Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins

After my disappointing experience with The Selfish Gene, I almost didn’t bother with The Extended Phenotype. But, in the end, the allure of Dawkins’s concept was too strong for me to resist. As he states fairly early in this text:

The thesis that I shall support is this. It is legitimate to speak of adaptations as being ‘for the benefit of’ something, but that something is best not seen as the individual organism. It is a smaller unit which I call the active, germ-line replicator. The most important kind of replicator is the ‘gene’ or small genetic fragment. Replicators are not, of course, selected directly, but by proxy; they are judged by their phenotypic effects. Although for some purposes it is convenient to think of these phenotypic effects as being packaged together in discrete ‘vehicles’ such as individual organisms, this is not fundamentally necessary. Rather, the replicator should be thought of as having extended phenotypic effects, consisting of all its effects on the world at large, not just its effects on the individual body in which it happens to be sitting.

I don’t know if that comes off as revolutionary to you as it does to me, couched as it is in language that tries to avoid metaphor for the sake of clarity. What he is essentially saying is that genes produce effects in the world beyond the individual organism in which they reside, and it is by these “extended phenotypic” effects that their survival and replication depend.

Dawkins himself, in his 1989 note to the Oxford Paperback Edition of The Extended Phenotype, gives this idea a singular honor:

I suppose most scientists -- most authors -- have one piece of work of which they would say: It doesn’t matter if you never read anything else of mine, please at least read this. For me, it is The Extended Phenotype. In particular, the last four chapters constitute the best candidate for the title ‘innovative’ that I have to offer.

Extended Phenotypes

One of the most common extended phenotypes, or at least one that practically everyone has a common understanding of, is the beaver’s dam. Indeed, a beaver is shown on the cover of the paperback I read. Whatever gene or combination of genes that exist in the beaver that codes for her dam-building behavior can claim not just the behavior but the resulting dam itself as its phenotype. Because it is, in fact, the dam, not the dam-building behavior, that increases the reproductive fitness of the beaver.

Once you start looking for extended phenotypes, there is a tendency to see them everywhere. Dawkins describes one of the more thought-provoking in a section on songbirds.

If a physiologist wants to bring a female canary into reproductive condition, increase the size of her functional ovary and cause her to start nest-building and other reproductive behavior patterns, there are various things he can do. He can inject her with gonadotropins or oestrogens. He can use electric light to increase the day-length that she experiences. Or, most interestingly from our point of view, he can play her a tape recording of male canary song. It apparently has to be canary song; budgerigar song will not do, although budgerigar song has a similar effect on female budgerigars.

Now suppose a male canary wanted to bring a female into reproductive condition, what could he do? He does not have a syringe to inject hormones. He cannot switch on artificial lights in the female’s environment. Of course what he does is sing. The particular pattern of sounds that he makes enters the female’s head through her ears, is translated into nerve impulses, and bores insidiously into her pituitary. The male does not have to synthesize and inject gonadotropins; he makes the female’s pituitary work to synthesize them for him. He stimulates her pituitary by means of nerve impulses. They are not ‘his’ nerve impulses, in the sense that they all occur within the female’s own nerve cells. But they are his in another sense. It is his particular sounds which are subtly fashioned to make the female’s nerves work on her pituitary. Where a physiologist might pump gonadotropins into the female’s breast muscle, or electric current into her brain, the male canary pours song into her ear. And the effect is the same.

So here the extended phenotype is not the male canary’s song, nor even the stimulation of the female canary’s pituitary, but the instigation of female’s reproductive behavior patterns. The male canary has genes “for” female reproductive behavior.

Extended Metaphors

But here again, as in The Selfish Gene, I wonder if the metaphoric language that Dawkins has chosen to communicate his idea is the very thing that gets in the way of it being clearly understood. By way of example, and the reason I had to put “for” in quotation marks at the end of the last section, is that genes don’t always create the phenotypes with which they are associated.

If I am homozygous for a gene G, nothing save mutation can prevent my passing G on to all my children. So much is inexorable. But whether or not I, or my children, show the phenotypic effect normally associated with possession of G may depend very much on how we are brought up, what diet or education we experience, and what other genes we happen to possess.

This is one of the scientific realities that belie the metaphor that we have genes “for” certain phenotypes. Just having a gene isn’t enough. A gene must be expressed in order for its phenotype to manifest, and gene expression is a process that is very much mediated by the environment for by what other genes are present on the chromosome.

Here’s another way of thinking about the implications of this.

When a geneticist speaks of a gene ‘for’ red eyes in Drosophila, he is not speaking of the cistron which acts as template for the synthesis of the red pigment molecule. He is implicitly saying: there is variation in eye colour in the population; other things being equal, a fly with this gene is more likely to have red eyes than a fly without the gene. That is all that we ever mean by a gene ‘for’ red eyes.

Did you get that? It’s another example of metaphoric language causing misunderstandings. Genes don’t automatically create their phenotypes, extended or otherwise.

But it goes deeper than that. Because despite what Dawkins himself proposed in his earlier groundbreaking work, genes are also not actually selfish.

Anyone who thinks about genes literally as molecular entities is in danger of being misled by passages like ‘What is the selfish gene? It is not just one single physical bit of DNA … It is all replicas of a particular bit of DNA, distributed throughout the world … a distributed agency, existing in many different individuals at once … a gene might be able to assist replicas of itself which are sitting in other bodies.’ The whole of kin selection theory rests on this general premise, yet it would be mystical and wrong to think that genes assist copies of each other because those copies are identical molecules to themselves. … Chimpanzees and gorillas are so similar that a gene in one species might be physically identical in its molecular details to a gene in the other. Is this molecular identity a sufficient reason to expect selection to favour genes in one species ‘recognizing’ copies of themselves in the other species, and extending them a helping hand? The answer is no, although a naive application of ‘selfish gene’ reasoning at the molecular level might lead us to think otherwise.

Dawkins is even more direct a few paragraphs on.

It is the incidence of phenotypes that we are interested in explaining, not the incidence of molecular configurations of DNA.

In other words, it is not genes that are the agents of evolution. In a world where natural selection dominates, it is the phenotypes that are the gene’s expression (extended or otherwise) that serve as the selection mechanism.

And Dawkins very next sentence, is the one that just about made my head explode.

And if any reader thinks that last remark contradicts my basic thesis, I must have failed to make my basic thesis clear!

Are you following this? For a book and a half, Dawkins has been advancing a theory about selfish genes, admittedly not as a description of reality but as a handy way of thinking about the mechanisms of reality. But it is only occasionally that he comes through with the kind of clarity that we see above. Remember, despite everything I’m saying, it is not the gene that is selfish, it is instead the phenotype that is better adapted to its environment.

The reader is cautioned not to fall into a similar trap when Dawkins discusses the concept of inclusive fitness.

Individual-level thinking is superficially attractive because individuals, unlike genes, have nervous systems and limbs which render them capable of working in obvious ways to maximize something. It is therefore natural to ask what quantity, in theory, they might be expected to maximize, and inclusive fitness is the answer. But what makes this so dangerous is that it, too, is really a metaphor. Individuals do not consciously strive to maximize anything; they behave as if maximizing something. It is exactly the same ‘as if’ logic that we apply to ‘intelligent genes.’ Genes manipulate the world as if striving to maximize their own survival. They do not really ‘strive’, but my point is that in this respect they do not differ from individuals. Neither individuals nor genes really strive to maximize anything. Or, rather, individuals may strive for something, but it will be a morsel of food, an attractive female, or a desirable territory, not inclusive fitness. To the extent that it is useful for us to think of individuals working as if to maximize fitness, we may, with precisely the same licence, think of genes as if they were striving to maximize their survival. The difference is that the quantity the genes may be thought of as maximizing (survival of replicas) is a great deal simpler and easier to deal with in models than the quantity individuals may be thought of as maximizing (fitness). I repeat that if we think about individual animals maximizing something, there is a serious danger of our confusing ourselves, since we may forget whether we are using ‘as if’ language or whether we are talking about animals consciously striving for some goal. Since no sane biologist could imagine DNA molecules consciously striving for anything, the danger of this confusion ought not to exist when we talk of genes as maximizing agents.

Sorry. This is all just a little too much for me. Dawkins writes about selfish genes that aren’t really selfish, that only act ‘as if’ they were selfish. And he also writes about individuals striving to maximize fitness that aren’t really striving to maximize fitness, that only act ‘as if’ they were striving to maximize fitness. And then, he criticizes people who fail to remember to add the ‘as if’. How, I wonder, are these metaphors helping me understand what is really going on? At the very least, Dawkins should be making the ‘as if’ explicit, but I think I would prefer if he dropped the metaphors altogether.

How Very British

One of the things I didn’t like about The Selfish Gene (at least the version I read, which contained the original 1976 text and new introductions and endnotes from Dawkins written in 2006) was how arrogant Dawkins came off; especially the 2006 Dawkins, who seemed to be writing explicitly to extract his rhetorical revenge on all the real and imagined critics of his work. Thankfully, no similar arrogant jerk can be found in the pages of The Extended Phenotype. Indeed, one paragraph in the author’s preface, written in 1981, jumped out at me as expressing quite the opposite state of mind. It has to do with his occasional use of feminine pronouns to refer to the generic reader.

The linguistic experiment of the last sentence reminds me that I wish I had had the courage to instruct the computer to feminize personal pronouns at random throughout the text. This is not only because I admire the current awareness of the masculine bias in our language. Whenever I write I have a particular imaginary reader in mind (different imaginary readers oversee and ‘filter’ the same passage in numerous successive revisions) and at least half my imaginary readers are, like at least half my friends, female. Unfortunately it is still true in English that the unexpectedness of a feminine pronoun, where a neutral meaning is intended, seriously distracts the attention of most readers, of either sex. I believe the experiment of the previous paragraph will substantiate this. With regret, therefore, I have followed the standard convention in this book.

My note in the margin upon reading this for the first time: How very British!

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, August 26, 2019

Meetings with Purpose

I think I've mentioned before that I got my start in association management as a meeting planner. When I started I had zero experience. It was entry-level, and someone simply gave me a chance to provide myself. I found that I had a knack for it, and pretty soon my career in association management was off and running.

I say association management, but honestly, for a time I thought I might be looking at a career in meeting planning. I even contemplated getting my CMP to help bolster that possibility.

But eventually I decided that it wasn't meeting planning that I was interested in. It was association management, and meeting planning had simply been my introduction to it.

That backstory affords me a different take on meeting planning than most meeting planners. With no wish to denigrate, meeting planners are cut from a different cloth than association management professionals who know how to plan meetings. The incentives and reward systems are different. To describe it as simply as I can, for the meeting planner the goal is that the meeting run smoothly. To the association management professional the goal is that the meeting achieves its purpose.

Now, these are not mutually exclusive goals. In fact, they support each other to such a degree that it's almost impossible for one to occur without the other -- but only in one direction. In other words, it's completely possible to have a meeting run smoothly that does not achieve its purpose, but it's next to impossible to have a meeting achieve its purpose if it doesn't run smoothly.

This one-way co-dependency creates a trap that too many association fall into. Knowing that they can't achieve their meeting's purpose without it running smoothly, they elevate the importance of a smooth-running meeting in all of their decision processes.

Smooth running means not going over budget, so let's cut a corner here. Smooth running means automated processes, so let's forget about customizing the name badges too much. Smooth running means the right number of box lunches, so let's enforce our rules about needing a ticket in order to get a lunch.

If you follow this logic long enough, you'll soon realize that you've stripped all the humanity out of your meeting. Or worse, you won't realize it. Instead, one of your attendees will point it out to you. I used to look forward to coming to your meetings, but now they feel so impersonal and regimented. I don't think I'll bother coming any more.

This is a major problem because almost every association meeting has the same common purpose: bring people together so that they can learn, connect, and have fun. Without that, there's no point in having the meeting in the first place. Your members are not coming to your meeting so that they can follow all the rules you've put in place to make sure the meeting runs smoothly. They're coming to your meeting so that they can learn, connect, and have fun.

That's the purpose of your meeting. Don't let your meeting planning get in the way of that.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, August 24, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 17 (DRAFT)

I stayed late the next three nights working on all of Eleanor’s changes. I still believed they were little more than a waste of effort and that no one except Eleanor would ultimately care. I imagined her at our conference with a copy of the finished and glossy program in her hands, preening myopically over all those little periods with a knowing smile on her face, satisfied in the knowledge that she was still in charge and that she could still speak and compel others to action. I didn’t want to do her bidding, but I knew I didn’t have a choice. With Mary and Eleanor both committed to having the changes made—and both of them counting on me to do them—there wasn’t much I could do but comply.

So I made them. Late each afternoon at quitting time I would go like an inexperienced beggar to Lily’s workstation and she, without making eye contact or speaking to me, would quickly close out of her open work projects, collect her things, and depart. I would try to thank her—for what I wasn’t entirely sure—but she would hurry away, as if unwilling to acknowledge my humiliation. And there I would sit—sometimes for hours—the line of Lily’s gargoyles looking down on me from atop her monitor with expressions of fear and pity on their distorted faces, methodically going through all of Eleanor’s changes, double and triple checking that I had made each one to her exact specifications.

That first night I got home after nine o’clock and immediately set about to prepare a sandwich without changing out of my work clothes. I knew Jenny had already put Jacob to bed, so appeasing my hunger was my number one priority. While I was standing there in the kitchen eating my turkey and cheese on rye and letting the crumbs fall into the sink, Jenny appeared in the doorway, looking as haggard and as tired as me, and began telling me about the things that had happened during her day.

“The neighbor’s dog got loose again,” she said accusingly, as if I had snuck home at lunch and let the animal off its leash. “It’s going to bite someone in the neighborhood one of these days.”

My mouth full, I only nodded my head. She hadn’t mentioned Jacob by name, of course, but I knew that was her implication, and that this manufactured threat against his safety was evidently my responsibility to address. I remained silent and took another bite of my sandwich.

“Salmon was on sale again at the grocery store today,” she said next. “But I didn’t get any because I knew you’d be working late and it didn’t make sense for me to buy it just for myself.”

When we were newlyweds I might’ve taken this as a non-sequitur, but now I understood the connection. I smiled as pleasantly as I could while continuing to chew my sandwich, obediently taking a plate out of the cupboard so I could face her and still have something on which to catch the crumbs. Jenny hated it when I worked late, hated it even more when I traveled on business, feeling as she did an unfair amount of our child care already on her shoulders. These stealth criticisms were just how she expressed that frustration. It was so much an accepted pattern in our lives that when she started talking next about all the work she had done that day trying to find me a new job, it seemed like a natural transition.

She had dug my latest resume out of a file we kept upstairs and had made some suggested changes to it. She had also circled a couple of ads in the paper she thought I might be interested in. She had done some searching on several online job boards and printed off a few promising leads. She had talked to her network of stay-at-home moms and had sent messages out to her atrophying network of professional ex-colleagues to see if anyone was aware of job openings that might be a good fit. And she had everything organized in a series of file folders, so that when I had finished the sandwich and placed the dish in the sink, she could sit me down at the dining room table and go through them with me one by one.

It was touching, in a way, the care she had taken to keep things organized and to help me get ready for the job search. But at the same time her sweetness carried with it the undertone of hostility she had shown before, and she couldn’t help but express the new frustration she was feeling over the fact that I hadn’t yet done any of this on my own.

“Don’t you want to get out of there?” she asked me as I felt my eyes glazing over with all the details she was throwing my way.

“Sure,” I said. “I guess.”

“You guess?” Jenny said. “They’re taking you for granted. It’s time we started looking out for ourselves.”

I couldn’t disagree with her. But I was tired. More than anything I just wanted to go to sleep.

She drew my attention back to a position announcement she had downloaded from a job board. “Look at this one,” she said, “It’s absolutely perfect for you.”

I took the paper and started reading it, and despite my fatigue, I began to see what Jenny meant. Scanning down the list of required experience and competencies, I found myself mentally checking off each one as something I could already show on my resume. The company name wasn’t familiar to me, but it appeared to be in the same business—managing nonprofits—and the position was to serve as the account executive for an organization in a field similar to the one for which I had just donated some unpaid overtime. Salary information wasn’t listed, but from the stats they included it was clearly a larger organization; and it was the top job, not some deputy role where I would be playing second fiddle to an egomaniac. Thinking I wasn’t going to find anything wrong with it, my eye almost skipped past the address of the firm.

“Jenny,” I said. “This job is in Boston.”

She looked at me bashfully. “I know.”

“Do you want to move to Boston?” I asked. I sure as hell didn’t.

She paused, her eyes looking briefly up at the ceiling as if able to see her sleeping son through the floorboards. When she spoke, she spoke quietly, almost in a whisper. “I don’t think we should reject it just because it’s in another city. There are only so many good paying jobs in your field. If we open ourselves up to a national search, we’re more likely to find something that’s a step up for you. And this one looks like a perfect fit.”

My mouth popped open a couple of times while she spoke, but Jenny just kept talking—slowly, calmly and rationally—cutting off each of my objections before they could get started. When she was finished her eyes warned me to keep my response equally even-tempered.

I tried. “But what about Jacob? And you? And the new baby? And your mother?”

She gave me an ornery look as I tacked on that last one. “What about them?”

“Well, it just seems like there’s a lot tying us down at this point in our lives. Is this really the best time to uproot ourselves and move—potentially across the country?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “For the right opportunity, it might be, but we don’t have to make that decision tonight. Send in your application and if you get called for an interview we can start talking about it. If you get called back for a second, we’ll talk about it some more. And if they want you to fly out there and meet the company president, well, then we’ll have to agree it’s something we really want to do before you get on the airplane.”

I looked at her skeptically, her tone reminding me of the conversation we had had a few nights ago, when she had decided that I needed to start looking for a new job.

“Alan,” she said. “You can interview them at the same time they’re interviewing you, you know.”

Sure I could. If the situation was reversed, that’s what Jenny would do. She was always confident and sure, ready to take on the world, and I knew it was easy for her to imagine brokering some sort of sweetheart deal with this unknown Boston company. But I never had her confidence, least of all in myself. My eyes scanned the position requirements again and this time I found my experience lacking in many of the key areas. Reading between the lines, it seemed clear that the company was looking for some kind of turnaround artist—someone who could come in and chart a new course for a beleaguered nonprofit. Motivate the staff. Develop new leadership. Raise capital. Could I do those things? Thinking about all the parts of the business Mary generally kept hidden from me, I was suddenly a lot less sure.

Jenny clasped my hand. “Can we please just take this one step at a time?”

The second night I didn’t work as late, but only because I had to get home in order to take Jacob to his Sports Class. This was another one of Jenny’s decisions for me—an opportunity for Jacob and me to spend some time together, doing things she thought all fathers were supposed to do with their sons. The class was part of the local school district’s extra-curricular program, and was designed to help awkward four-year-olds develop some rudimentary physical skills. I still remember the way I felt when Jenny showed me the class description, circled in red in the recreation department catalog exactly the way she would later circle want ads in the newspaper.

Little Sports Explorer, it was called, and it was billed as a “parent/child” class. Introduce your little aspiring athlete to a new sport or game each week. Kick soccer balls, throw and catch footballs, hit baseballs off a tee—our focus will be on basic athletic skills, socialization and fun!! I was usually snarky about these kinds of things, believing that anything that ended in two exclamation points had to be for losers and misfits. But my natural smugness was quickly overmastered by a strange hidden shame that rose in my chest when I realized that Jacob and I had never done any of these things together. Indeed, if we were going to enroll in the class, I wouldn’t have to just buy him a baseball glove, I’d have to get one for myself.

I’d barely seen him the last two days—leaving in the mornings before he woke and getting home the previous night after he’d gone to bed—and when I came in the door that night Jenny already had him dressed and ready to go. His shorts were wrinkled, his socks were bunched up around his bony ankles, and the baseball cap he wore—not from the local team, but from the college Jenny’s father had gone to, a gift the previous year, crisp and never before worn—was pulled down too far over his eyes. On the drive to the high school where the class was held I looked at him in the rearview mirror.

“Are you excited about Sports Class?” I asked him.

He had to tip his head back so he could see me from under his cap’s visor. “Uh huh,” he said, somewhat hesitantly, and I knew he didn’t have any idea what we were getting him into.

“It’s okay, buddy,” I said as reassuringly as I could. “It’ll be fun.”

The class was taught by a pair of high school students—girls in their junior year; breastless, athletic girls wearing baggy white t-shirts over their sports bras and shorts too tight for their muscular thighs. One was named Marcie and she had a clipboard, and when she read of the roll of participating children, the six other dads and I one by one raised our hands and said present, each looking around at the other dads after being called out. Some did so self-consciously like me, perhaps embarrassed to have it publicly revealed that they needed teenage girls to teach their sons how to hit a baseball. But others exuded a cocky self-assuredness, and I imagined those dads as ex-high school jocks themselves, now balder and thicker around the middle, but still just as charmed and just as confident in their own infallibility.

One guy, whose son’s name was Tyler, was clearly not there because he thought Tyler needed to learn anything, but so he could see how Tyler’s already developed athleticism measured up against “the competition.” He told me as much while we were standing against the gymnasium wall waiting for our sons to take their turns with a soccer ball.

“You watch the game last night?” he asked me.

“Game?” I said, not having any idea what he was talking about. “What game?”

“What game!” he said incredulously, and then told me the names of two sports teams that must have faced off the previous night while I was busy adding dots between the Phs and the Ds in Lily’s workstation. I didn’t recognize either team—didn’t even know what sport they were from. I searched my brain for a moment, trying to remember if it was baseball or basketball season. The game. As if there weren’t a hundred games on a hundred different channels every freaking night.

“Oh, that one,” I said simply. “No, I missed it. I had to work late last night.”

“Huh,” he said, the noise sounding like the satisfied grunt of a prize pig. “What do you do?”

I started to explain it to him—nonprofit organizations, educational conferences, volunteer boards of directors—but only got halfway through my usual spiel because I could see by the drifting look in his eyes that he had no real interest in what I was saying. Like a lot of grown men who met me for the first time, Tyler’s dad had innocently offered me his heart, accustomed as he was to being surrounded by kindred spirits. The game, my new friend. Didst thou see the game? And when I had failed to embrace it, he had protectively drawn it back and dismissed me as something to fear or shun. I was used to it, and let him off the hook by pretending to get a call on my cell phone.

Despite my troubles relating to the other dads, Jacob seemed to have an impossibly good time. The high school girls had us do all kinds of things in father and son pairs—kick a soccer ball back and forth, toss a soft fabric baseball to each other, roll a red rubber ball at a set of wooden pins—and with each new activity, Jacob delighted with the things he could make his body do and the impact he had on the world around him. I could see that he wasn’t as skilled as Tyler and some of the other boys, but Jacob didn’t seem to notice. There was no head-to-head competition—just each boy learning and practicing the skills with his dad—and having never done any of these things before, Jacob was simply happy with whatever success he had. At one point while we sat on the bleachers with the rest of the class watching the girls demonstrate our next activity, he actually stood next to me and gave me a hug, kissing me warmly on the cheek as he did so.

“I love you, Daddy,” he said, looking into my ear like a lover and oblivious to both the instruction of the girls and the odd stares of the other dads.

“I love you, too, buddy,” I said, trying to drag him away from my side. His long legs seemed anchored in place, but eventually I got him up over my knees and sat him down in front of me. I pointed to one of our teenage coaches. “Now please pay attention to Marcie.”

The third night I worked until almost eleven o’clock, paying for the hooky I had played with my son the night before. It was my last night to work on Eleanor’s program. It was going to the printer the next day and I had to get all of the changes made so Lily could package it up and transfer the files in the morning.

The office was always a strange place after hours, even more so after the sun went down and the darkness of night filled the space outside the windows. I worked steadily in Lily’s pod until after the last person left for the day—it was Bethany, I remember that night, swinging by to wish me well with her laptop bag slung over one shoulder and her car keys already in her hand. I worked until after the noises from cleaning crew’s vacuums and trash carts had faded away with their last trip down the elevators, and until after even the lights of the other office night owls in the building across the street had all gone out. With just a few pages left to go I got up to use the restroom and to get my third soda out of the vending machine, and on my way back I suddenly decided to take the scenic route, making a loop around the office space and peeking in all the darkened rooms.

The traces of the other human beings I worked with were evident everywhere—files left open on people’s desks, computers left on in violation of the company’s energy use reduction policy, half drunk cups of coffee being used as paperweights, some with oily lipstick stains glimmering in the dim light. I inevitably found myself in Mary’s office, the door closed but not locked, and I spent several minutes sitting in the chair behind her desk. I didn’t disturb anything—didn’t really want to—but hoped to get some kind of sense of what the world must look like from there. In the darkness Mary’s globe was just a round shape and the artwork on the walls mere rectangles. Only the trophies and awards in her display case had any life to them, the little interior accent lights still illuminating their silver and crystal surfaces. At one point I found myself methodically opening her desk drawers one by one. I didn’t touch anything. I simply opened them and peered inside, surprised at how little they contained.

When I got back to Lily’s workstation the gargoyles were waiting for me, including the big one in the center I had nicknamed Scratch, partly because of the way his claws draped over the top edge of Lily’s monitor, but also because of the devilish grin he wore on his face. Scratch and his crew were definitely in violation of Don’s office d├ęcor and accessories policy, but they had kept me company on my lonely vigil and I had decided not to turn them in.

“Well, Scratch,” I said. “What do you think? Should we put this baby to bed?”

Scratch thought that was a good idea, but wondered if there wasn’t something we could do to leave our own little mark on Eleanor’s program. We had, after all, spent a good portion of the time that was supposed to be reserved for our families on it. I made the last few changes called for in Eleanor’s script and saved the file—and all the while I silently turned Scratch’s devious suggestion over and over in my mind. I should do something, shouldn’t I? Nothing major. Just a little…something—something to show that asking me to do this was wrong, and that I should’ve said no. That next time I was going to say no. But what? I looked at Scratch to see if he had any ideas, and wouldn’t you know it, that little devil did.

I found it on page 173.

This session is composed of three distinct presentation segments.

I had already fixed it. On Eleanor’s printed copy, a nearly identical sentence appeared, but in that one she had struck out the word ‘comprised’ with two parallel lines and had written ‘composed’ in her neat red letters in the space above it—and, like thousands of others, I had dutifully made that change in the electronic file.

It took me only one mouse click and three keystrokes to put things back the way they had been.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, August 19, 2019

The Lost Art of Reading Blogs

In last week's post I made a passing reference to one of the main reasons I keep blogging -- namely, that I enjoy having readers respond to the things I write. And I promised more on that subject this week.

Well, it's true. I do like having readers respond to the things I write here. But here's something else that's true. Almost no one ever does.

Here's a quick story. At this conference I attended a few weeks ago, I had a friend and colleague of mine mention the draft chapters of the novel I started posting here at the beginning of 2019. He told me that he hadn't gotten around to reading them yet, but that he had them bookmarked and was looking forward to diving it. Then he asked me what kind of feedback I'd received on them so far.

I looked at him and smiled. "You're the first person who's even mentioned them to me."

The look on his face was priceless. I don't think he thought it was possible. A: That I could post such a thing and not get any feedback on it. And B: That I would bother to post something like that if I wasn't getting any feedback on it.

Welcome to the world of blogs. Say whatever you want. Almost no one is going to read it and, of those that do, almost no one is going to have any kind of reaction.

That's okay. I get it. We're all busier than ever. And if there is a skill set that is increasingly absent in our society, it's the one associated with long-form reading and writing. You're more likely to get a reaction from a ill-conceived Tweet (assuming a bunch of additional ill-conceived Tweets count as a reaction) than you are from 500 words that you've carefully considered and curated. Sorry. #TLDR.

Which is why it's all the more remarkable when a reaction is actually received. Hey. I read this. I agree. Or I don't. Either way, thanks for putting it out there. I appreciate it.

That's a big part of why I keep doing this. Because when those connections are made the results can be pretty amazing. I've made friends. I've gotten consulting gigs. I've interacted with some of my favorite authors. All because I put my thoughts down in writing and posted them in the public forum we call blogs.

It's not for everyone. But for me it's been pretty satisfying.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, August 17, 2019

Free Will by Sam Harris

One of the interesting things about this book -- believe it or not -- is that it is the first book I have read on an e-reader.

I was given one as a gift many years ago, and after playing around with it a little, I put it aside in preference to the good old paper and glue. In that short experimental period, I downloaded a total of six books onto the damn thing (including, obviously, Free Will). Stumbling across the e-reader in a drawer not too long ago, I decided to slowly work the books it contained back onto my reading list.

One thing I did like about the e-reader experience was the ability to take notes on the machine itself. Traditionally, I dogear pages and scribble notes in margins, and, regretfully, often have a hard time deciphering my own chicken scratch when reviewing and trying to compose a post. No such problems with the e-reader. Write as much as you want, and everything is kept in Helvetica clarity.

As a text, Free Will is a short one. Amazon says the paperback is 96 pages, but of course that kind of detail is lost in the e-reader format. I think its length is a double-edged sword in many ways. It seems Harris’s intent was to write something short and to-the-point, given that the subject he has chosen has consumed thousands upon thousands of other pages in the scientific and philosophical literature. That’s good, in my opinion. Boil the argument down to its essential components, Sam, and don’t get distracted by the moral implications of your conclusion.

The problem, perhaps not surprisingly, is that Harris DOES get distracted by the moral implications of his conclusion, with more than half of his short book concerned with the appearance of what he is ultimately saying. And, in my experience, the downfall of following that path is always complicated by a failure of language.

Here’s the essential point. “We” don’t exist -- at least not the free entity that everyone typically thinks themselves to be. “We” are what our brains do, both consciously and unconsciously, and once we accept that premise, the concept of a free entity controlling or directing the activity of our brains collapses under its own weight. Harris puts it very well when referring to the flurry of activity going on in your brain and “your” relationship to it.

You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.

Exactly. “We” are what our brains do. Any other phraseology, any other use of “we,” “I,” or “you,” secretly smuggles the concept of free will into the discussion. For example, let’s ask one of Harris’s distracting questions:

If there is no free will, how can “I” be held responsible for “my” actions?

The only honest answer to this question is to say that it is nonsensical and ask for it to be rephrased. If there is no free will, then there is no “I”, at least not in the sense that the questioner is likely using that word. “You” are responsible, but “you” means something different from what you think it does.

Ultimately, I think, we need to define and use different terms to make this distinction clear. One sloppy way to make the point is to ban the use of pronouns altogether. In doing so, the contradictory nature of the above question becomes clear.

If there is no free will, how can “the agent with free will” be held responsible for the actions of that agent?

See what I mean?

What Harris does well in Free Will is stake out the essential claim: that “you” are not an agent with free will, but that “you” are the conscious witness of “your” thoughts and actions. What he doesn’t do well is define a terminology that preserves this essential claim through his ensuing arguments over morality.

Anything that our brains do or decide, whether consciously or not, is something that “we” have done or decided.

No, Sam. “We” didn’t decide. “We” are the decision.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, August 12, 2019

Creating an Educated Workforce in Three Phases

Two weeks ago, I posted about an upcoming panel discussion I was asked to participate in -- a panel on how associations are successfully working to develop a better educated workforce for the industries they represent. That post can be found here.

Well, that panel happened at a conference I attended last Thursday, and I thought I would provide an update. Believe it or not, I had someone reach out to me over email, interested in hearing more. As a quick aside, having readers respond to the things I write here is one of the main reasons I keep blogging. More on that next week.

As I sat up there on stage listening to my co-panelists talk about the work their associations were doing to develop educated workforces for their industries, I quickly recomposed what I was planning to say in my head. I tend to do this a lot, seeing different (and sometimes better) patterns in things when forced to look at them through other people's eyes. Instead of focusing on the four stacked programs I described in my previous posts, I described what I saw as the three phases my association had (so far) gone through in our journey towards building a better educated workforce.

Phase 1 - Building college curriculum

My association's workforce journey really began with our members expressing a specific need. They would hire an engineer out of a good university, or a technician out of a good community college, and the individual would have no background or understanding in fluid power - the technology my association represents. The employer in question would have to spend two years training the graduate in things they felt should have been part of their educational experience.

To respond, our association began building partnerships with instructors at 2-year and 4-year colleges, and providing them with resources to develop the curriculum pieces they needed to teach our technology in the frame of their existing programs. We thought if the schools would only teach our subjects, the people hired out of those schools would be ready to go to work on day one.

Phase 2 - Developing middle and high schools programs

But it wasn't enough. Especially at the 2-year level, our curriculum was an elective, and too few students were electing to move into it. Now that we had the college education programs we wanted, we had to build a pipeline of students interested in studying those subjects.

That meant creating outreach programs for middle and high school students. We had to get younger people interested in and excited about our industry, so we built several programs designed to engage middle and high school students in fluid power-themed design/build competitions. Our most successful, the Fluid Power Action Challenge, started with twelve students in one competition, and has now grown to encompass more than a hundred events and 21,000 students.

Phase 3 - Stacking everything in the same communities

But that wasn't enough either. As those Action Challenges rolled out across the country we realized that it did little good that have a great middle school program in one community unless there was also a great high school and tech school program in the same community.

This is really when the strategy described in my previous post came online for us, where we are now consciously building "Fast Track to Fluid Power" Hubs in communities around the country. Each has a community-wide middle school Action Challenge, a series of local high schools with fluid power-specific programs in each, a central community college with a validated fluid power degree or certificate program, and, perhaps most importantly, a committed group of industry members willing to serve as judges, coaches, and mentors in these various programs.

After the panel, I got a lot of good feedback from people who had been in the audience. Evidently my comments had resonated strongly with them, but one consistent question kept coming up.

How? How does your association manage all of this activity?

I could tell the people asking the question were coming from a place of already over-taxed association resources, where any foray into workforce development felt impossible because they had no spare resources or staff people to dedicate towards it.

And I'm pretty sure my answer didn't help set their mind at ease. There is no magic formula. Like everything else in our world, if you want to succeed you have to dedicate resources to it. In our example, out of a staff of twelve, we have four full-time positions dedicated to these programs, including a newly-promoted Vice President of Workforce Development.

We certainly didn't get there overnight, but our Board, recognizing that "creating an educated workforce" is one of the four major objectives of our association, has supported this growth in resources every step of the way.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 16 (DRAFT)

In many ways, the call from Eleanor was indicative of my work life at that time. There was never any shortage of masters to serve in that organization, and they all seemed to want a piece of me—always needing me to do something for them in order to make themselves look good. Now with Susan gone, I was effectively working two jobs and as a result I had twice as many masters as normal. With some kind of transition time between Bethany’s visit and Eleanor’s phone call, I probably would have had the presence of mind to stall Eleanor off. But I was too schooled in the company’s business model of yes to do anything except cheerfully take on the additional burden. I was a sap.

Let me tell you a quick story. Shortly after I got promoted to deputy account executive, Don and Mary held one of their “state of the company” meetings. These were opportunities to bring the entire staff together and share non-binding information about company objectives. In theory, they were a good idea. Everyone who worked there was siloed in their individual departments, and there was never enough direction from the top to demonstrate that we were all on the same team. Unfortunately, neither Don nor Mary was especially committed to these quarterly affairs and, as a result, they usually happened about twice a year, and only after someone with some influence began asking for one.

This one was especially memorable for me. Because of my recent promotion I had been trying to think a little more strategically about what I did for a living. Where once I had simply done as I was told because I trusted those above me to lead us to success, I realized I had now reached the position where that responsibility would fall squarely to me. Anticipating needs and working proactively within company policies to provide the services necessary for true client satisfaction—that was my job; said so on the new position description I had signed. But I wasn’t really sure how I was going to do it. So, when the meeting agenda was circulated and I saw DEFINING OUR VALUE PROPOSITION in big bold letters across the top of the page, I was hoping to get a few ideas.

I remember the multi-purpose room was already packed when I got there. There were about a hundred and fifty employees in the company back then and there weren’t nearly enough chairs for everyone. The room was used for training and other large projects, and had a lot of modular furniture, which had been arranged in a tremendous U-shape along three walls, a row of chairs set immediately before a row of long, narrow tables. It was the only way to accommodate everyone, and like the good little sheeple we were, we had sorted ourselves according to size, the shorter folks sitting in the chairs, the medium size people sitting behind them on the tables, and the tallest employees standing in the back. It created a kind of amphitheater effect, as if Mary and Don were rehearsing for an upcoming tour on the dinner theater circuit.

And when they appeared it was like performers on a stage, bounding into the room like the hosts of one of those old variety shows, bursting with enthusiasm to tell their waiting audience about all the great acts they had waiting in the wings. I know that this was, in fact, a performance for them, something they needed to rehearse and psych themselves up for. Neither one of them was naturally gifted at this kind of thing. It was probably one of the reasons they always waited for everyone to be assembled before making their appearance. Having to mingle with the masses before delivering their practiced talking points was likely to throw them off their game.

I won’t go into too many specifics about what was said. These meetings tended to drone on with friendly platitudes and soft focus PowerPoint slides—a formula guaranteed to lull even the most restless agitator to sleep—but true to their agenda they did spend a few minutes talking about what they perceived as the company’s value proposition—what made it different in world of similar organizations providing similar services.

Here’s what Don said. I remember it precisely because I wrote it down on the legal pad I was balancing on my knee. He said the company had a sense of institutional presence for its client organizations—a responsibility that transcended the individual desires of the client volunteers. From this perspective, the company was the steward of the very social purpose of each organization it served, with accountability for the fulfillment of its organizational vision.

That probably doesn’t mean anything to you—just more of that corporate gobbledygook. But it actually meant a lot to me, because in those words, I heard Don describe exactly the kind of company I wanted to work for. Our business was turning vision into reality, but that vision wasn’t some boilerplate slogan about maximizing shareholder value. The vision I focused on was that of my client organization—a nonprofit whose mission was focused on making positive changes in the lives of real people. That was why I had come to work for the company in the first place and now, a dozen disappointing years later, in the most unlikely of settings, I found myself shamelessly re-inspired by words Don Bascom had memorized from one of the pages in his bulging policy binders.

And then Mary opened her mouth, and with every word she spoke I felt my spirit plummet back into cynicism and frustration. I think she thought she was agreeing with Don, but the words coming out of her mouth were in direct opposition to the vision he had just described. The company’s value proposition, she said, was best realized when we kept the volunteer leaders of our client organizations happy, when we delivered a service level that surpassed their expectations, and when we showed them how much we loved working for them.

Now hold that thought and let’s fast forward to the day after my phone call with Eleanor Rumford. As promised the overnight package from her office arrived. I don’t know what I was expecting after her dire warning the previous day, but nothing could have prepared me for what I found inside. Not just every page but practically every line of the program had been corrected in the red ink of Eleanor’s small and precise handwriting.

Some things were legitimate typos. Others I could fairly chalk up to her prerogative as planning committee chair. But so much more seemed purely stylistic in nature. She had reordered paragraphs and re-worded sentences—not to correct false information or add essential details—but simply to change the language so that it said exactly the same thing in a slightly more formal tone.

And then there was the punctuation. Nearly every presenter had some kind of designation after their name—PhD or MD or something like that—and Eleanor, for every single one, had inserted periods between the letters. PhD had become Ph dot D dot, and MD had become M dot D dot. She hadn’t just written a note at the top of the first page saying that periods should be inserted in all the professional designations. No, evidently not trusting us to catch them all, she had painstakingly drawn little red dots in a thousand places.

I couldn’t believe it. The woman was insane. For a time as I sat flipping through the more than three hundred red-marked pages, so scored with corrections that a blind person could have read them as Braille, I thought maybe someone was playing a trick on me. But then I remembered how gravely serious Eleanor had sounded on the phone, and how persnickety she could be about appearances, and I knew she would never be part of such a prank. She was the planning committee chair for this conference, and its success was ultimately a reflection on her professional standing.

So my first stop was Lily Rasmussen, the twenty-something in Desktop Publishing that Susan had been working with. She was one of those creative types—hired more for her skill with a Macintosh than her business sense, and everything about Lily was gothic black. The heavy eyeliner, the fingerless gloves, the draping sheer fabric—everything, of course, except her pasty white skin.

“Alan,” she told me. “This is too much. These edits should have been made at the drafting stage, before the text was given to me. It would take me a week to fix all of this.”

“Can’t you do some kind of search and replace?” I asked, thinking about all the periods in all the PhDs.

Lily shook her head, her Aquanetted shock of black hair not wiggling a bit. “In Word maybe, but the program’s not in Word anymore. Once we import it into our desktop publishing software, all future changes have to be made by hand.”

That didn’t sound right to me, but I knew it would be hopeless to question Lily about it. It was well known that she would sometimes spend half a day chewing on her tongue piercing while looking for the right font to use, and she usually chose the one with the most curly cues on it. Instead, I took my problem to Jurgis and threw myself on his mercy. He was in charge of IT. He could get things done. But I couldn’t just order Jurgis around—not if I wanted my network passwords to keep on working.

“I don’t know what Susan was doing or how there could be so many changes this late in the game, but we simply have to make these edits before the program goes to print.”

Jurgis had the program laid out on his immaculate desk, and was slowly turning the pages over one by one, his rheumy eyes scanning the red marks.

“I talked to Lily, but she said these changes couldn’t be made in Desktop Publishing.”

A bushy black beard covered half of Jurgis’ face, obscuring any clues his expression might have offered as to what he was thinking. Looking into his face was like staring into a bird’s nest that had fallen out of a tree.

“Are you listening to me?” I asked impatiently.

Jurgis placed a finger on one of the pages he was studying. “There,” he said.

“What?” I asked, craning my neck to get a look at what he had found.

“She’s wrong,” he said in his thick accent. “She wants to change ‘comprised’ to ‘composed’, but ‘comprised’ is correct, no?”

I didn’t know and I didn’t care. “Jurgis, look at me.”

He looked up, his eyes like two nuthatch eggs in the nest.

“I need Desktop Publishing to make these changes for me. Lily says it’s not possible, that she can’t even do search and replace on some of the universal edits. Is that true?”

Jurgis shook his head. “No, but DP can not make these changes. The designers are not capable of this kind of keystroke. That’s why our policy requires material in final form before submission to DP. One or two changes, okay—but this? No. Lily would spend week on it and only fix half of problems, and make twice as many more.”

“But these changes have to be made,” I said desperately. “If Lily can’t do it, can I get one of the Education staff people to work on it?”

Jurgis looked at me as if I had spat in his vodka. “What you mean?”

“Caroline’s got some free time. How long does it take to learn the publishing software? If we put it on her computer would she be able to make the changes herself?”

“There are no spare licenses. It is illegal to load software on new computer.”

“Then she’ll stay after hours and work on one of the computers in Desktop Publishing.”

“No,” Jurgis said quickly. “I think you should talk to Don.”

I was trying to avoid that step if I could. I knew company policy said DP was to be run as a profit center. But they billed clients by the project instead of by the hour, so the more time a designer spent on a project the less money the company made. If that was what Jurgis was hung up on, I didn’t see how I was going to make any headway with his boss. Don, after all, was the one who wrote the policies.

“I don’t want to talk to Don,” I said pointedly. “I’m talking to you, Jurgis. Can’t you help me out with this thing, just this one time?”

Jurgis folded his arms across his chest and his face went back to its unreadable mask. It was done. Now he would simply sit there and stare at me until I got up and left.

I scooped the pages angrily off Jurgis’s desk and began walking towards Don’s office. I saw him about halfway there, his bloated form barreling down the hallway like a runaway train, and I knew it would be a mistake to talk to him. He had designed the company’s counter-intuitive desktop publishing function. If you wanted it to produce work of good quality, you had to give it all the details up front and not surprise it with any changes. But if you wanted your client to be happy with its output, you had to show them what DP had produced and give them the ability to make changes. The brutal inefficiency and impotence of the exercise was awe-inspiring. If I was Captain Yossarian then Don was Colonel Cathcart and there wasn’t going to be any way past his Catch-22. I needed a new strategy and I thought I knew what it was. Giving Don an acknowledging nod as we passed each other by, I made my way down to Mary’s office.

Ruthie was sitting at her desk just outside Mary’s open door, typing something into her computer at no more than ten words a minute. I tried to catch her attention but she told me to shush as her fingers continued to hunt for the right keys. I stood and waited patiently, the sheaf of misaligned papers tucked under my arm, knowing it wouldn’t serve my purposes to rush her. While I was waiting, Mary poked her head out of her office.

“Ruthie, you’ve got that done, yet?”

“Has it been ten minutes?”


“Then it’s not done. Come back in ten minutes.”

Whatever Ruthie was working on, it must have been something Mary had sprung on her at the last minute. Ruthie could occasionally get testy with Mary, her indispensability offering her some immunity in these situations, but she rarely did it in front of other people. When Mary looked self-consciously around and saw me standing there I decided to take my chance.

“Can I get a few of those minutes?”

“Why?” Mary asked. “What is it?”

I held up the dog-eared and post-it note-ridden ream of paper. “It’s Eleanor.”

There was the barest of pauses as I watched Mary’s eyes bounce back and forth between me and Ruthie, as if torn between two equally compelling tasks.

“Take him inside your office,” Ruthie commanded. “This isn’t going to get done any faster with you two chit-chatting out here.”

Inside Mary’s office, sitting at her conference table, I told her the whole story. The phone call from Eleanor, the arrival of the program, Lily and Jurgis’ reactions to it. She listened intently, and then motioned for me to show her Eleanor’s copy of the program. I slid it across the table and watched as she began to flip through it. Her head started shaking almost immediately.

“Why did Susan even send this to Desktop Publishing? Look at all these changes. It clearly wasn’t ready.”

And here was the opening for my new strategy. “I’m not sure all those changes need to be made. Look at this,” I said, pointing to a reworked paragraph. “She’s not correcting anything here. She’s just moving some of the words around. And what about this?” I said, flipping to the section where the presenter names were listed. “What about all these periods in the professional designations? Do we really need to add all of those? We haven’t put periods in our designations for as long as I’ve been working here.”

Mary looked up at me with a puzzled expression, and at the same time Ruthie appeared at the door and moved swiftly into the room. She had a FedEx envelope in one hand and a printed document on company letterhead in the other. Mary quickly moved Eleanor’s program aside and Ruthie slipped the document under Mary’s nose. She began reading it as Ruthie went to retrieve one of Mary’s favorite fountain pens from her desk.

I knew better than to try and read the document Mary was proofing, or even to give that appearance, so I averted my gaze and found myself staring for a few moments at the hideous lapis lazuli globe Don had given Mary as a congratulatory gift upon her ascent to the presidency. It was a monstrosity of executive indulgence, sitting in a place of honor by her windows, a fixture in the track lighting above adjusted to illuminate its reflective surface. The thing sat in its own mahogany frame—great blue oceans surrounding continents comprising nations carved from thirty-seven different types of precious stones—and a small, leather-bound log book hanging from a golden chain, in which the proud owner could index the demographic statistics of each country and place a little checkmark next to the ones they had visited. As far as I knew, like every other book in her office, Mary had never even opened hers.

The scratching sound of Mary’s pen drew my attention away from the globe. Mary was handing the document back to Ruthie, telling her it was good, and reminding her to get it in the drop box in the lobby of the office complex across the street before the four o’clock pick-up. Ruthie nodded in obedience and left us alone in the room.

“Mary,” I said cautiously. “Can’t you call Eleanor and talk to her about some of these changes? Even just the periods? If we could skip those, we might be able to have Desktop Publishing fix all the others.”

“Desktop Publishing can’t fix any of these errors. You have to do it.”


“I’ve already discussed it with Don. It’s against company policy, but it’s what we have to do to keep Eleanor happy. He’s talking to Jurgis now, and Jurgis will set you up on one of the computers in DP. It’s an embarrassment how badly Susan has bungled this, but Eleanor seemed quite relieved to hear that you would be taking responsibility for it.”

“What? Wait a minute. You talked to Eleanor?”

Mary nodded. “About an hour ago. She wanted to keep me in the loop, and commend you for taking this on. She’s got a lot of confidence in you. Good work, Alan.”

I didn’t know what to say. I was so stupefied by what she was telling me I wasn’t sure I was even thinking straight. Here I had been confident that I could somehow convince Mary to negotiate Eleanor down from her ridiculous position—to get her to agree that what Eleanor was asking us to do was little more than a distraction and not mission-critical—and instead I discover that Mary had actually been conspiring with Eleanor to make me do all the useless work. I feebly tried to argue that Lily, or maybe even Jurgis, should make the changes, since they already knew the software. But Mary tossed that idea easily aside—taking me ever so briefly into her hushed confidence to confess that neither Lily nor Jurgis could be relied on to do such detailed work—and in a few minutes I found myself dismissed from Mary’s presence, my one chance to object wasted on something that hadn’t even made her think twice.

Based on what Don had said at the state of the company meeting, I thought my strategy should have worked. The reality was that fixing things that weren’t broken—just because your planning committee chair said so—didn’t serve the social purpose of the organization. It stroked an ego, and it kept people busy, but that wasn’t what we were supposed to be in business for. My mistake was not realizing that Mary didn’t care about that reality. All Mary cared about was keeping Eleanor happy.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, August 5, 2019

Podcasting Creates Interest and Excitement

Today we launched a podcast at my association. It's called Fluid Power Forward, and on it, we plan to interview interesting people who are helping to move fluid power technology forward. If you're interested, you can listen to our first episode here.

The project was fairly long in coming. The idea was first hatched at the tail-end of 2018, when I realized that there was a lot of interesting things going on in our industry, that we consistently presented and talked about those things at our workshops and conferences, and that podcasting might be a (relatively) quick and easy way to capture some of that content and push it out to a much broader audience.

As an avid podcast listener, I already had some ideas about how such a "show" could be packaged and delivered, but still what followed the initial idea was about six months of planning, developing, branding, rehearsing, recording, and packaging. As I write this today, I'm still a little surprised that we've got it up a running. I've got a soundboard and microphone at a table in the corner of my office, a love-hate relationship with Skype and Audacity, four episodes "in the can," appointments on my calendar to record two more, and plenty of lines in the water for future guests.

Lots of things surprised me along the way -- and I'm sure those surprises aren't over yet -- but one surprise that really stood out to me was how consistently the idea of doing a podcast was positively received by the people hearing about it.

My staff loves the idea. I've kept most of them somewhat at arm's length as we developed and learned how to deliver it. As you can see from the graphic, my face (and voice) is plastered all over this thing, and I think I instinctively knew that I needed to keep it close to my vest if it was going to sound authentic. But now that it's up and running I'm talking about it more broadly in the office and everyone seems engaged and excited by it.

But more than my staff, my members are also totally on board. For the first few episodes I reached out to members I knew well -- folks who I thought not only had interesting technology to talk about, but with whom I already had some kind of rapport. That, I thought, would make both me and them more comfortable, and help ensure that the first few episodes (which can often be clunky as the podcaster in question is learning their equipment and figuring out what they are really doing) go more smoothly.

When reaching out to them, I felt like I was asking them to do me a big favor. It's an experiment, I told them. If it turns out bad we won't use it. But they were all immediately on board. It's great, they told me. We'd love to participate. One even told me that his boss was especially interested and would be listening. Whatever they could do to help, just ask.

And now that the word is out that we're podcasting, the messages are starting to roll in from people who would like to get involved. I'm not naive -- for most this is an opportunity to promote themselves and their technology, but that's okay, because that's what the podcast is for. As I said, there are a lot of positive things going on in our industry, and generally speaking, not enough platforms from which to promote them.

In some ways, I suppose it's surprising to me that a fresh approach on an unmet need should be met with such interest and excitement. But I guess, in most ways, that shouldn't really be surprising at all.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Saturday, August 3, 2019

The Unwinding by George Packer

This is a book that tries to see beneath the surface of things. Subtitled “An Inner History of the New America,” it, largely through a series of biographical vignettes, attempts to demonstrate if not describe the evolutionary change that came over the United States of America in the last portion of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, and the culminated in the financial crisis of 2008-09.

It is largely a depressing tale.

Some of the biographical subjects are one-offs and others are recurring characters in the vignettes. Among these recurring characters is Dean Price, a convenient store entrepreneur in North Carolina, who tries and fails multiple times to capitalize on the promise of a new energy economy. His disillusionment over the real engine of America is starkly palpable in passages like this:

He was seeing beyond the surfaces of the land to its hidden truths. Some nights he sat up late on his front porch with a glass of Jack and listened to the trucks heading south on 220, carrying crates of live chickens to the slaughterhouses -- always under the cover of darkness, like a vast and shameful trafficking -- chickens pumped full of hormones that left them too big to walk -- and he thought how these same chickens might return from their destinations as pieces of meat to the floodlit Bojangles’ up the hill from his house, and that meat would be drowned in the bubbling fryers by employees whose hatred of the job would leak into the cooked food, and that food would be served up and eaten by customers who would grow obese and end up in the hospital in Greensboro with diabetes or heart failure, a burden to the public, and later Dean would see them riding around the Mayodan Wal-Mart in electric carts because they were too heavy to walk the aisles of a Supercenter, just like hormone-fed chickens.

Another recurring character is the city of Tampa, Florida, home to thousands of real estate developers and millions of property owners. The excesses of the housing boom and the subprime mortgage crisis are on full display there, but so are the social and cultural conditions that allowed them to happen.

Usha Patel’s Comfort Inn earned a million dollars in her first year, eight hundred thousand her second. She found Americans to be hopeless employees. They lived day to day, collecting their paychecks on Friday, clubbing and partying even if they had kids, skipping work Monday, showing up late Tuesday, refusing some tasks because their pay was too low, always full of complaints and excuses -- “My son took my keys.” They might give her a week of hard work and then demand a vacation. Or a cigarette break every ten minutes, even if they didn’t smoke. When Usha talked about American workers, her nose scrunched up and her mouth turned down and her eyes narrowed as if the subject was physically unpleasant. They were spoiled, as she had once been spoiled, and it was by all the foreigners doing cheap labor. The only good people she ever hired were immigrants like her, who were trustworthy and willing to work hard for low pay -- a night manager from the Islands, a guy from India, the Spanish housekeepers.

A class of hopeless American employees. And, in the eyes of real estate attorney Matthew Weidner, a corporate/political elite, merrily draining the remaining economic vibrancy of the country into their bank accounts.

Weidner’s head was always about to explode. His mind filled with visions of a decadent kleptocracy in rapid decline, abetted by both political parties -- America’s masses fed on processed poison bought with a food stamp swipe card, low-skill workers structurally unable to ever contribute again and too dumb to know their old jobs weren’t coming back, the banks in Gotham leeching the last drops of wealth out of the country, corporations unrestrained by any notion of national interest, the system of property law in shambles, the world drowning in debt. He was an NRA member with a concealed weapons permit, and he kept a Smith & Wesson AR-15 semiautomatic rifle with three forty-round clips at his bedside, but it didn’t make him feel safer, in fact it scared the shit out of him, because he saw the orgies of collectors at gun shows and knew how many of his fellow Floridians were armed: constitutional patriots like himself, military vets and sportsmen in camo, and tattooed kids from the cities, who looked like the start of militias. The whole thing went crazy when Obama took over -- there was a run on ammunition, and gun dealers starting selling T-shirts that said “WARNING: I AM A VETERAN. Department of Homeland Security has determined that I may be radicalized and a threat to national security. Approach at your own risk. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!” So what would happen if the Tampa power grid went down? Chaos. That was the future -- civil unrest, social disintegration.

Needless to say, it’s a gloomy book. And yet, at the time of this writing, in late 2018, the picture it paints feels very much like it is in the rearview mirror. Is the United States building another bubble, bound to burst in bouts of human misery and poverty? Undoubtedly, but where and when? Like the housing bubble and the tech bubble before it, the prophets of doom are few and seldom heeded. In the end, Packer’s book demonstrates it is only in the cold analysis of retrospection that such lines can be drawn and such dots connected.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at