Thursday, February 24, 2005


I have a hunch that not many readers of this blog are looking for something even more serious, but on those days when you'd like to do some deep thinking — just not badly enough to go back to school or read The New Republic cover to cover — you could do worse than Left2Right. Non-Minnesotans take note. This qualifies as a ringing endorsement in these parts.

Left2Right describes itself thus;

"We're a bunch of academics, mostly philosophers but also some lawyers, political scientists, and economists.  We're interested in liberal ideas, though we are probably far from unanimous about what "liberal" means, and our being interested in liberal ideas doesn't entail that each of us subscribes to all of them.  We think that political debate in this country has deteriorated into a shouting match, a food fight, a flame war -- call it what you will.  We'd like to consider whether liberal ideas should be somehow reconsidered -- in some respects revised, in others perhaps merely re-stated -- with the aim of increasing the overall ratio of dialog to diatribe in the American political forum.  Some of us will be trying out various ways of re-thinking and re-formulating those ideas; others may end up arguing that such attempts are unnecessary, even counter-productive.  And in the course of our discussion, there will be plenty of digressions and asides of the sort that naturally occur at the margins of a group discussion."

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Signs of a Thaw?

In the mid-'70s we were living on the edge of Loring Park as the area was undergoing gentrification. We were not the gentry, and we moved after our rent nearly tripled within a couple years.) One of the new landlords responsible for the area's rising rents witnessed my bicycle being stolen from our apartment building's stairway and gave chase. He caught one of the culprits and held him for the police. Unfortunately, the other accomplice made off with the bike.

Because they saw a chance to get a petty criminal off the street, the police and the city attorney asked me to press charges, and I went along, hoping the pressure might get my bike back. That didn't happen, so I decided to attend the trial in case there was a last-minute bargain. The accused testified that he'd first met the other guy at Moby Dick's and didn't recall his name. He then spun an elaborate story about accompanying his new friend to get the man's bike. He'd waited on the street for the fellow and hadn't realized that the mystery man was up on our porch cutting my chain. It was only when the landlord started chasing them that he had any inkling of wrongdoing.

By the time he finished his tale, I had my doubts. Afterall, we'd seen the people hiking our rent as the villains. You couldn't see my bike from the street. The guy hadn't turned in the accomplice to escape jail. Maybe he was unjustly...

It took about that long for the judge to render a guilty verdict, and seconds later the prosecutor and public defender were chuckling about how that was about the worst story they'd ever heard.

This preamble is to establish my credentials as someone who is susceptible to thinking the best about people, even in the face of ample contrary evidence.

Today I attended a hearing of the Minnesota House Tax Committee, chaired by Rep. Phil Krinkie (R), as it heard a presentation advocating raising the income tax on top earners and lowering taxes on business. It was delivered by Growth & Justice, a progressive think tank that wouldn't necessarily expect a warm welcome from the Republican majority.

I am not an experienced observer of capitol committee meetings, but it appeared that people from both parties were making an effort to be cordial and respectful with each other, and to give the Growth & Justice ideas a fair hearing.

Although it's very early in the session, after last year's legislative stalemate, this is a hopeful sign.

I left before I could overhear any insiders chuckling over what was really going on in the hearing room. It's still winter and the forecast calls for more snow, but today, I chose to see signs of a thaw.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Takes One to Know One

I ran into a friend who reads this blog, and he told me I'd been spending a lot of time on one side of the divide lately.

So this is probably a good time to mention Saturday's story in The New York Times about how well Presidents Clinton and Bush (41 and 43) seem to get along with each other.

As the article points out, only five living people share the experience of having been our president. It makes sense they might flock together when there are so many people on the planet who think they're either a moron or Satan, and so few who might have true empathy for their situation. And it says to me that shared experience may ultimately be more important than politics, even for these most political of creatures.

Through their inevitable contacts outside the political arena, these presidents probably discovered each other as decent human beings.

In A Mighty Heart, Mariane Pearl reprints many letters of condolence she received following the execution of her husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl, including these two:

Dear Mariane,
Congratulations on Adam's birth. I know your joy is tempered by sorrow. Because my mother was widowed three months before I was born, I have some idea of what you must be feeling and thinking about your boy's future.

My mother worked hard to give me the feeling that I knew my father, that I could be proud to be his son, that my life could honor his memory. Her love gave me the strength and security to handle the emptiness of his absence. I know that your love will do that too.

My thoughts and prayers, and Hillary's, are with you.
Bill Clinton

Dear Adam,
Welcome to this world! I'm really happy that you are healthy. Your mom is really happy, too. She loves you a lot.

I am so sorry that you did not know your dad. All who knew him say he was a really fine man. He loves you in spirit.

My hope is that the world you enter will be at peace. I will work hard to realize this vision.

All my best Adam. May God bless you.

George Bush
The White House

P.S. Give your mom a kiss.

Now, it's possible that aides handled the notes, but both strike me as authentic — Clinton, encouraging the Pearl family with his own story, and Bush, in short, simple sentences, invoking his vision to the child who will read it someday.

These were not public declarations. They were personal notes to a woman who had lost her husband under horrific circumstances, and they both reflect sensitivity and care.

Decent people can make mistakes. They can be limited in their views. But it's a start.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Don't Bet on Red

The Washington Post reports that China's regime is once again cracking down on gambling, which was outlawed when the communists took power.

"Chinese law imposes fines and up to three years' imprisonment for people caught organizing gambling with the aim of making a profit, making a living by gambling or opening a casino."

The Chinese see gambling as a dangerous source of public corruption. Meanwhile in our state, Governor Pawlenty is readying a state casino plan and sees gambling as a politically palatable way to raise revenue.

The StarTribune reports, "On what was billed as a December trip to Edmonton to review schools, Pawlenty met privately with the Ghermezians [developers and majority owners of Bloomington's Mall of America] to discuss the mall proposal [to add a casino as part of $1-billion expansion]. Pawlenty and Bloomington's mayor and city manager also have been criticized for a lack of openness in meeting together about the proposal."

Of course, anyone who finds this whole business unsavory is just a commie.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

What Kind of Dog are You?


A daft on-line quiz now making the rounds allowed me to answer the question: What Kind of Dog are You?. (Siberian Husky married to a Shetland Sheepdog, in case you couldn't tell. A mutt you can depend on, with the added bonus of being edible when your pemmican runs out.)

The quiz determines your breed by asking about various attributes. Since there are a lot of options, you shouldn't have to worry about coming up Chihuahua, but if you do, you can retake the test.

Maybe someday I'll get around to creating the political equivalent of this quiz, but meanwhile, a blogger has started a list of variants on Blue and Yellow Dog Democrats. Blue Dogs are fiscally conservative House Democrats who want to bring the party back to the center and have good working relationships with Republicans. The group began in 1995, adopting the name because their "moderate-to-conservative-views had been 'choked blue'" by their party. (Yellow Dog Democrats would sooner vote for mangy, three-legged yellow dog than vote for a Republican.)

For most Americans, figuring out our breed is purely for entertainment, because after a couple generations, we're mongrels. Evolutionarily and politically speaking, this is not a bad development — assuming, of course, evolution is for real. We live mostly non-ideological lives and agree it is not a good idea to marry our cousins. But our elections, and increasingly our government, seem to offer up only two choices — the Dingocrats and Repuglicans — yapping at each other across the yard, with Joe Lieberman trotting back and forth looking for a safe place to pee. Cross-breeding is certainly not an option.

It's not that we're all in the middle. We're all over the map. An article by Mark Satin, Our next foreign policy needs to learn from ALL of us, talks about all the ways of looking at foreign policy that both are true and limited. He poses 26 ways of looking at the world. "Eight are radical, eight moderate, eight conservative, and two indeterminate."

His site, The Radical Middle, is a tad garish visually and somewhat self-promotional, but it's an essential resource that pulls together thinkers who are working at the same stuff we are here.

As long as we're on the topic, here are some other online tools that deal with finer political shading.

Political Compass presents six sets of questions, and then plots your political position on an Authoritarian/Libertarian, Right/Left axis. I'm not sure what to do with the knowledge that I'm similar to Gandhi and not to Hitler, but it's relief to finally have a second opinion.

Where Do You Stand? is a 10-question, multiple-choice quiz I developed a few weeks back as a way to ponder some real-life situations, the kind of things we'd be more likely to face personally than, say, stopping Iran from developing nukes. For example:

You're the director of a struggling non-profit trying to fill a key staff position. A black man with some of the required skills applies, but he lacks others and would require a lot more of your time to train compared to others. Your mission preaches diversity, but the small staff is all-white. Do you:

A) Hire him and make the extra effort to mentor him, knowing his failure could put the organization at risk.
B) Hire the best qualified candidate without feeling guilty.
C) Turn him down, but give him feedback on the skills and experience he needs in order to qualify for a similar position.
D) Treat him like all the other unsuccessful applicants.

The point is not getting a score, but to consider choices we might make, as well as the inadequacy of ideology when we're actually dealing with fellow human beings.

NationStates is the creation of novelist Max Barry, who developed it to promote his book, Jennifer Government. Barry published his first novel under the name Maxx Barry, because he "thought it was a funny joke about marketing and failed to realize everyone would assume he was a pretentious asshole."

Jennifer Government is a satirical look at corporate statism. Two global affiliates, named Nike and McDonalds, maneuver for control of the planet. It's funnier than I will make it sound here, better than an airplane book, but not 1984, either.

As Barry describes the game, "The left/right scale isn't used in NationStates. Because it's one-dimensional, it's not a very accurate way of measuring your politics. NationStates has three main scales: personal, economic, and political. In each case, you can be authoritarian (moral, or restrictive) or libertarian (liberal, or laissez-faire). For example, someone with left-wing politics might want high levels of personal freedom (e.g. no drug laws, gay rights), low levels of economic freedom (e.g. taxes, welfare), and average levels of political freedom (e.g. compulsory voting at elections). A libertarian might prefer high levels of freedom on all scales. An authoritarian might want the opposite."

The promotional strategy has since taken on a life of its own, with players developing their own community around the basic game. I've just created my own country, the Republic of Ambition and Tolerance, and may post about its fate as the simulation develops.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Faith-Based Program Just a Little Off-Base

Former Bush aide David Kuo went to work on the administration's faith-based initiative with high hopes. He leaves disillusioned with the "minimal commitment" from the White House, which has thus far delivered "approximately $6.3 billion less than the promised $6.8 billion."

Why should the President's follow through on this be any different from his commitment to combatting AIDS in Africa or increasing Pell grants? True to form, the President made a big promise during the 2000 campaign to raise Pell Grants from $4,050 to $5,100, then did nothing. Now, he's talking about moving to $4,550 over the next five years, a 12-percent increase. Meanwhile, average in-state tuition at public four-year universities, rose 10.5 percent to $5,132 in 2004, according to the College Board.

Certainly, Democrats were always suspicious of, if not outright hostile to, the faith-based plan. But it's revealing when a true believer leaves as a doubting Thomas. Read "Please, Keep Faith", along with other responses.

The Washington Post also covered the Kuo piece.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

A Language They Will Understand

Genocide, after all, is an exercise in community building. A vigorous totalitarian order requires that people be invested in the leaders' scheme, and while genocide may be the most perverse and ambitious means to this end, it is also the most comprehensive. In 1994, Rwanda was regarded in much of the rest of the world as the exemplary instance of the chaos and anarchy associated with collapsed states. In fact, the genocide was the product of order, authoritarianism, decades of modern political theorizing and indoctrination, and one of the most meticulously administered states in history.
–Philip Gourevitch, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families

Finding Words for Evil

As countless regimes have shown, for evil to be committed, it is first necessary to deny the humanity of the victim, then, to sanitize the evil act. Perhaps an individual evil-doer can perform such mental distortions without specific language. But evil committed of the people, by the people, or for the people must be given a name. Preferably, one we can speak without choking on our shame.

Vermin. Gooks. Pigs. Jungle bunnies. Cockroaches.


The Final Solution. Discipline. Ethnic cleansing. Selling cabbages (collecting a 50-Rwandan franc — then about 30 cents —bounty for severed Tutsi heads).

Extraordinary rendition.

"Extraordinary rendition" sounds like a classical music critic's phrase. How perfect for certain clandestine purposes, using an effete-sounding term to describe a brutal practice! It's like talking about Schoenberg to the country & western crowd. Who would even listen?

It may be all you got out of the Alberto Gonzales confirmation hearings was "torture"... "First Latino"... "condoning torture"... "Mexican-American"... "enabling torture"... "Latino-American"... "torture memo"... "discriminating against my fine Latino friends." If so, you should know that "extraordinary rendition" involves seizing foreigners — such as suspected terrorists or those with information about terrorist plans — and transporting them for interrogation to countries where torture may or may not (wink, wink) be employed to quickly extract information.

We're not just talking years of confinement at Guantanamo Bay, here. US-conducted renditions also involve destinations such as Egypt, Morocco, Syria and Jordan, all cited for human-rights violations by our own State Department. Some subjects disappear, and others, like Maher Arar, have been released and are telling their story.

If I may play William Safire for a moment, "extraordinary" indicates going beyond the usual or established use. Generally understood as "an interpretation or performance of a piece of music or drama," rendition seems to have been chosen for another meaning: "the act of translating something into another language." In this case, .

Perhaps the true meaning of rendition is closer to its root, render: "to purify or extract something by melting, especially to heat solid fat slowly until as much liquid fat as possible has been extracted from it, leaving small, crisp remains." If you have been anywhere near a rendering plant, you cannot forget the stench.

Outsourcing Torture

Altough coverage of the practice has cropped up rather frequently over the past year, it has not received such lucid, in-depth attention as presented in Janet Mayer's excellent New Yorker piece, Outsourcing Torture:

The Bush Administration, however, has argued that the threat posed by stateless terrorists who draw no distinction between military and civilian targets is so dire that it requires tough new rules of engagement. This shift in perspective, labelled the New Paradigm in a memo written by Alberto Gonzales, then the White House counsel, “places a high premium on . . . the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians,” giving less weight to the rights of suspects. It also questions many international laws of war. Five days after Al Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Vice-President Dick Cheney, reflecting the new outlook, argued, on “Meet the Press,” that the government needed to “work through, sort of, the dark side.” Cheney went on, “A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in. And so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”

Mayer reports that, according to an early CIA architect of renditions, they were governed by a legal process that required the CIA’s legal counsel to review each case and sign off on every proposed operation. However, renditions were pursued out of expedience—“not out of thinking it was the best policy,” said the CIA agent.

Since 9/11, renditions appear to have become less extra- and more ordinary. But as Mayer points out:

Perhaps surprisingly, the fiercest internal resistance to [degrading treatment of suspects] has come from people who have been directly involved in interrogation, including veteran F.B.I. and C.I.A. agents. Their concerns are as much practical as ideological. Years of experience in interrogation have led them to doubt the effectiveness of physical coercion as a means of extracting reliable information. They also warn that the Bush Administration, having taken so many prisoners outside the realm of the law, may not be able to bring them back in. By holding detainees indefinitely, without counsel, without charges of wrongdoing, and under circumstances that could, in legal parlance, “shock the conscience” of a court, the Administration has jeopardized its chances of convicting hundreds of suspected terrorists, or even of using them as witnesses in almost any court in the world.

We've seen these fears materialize in the lack of successful prosecutions of terror suspects. As another expert quoted by Mayer says, once a detainee’s rights have been violated, “you absolutely can’t” reinstate him into the court system. “You can’t kill him, either. All we’ve done is create a nightmare.”

The Hastert-led House considered legalizing extraordinary rendition within the bill implementing 9/11 Commission recommendations (rendition was not one of them), but the provision was removed once it came to light. A counter-move is under way to outlaw the practice, but it hasn't attracted a great deal of support.

Meanwhile, the recently published The Torture Papers compiles the "so-called ‘torture memos’ and reports which US government officials wrote to prepare the way for, and to document, coercive interrogation and torture in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and Abu Ghraib."

Some of the documents were reported on when originally released last year, including the comments of reviewers such as Donald Rumsfeld, who queried, "I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing [as a counter-resistance technique] limited to 4 hours?" But the 1284-page book reproduces all the documents sequentially, with notations, unfolding the sheer difficulty — and ultimate absurdity — of maintaining a morally defensible position while seeking to coersively extract information.

In theory, torture achieves its aims only when it becomes unbearable. In practice, it is the victim, not the torturer, who defines torture. So how can limits really work?

As the editors of The Torture Papers put it in "Interrogating Donald Rumsfeld" — "For an administration that, in one of its legal memos, had already put the power to define torture into the hands of the torturer, it wasn't so hard to be against acts of 'torture' — as long as the dictionaries were theirs."

Mayer's article cites consequences of US policy that predate the Bush administration — for example, helping Albanian intelligence capture Islamic militants and transport them to Egypt. "On August 5, 1998, an Arab-language newspaper in London published a letter from the International Islamic Front for Jihad, in which it threatened retaliation against the U.S. for the Albanian operation—in a 'language they will understand.' Two days later, the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up, killing two hundred and twenty-four people."

What is it about trafficking in torture that we still don't understand?

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Letter to a Conservative Young Man

You might like to read the entire post from Mike Finley, a St. Paul writer.

I strongly wish we could trash the two labels because they constitute a political lie and they destroy any possibility of empathic discourse. I'm a traditional conservative in many ways. I'm an English major, for pete's sake — Old White Dudes Unlimited. I voted for Dole, gave money to McCain. In 1860 I would have been a Republican — anti-slavery, liberal on women's suffrage. In 1900 I would have been a Democrat — anti-child labor, pro-Immigrant. In 1940 I would have been at war, like the beautiful Hubert Humphrey, with the Dixiecrats — Jim Crow Demos who split to join Nixon's "Southern Strategy" — including Trent Lott. Today I am a Democrat — circumstances keep changing!

But my enemy is not conservatism (which is rooted in wariness of human nature) but corporate radicalism (rooted in laissez-faire, let-it-rip economics) — what was called fascism just before Hitler confused the term — government that works hand in glove with select large corporations, with amassed wealth. Our current government is "fascist" in the 1920s Italian sense of the word. It is a radical form of assisting the wealthy to increase and maintain economic power. This is not a good thing. It seeks to undermine democracy and turn the nation into a "market" and nothing more.


Friday, February 11, 2005

You Don't Have to Play All the Notes

There they were lined up in alphabetical order, taking their turns on stage like kids at a spelling bee: Guy, Joe, John and Lyle. Only these four were my contemporaries, give or take, and they sat with guitars on their laps, not even standing when it was their time to spell a song.

Reading left to right, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Joe Ely and Guy Clark established conclusively at least one thing to be missed from the Sixties — hearing great songwriters singing great songs with nothing to lean on but a chair, an acoustic guitar and the occasional vocal harmony slipping quietly in the back like someone come late to church.

They made new even the songs we'd heard a dozen times before. They drew a sharp line in the dirt between unaffected art and pure entertainment, and then plunked down a boot on either side for a couple hours.

It brought up one of the great dividing lines in Minneapolis that emerges whenever visiting friends and relatives hit town. Will they want to go to Mall of America or see a live performance of A Prairie Home Companion (PHC)? And then what will you do about it? If it's the former, you draw them a map and tell them you'll see them for supper. If the latter, you're advised to secure the tickets well in advance and keep a couple for yourself.

Years ago such an out-of-towner visit cornered me into going to a PHC performance, which I'd regarded as a Minnesota cliche I could do without repeating. Garrison Keillor is a wonderful writer, as close to Twain as we're likely to ever get — in more ways than one. My personal taste is for reading fiction, not actually watching its creator pretend, and nothing I saw from the star that day gave me reason to change.

But the non-marquee players did. Greg Brown and some now-forgotten others played live and loose, giving a music lesson I'd somehow forgotten after years of picking away solo on my own music. I'd actually forgotten what it was like to raise voices in concert, to work your way through a tune with strangers, staying together using no more than the rhythm, an occasional nod and a shared sense where a song wanted to go next.

I never became a jammer and didn't form a band, but did find others to play with. One memory from those early days... Trying to find something to play with a younger, more classically trained musician, a friend and I pulled out sheet music for a song written before her time. She read it easily and we ran through a few others with reasonable success. Suddenly, she looked at us in amazement and said, "You don't have to play all the notes!"

She'd discovered a truth her teachers had never gotten around to. There's more to playing than reading what's down on paper, and plenty of ways to add and subtract without making it a different song. Too many players can muck up a song, but not as quickly as a few playing too much. A musician can saw through all the right notes and never find the song.

I can think of no greater horror than being expected to play the same stuff, note for note, night after night. And I don't just mean music.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

More on the Wisdom of Krauts

The last post, "The Wisdom of Krauts," got sidetracked by reference to a conversation between Malcom Gladwell, author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and James Surowiecki, another New Yorker staff writer who wrote The Tipping Point, and more recently, The Wisdom of Crowds. I thought the exchange would provide a useful summary of the books, but it was a lot to read at one sitting.

As a result, I never quite got around to the point I was stalking. I'm pretty certain it was going to contrast ideas about crowds, charismatic leaders and drastically destructive decision making ( think Nazism) with other current popular thinking about the ways groups and experts can work quickly toward constructive decisions.

Thus, "The Wisdom of Krauts." I offer this explanation for those careful readers who actually expect the content of a post to relate to its header. I'm going to head in that direction once more.

If I led you off track, and you read the Gladwell/Surowiecki back and forth, be sure to read the comment by ShriekingViolet, who did a good job pointing out what the two authors failed to critique in each other's books. That is, there's a strong argument to be made for broadening information gathering, but that's not the same as crowds actually solving the problem. She points out that conscious expertise was still involved in many of the examples — in setting up the information-gathering framework, evaluating the results, or both. Likewise, organizations have long been aware of the need to screen out biases and combat group-think.

If you're not familiar with the two books, Surowiecki examines how aggregating a wide array of perspectives can result in better decisions, in part, by filtering out individual mistakes or blind spots. Gladwell focuses on how experts may quickly size up situations and arrive at better conclusions through "rapid cognition," compared to those who rely on exhaustive study. I've seen both methods work first hand many times in my work as a communicator and manager.

The group death march
A classic simulation called Desert Survival Situation™ has been used for decades in team-building. You are part of a group that has survived a crash landing in the Sonora Desert. The pilot and copilot are killed and plane is incinerated, but certain survival items remain. To succeed in the simulation, you decide individually, and then as a group, the optimum order of 15 survival items you'd want, along with certain actions to take. 

Years ago, I participated in one of these simulations. The exercise was set up as a competition among five teams composed of managers from other Fortune 500 companies, including engineers, military veterans, sales managers, financial types and others regarded as future leaders in their companies. Because each group comprised people from different companies who were all essentially peers, there was no established hierarchy for sorting through the problem.

Our team "won" the simulation by making a series of decisions that would lead to survival. Although all teams made better collective decisions than members would have as individuals, all the other groups killed themselves, some surprisingly quickly. As we reviewed the results, a common theme emerged. In several of the dead teams, a strong "leader" emerged who led the team to make fatefully flawed choices, primarily by asserting expertise he didn't have or overriding contrary points of view. The element of competition — we all threw a dollar in a pot, to be split by the winning team — probably contributed to the outcome. We didn't just want to survive, we wanted to be proven right, superior to the other teams. (Also, looking back, it occurs to me the teams were exclusively male.)

The majority of these managers, presumably the semi-cream of the corporate crop, went to their simulated deaths by following an errant leader, losing sight of the real objective, or simply becoming dysfunctional.

Outsmarting yourself
For years, my marketing communications company has relied on a standard variety of selection tools for evaluating potential hires — not to mention 30+ years of experience-laden intuition. Methods include multiple interviews, portfolio reviews, official and unofficial reference checks, plus a personality assessment tool called Profiler that relates an individual's personal characteristics to the profiles of successful job holders. The insight gained from all these tools is supposed to help us make good hiring decisions.

It's interesting to look back at hiring mistakes and successes to see that my intuition was almost invariably correct — and so were the assessments! When mistakes were made, it was not so much one overriding the other, as it was my simple desire for resolution of my needs. At some point, I simply wanted the person to be right one, and I convinced myself they were — overwhelming both analysis and gut. I never, ever immediately wanted to hire the wrong person.

Yet, as Surowiecki writes, unconscious reactions can be "sabotaged by prejudice, stress, inexperience, and complexity, so that intuition ends up being worse, not better, than deliberation."

So what does any of this have to do with decision making in the public realm?

We have a leader who is both afflicted with extreme certitude and highly reliant upon his gut (perhaps with an assist from the Almighty's guiding hand). George W. Bush looked the former head of the KGB in the eye and immediately sensed Vladimir Putin was a man he could trust. He, and most of his organization charged with doing the standard analytical work, concluded that Saddam was a threat to unleash nukes — if not "imminently," then soon enough to force us to skip all the conventional niceties of diplomacy, sanctions and further inspections.

Political parties treat any contrary or nuanced position as apostacy and research the opposing side for positions that can be distorted and exploited, rather than searching for potential common ground.

Elected officials formulate policy on the basis of what they believe should be rather than what is, forming judgments and then going in seach for rationales, as in the quick decisions to invade Iraq, reform Social Security or teach "intelligent design" in science classes. Seizing WMDs becomes removing tyrants becomes installing democracy. Preventing a crisis becomes getting investors a better return becomes giving poor people a fair shake. God the Father creationism becomes a refutation of evolution becomes an alternative framework to natural selection. Whatever it takes to sell.

The national agenda is in the throes of rapid without the cognition. Of crowds without the wisdom. Of pattern seeking over pattern recognition.

Right now, our leaders are neither listening to authentic experts nor to the diverse collective. Like those simulated dead managers, they are focused on individual winning. If we want our society to survive, we should not follow them into the desert.

Monday, February 07, 2005

The Wisdom of Krauts

The Super Bowl ranks slightly above a Wayne Newton Christmas special on my list of entertainment choices, but far below all the other things I could think of doing last night, including editing PowerPoint slides for a pro bono project on tax reform. Which is what I was doing when I received an email from Jim, an old college friend who was asking me to send him my prediction of the Super Bowl champion before the game started.

No, this wasn't a football pool. Jim's a epidemiologist, and he was "having a little fun with our anonymous internet Longitudinal Survey Engine (aiLSE), testing something called Prelec's Bayesian Truth Serum (BTS)."

Based on my limited exposure to epidemiology, it's a great career track for someone who's interested in the drug culture but is too smart to become a user, a dealer or a cop.

He went on to explain: "We developed the aiLSE to help us in longitudinal research so that users can remain anonymous and report sensitive stuff. Someone in our MSU Psychiatry department works with the frail elderly, got concerned about evidence of elder abuse, and now is using it in Michigan as an anonymous hot-line so that nursing home staff can report elder abuse
without fear of reprisal. It really cuts down on our research costs, and adds a level of anonymity that can't be beat."

If you're interested how the "truth serum" is designed to work, read the article linked above. Suffice it to say, the method was not devised for handicapping the Super Bowl. (Only one respondent out of 20 picked the Eagles to win.) Rather, it's designed to ferret truth out of situations in which respondents might be tempted to lie — or obscure their real opinion.

Does BTS have application to political polling? Unlike polls, which ask voters (or potential voters) how particular issues sway them, BTS would throw in another layer of questions about how the respondent believes others' votes will be influenced by the same issue. Jim is starting to get there with his next experiment:

"Right now we are working on the Saturday Spartans-Wolverines basketball game, with 20 Spartan partisans and 20 Wolverine partisans, plus anyone else who weighs in.

"I'm interested to see if the truth serum works no matter what the skew of the sample. Prelec claims that it works, because partisanship shows up in the difference between one's own probability score and one's prediction about how the rest of the world will vote. If so, the Spartan bias will be counterbalanced by the Wolverine bias (in theory)."

But how do dominant political parties get similar counterbalancing? They certainly don't get it from within their own ranks, unless they take pains to find it.

(All you epidemiologists out there, be sure to chime in with comments and clarifications. It's time for me to segue to my dilettante's point.)

Which was going to be what, exactly?

Well, I'm also simultaneously engaged in four different projects — a strategic plan, a branding consultation, a community engagement process and a tax reform proposal — that all involve gathering input and insight from a diverse group of people. Not just the stakeholders and true believers, but from the bystanders and potential opponents. It's not scientific, but in each case, we recognize the value of hearing different perspectives and contradictory voices. In fact, we seek them out, because we know we'll reach a better result.

The political process often makes a show of collecting the peoples' views, but then uses the information selectively to batter the opposition. That's not the way all these other organizations go about solving important problems.

Jim's email also got me thinking about two books that have made it into my reading stack, but not yet into my lap: Malcom Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. How might we apply the concepts of "rapid cognition" and group decision-making (think Apollo 13) to the political realm, I wondered?

As I looked for links on these two books, I found Surowiecki's and Gladwell's exchange in the Slate Book Club, which will continue throughout the week.

Can you spell Gestalt?

I'll save my thoughts for another post. Meanwhile, dip in.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Love Your Own Freaks

One trouble with the Great Divide metaphor is the implication there's only one divide to cross, that differences are bilateral, and we are reaching out in one direction. But living, breathing humans are more of a jumble, and it's this jumble of perspectives, interests and beliefs that gives us hope we can find some things in common with people we're told should be our adversaries.

As a comment to an earlier post pointed out, there are many continental divides across the country. We may relate to the most spectacular one along the Rockies, but there are other divides closer, in our back yard.

Likewise, we're inclined to waste too much time staring at the doctrinaire eruptions far on the fringe of the other side. They're beyond reach and, probably, redemption. Yet we allow their extremism to color our view of anyone in the same timezone as rigid, self-righteous and homophobic. Of course, our anti-capitalist, death-to-Amerikka brethren help paint liberals as loony and dangerous instead of simply being overly accepting.

But these fringes also impart energy and passion. Right now, the Republicans are in a close embrace with their freaks, for better or for worse, and it has made them stronger and more vigorous. We owe it to ourselves listen to our own fanatics, and especially, our artists, who get to the roots of issues with out making us march through position papers or sit in action committees until our brains are numb.

My mother was a very engaged and committed Democrat, keenly interested in politics where it mattered most — working through issues that affected people's daily lives in positive ways. She worked on things like vocational education, community foundations and municipal sewage treatment plant bond issues. The non-glamor stuff. She was keenly interested in the Gore-Bush presidential campaign but was suffering from a brain tumor that would end her life just days before that strange election, so I never got to hear her perspective on its aftermath. But she did vote absentee ballot, and my sister helped her fill it in, so I know that my mother — friend and colleague of Democratic governors, US Senators and small town mayors — cast her final vote for Ralph Nader.

I don't think it was out of dementia, but I can only imagine what she was wanting to say with her ballot. Perhaps it was this. Our candidate talks about fighting for the people, but we have forgotten what's really worth fighting for, and now both sides have a pair of millionaires representing their supposed interests. Men who have to roll up the sleeves of their dress shirts and throw footballs to show they are tough, regular guys. Maybe she was saying the ascetic guy with the sunken eyes, only two suits and too many uncomfortable ideas was really closer to us in spirit. Even if he was manifestly unelectable.

I bring this up now because I just turned from the State of the Union Speech with its labored cadences and ritualistic applause — was it not like riding a subway with the canned announcements of the approaching stations and the passengers arising on cue? — to read an old comic World War Three Illustrated (#17, 1992) that was all rough edges and hyperbole and outrage and truth.

It opens with a black and white woodcut-styled stencil comic by Peter Kuper featuring a burly figure masked in the Mexican luchadore mode, boxing with the earth. He beats the earth into shards of money as the rabid crowd cheers, and then begins to shriek as they realize they have lost their real source of sustenance. An image of the transformed fighter, very similar to the cover of Kuper's collection, Speechless, concludes the tale.

Another story, also from 1992, describes a day in the Land of Opportunity, and anticipates the tropes of the Ownership Society. When a worker complains he has no choice, despite his voice in the government, a corpulent capitalist explains what's good for him: "Look at my stature, look at my size. One can only be this grand in the land of Free Enterprize! I'm a living example of choice and I'm not posing. For if there was no choice, there'd be no chosen." (Kevin Pyle, "The Odious Omnivore and his Racketeer Ring in 'Choice Cut.'")

Now, 13 years later, WW3 is on issue #35. Find it or something like it. We can't be reasonable all the time.

If you get tired of soundbites and pundits gnawing over the same old points, take a look at some of these more political comix artists. Visit Quimby's in Chicago or online, or Big Brain Comics in Minneapolis and ask for recommendations. You may not agree with them all the time. Their simplifications may make you uncomfortable, but unlike the James Dobsons and Jerry Falwells of the right, they may also stir something good in you.

Yeah, I remember when I felt that way. I remember when I cared that much. I remember when I saw those things, and though I may think differently now, they are still worth seeing.

Intentional Interventions

I don't live purely in the political realm, but who wants to read about my adventures as a defender of competitive advantage and crusader for integrated solutions? Alas, it's true. Sometimes, just like the bank vice president and attorney bloggers on Blog of the Year Powerline, I show up for work and do something semi-productive. This blogging is hard and lonely work, obsessing only on lunch hours and coffee breaks, in the crevices between billable hours, and late at night after the kiddies are put to bed and the recycling is at the curb, because they arrive so damnably early in the morning.

Thank god I still get a few opportunities to pontificate before a live audience.

"A writer, an architect and a product designer walk into an organizational development workshop..." This opening line would get a laugh only in a few places on earth — all having a high intensity of people with master's degrees. I was at one of them last week, and didn't tell the joke, though it was truly the setup for our workshop panel.

The conference was entitled, "Intentional Interventions." Yes, it sounds like alcohol treatment or a law enforcement technique used to bring a fleeing vehicle to a stop:

Methods of Forcible Stop

This model policy recognizes four (4) methods of forcible stop: intentional intervention, roadblock, hollow spike strip, and pursuit immobilization technique (PIT).

Intentional Intervention: Intentional intervention (ramming) of a vehicle is the deliberate act of hitting another vehicle with the patrol vehicle for the purpose of functionally damaging or forcing the other vehicle off of the road.

Intentional intervention should be considered lethal force.

But you HR folks in the audience knawwuddeymtawkin'bout.

No, "Intentional Interventions" wasn't a neo-con workshop on tactics for taking over the world, though maybe it should have been. It was actually a professional development course for trainers and organizational development (OD) consultants — the kind of people who help struggling organizations deal with change, sort out their problems and refocus their energies on the right things.

Some of my best friends are OD consultants, and I have learned a lot in their presence over the years, but contemplating their work never fails to make my head hurt. A lot. I am extremely low on the process-tolerance and suffering-fools-gladly scales. I cannot imagine making a career of what I once, as a corporate ghostwriter, described as wrestling with jellyfish.

Can you imagine how screwed up you have to be to pay thousands of dollars to a liberal arts major who will force you to spend extended periods of time in the presence of three-ring binders, flip charts and the very people who are making your life miserable? Ow, ow, owww!

There's more than one reason to call it OD.

Yet this workshop topic struck a chord: What can we learn about designing successful interventions from how other professions approach design problems?

Forget straightening out a dysfunctional department or keeping the union out of some factory. Where were the OD consultants on the Iraqi Intervention team? Who was asking the questions asked of our panel?

Who do you design for in your work? We are typically mediating between two parties — the sponsor of our work, who has a particular purpose or intention, and an audience or customer, who also has a purpose in using what we design.

What are the elements of good design you try to keep in mind as you work? Well, it always starts with research, truly understanding the problem, and then going back and reaffirming this understanding as you work. You immerse yourself and then step away to let your subconscious work. You strive to assemble all this information and find a unifying structure that makes intrinsic sense. You are constructing this thing in your mind, so it helps to visualize it, you create a model. You also need the involvement of other people. (They can help immensely to make it better, but also screw it up irretrievably.) A good design is ultimately simple, with nothing extraneous, so you start with a big pile of stuff, try different arrangements, and keep looking for what can be taken away.

What roles does the client play in the design process? The client defines the goal and understands their business better than we do. They will give insight and feedback and ultimately must approve the solution. But they also must grant the freedom to explore different options and not try to predetermine the result.

What other external factors do you consider? Traditions, culture, conventional frameworks— how people think and process information and emotions. A building, especially, must take into account its surroundings and the environment. We're also responsible for designing a solution that can be built and will actually function in the world.

How do you assess the success of a design? How do you know when it's right? A successful design has to meet its goals, and you may not know that right away. But when a design is right, you usually know immediately when you see it. It's honest, it's beautiful — appropriate for its purpose. "Right" is not necessarily "best." We've all experienced the fact that there can be more than one solution to a problem.

A few days after the elections in Iraq, the intervention is still in process. Maybe our intentions were a bit foggy at the outset, but the work certainly turned out to be about massive organizational change. Some steps and external considerations given short shrift, the clients and audiences not given their due, the design unfinished before we started building, etc.

But one more thing you learn from designing. Sometimes your accidents produce beautiful results.

We can hope.