Thursday, December 5, 2013
The Remarkable David Gelernter
David Gelernter is best known as a pioneering computer scientist and as one of the survivors of an attack by the so-called Unabomber but Gelernter should be defined neither by his chosen profession nor by being a victim of violence; Gelernter is an intellectual in the best, classical sense of the word, in addition to being an eloquent writer, a moral philosopher and a painter.
Gelernter's 1997 book Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber details his slow, painful recovery from his injuries but it also describes how the Unabomber case--and our society's response to it--reflects a dangerous moral ambiguity that threatens the very fabric of Western civilization. Here is how a fascinating review at BrothersJudd.com describes Gelernter's take on our society's reluctance to acknowledge the existence of evil:
But the real thrust of this book is his disgust with modern culture. There is not much new in his argument--it borrows, wittingly or no, from E. B. White, George Orwell, Jacques Barzun, F. A. Hayek, Paul Johnson, and other conservative critics--as he traces the decline of societal morality back to the surrender by WASP elites and their succession by intellectuals. He understands full well that in many ways it was a good thing to move to a system that is based more on merit than on heredity, that the tolerance which is the central value of intellectuals has been beneficial to society in many regards, and that equality of opportunity for women and minorities has been in most ways a good thing. But he is also quite blunt about the downside inherent in all of these trends.
As he argues, the meritocratic elite has turned the education system from a finishing school for gentlemen into a training ground for intellectuals, that is people who believe in the pure power of ideas to remake humanity and in the special role of intellectuals in making decisions for humanity. Tolerance, an initial good as it opened doors for people and allowed for the free exchange of even unpopular ideas, has degenerated into an ethic of "anything goes." Toleration has removed any standards of behavior and has delegitimized the judgment of ideas and behaviors. What started as a refreshing openness to differences has been pushed to an extreme where we no longer seem to recognize the difference between good ideas and bad ideas or between true good and genuine evil, or if we do recognize it, somehow no longer feel confident in our right to judge between the two.
In several extremely opinionated and politically incorrect passages he tackles questions of gender equity, race, gay rights, etc., in light of this understanding. But the book is brought full circle when he examines the events of his own life: modern attitudes towards crime, the sensationalist press, and the celebrity culture. In perhaps the strongest and most memorable few paragraphs of the book Gelernter considers whether his own religious beliefs should mitigate against his desire to see the Unabomber pay for his crimes with his life:
The crux of the matter is that it is vitally important for both individuals and societies to not only distinguish between good and evil/right and wrong but to vigorously fight for good/right and to vigorously fight against evil/wrong. As Edmund Burke put it, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."I would sentence him to death. And I would commute the sentence in one case only, if he repents, apologizes and begs forgiveness of the dead men's families, and the whole world--and tells us how he plans to spend the whole rest of his life pleading with us to hate the vileness and evil he embodied and to love life, to protect and defend it, and tell us how he sees with perfect agonizing clarity that he deserves to die--then and only then I'd commute his sentence...
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Laughter is the Best Medicine
"I'd like to introduce a man with a lot of charm, talent, and wit. Unfortunately, he couldn't be here tonight, so instead..."--Dave Attell
"There are three ways to be ruined in this world. First is by sex, the second is by gambling, and the third is by telling jokes. Sex is the most fun, gambling is the most exciting, and being a comedian is the surest."--Paul Roth
"I wasn't any good in French or Italian, but I excelled in Thousand Island."--Steve Moris
"Watch out when you're getting all you want; only hogs being fattened for the slaughter get all they want."--Joel Chandler Harris
"I am not so think as you drunk I am."--Sir John Squire
"An improper mind is a perpetual feast."--Logan Pearsall Smith
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Classic Brill's Content Article Contrasts Journalists With Historians
Greenberg noted that during the aftermath of the tightly contested 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, many journalists compared Gore's reaction to Bush's narrow victory to Richard Nixon's reaction to barely losing the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy; a mythology has developed that Nixon graciously accepted defeat but Greenberg's research indicated that the opposite is true: "It turned out that far from rolling over in the wake of Kennedy's victory, as I had always believed they did, Republican officials, including some of Nixon's closest aides, waged aggressive challenges in 11 states." Greenberg did not have trouble discovering the truth: "Like the purloined letter, this information was hidden in plain view--in the pages of America's leading newspapers."
Despite the fact that any dedicated and competent researcher could determine that Nixon's allies vigorously contested Kennedy's electoral triumph, many media commentators insisted that Nixon had lost graciously and that Gore should do likewise. Greenberg wrote an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times in an effort to explain what really happened after the 1960 election. In his Brill's Content piece, Greenberg made it clear that he had no political ax to grind: "My point wasn't to bash Nixon or to succor the Gore forces. I wanted to correct the historical record, which I believed was being twisted and wrenched from context for expedience. It seemed to me that if pundits were going to cite the 1960 election as a precedent, they ought at least to know all the facts."
After the publication of his Los Angeles Times' piece, Greenberg was invited to appear on several national TV programs, including 20/20, Inside Edition, Hardball and NBC's Nightly News. Greenberg recalled that at first he thought that his efforts to publicize the truth would be very successful: "The reaction induced some delusions of grandeur. I entertained fantasies that I was going to set the historical record straight, that other historians would start scouring the sources, forging beyond the self-serving memoirs and timeworn memories to piece together the neglected story of the 1960 election aftermath. Good information would drive out bad, and whatever would become of electoral accuracy in this affair, historical accuracy would at least claim a small victory."
It did not take long for Greenberg to realize that nothing of that sort would happen: "I was mistaken...For every pundit who corrected the record about Nixon--and several did--dozens more rehashed the canned version of events. Like a hapless gardener, I would root out one weed only to have more sprout elsewhere."
While it is easy to understand why partisan figures perpetuated the Nixon mythology--Republicans wanted to rehabilitate Nixon's reputation as much as possible while also pressuring Gore to not contest the election--it is more difficult to understand to understand and much more disturbing to consider why so many media members did not actively seek out the truth. Greenberg speculated, "In the case of the pundits, the bias was rooted, I think, not in ideology but in how they do their job. Newspeople love a good story, and the tale of Nixon's magnanimity teems with irresistible irony...The story also lends the pundits a veneer of credibility and fair-mindedness: They can show everyone that they're neither knee-jerk Nixon haters nor congenital JFK courtiers."
As disappointed as Greenberg was in the conduct of the pundits, Greenberg found it "most troubling" that television news reporters--most notably those affiliated with 20/20--made no effort to uncover and report the truth. Greenberg's experience with 20/20 was, in his opinion, "reflective of the shoddy way in which TV news is sometimes reported." While Greenberg's Los Angeles Times' article brought his research to the attention of 20/20, Greenberg's interactions with the show's booker demonstrated to Greenberg that, as he paraphrased the perspective of 20/20's producers, "It was easier to run with a familiar story (even one demonstrably untrue) than to take time to consider new information."
Greenberg concluded that "most journalists enlist a historian not on his or her own terms but on their terms. Journalists seek not to get a lengthier, more subtle, and more complicated take on the past, but to borrow the aura of authority that emanates from a 'historian' and thus be relieved of having to make sense of history for themselves."
TV news shows often do not seek out historians or other figures who are experts in the specific subject matter being covered but rather the producers simply interview any alleged authority whose credentials make him seem impressive and well-informed. Greenberg criticized even the journalists who correctly reported the Nixon story, because many of those journalists did not in fact do their jobs any better than the journalists who incorrectly reported the story: "...I was struck by another irony. Although several commentators had reported my findings, few inquired into my sources, looked at my research, or quizzed me about how I knew what I knew. In other words, many of those who adopted my argument were as guilty as those who repeated the tales of Nixon's magnanimity. They, too, uncritically accepted what I said simply because I wear the label of historian...Constrained by the demand for sound bites, the allure of neat historical lessons, and the culture of competitive deadline journalism, most newspeople place getting a good story above honoring the richness and fullness of history. They rarely track down the right experts, or air competing points of view, or linger over wrinkles in an argument. They don't make room for the immense amounts of research, the careful sifting of evidence, and the nuanced verdicts of which history consists."
There is a cliche that anyone who knows how sausage is really made would never eat the stuff; that is how I feel about the mainstream print, internet and TV media: anyone who knows how those products are assembled would take most pundits' words for what they are worth--not much.
Monday, October 28, 2013
Never Let the Critics Stop You From Shining
Doing anything remotely interesting will bring criticism. Attempting to do anything large-scale and interesting will bring armies of detractors and saboteurs. This is fine--if you are willing to take the heat.
There are good reasons to be willing, even eager.
Colin Powell makes the case: pissing people off is both inevitable and necessary. This doesn’t mean that the goal is pissing people off. Pissing people off doesn’t mean you’re doing the right things, but doing the right things will almost inevitably piss people off.
Understand the difference. As Mr. Powell has put it, "Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off."
Mr. Spock expressed a similar sentiment in the classic Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within," noting that when a transporter malfunction split Captain James Kirk into a "good" version and a "bad" version it became clear that the "bad" version--the version that did not care what other people think--is an essential aspect of what made Kirk so decisive and effective: "And what is it that makes one man an exceptional leader? We see here indications that it's his negative side which makes him strong, that his evil side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength."
Monday, October 21, 2013
"Chaos is the uncertainty sparked by uncharted territory, economic recession and bubbles of opportunity. Chaos causes organizations to retreat, but not always.
Did you know that Hewlett-Packard, Disney, Hyatt, MTV, CNN, Microsoft, Burger King and GE all started during periods of economic recession? Periods of uncertainty fuel tremendous opportunity, but they also reshuffle the deck and change the rules of the game."
Here are some of Gutsche's key concepts:
1) "The upbeat impact of crisis is that competitors become mediocre and the ambitious find ways to grow." Gutsche cites the example of the Kellogg Company, which thrived during the Great Depression and seized the cereal market from once-dominant Post. Post rested on their laurels during the economic slowdown, while Kellogg doubled their advertising budget and convinced consumers that Kellogg products were superior to Post products.
2) "Innovation is not about market timing. It is about creating something that fulfills an unmet need." Does it sound like a good idea to launch an expensive magazine during the middle of the Great Depression? Henry Luce thought that it did and because Fortune filled an "unmet need"--affording readers a unique opportunity to understand how the corporate world functions--his new magazine became a huge success.
3) "The time to act is always now." Basketball Hall of Fame Coach Pat Riley once wrote about "paralysis by analysis," the tendency to get so caught up in trying to perfectly determine what to do that one ends up doing nothing at all. Gutsche declares, "You don't need to have everything figured out. Colloquially, chaos is synonymous with stress and disorder, but this doesn't have to be true. By knowing that you can adapt, and by seizing the opportunity presented by chaos, you can avoid being trampled and step away from the herd."
4) "Successful ideas first require excessive testing and experimental failure." Thomas Edison put it best when he described the process of inventing the light bulb: "I have not failed 1000 times. I have successfully discovered 1000 ways to not make a light bulb."
5) "Chaos should not be tempered with structure, it should be harnessed with ideology." A spider cannot survive if its arms are ripped off but if a starfish's arms are ripped off then each arm becomes a new starfish; the difference is that a spider has a centralized nervous system, while a starfish has a decentralized nervous system. Many groups--ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous to various terrorist networks--have figured out the power of being decentralized, held together not by an inflexible organizational template but only by a shared belief/ideology. Gutsche quotes Rod Beckstrom and Odi Brafman, authors of The Starfish and the Spider and coiners of a rule that they call The Power of Chaos: "Starfish systems are wonderful incubators for creative, destructive, innovative or crazy ideas. Anything goes. Good ideas will attract more people, and in a circle, they'll execute the plan. Institute order and rigid structure, and while you may achieve standardization, you'll also squelch creativity. Where creativity is valuable, learning to accept chaos is a must."
Friday, October 11, 2013
The Biggest Small Word in the English Language: If
E.E. Cummings' "if up's the word" opens with this upbeat stanza:
if up's the word;and a world grows greener
minute by second and most by more-
if death is the loser and life is the winner
(and beggars are rich but misers are poor)
-let's touch the sky:
with a to and a fro
(and a here there where)and away we go
Those carefree words exhort the reader to believe that "up's the word," that the world is growing greener (becoming rich with life) and that all of us can "touch the sky" (reach our own personal heaven, either in a spiritual sense or by achieving our secular goals) regardless of our financial status.
Rudyard Kipling's "If" challenges the reader to brace himself against the harshness of a cold, unforgiving world; the first stanza sets the tone:
Two lines from Kipling's poem resonate so deeply that they are posted prominently above the players' entrance to Wimbledon's hallowed Centre Court:
Cummings' poem seems to articulate a generalized life philosophy but, though that may also appear to be true of Kipling's "If," a specific incident inspired Kipling's verse. Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, with the full but covert support of the British government, led an 1896 raid into Dutch-controlled Transvaal with the goal of inspiring the British citizens there to overthrow the Boer regime. The raid failed and the British government abandoned Jameson, who was sentenced to 15 months in jail by the British authorities for supposedly acting against the country's wishes (Jameson was pardoned a few months after the trial and thus did not serve the full term). Jameson never publicly discussed how the British government betrayed him, earning Kipling's praise in these memorable lines:
That is exactly what Jameson did; after being released from jail, he became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in South Africa, serving in that role from 1904-1908. He later acted as the leader of the Unionist Party in South Africa from 1910-12.
Kipling's poem concludes with this coda:
Life is filled with challenges and each of our lives are populated by people who disappoint us in word and deed, so it is important to remember that Only Thoughts and Actions Can be Controlled, Not Outcomes: Triumph and Disaster are indeed imposters and all that matters is to follow Kipling's advice to not waste one second of each "unforgiving minute."
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Brill's Content Exposed the "Fuzzy Math" in GQ's Turn of the Century Men of the Year Awards
The February 2001 issue included an article by Kaja Perina titled "Men of the Year: GQ's Fuzzy Math." Perina noted that GQ declared to their readers, "Who said no one ever listens to you? We listen. So tell us: Who should be GQ's Men of the Year?" Perina wryly commented, "The answer appears to be whoever agrees to show up."
GQ's awards were presented on a show televised by the Fox network, so GQ preferred to give the honors to celebrities who agreed to participate in the telecast--regardless of how the reader voting actually turned out. Perina reported that an anonymous source with the L.A. Lakers said that when Phil Jackson was one of the Men of the Year in 1998 but declined to appear on the show the magazine gave him the honor in absentia--but when Jackson won again in 2000 and snubbed the telecast for a second time, GQ gave the award to Doc Rivers instead.
GQ spokeswoman Kathleen Madden admitted that the magazine not only elevated second place finisher Rivers ahead of the winner Jackson but that in the "Individual Athlete" category the runner-up Pete Sampras took home the hardware after the champion Tiger Woods declined to show up.
GQ editor Arthur Cooper did not see the problem with asking readers for their votes and then ignoring their choices: "You can't give an award to someone who doesn't want it. It's a nice award, but is it an Oscar? I'd like to think so, but I'm not fooling myself." Actually, you can give an award to someone even if the honoree declines to be on the TV show--and, as mentioned above, that is exactly what GQ did with Phil Jackson in 1998.
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