30 December 2007

New Year's Resolutions (or, How to Make 2008 Memorable)

Here is the short list of New Year's Resolutions I'm contemplating for 2008.

Staging a coup in a small island nation, becoming a benevolent but curious dictator, free to conduct a wide variety of social and economic experiments.

Taking a year off to spend 10 hours a day sitting in a small office focused on one task and one task only: crafting the world’s best ever philosophical joke. (The one about Descartes that seems to me the best is wonderful, but perhaps could be improved on. The joke? The waitress asked Descartes if he’d like more coffee. “I think not,” Rene replied and poof, he disappeared.)

Performing an autopsy on George Bush in an attempt to figure out how his brain works (just think about living in a world where we had a cure for thinking like his).

Starting my own variety show on YouTube, to include monologues, music, and interviews with intellectual celebrities – all done with finger puppets.

Design a project to move earth's orbit away from the sun about 3 million miles. This will have two benefits: one, it'll will make a year longer by about 3 days and two, it'll reduce global temperatures by about 3 degrees.

Investing my portfolio in politicians who will, in turn, make grants to me for all of the above.

Playing advocate and pioneer (read, getting product endorsements and coverage on ESPN) for the new sport of power snorkeling, finally proving to my high school crush Shawn Gibbs beyond a shadow of doubt that I really had never intended to “get up” on water skis, thereby making my incompetence look intentional.

Getting fake ID so that I can sneak into AARP and begin collecting social security payments 20 years early.

Go back to grad school on the pretence of getting my PhD but actually to become the oldest ever walk on player to try out for the baseball team.

Sponsoring the first virtual primary to finally begin the election process of determining who, really, is the king or queen of CyberLand. (Of course, if hits are votes, we all know who is queen: it’s Britney. Sigh.)

Given that this particular set of goals is probably more than I could hope to accomplish, feel free to borrow from the list (but do have the decency to let me know which you choose so as to avoid duplication.)

For those of you seriously looking into New Year's Resolutions, this Guardian article about Quirkology author's Richard Wiseman's recent study on New Year's Resolutions can be found here.

28 December 2007

New Year's Eve Party Tips - How to Impress People

When the conversation lags at your New Year's Eve Party and a dead silence descends on the group you're with, just casually offer this little line:
"Even with the home mortgage debacle, I made $1.7 million in the stock market this year."

Of course, what you don't want to mention is that in order to arrive at that figure you added up only the totals for up days. Do not mention that adding up the tally from the negative days suggests a loss of $1.73 million, for a net loss of about $30k. It was an extremely volatile year. Any fool can lose money and if you're eager to impress strangers, there is no need to get into investment return details.

(Want to know how the stock market really works? Look here for a hilarious explanation.)

The Argument Against Living Your Life Fully

“The purpose of life is to fart around. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”
- Kurt Vonnegut

We've embraced the notion of living a full life. Well, at least in public. I'm working 24-7, we brag to anyone who will listen. And of course, this is a lie and that is just one of the things wrong with the whole notion of living life fully.

Rather than 24-7, it might make more sense to live life from peak to peak. This suggests a life punctuated by bouts of love making rather than hours and hours of hand holding, or a mad sprint in a race of seconds rather than a stroll that goes on and on and on for hours. Peaks are not only wonderful - they demand recovery time that looks suspiciously slack jawed and glazed eyed.

And the more we scale these peaks, the more readily we can repeat the trick of finding those peak moments that distort time, cause us to lose self consciousness, and let only the task at hand command our attention, finding our perfect balance between challenge and skill. It is through these peak experiences that we are actualized. And it is from these peak experiences that we need to recover.

For one thing, post-peak order is the opposite of post-traumatic disorder. Peak experiences are hard to attain and impossible to maintain, but once we've had them, we feel more alive, more sure about our life's direction and purpose. Peak experiences lend clarity to life that would be lacking in an "every day is the same" kind of life.

The creative cycle includes peak moments and time that seems, on the surface, wildly unproductive. Aha! moments are preceded by incubation (which is preceded by immersion in a topic and problem set). The Aha! is a peak moment when things click to take shape, but incubation looks about as productive as a chicken sitting on eggs. And yet without this incubation time, its rare that anything pops out of the "ain't there" ether into the plane of existence, that miracle of creativity.

Lest the reader think that I'm just making all this up, offering this odd notion that one's life is best spent in a state other than flat-line exertion, allow me to quote from Warren Buffet, who, last I heard, is worth about $35 billion, a net worth that usually suffices as an attention-getting device in this world.

Think of yourself as you go through life as standing at the plate and people throwing you pitches. It is a very special baseball game. There is no one calling the balls and strikes and you can stand there forever. You have got all these people in the bleachers saying, "Hey, swing you bum!" on every second pitch. You just have to learn to ignore them and when a pitch comes along and it is straight but it is a little high inside, you let it pass. Another one comes along and it is a little low outside. Every once in a while a pitch comes along that looks like the sweetest, juiciest, fattest pitch you are ever going to see. And when it does, you swing from your heels on it. You come out of your shoes on it. That is how you go through life. And you are only going to get about ten swings like that, maybe five swings. That is what you wait for. Too many people go through life batting at every other pitch. So just wait for your opportunities and when they come you swing from your heels.

Don't live your life fully. Don't swing at every pitch so that you're exhausted when that juicy pitch finally comes across the plate. Instead, go from peak to peak and shamelessly savor the valleys in between.

26 December 2007

Bernard on Miracles

Bernard was feeling introspective. He hadn’t touched his Reuben.

“The odds against your existence are staggering, you know,” he said wistfully.

“My existence? Why mine?”

“I’m talking about the universal ‘you,’ you twit,” he rebuked me. “But I do also mean you.” Finally, having said this he seemed to have regained his focus. He picked up the rye bread and took a bite. A little strand of sauerkraut dangled from the corner of his mouth. He looked content.

“Were you going to elaborate, or were you just going to leave me to guess about what you meant.”

“I’m eating,” Bernard said indignantly. So, I waited for Bernard to eat.

“The odds against my existence …” I reminded him as he began to stagger at the girth of his deli sandwich.

“are astronomical,” he said.

“Think of the series of improbable events that intervened between you and nonexistence. At least one of your parents – maybe both – probably have a story of missing death by inches before you were conceived. A car accident or a charging bull. Your grandparents, their grandparents, their grandparents … all could tell you stories of their brushes with death if only they were here. And if that is not enough, think of the stories of how they met. How rarely do people instantly fall in love? How easily might even one of the couples upstream from your gene pool have failed to meet or failed to fall in love or lust or whatever galvanized them to action? And if that were not enough – well, think about this. There are from 20 million to a billion sperm in an ejaculate. Think about the odds that the sperm that became you would be the one that won the race to the egg. In each generation! Given all that, how outrageously infinitesimal are the odds of you existing?”


“Wow indeed,” Bernard emphasized.

“So, what does this mean?”

“Well, the choice about what you make your own life mean is just a microcosm of the choice you have about what you make all of this mean,” Bernard gestured expansively. I was tempted to ask if he was referring to D.Z. Aikens restaurant, but I knew he meant the whole shebang – this whole universe around us. “You can make it mean that your life is destined or you can make it mean that your life is a triumph of the wildly improbable against the inevitable. In either case, I think that you have to take heart.”

“What does it mean I have to do?”

“Nothing. Anything. Everything. Your very existence is already an act of improbability. You might want to revel in that for a while.”

“Or even contemplate the odds against the existence of this very Reuben,” I said, returning my attention to my sandwich. “Think about the odds that this very dollop of mustard would meet with this very slice of pastrami.”

“Now you’re just being stupid,” Bernard said disgustedly. “The point is that we misunderstand miracles. We keep expecting levitating bodies or healing. If you really understand the odds against your existence, or more spectacularly, the odds against the existence of all of this,” he gestured again, “you’ll get the concept of miracle. You’ll see that our expectation of miracles is merely a distraction from the real miracle. It’s unnecessary.”


“So live your life with a sense of awe. Treat it like the miracle it is. Don’t wait until you’re 80 to revere what you think of as common.”

I can't say for sure, but I think that Reuben might have been the best I had ever had.

25 December 2007

Does TV Give the Edge to Lying Politicians?

In Richard Wiseman's delightful book, Quirkology, he reports on a study on lying. He and a colleague had the British equivalent of Walter Cronkite - Sir Robin Day - conduct two interviews. In one, he told the truth. In the other, a series of lies.

As it turns out, people who watched the interview on TV could discern the version that was a lie only 52% of the time - not much better results than if they'd flipped a coin. But interestingly, 64 of newspaper readers could discern the lie, as could 73 percent of radio listeners. (As it turns out, the classic signs of lying - averting one's gaze and fidgeting more - don't actually predict lies. Vague answers and failure to inject one's self into the story (rarely using "I" for instance) are actually better predictors of lies and listeners not distracted by body language are more apt to detect this.)

Wisemen doesn't pick up on this point, but it seems to me that this has serious implications for our own time. As more people consume media from TV and less from newspapers and radio, we may be more vulnerable to lying politicians. So, next time you're watching a politician speak, you may be best to close your eyes. (And distrust any politician who refuses to do radio interviews.)

[And thanks to my son Blake for the great gift - Wiseman's new book is a fascinating and amusing read.]

24 December 2007

Oscar Peterson - Dead at 82

You've likely heard his music, even if you didn't know it was him. He played it straighter than Thelonious Monk, but shared a seemingly casual genius and virtuosity that made you realize that no amount of piano lessons was ever going to make your fingers do that. Oscar Peterson is gone, which means that suddenly millions of people will hear him for the first time.

23 December 2007

Lennon Sings Happy Christmas (War is Over)

With a tip of the hat to Tom Leher, it is sobering to think that when John Lennon's was my age, he had been dead for 7 years. He's been gone for more than a quarter of a century and we still haven't caught up with the man.

Merry Christmas

About 15 minutes from our house (we used to see the Hotel Del Coronado from our balcony until the neighbors' trees grew too high), this is our favorite stretch of beach to walk. The rink is a feeble attempt to conjure up images befitting to Christmas. For me, this picture captures a good deal of what I so love about San Diego. Weather wimp that I am, I see nothing wrong with Christmas in the mid-60s, or being able to feel my hands while walking outside. Irving Berlin never said that the white in the White Christmas couldn't be sand.

Whatever the cause, I hope your day has a little magic in it.

Photo credit - Sean M Haffey / Union Tribune

21 December 2007

The Real Bubble on Wall Street

MSNBC Headline:
Bonuses on Wall Street surge 14 percent
Despite big mortgage-related losses, investment firms still generous

Well, if you can't ride a bubble, you can always live in one. What a fabulous thing to be on Wall Street, positioned to skim just a tiny fraction off of every transaction - what could be more lucrative in a world where $100 trillion in assets moves around?

20 December 2007

A Hell of a Cold

I have a friend who went to the doctor the other day and was given the oddest diagnosis I've ever heard.

Suffering from congestion, chronic cough, headache, and shortness of breath, vomiting - the symptoms one associates with a persistent cold or flu - she went in to the doctor expecting that she might walk out with antibiotics. Instead, after some preliminary questions about how she was feeling and her lifestyle, she ended up in this conversation.

Doctor: Do you have a religious background?
Patient: Yes.
Doctor: Are you religious now?
Patient: Not really, no.
Doctor: I think I know what your problem is: you are being controlled by Satan.

This friend was flabbergasted, stunned silent. And, this really happened. In 2007. In the United States. In Southern California.

What would you have said? What would you do?

Why John Edwards Makes Me Nervous

John Edwards is on the cover of Newsweek. He focuses on issues grounded in the reality of everyday lives - issues like health care, stagnant incomes, and economic insecurity. He seems as honest as anyone about the fact that globalization has not just helped our economy but has in some ways set back the progress begun about a century ago, progress in product safety, rights of employees, and the social safety net that helps to mitigate the extremes of capitalism.

But there is one thing he does that makes me uneasy. He likes to blame "the corporation" for the ills of the modern world. This is a little bit like a teenager blaming his parents for what ails him. Anyone reading my blog with any regularity knows that I believe the corporation needs to be transformed - in part for many of the same reasons that Edwards points to. But the corporation is the dominant institution for a reason - it is the most important part of our modern economy.

The corporation provides most jobs and income, most investment income, and most product and services we enjoy as consumers. The teenager may be upset at how his parents treat him, but he's not exactly able to make it on the streets without parents. John Edwards may complain about the corporation, but this country is not exactly going to make it in the world economy without the corporation.

Edwards campaign - and this country - would benefit from him articulating a vision of what the next version of the corporation might look like. Attacks on the corporation, its policy, and leaders is not going to do much but create resistance in the very place we need change.

19 December 2007

All the News That's Fit to Post

A rare 710-year-old copy of the Magna Carta was sold at auction for $21.3 million this week. The sale price made Bush regret, for the first time, that he sold the Bill of Rights for only $4.7 million.

A fire broke out in Dick Cheney's suite of offices, near the White House. The fire was traced back to an overheated paper shredder. The fact that the fire broke out on the same day that a federal judge ordered an investigation into the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes was just a coincidence, said an aide.

Home prices dropped around the country last month. Investors pining their hopes on median home prices of $3.7 million by 2020 expressed surprise and disappointment.

Britney's 16 year old sister Jamie Lynn Spears announced that she is pregnant. Defending her decision to keep the child and raise it herself, she said, "Our mother was young when she had us. Parenting is not that hard."

Storms have left residents of the midwest without power for 10 days. Al Gore, touring the region, said "Try going without any power for 10 years, then complain to me."

Two weeks away from the first contest in Iowa, Huckabee and Giuliani are in a tie for the Republican nomination and Clinton and Obama are tied for the Democratic nomination. Pundits and reporters could not be happier. "After a year of campaign coverage, we might finally have a story," said an excited Anderson Cooper.

The wives of David Letterman and Jay Leno are desperately working behind the scenes to end the writer's strike. "He still feels compelled to do stand up every night. He stands in front of the TV and tells me jokes," Leno's wife said, "but as it turns out, he is not that funny."

The Federal Reserve is proposing new regulations for the mortgage industry. "Under the new rules, those that issue subprime loans would have to show that borrowers can realistically afford to pay." Apparently, it never occurred to them that they could simply let the subprime lenders make bad loans but refuse to bail them out when borrowers default.

18 December 2007

Bumper Stickers

Recently ran across this, a bumper sticker designed to be put on SUVs.

I'm contributing to global warming - ask me how!

Other, misc. bumper stickers:

Don’t believe everything you think.

We are creating enemies faster than we can kill them.

My silence could mean that you are not worth the argument.

Do rhetorical questions annoy you?

I Do Whatever My Rice Krispies Tell Me To

If You Can Read This, I've Lost My Trailer.

Social Invention & the Fourth Economy

1. Social Invention & Progress

In the earliest grades, children learn that technological inventions fuel progress. Things like the wheel, the iron plow, the automobile, and computer obviously made ours a different world.

Less obviously, social inventions are essential to progress. Tribes, city-states, nation-states, and international organizations have made it possible for larger groups of increasingly specialized people to cooperate to create a new world. Like microwave ovens, churches, governments, banks, and corporations have also made ours a different world from the one in which our ancestors lived.

We're about to enter a new economy, one in which the act of social invention (a broader application of the notion of entrepreneurship) will become as normal as the introduction of new products. At first, this will seem disorientating, but our grandkids will think it is normal. It will be a period of unprecedented prosperity and individual freedom.

2. Waves of Social Invention

Social invention often looks like revolution. When innovators change how people worship, or challenge the king’s authority, innovation will probably be violent. Indeed, the acceptance of change without violent resistance is a fairly novel experience in humanity’s history, and a big reason that the pace of progress is accelerating.

Social invention can occur in a wide variety of domains, from Macarena dance moves to currency arbitrage. Some of this innovation is random and in some of it one can discern a pattern.

Between about 1300 to 1700, a wave of social and technological inventions produced the first economy. As land, or natural resources, was the basis of wealth in this economy, one can simply refer to this as an agricultural economy. Technological inventions like the seed drill and steel plow enabled farmers to produce more and new technology like the compass made it possible for anyone to sell their products more widely, capturing a higher price as trade emerged across even oceans. Meanwhile, social inventions like Martin Luther’s challenge to the papacy and Henry VIII’s making himself the head of the Church of England were key to the eclipse of the nation-state over the church. This maelstrom of innovation produced an agricultural economy, the first market economy in lieu of a traditional economy.

Once natural resources were being traded widely (think of Italy without the tomato, Ireland without the potato, and England without tea and you begin to get a sense of how transformed Europe was by the flow of new products across oceans), the next step in creating value was processing. Wood and wool has less value than lumber and textiles. Processing natural resources into finished products was the work of the industrial revolution. This, too, required a panoply of technological and social inventions. Democracy did for the nation-state what the Reformation did for the church – dispersing power in the dominant institution outwards to a wider group.

In the last century, the most advanced countries have hosted the latest wave of technological and social inventions, culminating in the information economy. Technology like the computer and telephone, coupled with innovations like the modern corporation and university have produced the most advanced economy yet.

3. Social Evolution is Not Done Yet

But this most recent economy will not be the last. The pattern of invention and revolution since about 1300 suggests that we are on the cusp of one more wave of innovation. One more economy, one more society, has yet to emerge. As with every new economy before it, this one will transform our philosophy, our dominant institution, the social order, and the individual. And unlike the emergence of the first economy that took place over a period of hundreds of years, this one will emerge in about half a century.

Read the rest of the posting here at The Next Transformation.

17 December 2007

Cognitive Differences Between Liberals and Conservatives

"the more liberal-minded volunteers were better able to avoid the knee-jerk reaction."

This one of the conclusions from a study by David Amodio of New York University (summarized here at Scientific American Mind).

In the test, liberals and conservatives were asked to hit a button every time they saw M but not W. Given that M appeared about 80% of the time, hitting the button became a reflex. Liberals were more able to suppress this reflex when faced with the wrong stimulus. (Past studies have indicated that liberals are more comfortable with ambiguity and conservatives need structure. I look around my office and suspect that I need to hire a conservative office assistant.)

There are certainly exceptions to this general tendency. George Will stands out as someone who seems to generally think before making pronouncements. Huckabee, Ron Paul, and John McCain seem comfortable defying some of the typical conservative stereotypes. But after watching Republicans shout "tax cut" in response to every situation they face - including massive deficits and the expenses of war - this indictment sounds pretty spot on to me: conservatives are more likely to give the right response in the wrong situation.

In fact, coming from a family of conservatives, I can say that they often don't even need a stimulus to provide their canned responses. Like a back seat driver continually shouting "Turn right!" whether or not there is even an intersection, conservatives will eventually wonder why it is the country has tuned them out.

[Thanks to my daughter Jordan, the cog sci major, for this odd and interesting tip.]

16 December 2007

$100 Trillion in Assets

Today, Greenspan said that the mortgage crisis may ultimately cost between $200 and $400 billion. Lest you think that is a lot of money, he said that total "hedgeable [sic.] assets" worldwide are about $100 trillion.

So, the mortgage problem is big in absolute terms, but it would be the equivalent of writing down 2/10ths of one percent of worldwide assets. Given that my portfolio has seemed to move by about 2% every day of this year, I'm going to assume that the world economy can absorb a hit of this magnitude.

Some people say that to be truly rich is to love what you do. Me? I say that to be truly rich is to shrug off a $400 billion loss. I don't mean to brag, but I suddenly feel pretty flush.

Days Like This

My favorite song from my favorite singer and songwriter.

14 December 2007

The Mighty Casey Has Shot Up

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
But when the report confirmed the rumors, fans let out a groan
Casey, mighty Casey is ingesting human growth hormone.

[with apologies to Ernest Thayer]

To no one's surprise the new Mitchell report on baseball revealed that players are using steroids and human growth hormone as a way to improve performance. Personally, I'm not entirely sure that this is such a big deal, but I'm no expert.

I'm sure that I've attended more than one concert in which the performers have used drugs. I still enjoyed the music. It was entertaining, just like a ball game. Further, every generation of players has looked for an edge, has included cheaters.

But the biggest reason that this might not be such a big deal? I'm convinced that in 50 years, everyone will be using some kind of performance enhancing drug. Who would not take a drug to enhance memory (one I'd take in my old age if it were available and if my mind had begun to fade), and a drug to make the muscles remain flexible and strong? Athletes are probably going to become the early adopters of what will become wide spread - the use of drugs to arrest the effects of aging and to enhance general performance.

Pete Rose got 4,000 hits. It is a very big deal when a player gets 3,000 hits and Rose got more than 4,000. His was an amazing career. But Pete can't be in the Hall of Fame because he bet on the game. (Fiercely competitive, Pete only bet on his team to win - but he bet.) In 2000, the Sycuan Indian Casino became the official sponsor of the San Diego Padres - incorporating their name into the Padres uniforms and marketing. Pete Rose is barred from the Hall of Fame because of his association with gambling. The San Diego Padres now proudly advertise their association with gambling. What seemed renegade in one period becomes the norm in another. This may well be the case with players and drugs.

And finally, it is only a game. But Americans seem to take nothing more seriously.

13 December 2007

Confusion About Freedom of Religion

Huckabee is on the cover of Newsweek. He's a likable guy. (My favorite quote of his is, "I'm a conservative, but I'm not angry about it.") He is seemingly compassionate and principled. The Republicans could do worse - much worse - in their choices for nominee.

But reading about Huckabee and Romney and their religious beliefs, (Huckabee saying he was going to bring this country back to Jesus, Romney talking about the dependence of freedom on religion) I had to admit to feeling more than a tad irritated. Okay. Angry.

In the West, we've got a simple and powerful formula for religious freedom. You are free to worship (or not) any way your conscience suggests you should. You are not free to bring that religious belief into the social arena. You cannot use your God as an excuse to abrogate the rights of others or as a basis for law.

Catholics, Baptists, Jews, Muslims and Smurfs are welcome to worship in this country as long as they express no aspiration to impose their beliefs onto the rest of us.

I grew up in, and still embrace, a faith that doesn't even make up 1/10th of 1% of the population. We don't own church property (we meet in homes) and our ministers are homeless. I was raised to be suspicious of organized religion and to this day am leery of paid ministers and church buildings. Yet even in my faith there are people who stupidly get excited about imposing their beliefs through policy. To me, nothing could provide more evidence of thoughtlessness. The best we can hope for is freedom to believe what we'd like. The instant someone starts to talk about imposing their beliefs onto others, that person ought to be shouted down in the public arena rather than lauded as a man of principles.

I understand conservatives in Europe who are hostile towards the Muslims who talk about changing European society. I don't blame our early American leaders who were hostile towards Catholics and Anglicans and other religious sects that hadn't learned how to stay out of the public arena. I simply don't see freedom of religion as a license to sneak religion into politics.

Freedom of religion for the individual and freedom from religion for the community. It's not a difficult concept, but any other formula just leads to madness. The next time someone decries the fact that things have gotten so secular, just sigh and say, "Yes. Isn't it lovely?" It is, in fact, religious people who ought to be the most happy about this.

The Voices in My Head

From Overheard in New York
Female #1: You know when you think something and then a voice in your head is like, 'Yeah, yeah, say that out loud! That would be a good thing to say!' and then you do it and you're like, 'Well, that was a mistake...'?
Female #2: Yeah.
Female #1: Yeah, I think I just did that.

The biggest mistake we continually make is simply this: we confuse the narrator with the event. Specifically, we confuse the voice in our head with reality. "He is such a dweeb," the voice says, and we file that commentary away as a fact. "I can't do that," we tell ourselves, and, again, file that away as a fact. Talk radio plays the role of affirming the distortions of consensus reality. The voice in our head plays the role of bounding personal reality within the distorted but manageable frames of our personal narrative.

Facts are hard to get to. It took civilization about 10,000 years before it arrived at the empirical method, at science. Not all people are scientists and very few of us seem capable of seeing the facts about ourselves. The first step towards that may be as simple (and as hard) as merely acknowledging that one's internal narration is not the same thing as reality.

People have a mistaken notion about miracles - that it involves levitating bodies and walking through fire. But the facts of our existence are miraculous enough. The very odds of your conception - the ludicrously small ratio of successful to unsuccessful sperm, even - are outrageous to the point of miraculous. Think of the vast number of improbable meetings and timely conceptions that trace back thousands of years to your very life - how preciously improbable is your very life? Coming to grip with facts needn't be like a cold splash of water on you and your appreciation of life. It might even sharpen your appreciation for it all.

Until you can turn off the voice, you may want to do what the good folks at Landmark Education suggest. Next time the voice in your head narrates, just say, "Thank you for that."

Oh. And those of you who are saying, "Voice in my head. What does he mean, voice in my head. That is the most stupid thing I have ever heard." That is the voice I'm talking about.

Ike Turner, 1931 - 2007

Yesterday, Ike Turner died here in San Diego. Watch this performance of the man with Tina and you can see why folks are taking note of this fact. I first heard this song when I was about 10 and simply did not know you could do that with music. Had I seen this video, I'm sure that my surprise would have been compounded to the point of bafflement.

12 December 2007

Future Abundance

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton and Warren Buffet spoke out against ending the inheritance tax. Good for them. As I grow older, I'm more inclined to think that we ought to get rid of income tax and capital gains tax and simply tax estates at 100%. If even the rich knew that their children would have to make it on their own, they'd perhaps be less sanguine about a social system calloused about the plight of the poor. And, each generation would be forced to make it on its own - something that would be easier to do in the absence of tax on work and investment. (Reflecting on Paris Hilton's life style of inherited wealth, I'm reminded of the quip from the 1980s: cocaine is nature's way of saying that you have too much money.)

What Clinton and Buffet are working against, is compound interest. Left unchecked, wealth can accummulate across generations to create enormous wealth, a group separate from the average joe. But this raises real concern raises for me a curious possibility.

Put on your futurist hat for a moment. Let's assume that population growth slows, even stops. (In much of the industrialized world, birth rates have fallen below the 2.1 babies per woman level needed to keep population levels stable. Literacy and economic opportunity have proven to be the surest forms of birth control.)

Meanwhile, assume that the economy continues to grow, returns to capital compounding as wealth builds. Assume that policy makers make a sincere effort to reconcile themselves with the need for sustainability and we create an economy not hell bent on eventual collapse.

Doesn't this suggest a future in which abundance is common? Where everyone is born with a net worth of millions? (Just do the math. Einstein said that compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe. If wealth grows by, say, 7% a year against a stable population, it is only a matter of time before wealth is a given.)

Of course, your initial reaction to this might be incredulity, just as generations ago a human being would have been incredulous at the thought of the availability of more food than one can eat, year around. We all are stuck in our own time and find the notion of changes to it inconceivable, but in truth every state has been transitory.

There is a great quote I've heard from Russell Ackoff and Peter Drucker (two of the finer minds of the 20th century). "Profit is to a company like oxygen to a person. It's necessary, but by no means the purpose." Money is to a person what profit is to a company. Every life is a meditation, and ours tends to be focused on money and goods. But what would we be confronted with if we were suddenly to find ourselves living in abundance? Where would your focus go then? What would it mean to be a success if money became irrelevant by its abundance?

11 December 2007

When You've Had Enough of the Real News

Lawyers within the CIA authorized the destruction of hundreds of hours of videotapes documenting the interrogation of Al Qaeda officials. According to one intelligence official, they were never told “Hell no,” to queries about whether they could destroy the tapes, so they did. [And, sadly, this lampooning of our modern world begins with a report in which I've inserted nary a word of fiction.]

I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, announced Monday that he was dropping the appeal of his conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice in the C.I.A. leak case. Asked why he thinks he’ll nonetheless get off, Libby said that he was never told “Hell no” when he asked if he could out Valerie Plame.

U.S. representatives Monday insisted on removing firm targets for reducing carbon dioxide from draft guidelines for negotiating a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, set to expire in 2012. Explaining that it would be too hard to enforce mandatory regulations, the Bush administration said that it is entertaining the notion of going to an all voluntary legal code – from drug uses and prostitution to murder and safe driving, it just seems like it would cost less to let all citizens simply regulate themselves.

This week, Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison for actions that resulted in the untimely death of pit bulls. When issuing the sentence, the judge said that had Vick’s lack of judgment merely resulted in the deaths of Arabs or soldiers, he might give Vick another chance but the court simply could not condone killing animals.

Oprah announced this week that Obama is “the one.” Meanwhile, Huckebee told crowds that only divine intervention could explain his surge in the polls. Both candidates promised that if elected, they would change the name of the position from president to messiah.

Led Zeppelin’s reunion concert was praised as a bargain at only $250 a seat. Stockholm is building an ABBA museum. With writer’s strike not looking to end any time soon, it is now official. Entertainment consumers have officially given up on expectations of anything new.

An assistant to the Queen of England said that the Queen has wicked sense of humor and does great impressions. “Her imitation of Helen Mirren in particular is just uncanny,” said the assistant.

Bush is said to be resentful of the media for not giving him more credit on his progress with the latest surge. In Baghdad, civilian deaths have dropped from at least 838 deaths in June to 274 in November, the AP count shows. “Now that the country has moved from a state of utter chaos to simply the least safe place in the world, I deserve some credit,” he said at a press conference. “I think that critics of my policy owe me an apology.”

10 December 2007

Tired of the Commercialization of Christmas

I am tired of the commercialization of Christmas. I'm tired of the merchants who just use this holiday as a means for padding year end profits. This year, I want them to simply give me things that I can, in turn, gift to loved ones.

09 December 2007

Romney Advocates a Non-Denominational Theocracy

"We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they're intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They're wrong."
- Mitt Romney

Reading this, it suddenly hit me. Like most Americans, Romney rejects the idea of a state religion. He does not, however, agree that politics should have the same requirement as law and science - that is, rely simply on testable hypotheses that can be built on. He does not believe that the practice of politics should be secular.

From this passage I can reach no conclusion but this: Romney is advocating a non-denominational theocracy.

Biden on Bush Administration

"This the Nixon administration without the competence."
- Joe Biden, talking about the Bush Administration (And really, how can you not love a guy who can make quips like that?)

Last week, the National Intelligence Estimate basically said, that guy [Iran] doesn't have a gun [nuclear weapons], isn't about to buy a gun [has no development program in place] and gave up on buying a gun about 4 years ago.

The Bush Administration's response? (And for that matter, the response of every Republican candidate for president save Ron Paul, bless his head.) Iran is still a really big threat and we cannot rule out a military option. Or, to go back to the metaphor, even though he knows that Iran has no gun, he's not about to lower the gun aimed at Iran's head.

Last week, Barry Bond was engulfed in media attention, in court because of alleged use of steroids. This for a guy who dresses like a Little Leaguer and plays a game for a living. Meanwhile, Bush continues to act like a guy who has relapsed on his cocaine use (wild swings between paranoia and unfounded optimism), and absolutely no talk about drug testing for him. Is it true that we simply take games more seriously than war?

08 December 2007

Faulkner on Capitalism

William Faulkner once served as postmaster at the University of Mississippi. When he decided to quit the job, he wrote a letter to the Postmaster General in Washington which is still shown there gleefully to preferred visitors. “As long as I live under the capitalist system,” stated Faulkner, “I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation.”

07 December 2007

Bernard on Britney Spears, Mother Teresa, Gandhi & Freud

"There's only one thing we love more than making perfectly normal people into idols," said Bernard as he looked at the Entertainment section of his newspaper.

"What is that?" I asked, as I looked at the ocean, eating my breakfast muffin.

"Smashing idols."

"You're reading about Britney Spears again, are you?"

"Yes. Look at this poor girl. First they turn her into something she's not. Then they ping her for it - for being what's she not."

"She's a pretty woman," I said, watching an even prettier one jog by. I do enjoy the beach.

"She is that. But so? We have pretty women all over. People are desperately in need of other people and instead we give them idols, trying to pretend that these special people are different from anybody else. What utter nonsense is that?"

"Well, some idols are inspiring."

"Like who?"

"Well, Mother Teresa comes to mind. Gandhi."

"Pshaw! Mother Teresa's life was a crisis of faith and she is held up as an example of faith. She was a model of helping the poor, but she embraced policies that kept women in places of subjection and poverty."

"You don't like Mother Teresa?" I asked, incredulous, stopped mid-bite by this bit of sacrilege.

"No! I loved Mother Teresa. It's just that she was a person. She was flawed. She had fears. She was indifferent to the disastrous effects of medieval policies."


"Another saint who was not a saint."


"Well, Freud obsessed about sex to the point that he offended people. Yet - particularly in the final decade or two of his life - he showed indifference to it. Didn't act on any sexual urges. Gandhi, by contrast, this toga-wearing saint, spent his final years sleeping nude with naked young women."

"He did?" At this point, I'm a little baffled. Confused. Perplexed. In other words, I'm back to my natural state when trying to understand people - Bernard in particular. "So you're saying that Gandhi and Mother Teresa shouldn't be role models?"

"No!" Bernard exploded. He's often upset but rarely angry. This time he is angry. He wagged his bagel at me. A small bit of cream cheese threatened to fly off and into my face. He was keeping my attention. "They are fabulous role models. But only if we tell people their whole story."

"So you think that young people should aspire to emulating Gandhi's sleeping habits?"

"No, you twit. Every one will have his own stupid, personal flaw. No need to adopt someone else's flaw, even if it's Gandhi's."

"I am really confused," I said, warily watching his bagel.

"Idols aren't role models," he said, flinging his hand back. The cream cheese flew in the opposite direction. I could now focus on what he said. "Idols don't have flaws. They just stand for things. Nobody can live a life like that. Idols are useless!"


"So tell kids that as an old man, Gandhi liked to lie nude with young women. Mother Teresa doubted the existence of God and still had the effrontery to be dogmatic about her beliefs. These are not flaws in the abstract. These are ugly flaws. But Gandhi helped to transform India and even better, he offered a model of passive rather than violent resistance. He was a wonderful role model. Mother Teresa gave her life to helping the poor. She was a wonderful role model. Flawed, they are even better role models."

"Why better?"

"Why? Because flawed people need flawed role models. Otherwise they think that living a life that matters is for other people - perfect people who don't exist. Who can be that? This stupid search for perfection, for virtue, it just gets in the way of doing anything in life. We all do what we can in spite of who we are - not because we've somehow managed to become perfect and can now flutter about the planet waving wands. You do what you can. You don't waste all your effort on trying to be perfect, on trying to be an idol. That's utter nonsense. Go live a life. Do something honorable in spite of the fact that your life is riddled with dishonor, flaws, and the spiritual equivalent of farts."

"Are you supposed to be inspiring me? Talking about spiritual farts?"

"Life is too short. You don't have the time to become perfect first before you actually live it. There's a world to save out there."

"And idols can’t save it."

"The lesson of this little conversation?" Bernard leaned towards me, his large eyes actually bulging a bit. "There are no great people. There are only people who do great things."

"Wait. Last week you told me that nothing I do matters. Only people matter. Now this?"

"I never said that life would make sense. I just said that you should make sense of life."

At this point, I had officially lost track of what we were saying. Bernard is an old man, and has begun to have a little trouble with balance. As he was teetering on the thin line between utter nonsense and potential profundity, I decided it was best not to push him.

Don't Talk - Simulate

As part of the on-going experiment I call life, today I offer you a multimedia editorial - opinion and music. (Scroll down to "Don't Talk" Video.)
If you want to cross the room, you'll walk. If you want to cross town, you'll drive. If you want to cross the country, you'll fly. We've figured out that, when it comes to transportation, it's worth changing tools when we change the scope of our travels.

We've yet to figure this out when it comes to communication and planning. When you want to plan lunch, you talk. If executives want to plan next year's goals and activities, they talk. If politicians want to lead us into the next decade, they talk.

I imagine that there are quite a few reasons that our politics have entered a stage of such widespread discontent. We've learned from advertisers that progress comes from discontentment, and in this age of unprecedented affluence, we may well suffer from unprecedented levels of discontentment. We have little power over the policies we vote on - getting to choose at the end rather than getting involved in crafting a choice. All these and more could be reasonably pointed to as reasons for the discontent in politics. But I suggest that there is one more reason.

Kids who have to travel across the room don't usually grumble about walking. Make them travel across town by foot and they play a different tune. In our choices of politicians and policies, we continually confront the question (implied or explicit) of longer term consequences. Few can think through the fall of the dominoes very far. (My friend and occasional commentator Norman says that studies indicate that 85% of the population is unable to follow or explain if, then logic.) No wonder the polity is grumbling.

The real political leadership is going to come from the people who find ways to popularize simulation tools that credibly assist folks in planning the future. In my job, we work with project teams to plan their future, developing new products. This process inevitably reveals flaws in their current plans that would not have occurred to them without the use of our process and tool. Future implications too quickly become too complex to properly influence our present actions - unless we have tools to reveal these problems. This is even more so in the realm of politics, an area far more complex than product development. The political leadership that matters in this century will be leadership that brings us beyond talk - or, rather, gives us more than talk. Literally. It will be leadership that gives us tools to help us to create our joint future.

And, to close on this point, I'll take you to Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs performing the song, "Don't Talk." Natalie does not just have an incredible voice, look like that beautiful neo-bohemian that at once enticed and intimidated all the boys in college, and write lyrics that go down like poetry. She dances like the little girl next door who doesn't know anyone is watching. If that doesn't grab your heart by the lapels and give it a twirl on the dance floor, then you really do need your break this weekend.

06 December 2007

Transformation of the Renaissance

A little excerpt from The 4th Economy, my manuscript in progress.

Hope got a new address during the Renaissance, moving from heaven to earth. Throughout the Dark Ages, few had any hope of progress. Children's lives were no more economically advanced than their parents. People did not live long enough to perceive economic progress. But in this new age of conquest, adventure, and trade, people no longer had to content themselves with the hope of something better in the afterlife. Suddenly, there was a prospect for riches in this life. Castilian adventurers, after 1492, had the promise of American gold; the Germans, after 1494, had the lottery. Like all economic change, this produced stress. The new economic uncertainty must have contributed to this odd novelty: by 1533, Europe had its first lunatic asylums.

05 December 2007

A Poem for Autumn

About every 25 years, I'm moved to write a poem. I've checked with the editorial board at R World and they said, "Hey, if any of your readers can spot a theme in the midst of your compulsive writing, they know more than we do. Go ahead and publish a poem. We do know one thing: it won't impact your advertising revenues."

Autumn Poem

Is it just me
Or do these trees
Look like Nazis?
Standing all in a row
This orchard’s just too neat
Nature so unnaturally tamed

Yet in the midst
of attentive trees
I see a mere leaf
Commit an act of treason
Falling in a pattern so loopy
As if to defy the very
Pattern of patterns
And gravity
And concerns
Of falling

A single leaf carving a path no one will follow
Like your hand upon the hollow
Of my thigh
As if to defy the very reason for reasons
And gravity
And seasons
I’ve fallen
In love

04 December 2007

Looking for Individual Accountability in all the Wrong Places

"I must create a system, or be enslav'd by another man's."
- William Blake

Today at lunch with Bill (who, unlike Bernard, is a real person) we briefly talked politics. Bill is utterly disgusted with the Republicans. Like me, he feels that one of the worst indictments against the current crop of Republican presidential candidates is the fact that they have not spoke out against Bush, have not bothered to repudiate the Bush policies.

But Bill isn't particularly trusting of the Democrats either. He dislikes their seeming disregard for individual responsibility. "They seem to me like a party that encourages victimization," he said.

I think he's right, really. And I'm not sure how one reconciles this problem between the parties.

(And I know that some of you are saying, "Look at Ron Paul. He's about individual responsibility and is unafraid to repudiate Bush's policies." True, but Ron Paul (says this Ron Paul Davison), is a nut job if he believes that we'll make progress by getting rid of things like public education. People like Ron Paul could not explain the difference in incomes in Mexico (per capita GDP of $7,300 and tax rates of 18.5%) and Sweden (per capita GDP of $32,000 and tax rates of 51%) and somehow thinks that taking government back to the stage it is in third world countries would be a step forward - an oddly naive concept that rightfully engages only a small fraction of the electorate.)

It seems to me that the Republican Party's belief in individual responsibility is what one must accept for one's life. The system is what the system is and we're left to make the best of it. We have to make something of our lives in whatever situation we find ourselves. In that sense, the Republicans seem to have it just right.

Yet as a student of Deming, I know that the system determines 90+% of outcomes. I live close to the border and I know that Mexicans are not people who are only one-fourth as talented as Americans. The fact that they make one-fourth as much as us has nothing to do with individual effort or potential. It is their systems - the economic, political, financial, and educational systems - that determines this outcome. It is ridiculous to tell an individual Mexican that if only they worked as hard as the average American they would make as much. They put in as much effort but have less to show for it. In that sense, an emphasis on individual responsibility shows an almost willful ignorance. Systems are hugely determinant of outcomes - from crimes rates to unemployment levels to average incomes. In this sense, the Democrats have got it right.

When making policy, one has to look at systems. When making a life, one has to look at one's self.

How does one strike this balance? How does one stress individual accountability even while acknowledging that individual efforts are inevitably paltry and ineffectual things against something as big as a system?

If a candidate can strike that balance, he just might win Bill's vote. And I suspect that Bill would bring along a few like-minded Americans.

03 December 2007

$1 Million a Minute (After a Few Years it Adds Up)

Every minute, the national debt increases by another million dollars. The debt was only $5.7 trillion when Bush became president and will be $10 trillion when he leaves office. Last year, interest payments totaled $430 billion, behind only Social Security, Medicare, and Defense Spending.

There is a misconception that conservatives find this abhorrent, given that it is a sure sign of fiscal mismanagement.

Yet the debt does two things that conservatives like. One, it provides guaranteed money to people with money. If you are an individual worth $20 million, you are probably more anxious about losing your money than getting an annual return of 10%. Treasury bills are a wonderful way to maintain wealth. (At least in dollar terms.) Debt that generates regular payments to people with wealth isn't exactly abhorrent to conservatives who are eager to preserve the status quo.

Two, debt forces the government to make interest payments, a portion of federal spending. $430 billion in interest payments crowds out about $430 billion of spending that could go into wasteful things like education, transportation, research into alternative energies, or helping the poor. Making the government commit to interest payments is one means of ensuring that the government makes fewer new commitments.

Liberals incentive to run up debt is more obvious. It's a way to get new programs without forcing anyone to pay for them.

Liberals and conservatives alike have made their peace with annual deficits and the resultant growth in debt. On this count, I don't necessarily fault them. Debt is, in fact, neither obviously good or bad. What determines whether or not it is sustainable is whether the money you're paying, say, 5% for is making you, say, 10% or 2% in return. If the money costs you more than it is worth, the debt is unsustainble. If the money costs you less than it is worth to you, the debt is sustainable.

This brings us to the distinction between investment and spending. In fact, even a deficit of half a trillion dollars would not automatically be a bad thing if that money were spent - at least in part - on things that enhance productivity, generating returns that could easily repay such debt. It is one thing to go into debt because you're buying too many shoes - it is quite another to go into debt because you're financing a start up you hope becomes the next FedEx or Panera, or, at the national level, financing a new transportation system that alleviates dependence on oil.

The worst part about our debt is not that we've incurred it. The worst part is that we're incurring this massive debt with no real goal or expectations of it generating any kind of return. That, like so many things about our modern policy, is unsustainable.

02 December 2007

Oil Prices Aren't Up - The Dollar's Value is Down

As oil approaches $100 a barrel, a great number of explanations emerge that focus on oil. Demand for oil worldwide is increasing, led by growth in India and China. Oil supplies are reaching a limit and new supplies are becoming harder to reach. Instability in the Middle East has resulted in an additional risk premium. Explanations like these that focus on oil may miss the most important variable - the falling value of the dollar.

Since early '06, oil prices have gone up from the about $60 a barrel to nearly $100. By contrast, oil priced by euros has gone up from about 50 euro to over 60 euro. Oil prices have increased by about 66% in the US, but only about 20% in Europe.

The good news is that the country consuming the most oil per capita is going to be forced to become creative in its use of oil. The bad news is that just as our goods are becoming more competitive, courtesy of a devalued dollar, our input costs are going up. Unless we can find ways to produce as much with less oil, becoming more productive, or energy-efficient, this opportunity to lower our trade deficit by exporting more could be lost.

The reasons for launching a national energy policy initiative that would lessen our dependence on oil are stacking up. At some point, even people as unimaginative and cautious as politicians will have to wake up to this fact and act.

30 November 2007

Analysis of Republican Debate

Jackie Broyles and Dunlap analyze the most recent Republican debate.

A Small Flaw in Democracy

Bernard spoke from behind his newspaper. “We’re a gloomy lot, aren’t we?”

“We?” I said, looking up from my game of solitaire. “Who is ‘we’? I’m having nothing but fun here. You’re the one reading the news.”

“We have cures for baldness, erectile dysfunction, we eat like kings .... Yet what do we do with this miraculous capacity for speech?”

“Complain about people complaining,” I guessed.

“You twit,” he said before continuing. “You know what we’re complaining about today?”

“Slow service,” I said, looking for our waiter.

“No,” Bernard said, staring at me. “We come here because the service is leisurely. It gives us time to read the paper and talk.”

“Oh. Right.”

“I’ll tell you what we’re complaining about. The projection that social security won’t be able to pay full benefits in the year 2042.”

“Well, I think that’s something that should be addressed.”

“A projection 35 years into the future by the same pundits who can’t tell me what my portfolio is going to be doing 35 hours from now? We’re complaining about this?”

“It’s like climate change,” I said. “These are big problems that take a long time to change. You can’t be cavalier about the problem just because it’s a long way off.”

“Look at me,” Bernard said.

I looked. He’s in good shape for man close to 80. Lean. Intelligent eyes. Wrinkles. Thin hair where hair is left at all. Lots of wrinkles.

“I look like a man who is worried about 2042?”

Come to think of it, his skin looked a bit like parchment. He had a point.

“This is the problem with democracy,” Bernard said. “To cast an intelligent vote you need time to research the issues. Everyone but us retired folks is too busy to read anything. The rest of you, you’re busy doing whatever,” he said, gesturing dismissively at my game of solitaire. “So, you leave your future in the hands of people who have no future.” He turned the page. “Whoever thought that was going to work?”

29 November 2007

The Omnipresent Elvis

I could not resist lifting this from Seamus McCauley over at Virtual Economics.

"When Elvis Presley died in 1977 there were 200 Elvis tribute bands. In 2007
there are approximately 200,000. If this trend continues, by the year 2060 one
person in four will be an Elvis impersonator."

Mentioning this to my son, a college freshmen, he said that a recent aptitude test he took actually included "Elvis impersonator" as one of the career possibilities.

Some days I can hardly wait for the future. (Until I remember that I'll be really old then.)

28 November 2007

Cub News Distorter (at your service)

A recent UN study ranked Iceland as the best place to live in the world. (The US slipped from 8th best to 12th.) In response, Iceland's president Olafur Grimsson announced a new campaign, handing out "We Love Global Warming" t-shirts and bumper stickers.

Trent Lott, of Mississippi, announced his retirement this week. The state's Green Party is excited about what they see as a great opportunity to gain a seat in the Senate, taking advantage of voter's dissatisfaction with Republicans. Of course, given this is Mississippi, the Green Party in question is actually the "The Collared Green Party."

Vice President Dick Cheney went back to his normal work schedule Tuesday, a day after doctors used an electrical current to correct an irregular heartbeat. Although this returned his heart to normal, doctors say that it would have taken a much larger shock to have actually softened his heart. (And on a related note, recent stock market gyrations have been traced back to Dick's EKG monitor. In his attempt at world domination from an undisclosed location, Dick has been working on a stock market manipulation scheme. In his haste to execute it, he got the wires crossed between his heart monitor and laptop. Until he gets this untangled, the world economy is only one stopped heart away from collapse. Wait a minute. Maybe he didn't get the wires crossed. Perhaps this is his plan for world domination. Oh well. Back to the news.)

Today, Bush launched the 43rd annual Middle East peace talks -throwing out the opening pitch in this fall classic by way of another in a series of ultimately ineffectual speeches given by American presidents.

Consumer confidence dropped more than expected in November. Apparently, shoppers are full of uncertainty, wondering if Uncle Fred would really like this cigarette lighter, wondering if WalMart is offering the same galoshes for $2 less, and wondering if this dress makes my hips look fat. Few feel very confident about their gift selections.

A British teacher working in Sudan's capital is being held for allowing her 7 year-old students to name a class Teddy Bear "Mohammed." British authorities are working for her release before she is punished with a whipping. These same officials have yet to find the time to intervene in the Darfur. There is nothing funny about this. It's just absurd.

The dollar has fallen to a record low against the euro, which cost nearly $1.50 last week. The Canadian dollar has passed the US dollar in value, rendering obsolete all those "US $ / Canadian $" prices printed on book flaps. Bush said that he didn't care if a dollar was worth less because he could just print more.

Paul McCartney is a pop genius, cultural icon, the "cute" Beatle, and a billionaire. For some reason, it's news that women will date him. It seems to me that it would only be news if they would not.

Mitt Romney announced that he couldn't appoint a Muslim to a cabinet position, given they make up only 1% of the US population. He did not clarify what sort of cabinet position he might grant to a Mormon, a faith that makes up merely 2% of the US population.

27 November 2007

Do You Follow Your Heart? Head? Intuition?

A friend of mine is asking for advice. He’s in his 20’s. He’s struggling to define what’s next, not sure whether he’s already there or even where there might be. He’s going through the kind of thing that any thoughtful person seems to go through. Specifically, he's debating about whether to pursue an MBA or not, but as with any of these big life decisions, the specific decision hinges on so many other decisions, all feeding into the question about what kind of life one wants to live.

For me, a big part of what is meant by integrity is an alignment of head, heart, and gut. (And in matters of romance, I think it's important to add in a fourth organ.) I feel best when reason, emotion, and intuition all conspire to assure me that I'm in the right place, doing the right thing.

But here’s what I’m wondering. Which is the best leader? What have you relied on at different times in life? Have you plunged into life head first? Heart first? Or have you been led by your gut, that sense of intuition that you can’t articulate? How has it worked out? Does it depend on the situation? What do you think is best to follow?

Thoughts? [At this point, it'd be customary to express yourself in the comments section. Thanks!]

26 November 2007

Institutions, Not Ammo, Says Defense Secretary

Secretary Gates says the U.S. government needs "new institutions for the 21st Century with a 21st Century mind-set." He told an audience at Kansas State University recent conflicts, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have proved that military power alone can not prevail in this century's challenges. He said that means devoting "considerably more resources" to other parts of the U.S. government.

Because we take war seriously, our defense department often leads in the new frontiers of science. The Internet you're using right now has evolved from an early DARPA program to connect computers.

How odd, then, if it is a pronouncement of the Secretary of Defense that helps to trigger thinking about new institutions for a new century. (I think that ultimately, these kinds of social constructs, in order to be effective, will have to be transnational rather than American, but that's a separate issue.)

We spend too much on defense. Our department of defense could be called a department of offense now that we've adopted a policy of preemptive wars. I'd join the chorus on all these complaints and more. But Gates' speech today is a reminder that defense issues have drawn some of the best minds and ideas of civilization.

It's quaint to laud a comment that development might be helped by something other than dropping bombs or kicking in doors. But Gates should be applauded for saying this. By virtue of his position, he has the attention of people the rest of us don't. How wonderful that he seems to be using that privilege wisely.

24 November 2007

At 18 - Access to Elections and Pornography

My son Blake's buddy turned 18 today. Blake was telling me, "Now Chris can go to x-rated movies and vote."

In its wisdom, the government has decided that young adults should have access to these two milestones - pornography and elections - at the same time. It's one of the rare occasions when government policy leaves me feeling nothing but admiration. How fitting that they should be lumped together.

23 November 2007

Consensus Trance and Holiday Shopping

Communities are defined by a consensus trance about how civilization is supposed to work. This trance goes through periods of transformation - like the shift from medieval beliefs in spirits and witches to post-Enlightenment trust in science and progress.

About a century ago, a big piece of the consensus trance gradually shifted. Credit became something normal and helpful rather than sinful. Paul’s injunction to “owe no man anything” had earlier given force to the distrust of debt, which society frowned upon in 1900 the way that it frowned on homosexuality in the 1960s – it was something at best to be pitied and at worst to be banned as un-Godly, a sign of moral corruption and communities that accepted it were bound for imminent collapse.

As it turns out, credit is not so bad. It creates opportunities. A bank lends a company credit to build a factory. The company lends the consumer money to buy its products. This system has proven robust.

It works because the company hires people to make products. The people take these jobs to earn the income to pay back their loans for the things that they buy. You have to look at the whole system in order to appreciate its stability. You'd panic about oxygen levels if all you knew was that we mammals are using oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. But once you understand that plants are exhaling oxygen while breathing our carbon dioxide, the system looks stable.

But sustaining this system depends on consensus trance. If households stop buying, they’re likely to lose their jobs when products stop selling. If banks stop extending credit, they’re liable to see defaults increase as the economy slows.

FDR could have been talking about economics when he said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Oddly, this consensus trance of credit and consumption has worked for more than a century. About the only time it doesn't is when the trance itself is questioned, and some link in the chain is broken. And then the trick is getting society back into the trance before they have a good look around to see upon what fragile structures we're all standing.

Sales are down this holiday season. Do your bit. Stare into the eyes of a mannequin until you feel that consensus trance once again begin to take hold. Reach for your credit card. Walk towards the neon lights. Things will once again be merry and bright.

21 November 2007

Decoding the Complexity of Causation Within Corporations

It occurs to me that the central problem with corporations is one of causation. No one quite understands the chains of causation from effort to output, product to pollution (or any unintended effect), and the link from management attention to change in state or results.

It's all a mystery, really. This is one of the more important domains in which systems thinking and dynamic modeling can improve things. It is difficult to encourage autonomy when people are unclear about what to do, about how much Jeremy's efforts might have helped and how much Jessica's hindered, or vice versa. For now, the corporation is a big black box and one proof of that is how strictly defined are efforts and goals within corporations. It's rare that managers are working with a testable hypothesis about how to improve and even rarer that they are collecting data to help decode the system dynamics they presumably manage.

Advances in data collection and computer modeling may allow for sophistication in simulation and modeling that exceeds that of which a human manager is capable. Causalities could be revealed in much the same way as those found in pharmaceutical testing or meteorological models. Brains are simply not big enough to simultaneously compute the wide variety of causes that play into outcomes. In less than a decade, we'll find managers working without tools for modeling systems dynamics as quaint as we now find ditch diggers working without backhoes.

As people within corporations and stakeholders within communities better understand the causation of complex corporations, resources, time, and attention will be better applied to more profitable and less unintentionally hurtful outcomes. Without such tools and models, we increasingly find ourselves trying to steer from the trunk, tasked with managing complexity we're unable to comprehend.

Free Will

When my children were in their early teens, I read them Jostein Gaarder's wonderful book, Sophie's World. It told the evolution of philosophy in an engaging narrative. It's a wonderful book. Years later, Richard Linklater made Waking Life - a video that will be looked back on in 30 years as ground breaking in so many ways. It delves into similar subjects as Sophie's World. Both have an Alice in Wonderland quality to them, illustrating as they do the otherworldly nature of other world views. Here is an excerpt from it.

20 November 2007

Bush's Big Lie

Former White House spokesman Scott McClellan reveals in a new book that Bush asked him to lie about the outing of Valerie Plame. Sadly, Bush wanted McClellan to lie in order to restore his credibility after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

It would be hard to think of a more poignant symbol of this lost presidency than a lie told to restore credibility. But the real lie of his presidency is not a lie that will be revealed in memoirs. Rather, it's a lie that is always and never mentioned.

One of the first lessons learned studying economics is the lesson of opportuinty cost. Any one thing you choose to do with your time or money comes at the expense of countless other things. If you spend the money on remodeling, you won't have money for a new car. If you spend the evening at the opera, you miss the basketball game.

The big lie that Bush has been telling is that nothing this country could do would better the planet or the lives of Americans more than spending a trillion (or two) in Iraq. The lie McClellan revealed pales in comparison to this. I can think of no bigger lie that Bush could have told. And this is a lie that Bush has never tried to hide. He doesn't even know that it is a lie.

The Bridge Players' Revolt of 2007

Lunch with Bernard and his sister Maddie. Again, me, the human buffer.

We were eating our salads when Maddie announced, “Her daughter has a penis allergy.”

“Peanuts?” asked Bernard.

“Yes. She has a penis allergy.”

“She’ll outgrow it,” I said.

“This is serious. When she’s exposed, her breathing becomes difficult and there’s swelling. It doesn’t take much for this to happen – even if they’re just unwrapped in the same room she has a reaction.”

“That does sound severe,” Bernard said.

“I hope you’re right,” Maddie said, looking at me, “about her outgrowing this.”

“My first wife never did,” Bernard glumly announced to his salad.

“Have you seen that George Bush’s approval ratings have gone back up?” she abruptly asked.

“Well there’s a simple reason for that,” said Bernard. “The comedy writers are all on strike so now there is no one to properly report on what he’s doing.”

“They still have newscasters.”

“Yes, but it’s one thing for a newscaster to say, ‘Today American bridge players were told they could stay on the team in spite of holding up signs that said, “We did not vote for Bush.”’ It’s quite another for writers to point out that bridge players who made a protest this mild were about to be stripped of their one source of income. And that this became a big issue when they did this in China – a country we’ve criticized for human rights violations. And further, that we’re going to model freedom on the world stage by taking away someone’s job for expressing disappointment in an elected official?”

“Well, if anyone should know how to keep their mouths shut, it should be bridge players,” Maddie said indignantly.

“They did keep their mouths shut!” exclaimed Bernard. “They held up signs!”

"You'd have thought that they were trying to defect," I commented.

“Well, you shouldn’t do that in front of communists. If they think that we’re not all in this together, they’ll just exploit our weakness.”

“Weakness?” sputtered Bernard. “We let citizens express themselves and somehow that’s a weakness?”

“The world of bridge players will never again be the same,” I said.

“That’s right,” said Maddie. “It’s getting so that you can’t go anywhere without hearing about how upset people are with our president.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Bernard sighed.

“Well, I’d like to at least have lunch without hearing about why people think he’s such a Mormon.”

“No,” I said, “that would be Mitt Romney.”

19 November 2007

Programming Self

I see it everywhere. Walking through public places, children, teenagers, and even adults are plugged in to iPods. Suddenly, I become suspicious of the term "programming."

Self is a narrative that the brain tells itself to create a coherent experience, says my daughter who is majoring in cognitive science. Does that mean that who I am is just the plastic thingy that holds together the six pack? I should be more offended, but I'm just a narrative so I let it slide.

Our culture is becoming more fragmented. In LA County, more than a 100 different languages are spoken in homes. Even people who all speak English talk about things I can't understand - esoteric is the new dialect, as religious, business, technical, and cultural groups all generate a slew of terms and concepts that require nothing less than years of immersion to understand and decode. We're becoming tribes of specialists doomed to feel alienated unless we show an interest in politics or sports or celebrities.

The media, then, becomes the narrative that holds culture together. Suddenly, the programming that is being distributed more incessantly than ever before - through iPods and Internet and TV and radio and magazines and newspapers - makes perfect sense. It feeds our need for cultural cohesion. Programming might shape young minds. Culture might be the default cult for which there is no de-programming. Or it may just be that individual lives need a narrative outside themselves that provides a sense of cohesion. In either case, those iPods seemed inevitable.

What's Wrong with Fred Thompson

I do not understand the many Americans who seem to get so excited about candidates. I follow politics. I think that the stakes in politics are extremely high. I get excited about policy and elections, but I just don’t think that candidates are people much different than the rest of us. (Well, I will allow that they have an incredible capacity to absorb inordinate amounts of praise and criticism – levels that would leave the rest of us with psychological whiplash.)

But some people were incredibly excited about Fred Thompson’s entry into the race. Curious about that, I watched George Stephanopoulos's interview with Fred Thompson available here.

I was not impressed. Thompson seemed to show little regard for the implications of his policy or even the rationale for them. To me, he showed that he didn't understand the war on terror, which wasn't that surprising – he didn’t even seem to understand the interview. His tone suggested that he was genuinely offended that Stephenopolous would "challenge" him to describe policies and seemed amazingly uninterested in thinking through the implications of anything he suggested. Here are a few things that stood out to me.

Speaking to supporters about Radical Fundamentalism, Thompson says that this threatens “nothing less than the demise of Western Civilization." I still don’t understand this claim.

A couple of weeks ago, Newsweek had an article about the increase in the number of kids with food allergies. One theory is that children growing up in clean environments don't encounter serious threats to health, so their immune systems overreact to otherwise innocuous substances, like milk or peanuts. It's not that milk or peanuts will kill a child - but their immune system's overreaction to them can.

Radical fundamentalism can't destroy our civilization, but our reaction to it can. In their best shot to date, terrorists killed 3,000 Americans. By this measure, guns, cars, wrongly prescribed medicines, and depression all pose a much graver threat to our civilization, each taking the lives of tens of thousands of Americans every year. But deaths don’t threaten civilization. Thompson knows that. If they did, Thompson would be anti-war.

We can overreact to threats to life. We can ban driving, foreign travel, exposure to dangerous ideas, and privacy. This might save lives. It would threaten our way of life, our civilization. It’s not the threats to life that will destroy our civilization. Like the anaphylactic shock that kills an allergy victim, it is the reaction to the threat that kills, not the threat itself. To be an American is to realize that freedom comes with the cost of life.

Thompson goes on to tell Stephanopoulos that this threat has to be defeated primarily militarily. Most interestingly, when Stephanopoulos points out that there is no conventional army or nation-state behind this threat to attack, Thompson says, "What's the alternative?" When Stephanopoulos counters with, "You tell me, you're running for president," Thompson shows a gift for non sequiturs that would warm the heart of any Bush supporter by saying, "That's exactly right. You make my point." Thompson shows no indication of having questioned whether our invasion and occupation of Iraq might have worked against us in the fight against extremism, offering platitudes that sound like the kinds of things that someone might have said at the beginning of the Iraqi invasion.

Although he's eager for war, Thompson can't imagine anyone pulling the plug on a loved one. He seemed genuinely heartfelt sharing his conviction on this matter, based in part on losing his own daughter. But Thompson again shows a gift for thoughtlessness when pressed by Stephanopoulos to explain the consequences of his stance on state laws. It's not just that he seems to be offended that Stephanopoulos would challenge him, but he says that he doesn't have a legal position, he's just sharing his opinion. In this response he seems to show a lack of awareness of two things - one, as president his opinion could easily become the basis for law and legal positions, and two, in a democracy any candidate has to explain himself fully to the voters.

To his credit, Thompson did use a word rarely heard by any candidates - "sustainability." He uses it in regards to social security, seemingly less impressed with Medicare's dire condition (a problem Life Hiker has pointed to). It seems to me that sustainability could become the unifying theme of a good campaign - from the need for sustainability in federal spending and entitlements to the need for sustainability in economic and environmental practices.

The answer in which he seemed to me most obviously lost was Thompson's attempt to refute Stephanopoulos's claim that Giuliani and Romney have a decided advantage in management experience. That is, they have lots and Thompson has none. He gives a meandering answer in which he challenges the importance of managing crime and roads, suggests that he actually does have management experience in government and then promptly says that government hasn't managed anything well in a generation (seeming to negate whatever management experience he'd just claimed credit for). Finally, he says that managers are people hired by leaders, suggesting that he doesn’t really need management experience. This conclusion seems to me a dismissal of the importance of management that only someone without experience in management could express.

Thompson is running second among Republicans in national polls and Republicans have a way of winning presidential elections. Fred Thompson as president. It’s a scary thought but, if you're like Thompson, it's not one you have given much consideration.

17 November 2007

Civilization's Big Bifurcation

I'm growing increasingly convinced that we're at a point of bifurcation. Alert readers are quick to ask, "What could he possibly mean by that?"

Bifurcation in systems dynamics refers to a problem with not one but two solutions. It's just a fancy way of saying that from here we can move forward in one of two directions - neither of which is pre-determined.

In terms of our civilization, resting as it does upon a fragile yet improving set of complex relationships between technology, practice, manners, and laws, I'm using bifurcation to refer to two paths that lie before us.

One path, one solution to our current problems, is one we're reminded of every time a politician rants about global warming or Islamo-Fascism. It is the path of relative collapse, civilization returning to a simpler time when the planet provided for only 100 to 200 million malnourished and scantily clad humans animated by fear and distrust.

The other path, another solution to our current potential, is one we rarely hear about. It is the path of increased complexity, progress, and prosperity. On this path, we find ourselves reconciling the current conflict between the economic and the ecological, finding a way to make our practices sustainable while living lives of increased interaction, trust, and joy.

The only certainty is that what we're doing now is not sustainable. It may appear sustainable, but that is only because we're not looking. We're like the occupants in a train traveling 60 mph towards another train, happily chatting in the dining car and looking around within the car to confirm that we're fine. A look out the window, however, suggests that we're not. Already 90% of the ocean's edible fish have been decimated. We're running up against the limits of water storage. Temperature changes are triggering dangerous levels of drought and flooding in different parts of the world. Insurance companies have forecast disaster claims equal to the world GDP in 20 to 30 years as storms intensify. About 1/4 of the world's population lives in countries that are collapsing - countries that would have been declared bankrupt and closed if such a thing were possible. Increasing evidence mounts that what we're manufacturing is not compatible with good health.

In the midst of this, apathy seems fashionable. Not apathy in terms of people refusing to take individual responsibility. Rather, apathy in the sense of people refusing to insist on collective action.

If you want a BA degree in four years, you had better get to work now. If you want to launch a profitable drug in five years, you're already late by five. If you want to avoid water, climate, population, or pandemic crisis in 10 to 20 years, you have to begin working towards a solution now. The larger the goal, the bigger the system you're trying to influence, the more important is a sense of urgency. Sadly, the farther away are the consequences, the less the sense of urgency.

The status quo is not an option. The only question seems to be whether you want your children to live in a world much better than yours or much worse.

15 November 2007

The Late Great Micheal O Dhomhnaill

When I was fresh out of college, living north of Bellingham, WA, with my new Canadian bride, I hosted a radio show. Among the performers featured on "Celtic Folk for Celtic Folk and Other Folk" was the Bothy Band. Micheal O'Dhomhnaill, who was instrumental to its success, went on to found Relativity and Nightnoise. Last year, O'Dhomhnaill died at the early age of 54.

Here are two songs. The first is a delightful performance of Fionnghula by John McGlynn, a song I first heard performed by the Bothy Band and then again by O Dohomhnaill's last band, Nightnoise. (I would have taught it to my children if only I could have ever learned the words.) The last is performed and sung by Micheal O'Dhomhnaill with the Bothy Band, an example of his great voice and guitar playing.

I still think that Celtic music is played too rarely. It's not just that it includes the poignant and playful, but I suspect that Hendrix was inspired in part by bag pipes. Blame it on my Scottish heritage by way of Boston and then Nova Scotia, but I think that the music has a universal appeal. Enjoy.

14 November 2007

Paul Anka Does Grunge Rock

One of the joys of being middle aged is that I can enjoy both of these songs. If you don't get the beauty of Paul Anka's treatment of Kurt Cobain's anthem to troubled youth, you're too young. If you don't get the angst of Cobain's performance, you're too old. If the juxtaposition of these performances doesn't make you laugh, you're not awake.

Here it is - proof that music, like language, is infinitely malleable.

13 November 2007

In Praise of Plastic Surgery

Sadly, Kanye West's mother died in surgery - cosmetic surgery. It's easy to criticize the woman for taking such a risk for the sake of appearances, but each year, millions do.

I'm not much into appearances. I've never quite cracked the code on dressing well or looking good. But looks matter - more to some than others. I have no problem with that. All of us are genetically wired to notice attractive people and to give them a little more attention. A female who looks like Natalia Estrada has more opportunities than one with a cleft palate.

During medieval times, you were born poor or rich. Serfs were serfs and until the Great Plague killed about 30 to 50% of Europeans, disrupting the social order, your level of affluence was pretty much defined by birth. There was nothing you could do about it. It is still difficult for anyone to change class - few poor become middle class and even fewer middle class become rich - but it is possible and, more importantly, most people approach life with the expectation that they can change their finances. For me, that's a wonderful thing.

Looks in the 20th century went through the same change as money in the Renaissance. Suddenly, the sperm lottery wasn't the sole determinant of whether you could be attractive. Along with diet, exercise, and fashion, the individual suddenly had a new tool - cosmetic surgery. No longer did genes randomly inherited determine the size of your nose or breasts or even your body's strategy about where to place excess fat.

There is a great bumper sticker that says, "Don't change how you look. Change how you see." It's a wonderful sentiment, but until everyone agrees not to notice or respond to beauty, we can hardly blame people who fight against fate in the form of their genes.