Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

My big takeaway from this book, subtitled “Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design,” is that evolution is a scientific theory we will never fully understand. Dawkins says as much in his preface, as he describes multiple ways that the human brain seems to be designed to misunderstand “Darwinism,” and to find it hard to believe.

Another way is which we seem predisposed to disbelieve Darwinism is that our brains are built to deal with events on radically different timescales from those that characterize evolutionary change. We are equipped to appreciate processes that take seconds, minutes, years or, at most, decades to complete. Darwinism is a theory of cumulative processes so slow that they take between thousands and millions of decades to complete. All our intuitive judgments of what is probable turn out to be wrong by many orders of magnitude. Our well-tuned apparatus of skepticism and subjective probability-theory misfires by huge margins, because it is tuned—ironically, by evolution itself—to work within a lifetime of a few decades. It requires effort of the imagination to escape from the prison of familiar timescale, and effort that I shall try to assist.

I get this. Just as we can’t truly understand quantum events or accurately predict the motions of enormous galaxies. Like evolution, they operate on scales far removed from our daily world. And in evolution’s case, I firmly believe that we are additionally hampered by the limitations of our own language. We can’t even talk about evolution correctly. The right words don’t even exist and we are forced to deal with shallow approximations.

Don’t believe me? Dawkins’ first three chapters are dedicated almost exclusively to the idea that evolution, contrary to our popular understanding, is not driven by chance. The “cumulative selection” of evolution, he says, is very different from the “single-step selection” that so many mischaracterize as evolution. And he’s right, of course. But at the same time he’s wrong, because the things that are being selected, cumulatively or in single steps, are gene transcription errors and their resulting phenotypic expressions that have arisen by, guess what, chance. So it is both right and wrong to say evolution is driven by chance. It all depends on what kind of chance you’re talking about.

We need a new word to describe this kind of chance, because although gene mutations are random, which expressed traits survive in a population and which do not is clearly NOT random. They are driven by their environment, and certain environments will select and enhance certain traits, every time. As Dawkins does, quoting Peter Atkins provides a memorable way for getting this message across.

I shall take your mind on a journey. It is a journey of comprehension, taking us to the edge of space, time, and understanding. On it I shall argue that there is nothing that cannot be understood, that there is nothing that cannot be explained, and that everything is extraordinarily simple … A great deal of the universe does not need any explanation. Elephants, for instance. Once molecules have learnt to compete and to create other molecules in their own image, elephants, and things resembling elephants, will in due course be found roaming through the countryside.

Indeed. But I am helplessly compounding the problem, because I have already employed one of the language devices I was going to try and avoid in this blog post. Selection. When it comes to evolution, selection (natural or otherwise) is one of the most misleading and misconstrued words there is, referring, as it seems to, to some agency or agent that does the selecting. Nothing, it seems to me, could be further from the truth. Organisms better adapted to their environments live and reproduce. Organisms less well adapted do not. No organism consciously “passes on its genes” or is even driven to do so. And nothing “selects” which organisms will and which won’t.

Dawkins effectively tackles the first half of this concept—that reproduction is a natural and not a conscious process—when he talks about RNA molecules.

Experiments such as these help us to appreciate the entirely automatic and non-deliberate nature of natural selection. The replicase ‘machines’ don’t ‘know’ why they make RNA molecules: it is just a byproduct of their shape that they do. And the RNA molecules themselves don’t work out a strategy for getting themselves duplicated. Even if they could think, there is no obvious reason why any thinking entity should be motivated to make copies of itself. If I knew how to make copies of myself, I’m not sure that I would give the project high priority in competition with all the other things I want to do: why should I? But motivation is irrelevant for molecules. It is just that the structure of the viral RNA happens to be such that it makes cellular machinery churn out copies of itself. And if any entity, anywhere in the universe, happens to have the property of being good at making more copies of itself, then automatically more and more copies of that entity will obviously come into existence. Not only that but, since they automatically form lineages that are occasionally miscopied, later versions tend to be ‘better’ at making copies of themselves than earlier versions, because of the powerful processes of cumulative selection. It is all utterly simple and automatic. It is so predictable as to be almost inevitable.

Dawkins is making the case here, as he does throughout the book, that self-replication, evolution and life are all natural processes—not unlike crystallization and gravity. They don’t need deliberate action to operate. They are, in fact, intrinsic properties of matter itself.

And reproduction isn’t the only life process that is autonomic. In multiple places throughout his book, Dawkins variously ascribes our bodies, our thoughts, our behaviors—even structures we build in the world around us—as the physical manifestations of the genes we carry. Dawkins obviously thinks this of our bodies, and the bodies of all animals. They are the phenotypic expressions of the genes we carry. Specifically, genes working in combination with each other.

But because the environment of the gene consists, to such a salient degree, of other genes also being selected in the same gene pool, genes will be favoured if they are good at cooperating with other genes in the same gene pool. This is why large bodies of cells, working coherently towards the same cooperative ends, have evolved. This is why bodies exist, rather than separate replicators still battling it out in the primordial soup.

And there are other passages in which Dawkins clearly describes thoughts and behaviors as phenotypic expressions of genes. In his thorough treatment of sexual selection, he reinforces again and again the idea that in addition to certain physical traits of males, the preferences for those traits in the minds of the females are also being selected. Here, he’s talking about widow birds.

Instead of simply agreeing that females have whims, we regard female preference as a genetically influenced variable just like any other. Female preference is a quantitative variable, and we can assume that it is under the control of polygenes in just the same kind of way as male tail length itself. These polygenes may act on any of a wide variety of parts of the female’s brain, or even on her eyes; on anything that has the effect of altering the female’s preference.

He offers other examples for structures built by organisms (think beehives and beaver dams). They are all, he says, manifestations of genes, leading me to think that not just biology, but psychology, culture and even architecture may be driven by the mysterious force called natural selection.

But what is natural selection? And what is doing the selecting? The closest thing to truth that preserves the use of that word is, as I said before, the environment. The environment in which the organization lives does the selecting, but this is no conscious process either, and no comparative value judgments are being made over organisms that survive and reproduce and those that don’t. The environment isn’t doing anything, so how can it be said to be selecting? The environment is just the matrix in which the organisms struggle to survive, and some matrices are more amenable to certain variations than others.

These are extreme concepts, dancing around on the teetering edge of our language and ability to comprehend. But one extreme concept that not even Dawkins brings up is the thorny issue of free will. He doesn’t come right out and say it doesn’t exist, but I don’t see how one can conclude anything else based on what he does say. Let’s go back to the widow birds and the desire of their females for long tails.

The reason there is any momentum in the evolution towards longer tails is that, whenever a female chooses a male of the type she ‘likes’, she is, because of the non-random association of genes, choosing copies of the very genes that made her do the choosing.

The emphasis is mine. I don’t think this a sloppy word use on Dawkins’ part. The genes don’t just dictate the female widow bird’s thoughts, program her behaviors and instruct her how to build her nest. They actually force her to make choices about mate selection and, presumably, everything else. I don’t believe there is room for free will in Dawkins’ evolutionary universe. Not for widow birds and not for us.

Monday, December 26, 2011

It's Not Innovation If It Only Serves You

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One thing I struggle with as I try to lead my association towards more innovative practice is the need to define what innovation is and is not in our environment.

There are times when we're brainstorming ideas around a table and someone will land upon an idea that seems to them to be the very epitome of innovation, but which strikes me as a change designed solely to reduce the burden of work on the individual employee.

Here's an actual example from a few years ago:

I know! Instead of printing out all those reams of paper, let's put the conference handouts on a jump drive and just hand them out from the registration desk! Think of all the paper we'll save! It's time our members entered the 21st century, anyway.

I find myself walking a fine line when shooting ideas like this down. While there is something to be said for an innovative idea that both serves the needs of the members and reduces the administrative workload of staff, ideas that accomplish the latter without impacting the former (or actually impacting it negatively) are, in some ways, the exact opposite of innovation.

In my textbook example, I knew that the conference in question was an extremely technical one, in which the presentations contained a lot of data and detailed information. And I suspected that our members had a need for those printed handouts that the innovative idea ignored. When we surveyed some attendees to get their take, those suspicions were validated.

We need those printed handouts! We take lots of notes during the sessions. It's what creates individual value for us. And the binder full of handouts serves as a reference for us after the conference and throughout the year. Please don't take that away from us!

I'm not offering this example as a criticism of the staff person who offered the idea. Far from it, I try to encourage new ways of thinking and experimentation among everyone on the staff. But I am trying to make a point. If we're not clear about the value we already deliver to our members, we'll have an exceptionally hard time creating more innovative value in the future.

Giving our members only an electronic copy of the handouts they couldn't access or edit during the conference would have actually been a step backwards for them. No matter how much time and money it saved, it wasn't the kind of innovation we need to focus on.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Innovation Does Not Happen Online

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Shocking, I know. There are those in our community who would have you believe the opposite. Sometimes, they seem so strident in their demand for online interaction as a way to drive collaboration and innovative practice, it's almost as if they think online communities are a prerequisite for innovation.

But, of course, they're not. In fact, I think that sometimes the online community piece actually gets in the way.

You know that I'm involved with WSAE and its innovation efforts. I am, in fact, proud of the work we've done in this regard. We are in the midst of transforming that society and have made signifcant contributions to the discussion around innovation in the association community (much of it, oddly enough, online).

One thing that came out of our Innovation Summit in September 2011 were a handful of innovation networks. These are small groups of association professionals who have mutually committed to each other to bring more innovative practices to their associations in specific areas. One group is focused on best practices in governance. Another is on expanding towards global membership. The one I joined is targeting member engagement and participatory decision-making as our collaborative subject.

Since September we've had two conference calls. On them we've simply continued the discussion we started in Madison. We talk about our objectives and the barriers we face. We share stories of experiments we've tried and help brainstorm around each other's difficulties. In three months time we've spent a total of two hours together on the phone, but it's working. At least, it's working for me. The appointment on my calendar helps me focus my attention on the subject. The peer group helps me take more steps than I otherwise would, knowing that they will want to hear what I'm doing and how things are going.

And throughout it all, the hard-working and well-intentioned WSAE staff have been pushing for us to use an online community they've built and organized for this specific purpose. It's a place, they say, where we can share ideas, post our success stories, upload resources that we've found helpful, and interact in an asynchronous way that only the community allows. And they're right. In theory, the community should mesh better with our busy schedules because we can participate it in at any time, and not have to find the communal hour every 45 days that works in our competing appointment calendars.

Except it doesn't. The community doesn't drive collaboration and connection precisely because it's asynchronous. When you're there, you feel very much alone, and posting there is a steep hill to ask anyone to climb. Go ahead, it seems to say. Put yourself out there. Take all those half-formed ideas and professional uncertainties and post them up on this website. You'll get no immediate feedback and no guarantee that anyone will ever read it and respond in kind. But do it anyway. Because it's innovative. Right?

Sorry, I'll pass. The conference calls may be old school, but through them I am building relationships, sharing ideas, accessing resources, and moving innovative practice forward at my association. Unlike online communities, there are no lurkers on these calls. And best of all, the mechanism aligns with my established patterns of thought and behavior. Yes, it's one extra meeting I have to prepare for and participate in every month or so, but the takeaways are immediate, and they are moving me to action in ways online discussion doesn't.

It's like that stack of books and magazines in the corner of my office that never gets read. They may contain the wisdom of the ages, but I'll never take advantage of it because the process of extracting value from their printed pages is too time consuming and it doesn't show any immediate return.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Tragic Legacy by Glenn Greenwald

The subtitle here is “How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency,” and it’s an apt framework for analyzing how America’s 43rd president went from one of the most popular (in late 2001) to one of the least popular (by late 2006).

It’s a downfall that’s quite remarkable in the annals of American history. To illustrate the point, Greenwald begins his first chapter with a series of numbers (86, 66, 59, 48, 39, 32), which represent the percentage of Americans who approved of Bush’s performance in late 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006, respectively. I have my own political opinions, and I probably won’t be able to keep them from peeking through in this post, but by any measurement, that is a record that demonstrates how much of the American public turned against Bush and the policies he supported. Greenwald’s book was published in 2007, so he couldn’t add the 25% Bush’s approval rating sank to in 2008, but we can, and in doing so we can marvel at how far he fell.

Does anyone remember the George W. Bush of late 2001? The president who, after 9/11 and its sad but not unexpected backlash against American Muslims, said things like:

I ask you to uphold the values of America, and remember why so many have come here. We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.

This was a man we were proud to call our president. But now, after so many betrayals of the principles he spoke so highly of, one has to wonder whether he changed, or if he never really understood what those principles were and why they were worth fighting for.

There are still factions in our society who want to perpetuate the myth that he was one of our most popular presidents, and that the American public was behind him and his policies from start to finish. But he wasn’t and they weren’t. In one telling example, Greenwald’s assessment of the 2004 presidential election shows just how unpopular Bush had become even by then.

Incumbent American presidents rarely lose under any circumstances. But Americans have never voted a president out of office during wartime, having comfortably re-elected all four previous wartime presidents who ran again (Madison, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Nixon).

Beyond those towering inherent advantages, Bush barely squeaked by despite running against John Kerry, one of the most politically ungifted major party nominees in several decades; despite Kerry’s running an inept and passive presidential campaign, leading former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe to call the campaign’s failure to attack Bush’s record “one of the biggest acts of political malpractice in the history of American politics”; and despite a significant financial advantage. Even with all of those formidable advantages, facing a weak opponent and an unskillful campaign, the War President, after four years of governing, won only two states in 2004 that he did not take in 2000 (Iowa and New Mexico) and even lost New Hampshire for a net gain of only one state.

This fascinates me. Ask a Bush devotee, and you’ll hear how much the country was behind Bush. The facts are he squeaked into office in 2004—just as he had in 2000.

One of the things that fascinates me most about Bush’s presidency is my own belief that, despite all his own rhetoric and that of his political supporters, Bush was not a conservative—at least not in the sense that I understand that term. Here’s how Greenwald defines it. Conservatism is…

… defined by a belief in (a) restrained federal government power, (b) minimal federal taxes and responsible and limited spending, (c) a generalized distrust of the federal government and its attempts to intervene into the private lives of citizens, (d) reliance on the private sector rather than the federal government to achieve “Good” ends, (e) a preference for state and local autonomy over federalized and centralized control, (f) trusting in individuals rather than government officials to make decisions, and (g) an overarching belief in the supremacy of the rule of law.

That sounds like something Barry Goldwater would’ve written. Indeed, Greenwald makes several comparisons between that former senator from Arizona and President Bush.

Despite the continuous and enthusiastic embrace of Bush by the vast bulk of political conservatives, it has long been vividly clear that the president (just as was true for Ronald Reagan) simply does not govern in accordance with the claimed principles of political conservatism as the exist in their “pure,” abstract form. George Bush has presided over massive increases in domestic spending, the conversion of a multibillion dollar surplus into an even larger deficit, the creation of vast new bureaucratic fiefdoms, an unprecedented expansion of the power of the federal government, governmental intrusions into multiple areas previously preserved for the states or off-limits altogether, and a wanton disregard for the rule of law. Whatever political philosophy has propelled George Bush’s governance, it is not the abstract tenets of Goldwater /small-government conservatism.

Greenwald’s book reminded me that there was an interesting time during Bush’s second term when, in fact, his own conservative base seemed to turn against him. They were for a time seemingly bent on dismantling all he was trying to put into place.

The president’s campaign to overhaul Social Security—his flamboyantly touted second-term “legacy” program—flopped from the start, his proposals pushed away even by his own party…

The failed Supreme Court nomination of his loyal aide Harriet Miers was fueled almost entirely by his own supporters…

The fiasco over his attempt to turn over America’s port operations to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates even raised questions about whether he was sufficiently committed to protecting the country against the threat of Islamic terrorism…

I remember the conservative pundits going apoplectic at the time for each of these items. I specifically remember the triumph they proclaimed when they were able to get Bush to withdraw Miers’ name from consideration. I think it was then that the true conservatives—the Goldwater libertarian wing of the party—began to realize that Bush, despite his constant use of the word conservative and their unfailing support of him for the previous four years, was not, in fact a conservative. Not a Goldwater conservative, at least.

But by that time the term “conservative” had been hijacked so much that those who honored the tradition that invented it were seen as the lunatic fringe by the powerful establishment who had redefined it to allow them to publicly act in opposition to every one of its original principles.

Greenwald is writing in 2006 or 2007, before the rise of the Tea Party. He is very critical of the neo-conservatives, whom he lambasts for praising, supporting and re-electing Bush in 2001-04 as a conservative hero, and then throwing him under the bus in 2005-06 as an arch anti-conservative. He writes as if these neo-cons are the conservative base of the Republican Party, but of course they are not. Bush and his neo-con supporters are cut from the same cloth. Election cycle after election cycle since Goldwater’s defeat, they have been changing the definition of conservatism from small government libertarianism to big government empire building.

That is because “conservatism”—while definable on a theoretical plane—has come to have no practical meaning in this country other than a quest for ever-expanding government power for its own sake. When George Bush enabled those ends, he was the Great Conservative. Now that he impedes them due to his unprecedented unpopularity, he is the Judas of the conservative movement.

The truth is that the “conservative movement” that Bush and now Obama leads is not rooted in the Republican Party, the way Goldwater conservatism was. It’s a new kind of conservatism—and it’s not compassionate as Bush tried to brand it. It transcends political party. Under this new “conservative” banner we see Republicans acting as bigger spenders than historical Democrats and Democrats acting as bigger warmongers than historical Republicans. They can each get away with their non-traditional excesses because neither one truly has the opposition they once had from the other party to hold them in check.

The political doctrine that drives this “neo-conservatism” is not conservative. Greenwald claims it is evangelical. That is, it is committed to the use of government power as a force to promote a particular conception of God’s will. And there is very little that is more anti-Goldwater conservatism than evangelicalism. As the Senator himself said:

Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them…

There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God’s name on one’s behalf should be used sparingly.

Which is as good as any segue back to Greenwald’s subtitle: “How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency.”

…what lies at the heart of the Bush presidency is an absolutist worldview capable of understanding all issues and challenges only in the moralistic, overly simplistic, and often inapplicable terms of “Good vs. Evil.” The president is driven by his core conviction that he had found the Good, that he is a crusader for it, that anything is justified in pursuit of it, and that anything which impedes his decision-making is, by definition, a deliberate or unwitting ally of Evil. This mentality has single-handedly prevented him from governing, changing course, and even engaging realities that deviate from those convictions. The president’s description of himself as “the Decider” is accurate. His mind-set had dominated the American political landscape throughout his presidency, and virtually all significant events of the Bush Era are a by-product of his core Manichean mentality.

Manichean is a reference to a religion founded in the third century by the Persian prophet Manes, in which the world was cleanly divided into two opposing spheres—Good and Evil; God and theDevil—and in which they fought a dualistic battle both in heaven and on Earth. It was a new word for me. One I was glad to learn. And it was Bush’s Manichean morality, Greenwald argues, that rendered inevitable…

…some of the most amoral and ethically monstrous policies, justified as necessary as a means to achieve a morally imperative end. The Bush presidency, awash in moralistic rhetoric, has ushered in some of the most extremist, previously unthinkable and profoundly un-American practices—from indefinite, lawless detentions, to the use of torture, to bloody preventive wars of choice, to the abduction of innocent people literally off the street or from their homes, to radical new theories designed to vest in the president the power to break the law.

These measures were pursued not despite the moralistic roots of the president’s agenda, but because of them. Those who believe that they are on the path of righteousness, who are crusaders for the objective Good, will frequently become convinced that there can be no limitations on the weapons used to achieve their ends. The moral imperative of their agenda justifies—even requires—all steps undertaken to fulfill it. As the president ceaselessly proclaimed the Goodness at the heart of America’s destiny and its role in the world, his actions have resulted in an almost full-scale destruction of America’s moral credibility in almost every country and on every continent. The same president who has insisted that core moralism drive him has brought America to its lowest moral standing in history.

A lot of this, a lot of the embrace of Evil in order to do Good, is given room to flourish because of the neo-conservative theory that there are different truths for different kinds of people. As Greenwald quotes the neo-conservative spokesperson, Bill Kristol:

There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.

Of course, the self-designated “highly educated adults” take responsibility for hiding their truths from the ignorant masses, worried that too much of their truth in the wrong hands will lead to political unrest. Here, Bill’s father, Irving Kristol, lauds the perspective of political philosopher Leo Strauss:

What made [Strauss] so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that “the truth will make men free.” … Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that “the truth could make some minds free,” but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences.

Let me take a quick aside here. I know that whole books have been written about these ideas, and I don’t have the scholarship to speak to it authoritatively, but still…how do people delude themselves into thinking these things could possibly be true? Obscuring “truth” from the masses may help you achieve certain objectives—but human happiness isn’t one of them.

But my point in going down this particular neo-conservative rabbit hole is to say, whatever your political or philosophical position may be, it’s much easier to claim your wholesome ends justify your nefarious means if you also subscribe to the idea that there are certain bits of knowledge that your political underclass needn’t worry themselves about. Knowledge, say, of your nefarious means. It’s much harder to justify Evil, in other words, if you don’t get to perpetrate it under the cover of night.

This all would be one thing if we could ascribe this political philosophy to one man—to President Bush, who’s now gone and no longer able to affect United States policy. But that, sadly, is not the case. Greenwald’s criticism of Bush and his view are less about Bush as an individual and more about the political movement that embraced him.

George W. Bush is a single individual, who will permanently leave the American political stage on January 20, 2009. But the political movement that transformed Bush into an icon—and which loyally supported, glorified, and sustained him—is not going anywhere. Bush is but a by-product and a perfect reflection of that movement, one which has been weakened and diminished by Bush’s staggering unpopularity but is far from dead. It intends to rejuvenate itself by finding a new leader, one who appears cosmetically different from the deeply unpopular Bush, but who, in reality, shares Bush’s fundamental beliefs about the world (which are the core beliefs of that movement) and who intends to follow the same disastrous course Bush has chosen for this country.

To understand Bush and his presidency, then, is not merely a matter of historical interest. Examining the dynamic driving his presidency is also vital for understanding the right-wing political movement that has dominated our political landscape since the mid-1990s—a movement that calls itself “conservative” but which, as many traditional conservatives have themselves complained, has no actual allegiance to the political principles for which conservatism claims to stand. That is the movement that George Bush has come to embody, and the attitude of the Bush presidency, the ones which have spawned such a tragic legacy for our country, are the same attributes driving the movement that created, supported, and sustained that presidency.

Greenwald calls this movement evangelical, and I think he means that in more of a political context than a religious one. But religious belief is a big part of what drives it. And those religious beliefs have what I think could be frightening consequences for our world.

That faction is driven by the general theological belief that God’s will is for Jews to occupy all of “Greater Israel,” which will occur only once the enemies of Israel are defeated. There is no question—because many of their key leaders have said so themselves—that evangelicals, who compose a substantial part of President Bush’s most loyal following, have become fanatically “pro-Israel” in their foreign policy views because they believe that strengthening Israel is a necessary prerequisite for Rapture to occur—for the world to be ruled by Christianity upon Jesus’ apocalyptic return to Earth—and they believe that can occur only once “Greater Israel” is unified under Jewish control.

I don’t wish to offend. But, when I read things like that—that there are people who with the earnestness that is necessary to drive a nation’s foreign policy believe that strengthening Israel is a prerequisite for Rapture to occur—I can’t help but wonder if they are grown-ups. Adults in the same sense that I understand that term. If they believe that, I wonder, what other myths from Sunday School do they still believe? Not unexpectedly, Greenwald provides a kind of answer on the very next page.

After President Bush’s 2000 election but before his 2004 re-election, General [William G.] Boykin [the Bush administration’s deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence] appeared in full military uniform before evangelical congregations and insisted that President Bush was installed in the White House by God:

“Ask yourself this: why is this man in the White House? The majority of Americans did not vote for him. Why is he there? … I tell you this morning he’s in the White House because God put him there for such a time as this. God put him there to lead not only this nation but to lead the world, in such a time as this.”

As [Gary] Wills reports [in a November 2006 New York Review of Books article], Boykin, in part of his stump speech in churches, would typically present a slide show with photographs of individuals such as Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and various Taliban leaders while asking if each was “the enemy.” He “gave a resounding no to each question,” and then explained:

“The battle this nation is in is a spiritual battle, it’s a battle for our soul. And the enemy is a guy called Satan. … Satan wants to destroy this nation. He wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army.”

This is what frightens me about evangelicals in positions of political power. If they honestly believe this stuff, which I have to assume they do, then what kind of decisions would they be willing to make with regard to our nation’s foreign policy, armed forces, and nuclear arsenal? There’s likely to be no limit. I think that’s the key point that Greenwald wants to make with this book, and which he summarizes so well in his concluding paragraph.

The Manichean warrior recognizes no limits on the weapons he uses to annihilate the Evil enemies. Those who begin with the premise that they are intrinsically and by divine entitlement on the side of objectives Good view any weapons they use as, by definition, just and necessary. Thus, the president who vowed to the world that he would demonstrate the values that have made this country great, thereafter systematically violated those very values to the point where our country is no longer defined by them. The epic challenge in the aftermath of the Bush presidency is the restoration of those national values, a rehabilitation of our national character, so that American morality and credibility are, once again, more than empty slogans in presidential Manichean war speeches. This is the tragic legacy George W. Bush leaves behind for America.


Greenwald is a writer, like Huxley and Harris, that I could quote at tremendous length (as I have in this post) and be hard pressed to find anything of substance to add. One thing I really enjoy about him (and about Huxley and Harris) is the way he speaks very plainly in his writing, offering a clear perspective on what others obscure by design or by incompetence. Here are just a two examples that struck me:

Not only American political discourse but also American Culture generally are suffused with an endless parade of fear-inducing images, of constant warnings of latent dangers—the terrorist “sleeper cells” lurking in every community, the sex predators living covertly on one’s own street, drug gangs and violent criminals and online pedophiles, radical tyrants seeking nuclear weapons. Basic human nature dictates that a world that seems frightening and hopelessly complex always engenders a need for both protection and clarity.

Religion—a belief in an all-powerful, protective deity and a clear, absolute, and eternal moral code—powerfully satisfies those cravings. True faith in an all-powerful, benevolent God alleviates both fear and anxiety and produces an otherwise unattainable tranquility and feeling of safety. Identically, a political movement built on a strong, powerful, protective leader—one who claims that the world in morally unambiguous, who insists that it can be cleanly divided into Good and Evil, and who promises “protection” from the lurking dangers of Evil—fulfills the same needs. Those who lead the group—the Protectors—will inspire great personal loyalty, while those who oppose it will be viewed as mortal enemies.

+ + +

The Bush presidency has fundamentally transformed the way we speak about our country and its responsibilities, entitlements, and role in the world. In reviewing the pre-Iraq War “debate” this country had both on television and in print, one of the most striking aspects in retrospect is the casual and even breezy tone with which American collectively discusses and thinks about war as a foreign policy option, standing inconspicuously next to all of the other options. There is really no strong resistance to it, little anguish over it, no sense that it is a supremely horrible and tragic course to undertake—and particularly to start. Gone almost completely from our mainstream political discourse is horror over war. The most one hears is some cursory and transparently insincere—almost bored—lip service to its being a “last resort.”

Monday, December 12, 2011

What Race for Relevance Inadvertently Taught Me About Committees

I've talked about Race for Relevance once before on this blog, the recent book by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers calling for "Five Radical Changes for Associations." In that previous post, I make the case that the book’s five supposedly radical ideas for remaking associations aren’t radical at all—or shouldn’t be in the 21st century. But the actions the book suggests association leaders take based on those ideas are radical, in the extreme, especially to organizations still saddled with 50-person boards of directors and 100+ committees. To the staff leaders of those organizations, for whom the suggested actions seem impossible, my suggestion was to use Race for Relevance as a negotiating position with their boards.

There are a few other points from the book that didn’t make it into that post, but which I would like to highlight. They are things I think are very well stated and have helped me frame issues I sometimes find myself struggling to wrap my arms around. Things like, believe it or not, generational change in association membership.

The generational issue is causing a sea change in join rates, volunteer engagement, and the value associations place on programs and services. Vince Sandusky, chief executive officer of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), summarizes the situation well: “SMACNA is a strong association, but the next generation of contractors has different definitions of value, different ways of accessing information, different learning processes, and different ways of socializing. SMACNA’s traditional structure and processes are not aligned with changing contractor preferences, and the rate of change is accelerating.”

I should send Vince a note of thanks. That one sentence helps me justify (at least to myself) the continued exploration I’m doing with social media for my association—even though there are very few current members who play in those spaces.

Another area in which this book has helped me gain clarity is the use and value of committees, but probably not in the way the authors intended. And certainly not in the views of fellow bloggers Jamie Notter and Jeff De Cagna, given their recent posts and comments on the subject. Here’s, in part, what Coerver and Byers say about this staple of association organization and function:

The system is almost always considered to be the source of future board members and officers. It is the farm team, the talent bank, the opportunity for members to demonstrate their abilities and for the association to monitor their performance. We have to ask: How can the traditional committee structure and dysfunction possibly produce the next generation of competent leaders? We believe that the majority of committees do not produce, do not capitalize on the volunteer resource at their disposal, do not result in a positive experience for the member, and in fact, drive off more members than they cultivate. And in many instances, the volunteers who survive are not always the best and the brightest. Though not always, they sometimes are groupies and wannabes who like to travel, hang with the big dogs, hobnob with peers, and feed their egos.

I can’t argue with any of this. The brightest future leaders won’t develop from dysfunctional committee structures like the ones the authors describe. And one of their remedies for the situation—to allow all committees and task forces to be chaired by association staff professionals—has a certain trailblazing appeal to it. After all, who better to keep a committee procedurally on track and provide more space for association members to stay focused on the volunteer contribution of their industry knowledge and wisdom than a competent staff person? But then I read this justification for putting staff members in charge:

Managing volunteer committees or task forces takes skills that not everyone possesses. You must understand how to manage a project. You must understand how to communicate, build consensus, and deal with conflict. You have to know how to schedule and manage meetings. You must know how to make a recommendation and write a report and how to navigate the association’s bureaucracy and work within its policies.

And I think they’re right. These are not skills that everyone possesses. Communication, building consensus, dealing with conflict, managing meetings, navigating bureaucracy, working within policies—these are all leadership skills, and not everyone is a leader.

But isn’t the opportunity to develop these skills leading an association committee part of the value proposition an association can offer its members? Committees can serve many purposes within an association, and if one of those purposes is to be leadership development, then let’s position committee service as more than just a rite of passage. In addition to doing productive work on behalf of the association’s mission, it’s an opportunity to hone your communication skills, to practice building consensus and dealing with conflict—all in an environment that contains some professional risk, but not nearly as much as practicing those skills on a project critical to your employer’s success.

Committees that produce valuable benefits for an association’s members while developing the leadership capacity of the association and the industry it represents are an essential facet of a successful association’s value proposition and, importantly, the traditional association business model. For all the dysfunction that surrounds many associations’ use of committees and task forces, they can still represent a unique benefit for professional development and industry advancement.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Calling Everyone (Not Just Boomers): Which Battle Are You Fighting?

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Thanks to Elizabeth Weaver Engel for pointing me to this opinion piece in The Chronicle of Philanthropy reacting to a recently released study that shows more than 12 million Baby Boomers want to start new nonprofits or socially-oriented for-profits over the next decade to give themselves the opportunity to continue contributing positively to society in their golden years.

I've written about this generational dynamic before--Boomers who, now faced with the prospect of retirement but still flush with health and vitality, not quite financially ready to quit working, and still wanting to contribute to the betterment of others, are moving out of senior positions in the for-profit world and going to work for or starting their own nonprofits.

The author of the opinion piece, has some stark advice for them--don't do it.

More than a million nonprofit groups already exist, and plenty of for-profit ventures are dedicated in part to providing some social benefit. Adding millions more of such entities is not good for this nation.

Such a multiplicity of organizations would move America further away from developing coherent analyses of public problems. And it would lead the country to define and treat social concerns as fragmented individual or local matters. That would make it profoundly more difficult to mount any significant effort to advance the broad-based change needed in our social, political, and economic institutions.

It's an interesting perspective, and I've commented on it before, too. The fragmented approach to solving large, complex problems seldom works. We know that. As association professionals, we are often faced with challenges that we have neither the resources nor the competencies to adequately address. Worse yet, there are often competing associations in our fields, also working on the same problems with inadequate resources and underdeveloped skill sets.

Yet few of us explore what we could accomplish if we pooled our talents and resources and worked together on common issues. Too often, we're too busy protecting our own turf--both the products and services on which the health of our organizations have come to depend and the sense of security that our leadership and employment offer in a turbulent world--to even consider what capacities could be built and new benefits created with a more collaborative approach to problem solving.

In my own experience, such intentions are often stifled by a subtle and unexpressed game of chicken. Two association leaders of two competing associations each recognize the futility of their own attempts and the potential for success that lives within partnership, but neither is willing to blink unless the other blinks first. And each is fearful that the other will pounce and exploit whatever opening they may finally work up the courage to offer.

Is there a better way? Are we all destined to act in the manner of these Boomers in this opinion piece? I have to battle, I have to provide, I have to succeed, or that success will have no meaning in my life or in the lives of the people I serve. What if we convinced ourselves that this kind of self-actualizing success comes not from the individual struggle against the goal, but in the attempt to build the coalition that could best achieve the goal? What could such an approach mean for our community, our profession, and ourselves?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

So I didn’t like this one as much as All the Pretty Horses. In fact, there were times when it felt like I as forcing myself to finish it.

But not at the start. At the start I was really into it. I was with Billy Parham and the wolf he had captured, because I thought I knew what McCarthy was trying to say.

He said that the wolf is a being of great order and that it knows what men do not: that there is no order in the world save that which death has put there. Finally he said that if men drink the blood of God yet they do not understand the seriousness of what they do. He said that men wish to be serious but they do not understand how to be so. Between their acts and their ceremonies lies the world and in this world the storms blow and the trees twist in the wind and all the animals that God has made go to and fro yet this world men do not see. They see the acts of their own hands or they see that which they name and call out to one another but the world between is invisible to them.

It wasn’t just a wolf, you see. It was nature itself. Nature that existed separate from man and all his manifestations. Ancient and wise, and thoroughly adapted to reality in a way man’s desire could never be. When Billy began his quest south with the harnessed she-wolf, it was not just a journey of distance, but a journey of understanding he embarked upon.

He woke all night with the cold. He’d rise and mend back the fire and she was always watching him. When the flames came up her eyes burned out there like gatelamps to another world. A world burning on the shore of an unknowable void. A world construed out of blood and blood’s alkahest and blood in its core and in its integument because it was that nothing save blood had power to resonate against that void which threatened hourly to devour it. He wrapped himself in the blanket and watched her. When those eyes and the nation to which they stood witness were gone at last with their dignity back into their origins there would perhaps be other fires and other witnesses and other worlds otherwise beheld. But they would not be this one.

And in Billy’s desire to see the wolf returned to Mexico, what he believes to be her homeland, he also wants to see Nature returned to a place beyond man’s influence. But no such place still exists, and the wolf is captured by a group of men who fight dogs for sport and profit.

She was lying in the floor of the cart in a bed of straw. They’d taken the rope from her collar and fitted the collar with a chain and run the chain through the floorboards of the cart so that it was all that she could do to rise and stand. Beside her in the straw was a clay bowl that perhaps held water. A young boy stood with his elbows hung over the top board of the cart with a jockeystick held loosely across his shoulder. When he saw enter what he took for a paying customer he stood up and began to prod the wolf with the stick and to hiss at her.

She ignored the prodding. She was lying on her side breathing in and out quietly. He looked at the injured leg. He stood the rifle against the cart and called to her.

She rose instantly and turned and stood looking at him with her ears erect. The boy holding the jockeystick looked up at him across the top of the cart.

He talked to her a long time and as the boy tending the wolf could not understand what it was he said he said what was in his heart. He made promises that he swore to keep in the making. That he would take her to the mountains where she would find others of her kind. She watched him with her yellow eyes and in them was no despair but only that same reckonless deep of loneliness that cored the world to its heart. He turned and looked at the boy. He was about to speak when the pitchman ducked inside under the canopy and hissed at them. El viene, he said. El viene.

Billy fights for the wolf; fights to have her returned to his care. But the men ignore him, desperate to see how their trained dogs will fare against the wild animal. And after she has defeated several dogs, gravely wounded in the process, and is about to face two fresh new antagonists, Billy takes the only action he can.

He stepped over the parapet and walked toward the wolf and levered a shell into the chamber of the rifle and halted ten feet from her and raised the rifle to his shoulder and took aim at the bloodied head and fired.

It’s a mercy killing, but in the extended metaphor of nature being raped by man’s lust and greed, it has even more ominous overtones. It also transforms Billy—transforms him, I believe, from a boy into a man. For in that one shot, he loses all the idealism of his youth and in ready to tackle the harsh reality of his adulthood.

This is the crossing referred to in the book’s title. There are other crossings, to be sure—three trips into Mexico in all—and these can be thought of as crossings, too. But they are not The Crossing. That is reserved for what happens to Billy and his way of being in the world.

It’s a crossing his younger brother Boyd is not ready to make. Upon Billy’s return after the tragedy with the wolf, he finds his parents murdered and their horses stolen and taken into Mexico. Billy and Boyd decide to go after the horses, but they both approach the task from different perspectives, Billy hardened and Boyd shattered.

He looked up. His pale hair looked white. He looked fourteen going on some age that never was. He looked as if he’s been sitting there and God had made the trees and rocks around him. He looked like his own reincarnation and then his own again. Above all else he looked to be filled with a terrible sadness. As if he harbored news of some horrendous loss that no one else had heard of yet. Some vast tragedy not of fact or incident or event but of the way the world was.

Boyd doesn’t yet understand how cruel the world can be. Billy does. He’s seen it first hand, and he’s much more serious about the task they’ve set before them. He understands the risks, and isn’t willing to push them too far. Boyd, inexperienced, is lost and unable to rationally calculate what’s to be done and what isn’t. He finds and falls for a girl, gets shot in a confrontation with the horse thieves, and, when healed, runs off on Billy to be with the girl. Eventually Billy leaves Mexico, but returns to find what happened to his brother when he can no longer find a place for himself. He discovers that Boyd has been killed and buried in an unmarked grave, and he risks his life to retrieve his brother’s remains and return them to the land of his birth.

In many ways, this novel is like the corrido (a Mexican form of ballad and oral poem) spoken of near the end of the book.

It tells what it wishes to tell. It tells what makes the story run. The corrido is the poor man’s history. It does not owe its allegiance to the truths of history but to the truths of men. It tells the tale of that solitary man who is all men. It believes that where two men meet one of two things can occur and nothing else. In one case a lie is born and in the other death.

Billy is the solitary man who is all men. And in living he is a lie, always at odds with the world that surrounds him.

McCarthy’s Writing

One thing about McCarthy—he’s a damn good writer. His imagery is so vivid, especially in the most horrifying of scenes.

The German then did something very strange. He smiled and licked the man’s spittle from about his mouth. He was a very large man with enormous hands and he reached and seized the young captive’s head in both these hands and bent as if to kiss him. But it was no kiss. He seized him by the face and it may well have looked to others that he bent to kiss him on each cheek perhaps in the military manner of the French but what he did instead with a great caving of his cheeks was to suck each in turn the man’s eyes from his head and spit them out again and leave them dangling by their cords wet and strange and wobbling on his cheeks.

And so he stood. His pain was great but his agony at the disassembled world he now beheld which could never be put right again was greater. Nor could he bring himself to touch the eyes. He cried out in his despair and waved his hands about before him. He could not see the face of his enemy. The architect of his darkness, the thief of his light. He could see the trampled dust of the street beneath him. A crazed jumble of men’s boots. He could see his own mouth. When the prisoners were turned and marched away his friends steadied him by the arm and led him along while the ground swang wildly underfoot. No one had ever seen such a thing. They spoke in awe. The red holes in his skull glowed like lamps. As if there were a deeper fire there that the demon had sucked forth.

They tried to put his eyes back into their sockets with a spoon but none could manage it and the eyes dried on his cheeks like grapes and the world grew dim and colorless and then it vanished forever.

This reminds me a lot of the scene in The Road when the man and the boy find a locked basement full of people who are being kept by cannibals for the stringy meat on their bones, one of them laying on a mattress on the floor with both his legs amputated and his stumps burned black to stop him from bleeding to death. It’s unreal. It’s unbelievable. And yet it’s so true. So honest. You see it as if it actually happened.

And through the story of this blinded man, McCarthy reveals much wisdom.

He said that the light of the world was in men’s eyes only for the world itself moved in eternal darkness and darkness was its true nature and true condition and that in this darkness it turned with perfect cohesion in all its parts but that there was naught there to see. He said that the world was sentient to its core and secret and black beyond men’s imagining and that its nature did not reside in what could be seen or not seen. He said that he could stare down the sun and what use was that?

This a Conrad and Melville rolled up into one—Moby-Dick swimming through the Heart of Darkness—and it ties directly to Billy’s first adventure with the wolf and the natural world that it represents.

One device that McCarthy uses again and again is the run-on sentence. There’s little punctuation anyway in his novel (nary a quotation mark or an apostrophe to be found), and that freedom of form seems to encourage him to go on and on whenever the mood strikes him. For me, it seldom works. But when it does work, it works extraordinarily well, evoking, as it seems to, the fully fleshed characters and the lives that they lead through a on-going stream of images and impressions.

She said that her grandmother had been widowed again within the year and married a third time and was a third time widowed and wed no more although there were opportunities enough her for to do so as she was a great beauty and not yet twenty years of age when the last husband fell as detailed by his own uncle at Torreon with one hand over his breast in a gesture of fidelity sworn, clutching the rifleball to him like a gift, the sword and pistol he carried falling away behind him useless in the palmettos, in the sand, the riderless horse stepping about in the melee of shot and shell and the cries of men, trotting off with the stirrups flapping, coming back, wandering in silhouette with others of its kind among the bodies of the dead on that senseless plain while the dark drew down around them all about and small birds driven from their arbors in the thorns returned and flitted about and chattered and the moon rose blind and white in the east and the little jackal wolves came trotting that would eat the dead from out of their clothes.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Film Directing Lessons in Innovation and Leadership

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I got way more out of this 20-minute HBR interview with film director Francis Ford Coppola than I thought I would. What lessons in innovation and leadership can be mined from the views of the man who brought us such classics as Patton, The Godfather and Apocalypse Now?

The things that you get fired for when you’re young are the exact same things you win lifetime achievement awards for when you’re old.

This comes about five minutes into the interview, and Coppola is speaking specifically about that opening scene in Patton when George C. Scott is talking to us “sons of bitches” in front of the American flag. The studio Coppola was working for then didn’t pick up his option after that, evidently not happy with that and other directorial decisions he had made. Forty years later, of course, it is one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history.

The lesson in innovation is, of course, to be aware that the things that are truly revolutionary and trailblazing are always more apparent in hindsight than they are in the views of a powerful status quo. That’s not a license to be flippant or reckless, but it is a caution not to be too reliant on the opinions of those who benefit from the established order. To be innovative is, by definition, to go against the grain, to do things that are not common and not always logical. It may be dangerous swimming upstream, but it’s the only way to differentiate yourself and what you’re trying to accomplish.

The smaller the budget, the bigger the ideas can be. The bigger the budget, the smaller the ideas are.

This is practically Coppola’s next comment, and it’s wonderfully illustrative of where to find places where it’s less dangerous to swim upstream. Notice his phraseology. It sounds off-the-cuff in the interview, but I think it’s carefully chosen. The smaller the budget, the bigger the ideas CAN BE. The bigger the budget, the smaller the ideas ARE. In other words, when there’s less money at stake, there is greater freedom to be bold and inventive. To take chances. To do things the established order may not approve of. When big money is involved, then there’s much more scrutiny, and decisions have to be made that preserve the investment that the order has made.

The parallel to innovation in any bureaucratic organization couldn’t be more clear. Start small. Start where few people are looking. And if you’re the boss, give the people who work for you more freedom to be inventive in their individual areas. Find the smallest areas of your budget and take your biggest chances there. Let them be the idea engine for the larger organization. What works on the small scale can be applied to larger areas, and then they’ll have the evidence of some success to support them.

Identify a one or two-word theme for every project you have, and use that theme to help you make the tough decisions.

This comes about 13 minutes in, and it speaks the most deeply to me. When the stakes are high and the way forward isn’t clear, Coppola always returns to the simple theme he has chosen for his project. For The Conversation, that theme was Privacy. For The Godfather, it was Succession. And every time he reached an impasse in production, he would return to that simple idea and it would give him a framework within which an intelligent decision could be made. It helps to break the deadlock, and it helps bring people together around a common goal.

Now, that’s what I call movie magic.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Things I've Learned from Being a Board Member

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I've recently accepted the nomination to move onto the Executive Committee of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives. I started serving on their board two years ago, a commitment I made, in part, to observe things from the other side of the table. After serving as an association staff person for thirteen years, and now as a chief staff executive (CSE) for the last four, I thought serving on a board myself would help me be a better staff person by experiencing things directly from their perspective.

And I've certainly learned a few things. Things I may have anticipated before, but things that seem abundantly clear to me now. Things like:

Association staff are pulled in too many different directions. And staff that work for an association management company (AMC) are pulled in even more.

Maybe it's because of my background. I've worked at an AMC and now I work for a stand-alone association, so I've seen both models in action. And most associations in my experience, of either stripe, have too much on their plates. Their staffs are stretched too thin, their resources are inadequate to the tasks they set for themselves, and their goals assume an inflated sense of their own competence and abilities.

Boards are partly responsible for this. They keep coming up with new plans, pushing staff to do more and more without thinking about how the work is going to get done. Staff in AMCs typically have an even greater burden, since many have more than one board pushing them in multiple sets of new directions.

And yet, knowing this, knowing the true extent of what can and can't be done, CSEs keep their mouths shut, accepting more responsibility, and pushing more and more work down on the shoulders of their sometimes unsuspecting and ill-equipped staff.

Why does this cycle continue? Why is it so hard to have a conversation about resources--both those that are on hand and those that will need to be acquired if we are truly going to accomplish what we say we must?

Board members, in my mind, should demand it. They should spend less time brainstorming on what should be done next and more time thinking hard about how the stuff on the plate now is going to get done.

And CSEs, especially those that work for AMCs, should help them in this regard by being brutally (i.e., professionally) honest about what's possible and what isn't. If a board and its CSE can't speak frankly about the resources the association has and those it will need to acquire in order to be successful, there is little hope that any set of elaborate plans will be properly executed.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hemingway’s Chair by Michael Palin

Clearly picked this one up because of who the author is. I’ve always been a big Python fan, and Palin is one of my favorites. So I thought, how bad could his novel be?


It wasn’t horrible. I’ve certainly read worst, but it also was not very good. The main character, Martin Sproale, is the assistant manager of a post office and a huge Ernest Hemingway fan. This is, perhaps, all we need to know about him, but it is, in fact, all that we really do know about him. We don’t spend enough time with him in the course of the story, bouncing from one character’s point of view to another in a way that is neither calculated nor effective.

There’s a plot about the post office being taken over and privatized by some interloper who steals Martin’s girlfriend, and there’s a new love interest for Martin who is an American Literature professor who is writing a new book on the women in Hemingway’s wife, but none of that really held my interest.

The best bit is the part about Hemingway’s chair—an old, padded thing taken from off a fishing charter Hemingway had once used that Ruth—the professor and love interest—helps Martin secure from a collector. It becomes something of an obsession for Martin, and affects him in strange ways.

When she came out of the kitchen, Martin was no longer there. In his place was a hunched, wary figure wearing a white tennis cap, grey sweatshirt and a light brown cotton jacket with a pattern of tiny check. He wore plain white Bermuda-length cotton shorts. His calves were bare and he sat, leaning forward, as if waiting. Ruth approached cautiously. The figure in the chair was concentrating on something in the middle distance. His face wore an ironic, self-mocking smile. She held out a glass of whisky.

‘You want a drink?’

For a moment nothing moved, but when the figure slowly lifted his head, Ruth experienced once again the uncanny sensation of being with a stranger she knew well.

‘I guess I look ridiculous,’ came a voice that was slow and heavy and yet in which the smile remained. She said nothing.

‘I don’t look like a decent fellow should look, huh?’

He took the whisky from her and drank it back in one. Then he held the glass out again and watched her refill it.

He drank again, more slowly. This one was neat and he gasped at the after-taste. Then all of a sudden he looked up and breathed deep and beamed around him.

‘Well, I look like this because this is the way I like to look most of the time. I look like this because, come tomorrow, I shall be in Havana and I shall be drinking cold beers with Mrs Mason on the deck of the HMS Anita.’

Ruth caught all the allusions. In 1933 Ernest left Pauline behind in Key West and took a two-month fishing holiday in Havana. He met up with the beautiful, willful, twenty-three-year-old Jane Mason, whose husband was working and couldn’t go with her, and they fished together off a boat called Anita, which belonged to Joe Russell, one of Hemingway’s Key West cronies. It was an episode of his life she and most Hemingway scholars had always wanted to know more about. A rare extramarital affair, known to have taken place, but still steeped in mystery.

Ruth poured herself another drink and sat down opposite him, one side of her face caught by the lamplight. ‘Why are you going away so soon?’

‘Because I worked goddamn hard at that book and I need to get it out of my system.’

‘I worked hard to get this house ready for you,’ she said quietly. ‘You know how much money I spent?’

His face clouded. ‘That’s the only way you see these things. Through the end of a bank balance. So your father bought this house. Great. So you put in nice furniture, big curtains. Paint everything. Great. I do no more fucking writing because I have to sit around choosing curtains when I could be out on a boat chasing marlin with my real friends.’

‘You call those bums you hang out with your friends?’

‘They’re simple guys. They drink and they gamble and they live off the sea. But I love them. Okay?’

‘You love them more than me?’

‘Maybe I do. Maybe they don’t keep wanting to hang onto me and tidy me up and put me on display.’

‘I just want to have you here in the house with me. I don’t care if you wear nothing but a pair of sneakers and a leopard-skin loincloth, I’d rather I looked after you than Mrs Mason. I’m your wife, dammit. What happened? What did I do wrong?’

‘You did too much. You tried too hard.’

‘You loved me once. You loved me so much and I loved you and we went everywhere together and we made each other very happy.’

‘If you say so.’

‘You don’t know?’

‘I do know, for Chrissake, I do know.’

‘You knew for a day. You knew for a week. Then someone more interesting comes along and I have to go along with that. I have to wait while you make your plans and then I do what you want me to do. Isn’t that right?’

‘No…no… It’s not right.’

‘You do what you want to do and I’m just supposed to fit in, right?’

‘No, no!’

‘I’m the wife who has to stay home till the master returns.’


‘My writing is not worth shit.’


‘All you want is a body to be there when it suits you.’


Ruth saw the sweat break out on his brow, but she couldn’t stop now.

‘Well, I’ll tell you. You ain’t as hot as you think you are.’

‘Quit, will you?’ His head swung angrily.

‘Don’t want to hear the truth, huh?’

‘I said quit.’

‘I tell you I could walk out that door right now and find a dozen guys who’d give me a better time!’

‘I said quit!’

A cut glass ashtray flew towards Ruth’s head. She ducked and heard it smash against the wall and fall in pieces to the floor behind her.

She straightened up.

Martin stood staring helplessly. ‘Are you all right?’

This little role play, where Martin becomes Hemingway and Ruth adopts the role of his wife, Pauline, had real potential, but it comes too late in the novel to save it from all that has already happened, or to be anything more than an interesting scene. Something more magical, where Martin actually becomes Hemingway, possessed by the spirit still inhabiting the chair—that would have been a fun read. But Martin always remains Martin, and I’m not sure I ever feel like I should be pulling for him.

The ending is equally disappointing. Martin pulls off some colossal collapse of his nemesis’ plan, literally pulling down a communications tower meant to modernize the little town they all live in with a high-speed yacht adorned with Hemingway’s chair, and supposedly dies in some fiery crash with another boat. There’s that, and then a transition, and then we’re with Ruth a few days later, while she’s putting the finishing touches on her manuscript. She’s interrupted by the postman delivering a letter and, wouldn’t you know it, it’s Martin, writing to her under an assumed name from Cuba.

Prior to receiving this letter, though, Ruth is reflecting on how to sum up her paper.

She hated conclusions. They sat there like sirens, luring the scholar onto the rocks of pomposity and complacency. Now let’s have the solution, they seemed to say. Now tell us what it’s all about so we won’t have to read the whole book.

I can only assume that Palin feels the same way.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Which Committee Are You On?

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Here's a hypothetical for you. Let's say that you're an active volunteer in an association whose mission you care about. You serve on two committees for this association--one of which you chair. Because this association has dozens of committees, you find the meetings for both of your committees scheduled at the same time at an association conference. You're not alone. Conflicts like this are inevitable for an association as complex and vibrant as this one. But you can't be in two places at the same time.

Which committee meeting do you attend? The one you chair? Or the one you can have the greatest impact upon? What if that means you leave the committee you chair without a leader?

I recently witnessed the hypothetical happen, and the chair in question decided to attend the other meeting--the one of the committee he didn't chair.

He had a good reason, I think. The other committee was making bigger decisions than the one he chaired, and he wanted to make sure his voice--and the voice of the committee he did chair--was heard in those deliberations. He explained all of that to us in the five minutes he spent with us before going off to be with the other committee. You see, I was a member of the committee he chaired.

What happened next? We proceeded with our agenda, ably led by the association staff person the chair had left behind in his stead. We talked about important issues. We had differences of opinions. We took a hard look at the analytics of our situation and came to a consensus decision about what the committee and the association that empowered it should do. It felt right. It was time well spent.

At the lunch break our chair came back into our room and told us--without even asking what had transpired while he was away--that he had advocated for and the More Important Committee had approved a course of action opposite the one we had endorsed. Our committee would now be bound by that decision, he happily reported, and he asked us to spend the afternoon portion of our meeting strategizing on how to best accomplish it.

Then, he got up and left again.

Could this situation have been better handled? Probably. Should the chair have acted in a way that didn't alienate and anger his entire committee? Absolutely. But in the short-term window of a day-long set of committee meetings, he likely didn't see anything as important as simply driving towards the Right Answer and getting the troops to execute on it. I understand where he's coming from. We're all busy and the work has to get done.

Except I wasn't there to take direction. I was there to participate in a decision-making process with my peers. Things didn't necessarily have to go my way. I would've supported a decision I disagreed with, assuming a process I could support was followed. But this wasn't it. By exempting his committee from the decision process that affected it, the chair not only drove us, by default, to the Wrong Answer, he all but guaranteed that we wouldn't take its execution seriously.

Some committees make decisions and other committees get things done. That's a natural byproduct of any hierarchical organization. The challenge, I think, is less about the decisions that are to be made and more about determining which kind of committee you're best suited for serving on.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Secrets of Innovation

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This past week I attended the annual conference of one of my partner associations. Like the association I work for, they are a manufacturing-based trade association, whose members buy components from my members. The two industries are closely aligned, and they're facing many of the same issues we are.

One of the presentations they organized was a panel of the member CEOs, talking about challenges in their environment and some creative solutions that they have seen. Not surprisingly, the question of innovation came up.

One CEO talked about a partnership his company had forged with a local arts college. There were some skeptical scoffs from the audience. Art students? those scoffing seemed to say. What can a bunch of art students teach my professional engineers about innovation?

The CEO was very direct.

"Think about it," he said. "These are highly creative and ambitious people. They want to make a difference in the world. By inviting them into our product design process, we have given them an opportunity to do exactly that. And they have come up with business-changing ideas that the highly skilled engineers who work for us would never have thought of."

This really is one of the secrets of innovation, isn't it? Bring outside perspectives into your organization and allow them to identify new opportunities hidden by your internal culture and demographics. Even if your team is diverse--and engineering teams at manufacturing companies are about as monolithic as they come--there are things that people too close to a problem will never see. They all live within a the same paradigm, and it only allows certain approaches to certain problems. It's not good or bad. It's just the way things are.

We hear about this strategy all the time, and it makes total sense. But how many of us really do it? It was nice to see how one organization is actually doing it and the success it is driving for them.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I’d never heard of Philip Pullman or His Dark Materials until they started making a movie out of The Golden Compass a few years ago, and then all the hubbub started about how, although it was written as a book for children, it wasn’t the kind of book any self-respecting religious person would let their children read.

From an email archived on The Golden Compass entry on

There will be a new Children’s movie out in December called THE GOLDEN COMPASS. It is written by Phillip (sic) Pullman, a proud atheist who belongs to secular humanist societies. He hates C. S. Lewis’s Chronical’s (sic) of Narnia and has written a trilogy to show the other side. The movie had been dumbed down to fool kids and their parents in the hope that they will buy his trilogy where in the end the children kill God and everyone can do as they please. Nicole Kidman stars in the movie so it will probably be advertised a lot. This is just a friendly warning that you sure won’t hear on the regular TV.

With that kind of publicity, is it any wonder I wanted to read the book? Supposedly, the slam against God and the Catholic Church gets heavier and more transparent in the second and third books, and that may be, but in this first one, I’d have to say the claims that this volume will put your child’s faith in God in jeopardy are tenuous at best. Sure, the Magisterium is there, and it is equated with the Church (the Church of this mythical land we find ourselves in, in which people are connected to living animals spirits and in which bears talk and wear armor), and the main villain, Mrs. Coulter, is the head of something called The General Oblation Board which is somehow affiliated with it—but other than that, there isn’t much to start waving the sacrilegious stick at.

Much of the novel is confusing in fact—confusing in a good way, I think, because the reader is shown everything through the eyes of the young protagonist—eleven-year-old Lyra Belacqua—and Lyra is still very much a child and doesn’t understand much about what’s going on around her. As she tries to figure things out, so do we, and Pullman shows some skill in keeping us engaged and guessing. Indeed, it wasn’t until the very end of the novel where I felt firm in my conviction that Mrs. Coulter was, in fact, the villain and Lord Asriel wasn’t—rather than the reverse.

Lyra’s childlike thoughts and manner are refreshing in many ways, because they are largely honest and true to someone of her age. There are other fantasy novels featuring young heroes whose actions are anything but that of a child, but Lyra is one through and through.

Lyra turned her back and closed her eyes. But what Pantalaimon said was true. She had been feeling confined and cramped by this polite life, however luxurious it was. She would have given anything for a day with Roger and her Oxford ragamuffin friends, with a battle in the claybeds and a race along the canal. The one thing that kept her polite and attention to Mrs. Coulter was that tantalizing hope of going north. Perhaps they would meet Lord Asriel. Perhaps he and Mrs. Coulter would fall in love, and they would get married and adopt Lyra, and go and rescue Roger from the Gobblers.

These are typical thoughts she has throughout the novel. Childish thoughts. And I dog-eared this one pretty much at random. Little did I know at the time how prophetic this particular passage would be, for, as Lyra and the reader discovers much later, Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel were once married, and Lyra is, in fact, their daughter.

But at the same time I liked the way Pullman was presenting Lyra as a true child with a childlike view of the world, I was also uncertain if I was going to like Lyra herself. Indeed, for much of the first half of the novel, I would say that I did not. And especially when I came to the prophecy that surrounded her:

“The witches have talked about this child for centuries past,” said the counsel. “Because they live so close to the place where the veil between the worlds is thin, they hear immortal whispers from time to time, in the voices of those beings who pass between the worlds. And they have spoken of a child such as this, who has a great destiny that can only be fulfilled elsewhere—not in this world, but far beyond. Without this child, we shall all die. So the witches say. But she must fulfill this destiny in ignorance of what she is doing, because only in her ignorance can we be saved. Do you understand that, Farder Coram?”

“No,” said Farder Coram, “I’m unable to say that I do.”

“What it means is that she must be free to make mistakes. We must hope that she does not, but we can’t guide her. I am glad to have seen this child before I die.”

I thought, oh no, not another one of those. A destiny that must be fulfilled, but only by a person unaware of it. We’ve encountered that trope multiple times before, and I usually find it tedious and anticlimactic from a storytelling perspective. The protagonist would be much more interesting and dynamic, I think, if they knew the consequences of what they have been called to do—and they actively pursue it anyway. And more importantly, those ultimate and hidden consequences of their actions might be a lot more ultimate if they were a lot less hidden. At least we wouldn’t be let down when we finally find out what all the fuss has been about.

But in the context of Pullman’s supposed subtext—that of a child who, in her ignorance of religion has the freedom to act irrespective of its dictates and thereby neuters it—this typical trope takes on an atypically interesting spin. She must be free to make mistakes. In other words, there must be no consequences for acts in opposition to the dogmas of religion. Only in her ignorance can we be saved. A world where no one has been conditioned to follow dogma, everyone is free from its imprisoning effects.

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Maybe I should start another blog, this one only for passages in books that on the surface are about something related to the story, but underneath are the author saying something about writing.

With every second that went past, with every sentence she spoke, she felt a little strength flowing back. And now that she was doing something difficult and familiar and never quite predictable, namely lying, she felt a sort of mastery again, the same sense of complexity and control that the alethiometer gave her. She had to be careful not to say anything obviously impossible; she had to be vague in some places and invent plausible details in others; she had to be an artist, in short.

What should I call such passages? They are little like a boom microphone accidently hanging down into a shot during a movie, or the tip of a hidden handkerchief hanging out of the magician’s pocket. They are the building blocks out of which the complete illusion is made, and the reader is not supposed to notice them. But they seem to jump out at me. Always interested in the craft behind the art, I can’t help but think of the author with the pen pressed against the page, even during the most gripping of narratives. It keeps me from getting completely lost in the story, but it allows me to see things in ways others do not.