to do their job. And none of them seem willing to entertain the notion that the soldiers themselves, foreigners wandering around with guns, might themselves be the problem.

Until we can honestly express ambivalence, it seems to me that we can’t even begin to talk intelligently about how a military force could be used (if used at all) in the battle against the ideology of extremism.

And this is perhaps why soldiers most deserve our empathy: they are willing to sacrifice a life and willing to take it – simultaneously exhibiting a principled bravery and an animal instinct that the rest of us can’t even begin to comprehend. Pretending that they are only saint is to ignore that they are actually human. And perhaps by pretending that they are not like the rest of us it is easier to send them away from home and family on poorly-defined missions for far too long. A feeling of ambivalence is, it seems to me, the only way to be fair towards the very real human beings who we ask to simultaneously serve as angels and animals, forcing them to risk losing touch with their own humanity so that we can enjoy the comforts of civilization that makes us so human.

Finally, there is one last reason to call for ambivalence in place of worship. A society that worships warriors is dangerous.

14 February 2007

A Secret Message in Chocolate

Valentine's is the biggest sales day of the year for chocolate. I'm standing with my wife at a register when I see Godiva chocolates for sale. Suddenly it occurs to me one reason why women might feel the allure of chocolate: the subliminal message of Godiva? Go diva. So much more sophisticated than "Yugo girl."

The Right to Mock and Inquisition 2.0

Melissa McEwan and Amanda Marcotte recently resigned from the Edwards Campaign.

The story? Both had written things critical of the Catholic Church in their private blogs. Disparaging perhaps even disgusting. The backlash against them and the Edwards campaign was so vitriolic that they chose to resign. This seems to me a setback in the march of progress.

When JFK ran for president, his religion was an issue. The United States was previously an English colony. It was assumed that we simply would not subordinate beliefs, commerce, or politics to the men in Rome. For decades, centuries probably, the average American could shake his head in amazement at the thought of a pope claiming to be infallible. This country was founded on contentious argument and the silly notion that even the atheist, debt-ridden farmer had an opinion worth hearing. As George Carlin quipped, "I have as much authority as the pope, I just don’t have as many people who believe it." Only when Kennedy made it clear that he wouldn't be taking any advice from the pope but would, instead, try to follow the lead of the American people did he win the vote.

Now, today, we have Catholics like Bill O'Reilly who claim to be cultural warriors. What they are really fighting for is the imposition of their religion onto the rest of the citizenry. One reason that these cultural conservatives so violently attacked the two irreverent bloggers is because the success of their campaign rests on getting people to show a reverence towards authorities that have no authority over the American people. What did Peter say to the beggar who fell before him bowing? "Get up. We are men like you." Obviously we engage in odd forms of worship in this country, but it is generally self imposed by giggly teenage girls watching music videos or awed middle-age men watching ESPN.

One of the biggest differences between the West and the Middle East is the ease with which we can mock religious leaders - indeed, the ease with which we can mock leaders of any stripe, whether they are priests, politicians, or Boy Scout troop leaders. We laugh at people like Jon Stewart without realizing that this power to mock is, in many ways, the foundation of the modern world. Yet the option of mocking is showing reverence for even absurd notions; it seems hard to imagine a better way to stifle free thought than to squelch the childish impulse to poke fun. (Think how different Italy's development would have been if Galileo could have mocked the Church instead of submitting to its house arrest. Italy was far ahead of England before this terrible event that effectively shut down science in the Mediterranean. But Galileo showed respect for the church about the time that Henry VIII thumbed his nose at the pope and formed his own church. The result? Italy hosted the Renaissance and Galileo and England hosted the Enlightenment and Isaac Newton - and the Industrial Revolution.)

I don't want to live in a country unable to mock men who dress in fashion that dates from the Roman Empire or the people who take seriously their pronouncements. And yet, it would seem, certain people do lack the freedom to exercise the right to mock without harassment that borders on the criminal. We are effectively saying that only people who have no serious influence on politics can mock and everyone else must show reverence to authorities with no authority. That, it seems, is a serious setback.

13 February 2007

Why the Troop Escalation Will Just Escalate

Any justification for our troops fighting in Iraq is predicated on the odd notion that we can change people's minds by dropping bombs on them, knocking down their doors, or using force to intimidate them.

If indeed the battle in Iraq is a battle against an ideology, the futility of weaponry should seem obvious. The USSR did not fold nor did China begin adopting capitalism because of bombs we dropped or because of our occupying troops. (And if the battle in Iraq is a civil war, it's not obvious how adding a third fighting force, much less better equipping and training the two opposing sides, is going to stabilize the country.)

Because of this, sending more troops into Iraq will only succeed in necessitating more troops. Why? Because we can only use force to coerce behavior - not change minds. Once - and if - the troops stabilize things, we'll be stuck. Like a guy holding up a house of cards, we won't be able to leave because the soft conditions haven't been put in place to make peace within Iraq self-sustaining. We know how to put boots on the ground. We don't know how to build nations.

George Bush is moving ahead with an escalation of troops. The very fact that he supports this move should be evidence enough that the plan does not work. In spite of a series of spectacular miscalculations, he has yet to change his fundamental assumptions or predictions. But it is worse. He has yet to explain why things have not yet worked out, suggesting that he has yet to learn why his predictions have failed thus far. Until he can do that, it isn't the least clear that anyone should believe his bellicose insistence that he's pursuing peace.

From Salon
"He's tried this two times -- it's failed twice," Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said on Jan. 24 about the "surge" tactic. "I asked him at the White House, 'Mr. President, why do you think this time it's going to work?' And he said, 'Because I told them it had to.'" She repeated his words: "'I told them that they had to.' That was the end of it. That's the way it is."

We have a choice right now. We can commit to keeping forces in Iraq until a generational shift occurs. And that is a risky proposition because it could just as easily lead to a new generation of hardened terrorists as a peaceful and prosperous nation. On the other hand, we could leave, letting the chaos continue until a national dictator emerges or until Iraq devolves into regional states. As bleak as that latter option may seem, such a scenario is inevitable should we pull out in less than 20 years. The surge might help for a time, but once we begin to pull down troops again, unresolved sectarian tensions will cause another spike in killings and instability. What needs to be resolved needs to be resolved politically - military solutions are, at best, a stop-gap measure.

We do not have pleasant options in Iraq. Democrats do not want to admit how much chaos will ensue if we pull out. Republicans make no mention of how much we're spending in lives and dollars for at best a questionable - at worse a worsening - impact on stability in the Middle East and peace for Americans. No one can confidently predict what will happen if we stay or go. Yet in the midst of this uncertainty there is one certainty: staying will cost more than what we spend on any portion of the federal budget save defense and social security. It's a huge investment with the promise of little return for Americans. It is hard to conceive of scenarios in which the returns will justify this investment of money, to say nothing of the investment in lives.

It is not that our military will not do their job. They repeatedly have. The problem is that two military solutions do not equal a political solution. A successful invasion followed by a successful occupation still leaves us with a country that has yet to arrive at a political stability.

It is possible that we can have a greater influence over the minds of Iraqis from afar than from near. It is doubtful that we can change their minds by pointing guns at them; history suggests that we have a better chance of creating such change by pointing communication satellites at them, satellites broadcasting news, culture, and reason that actually do change minds. (Doubtful about that claim? Look at the former USSR and China.) That can be done for much less than a trillion dollars.

Valentine's Day - Laughing at Love

It’s February, the month designed to make one acutely aware of romantic deficiencies in the same way that December is designed to make one aware of financial lack. Tomorrow is Valentine's Day. Predicated as it is on the oddly amusing notion that romantic love can be scheduled, like an oil change, its popularity is remarkable. But, to paraphrase the comedienne Cathy Ladman, “Love is difficult. Love is like a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle - all sky.” Love needs all the help it can get.

Just as Christmas can create an overhang of financial regret, so, too, can Valentine’s Day create an overhang of personal regret for those succumbing to the social pressure to mark this occasion out of a sense of obligation, a similar flurry of unwrapping, ill-disguised disappointment, and months of paying for a gift given and quickly regretted. A cynic might say that we rush into relationships as a way to distract ourselves from the fact that we're always alone with our thoughts. I might be that cynic.

But how many presents would actually be given if not for Christmas and birthdays? What if it does take a sense of social panic to prompt us to express what we ought to spontaneously and rather compulsively express without prompting? Perhaps the key is to take love more seriously than you take yourself - or even your lover. In that spirit, here is some delightful humor, excerpted from Joke Soup, with love from R World.

ABC News says Americans spend $300 billion every year on games of chance, and that doesn’t include weddings and elections.
- Argus Hamilton

My wife insists on turning off the lights when we make love. That doesn’t bother me. It’s the hiding that seems so cruel.
- Jonathan Katz

Dating in your twenties is like getting a science project. “What did you get? I got an alcoholic; I’m going to change him!”
- Carline Rhea

I’ve been on so many blind dates I should get a free dog.
- Wendy Liebman

Breaking up. It happens kind of suddenly. One minute you’re holding hands walking down the street – and the next minute you’re lying on the floor crying and all the good CDs are missing.
- Kennedy Kasares

I’m still going on bad dates, when by now I should be in a bad marriage.
- Laura Kightlinger

Men date thin girls because they’re too weak to argue and salads are cheap.
- Jennifer Fairbanks

I’m dating a guy who’s twenty-one. That’s seven in boy years.
- Lisa Goich

Remember, we’re all in this alone.
- Lily Tomlin

12 February 2007

Are Republicans Less Friendly or Just Less Friended?

Odd bit of data: the top five Democratic Party contenders for the presidency have 12X as many "friends" on MySpace as do the top five Republican Party contenders. (If Hillary hadn't temporarily lost her site, the ratio would be closer to 15X.)

Are Republicans just not as friendly or simply less likely to use MySpace? Maybe the statistics would be reversed if the question were about bowling team or quilting bee membership; this may just be a matter of preferred technology. In any case, it seems like the Republicans may want to stall on the adoption of a virtual democracy.

How Blogs and YouTube Will Transform the 2008 Campaign

We're going to see the most fascinating video during this presidential campaign. It could be a video of a candidate awkwardly dancing at teen prom, shoplifting at a convenience store, or calling someone a racial slur (Macca comes to mind). The point is, in this age of YouTube the flaws of candidates are no longer abstractions. Video changes the facts. It is one thing to know that someone crapped in the woods and quite another to actually see video footage of it. As a fact it is a footnote of little importance - as a video this fact becomes disgusting.

The Republicans who hated the hair dresser's son understood this. It was not enough to accuse Clinton of having sex with an intern; the Star report released details vivid enough to script a video in the apparent hope that this government sanctioned porn might turn the public against him. As it turned out, the public became weary of this and the detailed description that might have initially seemed so damning eventually became irrelevant to most Americans who became frustrated with the Republicans' obsession with Bill's libido and wanted to move on.

In the Clinton scandal we may see a ray of hope. I remember asking my (then) ten year-old daughter if she thought that Clinton was a role model at the height of the Lewinsky scandal. She wrinkled her nose and said, "No." I told her that he might just be a role model in this regard: in spite of some obvious flaws he was trying to move the world in what he thought was a positive direction. In general, the American people seemed to agree. Clinton left office with a 65% approval rating - a point higher than Ronald Reagan and more than double Bush's current approval rating. Ultimately, the American people judged the man's perceived policy and performance rather than his flaws.

Some candidacies have been destroyed by a single revelation. Gary Hart's romantic indiscretion and Wilbur Mills’ affection for the stripper Fanne Foxe are among the more colorful incidents of self destruction.

But in this age of YouTube and blogs, it is hard to imagine any flaws remaining hidden for the duration of a two-year campaign. What seems probable is that we'll have dirt on all the candidates by the time we're supposed to vote. And at that point, it'll be difficult to choose between the guy who helped to finance the razing of a section of rain forest and the guy who cussed out a poor, immigrant bell hop and the gal whose phone sex session was captured on tape. Because we'll have documents on all of this. And as John Edwards’s recent problem with the two bloggers who had the nerve to insult the Catholic Church has proven, even the indiscretions of campaign staff can wound a candidate.

What will happen when everyone is, so to speak, sitting in the sauna sans robe or towel? I think it could be wonderfully liberating. Suddenly forced to confront the fact that even Super Models have flaws they rely on photographers and photo editors to gloss over, voters will have to give up on their odd notion of finding a flawless candidate.

Rumors of Lincoln's bouts of depression and Jefferson's half-black child would have been enough to scuttle their campaigns in this modern era. We wonder why our leaders today don't have the stature of leaders past. Perhaps we've dismissed them on criteria that history has proven to be largely irrelevant to the task of leading a great nation.

If the Internet forces us to confront the fact that we have only flawed candidates from which to choose, perhaps it'll get us to focus more on evaluating policy and purpose. And this could be the best thing to happen to politics since they gave women the right to vote. After all, these aren't saviors we're trying to elect - just politicians.

Post Script: and as if on cue, Giuliani has announced his candidacy and Youtube has provided just such a video. (With commentary about it by one of my favorite Americans here.)

Women Will Soon Take Over - And That's Cool

In May, the French may wake up with their first woman president. The Germans already have a woman chancellor and the British and Canadians have already had female prime ministers. The question is not whether we'll eventually have a woman president here in the U.S. The question is when.

In the U.S., women are already getting more than half of the college degrees. (It's worth remembering that Yale, the university that educated young Kerry and Bush, did not allow women until 1969.) For the first time in history we have a female speaker of the House.

I have four nieces and one daughter; I also have three nephews and one son. Based on observing them, my own prediction about the moment when a woman does win the presidency? Some guy returning from the cafeteria will stop by his friends’ dorm room to announce, "Dudes. We have a woman president!" Without looking up from their video game, the "dudes," will merely say, "Cool!"

We men may eventually be relegated to the rule and conquest of virtual worlds, finding ourselves fully plugged into a virtual world, a self-imposed Matrix-like existence, with one chief difference. When someone stops by to say, "But this is just a video game. Your life isn't real!" our only response will be "Cool."

09 February 2007

Now is the Time to Confess

Now that Anna Nicole's demise is dominating the news, it is time for presidential candidates to announce any past indiscretions.

If Obama engaged in a serial killing spree during college, for instance, now is the time for him to confess.

If Biden has been funneling billions from the Senate sub-committee on appropriations to buy lottery tickets, now is the time for him to come clean.

If Mitt Romney spent a wild night of passion with the entire Romanian figure skating team during the 2002 Olympics, now is the time for his campaign manager to casually mention it.

Whatever it is they have to confess, it’ll go un-noticed. Anna Nicole Smith is dead.

Pay attention. This may be the most revealing weekend of the entire campaign.

08 February 2007

13 books that changed my teenaged life

This meme is from A Shrewdness of Apes. It was a fascinating exercise in remembering books that I so loved and was amazed by when I was between the ages of 12 and 20. I grew up without a TV and read voraciously, so this was fun.

13 books that changed my teenage life (in what my hazy memory suggests may be chronological order):

1. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. These were the teen years, right? So it included the early teens when I raced through these great, plot-driven stories. I still think that Burroughs’ cliff hanging chapters were some of the most exciting I’ve read and I refuse to return to them to learn that his books were, in fact, not so great.

2. Various by Louis L’Amour. All forgettable, all gone through like a bag of potato chips on 4th of July weekend. For a few hours, I felt like the good guy.

3. Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I was so amazed that someone could so easily manipulate the craft of fiction writing and reach directly into a reader’s mind. Between about 15 and 18, Vonnegut was my hero.

4. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Now that I’m a business consultant, I realize that this is not just hilarious – it is the best book on organizational behavior I’ve yet read. A critic once told Heller, “You haven’t written anything as good since.” He quipped, “No one has.” He was right.

5. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Reading this made me feel oddly exhilarated, like I’d just been privy to an incredible performance that was put on for me as a private audience. It must have been how kings felt when people like Bach performed just for them.

6. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa. A brilliant play on stories within stories that put two wildly improbable worlds into a collision course. It wasn’t just a great excuse for wonderful story telling; it was a tour de force in fiction writing.

7. Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar. Preceded hypertext by about 20 years. This was an amazing book that allowed the reader, at the end of each chapter, to “hop” to a different chapter in order to follow different story lines. I felt like a participant in creating the story.

8. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Made me realize two things. One, books that everyone seemed to think were amazing could, indeed, be amazing. Two, a person could create fiction that transported the reader from places that seemed so ordinary. (I grew up in Northern California and wouldn’t have believed at the time that it could be a source of great fiction.)

9. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This book actually made me think that I understood what it was like to be black. Now that's a work of fiction.

10. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I was left bedazzled by the way that Pynchon played with ideas and perhaps first realized, when reading this, that I was an idea junkie.

11. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. Science and fiction – not just science fiction. I got the sense that Asimov was actually trying out scientific ideas under the guise of telling a story. It changed how I thought one could use fiction.

12. Sosha by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The first half was transcendent. The second half was merely great. It made me feel like I knew something about romantic love (an illusion) and being Jewish during the horror of the holocaust (another illusion). At his best, Singer was an illusionist.
13. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. If Burroughs was one of the first authors I remember reading as a teen, Faulkner is one of the last. (What a lot of changes between 12 and 20, no?) This wasn’t just an amazing story. It was a lesson in how radically truth could change as one changed perspectives, which I suppose is the lesson of all great fiction.

A Pallet of Cash for Every Iraqi Neighborhood

This is easily the most absurd news story of 2007, excerpted here:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The Federal Reserve sent record payouts of more than $4 billion in cash to Baghdad on giant pallets aboard military planes shortly before the United States gave control back to Iraqis, lawmakers said Tuesday.

Bills weighing a total of 363 tons were loaded onto military aircraft in the largest cash shipments ever made by the Federal Reserve, said Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

"Who in their right mind would send 363 tons of cash into a war zone? But that's exactly what our government did," the California Democrat said during a hearing reviewing possible waste, fraud and abuse of funds in Iraq.

On December 12, 2003, $1.5 billion was shipped to Iraq, initially "the largest pay out of U.S. currency in Fed history," according to an e-mail cited by committee members.

It was followed by more than $2.4 billion on June 22, 2004, and $1.6 billion three days later. The CPA turned over sovereignty on June 30.

The special inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, said in a January 2005 report that $8.8 billion was unaccounted for after being given to the Iraqi ministries.

[The Republican defense?]

"We are in a war against terrorists, to have a blame meeting isn't, in my opinion, constructive," said Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican.
[end of excerpt]

Let's see. Iraq is in chaos, has a central government with no real authority, and we send it billions of dollars ... in cash? $8.8 billion was unaccounted for? This act of fiscal nonchalance from an administration that claims that it can’t afford to combat climate change? $8 billion is more than the Environmental Protection Agency's entire annual budget! More than the budgets for the National Science Foundation or the Small Business Administration! This isn't money that was spent on Iraq instead of the environment, research or entrepreneurship. This is money that was shipped into war-torn Iraq on pallets and LOST!

If you can read this and not feel outraged, you ought to be doing ads for the company making your beta blocker. Speaking of which, when are people going to begin to demand drug testing for the Bush administration?

By the way. I heard this morning that 40% of foster kids in America become homeless within a year of turning 18 and having to suddenly fend for themselves. Too bad we don’t have any money for that kind of thing.

Bureaucracy Busting and a 2008 Presidential Proposal

“The British created a civil service job in 1803 calling for a man to stand on the Cliffs of Dover. The man was supposed to ring a bell if he saw Napoleon coming. The job was abolished in 1945.”- Robert Townsend

This is a third in a series of proposals I'd like to hear from presidential hopefuls.

Congress passes legislation after a series of debates, proposals, and counter-proposals. From that process emerge laws and government agencies. The problem has at least two dimensions: the legislation depends on un-testable propositions and it sets up bureaucracies that can easily outlive their purpose.

A movie is the product of a project. Someone has an idea for a script. A group is brought together to translate that script into an action plan (the producer, director, casting agents, etc., choose actors, location, etc.). Another group is brought together to make the film (actors, camera people, catering, etc.). Another group is brought together to market the film (advertisers, marketing, that guy who does the voice over on the trailers, etc.). These teams are assembled, do their job, and then disband. This is in stark contrast to a bureaucracy that exists day in and day out.

Some parts of the government will probably never become project-focused. We will always have mail service, for instance, and it is unlikely that we'll ever have a team assemble just to deliver mail to your house and then dissolve. But other initiatives could be done as projects. And this could tie in with adding a testable hypothesis to legislation.

My proposal is this. Legislation should be testable and result in project efforts rather than bureaucracies. For instance, if you are claiming that a certain initiative will reduce teen pregnancies, you need a clear proposition about how you will measure that and a prediction of how much you’ll reduce it.

In order to implement legislation, we should rely on project teams instead of new agencies. Do we really need a Department of Reduction in Teen Pregnancy? We may need project teams – one to come in to analyze, another to create educational materials and processes that could be incorporated into schools, for instance. Upon completion of their objective, the project teams would be disbanded.

There is no automatic bureaucracy. Further, the legislation itself expires if the data indicates that it was based on a bad theory. You thought that teaching abstinence to teens and doing away with Planned Parenthood centers that offered contraceptives would lower teen pregnancies but it actually increased it? Your legislation expires and we're back to the status quo - until new legislation can be passed.

Further, constituents would have a measure of the effectiveness of their representative or senator. It would not be enough to pass legislation. Constituents could compare the prediction and actual results of legislation their representative introduced or voted on. We'd introduce some feedback into the system that would create learning for Congress and a quality metric for their constituents. We would soon learn whose worldview was hopelessly out of touch with reality and whose actually connected to reality. And government growth would no longer be automatic.

This would, finally, offer a means to achieve accountability and rein in government spending. And what candidate could say no to that?

07 February 2007

How Cutting Government Spending Can Boost the Economy

My wife teaches 3rd grade at San Diego City Schools. Her kids get P.E. once a week. Why do I mention it? Because this is a warning of how cuts in government spending can stimulate the economy - but not in necessarily positive ways.

Layoff 80% of your PE teachers and now schedule PE for your kids only once a week instead of once a day. So, how does this stimulate the economy? Stay with me to watch the dominoes fall.

Kids who are less active gain weight. Some even become obese. This has health consequences, triggering demand for weight-loss products, treatment for childhood diabetes, new wardrobe, and joint pains and injuries associated with the stress of being overweight. Dealing with all these problems involves cost - what politicians call economic activity.

Measures for economic growth are both less objective and less obviously a positive thing than many would have you believe. Economic growth that comes about as the result of increased spending on security equipment, health complications, or thrash metal concert tickets is evidence that economic growth needn't acttually correlate with improvements in quality of life.

George Will & Climate Change Denial

I like George Will. As near as I can tell, he doesn't default to a strictly conservative position and seems to differentiate himself by actually thinking through whatever topic he is writing about. But he's published a column this week about global warming in which he counters these points, which he attributes to advocates of action for climate change:
1. Global warming is happening.
2. It is our (humanity's, but especially America's) fault.
3. It will continue unless we mend our ways.
4. If it continues we are in grave danger.
5. We know how to slow or even reverse the warming.
6. The benefits from doing that will far exceed the costs.

It's a gutsy move on his part, coming as it does on the heels of the new report from the UN that confirms that this is a serious issue. (And as a general rule, if I have to choose between scientists and talk show hosts on a topic, I'm going to feel a serious bias towards the scientists.) But these are points that are consistently made and deserve to be refuted.

1. Global warming is happening.
Will allows that this is true but dismisses the warming as trivial. But you don't look at past data for an indication of whether or not to take the impending train wreck seriously - you look at projections.

2. It is our (humanity's, but especially America's) fault.
The data on carbon dioxide build up is fairly incontrovertible. In the last hundred years, carbon dioxide levels in the earth's atmosphere have gone up about 50%, and have risen steadily since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. The science suggesting that greenhouse gases increase the earth's temperature is not in debate. The data that explains past and predicts future temperature increases is also not in debate. I'm not sure who rejects this point. (Oh, wait. I am sure. It's the talk show hosts who are, apparently, smarter than thousands of scientists.)

3. It will continue unless we mend our ways.
This point follows from 2., explaining why George Will has to pretend that global warming is not clearly the result of human activity.

4. If it continues we are in grave danger.
George Will makes the odd point of pretending to be a relativist, asking "Was life better when a sheet of ice a mile thick covered Chicago? Was it worse when Greenland was so warm that Vikings farmed there?" This is an absurd question. If temperatures rise sufficiently, some of the largest cities in the world will be flooded. I guess someone could ask rather abstractly whether the folks in Palm Springs aren't as deserving of coastal property as the folks in La Jolla, but such a question brushes away some fairly expensive consequences as inconsequential.

5. We know how to slow or even reverse the warming.
This is the first of the points George Will makes that seems fabricated. We do know that we need to cut carbon emissions. We don't know how to do that while maintaining economic prosperity. The real point is that we need to determine how best to slow or reverse and to pretend that points 2 through 4 are inconsequential or fabricated is the only way to pretend that actually answering 5. is of no consequence.

6. The benefits from doing that will far exceed the costs.
George Will suggests that any action we would take would have disastrous economic implications. To that one can point to the disastrous economic consequences of military spending - another big initiative undertaken by economies as a precaution that has not seemed to undermine economies. To automatically assume that there is some conflict between preserving our economy and our habitat is to be rather unclear about an economy, it would seem to me.

We are at least a decade past the point of pretending that fine prose is a substitute for honestly confronting this problem. George Will's column is, this time, a poor example of denial from a man who usually delights in forcing readers to face uncomfortable truths.

Now and Later - the Future of the Corporation

Now
You go to work inside of a corporation. The corporation's policies are formulated by senior managers. Goals are set for your department for the year. Your department head translates those goals into your goals. It may well be that you and your peers can see a number of problems with the overall plan as it applies to you, but your attempts to point that out are largely ineffectual. You have little control over the direction of the company. You can leave the company if you are unhappy with its direction, but you would have to find a company run differently or start your own, both uncertain prospects.

Meanwhile, you contribute money each year to a pension fund. By this point in your career, your retirement account is worth about $200,000. Collectively, with accounts ranging from about $1,000 to millions, you and your fellow American workers "control" $6 trillion in funds. Although you and your peers own the companies in which you invest, you aren't particularly happy with their policies. The companies' policies seem to most obviously benefit senior managers. You can take your money out of the company, but you would have to find a company run differently. The way tax laws are set up, you cannot shift your investment funds into a company you would start up.

You are pleased that your employer has created jobs in your community. This generally helps. But you also know that these jobs and your potential are not the aim of your company. If and when these jobs can be done for less in places like the Ukraine or Mumbai, they will be. It is not just your community you are concerned for: you are worried about your planet and don't really know what, if anything, your employer is doing about climate change.

What is the quip of Ackoff's? It's like a fly riding an elephant who thinks he is steering the elephant. The elephant doesn't mind and it makes the ride more interesting for the fly. The individual has choices but those choices seem to have little influence over the corporation.

Later
By the year 2020, our concept of corporation will be transformed. It will become a tool for individuals, a real departure from today when the individual is the tool for the corporation.

You go to work inside a corporation. Just as there are inside of a national economy, there are regulations, opportunities, and natural consequences. No one defines your goals. What you do is a product of some intersection of where you see opportunity for making money, what you enjoy doing and what you think would best realize your potential. Opportunities inside of the corporation arise organically. Employees - maybe 1% or maybe 50% - within the corporation act like entrepreneurs, putting forth business plans that capitalize on connections, technology, markets, or capital and know-how within the corporation (and without - the walls of the corporation are porous). Fellow employees vote in two ways - by signing on to an entrepreneurial venture that they see as promising. This takes advantage of two things - widespread expertise and natural markets. (If employees are uninterested in a particular venture, it suggests serious flaws with it - flaws that might never come to light until after the fact in the world of corporate dictatorship.)

The second way in which employees vote is through their pension funds. Employees have the opportunity to invest in ventures at the ground-floor level, helping to fund their own projects or the projects of fellow employees. Employee money could be invested in company stock or in the startups underway within the company. This, too, would be a market signal about where experts familiar with the market, technology, and people involved thought it best to direct resources.

The community would benefit as well. Policies organically emerge from the actions of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of employees. They are no longer top-down directed. People making policy rarely choose to put the smoke stacks upwind from their houses and the more that policies arise from the actions of more individuals, the less likely corporations are to pursue policies that degrade the environment of people "over there." The dispersion of power within the corporation will make "over there" effectively disappear. Such employees are unlikely to adopt policies that shift their jobs overseas. They will be at least as interested in opportunities that allow them to realize their own potential as they are in opportunities that maximize .... what is it, exactly, that current corporate policies maximize?

Dispersing power within the organization is not just idealistic. It acknowledges current reality. And the current reality is that expertise, information, and control of capital is already dispersed. Changing how corporations are managed to align with this new reality only makes sense.

Finally, the dispersion of power within the corporation will help us to overcome the new limit to development. No longer does land, capital, or even knowledge work limit progress. We are, today, limited by entrepreneurship. Just as the last century popularized knowledge work, so will entrepreneurship be popuarlized in this century. That is the topic for another posting.

06 February 2007

In the Future Only One Person Will Have Money

In the future, only one person will have money. No one else will be able to sell anything.

Who is this person? One person will get the patent for the uber-nanotech machine - able to take any raw input and, manufacturing at the atomic or even sub-atomic level, provide any finished output. Food, clothing, houses, appliances... all these products can be programmed in and produced. No one else will be able to sell goods because everyone else will be able to produce whatever they want on the UNT (uber-nanotech) machine.

So, this one person will have money from the patent royalties while everything else falls into the category of pirate-ware. The problem is, no one else will be interested in money. They won't need it.

The Need for Systems Thinking, Part of a Continuing Saga

Norman and Vladimir have made some really great points in response to my "Time to Upgrade Civilization's Operating System" post. I was going to respond in comments but realized that a proper response deserved its own post.

First, there is the matter of technology to facilitate systems thinking. Vladimir points out that we can't hold too many things in our head at one time. This is true, but it doesn't mean that we can't create technology to enhance our ability. For instance, if you want to cross the room, you use your feet. If you want to cross town, you use a car. If you want to cross the continent, you use an airplane. Depending on the scope of our ambitions, we use different technology. Yet if we want to plan lunch, we talk. If management wants to plan next year's goals, they talk. If legislators want to plan budgets, programs, and laws that impact the next generation, they talk. This is, ultimately, about as effective as walking across the continent.

In order to promote systems thinking we'll need to develop and popularize tools for systems thinking. In my mind, these tools include econometric models, project planning software, statistical quality control tools, and other tools as varied as mind maps and systems simulation software. (Look here, for instance: http://www.pegasuscom.com/gallery.html). Along with these tools we'll need to grapple more with the implications of systems thinking as explicated in the thinking of people like W. Edwards Deming, Russell Ackoff, Donella Meadows, and Peter Senge.

Finally, the consequences of these systems thinking tools need to be institutionalized. I like Norman's notion of creating "hardware" to go along with civilization's new operating system. Part of the genius of Adam Smith is that he saw in specialization of labor a means to translate Descartes’ analytic thinking into institutions; the resultant capitalism transformed the world. What we now need are entrepreneurs who take on the task of creating institutions able to become a vehicle for systems thinking in the same way that factories were a vehicle for analytic thinking.

One last note. Russell Ackoff, a person who has probably done as much as anyone to popularize and pioneer systems thinking, has just come out with a new book, Management f-Laws. You find information about the book here. The publisher describes it as “easy to read and accessible - setting out the uncomfortable truths about how organizations really work, what's wrong with the way we design and manage businesses, what makes managers tick, and how we can make things work better. Russ himself comments on the book here.”

If you decide to order the book, enter “triarchy-ten” in the promotional code field on the order form to get a ten percent discount.

05 February 2007

Virtual Budgets - A Proposal for 2008 Presidential Candidates

This is the second in a series of proposals I'd like to hear from presidential candidates.

Today, George W. sent Congress his latest budget proposal, nearly $3 trillion for federal spending.

One subset of his budget is the defense spending - a tidy $717 billion. According to The World Bank listing of 183 counties, ranked by GDP, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/DATASTATISTICS/Resources/GDP.pdf
a country with a GDP of $717 billion would have ranked 15th globally - just between Russia and Australia. $717 billion is twice the size of Sweden or Saudi Arabia's entire GDP! Put another way, it is nearly 3X the total GDP of the Axis of Evil combined. (That's Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. We could lease those countries for one third of what it takes to defend ourselves from them.)

So, with that bit of rant behind me, let me propose this. When Americans file their taxes each year, they indicate where they would like to see their money spent. What percentage to housing, to basic research, to health insurance, to defense, to education, etc.? We have the technology to make this feasible. At a minimum, it could be the starting point for DC's plans about how to spend our money.

GIIGLE

It's time for a new search engine, one that could counter the dire news that constantly dribbles into our consciousness during this Information Age. We live in a time of rampant paranoia. The list of terrors seems to be typed in larger and larger fonts - atheists, evangelists, Muslims, child pornographers, global warming, globalization, hidden credit card fees ... Our nerves are on edge.

Into this milieu of paranoia it is time to interject some levity. I propose a new search engine, one that returns humorous, cartoonish, or just downright silly material in response to any search. One of the supposedly popular uses of GOOGLE is to enter items found in the refrigerator along with the word, "recipe" and find ways to turn, say, jello, pork, and cabbage into a tasty meal for two. GIIGLE would offer a similar feature, allowing you to put terms like, "rabbi, priest, and cabbage," into the search box and it would return jokes about same. Imagine that you have to give a speech before a group of bored 8th graders on the topic of textiles - you could enter "puberty, clothing, and bored," into the search engine and find a list of opening jokes sure to get the attention of students and teacher alike.

I don't pretend that constructing such a search engine would be easy, but neither was putting a man on the moon or building the Great Pyramids. There is no reason that one of our 2008 presidential hopefuls couldn’t propose to fund such a tool as a way to become distinct from the rest of the pack. If someone already had, I could finish this posting with a snappy joke. Just enter, " distinguished 'presidential hopeful' 'budget proposal,' and cabbage," and I would have my choice of dozens of closing jokes.

The GIIGLE project would have countless unintended benefits. Humor is one product that can be produced without contributing to greenhouse gases. Humor is the only weapon proven to distract and even defuse suicide bombers and terrorists. And humor unites people of every faith – farts are funny in any culture.

The GIIGLE project. It’s an idea whose time has come.

04 February 2007

Time to Upgrade Civilization's Operating System

Microsoft has just introduced Vista – its new operating system. Change an operating system and you change the context – change an application and you only change the problem before you. An application can be wonderful but if it is not compatible with the operating system, it is ineffective.

Right now civilization faces the problem of climate change and all the attempts to begin addressing this problem seem to be as ineffectual as trying to load an application into the wrong operating system. Indeed, our current philosophical context – civilization’s operating system if you will – is incompatible with this problem.

We simply won’t be able to address the problem of climate change (or any of a number of other problems) without first changing our operating system. Civilization’s current operating system is pragmatism. Until we realize that pragmatism is no longer pragmatic, we’re likely to find ourselves stymied by this problem of climate change.

Pragmatism has become the dominant philosophy during the last century. The pragmatist is less interested in universal truths than in solving a specific problem in a specific context. For the Enlightenment philosopher, the holy grail of thought might best be represented in the laws of physics as articulated by Newton – the laws of gravity or “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” For the pragmatist, the holy grail of thought might be articulating the legal argument that wins her case before the Supreme Court or writing computer code that becomes a best selling application. The pragmatist lives in a shifting world and doesn’t really expect to trip upon any universal or eternal truths. The pragmatist, in the words of William James, is literally interested in the “cash value” of idea. Pragmatism has become the dominant philosophy in circles where it matters – scientists, knowledge workers, and policy-makers (whether in government or business) are all pragmatists.

There is, of course, at least one problem with this: in a world full of pragmatists all focused on specific solutions to specific problems in a specific context, the system as a whole is neglected. Some intelligent experts are hard at work trying to understand how to sell cars, some on how to sell political candidates, others on how to understand climate warming, but none are at work trying understand how the interaction of all these (and other) pieces come to together to inexorably move us towards a calamitous collision of culture and climate. Working towards such a solution is terribly un-pragmatic, suggesting a course of action that is both improbable and implausible. Intelligent experts are unlikely to pursue the solution to such a problem set.

What is needed are groups of people who think through what it means to transform the foundational philosophy of our modern world. What would our corporations, government agencies, and schools look like if civilization’s operating system were systems thinking rather than pragmatism?

This is not merely a rhetorical question. Just such a transformation is exactly what happened about two to three hundred years ago when our notion of government was transformed.
Our founding fathers were deeply influenced by Enlightenment philosophy. The historian Walther Kirchner went so far as to write:
“The first great assault upon the traditional social system occurred in England’s thirteen colonies. They were comparatively free and prosperous and subject to rather generous, progressive government. The assault was not led by the oppressed, but by those who had little to gain except the fulfillment of certain ideals rooted in the spirit of the Enlightenment.”

How do we address problems that spill across boundaries and seem to thumb their nose at our current institutions? I’d argue that the solution to how we transform society begins as it always has – with a transformation in our philosophical operating system. The Renaissance, The Enlightenment, and Pragmatism all represented upgrades to civilization’s operating system – a transformation to the philosophy and paradigm of society. It’s time to upgrade again. Before the system crashes.

02 February 2007

Boston Free of Terrorist Cartoon Scourge or The Big Security Lie

Well, Boston officials successfully protected their populace from the threat of cartoon characters.

An advertising stunt by the makers of a new cartoon - putting up illuminated images of a character from a cartoon around town - became the source of alarm for police who actually blew up one of these characters. Odd. I would have expected a more wry and aloof response from the city that was the birthplace of pragmatism and is home to Harvard and MIT.

At no time in history have fewer people died violently, and yet it is hard to imagine a populace more paranoid than Americans at the dawn of the 21st century. We seem to have a hard time accepting that bad things are likely to happen and one can respond to this in one of two ways: spend one's life trying to eradicate evil or spend it trying to create good.

It seems the big lie of conservative candidates that we face a sea of violent threats from which only they can keep us safe. It seems the big lie of liberal candidates that we face a sea of economic threats from which only they can keep us safe. Does anyone want to live in a world where there is no unemployment insurance or police? No. But I don't want to live in a world where no one can be laid off or where aberrant behavior is automatically assumed to be cause for police action either.

And for once, I hardly blame the candidates for telling these big lies. The polity seems disinclined to vote for anyone who would dare to tell folks that they have to accept the fact of living in the shadow of death and financial crisis. Wasting so much energy on trying to avoid the inevitable, we seem to miss what is possible. Rather than create something extraordinary, we waste our time insisting on, and listening to, lies, demanding fanciful stories like children at bedtime.

01 February 2007

Coming Soon to a Cubicle Near You - Revolutionary Ideas About Your Corporation

It's quite delightful to point readers off to a kindred thinker. Jeff Jarvis, fresh from his meeting with the world's elites at Davos, has come to believe that

"Perhaps the most important ‘ding’ moment I had at Davos was that the powerful are, no surprise, one step behind in their understanding of the true significance of the internet: They think it is all about individual action when, in truth, it’s about collective action. And so they don’t yet see that the internet will shift power even more than they realize."
[read it all at http://www.buzzmachine.com/index.php/2007/02/01/davos07-my-big-conclusion/]

You can read my take on this same shift in a few posts at this blog, three of them here:
http://rwrld.blogspot.com/2006/12/social-evolution-and-next-corporation.html
and
http://rwrld.blogspot.com/2007/01/be-rupert-murdoch-for-only-5000.html
and
http://rwrld.blogspot.com/2007/01/employees-becoming-entrepreneurs.html

Vladimir Dzhuvinov has a blog through which he's working out a model that could effectively disperse power. You can find him at:
http://www.thetransactioncompany.com/

Russell Ackoff is perhaps one of the best known thinkers in management to espouse internal markets (just one of his many profound ideas), something that I'm beginning to believe will be an essential part of the dispersion of power from corporate elites to the common man. You can find information about his ideas at:
http://ackoffcenter.blogs.com/

Not all of the corporate transformation talk is actually about transforming the corporation. Pamela Slim has a blog directed towards helping people to escape the cubicle farm - no longer keen to waste her energy helping corporations to transform, she's directly helping the people stuck within them. Even these actions will help to hasten a transformation of the corporation, forcing business to reconsider the role it has defined for its employees. You can find Pam's brilliant "open letter" here:
http://www.escapefromcubiclenation.com/get_a_life_blog/2006/05/open_letter_to_.html


Such ideas are infectious memes. The ideological immune system of the current social system will first miss these ideas, then mock them, and then point out their flaws. But these ideas will eventually transform society. When you change the dominant institution, you invariably change all of society.

Just think about it. What if this chorus (of often harmonizing, sometimes discordant voices) is right? Maybe it's time to ask yourself what exciting things are possible if power were to disperse outwards from the elites within the corporation as they have previously done within the church, the state, and the bank. And what if this pattern of revolutions, the rise of the individual, has been the pattern of progress throughout the history of Western Civilization? And if you think about that, the meme is already in, already past your defenses. What was it Supreme Court Justice and co-inventor of Pragmatism Oliver Wendell Holmes said? “Man’s mind stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimension.”

Superbowl Cities Compared

The folks from America's heartland may find themselves feeling out of place in Miami this weekend. If you live in Indianapolis, you are almost 3X as likely to run into someone with a BA as you are to run into someone who is bilingual. When in Miami, though, those numbers more than reverse: you are 4X more likely to run into someone who is bilingual than you are someone with a BA. The difference lies less in rates of education (27% vs. 20%) than in the percentage who are bilingual (79% vs. 10%).

I think that the term is cultural shock. The talk of those who watched the game back home on TV will be about Peyton Manning's performance. The talk of those who went to the game will be about how they felt as though they were in another country.

And the fans from Chicago? I suspect that they'll come home talking about the weather.

[Graph from swivel.com, http://swivel.com/graphs/show/5409843 ]