Friday, September 10, 2010

Isaiah Berlin and Negative Liberty

Still highly relevant today. Actually, most universal truths are highly relevant today.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Diversityandinclusion

I work with large companies attempting to express their innermost desires to customers, employees, mutants and regular Joes all around the world. This usually begins with a mission statement and some articulation of their corporate values. Inevitably, one of those values is “A Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion.”

Frankly, they should really just compress it into one word, diversityandinclusion. It rolls off the corporate tongue so effortlessly. Thoughtlessly, in fact. Because if they gave it any thought they would realize quite quickly that diversity and inclusion are mutually exclusive.

Diversity celebrates our differences. Inclusion transcends our differences.

You can’t have it both ways which is one reason why I’m not the captain of the African-American bowling team at TimeWarner Inc. What’s worse, in practice only some differences are celebrated as anyone who’s ever tried to organize an evangelical Christian prayer group in the company cafeteria has discovered.

Diversityandinclusion is a verb that means to assume a defensive crouch while paying nominal tribute to potentially disruptive social aggrievement groups. Everyone in the organization knows diversityandinclusion is a corporate posture rather than a corporate value. And in that way it becomes demoralizing for everyone in the organization – from the aggrieved who never seem to be taken seriously as individuals to the white males who feel targeted as oppressors-by-association. And since white males typically make up a plurality in most large American corporations, this is a pose that alienates your employees.

If these corporations were sincere and smart about the issue of diversity and inclusion they would develop an entirely new phrase that recognizes the value of individuals and accepts them within an organization of like-minded individuals.

It would begin with a recognition that there are some characteristics inherent in an individual employee – their ancestry, genetic code. Let's call them their "ethnicity." These are things are involuntary associations.  They are beyond the individual’s control. They are the cards you are dealt at birth. To discriminate against a person because of their ethnicity is unjust. Therefore an organization of individuals that justly overlooks one’s ethnicity is likely to be an organization of many ethnicities.  Multi-ethnic.

Culture, on the other hand, is a more voluntary association. You choose your beliefs, your values, and your opinions. There is a natural human tendency to propagate those beliefs particularly if they are deeply held. I mean, if you believe you know the truth why wouldn’t want to change the minds those who don’t yet know what you know?

Cultures inevitably cause friction when they come in contact with each other and in cases of extreme friction will need some sort of coercive force either to separate conflicting cultures or to enforce a preferred culture. That’s what a voluntary organization is all about. It enforces a consensus culture.  Or else it should be.

You can join our organization as long as you believe in our culture and promote it through your behavior. For an organization like Google that means looking for ways to monetize public information while wearing sandals and attempting not to be evil. For S.P.E.C.T.R.E. it means looking for ways to monetize terror while wearing Nehru jackets and integrating evil into everything you do. The ethnicity of Sergey Brin or Ernst Stavro Blofeld is of no importance.

Rather than try to embrace diversityandinclusion which is impossible, organizations should declare that they are multiethnic and unicultural.

If you join our company you are voluntarily endorsing a distinct culture that transcends your ethnicity. That culture may be one that values profits about everything else, like a hedge fund in the Cayman Islands. Or it can be a culture that views profits as secondary to some greater social good, like one of those threadbare organic pizza joints in Burlington, Vermont. Every organization has a culture and the sooner they recognize that fact and channel it into ways that help everyone achieve what they define as success, the better.

But for many corporations that process of expressing their culture is unnerving. It means being truthful about motivations, rationales, and deepest beliefs. For BP it would mean admitting that they really have no intention of moving beyond petroleum. For Pepsi it would mean that they are actually more interested in selling salty snacks and sugary soft drinks than in saving the world. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of because no one really believes the Corporate Social Responsibility messaging anyway. Defining your culture and expressing it in actions is well worth the effort because in the end people appreciate clarity and authenticity more than apologetic poses.

Right now, diversityandinclusion does not have the ring of authenticity about it. It sounds contrived and in fact it is contrived. It doesn’t advance the cause the tolerance and understanding because it’s promoted by consultants who benefit from more grievance not less. Far better to shelve the term altogether and be truthful about what the organization expects of its people – care and attention to work, respect for colleagues, pride in a job well done whatever that job may be.

If you can do that consistently, who cares what your DNA looks like?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Great Books and First Paragraphs

Paul Johnson’s slim volume on Winston Churchill combines two of my favorite things about reading:  Paul Johnson and Winston Churchill.

You can tell a lot about a book by its first paragraph.  Johnson’s is great:

“Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable.  It is a joy to write his life, and to read about it.  None holds more lessons, especially for youth:  How to use a difficult childhood.  How to seize eagerly all opportunities, physical, moral, and intellectual.  How to dare greatly, to reinforce success, and to put the inevitable failures behind you.  And how, while pursuing vaulting ambition with energy and relish, to cultivate also friendship, generosity, compassion, and decency.”

The book goes on like that for about 150 instructive and inspiring pages.  I recommend it highly.   


Friday, September 25, 2009

Why Negotiating with Our Enemies Is Overrated

Moammar Gaddafi, who has as much right to speak before the United Nations as any leader of a sovereign member nation, demonstrates why membership in the U.N. confers no more legitimacy to one's thoughts and opinions than does a megaphone made of rolled up newspaper.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How Not to Support the Brand

The Marketing team at TAP have come up with a sure-fire way of discouraging me from ever flying to Lisbon on one of their planes.

Nice job.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Monday, September 07, 2009

Friday, August 14, 2009

Kennedy and Vietnam

During the great Walter Cronkite (Peace Be Upon Him) retrospective we endured last month following the secular saint's untimely death, one clip from an interview with President Kennedy was given lots of airtime. Vietnam revisionists love this clip because it seems to show JFK wavering in his commitment to South Vietnam and the war itself:

But just seven days later Kennedy sat for an interview with Huntley and Brinkley (the second and third most trusted men in America at the time) in which he articulates a more conventional position. Vietnam is part of a global struggle against communism and therefore transcends the interests of the South Vietnamese people.

Of course, Kennedy was no peacenik. (Notice the Bush-like smirk when asked about covert operations.) He was a true blue cold warrior and his final analysis (a week after Cronkite) was, of course, correct. The fall of South Vietnam led to the genocidal collapse of Cambodia and to instability throughout the region. Only President Nixon's triangulation diplomacy allowed us to contain China which was Kennedy's greatest concern.

So, had JFK lived would we have avoided a deeper commitment to South Vietnam? Impossible to answer but Kennedy's words suggest that Vietnam was extremely important to his national security policy and not subject to whims of popular opinion.

The hagiographers have it wrong. JFK was not antiwar. He was anticommunist.

Note to Oliver Stone, even in 1963, Kennedy could see "light at the end of the tunnel."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Unintentionally Funny Video #1

In this utterly absurd ad for a craptacular Rover 800 Fastback, the Cadillac Cimarron of the UK, cool German engineers not only forsake better made compatriot vehicles but then go on to admire British architecture without giggling.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Who Stands with the Supreme Leader? George Galloway, of course.

Click here to check it out and resist the gag reflex.

And guess what? Galloway approves of Obama's calm and reasoned acquiescence. Shocka!

(source: Stroppyblog)

Monday, June 22, 2009

What Fascism Looks Like. And the Importance of Numbers.

A remarkable sequence of events.

In the first video (from Persian BBC), black-clad secret police on motorcycles disperse a crowd of unarmed protesters.

In the second video, (below) the crowd seems to recognize its overwhelming strength and slowly turns the tables on the police.


This is may be just one isolated event or a pivot point of some sort. Who knows? But it certainly illustrates the drama unfolding right now in Tehran.

Another view:



(Source: Andrew Sullivan of course)




Sunday, June 21, 2009

Five Minutes on the Streets of Tehran



On Board Green Dragon


Volvo Ocean Race. Coming soon to a port nowhere near you. Amazing. These guys are in heavy weather in open ocean and going flat out fast. It's even more dangerous than it looks.


Saturday, June 20, 2009

What Do Ham Radio and Twitter Have in Common?

I was among the last generation of kids to be excited about ham radio just before CB killed it off. Back then I looked forward to getting my QST magazine and the most desirable and unattainable thing in my world was a Collins SSB transceiver.

Looking at it now still gives me a shivver.


As I recall, no one I actually knew shared the slightest interest in ham radio. I never met anyone who had a radio or a license or any experience whatsoever. As far as I can tell, my interest was sparked by an article in Boy’s Life which I read avidly in bound volumes at the Donnell Library in midtown Manhattan – about as far from a campfire and a low wattage radio shack as was possible. Interestingly, I managed to find and join an affinity group with no physical presence. Ham radio operators didn’t meet each other. The whole point seemed to be to keep everyone at a safe distance.

Occasionally the radio subculture would surface briefly in the mainstream and validate my interest in some small but memorable way. Like when a wheelchair bound ham operator alerted the police in The Anderson Tapes, or when Jean Shepherd (K2ORS) talked about it in late evening monologues on WOR. Ham radio was solitary and social at the same time.

I built a Heathkit receiver in my room. Heathkit was the cheapest point of entry to the amateur radio world. There were thrills to be had on a good night when the skip was right and you could tune in a wavy voice from Ceylon. Collecting QSL cards was an enthusiasm no one I actually knew in the real world could possibly understand much less share.

But eventually I began to realize that amateur radio was essentially a time consuming and expensive global feedback loop. You would buy equipment so you could talk to others like you about equipment upgrades that would allow you to talk with other people about additional equipment upgrades and so on.

Of course, when CB radio became popular at the depth of the 70s, things changed dreadfully. There were songs about it on the AM. Movies too. This was something my parents and friends could sort of understand. But disappointingly, they looked at my singular, defining passion next to a cheap, stupid, and massively mainstream fad and couldn’t tell the difference. It was embarrassing. Not just for me but for thousands of amateur operators.

For me, the embarrassment of being mistaken for a dilettante CBer sputtering “breaker, breaker 1-9” and “10-4 good buddy” never entirely healed.

And at the height of its popularity CB radio expanded from 19 channels to 40 and people decided to buy 8-tracks or electric carving knives rather than upgrade their equipment and the fad evaporated. Ham radio was morphing into television which also required a considerable equipment upgrade and that too lost adherents . . . mostly to home computers I suspect.

I can see some of this same trajectory in the blogosphere. But the greatest similarity between bloggery and ham radio is community and the importance of distance. Meeting bloggers in the wet world is almost always as disappointing as meeting an actual amateur radio geek in the flesh. Yet the desire to communicate with strangers who share your passion is overwhelming. Humans will work with any technology available to make those connections - papyrus, printing presses, pamphlets, newsletters, radio, twitter – it’s all the same expression.

Apparently, there’s nothing more comforting to a human than being alone and knowing you’re not alone at all.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Hope in Iran? Hope so.




Wednesday, May 06, 2009

There Goes a Good Man

Just after Bill Clinton became President Clinton, I had the enormous good fortune to meet and work with Jack Kemp.  At that time, Kemp was by far the most popular Republican presidential candidate for the next election in 1996.  He was at the very top of his game.

Back then, he was in the private sector for the first time in many 

years and my job was to help him produce a monthly newsletter.  It was actually a very early experiment in social media.  He’d discuss a handful of topics and invite his readers to comment.  He’d then respond to the comments, some of which would lead to other topics in a serendipitous conversation thread. 

Critics and rivals said that Kemp was too unfocused to be chief executive but the reality was he might have been too curious to be president.  The newsletter was a bombardment of facts and anecdotes, historical quotes, and personal observations but the theme of this data dump couldn’t be more sharply focused.  He wanted to tell people why he thought that America in 1993 was the greatest entrepreneurial opportunity of all time.

Each month he’d bring me into his office and talk in a whirlwind about his most recent trip to China; “they’ve got cities so new they don’t even have names yet;” or a conversation about fiber to the home he had had with George Gilder, and he tell about a young guy who was just elected mayor of Jersey City on a radical opportunity platform.  He’d mention an obscure quote and then pull down an old book from an upper shelf and instantly find the right page and paragraph to confirm the wording. 

He wasn’t cool and detached like Obama.  He was passionate.  He burned with the curiosity of a completely self-taught man. He was learning new things every day and that just excited him to learn more.  I came away from these meetings with pages of notes, articles, people to contact, and new ideas to imagine. 

He easily could have been a rich man if he had paid attention to business opportunities instead of historical ones.  His father was an entrepreneur who built a delivery service consisting of himself and a motorcycle into a Southern Californian trucking business by investing his profits in more equipment and more people to operate it and so on.  It’s one thing to learn about business in school.  But it must be another thing entirely to watch your dad build one day after day after day and see the incremental improvements increase and build on each other. 

I don’t know whether that experience served as the inexhaustible fuel for his enthusiasm for entrepreneurship but it certainly gave him a sturdy frame of reference and made him rich in knowledge, and friends, and fans.

It was a shock to hear that he had died.  He always seemed like a young guy to me, energetic, enthusiastic, and always open to new ideas.  He was so alive it's hard to imagine him not alive.

He was - and still is - a good and decent man.


Friday, April 24, 2009

I Like Ike, Not Gehry

Suppose you were on a commission to build a memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and you had to select an architect to design it.  What sort of qualities would you look for? 

You might start with Eisenhower himself.  Ike was a pretty normal guy considering he commanded the biggest amphibious invasion in history, was president of an Ivy League university, and served two terms as an enormously popular POTUS. 


Unpretentious. Middle American. Common man.

Actually, it’s easier to say what he’s not.

Not trendy. Not intellectual. Not ostentatious.

So, to honor a down-to-earth man’s man whose name is synonymous with 1950s suburban conformity you would naturally choose Frank Gehry as your architect, right?

Well, I can see the conformity part.  I mean, once you’ve seen Bilbao you’ve seen the Disney and every other titanium coprolite Gehry has ever or will ever conceive of.

You can be sure the Gehry Memorial will say more about Gehry than about Eisenhower.  It can be counted on to challenge conventional notions, break with tradition, and annoy the unsophisticated in exactly the way Ike didn’t.

“He wasn’t blustery and didn’t make big pronouncements. I feel a sense of kinship with how he did what he did,” says Gehry with characteristic humility.  What Ike did was defeat fascism.  What has Gehry ever done to warrant any sort of kinship with Eisenhower?  

Gehry’s sort of disposable, transient, situational morality is the polar opposite of what Eisenhower represents.  But instead of being memorialized with a recognizably heroic structure that will stand the test of time, Ike is getting a website.

According to Architectural Record, “visitors will probably learn more about the subject of the memorial from specially created Web video and audio files—a clip of an old Eisenhower speech, perhaps—beamed to a handheld device like, say, an iPhone. Under the competition’s guidelines, Gehry must design this electronic element, too.”

That’s just great.  How long before that feature is obsolete?  A year?  Six weeks?

And what will the design look like?  Don’t know.  The memorial commission isn’t releasing the design to the public.  They won’t release the runner-up designs from Krueck & Sexton, Rogers Marvel Architects, or PWP Landscape Architecture, either.  

That’s not the sort of behavior of a patron confident of the popularity of its decision.  

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Norman Foster May or May Not Vandalize The New York Public Library

Among the few clearly positive consequences of The Great Rebalancing going on now in financial markets is the extinguishment of Norman Foster’s plans to deface The New York Public Library first announced just as the economic avalanche was beginning in October. The timing suggests a divine consciousness at work.

It’s the greatest project ever!” The New York Times reported the starchitect saying after the “trustees” of the library awarded him the $250 million project to update the pretty much already perfect building.

“We had to have someone as good as Carrere & Hastings,” said Paul LeClerc, the president of the library without a trace of bitter irony. “We had to create a second masterpiece.” 

(picture credit: TS Carlisle)

This sort of nonsense is so common in architecture that it barely even registers on the bullshit detector anymore. 

 There is no need to “update” what is already considered a masterpiece. I suspect that if I proposed to pay Kayne West a couple of million bucks to write an extra verse that would permanently be inserted into middle of John Lennon’s “Imagine” these same trustees would be utterly outraged.

Fortunately the disfigurement will have to wait. 

A big chunk of the $250m was supposed to come from the sale of the Donnell branch of the library, an unassuming and friendly modernist that sits empty across the street from the Museum of Modern Art now that its buyer has bailed. The Donnell seems to have died for our sins.

Back in October, Sir Foster blathered on about how he was drawing inspiration from the local library in a suburb of Manchester that he visited as an insufferable teenager.

Here is the library. 
Seems rather pleasant and scaled for ordinary human beings.

Of course, what the library looked like was not the source of Foster’s inspiration. “If it hadn’t been for that library,
 I probably wouldn’t have gone to university,” says the most self important architect on the planet. “I discovered a whole world of literature and also a world of architecture, like the original books of Corbusier.”

I’m as adamantly opposed to book burning as George Orwell but I would make an exception for the “works” of Corbu. The world would be a better place if his contributions to the catalog of human knowledge were simply deleted.

What are the chances that Foster’s new masterpiece resembles anything like the modest library he claims as his inspiration? Slim to absolutely nil. About the same probability that his update will inspire anyone as much as the brand manager of Windex.

The Times reports that the trustees considered more traditional architects but in the end chose to commission "a distinctive piece of contemporary architecture.” According to the library’s chairwoman, Catie Marron, “one has to embrace one’s time.”

But why? Why can’t we embrace our times by embracing the beautiful works of art that preceded us instead of disfiguring them? Because our times are selfish and myopic, that’s why.

The presumption is that the Carrere & Hastings building belongs to another age and we need a structure that reflects contemporary society. Actually, the Library exists now, in our age. It functions spectacularly well, now, in our times.

Any Fosteresque alteration would indeed embrace our times in all its banality, mediocrity, transience, conceit and most of all its presumption that any architect alive today could match what Carrere & Hastings created a century ago.

Nicolai Ouroussoff, the Times’ current arbiter of taste approves of this latest attack on the Beaux Arts legacy, particularly the potential for “delicious tension that could be created between old and new.”

Funny how no such tension was desirable when Paul Rudolph’s high rise bunker at Yale was renovated and added to recently. “The Gwathmey design is intentionally restrained and recessive,” says Ada Louise Huxtable the fictional architecture critic at The Wall Street Journal.   But that’s another story.

Says Ouroussoff, who occupies the Muschamp Chair for Advanced Elitist Studies at NYT:

"Some believe that the only way to show respect for an old building is to dress
it up in a cute period style.”

Don’t worry. Our ubermensch narrator is not one of those people.

Even though at 98 years the Library is not an old building by historical standards. Also, the building is a masterpiece even though it is dressed up with anthemion, triglyphs, and colossal Corinthian columns – the style of a period that predates the Library by 2000 years. In fact, it is the timelessness of this style that makes faithful consistency with it the only way to show it respect.

“This approach trivializes history by blurring the distinction between old and
new.”

Actually, just the opposite. Attaching something “new,” meaning developed in the last six months, onto something “old,” which in this case means developed over the four millennia of western civilization, is an act of vandalism not trivialization.

“The result is watered-down history – or worse, kitch.”

And frankly, what could possibly be worse than that?

Yet, a Norman Foster prosthesis on The New York Public Library would equate a passing fashion with the grandeur of history and be nothing more than adding chrome tailfins on a timeless structure.

“In choosing Mr. Foster the library is signaling confidence in the ethos of our
own era while nodding to a distinct past.”

Adding Hannah Montana stickers to the works of Leonardo would also signal confidence in the ethos of our era. 

I, for one, have no confidence at all in the ethos of our era. Leaving to the future a decrepit Norman Foster doodad would only prove to our grandchildren not only how small-minded and incompetent we were but also how we brimmed with self-esteem.  I can think of more useful things to bequeath.

Ironically, the shameful ethos of our era ultimately will make Foster’s plans unrenderable. There’s no money left, and now that the trustees of the library have lost the $59 million they were counting on to jumpstart the project, the hole just got a lot bigger.  

Big enough, with any hope, to swallow the entire scheme. And maybe in the aftermath some time to allow and new ethos for a new era to emerge.
Mob Mentality

Does anyone doubt that after 8 years of stoking blind hatred of George W. Bush that that indiscriminate hatred is now seeking new outlets?  

The mob will soon tire of hating Rush, and the Mormons, and AIG executives and will eventually turn against anyone it deems un-American or privileged or just different.  

This, of course, is the flip side of "progressive" politics.  Because progress is a subjective concept, its ideology is situational and inherently unstable.  Depending on the situation, anything can be either heretical or the God's honest truth.   

This sort of thing never ends well.  Just ask Robespierre.