31 July 2008

Now That's Funny (A Post In Which Your Blog Author Shares Some of His Favorite Jokes)

"Trying to define humor is one of the definitions of humor."

In spite of this warning from Saul Steinberg, we continue to collect, tell, and analyze jokes. I remember when my kids were about 5 or 6 and intent on decoding the comics. A good joke depends on springing a mouse trap that has been intricately and thoughtlessly set by decades of social convention, released in a single punchline. Explaining these social Rube Goldberg contraptions is guaranteed to eventually drain the humor from any joke or cartoon. Imagine explaining why you are laughing at this cartoon about Doris's husband to a five year old.

Back in the 90s, Esquire reported that the funniest joke of all time was this, from Gary Shandling:

I went to my doctor and told him, "My penis is burning." He said, "That means somebody is talking about it."

More recently, Richard Wiseman headed up a project to use the Internet to discover the world's funniest joke at LaughLab. In spite of Dave Barry's attempt to undermine Wiseman's attempt by having his readers submit and vote for a flurry of jokes that all ended with the line, "A weasel is chomping on his privates!" this joke took top honors:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, "My friend is dead! What can I do?". The operator says "Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says "OK, now what?"

I have to admit, though, that my personal favorite from LaughLab is the one that scored highest in Belgium:

An Alsatian went to a telegram office, took out a blank form and wrote:
“Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof.”
The clerk examined the paper and politely told the dog: “There are only nine words here. You could send another ‘Woof’ for the same price.”
“But,” the dog replied, “that would make no sense at all.”
Now, Dave TV just published the results of their commissioned research to identify the world's ten oldest jokes. The oldest is reportedly a fart joke, although I would surmise that the oldest joke probably involved actual farting and no spoken words. My favorite in this list of oldest jokes is Homer's, from 800 BC.

Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his real name is nobody. When Odysseus instructs his men to attack the Cyclops, the Cyclops shouts: "Help, nobody is attacking me!" No one comes to help.
Reportedly, one of George H. Bush's favorite jokes is this bit of ingenious word play:

How do you titillate an ocelot?
You oscillate its tits a lot.
Given his father's penchant for such jokes, it is perhaps no wonder that George W. has struggled with the English language since childhood. When asked about his favorite children's book, George W. named the Hungry Caterpillar, a book that was published when George was in his 20s.

And speaking of George, my father, who voted twice for George, told me a blonde joke about 5 years ago. It took me about a minute to realize that it worked much better as a Bush joke and I adapted it, emailed to a couple of dozen friends, and then, about a year later, received it in an email. It seemed an odd victory that the joke had surived so long in forwarded emails. I didn't make it up, but I did make it about George, something that gave me a sense of satisfaction.

Rumsfeld is briefing George on the situation in Iraq. Almost casually, Rumsfeld says, "And two Brazilian soldiers were killed yesterday in Fallujah."
George lets out a gasp, and then drops his head into his hands. He moans. The cabinet looks on silently, feeling awkward about this unusual display of emotion and grief. Finally, looking stunned, George lifts his head and asks, "How many is a Brazilian?"

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

Quips like the above from Jonathan Katz are hard to beat, but I do have a weakness for jokes that unfold like small stories, like this:

A young man enters the monastery and is given the job of transcribing scriptures. A few days into his job of copying from a book he asks, “Am I copying from an original?”

“No,” says one of the older monks.

“So, I’m copying from a copy?”

“Probably a copy of a copy of a copy,” he is told. “We leave the originals in a safe place. We don’t use them.”

“Well, has anyone ever compared what we’re doing with the originals?” asks the young monk. “I mean, what if someone made an error that we’re copying again and again?”

All the older monks look at each other, uncertain about how to respond. Finally, they decide to take his question to the head of the monastery, a wise old man who has spent his whole life in the monastery. He hears the question and responds, “That’s a great question. I’ll compare our most recent copies with the originals we have.”

For days he goes back into the secure portion of the monastery to take on this task. About the fourth day, the monks hear him let out with a cry of anguish. They look nervously at each other, uncertain about what to do. The crying becomes louder and goes on for some time. Finally, they decide that they have to go back into the sanctuary to check on the elderly monk. They find him with the original before him, sobbing.

“What is it?” they ask.

“The word,” he sobs, “the word is ‘celebrate.’”

Finally, jokes can themselves become fodder for jokes. I'll leave you with this.

A traveling salesmen was driving in the country when his car broke down. He hiked several miles to a farmhouse, and asked the farmer if there was a place he could stay overnight. “Sure,” said the farmer, “my wife died several years ago, and my two daughters are twenty-one and twenty-three, but they’re off to college, and I’m all by myself, so I have lots of room to put you up.”
Hearing this, the salesman turned around and started walking back toward the highway.
The farmer called after him, “Did you hear what I said? I have lots of room.”
“I heard you,” said the salesman, “but I think I’m in the wrong joke.”

29 July 2008

That Oprah Knows Everything

Yesterday, I finished up late at my client and stopped at the food court close by to grab lunch before heading home. Everything looked too heavy or greasy or ... oh, there is quiche, I thought. A slice of quiche and small side salad sounded perfect. After I was done, I remembered that I was about out of bubble bath and went to Bath & Body Works to pick up vanilla bubble bath.

As I'm paying at the register, the cashier must have wondered at me. I began to chuckle, then chortle, then laugh aloud. My wife gets Oprah's magazine. The latest cover says, boldly, "You are an excellent woman." This was shocking news to me. But given that all I had bought at the mall was quiche and bubble bath, I realized that Oprah just might be right. And now I am hoping that Esquire or somebody has a follow up article titled, "... and how you can change that."

28 July 2008

Collaboration and Entrepreneurship in a Post-Institutional World

Clay Shirky claims that the problem of coordination and collaboration need not depend on institutions. New technology actually enables groups and individuals to collaborate without an institutional construct in which to operate. He claims that this is revolutionary and says that a revolution doesn’t take you from point A to point B but, rather, takes you from point A to chaos. The printing press took the West away from the organization that came from church rule into chaos that was not resolved until the treaty of Westphalia defining the nation-state as the newly dominant institution about 200 years later. He suspects that the emergence of social networks and peer to peer technology will do something similar to institutions today, particularly to corporations. But this time he thinks it is less likely to take 200 years and will likely play out in about 50.

I’ve talked for quite some time about the popularization of entrepreneurship and what that means for the corporation. I have basically said that the role of entrepreneur will become more widespread during the next 30 to 50 years, sweeping up an increasing percentage of employees into its net, just as knowledge work became so prevalent in the last century.

Shirky seems to challenge even the notion of what it would mean to be an entrepreneur, shedding light on how entrepreneurship might become so common. If collaboration and cooperation no longer requires an institutional overlay, or construct, entrepreneurship becomes an act of catalyzing behaviors and activities rather than focusing on creating the context or container for such activities.

This suggests that community itself may be the container for the actions and behaviors of individuals, with no need for creating institutions. It does suggest that the very notion of, or need for, institution is set to transform along with the definition of entrepreneur.

Here is Shirky's talk:

27 July 2008

Unwrapping Gifts

I just finished Peter Block's fabulous new book Community: The Structure of Belonging, which provoked the following.

I know a lot of young adults. Where I see possibility, they seem to see confusion. Where I see reason for excitement, they seem to see reason for fear. Where I see the irrelevant, they seem to see something that demands attention.

Block writes,

"In our attraction to problems, deficiencies, disabilities, and needs, the missing community conversation is about gifts. The only cultural practices that focus on gifts are retirement parties and funerals. We only express gratitude for your gifts when you are on your way out or gone. If we really want to know what gifts others see in us, we have to wait for our own eulogy, and even then, as the story goes, we will miss it by a few days.

"In community building, rather than focusing on our deficiencies and weaknesses, which will most likely not go away, we gain more leverage when we focus on the gifts we bring and seek ways to capitalize on them. Instead of problematizing people and work, the conversation that searches for the mystery of our gifts brings the greatest change and results.
"The focus on gifts confronts people with their essential core, that which has the most potential to make the difference and change lives for good. ... our life work is to bring our gifts into the world."
"I am not what I am not able to do. I am what I am able to do - my gifts and capacities."

And what he writes makes me wonder about this problem young adults face. For the whole of their education, they've had their attention drawn to the red ink, to what is wrong or missing. This is not necessarily bad. Up to a particular point in life, it is worth pointing out that one lacks mathematical ability or spelling or compositional skills. The brain is plastic and feedback about what more needs to be learned or what is being done incorrectly is necessary for learning.

But at some point - about the time that students are transitioning into adulthood - what is weak or missing is likely to stay that way. Now it is time to focus on one's gifts, something that we are both unrehearsed at and might even find intimidating.

Block, again, writes,

"[Negative feedback] is often packaged in the name of learning and growth.
"Don't buy the packaging. The longing for feedback that we can 'work on' is really a defense against the terrible burden of acknowledging our gifts and getting about the work of living them, which we can call 'fulfilling our destiny' - language so demanding and imposing, no wonder I would rather keep swimming in the morass of my needs and incompleteness."

Or, as Tim Allen puts it,
"It’s daunting how many possibilities there are in life for everyone of us. But rather than face that I might be a failure or success – I think both of them are terrifying – people find diversions.”

At the point at which children become adults, they have to make a transition. Instead of focusing on filling in what is missing, they now have to build on what is present. Rather than turn a C into a B, they have to turn an A into a unique contribution, something that defies easy grading. Sadly, all their experience up to that point is on ameliorating weaknesses, not enhancing strengths.

I wonder how we would change this? It seems to me that this ought to be the central question of university education, but I could be wrong.

Inflation, Politics, and Trans Fats

It didn't look like inflation when the stock and home prices were going up. Now that commodity prices like fuel and foods are going up, it does. I guess it just sounds funny to say, "stocks rose today as price inflation hit Wall Street."

McCain was criticizing Obama for talking about the Middle East without visiting. Now that Obama actually visited the region to great media fanfare and warm reception, McCain is criticizing him for taking the trip. There seems to be no pleasing those opposition candidates.

In California, trans fats are now illegal and (medical) marijuana is not. I'm sure this is not the only way in which our state is different from Alabama but right now it seems like one of the more obvious.

24 July 2008

Bands and Bankers

I'm listening to Tom Petty's "Don't Come Around Here No More" riding home, and am suddenly struck by the most amusing (to me) idea. Imagine a world in which singer / songwriters had to present their song plan to a panel of staid bankers. Imagine Tom Petty, surly and slouching, sitting before said bankers.

Banker 1: That's it? That's the song idea?
Tom: Yeah.
Banker 2: That makes no sense! Could you explain it again?
Tom: We play some music and periodically say, "Hey!"
Banker 3: That is not a song. People like stories in their songs, like that George Strait guy sings.
Tom: Well, we don't just say, "Hey!" Sometimes we'll say, "Don't come around here no more."
Banker 1: Well that's not even grammatically correct.
Banker 2: Exactly!
Banker 1: Why can't you write lyrics more like a Robert Frost poem?
Banker 3: Or George Strait?
Tom: I just write what I write.
Banker 1: Well, I'm sorry but I just don't see how we can give you money for a song like that.
Banker 3: Why don't you come back some other time with real lyrics?
Banker 2: And a tie.

Tom walks away. Once he's gone, the bankers look at each other and grin in disbelief.
Banker 1: Haha! "Hey!" That's a song?
The bankers laugh.
Banker 3: No, no! "Sometimes we'll say 'don't come around here no more.'"
The bankers begin to laugh so hard they are crying. Gradually, they begin to compose themselves. Finally, wiping tears from their eyes,

Banker 1: Ms. McGill, could you send in our next applicant? Mr. Six-pack supper?
Ms. McGill: That's Tupac Shakur, sir, and yes I will.

Crony Capitalism and the Curiously Named House Housing Bill

I think that I may have to side with Bush on this one. It does not make sense to rescue the mortgage industry with legislation that will cost American taxpayers twice. To the extent that the new housing bill actually props up house prices, it'll cost Americans by driving up housing costs along with the price of fuel and food and education. And given that this bill will cost billions, taxpayers will be charged to prop up these prices. Bush was right to threaten to veto the House Housing Bill.

Legislation thus far has seemed to do more to help the financial industry (read, CEOs) then the average person. The finance industry is in trouble because Americans are finally responding rationally to stagnating incomes by cutting back on debt obligations. The finance industry first benefited from growing incomes (up to about 1960) and then from growing incomes coupled with growing debt (from about 1965 to 2000) and then, for most of the last decade, a growth in debt even as incomes stagnated. But the ratio of financial obligations to disposable income has finally come down. Households finally adjusted to lower incomes by accepting less debt. This reversal in the growth of debt means that the financial industry suddenly faces the prospect of stagnating growth.

Not only have median incomes fallen, but households have reduced their debt obligations, as can be seen in this graph of financial obligations (basically the ratio of debt payments to disposable income).

This is not really a housing crisis. Lower prices don't change mortgage payments for people who already own and do make it easier for new people to buy (even those who sell for less can, in turn, buy for less). This is a financial industry crisis. And the financial industry was the largest contributor to both Bush and Kerry's campaigns in 2004. (In the last decade, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae spent $200 million lobbying government.) After paying so much, they expect returns.

It is worth clarifying who gets those returns. It is not stakeholders like consumers, employees, shareholders, or taxpayers. The returns flow to corporate executives who feel entitled to obscene salaries even while letting down ALL these stockholders.

Freddie Mac's CEO got nearly $20 million last year for his McLeadership. By contrast, Fannie Mae's CEO was penalized for reducing the value of his company by half: his pay was reduced in 2007 by 15% to a mere $12.2 million.

If legislators actually cared about housing, they’d address homelessness. Instead, this seems like another instance of crony capitalism masquerading as pro-business policy. No industry has benefited more from the "privatize profits and share losses with taxpayers" philosophy of crony-capitalism than the financial industry.

22 July 2008

Bush: Wall Street Got Drunk and Drove The Country Into Ditch

If you need further proof that language need not actually make contact with reality, look no further than the following.


The King of Poland and a retinue of dukes and earls went out for a royal elk hunt. Just as they approached the woods, a serf came running out from behind a tree, waving his arms excitedly and yelling, “I am not an elk.”
The king took aim and shot the serf through the heart, killing him instantly.
“Good sire,” a duke said, “why did you do that? He said he was not an elk.”
“Dear me,” the king replied. “I thought he said he was an elk.”

From Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 – 1963, Robert Dallek:

In George Smathers’s 1950 Senate nomination campaign against incumbent Democrat Claude Pepper, Smathers successfully exploited Pepper’s reputation as a doctrinaire New Dealer and forceful advocate of the welfare state, which opened him to attacks as a Soviet sympathizer and “Stalin’s mouthpiece in the Senate,” or “Red” Pepper, as unscrupulous opponents called him. Whimsically taking advantage of the climate of suspicion and the extraordinary ignorance of his audience, Smathers shamelessly described Pepper in a speech as an “extrovert,” who practiced “nepotism” wit his sister-in-law and “celibacy” before his marriage, and had a sister who was a Greenwich Village “thespian.”


"Of course I am an absolute, pure democrat. But you know the problem? It's not even a problem, it's a real tragedy. The thing is that I am the only one, there just aren't any others in the world."
- Russian president Vladimir Putin

From NY Times
When he talks about why the economy is ailing, President Bush often turns to euphemism, citing “challenges in the housing and financial markets.” But Mr. Bush offered a far blunter assessment last week at a closed Republican fund-raiser in Houston: “Wall Street got drunk.”

“Wall Street got drunk — that’s one reason I asked you to turn off your TV cameras,” the president said at the fund-raiser, held at a private home on Friday to benefit Pete Olson, the Republican who is challenging Representative Nick Lampson. “It got drunk, and now it’s got a hangover. The question is, How long will it sober up and not try to do all these fancy financial instruments?”

And finally, this bit from Jon Stewart and his writers. Be sure to watch the first couple of minutes at least - up the ping pong between Bush and Bernanke describing the economy.

21 July 2008

The Catch 22 of Policy and Politics

Politics - the art of getting elected - depends on making pronouncements so vague that more than half of the population can agree with you.

Policy - the art of making things happen - depends on making pronouncements so clear that more than half of the population knows what to do.

If you begin to talk policy too soon, it is unlikely that you'll get elected.

If you keep talking politics for too long, it is unlikely that you'll get anything done.

20 July 2008

Letters From First Graders

My darling wife teaches second grade. The first graders had a letter writing center but were complaining that they had no one to write to who would write back, so she told them to write her. This matter of writing Mrs. Davison has taken off in the one class, and each day she gets a flurry of letters. Last week she brought home what she says is just a typical day's delivery, as follows.

To: Mrs. Davison
from: Cesar

Dear Mrs. Davison
When i give you thsi latter. I think i am going to see a pretty face on cheaks and I'll see a prettest close and I like you if you were in my class.
Lopez Cesar


from Lorna

Thank you for helping our school. I love you Mrs. Davidson you are the Best teacher ever you are nice you are buetuful you are so much nice and so so so so nice to me and my class.

And then this, a series of six letters all delivered as a "book," Each has "From Ashley" on the cover, and then one opens up to the following messages.

Dear Mrs. Davison y are so sweet

Dear Mrs. Davison you are a sweety pie

Dear Mrs. Davison you
are so cute today
I love your shoes

Dear Mrs. Davison
you look fantastick

Dear Ms Davison
you look osome

Dear Ms Davison
you are pretty call
me give me your
phone number


I haven't the heart to tell her that I get emails like this all the time from co-workers. Seriously, though, in what other profession can you get this kind of adoration? I mean, besides working as a pop singer?

19 July 2008

Eliminate the Penny (This is What They Mean by Monetary Policy, Right?)

It costs more than a penny to make a penny. It takes valuable time to count them out during transactions. When it was first introduced, the penny was worth about $1,347 in current dollars. If you had two pennies to rub together, you could buy an acre of land. Today they cost more than they are worth and have merely become a conduit for the transmission of germs from sweaty palm to sweaty palm. Pennies might even be one of the most pernicious disease vectors, accounting for as much as 41.7% of our health care costs.

Okay - I'm not exactly sure about the past value and just made up the bit about $1,347, the acreage and the health care but the point is, pennies were probably worth something in the past. This is no longer the case.

It is time to eliminate the penny. This would help to lower the prices of commodities (well, at least copper) and would free up cashiers across the nation to engage in more valuable efforts. It is hard to think of a single act that would do more to improve today's economy (but of course that could just be because it is a Saturday and I'm not really trying.)

So, there it is, lying there like a penny on the sidewalk for either of the presidential candidates to reach down and pick up: start rounding all transactions to the nearest nickel and eliminate the penny.

17 July 2008

A Different Kind of Bank Robber

IndyMac Bank, with $32 billion in assets ... became the third-largest bank to
fail in American history and the fifth bank failure so far this year.

The catch-22 with banking is this. If a bank collapses, it can take other banks with it - potentially triggering a wave of bank failures that hurts the whole economy. If a community does not intervene and bail out the bank, it risks a widespread economic downturn. If a community does intervene and bail out the bank, it might encourage risk-taking among banks who are aware that they'll be bailed out.

Perhaps I am too simplistic, but couldn't communities go far in mitigating this moral hazard with the following simple strategy? Bail out banks in order to mitigate the spread of bank failures but also make it clear to executives of the bank that they'll be liable for serious penalties (even jail time?) if they've taken risks that put the bank in a position of needing to be rescued.

Bailing out banks costs taxpayers billions, whereas actual bank robbery usually costs only thousands. It is, oddly, a form of bank robbery when executives accept outrageous risks that won't, in the end, be a risk to them. We already have laws for bank robbers. Perhaps it is simply time to re-define who those people are.

15 July 2008

And I quote ...

With apologies to my cousin Scott, here are some recent quotes from W. (I know - I know, I've been on a rant of late. It is just that sometimes the fact that this man represents me is more than I can remain silent about.)

"And so the fact that they purchased the machine meant somebody had to make the machine. And when somebody makes a machine, it means there's jobs at the machine-making place."
— sharing what he knows about economics and business in May of 2008

"I can press when there needs to be pressed; I can hold hands when there needs to be—hold hands."
— sharing what he knows about the Middle East peace process, in January of 2008

"Goodbye, from the world's biggest polluter."
- sharing what he knows about enviromental policy and international relations in closing remarks to fellow leaders at the final G8 summit. He reportedly punched the air and grinned widely after making the joke. (Reported in the 21 July Newsweek.)

"I'll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office."
—sharing what he knows about how little even he knows about what he's up to in May of 2008.

14 July 2008

Bernard & Maddie on the Limits of Stimulation

Maddie let out a sigh of exasperation. “I can’t believe this. Why does everything have to be sexual?”
“What?” Bernard looked up from his menu, obviously confused.
“Look at this Bernie. They have orgasmic fruit.”
Bernard paused. “Maddie, Maddie,” he shook his head. “That’s organic fruit.”
“Oh,” Maddie said, her outrage quickly fading. “Well in that case, I’ll just have the poached eggs.”

“Who was that guy in Popeye who would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today?” Bernard asked
“Wimpy?” I suggested.
“Yeah! That’s our former frat boy. Making promises about how we’ll pick up the tab for whatever ails anyone who gets his sympathy. Now he’s going to bail out a couple of mortgage companies that were privatized – at least they were private until they got into trouble. Now they’re the responsibility of us taxpayers. Private when they make a profit. Public when they lose money. Now that’s a sweet business to get into.”
“You should not talk about the president that way,” Maddie rebuked her older brother.
“’Former frat boy?’ What? Did I get that wrong? He’s actually still in a fraternity? Because that would explain so much,” Bernard said, spinning one half of his bagel while patiently chewing. “You think that his entire presidency has just been a series of drunken dares? A hazing ritual gotten out of control?”
“Bernie!” Maddie said sharply. “Do you have champagne in that orange juice?”
“Maddie, when are you going to give up on your boy?”
“He is the president,” Maddie said.
“Now that’s a sad truth,” Bernard sighed.

Later, Bernard shook his head. “George’s trick of spending like a drunken sailor while putting everything on the bar tab just doesn’t stimulate any more. It’s one thing for a 25 year old woman to show a little cleavage to stimulate attention – it is quite another for a 125 year old woman to try it. After a while, some things just don’t work. All indications are that the economy is tired of his stimulation trick and just sees his trick as further proof that trouble is brewing.”
“Stimulation,” Maddie said. “Why does everything have to be sexual?”
“If only it were,” Bernard sighed, "if only it were. Then we could have impeached that frat boy.”

Who Are These Swing Voters and Why Are McCain and Obama so Eager to Distance Themselves From Them?

The latest political game reminds me of 7 degrees of Kevin Bacon. "Today, Obama's priest said ..." "Yesterday, McCain's advisor said ..."

The candidates have learned not to go off script, realizing that one gaffe could define them to swing voters (defined as people who spend 7 minutes or less on politics every 4 years) and spoil their chances. Meanwhile, they are surrounded by a posse of advisors and donors about the size of the posse that follows a rap star (which is to say, a population roughly equal to Cleveland). These people - like Americans everywhere - occasionally speak their mind.

I guess the thing that I like best about it is how much attention all this gets. If a candidate is going to win this thing, they'll likely aim for at least 50.1% of the vote. This means that among their supporters will be some certifiable nut jobs. Genuine loonies. Complete whack jobs. In fact, these very people - prone to sprout nonsense like a toddler with Tourette’s - probably make up the swing vote. Which is to say, the candidates ought not to distance themselves from the members of their retinue who say stupid things; in fact, if they are serious about winning this thing, they need to embrace these people and say that such nonsense is welcome among their supporters.

Or, they could take it one step further and, like George W., they could actually be the spokesperson and representative for the gaffe-prone among us. How else to explain the fact that he was elected twice? And why wouldn't either McCain or Obama be eager for those very supporters who put George in the White House?

13 July 2008

We Paid This Guy Twice What We Paid Clinton and Reagan?

The main stream media reported that the economy has performed pitifully under George W. The S&P 500 is down 11% in this, his first 7.5 years. You would have done better putting your money under a rock in the backyard than you would have done with it in the stock market. Under Bush, only 5.1 million jobs have been created. This in stark contrast to the 23 million created during Clinton’s 8 years. Under Reagan, 16 million were created. (During the elder Bush’s 4 years, only 2.5 million. It is not just the English language that seems to give the Bush men trouble.)

But it does not take much for the numbers to look even worse under this most recent Bush president. For all his talk of a smaller government and the importance of business, the growth of jobs in the private sector is terrible. Under Reagan, the total number of jobs grew by 18%; private sector jobs grew by 20%. Under Clinton, the total number of jobs grew by 25%; private sector jobs grew by 24%. Not only was job creation robust during Reagan and Clinton’s terms, but the growth did not much rely on the expansion of government.

By contrast, Bush’s anemic 6% growth (less than a fourth of what it was under Clinton and a third of what it was under Reagan) drops by half when the growth in government jobs is factored out. Private sector job growth under Bush has been only 3%.

Given how much government work has been privatized, I’m sure that this anemic number would drop even more if I could factor out the jobs technically in the private sector but paid for by government contracts.

Not only has Bush failed to address looming financial shortfalls in entitlement programs as baby boomers begin to retire – reversing the budget surpluses of Clinton’s administration and turning them into record deficits – he has failed to put in place any kind of economic policy that stimulates job creation. His incessant mantra of tax cuts has not just been proven to be no panacea – it scarcely seems to work.

And even sadder, Bush's annual salary has been twice that of Clinton or Reagan. Bush is the first president to make $400,000 a year. In other words, we paid Bush as much as we paid Clinton and Reagan combined.

10 July 2008

Chia Guevara

A new icon for the green revolution: Chia - Head Guevara:

Association for Cognitive Dissociation

Michael Kaufman and I used to be on the board of the local Deming User Group. I've always liked the way he thinks. In his latest post, he comments about how attempts to change schools so often fail. He writes,

"I would contend the reason schools and schooling is the way it is - is because of the initial conditions that were present when the idea of free public schooling was conceived. In other words, the patterns established at the early stages of the development of the schooling system are the very same patterns that make it difficult, if not impossible, for schools and schooling to do the things on the list above [suggested changes and improvements]."

I wonder to what extent the problem is one of labeling. When we say schools, we all know what we mean - and we mean what we already have. By contrast, it would be fascinating to define a learning institution with a completely different name, like "Preparatory Institute for Great Happiness and Empowerment," or "Organization for Mind Altering Perceptions," or "A Place of Self Actualization and Occasional Humiliation."

If, by contrast, traditional schools were re-labeled as what they actually are, it might inspire everyone to gravitate away from them. For instance, "Room of Continual Tedium," or "The Institute for the Management of Mediocrity," might more accurately describe some traditional schools.

So, faithful readers (you two know who you are), what labels would encourage schools to transform? Ideas?

09 July 2008

Enlightenment, Pragmatism, Deconstruction & The Future as Context

It is not enough for the next generation of politicians to give up on old ideas. It is time to give up on old ways of thinking.

Enlightenment thinking, perhaps best characterized by the ideas of friends Isaac Newton and John Locke, suggested that one could rely on universal laws, or principles.

Pragmatism, pioneered in part by Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry James, emerged about two hundred years later and suggested that the broad universality of general principles might be over-stated. Specific problems needed to be solved within a specific context. The specialists of the last century pride themselves on being pragmatists.

It might seem odd to put deconstruction within this tradition. Comparatively speaking, deconstruction is a minor philosophy and generally thought of in regards to text. But deconstruction, it seems to me, takes pragmatism a step further, pointing to the importance of context in determining veracity. But context can easily be arbitrary: the psychologist might see the relevant context as one's childhood, the sociologist as one's community, the economist as the one's labor market, etc.

Deconstruction proved unsatisfying to most because it pointed out two things: context is key and context is arbitrary.

To me, it seems as though the relevant context for policy is a shared vision. Typically this will take the form of a desired future, but it need not. (Some really powerful exercises in vision can imagine a different now – not just a different later.) A shared context can create the cohesion of enlightenment thinking's universal principles (and it is worth remembering that it was Enlightenment thinking that brought us the modern nation-state, perhaps the defining community for most people living in the West). A shared vision can suggest goals for pragmatists who will necessarily be working on specific problems.

In the world of politics, we generally hear policy framed in Enlightenment terms: in vague generalities that suggest little in the way of specific solutions. Meanwhile, specialists - pragmatists - are busily working within corporations to solve specific problems and are making progress. So within the public arena, universal truths of little relevance are espoused (e.g., "Education is vital." "We must not let greedy executives rob us." "We must not unnecessarily burden businesses." "We should engage only in just wars."). Within the private sector, a thousand separate and conflicting goals are pursued.

Conflict will always define communities, but a measure of cohesion allows alignment of resources and effort. And ultimately, the public arena is defined by what is common, not individual. It seems to me that our politicians and policy makers need to move beyond Enlightenment era platitudes to the point of providing context for specialists, for pragmatists, in the form of a shared vision.

This vision need not - indeed, will not - be monolithic. It is probably more useful to think of visions than a vision. Visions that could provide a context for specialists might include such things as
• Reliance on alternative, or renewable energy, or a world where the cost of energy drops every year just as information processing and storage has.
• Transforming massive swaths of education into digital and interactive content - eliminating the need for teachers to duplicate efforts across the globe. Using teachers liberated from such rote tasks to do things now ignored (e.g., setting the context for learning with individual life goals for each student, making the definition of a career an iterative process that unfolds over years).
• Creating community centers that enhance feelings of engagement and purpose, dramatically mitigating levels of anomie, depression, and alienation (that is, taking the pursuit of happiness seriously).
• Institutions that enable individuals to realize goals that matter deeply to them rather than goals that simply matter to the leaders of those institutions - or even matter simply to the masses.

Ultimately, this role of creating a context by vision is one that calls for something other than Enlightenment, Pragmatism or even Deconstruction. It requires systems thinking - the leader in a role of facilitator and connector rather than dictator (even if by popular consent). Realizing a future vision generally requires the creation of a new system rather than modification of the old one.

We are acutely aware of the importance of changing technology like trains or cars or planes. We are generally less aware of the importance of changing technology like how we frame problems, model our world, or define possibility. Yet these kinds of technologies, too, have to be changed. How we think about the world sets the context for what is possible, even in the world of technology like planes and cars. It is, sadly, hard to see the glasses one sees through. Yet I can think of no technology change more important than a change in how we think. I would argue that just as this country's founding fathers could not have defined this democracy had they clung to Renaissance-era thinking, so will our generation be unable to create what is next by clinging to Pragmatism or Enlightenment thinking.

08 July 2008

Make Sense - Not War

There are a number of inherent conflicts in Bush administration policy on terror. Perhaps the simplest conflict for this group advocating preemptive war and torture is this.

1. There are evil doers in the world who are willing to kill or hurt innocent people in the pursuit of their goals.
2. It is so important to stop these people that one should not hesitate to kill or hurt innocent people in the pursuit of these evil doers.

It rather reminds me of the bumper sticker I once saw: all violent people should be shot.

07 July 2008

You Made It Rain! - No, You Made it Rain!

This might be my favorite headline of the week: "Obama, McCain try to pin economic woes on each other"

No wonder people eventually lose interest in elections. This is like two rivals to become tribal chieftan blaming each other for the latest hurricane or drought. To paraphrase Jeremy Bentham, "this is nonsense on stilts."

In a related story, Bob Dole blamed Bill Clinton for global warming and the otherwise inexplicable popularity of reality TV shows and Nicole Ritchie blamed Paris Hilton for the fact that plaids and stripes clash.

Historical Teleology and Intentional Evolution

Evolution does lead to greater complexity simply because it leads to greater diversity.

I don’t pretend to have the intellectual clout of people like John Gray or Stephen Jay Gould, but I disagree with their contention that evolution has no tendency to move towards greater complexity. It seems to me that discounting the forward progress of evolution is a form of intellectual mischief, a fashionable rejection of optimism. Species or institutional proliferation seems to suggest a richer, more complex environment; the species that will evolve in such an environment have the opportunity to be more complex as well.

I am reading John Gray's new and fascinating book, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. In spite of the fact that he seems to simply make claims as often as he argues points, the book is provocative and contains big ideas.

He writes,
"If anything defines ‘the West’ it is the pursuit of salvation in history. It is historical teleology – the belief that history has a built-in purpose or goal – rather than traditions of democracy or tolerance, that sets western civilization apart from all others.”

Yet history – or social evolution - does not need to be teleological in order to move towards greater complexity and more possibility. One can be optimistic about the direction of history without embracing the notion that today’s present was foreordained by our past.

Even more importantly, evolution in biology and society are beginning the transition to intentional processes. Genetic engineering and social change are both in their infancy, but seem to me inevitable. (Undoubtedly, unintentional evolution will continue in both arenas as well, and might even accelerate as intentional evolution is attempted.)

To me, the important point is that entities like society or history or the environment are abstractions. What matters is that individual species and people have options, have room to thrive. In terms of social evolution, the purpose is not a particular type of society. Rather, the purpose ought to be a sustainable world that creates the opportunity for a diverse set of individual to thrive.

What this means is that an institution emerging in today’s world has the possibility of adapting to and exploiting technologies as different as the stock market, legislation, and the Internet. Newly emergent institutions in such an environment need not exploit all this possibility, but some will. This means that increased complexity, if not inevitable, is highly probable.

This means that individuals in these institutions have more possibilities in terms of skill sets to tap into or develop. Given enough time, it almost seems as though possibility means inevitability. Given that a more complex environment offers more opportunity for complexity of species or institutions, it seems inevitable that it will occur in some fashion.

Gray’s insistence that social evolution has no forward direction is about as dangerous, it seems to me, as the notion that social evolution has already realized its potential, has already reached its apex in today’s world.

While history may have no purpose, we can imbue our future with one. And given that we seemed to have moved into the post-DNA period of intentional evolution, this seems rebuttal enough to arguments against increased complexity or purpose.

I might be wildly optimistic, but given how much of today is colored by how we feel about tomorrow, I’ll choose optimism.

05 July 2008

Jesse Helms and Kim Jong the Third

"My legacy will be up to others to describe," said Jesse Helms.

Helms' positions made him seem more like a caricature than politician. At its best, politics results in compromise that appeases - if not pleases - opposing interests that might otherwise resort to violence. Helms was not so impressed with compromise. "Compromise, hell! That's what has happened to us all down the line — and that's the very cause of our woes. If freedom is right and tyranny is wrong, why should those who believe in freedom treat it as if it were a roll of bologna to be bartered a slice at a time?"

Helms was instrumental at obstructing international plans to mitigate AIDS or introduce planned parenthood methods into poor regions of the world. He could and did stymie UN efforts and legislation because he felt there was no reason to compromise on his conservative, southern views even in an international arena.

He denounced the historic 1964 Civil Rights Bill as "the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced." During the protests that led to desegregation, he warned, "The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that's thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men's rights." And he claimed that, "Dr. (Martin Luther) King's outfit ...... is heavily laden at the top with leaders of proven records of communism, socialism and sex perversion, as well as other curious behavior."

But perhaps my favorite example of how inappropriate was Helms in the role as head of the foreign relations committee, how unable he was to see beyond the constraints of his own language and culture, was how he referred to Kim Jong Il (that's i, l). Helms first referred to North Korea's leader as Kim Jong the third (Kim Jong III). When an aid pointed out his error, Helms then refered to Kim Jong-il as Kim Jong Ill. (Yep. That's i, l, and then another l.)

04 July 2008

Happy 4th!

R World will be closed in observance of the 4th of July. We on the editorial board have no clue what that means but nonetheless feel obliged to inform you. Meanwhile, to tide you over until we are again open for business, we would like to advise to to,

1. Be your own parade. Don't just watch a parade today. Actually be one. No one but you even has to know. And really, what better way to show your support for an army of one than a parade of one?

2. Avoid being your own fireworks display. There is no way to do this safely. It is best to not even attempt. Do not force me to go into details. I'd rather not.

3. Thumb your nose at a royalist - if you can find one.

Happy Independence Day!

01 July 2008

Life Ends Badly. So?

“It seems so unfair,” Bernard said.

I looked up from my breakfast burrito and was surprised by what I saw. Bernard looked disheveled, his wispy hair smudged up one side of his head and literally waving in the breeze on the other. His eyes were bleary.


“This,” he gestured expansively. “All of this.”

I looked around. We were at one of our favorite spots; the patio at Kono’s in Pacific Beach is alongside the Crystal Pier, overlooking the beach dotted with brown bodies and the surf dotted with black wetsuits. We had only brought Maddie there once; after she expressed her surprise at how many “negroes” were surfing (her weak eye sight confusing the wetsuits for bare skin), Bernard insisted that we would never come here again with her. Sitting perched over the beach like this always left me feeling exquisitely alive. I thought it did the same for Bernard and expressed my surprise that he was feeling so down.

“This,” I gestured, “makes you feel like that?” I pointed at him.

“Not always,” he said. “But today it just seems like too much.”

I waited. He rubbed the back of his hand across his nose like a small child who had been crying. I looked again. He was crying.


“You finally get how amazing this all is, how precious this all is, and then …”

“Then …?”

“It’s like you’re halfway through the most amazing ride at the park before someone tells you that at the end of the ride your life is over. This life – it ends so abruptly. And it is not until you are well into it that you realize there is no other exit, no other alternative.”

We watched a wave pick up a couple of surfers. A seagull landed on the railing and eyed Bernard’s bagel. A gorgeous woman laid out her towel in preparation for sunning herself.

“You would have chosen to skip this ride if you knew how it ended? Really?”

Bernard began to laugh. He actually snorted. And then he shook his head. “No,” he laughed. “No I would not.” His laughter made him begin to wheeze and actually seemed to worry people at nearby tables. “I don’t know what got into me.”

“You had trouble sleeping again,” I asked.

He waved off my question. “Do you think that I’m too old to learn that surface boarding?” he pointed.

“I think that even with a surf board leashed to your leg, you’d sink like Jimmy Hoffa,” I told him. I didn’t think that I could feel any better that morning yet Bernard’s guffaw reminded me that good can always get better – even if the ride eventually ends badly.