Saturday, May 30, 2009

Men Without Chests and Eyebrow Shavers

image attribution: el juicio by drusbi

Penn Hills School District officials have recommended expulsion for a 15 year old girl because a random search turned up an eyebrow shaver in her handbag.  The same officials have expelled an exemplary college bound senior who was found to have a 1" utility knife on his key chain. Criminal charges are also being pressed.

Are these school administrators insane?  No, they are cowardly.  But don't be too quick to condemn them.  Our society has carefully cultivated cowardice, especially in anyone who must manage or administrate.

We we want brave, vigilant leaders who will watch carefully for threats and eliminate them whenever that is possible.

However, threats vary greatly in severity.  Most folks would agree that the loaded pistol, which slipped through Penn Hills school security  a few days before the eyebrow shaver incident, is the sort of threat which should be eliminated. Outraged parents besieged the administrators and school board at Penn Hills for more effective risk management.  So random searches were instituted.  

Even the searches may have been an overreaction.  But the real damage starts when the people empowered to search are incapable of making a judgment on what constitutes a genuine threat. When a threat is found, those same people must also make a judgment on the appropriate response, including disciplinary action if needed.

Good judgment is a virtue.  Good judgment brings justice.

Unfortunately, the idea of passing judgment on a person's actions has become confused with passing judgment on that person's worth or eternal destination.
How many times have you heard these phrases recently "Who am I to judge", "Who are they to judge?" and "We are in no position to judge".  This is relentlessly drilled into our collective consciousness.  Consequently, one of our great fears is that we will be caught passing judgment. It is a powerful fear because we know it may bring censure when we so desperately crave affirmation.   If we allow the fear of disapproval to goad us into committing an injustice, we are cowards.  Injustice is assured when we attempt to establish rules so particular and so inflexible that we are freed from the responsibility of utilizing judgment.  

Men Without Chests, by C.S. Lewis is a profound essay, worthy of a careful reading.  Echoes of Lewis' closing paragraph came to mind when I read of the "eyebrow shaver incident":

And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more 'drive', or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or 'creativity'. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

I would add that we abhor judgment, yet demand justice.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Oregonians Take Note: A Proud Moment in Our History

Many thanks to Christine Quigley for calling attention to this video of the famous exploding whale incident.  

What Would Google Do?  A book review.

In the preface for "What Would Google Do?"   Jeff Jarvis writes, "This book is about more than Google and its own rules and about more than technology and business.  It's about seeing the world as Google sees it, finding your own new worldview, and seeing differently.  In that sense, this book isn't about Google.  It's a book about you.  It is about your world, how it is changing for you, and what you can gain from that."

For those who seek to better understand how the Internet has wrought great changes in their lives, Jarvis' work is very helpful.   Those who crave a facts and figures detailed history of how Google became "the fastest growing company in the world", should look elsewhere . 

The book is divided into two parts.  The first part explores the rules by which Google operates. For example, "Focus on the user and all else will follow" is a direct quote of Google's corporate philosophy. Chapter one is entitled "Give the customer control and we will use it".  Jarvis intentionally delves deeper in his exploration of Google's operating principles.  So he does much more than simply quote Google's ten rules and explain them.  Chapters explore relationship with customers, the impact of live links on information exchanges, changes in business models, the influence on society, and more.  

The second part of the book, entitled "If Google Ruled the World", explores how various industries and institutions may be impacted by those rules.  Media, Advertising, Retail, Utilities, Manufacturing, Service, Money, Public Welfare, and Public Institutions each merit a chapter.
The Google rules are already causing considerable disruption in media and advertising.  Jarvis gives examples of current events  ( newspaper failures, etc.)  but also looks ahead to how various forms of media must adapt to survive the new regime.  In other arenas, manufacturing or utilities, Jarvis has to report less and forecast more.  

Jarvis weaves together narratives of his personal experience as a customer, a blogger, and a journalist with more traditional feature writing describing events where he had little or no personal involvement.  Jarvis skillfully spins stories.  I found them captivating.  One such story is 
"Dell Hell " .  Jarvis is able to remain humble while telling a story of how the Internet allowed him, a disgruntled customer, to wield great influence.  Jarvis feels free to express his opinion strongly, as when he writes " It is insane to treat Google as the enemy.  Even Yahoo doesn't .."  That makes for entertaining reading, but at times Jarvis comes across as cocksure about highly complex matters.  He redeems himself from time to time with admissions such as "I am a hypocrite.  If I had followed my own wouldn't be reading this book right now, at least not as a book."

Jarvis shares many, many examples of new businesses, new social sites, related books, etc.  Just those references would be enough to justify the book's price for many readers.  I have considerable experience roaming the WWW,  nonetheless, Jarvis was able to surprise me with lots of new links that I will enjoy exploring.

There were a couple of spots where Jarvis struck me as naive, even ignorant.  That may have been inevitable in a light hearted tome with a vast scope.  When he writes "Free is a business model" he is parroting a bit of nonsense that I frequently encounter about the web. Few things are truly free, and certainly not a web constructed of millions of servers connected to billions of user computers through thousands of miles of expensive fiber optic cables.  Many web based business have foundered when confronted with the sad truth that access to the Internet costs money.  More access costs more money.   The fact that an individual's access to the Internet cost less than $50 per month may be misleading.  Access to broadcast television is virtually free, but we pay for that by allowing our eyeballs to be bombarded with commercial messages.  My blog account on blogger had no cost for start up, but I have no doubt that a price will be extracted in some manner over time.  Advertising, archiving fees, and the like will creep in. 
Sorry Jeff, free is NEVER a business model.

Jarvis makes his living manipulating words. I suppose that makes it easy for him to believe that we may all be able to dispense with concrete objects.  So he writes phrases like "Atoms are a drag" or "Nobody wants to be in the business of making stuff anymore".  He taps the words out on a plastic keyboard resting atop a collection of material objects (microprocessors, disk drives, memory chips, light emitting diodes, batteries) that are marvels of achievement in the material world.  Never, ever, take cleverly arranged atoms for granted!

"What Would Google Do" is an entertaining and informative read, loaded with material that a reader can use to do further exploration of the world 2.0.  I highly recommend it.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

What Is Stress?

Photo credit: stressed by rick

Hans Selye was a researcher in the biological sciences during much of the twentieth century.  He is widely believed to be the first to use the term "stress" to describe a biological phenomena.

While experimenting with hormone injections in rats, Selye discovered that a wide rage of irritating substances would produce the same response in rats.  There was an impact on their adrenal glands and damage to their gastrointestinal tract.  In other words, the rats got all wound up and their guts hurt them.

I heard Selye speak during the mid 1970's.  He made it clear that stress was the organism's response to the irritants, not the irritants themselves.  He called the irritants stressors.   The general use of the term these days confuses stress and stressors, but the basic idea is retained:
as we are impacted by various irritants, our stress level builds up.  We get anxious. We have various physical complaints, especially gastrointestinal problems.

However, an important point is often overlooked.  Selye learned that stress is generated by both irritating (or bad) events and by exciting, even pleasurable, good events.  To much of a good thing can make a person sick in a way that is identical to what would occur if they got too much of bad things.

It seems that we too often forget that the good events in our lives can help make us sick.  In fact, I have a hard time believing it despite having heard Selye in the flesh explaining it all.

So getting divorced will generate stress in people, but so will getting married.  Deaths, but also births.  Financial losses, but also winning the lottery.  Annoying people clearly create stress in us, but the truth is that stress is also generated when we spend time with a loved one.

There are some great coping strategies for dealing with stress:  exercise, avoiding caffeine, and various sorts of attitude adjustment.  However, I doubt that many people think to employ those strategies when lots and lots of good things are occurring.   I have been reminded of this during a period of weeks when we are enjoying many visits from loved ones, a daughter is getting married, and all of my children are doing very well.  

I find it difficult to believe that great things like those can make me uptight.  But it is clearly true.

Bad things will come, and hopefully good things will come.  My prayer is not that God would remove the bad and certainly not that he would hold back the good.  My prayer is that I would mature, grow stronger, and attain the wisdom needed to cope with the good and the bad.

Pray for strength, not for an easy life.  

Saturday, May 16, 2009

How Will You Spend Eternity?

In the interview below, Richard Dawkins is asked if he had a choice between death ( as "that's it") or heaven, which would he choose?  He answers, "Give me two or three hundred years.   But I think no longer than that.  Eternity would be awful.

Dawkins is healthy, intelligent, and affluent.  If two or three hundred years of that seems good, were it offered,  why not a thousand, ten thousand, or more? What would make eternity awful?

Earlier in the interview, Dawkins was asked whether he would like it if there was a God.  His answer : "What matters is what is true.  The universe doesn't care what I like."

Eternity in an uncaring universe, apart from the God who is love, would indeed be awful.

It would be hell.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Incorporating the Incorporeal has Consequences

photo credit:  the corporation is powerful by markhsx

Why do businesses incorporate?  In other words, why don't we just stick with businesses where the owner or owners are personally culpable for wrongdoing by that business.

The shoemaker has to take the heat if his shoes hurt his customer's feet.  If he adds employees and equipment to his workshop, he may crank out lots and lots of shoes.  In a sense he is now capable of hurting a lot more feet.  At some point he realizes that he is in a risky position.  Angry customers could bankrupt him and blacken his name.  So he incorporates.

The law allows him to pretend that his business is a someone.  That pretend someone can be bankrupted and reviled, but the shoemaker takes comfort that he personally can walk away with the rest of his assets in tact.  He may even escape notice and keep his good name.

Henry Ford made cars.   He and his descendants ran the company for a while.  However, once Ford Motor Company was incorporated, the Ford family's other assets were safe, even if Ford Motor Company went broke.  Over time the Ford Motor Company was sold to investors. Eventually the Ford family no longer managed the company.  The Ford Corporation is an idea, not a flesh and blood person or persons.  We have incorporated the incorporeal.

So when Ford Inc. does something nasty, who takes the rap?  The investors might lose the money they spent to buy in.  A board of directors has responsibility to ensure that the corporation is well run.  The board of directors is elected by the investors.  Sort of.

Although my personal fortune is modest, it is invested in a large number of corporations.  A little bit of GM.  A particle of Dell.  A very small piece of United Airlines.  Lots and lots of little pieces that add up to my life savings.  I spread it around that way on purpose.  My hope is that I may lose a piece here or there, but most of what I own will still be around for me to live on.  

Perhaps I owned a tiny piece of Enron, and it disappeared when Enron went bust.  I have no idea.  I own too many little pieces in too many places (mutual funds, annuities, etc.)  Nor do I have any idea who the directors are for any of those corporations that I own tiny pieces of.  One way or another, my "vote" gets voted by someone else.  Theoretically I could keep track of every piece and vote every vote to ensure that every deficiency is addressed in every company.  That will never happen.  I couldn't do it even if I devoted all my waking hours to keeping track of it all.

Yes, there are some folks with very large personal fortunes.  However, for the most part, they spread their money around as well.  They may own bigger pieces of companies than I do, but they will often own so many pieces of so many companies that they too will be woefully ignorant of what is going one in most of those companies.  

Incorporating the incorporeal has consequences.  Accountability is lost.  The personal touch is gone.  The management is simply tasked to make more money, at least for a while, until they can bail out with a golden parachute or get severed with an awesome severance package.

So it goes.