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Is global warming any more harmful than an extra layer of Thinsulate?

Is global warming any more harmful than an extra layer of Thinsulate?

I just finished the Times Article on Climate Change. I’m really not sure what to say. We all keep thinking of climate change in terms of, “oh, golly jeepers, it might hurt the economy to slow down our use of greenhouse gases.”

Yeah, that’s true. Recent evidence from Arctic ice drilling suggests greenhouse gas levels are the highest in 650,000 years, and they’re rising faster than ever recorded.

Huh. Let’s see. We’re basically heading into totally uncharted climactic territory at a historically unprecedented rate, and we don’t want to slow down (much less stop) because it might hurt the economy.

Well, it strikes me that tinkering with something like the ecosphere is delicate business. All kinds of unintended conseqeunces come about when we do simple things like over-hunt a predator and its prey suddenly populates out of control.

Global warming is that times a million. Entire species are getting out of sync as the migration patterns of birds change faster than the birthing patterns of their prey. All kinds of things can get out of balance, and we barely understand 1% of 1% of the possible implications.

I’m worried that we might just tweak something essential for human survival. A single volcano splitting could send a devastating tsunami around the world. What would a melting ice sheet do? Or a bunch of them? Or maybe the extinction of part of the food chain that is critical for human survival?

Come on, people, this isn’t a matter of a new cutsie little tax. It may be bad for the ecomony to behave smartly towards global warming, but it could be fatal for the economy to ignore the problem.

We seem to believe that our current levels of economic expansion are somehow normal or healthy. There’s no particular reason to believe that. Through most of human history, we’ve developed much more slowly.

Personally, I’m a super-conservative kind of guy. I like life. I’d much rather slow or growth or enter steady-state while we figure out if we’re killing ourselves than run ahead at full speed, possibly right into oncoming traffic.

The Hallmark of Incompetence-Blame Wilma’s victims

The Hallmark of Incompetence-Blame Wilma’s Victims.

It’s nice to see that the trait of overconfidence followed by incompetence, followed by blame-mongering runs true in the Bush genetic code. Jeb Bush is blaming Wilma victims for not being prepared, as justification that the relief efforts are disorganized and half-assed.

Should Florida residents have prepared? You bet. Were they? Apparently not enough. Does that justify the Bushies, who have controlled Florida for much longer than just the current presidency, doing an incompetent job at one of the most important functions of government (disaster recovery) in a known hurricane zone? Not one bit.

I wish I thought this would make a big difference in how people vote for politicians, but it won’t. George Bush’s track record was there for everyone to see in 2000. As widely chronicled before he ran for President, he’d never run a successful business venture in his life. Every effort went nowhere or straight downhill until Daddy’s friends bailed him out, often in exchange for private White House meetings with Daddy.

Even Bush’s wealth ($14MM) doesn’t come from him. It comes from a single sweetheart deal in which taxpayer money was used to build a stadium for the Texas Rangers, turning Bush’s half-million-dollar investment into $14MM.

This was all quite public knowledge before he was elected the first time. He had been an alcoholic until age 40 (do you know what that does to the brain? I lived with an alcoholic relative. Going dry after that long still leaves scars). He had a track record of recklessness, fiscal irresponsibility, and failure. An entire book had been written on his competence. (Shrub : The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush by Molly Ivins, Lou Dubose)

Employers don’t call references, and they are well aware that hiring the wrong person costs money. It would be great if our electorate would check out references before someone runs for public office. But we don’t, and we won’t. We’ll continue to rely on sound bites, hearsay, and slick packaging rather than real debates, issue-centered coverage, and a search to understand the problems and the candidates’ solutions.

Not only does that make me sad, but it makes a whole, whole lot of us have much scarier, terror-filled lives of scarcity, when we could all be safe, sound, and well-fed.

To Florida: you’ve had Jeb for a decade. You knew what he was capable of. You saw him bungle the logistics for two elections, disenfranchising thousands of your residents. You’re without food and water and ice. Connect the dots. YOU and YOUR VOTES are the government. Jeb’s right. You should have prepared better. You should have voted him out of office.

The deficit is under your control. Do the right thing … whatever that is.

I just read in The New York Times that we’re once again facing a record trade deficit. The article (and the government) explain how important it is for China to fix their manipulative ways and to help slow down the loss of jobs and manufacturing from the US.

This victim mentality is odd, coming from a Government that has no trouble imposing its will on smaller countries when it suits our wishes. China’s a bit too big to invade, however.

Want to stem the job losses caused by outsourcing to China? The government can do it through tariffs and by limiting free trade. Business people can do it by simply deciding not to outsource. That would, of course, result in higher prices that consumers would have to be willing to pay for (I’d be willing to pay higher prices, if my job depended on it).

Remember that free trade is all about letting money flow to where things are cheapest, with no barriers. America has some of the highest paid workers in the world, so of course labor dollars will flow away from America. This is probably a good thing, globally, as it spreads the capital around, even though it hurts at home.

(Prices would be more sensible [read: higher] and the system would probably adjust faster if we combined free trade with political systems allowing the free movement of people. We only have cheap labor in China to begin with because the Chinese can’t freely immigrate and are stuck in a country where $5/day is a lot of money.)

So next time you shop at Wal-Mart, or go online to conveniently find the lowest prices, ponder that your decision to comparison shop is an important driver behind the loss of American jobs overseas.

P.S. The oil trade deficit comes from our energy policy. Read it and weep.

The other big source of the deficit is oil. We have only, only, only ourselves to blame on this one. Many of us have been clamoring for years for a real national energy policy. Instead, we have an energy policy written by oil companies, endorsed by a President who is either blind to long-term consequences of his policies, or who really doesn’t care about much other than accumulating wealth for himself (oil family, remember) and his friends.

Climate destruction: we’re built to reason poorly, but it will kill us all the same.

Climate destruction: We’re built to reason poorly, but it will kill us all the same.

Have you seen the latest stories about global warming? It seems that we’re already committed to an 8 inch rise in sea levels and significant other warming. Some folks are saying that since it’s inevitable, we may as well not bother doing anything.

Um, hello? The actions we take today will have an effect several decades down the road. We can’t change today’s situation by acting today, but we can certainly reduce future catastrophe by acting today.

Unfortunately, humans aren’t built to reason well about time. We tend to ignore the long-term in our thinking, even if we intellectually know it’s there. When the effects of our actions won’t happen for a while, we think short-term.

Imagine if eating a fat and cholesteral-laden Big Mac immediately added those inches to a person’s waste, or caused their arteries to harden with an audible creaking sound? You can bet McDonald’s would be out of business faster than you can shake a stick.

Or how about cigarettes–if lighting up caused instant yellowed teeth, spotted hands, and blood-laced coughing fits, tobacco would likely be a lot less popular with the teenage set. And it would be too powerful an image to be put down, even by such a charistmatic figure as Joe Camel.

Just because we don’t think through future implications doesn’t mean they don’t happen, however. If we charge more on our credit cards than we can pay back, we’ll either have to declare bankruptcy (which may not be effective much longer), or … or what? Or we lose everything. And it will happen even if we don’t think that far ahead when buying that rhinestone encrusted, Dolly Parton-shaped fireplace rug.

I don’t know what the solution is, but we need to find a way to make the future consequences of our actions feel as real as if they were happening today. Think through some of the long-term beneficial things you know you should be doing… Now really consider them in detail. Find out how to make them real enough to you so you change your behavior. Your life, and the lives of those you love, just may depend on it.

This is about us. Global warming, indeed, global broiling, will affect all of us, in our lifetimes. We can’t change it for ourselves, but let’s at least try to do something for our kids, shall we?

Negativity is easy, and we’ve made it a national pastime.

Negativity is easy, and we’ve made it a national pastime.

It’s Christmas morning. The presents have been open, and we’re wandering around in our chocolate-induced post-carb fog of vague mellowness. One present, a book on the fabulous art festival Burning Man. Leafing through it, we come across a discussion of a playground of stuffed animals, teddy bears, etc. that was doused with gasoline and reduced to ashes in a complex art project. Reading it, I was sad. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for stuffed animals (as long as they aren’t shaped like politicians or lawyers).

Jeff tried to encourage me to explore other ways of looking at the piece: perhaps the simple juxtaposition of the comforting with the disturbing–turning the teddy bear into an instrument of destruction–was intended to get us thinking. Ultimately, the discussion it provoked would be much richer and more complex than the original simple theme. So let’s start discussing.

Perhaps the Society for Teddy Bear Immolation feels differently, but my reaction is basic and strong. Yes, a teddy bear in flames makes me sad. But the larger issue makes me much sadder: we’ve become a culture that motivates with fear. We’re addicted to turning the safe into the dangerous for fun, manipulation, and profit. Have you watched TV news lately? Our local affiliate scares us nightly, showing us how even the safety of our homes conceals lurking danger. Our drinking water is killing us. Strangers are all sex offenders waiting to rape and kill. Our TV may be damaging our unborn children’s brains. Our jobs may be sapping our will to live. PCBs are building up in our bloodstream. Fish, the only really healthy meat, now comes with fatal levels of mercury. Sunlight will kill you. Your drinking water contains dangerous levels of carcinogens. … Need I go on?

Most of our ads are built around making us feel pain, guilt, lack, and need where none existed before. Are you financially successful, with a family who loves you? Feeling happy? Guess again. Five minutes of TV ads will show you you’re not a real man without a gas-guzzling, top-heavy, unsafe SUV. (As if anyone who has the kind of job that can afford an SUV can actually aspire to embody the brand of masculinity so glorified in the commercials.)

So guess what? Creating pain where there was once comfort doesn’t impress me. Teddy Bear as Instrument of Destruction seems almost commonplace. Destruction–indeed, all violence–fundamentally, is easy. Just destroy. It takes little skill or finesse. The basic options are smashing it, burning it, or soaking it. If you’re a chemist, you can probably also dissolve it. There may be some creativity in the fuse and detonation mechanism, but destruction is easy. Construction isn’t.

That teddy bear that was so easily doused with gasoline had to be painstakingly made piece by piece. If it was made on an assembly line, the factory had to be designed, built, and organized. The toy had to be conceived, patterned, and made. Hundreds of people coordinated so that teddy bear could exist. Putting a lit match to it isn’t impressive. Teddy is one example among many. More and more we seem to be concentrating on the killing and smashing. We hit. We’re strong. *grunt* We’re surrounded by images of negativity. One of the most advanced pieces of simulation software ever built, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, lets you simulate … gang warfare, drug deals, prostitution, theft, and crime. Yes, it’s fun, seductively so (I’ll likely buy it the instant it’s available for PC). But as with virtually all of our entertainment, it immerses us in the “fun” of negativity. I’m sure there are situations in life that are just plain bad. There are, indeed, unresolvable conflicts. There are people who want to engage in genocide (I was talking with one just last week, who wants adherents of the Islamic faith “reduced to ashes, each and every one” … and, of course, we’ve seen others who want the same thing for Americans).

So given that there are some real, genuinely hard negative situations to deal with, why do we insist on creating even more? Have you ever notice the total dearth of role models for functional relationships and communities? When was the last time you actually saw someone on the media begin an argument and resolve it in a way that demonstrated how real, mature people can deal with complex differences? Never. But boy, you can find a dozen daily role models for dysfunction.

Sometimes during an argument, I can even hear an echo of the TV show that programmed me with the abysmal crap I find myself saying. So darn it, I want to be impressed by something impressive: Someone who can bring a little peace to conflict. Someone who can be in a horrific situation and still find and share what beauty there is to be found. Someone who can find fun in connecting with other human begins and building enriching relationships, rather than just shooting them. And maybe–just maybe–someone who can live out some role models about how to have a healthy, successful, happy family life, work life, and community life. More and more, I want to be that kind of person. I don’t want to make teddy bears violent; I want to find ways of resolving violence and conflict. I want to help people find common meeting grounds. I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I want to be an agent of happiness, a spreader of grand dreams and good will. I want to walk away leaving people happier, freer, more optimistic, and more upbeat about their lives. Won’t you join me? Merry Christmas, whatever your faith.

Can we please concentrate on what matters at work? And it’s not clothes.

Can we please concentrate on what matters at work? And it’s not clothes.

My friend’s company was just acquired. The new owners insist that the formerly jeans-and-T-shirt culture be replaced by khakis. People are up in arms, it’s impacting morale, and I’m amazed.

What I’m amazed at is not that people resent being told how to dress; I’m amazed that employers still think it’s important. It’s the 21st century, people. We worship at the altar of Productivity. We sacrifice tens of thousands of employees yearly to the God of Efficiency.

What does a dress code have to do with Efficiency and Productivity? Why not let people wear whatever will make them most comfortable, creative, and able to do their job?

One can argue that client-facing employees need to dress up because clients expect that. Maybe yes, maybe no. Clients expect suits because they’re trained to expect suits. Suits give the illusion of competence. What really matters, though, is the reality of competence.

How about have client-facing employees do their job really, really well and train clients to expect extreme competence instead? (Probably because it’s a lot easier to force employees to dress up than it is to give them the training and support they need to do a good job.)

And by the way: I’m a client. I hire lots of consultants and freelancers. And I prefer they not dress up. First, it’s bad business for me to judge them on appearance and not the quality of their work. I’m paying for results, and the more I am influenced by irrelevant aspects of the relationship, the more I risk losing objectivity about whether they’re delivering. But more to the point, if they dress up, I feel like I have to dress up when we meet. And that would certainly be inconvenient, wouldn’t it?

But why stop there? Let’s get even more radical. Perhaps the purpose of life is to live a full, happy life as a human being. Perhaps part of that full happy life is expressing onesself and one’s identity through clothes, neighborhood, behavior, etc. Perhaps we can let people wear what will make them happy, whether or not it affects their job performance. If it affects performance, deal with it as “you’re not meeting your goals” discussion, and the employee can decide to change their attire.

We live in the most technologically advanced civilization in human history. We have more variety and choice than people could have conceived of a century ago, much less enjoyed. And somehow, we want to squish people in business into self-expression chosen from just three alternatives: suits, khakis, or jeans… khakis preferred.

If you’ve read this far, please, reclaim your world. Be a human. Be yourself. Produce what you’re capable of producing. Live what you’re capable of living. Ask not, “Should I wear a suit to work today?” Ask instead, “How much will today’s work help me be more of who I am?” … then wear a loincloth. You’ll get noticed.

Should business survival trump ethics?

Should business survival trump ethics?

This is a copy of an email I sent to the author of a book on business ethics. What are your thoughts?


You wrote that: “Sustainability is important! An organization that goes bust can’t do much good for anyone”

Ah! Thanks for clarifying. You’ve put your finger on the intriguing point: Should an organization that destroys long-term societal value have a fundamental right to exist (even if it’s profitable)? An organization that goes bust can’t do much good, true. But that doesn’t mean that a company that survives will do enough good to justify its survival.

If a company fails to produce societal value–even if it’s making money–I’m not sure society is served by having that same collection of people continuing to produce the same products in the same ways in the same legal structure. They’ve shown that they simply can’t do a legal, ethical job. Yet because they’re profitable (as would be an assassination service, or a deceptive lending company), we simply grant them the right to exist.

There’s a position that some organizations deserve to fail (not be acquired… not reorganize… but fail, altogether). Those resources can then be much more usefully deployed in forming a different organization doing something of greater societal value.

If a person destroys someone else’s property, harasses them, or kills them, we lock that person up and remove their ability to function in society. When deceptive practices by energy companies (thinking back to California a couple of years ago) manipulate energy prices to severe societal detriment, or when tobacco companies knowingly market to people who can’t make an informed decision [teens] to get them hooked on a powerful, deadly narcotic, or when fast food companies spend hundreds of millions influencing the entire society to eat food that is known to cause heart disease, adult onset of diabetes, and obesity, we say, “Well, it’s good for business, and let the buyer beware.”

There is plenty of evidence saying the buyer can’t beware for psychological or structural reasons. Advertising works, even for informed consumers. Locking up all the roadside real estate for your restaurant works, even for people with dietary concerns.

Harvard Business School’s mission is: We aspire to develop outstanding business leaders who contribute to the well-being of society. It’s a mission I’ve adopted as my own. If we take that as the goal of all of us in the leadership fields, it seems that we have to be asking these questions. If we don’t, who will?

That is what I’d love to see you address. To address ethics in business starting from the premise that businesses should be sustained as the #1 consideration, in my mind, really short-circuits the discussion before it even begins. It essentially says, “let’s talk about specific ethical situations in a context where, at the end of the day, survival of the company trumps all else.” There’s a whole class of really interesting cases are precisely the ones where company survival and societal survival clash and there is no way to have both.

Best wishes,

– Stever

Realities about human nature. Neo-cons, take notice!

Realities about Human Nature. Neo-Cons, Take Notice!

Oh, boy. The papers today are full of reports that there’s a big terrorist strike planned for this summer. It’s scary that I catch myself wondering if this isn’t a tactic by the Bush administration to get people “safely” back into fear, and thus rallying around the administration’s policies. It sickens me that I could even suspect something like that, but given the torture, the misleading reasons for going to war, etc., I simply don’t trust the Bush crowd on any level. And I’m not sure if they could do anything to regain my trust. No matter how much I agree with anything they do going forward, I would never be sure their actions weren’t simply calculated to win my trust and then continue to press their agenda.

But let’s assume they genuinely invaded Iraq to make the world safer. It didn’t work. There’s big terrorism planned this summer. Furthermore, the wonderful war on Iraq made things worse, not better. The Guardian reports that our occupation has boosted Al-Qaida’s membership. Fancy that.

Now people, most of this was predictable from day zero. Let’s review some realities of human nature:

  • Anger begets anger. When someone gets angry, the natural response is to lash back at them. It takes training and self-control to respond to anger with peace.
  • Fighting doesn’t solve anything. I hate to say it, but it doesn’t. Al-Quaida blew up the World Trade Center to get us to leave Baghdad. It didn’t work. All it did was piss us off to the point of leveling one country and invading another. Is there any reason to believe that our attacking them is going to make them suddenly decide to resolve things peacefully?
  • There are multiple points of view. We just bombed a religious house of worship, we may well have blasted a wedding into smithereens (including young children), and regardless of intent or chain of command, it seems we’ve tortured and humiliated prisoners in clear disregard of the Geneva convention. If someone did all that to Americans, we’d be livid. Maybe, just maybe, from their point of view, we aren’t all peaches and cream.

I don’t know how this mess can be resolved, or even if it can be. Get things hot enough and they’ll last past one generation. Once it becomes culturally ingrained, conflict is a tenacious bitch. Just look at the Israel and Palestine.

I do know one thing: the policies of this administration have kept the country (and possibly the world) steeped in terror. They have been inept at setting and enforcing a humane chain of command. They have show a distinct lack of forethought and an absurd disregard for thought and planning. For reasons far beyond my understanding, not only have they not been impeached and thrown into chains for using a dubious war to siphon off billions to their friends and business associates, but a remarkable percentage of this country actively supports their policies. Normally, I am content to let people suffer the consequences of their own poor decision-making. Unfortunately, this time the consequences will be born by all of us.

Oh, and by the way… Terrorism expert Robert Pape published a letter in the New York Times discussing that virtually all suicide terrorist attacks over the last 20 years were over issues of foreign occupation. Iraq, anyone?

Electronic voting machines are a bad idea. Period.

Electronic Voting Machines are a Bad Idea. Period.

It seems that more and more elected officials across the country are realizing that we need paper trails to accompany our electronic voting machines. It’s really too bad that they just don’t get it.

The problem, you see, isn’t that people don’t have a receipt. It’s that fundamentally, any computerized process for tallying voting allows widespread manipulation of the vote in sufficient quantity to turn the results of an election. With paper ballots hand counted or counted by a simple mechanical optical scanner, the results of an election really will be accurately tallied (up to the statistical error margin of the counting process, that is). Paper ballots are verifiable and hard to forge in mass.

A computer program tally is impossible to prove correct. There’s nothing to prevent a computer program from printing a receipt for the vote you placed, but internally deciding to increment the vote for a different candidate. There’s no assurance that the receipt matches the tallied vote.

In a close election, only a small number of votes would need to be changed to tip an election one way or the other. In the 2000 election, for instance, a voting machine would have to falsify just a couple hundred votes for another candidate to win.

But wait, you say, that would mean that someone would have to maliciously write the software to fiddle with the votes. Why, in the world would someone do that? Um, aside from being able to seize control of the government of the most powerful nation in the world, I can’t think of a single reason. By the way, the President of Diebold, makers of many of the electronic voting machines in use, is a highly partisan Bush “ranger,” who has publicly said he would “deliver Ohio’s electoral votes to Bush.” He certainly didn’t mean to imply any shady dealings by Diebold, but I’d feel a lot better if the voting machines were made by a neutral third party.

Some folks say that revealing copies of the voting machine software to public scrutiny will be sufficient to insure accuracy. This is simply not true. If you believe source code lets you verify behavior, check out this famous article from the ACM showing how source code can be trivially made to look innocent and contain hidden sabotage.

So when electronic voting machines come to your neighborhood, just vote No. If we can spend $100 billion on a war to bring democracy to a dictatorship, we can certainly spend a few tens of millions paying to hand-count ballots. It’s worth it to preserve democracy. Besides, it would be good work for some of the 1.2 million people who have been laid off in the last few years.

Vietnam medals? Why do we care?

Why do we care about Kerry’s vietnam medals?

This election boggles my mind. The two big items of the week: Kerry’s medals and the ongoing investigation of 9/11. Let’s take them one at a time.

First, who cares whether or not Kerry threw his medals 31 years ago? I mean come on, it was a really, really different world. And he’s probably a very different person now. So looking at his record since then might give a better idea of his character than focusing solely on Medal-gate.

The logic seems to be that we can tell something about his character from knowing whether he threw his medals. And if his character is found wanting (based on one event in the early 70s), well then, we certainly can’t elect him President, can we?

Yet at the same time, we have the 9/11 commission. Why? What’s the goal of that commission? Frankly, it seems shameful that 9/11 happened in the presence of early warnings signs, but get serious folks: when you’re a new administration running a country of 350 million people, there’s only so much you can pay attention to. Even if the Bush administration made a really bad call to put terrorism on the back burner, I can sort of understand it.

What I can’t understand is what happened after 9/11: the decision to start a war with Iraq with no clear plan, no clear motivation, and at incredible expense (in both dollars and lives). Why were those decisions made? Regardless of the quality of the intelligence, one thing seems clear: even the poor-quality intelligence didn’t point to a need for immediate war.

The part that scares me the most is that Bush and Cheney felt it necessary to testify together, not under oath, and with nothing being recorded. Think about that for a few minutes, people. Whether you’re pro-war or anti-war, whether you’re American or Islamic, something really stinks when the President can’t stand alone in front of a panel and testify under oath and in writing. The only reasons I can think of for joint testimony are that Bush and Cheney were afraid their stories wouldn’t match, or that Bush couldn’t actually answer the questions. The only reason I can think of for not recording the sessions and not being under oath is even scarier: so our President and Vice-President can lie with legal impunity and with little chance of being caught, even if it’s just by the historians. In my mind, that means Bush and Cheney aren’t trustworthy. And that scares me. A lot.

If we’re going to be judging fitness for presidential candidates based on ad hoc analysis of candidate actions, let’s look at relevant actions. Forget medals. Forget pre-9/11 events. Let’s look at recent decision-making on the parts of Kerry and Bush. Let’s find out how well they use data and how their actions reveal their principles (or lack thereof). And you know what? Let’s do it in writing, with tape recorders running, and under oath. Why? Just because that way, we can trust that at least a tiny bit of accountability can be had, even if only when the transcripts are released 100 years from now.