30 April 2008

Bernard Explains Political Parties

"The problem with the parties," Bernard said matter-of-factly, "is that they think that moving left or right is the same thing as moving forward."

"That sounds cute," I retorted, "but that's sort of without meaning, isn't it?"

"No. Political parties and the electoral process are set up to frustrate progress."

"How could that be? Competition brings out the best ideas, the best people."

"Really?" Bernard paused while we watched a tiny flock of pedestrian birds run after the receding waves and peck into the sand. "I guess that's true for, say, sprinters. It's not so obvious when you're trying to find someone who can best lead communities. But that's not what I wanted to talk about," he said.

"Progress?" I asked.

"Yes. Progress. The electoral process basically ensures that politicians will move to the right or left but not move forward."

"So you say," I offered calmly. It was too difficult to become annoyed at the beach. I listened instead.

"The whole purpose of a campaign is to say, 'gotcha,'" he lunged forward, startling the birds. "So any smart politician avoids making mistakes. And, they need to appeal to the base. So, they embrace left or right mantras and they try to perfect a message. They try to avoid mistakes and try to look good."

"Makes sense," I say. "But how does that obfuscate progress?"

"If you are going to make progress, you are going to do new things. If you are going to do new things, you are going to do them poorly. You are going to look foolish, not in control. You will not look good if you're really making progress."


"And you'll lose the election. It's simply too awkward to make progress and win elections. You can't do both."

"So, to win an election is to turn right or left but not move forward," I repeat.

"My point exactly," said Bernard. And with that, we turned west to watch the sunset. There is something so spectacular about the demise of a day. We watched the sun elongate and then disappear all together. I can't tell you why it looked so beautiful.

As if Happiness Mattered

Today we learned that the economy grew at about 0.6% in the first quarter of 2008. About a century ago, policy makers decided that the national economy mattered and began the official measures of things like unemployment, inflation, and growth. This did not just happen. It took concerted effort - and swept up corporations, businesses, and even households who all suddenly needed to report incomes.

We measure the economy because we strongly suspect that it's tied to general levels of contentment. And it is, up to a point. Studies of happiness indicate that after about $20,000 per person, income increases happiness only to the extent that it increases one's relative status. Money matters because happiness matters and money influences happiness. (Not only is it difficult to stay happy without money, it is difficult to stay alive.)

All that to say, it is easy to imagine a parallel universe where today's news might have been reported somewhat differently. It might be reported as follows.

Today, the government announced that an additional 2.7 million Americans have lost their sense of meaning, but happiness among teenagers has spiked to an all time high, suggesting a general rise in meaningless behavior.

Reported levels of happiness rose by .6%, but psychologist Arnold Bernowitz at on-line happiness analysis firm eUdemonia says that this is no cause for happiness. "This is a time when winter is over, NBA and NHL playoffs are in full swing, MLB has begun, and the warm weather means that men are more likely to see cleavage," Bernowitz reported. "Usually, the seasonal upswing in happiness among males between 16 and 46 is enough to push happiness levels upwards by 5 points. The fact that it barely budged could have to do with a number of factors: election fatigue, the high price of gas and Barack Obama's reminder to middle-class Americans that they are bitter. By the time that summer turns from balmy to sweaty, we are likely to see happiness levels drop to below that of the late 1970s. I'm sad to say that things don't look so good for happiness."

Over at eCstacy Inc., analyst Digby Sauerbane seemed to corroborate this view. "Americans continue to find joy in shallow and ultimately futile things like love and celebrity gossip. But these are fragile things. All it takes is just one phone call from her, as she stands in an airport in Miami, about to leave the continent with Mario, and your happiness dissolves like cotton candy left out in the rain." As if to underscore his point, Digby himself burst into tears.

On the ground reporting uncovered a different mood. Terence Lewis, a 15 year old high school student from Ames Iowa, said that his own happiness had risen by at least 0.6% in just the last hour. Asked to explain why, he scratched his head and said, "Well, the spaghetti in the cafeteria didn't totally suck today."

President Bush's happiness secretary said that the new happiness stimulus package would likely avert widespread anomie. The stimulus package includes volunteering government bureaucrats to work school carnivals (crowds seem quite pleased when IRS officials work the dunk booth) and said that OSHA officials will be offering massages each day between 2 and 4. "We expect people to be giddy by fall," he promised, reiterating Bush's campaign promise that all Americans would share his general sense of clueless well being by the end of his term, captured in his inexplicably popular campaign motto: "giddy up!" If happiness levels remain on their current downward course, the happiness secretary continued, the administration will again consider temporarily lifting bans against glue sniffing, at least just before this fall's election.

29 April 2008

eNergy & eNvironmental iSsues

Venture capitalists are funding activity again. I've noticed that they still like words like eMail, ePets, and eEeek! (on-line horror) - any brand names that begin with a small case e to indicate their electronic nature. Meanwhile, we still need investments in environment and energy. My modest proposal for today? We rename those issues. I think that we should call them eNvironment and eNergy issues from now on. So named, I don't see how they could fail to attract huge investment sums.

28 April 2008


Dee Hock is still oddly unknown. He is the one founding CEO of a company that went on to do more than a trillion (yes, that is with a "T") in transactions: he founded VISA. Dee Hock fundamentally re-thought the very notion of money, realizing that its natural evolution would be towards bytes and bits. Money began in forms like pelts and shells and today is nothing more than electronic blips.

In yet another trend, in the last couple of decades, nonbank financial institutions have taken over more and more of deposit and credit business.

So, I'm sitting somewhere the other day, noting how many people have iPods or variants on them. Why can't they double as credit cards / wallets? Why not use them for purchases? When will Apple essentially become a bank? (Probably about the same time that kids begin to denominate all their transactions in songs.)

News Update

Howard Dean has announced that the Democratic Party has had enough of democracy and the contest between Clinton and Obama must end by June. Watch for Dean himself to let out a scream and take the nomination by force.

The Supreme Court has ruled that it is not discrimination to force voters to have a driver's license in order to vote. In fact, it is just a good way to make sure that people without the money, inclination, or a reason to drive don't influence elections.

Tony Scalia - the Supreme Court justice - says that torture is not cruel and unusual punishment because it is not punishment. For instance, if a policeman were to torture you, Scalia says "And you say he’s punishing you? What’s he punishing you for? … When he’s hurting you in order to get information from you, you wouldn’t say he’s punishing you. What is he punishing you for?" From now on, whenever I hear it referred to as the High Court, it'll have a different connotation.

McCain is claiming that Obama is insensitive to the poor because he wants to tax gasoline as a way to generate money to further research into alternative fuels. Today, regular gas hit $3.95 a gallon here in San Diego. McCain obviously doesn't realize that a gas tax would have little impact on people who can't afford to buy gas. And why the rush to create alternative fuels? If we could capture even 1% of 1% of the solar energy that strikes our planet, we'd have enough energy to replace all oil.

From what I can tell, the fact that blacks vent their anger and frustration in church is a story that could undermine Obama's support. The Reverend Wright continues to get more coverage than, yawn, health care, 100 year occupation of Iraq, or $4 a gallon for gas.

And speaking of irrelevant news coverage, last month was the warmest March on record, 3.2 degrees warmer than the average March in the 20th century. Meanwhile, Fox News, never one to give in to reality without a fight, is reporting that we're actually poised to plunge into an ice age.

There is a big brouhaha about the newest release of Grand Theft Auto. Like the earlier versions, it is violent, triggering concern among critics that this somehow degrades behavior. And nothing could be more obvious, really, than this: the history of mankind shows millennia of peace and prosperity and then, with the introduction of video games, a sudden spike in violence.

26 April 2008

Sylvia's Stimulus Package

If only I could draw cartoons, this caption might have a home ...

Although it surprised her, Sylvia was oddly pleased by the stimulus package the Bush Administration sent out. She had not been expecting baby oil, erotica, and candles.

25 April 2008

Massive Connectivity Now - Social Simulations Next

Aristotle said that there were three ways to report truth: history, science, and fiction. History reported facts. Science made those facts into laws that could apply to past or future. Fiction was the highest form, though, because it included what could be. (I'm almost positive Aristotle wrote this. If not, it was someone else. And if no one wrote this previously, I'll just take credit for it. I often confuse my memory and imagination, usually to my detriment, but I digress.)

Our brains spend lots of energy running models of what ought to be. We simulate a lot. It helps for the various regions of our brains to have models that run in parallel - in situations as varied as interpersonal behavior and navigating our way around a garden.

But this capability to simulate so much would be mind boggling if not for values that guide the activity. All that massive potential is guided by wants and needs - we simulate in ways that guide us towards desired states rather than send us adrift into the sea of infinite possibilities.

We've evolved massively impressive internal systems that allow for all this to take place within the confines of our head, dense brains so tightly packed with connections that "a cubic millimeter of brain tissue contains about a mile of axons and a couple of miles of dendrites. (1)" The brain is a mass of connections and those connections are often busy with simulations. It was not until this massive redundancy emerged that the capacity for simulation emerged with it. There are parallels in the social world: we're beginning to see a massive growth in parallel connectivity between people.

Social evolution lags species evolution. In 1866, a transatlantic cable was operating between North America and Great Britain. When it was first laid, a New Yorker wrote in his diaries, “Yesterday’s [New York] Herald said that the cable is undoubtedly the Angel in the Book of Revelation with one foot in the sea and one foot on land, proclaiming that time is no longer. Moderate people merely say that this is the greatest achievement in history. (2)”

It has taken about 150 years for this simple cable to transform into massive redundancy. In today's world, there are millions and millions of connections between individuals. The Internet has become the simplest, catch-all for this phenomenon of massive interconnectivity.

When the transatlantic cable was first laid, it was used by bankers like J.P. Morgan to execute bond trades between Britain and the US. It was a cable used for action. Now that there is massive redundancy in the connections, it is increasingly used to generate what-if scenarios, to define what could be. The difference between news and blogs is often as simple as that: it is the difference between reporting on what happened and reporting on what could be.

Blogs might be a kind of social fiction - reporting on what could be. What if the capacity for generating social simulations just becomes more enhanced? What if it becomes a tool that that both expedites the articulation of desired states and makes it easier to navigate towards those?

I suffer from wild bouts of optimism, a condition I've never been able to properly explain. I think that we'll learn more about how to join brains together into social simulations that move us towards the better community. The Internet, blogs, even Democracy, will be looked back on as the equivalent of the telegraph. The connections are proliferating. The simulations have begun. Now, we watch it ratchet up. The fiction that makes reality is, after all, the strongest form of truth. Eat your vitamins. It is going to get really fascinating and you want to be alive when this happens.

For those of you keeping track at home, this appears to be my 700th post, about 100 more than I would have written had I been posting once a day. Still no cure for my idearhea.

(1) Read Montague, Your Brain is (Almost) Perfect: How We Make Decisions (New York: Plume, 2006) 35.
(2)William J. Bernstein, The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created (San Francisco: McGraw-Hill, 2004) 186.

23 April 2008

The Them is Us - Why Lower Taxes Might Not Increase Incomes

Recently, I have talked to a doctor and a lawyer (I look forward to the unscheduled but surely inevitable chat with the Indian chief). Both have made politics simple: for them, they typically vote Republican because they dislike paying so much in taxes. What could be more obvious or simple?

These people work hard and aren't eager to give their money away. But that is just half the equation. Doctors and lawyers make more than the average person in probably every country. Relatively speaking, they will always be "rich." But the amount of money they make is always proportional to the average income in their community. Poor people can afford to pay them less than wealthy people.

Because of this, doctors and lawyers - even corporate chiefs - have an interest in the well being of others. For this reason alone, they ought to concern themselves with policies beyond simple measures like tax rates.

First of all, lowering taxes while increasing spending is a ruse. It is like paying less on your credit card while spending just as much each month. The ultimate cost is higher than "pay as you go" options.

Secondly, it is possible to spend money in ways that increase GDP. Not all money is a simple transfer of income. (And while I don't think that subsidizing the poor needs an argument to support it, I'll not even bother to make that argument right now.) Government spending can make an economy more robust: public education, transportation systems, R&D, and regulations are just some of the more obvious ways that a community can create value for everyone. It is worth remembering that Sweden's total tax rate is 50.5% and Mexico's is only 18%. Low taxes do not automatically translate into high incomes any more than high taxes automatically translate into low quality of life.

Most religions preach some variation on the notion that "the other" is an illusion imposed by our limited consciousness. "As you do to the least, so you do it unto me," suggests that the distinction between least to greatest is illusion. Given how communities share so much - from crime rates to average incomes and culture - it may well be that the illusion of "the other" applies in every area - even economic policy.

As it turns out, even the best doctors and lawyers find it difficult to live well when their patients and clients are unable to pay their bills. It might just be that the them is us.

21 April 2008

Inexplicable Fragments of Imagined Lives

Inexplicably, the word inexplicably began to show up in my blog. A lot. I have no explanation for this. It just seemed called for. And, after too long sitting on planes today, I found myself scrawling this on pages of a legal pad. I have no excuse (or explanation) for any of this. Perhaps it’ll provoke you to write a great novel – or to stop reading blogs altogether and go back to the daily newspaper.


Love seemed like too strong a word to use, but it was not her idea. This was tennis. When you have nothing, they call it love. She shrugged, stretched to her full height and began her serve.


For some reason he thought his life would improve immeasurably if only he could get a visa for Japan.


For Jeremy, nothing better captured the 70s than Barry Gibb, in falsetto voice, singing “I’m a man.” 30 years later, he still lost sleep trying to make sense of that decade, something he refused to admit even to his therapist.


He did not actually take candy from children but he did take a special kind of glee in taunting them with it when their mothers were not watching.


Naomi’s thesis project consumed the whole of her twenties. Her once promising academic career had been waylaid by an inexplicable desire to understand the apparent overuse of Jake as a character name in daytime soap operas.


It was not as though Oswald woke up that morning intending to start a fire in his French Literature class. But in retrospect, it seemed like the turning point in his life.


If Desiree had only realized that the cashier’s sunny disposition and friendly banter would have been the highlight of her day, she would have paid more attention. The entries in her gratitude journal were becoming more anemic.


Once again, Fred peered into the fridge and wondered, Did the woman pay no attention at all? Did she have “buy pickles” on a monthly grocery shopping list? Did she not realize that the pickles were building up in the space behind the leftovers? And didn’t she realize that with his Freudian training this act of passive hostility would take on inescapable meaning? Oh why couldn’t he have studied Jungian psychology instead? It seemed as though it would be so much easier to laugh off her idiosyncratic behaviors if only he’d chosen differently in grad school.


He watched the corn rows flash by, his eyes beginning to hurt from flicking his gaze down the rows. Even he did not know what he was looking for or why he thought he might find it in a corn field.


Gladys had the most powerful urge to prove her goodness that day. Still, she herself could not explain the chain of logic that translated that impulse into the tragic mishap that caused her to run over Mrs. Glumongo’s foot.


The field trip might have gone well if Todd and Ernesto had not somehow gotten their hands on the PCP. And who, really, would sell such a thing to 3rd graders?


His research into longevity was inspired by his love for Bjork. The thought of her dying – of her growing old, even – was more than he could bear. The Noble Prize seemed almost incidental.


As quickly and as inexplicably as the random thoughts – the fictional excerpts – had come to him, they stopped. He was left with half-written postings on the evolution of system thinking, portions of the inaugural address he would like to hear, an argument between Bernard and Maddie about family values, and a recipe that used a dishwasher and bullion cubes in the soap dispenser in lieu of a microwave oven.

19 April 2008

Random Observations on the Pope and Other Oddities

One can easily tell who the head of the Catholic Church is. The Pope has the tallest hat. I like the idea of using such a simple signal to indicate who is in charge and think that all organizations – from pre-schools to corporations and nation-states - should use the “taller the hat, the more authority” system.

I was in the gym and did not hear the commentary, but CNN showed nuns giving the pope a standing ovation. Is that really newsworthy? Nuns clapping for the pope?

I heard that when the pope finished his speech the other day, Bush leaned forward and whispered to him, “Awesome speech.” Future historians are likely to conclude that democracies were doomed when we made a man who is basically a 10th grader the head of the free world. “Awesome speech?” Really?

I was down by the beach the other day and a couple of beach bums were walking down the side walk in classic attire: flip flops, shorts, and Hawaiian shirts. The scrawniest of the two, though, had recklessly embellished his outfit, inexplicably donning boxing gloves at some point in his day. A third guy caught up with him and exclaims, “Are you wearing boxing gloves?!” At last, I think. Someone will call him on the obvious absurdity of this. “Yeah,” the guy smiles. “Awesome!” said the third beach bum, his tone conveying nothing but admiration. I looked down the street for George W., wondering if he knew that his buddies were enjoying this beautiful spring day without him.

Last week, airlines stranded about 3.7 million travelers. (Okay, perhaps I exaggerate, but does the actual number really matter?) And yet they persist in scheduling flights for 8:07 PM arrivals, even as they miss scheduled times by a matter of days. There ought to be a rule: an airline has to be exactly on time on at least two consecutive days before they can pretend to be so accurate. Meanwhile, why not just say, “We’ll arrive sometime after 8 PM. We hope.”

Critics have decided that Obama is elitist. He is one of three remaining people who is likely to become our next president. Is “elitist” an accusation or a statement of fact?

A salesman from Provo, Utah is suing his former employer for waterboarding during a team building exercise. “You saw how hard Chad fought for air,” the boss allegedly announced. “I want you to go back inside and fight that hard to make sales.” One can only speculate that when Cheney heard about this new trend towards the trivialization of torture, he said, “Awesome.”

18 April 2008

Why Did My High-School Guidance Counselor Never Suggest Hedge Fund Manager?

Here is a story about current financial markets. It starts with the income of one man. It could end in massive write offs – trillions of dollars.

Last year, Hedge Fund Manager John Paulson made $3,700,000,000.00 ($3.7 billion for those of you who, like me, lose track of so many zeros.) This is remarkable for at least two reasons.

It is remarkable because of the sheer magnitude of this income. Across the entire world, only 284 people have net worth greater than Paulson’s income in 2007. (And I wonder, do 1040 forms come in Large, X-Large, and Super Size to accommodate so many places?) Assuming a typical work schedule, Paulson made slightly more than the median personal income every minute. The man made about $2 million an hour.

It is also remarkable because it represents only a fraction of the hedge fund market, hinting at the magnitude of high-risk, high-return investing. 5 hedge fund managers made more than a billion last year. George Soros (the liberal conservatives love to hate) was second highest paid at $2.9 billion. Although Paulson and Soros’s incomes are obviously off the charts, there are about 10,000 hedge funds. And given that these managers make their money on a percentage of the principal they invest, the sums now in hedge funds are staggering. To compound matters, hedge fund managers tend to generate superior returns through the simple act of leverage: like a home owner who turns a 10% return on a $100,000 house into a 100% return on his $10,000 down payment by borrowing $90,000, these hedge fund managers leverage their investments.

In mid-2007, hedge funds deployed about $2 to $2.5 trillion of equity capital. But given that they leverage, the amount they were actually investing was probably a multiple of that – something more like $20 or even $100 trillion.*

I say about because no one really knows the size of this. A huge chunk of investment activity has gravitated towards unregulated sectors of the financial market. Not only are they unregulated, no one even knows for sure just how big these markets are. We do have some estimates, though. Financial derivatives (creations that include puts and calls and inventions that only your computer could understand) are one measure of how much has been "leveraged" off of more traditional values. (I know, I know - derivatives aren't necessarily leveraged and financial leverage includes more than just derivatives.)

The value of financial derivatives is about $500 trillion.* To put this in perspective, the total, global GDP is about $70 trillion. So, a swing in derivatives of just 15% will equal GDP for the entire planet.

Hedge fund managers can make so much because they know how to manage risk to maximize returns. The problem is, their risk is our risk. We simply can't let markets fall by so much, so taxpayers assume the risk while investors get the returns.

We've been here before. After the Great Depression, communities decided that regulation and transparency could provide, if you will, a good hedge against financial catastrophe. It just might be time for a little oversight. Not to keep people like Paulson and Soros from making money - just to keep them from making money on bets we have to cover.

* Numbers from The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash by Charles Morris

16 April 2008

Does This Boring Food Make Me Look Fat?

This week, I ended up on the east side of Indianapolis, staying in hotel that is seemingly 100 miles from any interesting or healthy food options. Even when I was staying downtown, I used Yahoo Yellow Pages one day to find some interesting restaurant options, a service that I've seen retrieve addresses from as far away as 80+ miles. I noticed that among the "BBQ," "Chinese," and "American" style restaurants was a "Healthy Dining" option. I clicked on it. The response? "There are no 'Healthy Dining' Options near your hotel."

Now that I've been removed from mediocre dining options and plopped, (like a scoop of mash served to Oliver) into the midst of atrocious dining options (Arby's, McDonald's, and Bob Evans are among the most obvious choices within a two mile radius), I miss mediocre. (Dear reader: I am acutely aware of the fact that the ratio of parenthetical asides to actual message in this paragraph is unseemly, but this is, after all, a post about excess.)

For me, the food is uninspiring. Tonight I went for food at about 9:30 PM. And even then I left about half of it on my plate. Bland is not appetizing. They don't use spices here or fresh foods. Rather, they use fats and sugars for taste. It is not the same.

And I notice something else about the terribly boring food options. Everywhere I go, there are obese people. Lots of them. And I'm left with this question: how is it that such poor food inspires gluttony? Shouldn't these people be wasting away thin? Shouldn't they look up from Sudoku puzzles and knitting to say, "You know, I'm not really hungry. This food is simply not that interesting." Instead, it seems as though they cannot get enough. This I simply do not understand.

15 April 2008

Pope's Visit

I read in the paper that the pope spoke out against war. That's news? Really? That is surprising enough that it needs to be reported? I'll tell you what would be news: "pope loses church in all night poker game." Now that would be news.

(And I wish I could remember which stand up comedian to credit for that. It was too many years ago. Also, if you want to make your own church sign, go to church sign generator.)

14 April 2008

Why A Million Students Can't Afford College

Some mind-boggling stuff in Charles R. Morris' The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash. (Life Hiker - I think that you in particular might find this a compelling read.) Just this (paraphrased) to chew on for now:

Not only is America the only country where most students graduate from college with heavy debt loads, but the subsidized student loan business is lucrative. SLM, the biggest student lender by far, pays its executives quite well. Their CEO's pay in 2003 was $12.7 million and by 2005 his options were worth $189 million.

How is it that subsidized lenders have so much money? Because this administration is so stubbornly wed to the idea of free markets that it will subsidize business at double the rate it would take to fund its similar government programs.

The government has a direct loan program. The costs within this program for each $100 loaned to students are about $4.50. By contrast, the subsidy costs to private lenders like SLM are $11 per $100. More than double.

Even so,
"appropriations for the direct program will limit its activity to just 23 percent of the total federal subsidy market, reserving the remaining 77 percent for the private lenders. If all loans were financed through the direct loan program, the savings would finance full tuition grants for another million students."

There is a huge difference between trusting in for-profit businesses more than you trust in government agencies on the one hand and flatly giving private businesses money from taxpayers. The Bush Administration seems to neither understand this difference or care.

12 April 2008

Whole System Change

“For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction out of the entire society, a revolution of values.”
- Martin Luther King
The only effective way to change a piece of a system is to change the whole system it is part of.
Imagine you've been asked to "change" the missing piece of the puzzle in this picture. You have complete freedom to change this piece but you need to know two things about this change effort. One, no matter what you do, you still have to fit in with the pieces around you. Two, those pieces are not changing.
We live in a world of inter-locking pieces. What you can do with your second grade class (Sandi) is severely constrained by what is done in first and third grade. Further, all that is limited by what your society thinks is important, what they expect of education.
What you can do with your engineering design group is limited by marketing and manufacturing. What they do is, in turn, limited by what senior management thinks - or even what your customers think - is important, what they expect of your product and your company.
Given that we live in a world of inter-locking systems, change is evasive. It is nearly impossible. Once pieces are in place, they tend to prop one another up. Our education system creates a particular way of thinking and a particular kind of graduate who goes out into the world to work in companies that, among other things, have a particular kind of expectation about who to hire out of the education system. Government is shaped by business and education and religion - all these pieces shape and mold each other. And all of these pieces have to fit together. In any coherent and functioning society, that is.
If you want to make sweeping changes in design, you'll involve manufacturing and marketing. Any real change is, by definition, inclusive. And it does not begin with efficiency or improvement. Rather, it begins with a vision of what could be. And this vision doesn't know functional pigeonholes or fit neatly within a particular expertise. Rather, it gives all that a new context.
Of all the candidates, Barack Obama has become most closely associated with change. Given the approach and instincts (I cannot bring myself to call it a philosophy) of the current administration, one can only applaud a call for change. But if he is serious, it suggests a larger vision than an idea about how to change the presidency.
A real change to the presidency will involve far more than just the presidency. Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt were the last two presidents to transform the presidency. They did not initiate change, really, so much as display a genius for exploiting times of great upheaval. The changes they made to the presidency and government were almost incidental to the change they made to how Americans saw the world and America's role in it.
If Barack Obama can offer a compelling vision of the world and America's role in it, he can deliver the change he promises. If he shrinks from that - if he limits himself to defining the presidency and government only - he'll fail to change the very piece on which he focuses.
Whole system change always sweeps up the pieces with it. Piece-meal change always gets overwhelmed by un-moving, un-responsive, and larger systems. To effect change, you have to speak over the head of the what you want to change. A change in vision means a change in context. When the context changes, the pieces of the system respond. Given that systems reject pieces that don't support its functioning, the only real way to change a piece is to change the system. We need a conversation about the society we want to create.
[And thanks to Jordan for the conversation that provoked this today.]

11 April 2008

McCain's Mysterious Allure

McCain now leads Clinton and Obama in the polls. This is me scratching my head.

McCain has basically embraced Bush's record. If that is not an indictment of the man, I don't know of one. 81% of the country thinks that we're on the wrong track. 81% makes up everyone but the illiterate, those recovering from traumatic head wounds, and people who still think that all-you-can-eat buffets represent the pinnacle of progress. Another poll (graph to the right) indicates a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans who feel they are worse off than in the past. In fact, this is the sharpest increase in the number, and the highest value it has reached since 1964.

Meanwhile, Bush has ignored the environment and spent billions to create enemies in Iraq. I challenge anyone to find a positive trend that Bush has nursed along rather than de-railed. Having Bush watch over our national affairs has been like having a crack addict watch the kids. Even the frat boy cheerleader may be gradually realizing that he is in over his head. His performance might lead one to believe that there is more to being a good president than staying sober. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case.

We now have McCain, who has largely done what he can to smooth over differences between his policies and George's. And once again I feel utterly baffled. Does no one see a connection between policy and the conditions we live in? Is there a huge swath of the electorate that considers an executive successful as long as he keeps his pants zipped? Do they have no clue? Really?

As I've said before, McCain represents a huge step up for the Republican Party. But his policies are little different, his priorities often the same, as George's. And his level of understanding about Iraq - a country in which he's game to invest 10 trillion ($100 billion X 100 years) - shows the same kind of superficial curiosity that made George such a disaster. (McCain has more than once revealed his confusion of Shiites and Sunnis - a confusion for which casual citizens might be forgiven but is, for policy makers, the equivalent of a doctor confusing the knee and ankle in surgery; it makes a difference. Sure, it is all leg and they are all Muslims, but when it comes down to action, one would like the one performing an operation to be able to distinguish between them.)

One can only hope that McCain's surge in popularity traces back to the fact that he can look presidential - no longer forced to sling mud back and forth with Mitt, Mike, and Fred. This is the campaign that keeps on giving - I'm sure it has yet to reveal its last twist.

For me, the job interview for president ought to start with one simple question: do you think that George Bush has done a good job? If a candidate answers with anything other than a decisive "No!" he ought to be dismissed. Why 81% of Americans can't agree with that is beyond me.

10 April 2008

They Must Have Handed This Off to the Legal Department

Last night I got a fortune cookie that reads, "You have handled your responsibilities competently."

This is a fortune cookie, not a performance review, and yet it could not be written in less inspiring prose. Would it have been too much to ask of a non-binding, supposedly pleasure-inducing document for it to have gone out on a limb and suggested that I had handled my responsibilities splendidly? "Competently?!"

Stung, I replied, writing on the back of the fortune, "Your taste was somewhat different than cardboard," and stuffed it back in the remaining half. "Competently." As if a fortune cookie would have a clue.

09 April 2008

Your Life as Fiction

“I feel that you probably have the chance to change your whole life like a
thousand times a day….But the way we live we’re so shut down that our sensors
don’t (pick up) the stuff anymore. Because we’re scared or we’re not sensitive
enough to realize, or we’re not flexible enough to say yes or no, we just don’t
see it.”
- Franka Potente
One of my best friends has been overcome by a sense of dread. His life has, rather obligingly, become dreadful. Oddly, his life is not that different from mine in many ways, but his narrative, his constant refrain, is one of woe. And even more sadly, our lives depart in ways that are not fore-ordained; he finds himself entangled in miserable situations at work, situations that leave him emotionally and physically drained. This happens repeatedly. It could just be luck that my experiences are less onerous, are, in fact, exhausting but in more sustainable bursts and with people who I enjoy. It seems to me that, at some level, he creates this.

I could recount other people in other situations whose emotional state seems to find its own level in reality – as if their expectations, at some level, create the outcomes that match their inner narrative.

I’ve become convinced that we all write fiction. For some, this fiction is not particularly powerful – it is mere fantasy, like Walter Mitty. Others are more powerful authors who actually translate this into the real world. (And no, I don’t believe that our lives are completely or, perhaps, even mostly determined by such an act. This is a big world and anything we do has limited impact.)

This is not because of magic or because the universe wants us to get what we want. This is because reality is a swirl of possibilities at any time – we’re always at a place of near infinite possibility that is open, to varying levels, to our influence. It is not that we create reality, at some level – we just tune in to particular channels. The channels are always there: our choices might determine whether we get horror or drama or dread or chortles. We don't so much create our own reality as choose the dimension of it we live in.

If you make sense of your life by saying that “My job sucks,” your fate will know which way to navigate through the infinite swirl of possibilities: it’ll gravitate towards the “life sucks,” area. It is not that you create it – it is just that you’ll find a place of equilibrium once you hit “life sucks.” You’ll come to rest there because you’ve now matched the narrative and once you’ve done that, life – however miserable – now makes sense. The inner narrative and the outer reality match. You're at equilibrium.

You’re always writing fiction, always running a narrative through which you try to make sense of life. it seems to me that it's worth being careful what story you get hooked into because it just might become your life.

But of course, I could be way off on this. My notion that our lives are works of fiction might, itself, be a work of fiction. (And if so, have I just proved my point?)

08 April 2008

A Poem on Moderation

Moderation is Not a Negation of Intensity, But Helps Avoid Monotony
John Tagliabue

Will you stop for a while, stop trying to pull yourself together
for some clear "meaning" - some momentary summary? no one
can have poetry or dances, prayers or climaxes all day, the ordinary
blankness of little dramatic consciousness is good for the health sometimes,
only Dostoevksy can be Dostoevskian at such long long tumultuous stretches,
look what that intensity did to poor great Van Gogh, linger, lunge
scrounge and be stupid, that doesn't take much centering of one's forces,
as wise Whitman said, "lounge and invite the soul." Get enough sleep,
and not only because (as Cocteau said) "poetry is the literature of sleep",
be a dumb bell for a few minutes at least, we don't want
Sunday church bells
ringing constantly

Addictions to Things Inescapable

People addicted to cocaine, it seems to me, have an advantage over people addicted to food. It is feasible that someone could construct his life in a way that let them avoid cocaine altogether. It is impossible to avoid food. I don't intend to trivialize drug addiction, but there has to be something uniquely challenging about scaling back on a necessity.

The computer has become a necessity. The little company I work for employs about a half dozen programmers and a half dozen of us consultants. We're spread across the US, from Connecticut to here in San Diego, from Portland to DC. There is no way we could operate this company as we do without email and on-line tools and our work with clients is computer-centric.

This blog has become my voice, the one place where I can speak uncensored about topics that may or may not relate to what is most important to me - my family, my work, or my beliefs. I can write what strikes me as silly and absurd or profoundly important, history or future - any topics that interest me. Blogs – my writing and reading – all take place on the computer.

Through emails, I've kept in touch with friends from every stage and area of life. Through my blog, my list of friends has grown. I love my contact with friends and family and would never cut off from any of it.

As the world goes digital, the internet is the simplest way to get information. Video of Keith Olbermann pointing to the idiocy behind George Bush's latest policy, articles by James Fallows explaining social trends in China, or Robert Wright interviewing Karen Armstrong about God in the 21st century are all examples of things that can be easily accessed on line and represent brain stimulation I could never find in the local media.

But is it too much of a good thing? My wife thinks so. And I can't argue with her. Particularly when a batch of travel coincides with her spring break, my gravitating to the computer to catch up on news, favorite blogs, and emails is trying for her. As the world becomes digital, more of our life seems to stream in through the same monitor window. Our mind might perceive variety, but our butt does not move.

To make this worse, my life has been characterized by serial obsessions. I don't do well with prolonged moderation. I prefer moving from peak to peak - whether it is immersing myself in computer chip design with one client and then drug development a couple of years later with another client, or systems thinking one year and neocons in another. For me, context is essential and immersion still seems the one way to gain that.

Now, I'm trying to moderate what is inescapable - at a time when my work schedule has peaked and my knee-jerk reaction is to spend even more time on the personal side of the computer to make up for its displacement by the work side. Rumor has it there is more to do off the computer than get calories eating and expend calories exercising.

So now I'm dealing with what might be addiction but is certainly a habit. (A habit defined as anything one needn't consider before doing.) I'm actually glad that Sandi has pointed this out. She often calls me Mr. Variety and I've generally worked to stay away from habits - preferring to change the rhythms of what I eat, how I exercise, who I socialize with, etc. (You've probably guessed by now that I do a miserable job of observing rituals or traditions.) The internet is, for me, such a varied place that it seemed to me that I was getting my dose of variety - even while continually coming to the same physical place and position again and again.

As much as I appreciate the push to reconsider this habit, I wonder if the underlying cause is my addiction to thought. I’ve learned that sans writing, my thoughts tend to become circular, or at least, repetitious. Writing allows me to stretch my thoughts over a broader canvas than they’d expand with only talk.

It is not my intention to drop off the computer – just cut back a bit and lose a few virtual pounds, so to speak. I’ve never done well with balance, but maybe it’s time to learn.

05 April 2008

Self-Spoofing News, Another in a Series

Trying to impress working class voters in Pennsylvania, Barack Obama bowled a 37. On a related note, trying to appeal to college-aged voters, McCain ran the 200 meter hurdles in just under an hour.

Ted Turner told Charlie Rose that global temperatures will rise about 8 degrees in another 30 to 40 years, depressing crop yields so much that it will trigger death by starvation and cannibalism. Fortunately, fast food places have been fattening up weaker members of the species in preparation for just this event.

Elliott Spitzer was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had had sex with a prostitute. David Paterson, who replaced him, announced the very day he was sworn in that he’d had numerous affairs. Spitzer’s opponents said that there is no truth in the rumors that Paterson’s indiscretions were acceptable whereas Spitzer’s were not simply because Paterson promises to be less aggressive in attacking corporate malfeasance. They said it is because Paterson is legally blind and, “did not actually know he was having sex with women other than his wife.”

After bailing out one company, Bear Stearns, with $29 billion, Congress will now give only about five times that much to the other 300+ million Americans. If your name is Bear or Stearns, you get $15 billion. If your name is Smith or Rodriguez, you get $1,500. Best of all? Given that the government does not actually have this money, they’re basically forcing a loan on households, a loan that Smith, Rodriguez, et al, will have to pay back in higher taxes along with the $29 billion loaned to Bear Stearns.

On net, Americans lost about 80,000 jobs last month – almost double the number lost in the first two months of 2008. Bush said not to worry – as part of the deal he made with Bear Stearns, they have promised to offer jobs to any laid off Americans. Asked about this deal, Bear Stearns clarified that the laid off Americans would have to first agree to move to India or China.

The Bush administration announced that it would not regulate tobacco products because it said that regulating these products would lead the public to believe that tobacco products are safe So, they are going to leave them unregulated, allowing Americans to freely use them. As with all other Bush policies, it is not clear whether anyone in the White House actually believes the story they’re telling. White House spokesperson Dana Perino said that this should be prove that, whatever Bush is smoking, it is not tobacco.

04 April 2008

Truth in Humor - Making Fun of the Media

Thomas had this hilarious cartoon on his post. I was unable to resist nabbing it. (Click on it to, as Thomas says, imbiggen.)

Transforming Education: Step Two

In conversation, my Sandi commented on my last post about education. Along with her education in education and child development, Sandi got certified in Montessori. She said that regardless of what is taught, we have to think about how it is taught. What is usually lacking is a context, or purpose, for what is taught

Montessori pre-schools are hugely popular. One of the many concepts underlying her teaching methods is the notion that children learn better if they start out manipulating things and then extract from these things (beads, say) the abstract notions of numbers.

Montessori high schools are rare. One of the key concepts behind her design of learning for teenagers is the notion that they need a context for what they are learning. She recommends, for example, that they actually run a business part time, extracting from that day to day operation more abstract notions of math, value, and translating ideas into action, into product. Lacking such a context, it is hard to engage students. Those who learn in traditional classes do so in spite of the design of education, not because of it. (Imagine a road designed in such a way that it was in spite of, and not because of, the design that cars avoided collisions.)

Russell Ackoff, one of my heroes, made this profoundly interesting point about our application of the analytic model to our world. If you analyze a problem, you break it down to its constituent parts and then work with those. The problem we analyzed about 500 years ago was the problem of life. We broke it into pieces - learning, work, and play all made separate. We have playgrounds and coliseums for play, schools for learning, and factories and offices for work. If you are in the classroom, you ought not to play and you are not going to work, to do anything productive (teenagers running a business as a way to learn?). If you are on the playground, you are not going to learn anything.

Ackoff is a systems thinking advocate and pioneer. For him the next wave of progress will come from adopting a worldview that looks at wholes and the relationships between parts instead of using analysis to break our world into parts seemingly easier to manage and solve. Instead of institutions that separate out our different selves, we should be designing institutions that accommodate our humanity. Why should we live our lives as tools of our tools or institutions? Why not make these tools adapt to us?

And taking such an approach may well have a more profound impact on the transformation of education than adopting or emphasizing any one new subject of study.

[And no, I am not turning R World into an education blog. But sometimes, thoughts just come in clumps, no?]

03 April 2008

A Test of Character

Today, on the flight from Indianapolis to Dallas / Ft. Worth, I sat by Gene Keady, who coached Purdue's basketball team for 25 years and was assistant coach to the 2000 Olympic team. As we chatted, I asked him what he looked for in prospects besides raw talent.

"Character," he said.

"Okay," I said, "but how do you measure that? How do you know if a high school kid has character?"

He chuckled. "I talked to the janitors."

I joined with him in the laugh. The invisible witness, the one who can tell you who the kid is when he doesn't think that he's having to impress an authority figure. Next time I go into a new company, doing my up front analysis, I know who I'm going to talk to.

02 April 2008

Transforming Education: Step One

In my most recent post, I mentioned in passing the possibility of defining education with vision instead of tradition. This seems deserving of elaboration, and I am nothing if not elaborate.

All education is prediction about the future. If you teach a child about spelling, you are predicting that he'll be writing and not live in a world of massively available voice recognition systems. If you teach a child dates about history, you assume that she'll be unable to quickly and easily look up those dates in on-line searches. If you spend time educating someone, you assume that they'll use their new knowledge in some useful way.

This assumes that you've given thought to the world in which a child will live once he's an adult. And yet next to no effort seems to go into developing a vision of the future context of lives. Children who are 10 now will reach their peak earning years about 2040 to 2050. It might be worth thinking about what will define that world and what skills will matter. We have, after all, about 12 to 20 years of formal education in which to educate them in preparation for this. Use properly, this ought to be plenty of time.

So, what skills are we confident will matter in 2050? As difficult as it seems to define that, I would imagine that communities could define fairly interesting and comprehensive lists of things that matter. I've touched on it before, but my own guess is that the list of things that will still matter in 2050 include:
Ability to stay engaged in tasks that matter
Problem solving
Ability to stay engaged in relationships that matter
Emotional Intelligence
Ability to collaborate and coordinate with others
Social Intelligence
Ability to find and define a sense of meaning, feeling like one's life matters
Having a sense of purpose
Managing one's finances
This merely a list that occurs to me, a rough draft. I would imagine that any community of interesting people would come up with a list different and more comprehensive. The point is, identifying the skills that will matter in 2050 ought to be the first step in defining the curriculum that matters today.

And speaking of communities, I have a community of readers that makes up, for me, the most interesting and thoughtful community I've experienced. What do you think will matter in 2050? What does that suggest we ought to be teaching? For bonus points, what is it that we're teaching today that is unlikely to matter in 2050? What should we eliminate from our curriculum?