Monday, January 17, 2011

How Pragmatic Is America?

My 2011 began with a 2-alarm fire down the street a scant two hours into the new year.
Tucson's 2011 began with a horrific and senseless attack on a Congresswoman and a group of innocent bystanders who'd come to participate in democracy.
For governors around the country 2011 has begun with the realization that the cupboard is empty.
For individuals and families around the country, the empty cupboard isn't a metaphor. It's every day reality.
The recession that was triggered by financial corruption and rampant economic dishonesty is dragging on. There are signs of recovery: huge corporate profits that so far haven't translated into new hiring. But there are more signs of trouble ahead. Paul Krugman's piece in the Sunday New York Times magazine points out the problems still afflicting Europe and the possibility of national defaults by more than one member of the EU. Incoming governors in the U.S. are taking different tacks in their response to state-level economic crises. Some are cutting government services to the bone, other raising taxes. The predominant metaphor is "right-sizing" government to the times we're in. So far, only Dave Bing, the mayor of Detroit, has taken this metaphor literally and has adopted a plan to physically shrink his city to fit the down-sized population that now lives there.
A two-year recession will take its toll. On budgets, on hopes. So much of economics, and by extension society, is emotional. Despite the "rational man" theory of economics, how we feel determines how we act, how we treat each other, how we invest, how we share.
At the start of 2011, it's fair to ask, what will be the "geist" of our "zeit"?
I'm hoping for pragmatism. It's an essential American quality, something that always stood us in good stead when times were tough in the past.
What really works? Let's take a look at empirical evidence.
The states are about to return to their time-honored role as the laboratories of democracy.
Enough ideology about taxes and spending.
Different states are taking different paths. Let's see what actually works. What brings about economic recovery. What inspires new business development. What generates a spirit of community and sharing.
Let's look at businesses and how they go about their work.
What companies are able to go beyond profits to produce real value--economic and social? What industries harness innovation in the service of both economic rejuvenation and social cohesion?
Where do we find new social entrepreneurs who can provide fresh solutions to old problems? Are there grass-roots leaders whose creative problem-solving can point us toward new ways of looking at troubling social concerns by bringing entrepreneurial thinking into the public realm?
What works. Small fixes for big problems. Petri-dish size solutions that can start us toward real improvements and real results.
We used to call it Yankee ingenuity.
Today it's solutions that work for problems that matter.
Let's make 2011 the year we return to that old American virtue.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

So Much For Civility

Last Monday I got an email from the Washington Post leadership blog. It was in the form of a question, something to the effect of, did vitriolic attacks and heightened political rhetoric contribute to the horrible shootings in Tucson? (I'm one of countless commentators and writers on leadership who get these weekly invitations from the Post; some weeks I reply, some I don't; this week I did.)
I fired off a prompt reply: If you think rhetoric wounded and killed the victims in Tucson, I said, you need a crash course in ballistics. It was a Glock. I went on to say that I'd fired Glocks. They're terrific weapons. They're light and accurate and easy to fire and aim and reload, if you need to. And, I said, they were used to kill innocent people. (Mistake on my part: I should have said they're used to kill people, since Glocks have become the weapon of choice of law enforcement agencies around the world and are used to shoot and kill guilty and dangerous people as well as innocent people.)
I thought I'd scored a point for clarity and accuracy.
Then along came an online column written for the National Review Online by some guy named Robert VerBruggen.
He's an associate editor at the National Review. Summoning all his cleverness and wit in the wake of a national tragedy, Mr. VerBruggen wrote a column called, "How to write about firearms--a guide for liberals who don't want to sound stupid about guns."
Pretty funny stuff, huh?
In his funny funny column, he included my line about Glocks being for killing innocent people.
He left out the part about my having fired Glocks. He left out the part about the qualities that make Glocks a good gun of choice as a weapon. Since he didn't call me to check on anything, he didn't get a chance to find out that as a kid I grew up shooting .22s at a rifle range in East Alton, Illinois, owned and operated by the ammunition manufacturer Olin Matheison. Or that I got to be a pretty fair shot--not as good as my older brother, Mark, who became an Expert marksmen, but still pretty fair. Or that my mother and uncle took us duck and dove hunting.
He didn't even bother to check if I was a bona fide "liberal"--although he must have assumed that anyone who's in the Washington Post and says that it was the gun that did the crime must somehow qualify as a liberal.
He was just too busy be funny. And let's face it, clipping out quotes and leaving out facts that don't make your piece as funny as you'd like is an old journalistic practice, although judging from photos of Mr. VerBruggen, he's not that old.
Then, in his oh-so-clever effort to instruct the rest of us how to write and think about guns, even Mr. VerBruggen gets carried away, trying to make the case that his beloved handgun is actually for sport--you know, the kind of weapon you take out with you on your hunting expedition. I guess you could make that argument, if, for example, you needed your Glock to administer the coup de grace to a badly wounded animal. But here again Mr. VerBruggen would rather be fatuous than factual. People he doesn't like or agree with ("liberals") are trying to make the distinction between handguns and hunting rifles, and he's pretending either not to understand or not to accept the notion that any difference in use or application really exists.
And so it goes.
A serious tragedy, the loss of life, the murder of innocent young people turns into another game of word-baiting.
Pretty funny, huh? Yeah, it's a real laugher, Mr. VerBruggen. We're all laughing ourselves to death.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Finger or The Moon?

Already we've lost the thread of the actual event that took place in Tucson, the killing, the wounding, the shock and horror.
The President wants us to be more civil. You know, why can't we all just get along?
The punditocracy says they didn't do it and that the people who blame them are the ones who should be blamed.
Sarah Palin says she's a victim of a blood libel. But you get the impression that she has no idea what gibberish is going to come out of her pie-hole next, and that's okay as long as it keeps her in the public eye.
The fat guy on the radio says that the killer is going to be cuddled by the Democrats, because we live in a society where personal responsibility has gone missing. As if that made any sense whatsoever.
Let's look at this for what it is: one more time, a semi-automatic handgun in the hands of a disturbed person has created a national tragedy.
Civil discourse would be nice. But wouldn't have made any difference in Tucson.
Blaming talk radio is always fun. Kicking it off the air wouldn't have changed things in Tucson.
Sarah and Rush and all the gang? Background noise.
Why do we allow people to buy and own and walk around with semi-automatic handguns?
That's the question.
Why is that legal? Why is that deemed appropriate, necessary, part of being American?
The shooting in Tucson is another fire bell in the night, calling on us to take a hard look at Americans and our weapons. Not guns for hunting or sport. Guns for squeezing off 19 or 20 bullets in rapid fire, to kill or maim another person.
That's what Tucson wants the President to talk about, the pundits to address, Sarah and Rush to say something about, the Congress to do something about.
The old saying goes, "When a wise man points at the moon, only an idiot looks at his finger."
Here we are, from the President on down, staring at the wise man's finger.
Maybe it's the trigger finger.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Rule #1

I took the opportunity of a 10-day stint in San Francisco to go to the movies! Twice!
Interestingly, what I saw reminded me why Rule #1 in Rules of Thumb--"when the going gets tough, the tough relax", a rule about dealing with fear--was the right place to start.
Both "The Fighter" and "The King's Speech," it turns out, are about fear.
And both revolve around the fear of speaking up, of being heard, of having your own voice.
In the ring Micky Ward is a tough fighter. He can take punch after punch and never go down.
Outside the ring Micky is a pansy. His coke-head older brother and self-absorbed mother run his boxing career with a single-minded focus--what's good for them. His harpy sisters operate like a Greek chorus, making sure nobody strays too far from the family fold. Everybody may be miserable, but at least their all together.
Enter Charlene, Micky's new girl friend.
At a family meeting (called by Charlene), Micky can't find the voice to tell his family that he's ready to break with them and do what's best for his own boxing career. Charlene has no problem speaking up, calling a spade a spade. Or in this case, calling a harpy a harpy.
It turns out that the fear that paralyzes Micky and keeps him from finding his way to the top isn't the fear of getting hit; it's the fear of breaking with his own family, the fear of losing their support or, perhaps, the fear of being judged disloyal for doing what's best for him, if it leaves the others behind.
"The King's Speech" has exactly the same theme, but here the platform isn't the squared circle, it's the throne of England.
We meet "Bertie"--the Prince of York, en route to becoming King George VI--as he bounces from speech therapist to speech therapist, vainly attempting to overcome a debilitating stammer that makes him feel ashamed and incompetent.
He finally finds Lionel Logue (think of him as a male Charlene), an unconventional Aussie who unlocks the source of Bertie's problem: since childhood he's been denied his "voice," made to feel "less than" and even punished for his left-handedness. Bertie has redeeming qualities, much like Micky. He's tough, determined, resilient. At the same time, what paralyzes him with fear is dealing with his family and the issues he's inherited.
Fear.
Fear, it turns out, is what takes away people's voices, prevents them from saying and doing what they know they can do, know they should do.
Not fear of getting hit in the ring, or even the fear of being the king.
Fear of what others will think of you.
It is the most paralyzing force of all.
It's why Rule #1 still is Rule #1: when the going gets tough, the tough relax.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Dark Side of Design

Design is everything.
I should know.
I went to Finland for a conference on design as a tool for solving large scale social problems.
I went to New Zealand for a conference called Better By Design.
I went to Atlanta for a conference on design. Just design.
So I'm a huge fan of design, design thinking, design as the new language of innovation, design as a methodology, design as a verb, design as a noun.
But I'm also painfully aware of the dark side of design.
That's when we get design that is so aware of itself that it's not about anything else except the thin veneer of design that can cover anything, like, well, like a Michael Graves building. Which is arch-design, so self-conscious it leaves room for little else.
That's what's on display at SFMOMA at a highly touted exhibit curated (the verb of the year) by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, one of the hot architectural firms of the day. The exhibit is called "How Wine Became Modern: Design+Wine, 1976 to Now."
It has a series of beautifully, um, designed glass upscale Petri dishes from wineries around the world with a small sample of earth--terroir--from that vineyard. A bottle of wine lay beneath each Petri dish. The lighting was gorgeous.
In the next room was a wall of wine bottles, also beautifully, um, designed, organized by brand name: names that were sinful, names that were heavenly, names of animals, names of family members, weather-related names. You get the idea.
There was a grape vine, severed in the middle, suspended in the air with the root structure and vine structure balanced with great grace.
There was a display of a piece of technology developed with NASA to track the health of vineyards.
There were beautiful wine glasses in a case and a handful of elaborate glass decanters in a window.
The next room had a wall with a map of a couple dozen wineries and one photo each of buildings designed by brand-name architects as their showroom/visitor centers.
There were four models, two of which, a Gehry building and a Graves layout, were grotesque.
There were a series of commissioned photos of people visiting wineries that seemed to be making fun of people visiting wineries.
There was a movie of a video artist walking through the streets of Bordeaux wearing a white suit, while carrying a goblet of red wine, filming himself trying not to spill the wine.
There was a long glass case with a few random wine related objects and a chance to smell a handful of decanters with liquids that demonstrated some of the current vocabulary of wine-smelling. there was a video display of snippets of wine-drinking scenes from movies and a bank of small video screens with wine-related TV reports.
It was all done with a great sense of design. Handsome. Clean. Modern. Multi-media. Interactive.
It was also a vast amount of space given by SFMOMA to the designers with the hope, the expectation, that visitors might actually learn How Wine Became Modern. How design and wine have interacted to create experiences for people, how design and wine have developed into a massive, fascinating global industry with clearly delineated design specs for the making and marketing of wine around the world. There are a lot of fun and interesting questions that you could think of to address in trying to explain how wine became modern, including how far it had to come, what the ingredients are that made wine into such an elaborate social expression, who the people are who contributed to the transformation of wine, and much much more.
But what we got was a triumph of design over substance, which is also the dark side of design. Design is best when it's a tool for something significant, when it's a means to an end, and not an end in itself, when it's used purposefully and powerfully to make a point, to teach, to solve a problem, to express a point of view, to demonstrate a way of thinking or a way of living.
When design becomes about itself, when it is self-referential to the point of caricature, then design is so thin, it's impossible not to see through it.
And that's not even modern--it's post-modern--and the dark side of design.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Fire This Time

New Year's Eve.
It should follow a familiar, comfortable, and comforting ritual. Bringing in the new year should not be filled with trauma.
We celebrated last night with a comedy show over in Oakland (lots of Palin jokes, Bush jokes, husband/wife jokes, a relatively limited repertoire of humor). Then drove back to the San Francisco side for dinner at The House, a terrific fusion restaurant within walkable distance of our house (not to be confused with The House).
We got back to our place in time to make it up to the roof for the fireworks at midnight, then came down the stairs and talked for a couple of hours.
At around 2, our friends John and Adisa took off and as we started to head for bed the phone rang. It was John. We should look out the window, even better, go out on the balcony and take a look.
A block away, an old apartment building was on fire.
I went outside and gaped in disbelief. Flames were shooting out of two windows, about 4 floors up, less than a block away. Smoke was already pouring out of the building, gray-black, thick. Sirens filled the night.
In a matter of minutes the sound of the sirens grew, but so did the sounds of the fire. Glass shattering, flames crackling, the fire growing in size and intensity. Fire trucks parking in the blocked off street. The slow and laborious process of getting hoses laid out on the ground. Ladders up to the building's roof, more ladders at the side of another building down the street, so firemen and lights could get to the roof and take a look.
We watched in disbelief.
Have you ever watched a building burn?
I never had.
Seen the flames spread from window to window. Watch fire come pouring out of the empty windows and take out the wood frames. Watch the roof go up in flames, the smoke swirl into the sky in huge clouds.
And feel absolutely helpless.
Who lived in those rooms?
The building, when I'd walked by it on a day to day basis, looked like a run-down tenement. But people lived in it. Where were they when the fire broke out? Did they all get out? Where could they go if their building burned down? They'd lost everything to the fire--what happened next?
It took more than an hour for the firemen to subdue the flames, and even today there were smoldering chunks of the building that were out on the street.
What a way to begin the new year: political humor giving way to the harsh reality of forces greater than ourselves, disrupting the comfort and routine of daily life.
Whether we like it or not, we'll see more of that kind of disruption in 2011.
We can't prevent it.
But we can be on the look-out, and we can be prepared to respond when it comes.
Stay alert. Already 2011 has a motto.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb