31 March 2007

Top 9 Reasons That I'm Glad It's Baseball Season

9. Baseball is not a violent sport. The pitcher tries to throw the ball past the batter, not at him.

8. Baseball seems to me such a civilized game, played at a conversational speed that encourages discussions and friendships among the fans.

7. Baseball is a humbling sport. Even the best teams lose about 60 games a season. Even the best hitters are put out two-thirds of the time. Players tend to be a little more philosophical about pacing themselves through a season of 162+ games.

6. Baseball has a tradition that allows fans to compare numbers over the course of a century - that’s tradition.

5. The numbers that get compared are so fuzzy (it wasn’t until 1950 that whites had to compete with blacks, baseball fields vary greatly in the ease with which they accommodate home runs, of late players were probably “juicing,” etc.) that comparisons between players inevitably provokes great arguments (see point 8).

4. Baseball is played outdoor in the late spring and summer. If it rains, everyone comes back later to play and watch the game. In this sense, baseball comes with a good weather guarantee.

3. Baseball is scalable. Kids who are 12 can play an engaging game as can college kids who are 20 and professionals who are 30. As long as the players are roughly matched in ability, the game promises to be interesting.

2. Baseball lets the fans feel superior. Batting champs strike out, Cy Young Award winners give up home runs. They make grown men wear those funny little uniforms. A guy making $30,000 a year can holler at a guy making $3 million.

1. There is almost no correlation between athleticism and the ability to hit a 95 mph curveball. There is no classic hitter’s physique, giving the sport an everyman look in spite of the fact that only about .0003% of the population can consistently hit a 95 mph curveball. Lean, chubby, and muscular players, Japanese or Latino guys who speak little or no English, black guys or white guys who talk too much, serious guys and silly guys – the great players seem to defy any stereotype of personality, intellect, or physical characteristics.

29 March 2007

Today I Hate Google

I'm intrigued to see the words and phrases people use to find R World. I found it flattering and oddly disorientating weeks ago when I was in the top five for searches on "reasons to pull out of Iraq." It felt good to be there between the BBC and MSNBC on such a search and while I found it confusing that a blog getting about 2 readers per week would rank up there with the 2 thousand per nanosecond sites like the BBC, it was a happy confusion. I've shown up at or near the top of the search lists for other curiously esoteric phrases that include mention of such oddities as western civilization, social evolution, or economic goods. I've generally found the search results that result in a hit on R World more curious than offensive. That is, until today.

Today, some poor soul enters the following into google:
98.9% of what i do is motivated by spite and porn
Number one on the search results? R World. Sigh.

Today, I hate google.

Are Your Blog Reading Habits Making You Go Blind?

In order to sell papers or keep you tuned in until 11 PM, the news has to sound dire. "Is Your Dinner Salad Actually Killing You?" "Will Subprime Loans Take Down the Economy?" "Are Your Blog Reading Habits Making You Go Blind?"

This may yet prove to be one of the more pernicious legacies of "grab your eyes" journalism.

Let's look at the facts about the time we live in. Never has a generation had the promise of greater longevity (and some even think that our mere 80 years is just the beginning of an explosion in life expectancy). Bio tech has made the problems of disease and aging problems of programming, of engineering. Every day, tens of thousands more knowledge workers are joining the work force - ready and able to begin solving the myriad problems that progress brings with it. The global economy continues to grow, lifting more people out of poverty. Foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are beginning to make real progress towards alleviating suffering in third world countries. Progress in computing promises the ability to create simulated environments for learning and experimentation. The problems of climate change are real but solutions to that problem are reachable. Garrison Keillor is still broadcasting, Van Morrison is still recording. Every month, more great books are printed than I even have time to read. Young people are still invigorating because their lives are filled with more possibility than even they realize and babies and toddlers are still enchanting because they are so unselfconscious and honest. Here in San Diego the weather is absolutely gorgeous - the winds and rain have made this sunny and warm day even more spectacular than it might otherwise be.

Don't let your blog reading or news consumption habits blind you to that.

Let hope seize hold of you by the lapels and shake a little joy into your senses. This is an amazing time to be alive.

[You may now return to your regular diet of gloom, doom, and prognositications of worsening conditions.]

28 March 2007

Underwear, Peasants, and Paradigms

Underwear saved the lives of peasants in the 1700's.

Innovations in the early day of the industrial revolution made underwear and changes of clothes affordable. Prior to that, clothing that lie next to the skin fostered bacteria and infection and early death. Some time later, fashion became, er, fashionable and people began to buy clothes simply to stay current rather than because their clothes were hopelessly soiled, worn or outgrown.

It is considerably harder to change minds than clothing. Thomas Kuhn's often cited and occasionally read book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions popularized the notion of paradigm. He argued that a particular worldview, or paradigm, does two things. One, it makes sense of the world by ordering data and experiences into comprehensible patterns. Two, it filters out what doesn't fit into the pattern, what doesn't support the paradigm. (At any given instance, our senses are exposed to millions of bits of data; our consciousness can process only about 40 bits per second.) Thus, the paradigm we need to make sense of reality also filters out reality. One of the first jobs of a paradigm is to defend itself from attack.

Kuhn points to various examples of paradigm filters throughout history. Scientists expecting planetary orbits to be perfectly circular threw out data that deviated from that, seeing it as an error or anomaly. Their failure to clearly see the data meant that they missed the elliptical nature of orbits which meant that they missed the opportunity to develop a theory of gravity. The way that they made sense of the world kept them from sensing the world.

Radically new theories generally get accepted only by later generations. The Copernican Revolution actually took a century to be accepted. The germ theory was discarded by Pasteur's contemporaries and only accepted by the next generation, provoking the quip, "Science proceeds by the death of scientists."

A great deal of the progress of the 20th century came from solving problems of information. From semiotics and algorithms to the transmission and storage of information, we've made amazing progress in information technology. Yet new information does not automatically create a new paradigm.

There is a difference between information that streams in to be sorted and filtered to support our existing paradigms and the acquisition of knowledge, understanding, or wisdom that might transform our paradigms. We've mastered the first and have, as near as I can tell, not even bothered to define the latter as a challenge worth pursuing.

I'm sure that the medieval masses didn't think any more about changing underwear than today's masses think about changing paradigms. Yet fluency with paradigms might do as much for our quality of life as information technology did for the last century or textile manufacturing did for the 18th century.

If history teaches us nothing else, it is that paradigms are like underwear; no matter how comfortable they first seem, they eventually need changing. Maybe it's time to make paradigm shifts fashionable.

27 March 2007

The New Media

The old media was a monologue. The new media is a dialogue. It's both that simple and that messy. No longer expected to sit listening in rapt silence, we can now generate our own content and commentary.

1,000 Billionaires vs. a Billion Thousand-aires

Last week, Forbes magazine identified 946 billionaires, a record. "The net worth of the world’s 4 billion poorest souls actually dropped, to less than $35 dollars each," a stark contrast to the average net worth of $3.6 billion for the world's wealthiest 1,000. How stark is the contrast? 100 million times more. (You might want to read that again. The average net worth of the world's wealthiest 1,000 is 100 million times greater than the average net worth of the world's poorest 4 billion. If you stopped reading now, I'd understand.)

At this point, blogging traditions suggest that I rail against the rich. I have other intentions: I plan to rail against their children.

As I get older (something that happened again this morning), I have more admiration for entrepreneurs brave enough to risk starting a business and who are clear headed enough to succeed. More than 90% of the American work force works as an employee; the days of independent businessmen are largely gone. We work for these entrepreneurs and our ability to pay the rent literally depends on their business acumen. The fact that such people have a shot at wealth strikes me as perfectly just. Their success means jobs for us and tax monies for roads and schools and more cool stuff to buy. Unlike most Americans, I neither resent their wealth nor expect to join them.

But what has this to do with their children?

We’re eager to wean families of welfare. Reliance on easy money breeds sloth and bad habits. We should be as eager to wean families of inheritances. It, too, breeds a propensity for parties, a disdain for work, and a sense of detachment from the struggles of everyday working men and women. It makes little sense to me that a working, single mother would pay a higher percentage of taxes than Paris Hilton. Wait. Let me restate that. It makes no sense to me. Estate values over, say, $3 to 5 million should be taxed at a minimum of 50%.

Beyond the benefit of sloth reduction, such a tax policy could address an odd relic from the age of capital. In this country, returns to labor are taxed at a higher rate and more consistently than are returns to capital. Warren Buffet has pointed out how his dividend income is taxed at a lower rate than his secretary’s income; this doesn’t strike him as fair. He doesn’t even mention something that strikes me as worse: the tax rate his children will pay on an inheritance is lower yet. (Of course, such a policy is irrelevant to Warren - he's giving away most of his money.) It would be hard to explain to a Martian why returns to income are taxed more than returns to capital which are taxed more than inheritance. If we value work, such policies seem backwards.

I don’t much resent Sam Walton’s wealth (particularly since he's dead and unable to enjoy it). I do resent his children’s. 50% of their $60-some billion could help to offset some of the government costs of providing health care to WalMart employees. If they wanted to be one of America’s top ten wealthiest, let them do what their father did: build their own business. Somehow, that just seems more American.

26 March 2007

"What a Waste"

From two different opinion pieces in the Economist, 22 March 2007 issue.

"If only
It is not enough to say with the neocons that this [invasion and occupation of Iraq] was a good idea executed badly. Their own ideas are partly to blame. Too many people in Washington were fixated on proving an ideological point: that America's values were universal and would be digested effortlessly by people a world away. But plonking an American army in the heart of the Arab world was always a gamble. It demanded the highest seriousness and careful planning. Messrs Bush and Rumsfeld chose instead to send less than half the needed soldiers and gave no proper thought to the aftermath.
"What a waste. Most Iraqis rejoiced in the toppling of Saddam. They trooped in their millions to vote. What would Iraq be like now if America had approached its perilous, monumentally controversial undertaking with humility, honesty and courage? Thanks to the almost criminal negligence of Mr Bush's administration nobody, now, will ever know."

Within this editorial is a table that offers these statistics about Iraqi opinions.

62% of Iraqis think that things are about the same or worse than before the war. 74% don’t feel safe in their own neighborhood. 78% don’t support the coalition (read American) forces in Iraq. And 51% think it is okay to attack our troops. Finally, what do we get for all our bloodshed and money? 56% want either someone who rules for life or a theocracy.

"The man who will pay the biggest political price for Iraq will ultimately be Mr Bush. It is hardly surprising that liberal historians debate whether he is the worst president ever. But now conservatives are beginning to play the same game. A recent poll of hard-core conservative activists found that only 3% described themselves as George Bush Republicans, compared with 79% who regarded themselves as Ronald Reagan Republicans. But the damage will not be limited to the party leader. For years to come, the Republicans will be paying a collective price for the “stuff” that happened in Iraq."

Questioning Leadership

“Do we decide questions at all?
We decide answers no doubt, but surely the questions decide us.”
- Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland

“Human systems grow in the direction that they continually ask questions about.”
- Tal D. Ben-Shahar, Harvard Happiness Professor

Traditional teachers and leaders, preparing people for a defined and predictable future, ask questions for which they know the answer and then judge subsequent results.

We live in a time of such complexity that no one knows the answers in advance. Are we ready to follow a new generation of teachers and leaders who don't offer answers but, instead, focus us on questions? Are we ready to give up on this dated notion of turning to leaders for answers?

"The myth of leadership is a collusion between control freaks and people who don't want to take responsibility."
- Peter Block

25 March 2007

Moving into the Entrepreneurial Economy

The defining figure in an agricultural economy is the farmer with a hoe.
The defining figure in an industrial economy is the factory worker helping to manufacture back hoes.
The defining figure in an information economy is the engineer who works on design plans for the back hoe.

The work of the factory work can substitute for quite a few farmers. (You can see in the above graph that farm workers were about 80-some% of the working population in 1800 and about ~3% of the working population in 1980.)
The knowledge worker, too, can replace a number of factory workers. (Think about how a newly designed robot - the product of a knowledge worker - can replace numerous factory workers.)
My own vision of a movement into an entrepreneurial economy is that the portion of the work force categorized as entrepreneur will grow as did the factory worker in the 1800s and the information (or knowledge) worker in the 1900s.
Manufacturing in the 1500s involved little alteration to raw materials: wheat was ground, wool was spun, and grapes crushed and aged. Yet by the 1800s the processing was more sophisticated. Manufacturing assumes a mature market for raw goods - and the manufacturer uses raw goods as inputs to a process that creates more value than the mere trade of raw goods.
The information economy arose out of the complexity of the industrial economy. As machinery, products, processes, markets, and distribution became more complex, it created a demand for more sophisticated workers. Education that shared knowledge about principles in design, engineering, advertising, and sales became important in the creation of a skilled work force - the best jobs increasingly required university education. The information economy assumes a mature market for capital - and the knowledge workers use capital goods as the material to be manipulated into greater value just as the capitalists uses raw materials to be manipulated into greater value.
We now have a very mature information economy. This forms a great foundation for an entrepreneurial economy that could build on information technology. If entrepreneurship is about bringing together raw materials, capital, and labor (or, more specifically, knowledge workers), then it assumes information networks that make dynamic markets cost-effective. The information economy will be the foundation for the coming entrepreneurial economy.
One difference that will characterize the entrepreneurial economy is the role of the worker. Traditionally, a knowledge worker sold his / her skills to the corporation that transformed those efforts into value on the market in the form of goods or services. Entrepreneurs or managers were responsible for correctly orchestrating such efforts into projects and tasks that created market value; if they did well, these entrepreneurs and managers were handsomely rewarded. The entrepreneurial economy will change that arrangement. An increasing percentage of knowledge workers (a percentage that I suspect will not exceed 30 or 40% by 2050) will work as entrepreneurs themselves. By that I partly mean that they will offer their services through a dynamic market rather than a traditional salaried position. Their pay will be linked to profits from particular projects or activities. We'll have the corporate equivalent of self-organizing complexity rather than central, command and control economies.
This will drive further advances in information technology, just as the industrial revolution transformed agricultural and the information economy has transformed industry. And this change will simply be the start of a more complex change that will transform the modern corporation into something that looks more like an incubator than a bureaucracy.
This will change so many things about how we conceive of corporations today. This and related, required changes will disperse power outwards from paternalistic managers towards individual workers. It will create opportunities that don't exist today. And it will link to the driving force of progress throughout the history of Western Civilization - increased autonomy for the individual.

24 March 2007

Mitt's Bay of Pig-Latin

From the Boston Herald
In a recent appearance before the Miami-Dade Republican Party, Romney angered Cuban- American officials and activists when he quoted dictator Fidel Castro’s traditional sign-off line “patria o muerte, venceremos” - a Communist rallying cry which is loosely translated to mean “Fatherland or death, we shall overcome.”
[end quote]

Rumor has it that Romney didn't realize that this was Castro's patented sign off for speeches. "Fatherland or death." I mean, it certainly doesn't sound like something a communist despot might say. Fascist, sure. But communist? Who would have thought it?

I'm Banned in China

Well, my writing career has reached a new milestone. I'm now banned in China. Of course, this is true of everyone who posts on blogspot, but should I ever be invited to a cocktail party, I'll conveniently leave out that little detail.

Hmm. Maybe I'll get a t-shirt printed up.

23 March 2007

Non Sequitur - the Fashionable Language of Politics

It is time to set loose the jesters.

Today, the United States congress debated and passed a spending bill for our troops in Iraq. I can only conclude that the modern language of politics rests heavily on the non sequitur.

Republicans continue to make absurd statements like "If we don't defeat them there they will be fighting us on the streets of our towns and cities." Or, "We want to bring home the troops but not until the job is done." These Republicans have never defined what "done" looks like or offered honest measures of progress towards that definition. They don't even define "them," a vague label that may apply to Al Qaeda, Sunni militias, vengeful Shiites, or innocent civilians enraged by the behavior of occupation forces. The thought that insurgents in Baghdad will suddenly hop into cargo planes and fly across the Atlantic to invade our cities once we have stopped trying to police their civil war is so absurd as to suggest drug use. I'm sure that there is an argument for leaving troops indefinitely in Iraq, but from what I can tell no one shared that argument with House members.

The Democrats have, sadly, countered the Republican absurdities with their own. "This will end the war in Iraq," they say. And they stuffed the spending bill with so much unrelated spending that it reeks of legislative bribery. Worse, it suggests that the congress couldn't even end our misguided invasion and occupation without offering budgetary non sequiturs of their own - provisions for spinach farmers along with money for troops. The war in Iraq will not end as our troops withdraw - it is likely to intensify and may even result in slaughter that borders on genocide.

I don't know whether we're electing officials unable to follow a train of logic longer than a prepositional phrase or whether they think that we are the ones thus handicapped. In any case, I have a suggestion. A non-partisan philosopher, intellectually able and honest, should be seated on the floor of the House and be expected to hit a buzzer every time a politician makes a statement that has not been supported by facts or does not logically follow from previous statements. Either that or it is time to set jesters loose on the floor of Congress, giving these self-important politicians a fitting backdrop for spouting their non sequiturs.

22 March 2007

In Defense of Hesitant Hillary

Various left-wing bloggers have taken a swing at Hillary and Barack for their hesitancy of late. When first asked whether she agreed with General Pace's comment that homosexuality was immoral, Hillary said "Well, I am going to leave that to others to conclude." A day or two later, Hillary finally made her own conclusion, deciding that homosexuality is not immoral.

I have to confess that I initially joined in the disgust. Hillary's candidacy reminds me at time of Al Gore's - she often seems like a candidate who does not trust her own instincts and whether she is, as the cynics suggest, consulting her poll numbers before making up her mind or simply taking her time, the hesitancy seemed to me a liability.

And then I remembered something about the man we're so eager to send back home to Texas. One of the more remarkable things about his launch of the Iraq invasion is how little discussion preceded his decision. According to Bob Woodward, George did not even consult Colin Powell - his Secretary of State, the man who led the military against Saddam in the Gulf War. He merely told Powell that we were going in.

What if Hillary is a candidate who seems to realize that the decisions of a president are serious things and ought not to be rushed into based on initial "instincts?" We certainly could have used such an approach four or five years ago.

21 March 2007

Finding High Ground in a Flat World – 21st Century Economic Competition

I've written a great deal about making firms more entrepreneurial. What I have not mentioned is the competitive pressure that we in the developed countries will feel to do this.

Through the early 1900's, the developed countries held a competitive advantage because of industrial capacity. Today, we have an advantage because of the pairing of knowledge workers and information technology (IT) through our corporations in what we've come to call an information economy. Yet the relative productivity advantage we have is rapidly disappearing.

The industrial economy had huge barriers to entry. By contrast, the information economy does not. A few guys in a basement can launch a business that is soon worth millions - even billions. This has consequences for national policy, particularly when those guys in the basement are in the Ukraine.

Professionals in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, France, Germany and the rest of the EU will increasingly be competing with professionals in China, India, Malaysia, and other rapidly developing countries like the Ukraine and Taiwan. Professionals making $80,000 in developed countries will have trouble competing with similarly educated and equipped professionals making $8,000.

Individual effort has never been as big a determinant of productivity as the system in which these individuals are working. A hard working trapper in the Great Lakes makes less than a hard working dry land wheat farmer in Saskatchewan. The industrious assembly line worker makes less than the industrious programmer. Changing from an agricultural to industrial or industrial to information economy always makes a bigger difference than individual effort within an old economy.

The developed nations have an opportunity to transform again - to become an entrepreneurial economy instead of an information economy. To pretend that we can continue to demand big salaries in a world of 6 billion increasingly armed with laptops and university educations borders on denial.

What will it mean to become an entrepreneurial instead of information economy? For one thing, it means that we'll rely on an increasing percentage of our work force to act like entrepreneurs instead of knowledge workers, to move from positions within bureaucracies to positions within dynamic markets. Such markets suggest a reliance on the information economy - a smooth and continual operation of markets that are communicated across networks that blend and distort the difference between Facebook and NASDAQ, between eBay and Monster.com.

For me, the prospect of the popularization of entrepreneurship is exciting for so many reasons. But beyond what it opens up as possibility for the individual, it is a practical and increasingly necessary solution to emerging economies that will easily underbid us should we continue to rely on an information economy that has outlived its advantage.

Using the Time Machine

Imagine that you have a time machine. You can instantly go backwards in time but not forward. So, you can instantly go back to, say, 1985 or last night but you have to live forward to today's date in real time.

Do you ever use it? How often? How far back do you go?

I need to know because I'm working out some design issues on my prototype right now and am trying to gauge market demand. If it turns out that there is no demand, I'll just go back in time and not build the prototype.

20 March 2007

Orwellian Blogging

This from Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language," May, 1945.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so." Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

"While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement."

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

This may well be the mission of blogging: cut past the obscurity of language and media to reality as we live it.

Is Objectivity on its Death Bed?

Markets aren't magical. They simply bring together supply and demand. This can be frightening in the world of media as there is demand for certain kinds of opinions that people are happy to supply. There is demand for stories about conspiracies, extraterrestrials, heroes, and villains. While I am not saying that none of these things exist, I am saying that the supply of such stories has more to do with demand than supporting data.

There is an argument that blogs are the worst offenders in the supply of "demand-for" opinions. An intriguing post by Bruno Giussani, "Medialess Culture / Cultureless Media," explores a variety of topics. One is the claim (reported, rather than made, by Giussani) that "A key phenomena is that one of the central classic notions of journalism, objectivity, is nowhere to be found on the blogs."

Has a market-driven media and the free-for-all blogs brought us into the world defined by deconstructionists - a relativistic chasm into which any voice can shout out bizarre claims and hear them echoed in the form of shared delusions and confirmed opinions? Has nuance become a foreign language? It is easy to become pessimistic about the future of informed discourse if we accept these claims, believing that the media and Internet have fragmented into self-referential opinion factories.

And yet, I remain stupidly optimistic. Why? Because along with the market for opinions, there is a market for efficacy, for what works. People who are making a difference will force a confrontation between reality and the many opinions and theories about it. Bloggers can swap opinions, but they can also challenge conventional views that have muddled our perception of reality. And in the end, reality will prevail. It always does. Eventually.

19 March 2007

Dubya and the Space Aliens

33% of Americans believe that George W. is doing is good job.
37% of Americans believe that aliens from outer space have contacted the US government.

This may just be the new definition of poor performance: more people believe that you're communicating with extraterrestrials than believe that you're doing well.

Dick buys Duke a Yacht

In the summer of 2002, Mitchell Wade negotiated a price of exactly $140,000 for a yacht.

About that same time, Dick Cheney's office awarded Wade his first-ever federal contract for exactly $140,000.

2 weeks later, federal taxpayer money in hand, Mitchell Wade bought the yacht and gave it to his buddy, San Diego-area Representative Duke Cunningham.

Last year, Wade and Cunningham were convicted of fraud and both sentenced to jail.

San Diego-based US Attorney Carol Lam led the investigation that resulted in Cunningham's confession and jail sentence.

After last November's elections, Bush fired Lam.

Question: Was Lam fired before she could make a connection between Cheney's $140,000 contract and Cunningham's $140,000 yacht?

More here.

18 March 2007

Time for a Populist Movement

The Rothschild brothers didn’t seem like elites when they began their career. Mayer Rothschild began his life living in a Frankfurt ghetto, forced to leave the sidewalk when even a young child ordered him to “Step aside, Jew!” But he was a successful merchant who had the vision to send four of his five sons to the most important cities in Europe.

Mayer's son Nathan Rothschild was in London when the English began their war against Napoleon. This war was incredibly expensive. Coordinating efforts with his brothers, Nathan was able to raise huge sums of money for the British government by selling war bonds throughout Europe – primarily through his brothers in Frankfurt, Paris, Vienna, and Naples. While helping to finance the British government, Nathan made the Rothschild brothers rich and famous. By the time of his death in 1836, he might have had more liquid wealth than anyone in the world. Because they helped to invent modern financial markets, the Rothschild brothers rose from the German ghetto to become elites with power enough to dictate terms to kings.

The Rothschild brothers and others like JP Morgan helped to pioneer modern financial markets. Then, in the next century, philosophers like Keynes, policy-makers like FDR, and business visionaries like Charlie Merrill and Dee Hock “democratized” financial markets, creating access to credit and investment markets for the people. Alan Greenspan or Ben Bernanke is supposed to manage interest rates and reserve rates so as to do what is best for the general economy and the average person – not just a few powerful bankers. Access to financial markets once reserved for the elites is now considered a right.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Knox were among the revolutionaries who wrested control of the church away from the elites and helped to put it into the hands of the people in the domain of religion.

Later, Louis XIV and Henry VIII help to pioneer the nation-state and then, centuries later, revolutionaries like Jefferson and Franklin wrested control away from the elites and into the hands of the people.

The swings between power held by the elites and the people seem to me inevitable. The elites pioneer and prosper. They are the social inventors who create the great institutions like church, state, and corporation. These individuals deserve fame and fortune. But once those inventions have become an integral part of the social fabric, along come revolutionaries who turn control of these inventions over from the elites to the people.

Next up for Western Civilization? Wresting control away from the CEOs, the last of the monarchs, and putting power into the hands of the investors, employees, and communities whose fate is so inexorably tied up in the actions of the corporation.

Am I a populist or an elitist? A Republican who wants the people’s interest represented by a trusted group of elites or a Democrat who wants the people to directly represent their own interests? At this point in history, I’m a populist, a Democrat ready to see the power of the powerful corporation dispersed.

17 March 2007

Social Evolution and the Big Yawn

Natural evolution has become a big deal. We have lots of data to support the theory. As a topic it still sells books and magazines. It is still debated. The insights from it have helped to spawn at least one industry (bio tech). It is used to explain everything from disease to psychology. But within your lifetime, humanity is unlikely to evolve. Natural evolution is a big deal, but it is unlikely to change your life in the next few decades.

By contrast, social evolution is obscure. We have lots of data to support the theory that societies evolve over time, memes doing for social life what genes do for biological life. As a topic, though, it is all but ignored. But within your lifetime, society has already evolved. Some in fairly innocuous ways, as disco gives way to hip-hop or stock analysts give way to algorithms; and some in fairly significantly ways, such as the exintinction of communism and capitalism. Social evolution is a big deal in terms of impact, but it gets little coverage.

16 March 2007

Cheney - Midas's Doppleganger

Everyone remembers the "We'll be greeted as liberators" reassurances of Dick, who told us "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."

Well, Dick has done it again. He visited Pakistan a couple of weeks ago.

Musharraf is Pakistan's head of state and his has never been a particularly secure position. Musharraf isn't the most democratic of leaders, and gets in trouble with the religious extremists who don't like his embrace of the West or his willingness to "cooperate" with the United States. He has to walk a tightrope between appeasing those who would modernize Pakistan and those who would gladly turn into a state that the Taliban could bless. To be seen as an American puppet could mean the end of his career and could tip Pakistan towards theocracy.

Into this violatile mix walks Dick. With all the subtly of a bull wandering into a china shop from a marijuana patch, Dick demands that Musharraf cooperate more with the US.

The fallout?
"... the political cost to Gen Musharraf of being seen as a puppet of the administration of President George W. Bush is becoming unsustainable. ... “It’s a whirlpool right now,” says Taffazul Rizvi, a US-trained Pakistani lawyer. “It’s an emerging situation, which can take down anyone, including Musharraf.” … Diplomats in Islamabad worry it may be too late for ... political fixes. Religious radicalism is spreading so rapidly that there is little time left to save Pakistan’s moderate political parties and institutions such as the Supreme Court that are central to the functioning of any future democracy."

Dick has become Midas's doppleganger - everything he touches turns to destruction.

Will Blogging Just Increase the Popularity of Mainstream Journalists?

In a stunning reversal from his rant just days earlier about the mainstream media's mad dash for irrelevancy, our intrepid blogger has this thought ....

Bloggers are to mainstream columnists what streetball is to the NBA. As much as I enjoy the work of fellow bloggers, I've yet to find someone who nails an issue with the succinct authority of a Paul Krugman or the comedic wit of a Jon Stewart or the research acumen of a Dana Priest or Sy Hersh.

Guys who like to play a game of pickup basketball follow the NBA more closely than those who don't. Recreational golfers are more likely to watch PGA on TV than us normal people. Engagement in a game is more likely to make one a student and fan of that game.

Little League and College Teams create far more fans of professional athletes than actual professional athletes. Might it be that blogging will not create competition for mainstream journalists but will, instead, create a new, bigger audience even more appreciative of their skills?

And wouldn't that be ironic? As the peasants are transformed into the middle class, the rich just get richer. I think we've seen this play before.

Blog Karaoke

If plagiarism is equivalent to lip-synching, than using your blog to continually showcase words and videos generated by others is the equivalent of blogging karaoke.

15 March 2007

Rerun from 8/17 - Bush Blinded by the Lens of the Nation-State

I began publishing this blog 17 August of last year. One of the things that motivated me to blog was my disgust with Bush's handling of Iraq and the utterly vacuous commentary about our options in the country. That day, I made the following posting. To this day I still don't understand why the two people who read this posting didn't take my advice and change our foreign policy. Hmmph. I still hold this opinion and am willing to repeat it every six to seven months (albeit edited a bit for clarity). Sign me, "typing at windmills."

“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”
- Anais Nin

[As I write this in August of 2006] The prospect of civil war in Iraq is increasingly real, and yet Bush and most of his critics seem united in the notion that US troops should stay in Iraq until the Iraqi government is stable. That goal may be unrealistic and the reason for it may be the same as the reason that the invasion has proven so problematic in the first place.

If there is a solution to our entanglement, it starts with a change in perspective. The same problem that got us into Iraq is causing us problems in the occupation: Bush continues to address political problems as national problems, even when those problems defy such neatly defined boundaries.

His answer to terrorism was the invasion of two countries; his answer to civil strife is building a stronger Iraqi army. Yet trying to address these problems as national problems seems only to exacerbate them. Terrorism is a problem that spills across national borders and belongs to no single nation; the civil strife in Iraq stems from a conflict between three different nations - three different people - within the borders of a single state. It is highly doubtful that we can fight terrorists as we would a traditional army, using tanks and planes. In fact, it seems that such tactics and their inevitable "collateral damage" might simply swell the ranks of terrorists.

A state refers to a government with a central administration that invariably includes a military. A nation refers to a people who share a culture, a history, and language. States and nations don't always neatly overlap and the process of aligning the two often plays out as a series of civil and regional wars. Think about how many wars were fought and treaties negotiated before the European states were formed into today's still evolving map.

Democratic rule suggests autonomy - giving a people what they want. If a people see themselves as three nations, one of the first things that they'll want is three states. To offer democracy while forcing the people into one state seems like a guarantee for conflict.

What got us into Iraq is what is keeping us there. What got us there is Bush's unquestioned assumption that the best leverage point for dealing with any political problem is through established nation-states. The Bush administration has continually shown its disdain for international and trans-national agreements or governance. In its dealing with Iraq, it has similarly shown its disdain for what is sees as"tribal" conflicts or sectarian conflict.

The really significant problems of this century – from terrorism and tribalism to global warming and economic stability – defy neatly defined national solutions.

Blinded by His Worldview, Part One
Bush was first blinded by the nation-state lens when he called the terrorist attacks of 9-11 an act of war. If it were, the fact that we have the best military in the history of the world would be relevant. Yet it turns out that the war on terrorism is more like the war on poverty or drugs than World War II. Imagine being handed a CD and having only a turntable on which to play it and you get some sense of Bush’s predicament when he confronted 9-11. Faced with an issue that did not fit into his worldview, he nonetheless plopped the needle down on the rotating CD and has not yet been able to make sense of the resulting music or lyrics.

Wars against terrorists and wars against nation-states are very different and yet Bush opted to respond to a terrorist threat with a conventional war strategy. Bush ended despotic regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq but has made little progress against Al Qaeda: Saddam is [now executed] yet bin Laden is free. Defining and conquering Al Qaeda is more difficult than defining and conquering nations. Where others saw a messy ideological battle that was part foreign policy and part crime-fighting, Bush saw clearly defined invasions using traditional military force. This was the first time that he was blinded by the lens of the nation-state.

Sand in His Eyes - Blinded a Second Time
[Four] years after the Iraqi invasion, our occupation has divided the American public, increased international animosity, and has not yet delivered a government able to ensure safety or even basic utilities. In the last two months [sadly, the number would probably be the same or greater now, five months later], 6,000 Iraqis have been killed. American generals and the British ambassador are warning of a possible civil war. Some experts say civil war is not just possible but is already underway.

One cannot accuse Bush for a lack of commitment. Our $100 billion annual spending represents a multiple of Iraq’s $22 billion pre-invasion GDP. Our troops have already spent as long fighting in Iraq as they spent fighting against Hitler. So, why has this occupation gone so badly?

Where Bush sees Iraq, historians see three former Ottoman regions populated by Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds consolidated into a single nation after World War I by the British. Iraq did not emerge out of a shared culture, philosophy or economy – it was the product of a British idea, imposed by bureaucrats reporting to officials based in London and living in a different time and place than these people we've come to call Iraqis. These three groups still find it difficult to reconcile their differences into a single community. British occupation, Saddam’s tyranny, and a democratic constitution coupled with an American occupation have apparently done little to address the reality of three separate people, or nations, distrusting one another and holding different notions of a community. Regardless of what politicians in far-off countries might think, it appears as if there are actually three separate nations within the borders of Iraq, three nations that deserve three states.

This problem of different nations sharing a single state has led to brutal civil wars in places as different as Rwanda and Yugoslavia. It is once again playing out here, in this region we now call Iraq.

The common claim is that the Bush administration is engaged in nation building. This is a misnomer. Nation-states represent a confluence of nation and state, a people who share an identity (the nation component) and a government (the state component). Given that a nation suggests a shared culture, language, and worldview, a nation is very difficult to build and doing so can take decades or centuries. By contrast, building a state involves setting up a central government and can be accomplished in years or decades.

It is doubtful that the Bush Administration can actually build a nation in Iraq. The reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II represented a triumph of policy – yet it did not involve nation building. Germany and Japan were clearly single, unified nation-states before rebuilding began. The Marshall Plan helped to rebuild the German state, but it did not create a German nation. Germans already had a keen sense of being German, for whatever the differences between regions. MacArthur did great work in post-war Japan, but it is hard to think of a more clearly aligned nation and state than Japan. Iraq's situation is vastly different than that of post-war Japan or Germany.

Within Iraq, it would probably be more effective to accept the existence of multiple nations than to try to build a single nation. History suggests that when a people are allowed self-determination, one of their first acts is to create a state that aligns with their sense of national identity. To ignore this impulse is to sow the seeds of on-going civil strife and war.

Starting from the premise that Iraq is actually three nations now governed by one state would be no panacea, but it could provide a starting point for genuine progress towards stability in the region.

The Odd Job of Parenting

Tomorrow my youngest turns 18 and next week my daughter is 20. Even though I'm only 46, I have 38 years of experience as a parent (you just add up the ages of your children to calculate years of experience, right?).

I've learned a few things about parenting. I've learned to kiss them on the head when I'm confused by them or frustrated by them or delighted with them. This seems to work on 18 month old children and 18 year old children alike. I've learned to call them "precious children," as a reminder to me and to them. And I've changed my mind about my job as a parent.

When these two little people came into the world, I actually thought it was my job to help turn them into certain kind of people. A couple of decades later, I'm come around to the opinion that my job is very different.

Anyone with children is amazed by what distinct personalities they are. They come into the world at a particular trajectory, seemingly destined to be a particular somebody, and it is not exactly clear that a parent can do much about it. Well, other than make them feel self-conscious or guilty about who they are.

So, how has this realization changed my notion of what it means to be a parent? Rather than try to change or shape who they are, I see my job as helping them to figure out how to succeed, how to navigate life, given that they are who they are. As we stand beside each other, trying to figure this out, I learn one more thing; they usually have a better idea than me about how to do that.

Parenting. It's an odd job and after 20 years I still don't know where I'm supposed to pick up my paycheck.

14 March 2007

The Mainstream Media's Mad Dash to Irrelevancy

Yesterday, I'm running (okay, plodding along) on the treadmill and have before me four TV screens. One is tuned to a Nancy Grace show and it is showing footage of Anna Nicole Smith. For a time, another news channel is also broadcasting something about Anna, but Grace's show continues for a half hour. Or so I thought. It turns out that she was dedicating a full hour to Anna.

Saturday, I'm walking the beach and streets in the delightful community of Coronado. I pass by a newspaper dispenser for the San Diego Union-Tribune. I don't know whether I was looking at an early release of the Sunday paper or the Saturday's paper, but the front page stopped me. What was on it, front and center and taking up about half the page? LaDainian Tomlinson modeling the new San Diego Charger's uniform.

I can only conclude one thing. The mainstream media has decided to fast forward its frenzied descent into irrelevance. Newspapers are losing subscribers every year? Wonderful. Television is losing viewers to the Internet? Great. They had their chance to make a positive difference and they opted instead to make a profit - a tactic seemingly destined to rob them of the very audience needed to sustain a profit.

And if covering such inane topics doesn't cost them their audience, then God pity the republic that confuses what they represent with reality. The mainstream media: a worldview that is all view and no world and is to ideas what sugar-free cotton candy is to nutrition.

13 March 2007

Giuliani & McCain - Is Dignity as a Victim Enough to Make a Great Leader?

Giuliani and McCain are the two front-runners for the Republican nomination for president. They curiously share something more profound than multiple wives. They are honorable victims.

John McCain is a different kind of war hero. He didn't orchestrate the invasion of Europe and defeat of Hitler, as did Eisenhower. He didn't defeat the British, as did Washington or Jackson. McCain's distinction did not come from victory but came instead from his bravery as a prisoner of war. I'm not about to denigrate something as profound as his courage in the face of torture and years of captivity. In fact, I think that such an experience would give him unique qualities that would be valuable in a president. But it is worth noting that his distinction was not that of a traditional war hero. John McCain was a POW in a war that America either lost or withdrew from - depending on how you keep score.

Rudy Giuliani, too, is a different kind of political leader. Before 9-11, Giuliani's political career was largely over. His choice to date another woman while still married had compounded other problems he had with the public. Before he won approval for his handling of the crisis of 9-11, Giuliani's political career was largely over. It is worth noting that Giuliani, a former prosecutor, did not break a case that revealed the plan to attack the twin towers. He did not heroically stop the slaughter in the 11th hour. Rather, Giuliani distinguished himself by tirelessly attending funerals, rallying rescue workers, and helping the city to recover emotionally from a devastating blow. Again, as with McCain, this experience likely imbued him with certain qualities that would be favorable in a president. But note, once again, that Giuliani is a different kind of hero. He, too, was more victim than conqueror.

So, what does this say about our national psyche? We have two Republican front-runners who have distinguished themselves as honorable victims, not as heroes who defeated the bad guys. Have we reached a point when the American public is so defeatist about issues like terrorism, climate change, the erosion of civil rights, occupations from which we can’t extricate ourselves, and competition from outsourcing that we've lost our optimism and are now desperate to recover our honor, even if it is tainted with defeat?

If so, it makes sense to me for the first time why the junior senator from Illinois, a man with so little experience that he can't be judged, might have such widespread appeal. The audacity of hope indeed.

Capital Punishment for Despots

It's time that the UN was given the power to assassinate world leaders.

As much as I've criticized George W. in this blog, I do agree with him about one thing: a head of state ought not to have the right to murder groups of his own citizenry. When a Hitler begins killing Jews, or Pol Pot begins to wipe out a quarter of Cambodia's population, or a Saddam begins killing Kurds, or when Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe begins to kill and imprison opposition party members, there ought to be a way for the world community to quickly intervene.

It seems like the two other options for dealing with this situation are simply immoral. The world community could bemoan the loss of life and do nothing. That's certainly an option we've chosen most often. Or the world community could launch an invasion, overthrow the government of the offending leader, perhaps even try and execute the leader. As we know too well, that, too, can create complications and can result in tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of innocent war casualties.

And perhaps it is just the eighth-grader in me coming out, but how hard could it be for the UN to use some combination of laser-guided bombs, hit squads, or poisoned quail eggs to execute an abusive leader? It has to be easier than either letting him commit genocide or sending in an army to topple his regime.

And if the rules were clear - if these world leaders who would imprison opposition leaders or would kill particular groups of their people know that there was a simple and clear consequence for such abuses - they might restrain themselves even when they’ve seized absolute power.

I realize that there are numerous complications that would come from such a policy. How does the UN decide? What happens when the next leader is just as bad or worse? These are just a couple of the questions raised by such a policy, but, again, it seems to me that these questions are less troublesome than the questions raised by passively witnessing abuse or actively occupying foreign countries.

It's not clear that such a power could rest with a single country like the US or Russia, or even a small group of countries like the G-8. Although it would make approval an administrative quagmire, it seems like the moral authority for assassinating a world leader could only come from an international body like the United Nations.

If we are serious about human rights as a global right and if we're practical about our inability to invade and occupy every despotic regime, it seems like we have no other choice.

Ohio Goes to Bush - Election Workers Go To Jail

News break:

CLEVELAND - Two election workers in the state's most populous county were sentenced Tuesday to 18 months in prison for rigging the 2004 presidential election recount so they could avoid a more thorough review of the votes.

Ohio gave Bush the electoral votes he needed to defeat Democratic Sen. John Kerry in the close election and hold on to the White House in 2004.

Outraged. Again.

12 March 2007

The Paradox of Meaning

“We are here on Earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I don't know.”
- W. H. Auden

If you look up the definition of a word, you'll find it references other words. Meaning is an oddly circular notion.

So what is it that gives a life meaning? I suppose that it, too, is an oddly circular notion. Our lives have meaning when they connect with other lives. We're unlikley to discover the meaning of our lives with a deep dive into our navels.

11 March 2007

Standardized Testing and Educational Goals

Ask a community what goals are important. What is it that matters most in life? You'd likely get answers like
  1. self-esteem,
  2. healthy relationships,
  3. ability to hold a job,
  4. having a sense of spiritual well-being and optimism,
  5. feeling healthy,
  6. contributing to others,
  7. volunteering,
  8. community service,
  9. politics,
  10. mentoring,
  11. finding flow in work or hobbies,
  12. making friends,
  13. finding a life partner,
  14. starting a business
  15. investing money
  16. raising happy children who become responsible adults,
  17. etc.
  18. etc.

You'd likely have some argument about the relative importance of these and invariably there would be some goals that some people would denigrate as unimportant and others that some people would insist are all that matters. But within communities represented by most school districts, you'd likely find great consistency in the top ten items.

So my question is this: what do standardized tests have to do with any of these goals? How does concentrating on raising test scores in any way raise the probability that people will be more likely to have success with attaining the items on the above list (or any list like it)? And why would we make kids spend 13+ years in school preparing for life without preparing them to successfully attain the items listed above?

It simply baffles me that our school systems aren't focused more directly on helping people with what matters in life. It it baffles me even more that standardized tests have become a proxy for those things.

Never in history has there been greater diversity in how people make a living or live their lives. Never in history has there been a greater emphasis on standardized testing as a measure of learning. How did this happen?

10 March 2007

Who Do CEO's Work For?

This week I awoke to an interview with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. He made the most extraordinary comment: he said that he didn't support stockholders voting on CEO pay.

His is not such a unique opinion. In fact, I'm baffled by how common is his opinion. "You own the company but you have no say about the income of the top-paid employee," is what Henry is actually saying. It seems so obviously wrong that I hardly know how to comment.

And it is time to get beyond the joke ballots that these publicly-owned companies send out. There is no information about who we are voting for and rarely options. A typical vote is "Do you support the appointment of Nihal Mudvane to the board?" as if we had a clue who Nihal is or had an option to choose someone else.

Saddam Hussein won 98% of the vote in his last election. The Communist Party typically won about 99% of the vote during their rule over the USSR. Joke elections are evidence of joke governance.

If a company is going to enjoy the benefits of being publicly owned, if it is going to allow us common folks to own stock, the senior executives need to accept that they work for us, the owners. The elections of consequence should parallel the elections of free and open governments - be elections about policy options and about choosing between real people rather than rubber stamping a decision made months before.

First Saddam and Now Gomorra

George W. has once again asked for more troops, another 8,200 on top of his earlier request for an additional 21,500. It seems as though the trial and execution of Iraq's former dictator has renewed his resolve. With Saddam executed, Bush is now eager to find and prosecute Gomorra.

09 March 2007

Pope Benedict as Music Critic

The pope has decided that Bob Dylan is "the wrong kind of prophet." This has me concerned. I can only assume that folks like Springsteen and Van Morrison are now tarred with the same brush. Maybe it's because I'm a bit panicked by this news, but now I can only think of one safe strategy: listen exclusively to artists who have never been accused of profundity, much less prophecy. I'm headed off to the store to pick up the latest from Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson. This is going to be an adjustment.

I wonder if Rolling Stone might sign on the pope as music critic. It could be interesting if only it wouldn't be so repetitive. "Once again, I feel compelled to give a thumbs down to this new release. It encourages the wrong kind of mindless conformity among today's youth. Plus these bands wear such funny costumes," said the pope as he bobbed his mitre along with the song.

08 March 2007

The Post-Capitalist Corporation

The corporation will soon undergo a transformation akin to the change of the nation-state during the age of Enlightenment.

Once the medieval church lost its grip on Europe, the modern nation-state grabbed power. For centuries, religious wars defined European politics. Huge swaths of the population were murdered by competing religions that used monarchs and rebels to compete for ascendancy. It was not until religion was made a personal matter and nation-states focused on issues of politics that warfare became less frequent. Governments could focus on quality of life instead of imposing religion through force.

Today, power has shifted from capitalism, from "the bank," to the corporation. JP Morgan sat on corporate boards and formed corporations like General Electric and International Harvester. The purpose of these newly formed corporations was financial gain. The aims of the bank, financial returns, still define the aims of the corporation just as the aims of the church to impose a homogeneity of religious belief first defined the modern nation-state.

Talking about the aims of the corporation today without talking about profit is about as odd as it would be to talk about the aims of the nation-state in 1650 without talking about which religion it ought to enforce on its subjects.

The idea of financial gain within the corporation being a matter left to individuals may seem foreign to us, but our grandchildren will accept it as easily as we accept transcontinental flights or leaving the matter of religion to individuals. It is yet another dimension of turning employees into entrepreneurs, of giving the individual more autonomy.

"Blog Against Sexism" Day

Countries that have had a female heads of state in the last century include:
  • Argentina
  • Iceland
  • Malta
  • The Philippines
  • the United Kingdom
  • Portugal
  • Haiti
  • Germany
  • Nicaragua
  • Sri Lanka
  • Liberia
  • Norway
  • Ireland
  • Yugoslavia
  • Switzerland
  • Latvia
  • Finland
  • Indonesia
  • India
  • Georgia
  • Chile
  • Israel
  • Pakistan
  • France
  • Lithuania
  • Bangladesh
  • Poland
  • Canada
  • Turkey
  • New Zealand
  • Burundi
  • Rwanda
  • Bulgaria
  • Senegal
  • Peru
  • Ukraine
  • Jamaica
  • South Korea

The United States is notably absent from this list. Four muslim countries (Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, and Bangladesh) have had female heads of state and yet we lecture muslim countries about the role of females. Perhaps it is us who need a lecture from, say, Ireland, where they've had two female rulers in succession and economically thrived under their rule.

Our political progress has been slower. We in the U.S. have not even been able to pass the delightfully succinct equal rights amendment:
  • "Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex."
The United States - we may have the coolest technology, but we still desperately cling to obsolete social views.

07 March 2007

Entrepreneurship Reaches a Tipping Point (Or, the Coming Popularization of Entrepreneurship)

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive."
- Harold Whitman

Entrepreneurs gain autonomy by changing society. When Ray Kroc gets us to change our eating habits or Little Richard get us to change our dance moves, they get rich. Getting rich is part of what gives them autonomy, letting them do what they want. Often what they want to do falls into the category of more entrepreneurship. What Ray Kroc enjoys is building a burger empire and Little Richard loves singing and playing to packed auditoriums. While some of us build model train sets, entrepreneurs actually use social trends as building blocks to “live the life of their dreams,” as the get-rich advertisements put it.

The Beatles were entrepreneurs. They changed society by creating songs about love, consciousness, and Rocky Raccoon. They challenged social conventions.

Henry Crowell was an entrepreneur. When he completed his oatmeal factory in 1882, he had a problem. His factory produced twice as much oatmeal as Americans ate. So, he invented breakfast cereal, packaging bulk meal into 24 ounce boxes labeled with the familiar Quaker Oats brand. He changed eating habits.

Martin Luther was an entrepreneur. He changed how people worship.

We are used to a small elite group playing the role of entrepreneurs. This has defined our history ... so far. Historically, elites change society and the rest of us conform to it.

Entrepreneurship is, basically, an act of social invention and I think that its path will, in some ways, follow the path of product invention. We’ve only gotten good at product invention in the last century. Today, many companies can confidently plan projects that result in patents and new products - a notion that would have seemed preposterous to the inventor in his shop in the early 19th century. There are certain principles behind product invention. We’re less clear about the principles that define social invention, but I predict that within a few decades our attempts at social invention will look more like our current efforts at product invention. That is, we’ll regularly engage in such acts and often succeed at creating new organizations and social changes that change how we live. Groups will regularly and intentionally engage in social invention. We’ll see the popularization of entrepreneurship.

You can work hard to be a better factory worker. Discipline and effort make a difference. But it makes more difference if you change the definition of work, change the system in which someone can work to be disciplined and conscientious. An engineer can produce more value in a day than can a factory worker (who, in turn, can produce more value than a farm worker). An Industrial Revolution or entering an Information Age raises productivity of the disciplined and the not so disciplined alike.

We can try to conform ourselves to the systems as they now stand. We can try to be better engineers or marketing experts or what have you. But we can be more productive if we change those roles to those of entrepreneurs – expecting employees to create new organizations that have equity value. We’ll soon come to expect teams to collaborate in social invention just as we expect today’s teams to collaborate in product invention.

The popularization of entrepreneurship will mean that the individual will come into the world less expectant of finding a place in it than of creating a place in it.

What will be examples of this? The child with the learning disability will have all his learning adapted to his strengths instead of focusing on overcoming his disability. Rather than grade the child on his performance within the educational system, we will adapt the system to the child’s passions, flaws, strengths, and society’s values and markets. (One reason that the very idea of grading is so nonsensical is that it assumes that it is the individual who needs to adapt to an organization that is usually obsolete by decades rather than adapting the organization to the child who is alive and in the world today.) And the child with learning disabilities? That is all of us. Anyone can be made stupid by the right challenge or circumstance. Organizations of all kinds - educational or corporate - will increasingly be expected to adapt to the individual.

Entrepreneurs, finally, are people who look about the social milieu and see the possibility of creating something new. The act of inventing this new organization or social practice is itself an act through which they can create their own potential. Additionally, once they’ve completed their social invention, they now have a vehicle through which they can realize their own potential. After he helps to invent rock and roll, Little Richard can continue to perform within the form.

"Realize their potential for what?" you may ask. If it is an act of successful entrepreneurship, it is the potential to create value for the community. And in this we have the most delightful paradox - the individual can do the most for the community only by changing that community so that it better conforms to the individual.

The Scooter Libby Dance Move

How long before enterprising college students have created a new dance step and labeled it the Scooter Libby? My guess is that it'll involve covert actions directed towards disrobing one of the other dancers and then feigning memory loss about the entire episode, an act that will be to flashing what ventriloquism is to talking.

06 March 2007

Transform Self or Transform Society?

"We have become the tools of our tools," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote some 150 years ago.

Think about the various ways in which we subordinate our goals to the goals of our tools - the institutions like bank, corporations, and nations that, presumably, are mere tools for humanity. People go through hell because of odd religious beliefs, suffer financial stress after banks give them money, and miss out on profitable opportunities because of work commitments.

One of my beliefs is that we're on the verge of a new economy, a social revolution. The Industrial Revolution did at least two things: it transformed that era's dominant institution (the nation-state of absolute monarchs) and it helped society overcome the limit of capital. Banks, bond and stock markets, and factories were all social inventions designed to overcome the limit to progress - capital - and their explosion in popularity defined the Industrial Revolution.

In the last century, another economy emerged. This Information Age transformed society's dominant institution (the financial market of robber barons) and overcame the limit of knowledge workers. The modern university, information technology and the modern corporation were all social inventions designed to overcome the limit to progress - knowledge workers - and their explosion in popularity defined the Information Age.

The new economy will not be designed to overcome the limit of land, capital, or knowledge work. Rather, it will be designed to overcome the limit of entrepreneurship. It will transform today's dominant institution - the corporation.

What is entrepreneurship? It is the act of social invention, of institutionalizing a source of value for the community. Steve Jobs and Henry Ford are entrepreneurs; less obviously, so was Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther. They are to organizations what inventors are to products.

One element of entrepreneurship rarely commented upon is the relationship of the entrepreneur to the institution. Most of us conform our selves to the institutions in which we find ourselves; an entrepreneur founds an institution that they conform to the entrepreneur.

The economy of the last century was defined by the popularization of knowledge work. Think of the explosion in the levels of education from 1900 to 2000. In 1900, only a small fraction of the American population between the age of 13 and 17 was engaged in formal education; by 2000, only a small fraction was not engaged in formal education. Imagine a similar increase in entrepreneurship during the next fifty years.

The economy of this century will be defined by the popularization of entrepreneurship.

One consequence is the transformation of what it means to become better. Efforts to change the self - self-help, "becoming a better person," and realizing one's potential -- will themselves be fundamentally changed. Instead of working to conform the self to society, we'll be conforming society to our selves. I don't believe it is possible to overstate the implications of this shift.

Western Civilization has been defined by amazing institutions and the role of the individual has been to conform to those institutions. We are called up on to be good Christians by the Church, good citizens by the nation-state, fiscally responsible by the bank, and good employees by the corporation.

What if the average person were shaping institutions to realize his or her potential rather than conforming to institutions?

05 March 2007

Dick Cheney's Blood Clot

Doctors examining Dick Cheney discovered what they first thought was a blood clot in his lower leg. Further testing revealed that it was, in fact, his heart. A relieved Dick Cheney reportedly told doctors, "I was wondering where that had gone."

Swiss Accidentally Invade Liechtenstein

This brought to my attention by Dave

Swiss Accidentally Invade Liechtenstein

It is as though the NY Times had itself been invaded by Roald Dahl.

The Pay for Blogging

... is about the same as the pay for making crank phone calls.

Some folks are seriously looking to make money with blogs, using ads and such. Talk about deluded. Everyone knows that the reason to blog is to change the world. The point is not to become the next Bill Gates - the point is to become the next Thomas Jefferson. ("All bloggers create accounts that are equal ...") Well, there's that and the, uh, groupies. Most non-bloggers don't realize that we bloggers have more groupies than The Rolling Stones had in their prime. Sometimes I can barely step away from my laptop for a cup of tea, so dense is the crowd of screaming fans.

Seriously, though, the motivation for blogging for most of us is intrinsic. What is the motivation to eat a great meal or to have sex or stroll on the beach or to play a game? Some things provide their own motivation.

I think that the motivation for blogging has two components - those of us who do it are intrinsically motivated to write and to converse (through writing). If we only wanted to write, we'd have private journals. If we only wanted to converse, we'd meet friends at a coffee shop or the park. Given we want to do both, we blog. Blogging is more like having some folks over for dinner than renting a convention center and standing before a microphone. Not only are we unlikely to change the world - we're unlikely to change the minds of most of our readers. Yet we continue to type because for us it is more fun than bowling.

I suspect that about 98.9% of the folks who are motivated to blog with dreams of fame and fortune will have joined Amway or found some new hobby before the start of 2008. I wish them luck and hope that in the midst of finding some way to pay the rent they find activities that engage them even when there is no extrinsic motivation.

03 March 2007

False Predecessors to Joy

Imagine how different Oprah Winfrey's life would have been if she had had this kind of conversation with herself at the start of her career.

Oprah 1: I feel like I can do so much in television. It's an exciting medium and I think that I have a gift when it comes to communicating to people.
Oprah 2: That's all true, honey, but you need to lose some weight before you get on television.
Oprah 1: I am heavier than most TV personalities.
Oprah 2: "Most?" Honey, the TV camera adds 20 pounds to everyone. You get on there and you'll be heavier than all of them.
Oprah 1: I could start jogging.
Oprah 2: That's a good idea.
Oprah 1: I'll lose 20 pounds and then I'll audition for TV.
Oprah 2: Maybe 25.

Fortunately for Oprah and her fans, her better self didn't give in to the lesser self's insistence that she check the box on a number of false predecessors before she could go live her life’s mission.

I work with project teams at large companies. When we make plans for developing a new product, one of my tasks is to challenge their thinking about predecessors. If you are going to do the laundry, washing is a predecessor to drying. It is the task that comes before. Sometimes predecessors are real; the team really does have to test the new drug on animals before testing on humans. Other times the predecessors are false; you don't have to wait for test results before ordering a half dozen relatively inexpensive materials. My work with these teams has helped me to realize how many times I create false predecessors to joy in my daily life.

It is good, useful, and gratifying to have goals. But if you live your life fully, you'll always have another goal before you. If you decide that joy is something to be deferred until you have achieved a goal, you'll find that you're continually deferring joy.

You have only to see a baby laugh to realize that there are very few predecessors to joy. And you have only to be honest about your avoidance of risk to realize that there are likely fewer predecessors to pursuing your goals than you imagine.

Do this exercise. Articulate a goal, something that you want. Don’t just say, “Get a degree,” for instance. Articulate why you want the degree, what it will do for you. What do you want the degree for? Now, think about who you would have to be right now in order to make that goal inevitable. Don't think about what you have to do and in what order. Just think about the kind of person who would have accomplished this goal. What kind of confidence, focus, and (yes) joy does this person exude? And ask yourself this: are there really any reasons why you couldn't be that person right now?

Challenge false predecessors to joy and accomplishment. You might be surprised at how many of them exist only in your thinking.

02 March 2007

Political Science - the world's simplest political ideology test

What follows is the world's simplest test of political ideology. Read the lyrics to Randy Newman's Political Science and then find the word that best describes how you feel and what that suggests about your ideology.

Political Science by Randy Newman

No one likes us-I don't know why
We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try
But all around, even our old friends put us down
Let's drop the big one and see what happens

We give them money-but are they grateful?
No, they're spiteful and they're hateful
They don't respect us-so let's surprise them
We'll drop the big one and pulverize them

Asia's crowded and Europe's too old
Africa is far too hot
And Canada's too cold
And South America stole our name
Let's drop the big one
There'll be no one left to blame us

We'll save Australia
Don't wanna hurt no kangaroo
We'll build an All American amusement park there
They got surfin', too

Boom goes London and boom Paris
More room for you and more room for me
And every city the whole world round
Will just be another American town

Oh, how peaceful it will be
We'll set everybody free
You'll wear a Japanese kimono
And there'll be Italian shoes for me

They all hate us anyhow
So let's drop the big one now
Let's drop the big one now


After you read the above lyrics, if you feel:

• Disgust at the mocking, disrespectful tone – you’re a traditional conservative
• Like this is the best idea you've heard in years – you’re a neocon
• Like playing the lyrics backwards – you’re a theocon
• Outrage and horror – you’re a bleeding heart liberal
• Like commenting at length about imperialism – you’re a bore
• Delighted – you’re an anarchist
• Relieved that they’ll be no more jobs lost to outsourcing – you’re a protectionist
• Self-righteous – you’re a moderate
• Envious of so much destructive capacity – you’re a terrorist
• Like taking out a red pen to correct the spelling and grammar – you’re a bureaucrat
• Excited by the thought of Italian shoes – you have no political ideology (but love the small crowds at the mall on election day)
• Confused – you’re the swing voter to whom they target 30-second campaign ads and it is amazing that you made it this far given this posting doesn't have any celebrity pictures

It's a Tough Job

Project management is often described just this way:

(I don't work for EDS, but I do work as in project management consulting.)

In Memory of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

"All wars are popular for the first thirty days."
- Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who died Wednesday, 28 February 2007.

Cheney's Troop Withdrawal Plan

Dick Cheney has finally agreed to a troop withdrawal by summer. There is only one catch: he wants to route the troops through Tehran.

01 March 2007

Neuroscience and an Explanation of the Stock Market Plunge

Years ago, a young man had the two halves of his brain disconnected in an attempt to stop seizures. It stopped the seizures but changed his brain in surprising ways. One side of his brain could perceive and act on visual input and the other, disconnected, side could verbalize, or rationalize. The two halves could no longer communicate directly.

Researchers were in front of his house in a trailer, doing experiments. They flashed up a sign to one eye. It read, "Get up and walk." He got up and walked. The researchers then asked him what he was doing. The side of his brain in charge of verbalizing, of explaining, did not see the sign, did not know why he had gotten up. And yet that side of the brain kicked into gear, providing an explanation. "I am going into the house to get a coke," he offered. The explanation was rational and he might even have believed it. But the explanation that followed his action had nothing to do with the catalyst for the action. In this we just might get some insight into stock market analysts.

Tuesday the stock markets fell. A lot. By the time the dust had settled, the market had fallen more than any day since 9-11. Again this morning, the market is headed down.

What I find fascinating is how matter-of-factly analysts "explain" this plunge. One might have almost thought that they had predicted the drop, but of course they did not. "This is not surprising," I heard one analyst calmly say. "Sure," I thought. "And given you could so clearly see this coming you went short on the market on Monday and made millions. Right."

Simulation models can replicate the odd movements of the stock market. They can imitate the ups and downs, the steady upwards movement punctuated by sudden drops, the booms and busts. These simulations that reflect what are basically systems dynamics don't even need to have economic forecasts or reports fed into them. Which is to say that markets in which people speculate about how other people are speculating are subject to variability.

There are a few steady principles in the midst of predictably unpredictable movement. What do I mean by predictably unpredictable movement? If 300 million people are flipping coins, dropping out as soon as they get tails, there will actually be a very small number of people still playing after 1,000 coin flips. We can predict that this unpredictable thing will occur, even though we have no idea who in our initial group of 300 million will be so lucky. We can predict that the stock market will have very bad, no good, rotten days, even if we can't predict in advance which days those are.

The steady principles are this.

1. Risk and return are linked - if you want a higher return you accept more risk of not getting it.

2. People will flee out or flock to the market in response to what happened yesterday. Such people will generally do poorly, as such a reactive strategy suggests that they're continually buying high and selling low. Such actions will exacerbate movements - turning gains into booms and downturns into busts.

3. And finally, perhaps most importantly, financial markets are like banks; if people trust in them they perform well and if people are skittish about them, prone to pull out their money when worried, the markets perform poorly. Perhaps no social construct is so clearly a social construct, so clearly becoming what it is perceived to be. If a community has a great deal of faith in its financial markets and continues to invest in them, those markets will perform well (even though they'll be punctuated by the gyrations mentioned above). If a community loses faith in its financial markets and refuses to invest in them, those markets will perform poorly. Perception makes reality.

Next time you hear an analyst explaining market movement (e.g., "Profit taking shook Wall Street today as stocks fell 1.5%"), go ahead and laugh. Remember, we can't even explain our own actions.

Will Rogers' advice might still be best. “Don’t gamble! Buy some good stock and hold it till it goes up, then sell it. If it don’t go up, don’t buy it.”