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Anne of Breaking Wind

anne_green_gables Why oh why does Anne of Green Gables have to be remade or revisited every decade?  How many people out there on planet Earth still yearn for a pretend old-timey maritime youth experience?

If the world must have pretend old-timey maritime youth adventures, then keep remaking the ones with ships of the line and thundering cannons and skewering Frenchmen with sabres.  You know, the good stuff—Hornblower or Jack Aubrey.  Not the ones with girltastic pre-teen angst.

The world’s already suffered through no less than nineteen film and television adaptations of Anne Shirley, the Official Rural Stereotype of Prince Edward Island.  And now we’re about to be smacked in the face with another one, courtesy of Mr. Kevin Sullivan and CTV.

Egads, man.  There are other books out there.

CanCulture elite still propping up old, tired icons

The Toronto Star‘s publishing reporter, Vit Wagner, takes a look at a new Penguin series called   Extraordinary Biographies, penned by stars of the Canadian CanLit elite.  There will be eighteen books in all, and seventeen of the subjects have already been selected.  Have a gander at the pairings:

FUN CANLIT MONOCULTURE FACT: Thirteen of the seventeen authors selected live in either Toronto or Ottawa.  As does series editor John Ralston Saul.
1 Lives in Toronto (or divides time between Toronto and elsewhere)
2 Lives in Ottawa (or divides time between Ottawa and elsewhere)

Haven’t we already had volumes written and Heritage Minutes aired for a whole lot of these folks?  Why yes, but don’t be such a fargin’ peasant.  You can always afford to learn more about the pantheon of CanCulture saints.

“Only a Canadian would ask that question,” says John Ralston Saul. “If you go to other countries – Britain, the United States, France – there are biographies every year on (familiar subjects). Why? Because in a real country, which Canada is, people need to be looked at in different ways.”

Saul, as general editor of the new Penguin Canada biographical series Extraordinary Canadians, has a vested interest in assuming that readers are hungering for more illumination on the lives of Gould, Marshall McLuhan and others, especially if it comes with the promise of an intriguing, even unconventional, perspective.

— Vit Wagner, “Can big names bring dead icons to life?“. Toronto Star, March 30th, 2008.

I have to take my hat off to Mr. Wagner for at least asking the question, and for suggesting some truly unconventional subjects for the as-yet undetermined eighteenth biography.  You know who’s missing from the list, though?  Industrialists and philanthropists.  Soldiers, sailors and airmen.  There are painters, authors, musicians, politicians and socialists aplenty, but none who spent a lifetime wearing dress greens, blues or whites.  For all the good work the CF has done lately in resurrecting the profile of our men and women in uniform, they are still virtual non-entities in the minds of the CanCulture Establishment.  As is anyone who wore a suit to the office or overalls to the factory to help create our economic prosperity.

If I were publishing a series of Extraordinary Biographies, here are some of the people (from all walks of life) I would consider for my own list of eighteen:

This is a big country, with plenty of Ordinary Joes and Janes doing extraordinary things.  It would be nice to hear a little more about them.

GOLD, JERRY!  GOLD! UPDATE: John Ralston Saul provides feeble justification of his choices to Globe & Mail journalist James Adams.

Saul, who was approached to oversee the series three years ago, said he had no interest in commissioning works about individuals “from the deep past.” That kind of history was done a century ago with The Makers of Canada, a 20-volume biography series featuring such now mostly forgotten luminaries as Sir Frederick Haldimand and Lord Sydenham. Rather, Saul says, “my interest was in those who helped produce the country we live in now.”

[emphasis mine]

That is an interesting definition of “deep past”.  Robert Baldwin, politician and Extraordinary Biography subject, born 1804, deceased 1858.  Lord Sydenham, from the “deep past”, born 1799, deceased 1841.  Besides, I thought in other countries, there are biographies every year on familiar subjects.  Because in a real country, which Canada is, people need to be looked at in different ways.  Unless of course you are from the “deep past”—which apparently somehow overlaps the more modern past—and the recounting of one’s major accomplishments in print 1) already happened a century ago and 2) doesn’t happen to line up with the narrative certain editors wish to portray of helping to “produce the country we live in now”.

Things That Make You Go “Hmmm”

  • A friend graciously offered up free tickets to see the musical Rent over the Easter weekend.  Wanda and I went, and it was basically science fiction to me.  Am I the only guy on the planet who had a hard time grasping this retool of Puccini’s La bohème?  And no, I’m not talking about the LGBT bits.  We have a gay roommate and, subsequently, a certain exposure to the lifestyle.  I mean the whole attitude around starving bohemian artistry and refusing to pay rent being better than having a job and actually paying your rent.  And paying for necessary medicine.  And food.  And having something leftover to donate to charities.  Like the chorus of homeless guys living in the vacant lot next door.  And so on.  You can have a real job and not sell out, you know.  It’s called “volunteering” or “hobbies”.  You can do your bit for the pet cause du jour and still have money to pay the bills.  Most adults learn how to find purpose in life without rejecting every person, job and itty bitty thing that threatens to compromise their ideological purity.  Those that don’t are lonely, bitter and broke.  There’s a lesson in there, somewhere.
  • How many Canadians have to die suspicious deaths (Dominic & Nancy Ianiero, Adam DePrisco, Josh Iwasiuk, Chris Morin) or be incarcerated for a couple of years without trial (Brenda Martin) in Mexico before somebody at DFAIT posts an official warning?  Call me old fashioned, but vacationing in (and especially moving to, in Martin’s case) a corruption-riddled country where citizens and visitors do not enjoy the presumption of innocence is just plain ludicrious and foolhardy.
  • Over the past seven years I have logged more than 2,200 hours of FS2000/FS9 simulated flying time in a single aircraft type—the C-17 Globemaster III.  That is a lot of time to spend flying a particular type of pretend airplane—and not bad, considering I have a day job.  Real ATP-rated pilots take about five years to accrue 2,000 hours of flying time.
  • J.L. Granatstein’s short but insightful book Whose War Is It? should be required reading for generations of Canadian high school kids.  Toss out those mouldy Cold War-era Gwynne Dyer tomes and pick up something that makes logical sense.  In this book he draws a persuasive “Big Picture” of how and why Canada ought to ditch nagging do-nothingism and resdiscover practical realpolitik.
  • Almost pulled the trigger on a new LCD TV and home theatre system.  The deal-breaker was that I could not locate an audio system that has both a Blu-Ray player and a reasonable price tag.  That and I have to furnish a soon-to-be-empty guest room, plus find convertible ottomans that can double as occasional tables.  In the budgetary war of function (furniture) versus flash (cool toys!), function usually wins.  ALSO: Why, in a “wireless” home theatre setup, is it only the rear speakers that have no audio cables?  Why can’t the front and woofer communicate wirelessly, too?  I understand they can’t be totally wireless because they still have to draw power from an outlet, but come on.  What is the technical impediment to a fully wireless sound setup?

Six unimportant things

Kateland of The Last Amazon has tagged me for this odd meme where you list six unimportant things / habits / weirdnesses about yourself, and because I am full of odd quirks, I will happily play along.

1.  I hate monkeys; actually, I hate all non-human primates.  If I see actual monkeys (on TV or in the flesh), I will immediately scowl and mutter “stinky monkeys” under my breath.  I know most folks find them cute, and we’re supposed to love them because they are our close genetic kin, but it just doesn’t work for me.  Maybe I’ve seen Planet of the Apes too many times, I don’t know.  Never had any traumatic experiences with them at the zoo, other than that their enclosures generally reek.  But I do know one thing: humanity will dominate this galaxy, bub, not hygiene-impaired, poo-flinging monkeys.

2.  I have a hard time enjoying movies, TV shows or books.  My brain will constantly try to predict the lamest cliché / canard / plot device that could possibly be inserted into the narrative.  Most shows and books (even the documentaries/non-fiction) live down to my low expectations quickly and consistently.

3.  Male African lions have a series of calls they emit in the early morning and late evening, to define the size of the pride’s territory and ward off interlopers.  I will occasionally do my human impression of these lion calls when my territory is being encroached upon (i.e. Wanda is stealing the bedsheets or trying to nab morsels of my entrée).  I blame Animal Planet.

4.  Leftover pizza is best eaten cold—at refrigerator temperature—as breakfast.  It just tastes better that way.  Fresh pizza can be hot, but the leftovers must always be cold.  ALWAYS.

5.  I can share my food or drink (i.e. drink from the same glass) with a total stranger and not get grossed out, but the food itself must not mix on the plate.  I have a high degree of confidence that my immune system can beat your germs, but I know from personal experience that taste buds are fickle creatures with no defensive ability whatsoever.  You ruin it for them, and you’re ruining the pleasure of mealtime for every cell that depends on them.  So the peas can not become embedded in the mashed potatoes, who must not migrate into the steak, etc.  I know the old-fogey answer is that it all ends up in the same place, but people who say that will get kicked in the nads regardless of age, sex or osteoporosis.  Let me take your morning eggs benedict, lunchtime tuna sandwich and dinnertime jerk chicken and cram it all into a blender.  Then you can have one glass of the same disgusting goop at each mealtime.  It all goes to the same place!

6.  I have to move at best possible speed on public transit even if I’m not actually trying to get anywhere fast.  It’s the competitive jerk in me.

I will name my six meme-victims a little later, after I’ve had time to evaluate who is likely to have weird and entertaining habits.

UPDATE: Here are my six victims (well six, plus one bonus victim) whom I know will have a least one entertaining hang-up.

1.  The Ghost of a Flea, my Britannic brother from another mother.

2.  The Tiger in Exile, this generation’s Jay Nordlinger.

3.  Damian Brooks, my taller brother from another mother, because I probably have more hair on my back than the two of us combined have on our scalps.

4.  Fenris Badwulf of Mitchieville, because his odd habits will make the rest of us seem like senior citizens overdosing on NyQuil.

5.  The Meatriarch, because he is secretly blogging again, and someone needs to bring these nefarious activities to light.

6.  Gorthos (my leftist brother from another mother), because he understands Jean-Paul Sartre’s maxim that “Hell is other people”.

7.  Nicholas Russon, my beery brother from another mother, because there is no greater hive of scum and villainy than guys who like to play games on hex maps and move little paper chits around  (and yes, it takes one to know one).

Mysteries of the Public Library

I’m trying to comprehend the reservation system of the Toronto Public Library.

Way back in February I reserved two books, not normally carried by my branch.  Both books had a lengthy waiting list, so they didn’t become available until late last month.  I picked them both up at the same time, although that was probably a bad idea.  I take a long time reading books, because I read them in 20-minute blocks—twice a day—during my commute to and from work.  Life is hard, I know.

Well as luck would have it, it took me quite a long time to get through the first book.  It was a very interesting book, mind you—Shutting out the Sun, a fascinating look at a unique Japanese social  phenomena, and how it may indicate a deeper malaise within the structure of Japanese society and culture.  It’s very capably reviewed by Bob Tarantino on his own blog, and that review was the catalyst that caused me to reserve it from the library.

As I was reading, I realised that I wasn’t going to make the return-by deadline, so I renewed the loan on both books.   Or tried to.

I had no problems renewing the first book.  The second was already reserved by someone else, so it could not be renewed.  Fair enough.  I went to the library’s website and made a new reservation requst for the second book.  No less than 28 people had gotten there before me; my reservation request was number 29 of 29.  Oh well.  I returned said book to the library a few days before it was due—no point in making other readers wait longer.

A day or two later I got a phone call from TPL’s auto-notifier system, informing me that a reserved book was available.  The very same one I had returned a couple of days earlier!  Naturally I went and picked it up (and am reading it in 20-minute commuting blocks now).

I can’t quite grasp how this came about.  While in prior possession of the book, the TPL website did not let me extend the loan because there others waiting for it.  But once TPL had the book in its mitts, it did not forward said book to #1 on the waiting list, nor did the book go back to its home library branch.  Instead it went to #29 (me), right at the bottom of the list.  Why?

Obviously the reservation system isn’t first-come, first-serve.  It appears that it gave me preference because a copy—the one I returned—appeared at my home branch, and I was also one of the future reservers.

If that’s the way the system works, wouldn’t it have been a whole lot easier to just allow people to extend the loan?  Why force them to go through the formality of returning an unfinished book just to get it back two days later?

The Interview Meme

Kateland, mother of The Last Amazon, volunteered for an interesting blog-meme known as “the interview” — in which one would be posed some questions from the last interviewee, and then post the answers up on one’s blog.  See Ocean Guy‘s original questions, plus Kate’s thoughtful interview.  Since she was nice enough to include me as a guest to a notional star-studded dinner party, I figured the least I could do was reciprocate with an interview.  So without further adieu, here are Kate’s questions and my answers.

more »

All I Want for Christmas

christmas_tree
This beautiful Christmas tree is Wanda’s handiwork.  My contribution consisted of lugging the lights and decorations up from out-of-season storage.

Hope everyone had a very Merry Christmas!  I got tagged by Ben the Tiger for a little blog meme, wherein one lists three things you want (and three things that you don’t want) for Christmas.  Problem is, I only noticed it after Christmas had gone by, so I’m a day late and a buck short right now.  Consider these things on my list for the New Year, then.

THREE THINGS I WANT

1.  Inspiration. I started blogging two years ago because, at the time, I thought I had a lot to say.  I still have thoughts to share, but as time goes by I am less and less inclined to share them.  The idea of sitting in front of the computer and slaving away so someone else can waste a few minutes of their day is not too attractive to me.  It would be nice to rediscover my enthusiasm for this medium.  I’ve met a lot of great people through blogging, but along the way I’ve forgotten why I started on this journey in the first place.

2.  An End to Web 2.0 Hype. The moniker “Web 2.0”, of course, means different things to different people.  The best summary I have run across is one by Dennis D. McDonald, which I will reproduce here:

  • To the programmer, it’s a set of tools and techniques that have the potential for fundamentally altering how network based applications and data are managed and delivered.
  • For start-ups and venture capitalists, it’s an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of another bubble.
  • For the corporate CIO or IT manager, it’s another set of technologies and architectures to be adopted and supported in an era of continued I.T. department budget strains.
  • For newer or smaller companies, it’s an opportunity to acquire technical and business process infrastructure at a fraction of the investment made by older and legacy companies.
  • For the marketing manager it’s an opportunity to “end-run” a traditionally unresponsive I.T. department.
  • For the CEO of an established legacy industry, it’s a threat of loss of control over customer relations.
  • For the customer it’s an opportunity to establish and maintain relationships that are both personally fulfilling and empowering in the face of the traditional power of larger institutions.

As an IT guy, I think the programming tools and techniques have the most utility.  At the same time, I don’t think they are going to change the world any more drastically than say, Netscape Collabra or Novell GroupWise ever did.  Web 2.0 tech will change the way we do business incrementally, not exponentially.  There are plenty of banks and insurance companies out there running their core business processes on 30-year-old mainframe technology, and — despite being slow-moving industrial dinosaurs — are still raking in record profits.  They have little incentive to change and it’s going to be a while before they (and plenty of other businesses) do.

I understand the natural enthusiasm the technical folks have for these new tools and techniques.  In order to succeed in the enterprise environment, they need to demonstrate three key strengths:

  • Proven benefits
  • Increased reliability
  • Lower costs

So far Web 2.0 isn’t making the grade — yet.  Doesn’t mean it’s time to abandon ship, but be realistic — at this point only nerds (of the IT or VC variety) are really excited about it.  Everyone else thinks it’s all about blogs and MySpace, or just plain doesn’t care.

3.  Contemporary Canadian fiction that doesn’t focus on isolated and alienated 1) spouses in a disintegrating relationship, 2) immigrants, 3) children in small towns, 4) underdogs fighting for their rights / survival / societal acceptance.
I want to like Canadian literature, I really do.  I have embarked upon a mission to find good CanLit (or more specifically, TorLit) based on a regular Joe’s urban lifestyle which manages to avoid all of the usual tropes for both major and minor characters.  I have a feeling this is also an impossible mission.  If you have any book / author  suggestions, please leave them in the comments or e-mail me directly.  Per Alan’s suggestion in these comments, I did read Acting the Giddy Goat by Mike Tanner.  I liked it right up until the final chapter where it crashed due to pilot error (specifically, nosediving into the yawn-inducing CanLit terrain of disintegrating relationships and immigrant isolation).  Somewhere out there, there is a book for the urban neo-fuddy-duddy like me.

THINGS I DON’T WANT

1.  Any video game that’s 1) an FPS, 2) an RTS, or 3) set in the Second World War. All of these genres have been done to death.  There are several thousand years of recorded human history to draw upon; please, for the love of all that is good and holy, put aside FPSes, RTSes, and that whole 1939 through 1945 period, and move on to something else.  Some of the best computer games of all time (like F-19 Stealth Fighter) were cranked out for lousy EGA displays with 16 colours.   Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space was also pretty challenging and unusual.  Since then we’ve gained a lot in graphics and computing capabilities, but creativity has gone by the wayside.

2.  Other (non-resident) Canadians bitching about Toronto. The East, West and everyone else are disenchanted with the way Torontonians seem to get in the way of all your big dreams.  Seek professional help for these grand conspiracy theories, okay?  People out here have better things to do than screw with other provinces for kicks.  Most of us have to work for a living.  Maybe it looks easy and effortless to you, but it takes a lot of effort and many talented people to run the Center of the Universe.  You should try it sometime.

3.  A Sony PlayStation 3 or Nintendo Wii.
I’m so far behind on my console gaming, there are still plenty of GameCube and PlayStation 2 games I own but have never played (or have started but never finished).  I don’t really have any set plans to finish them all up, but I figure it’s a waste of money to buy a new toy when your cost-per-use on the old toy is not far off the sticker price.

I’m going to violate the rules of the meme slightly and not tag anyone else since it is, after all, well past Christmas.  I just couldn’t fail to honour my commitments; even if someone else made them.  =)

Category: Miscellania  Tags: ,  3 Comments

T&C Review: “Heaven on Earth”

First published 11 September 2005.

Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism
By Joshua Muravchik
417 pp.  Encounter Books.  CDN $23.48

Socialism is a fascinating ideology, even for those of us who are not adherents.  Born in the aftermath of the French Revolution, socialism’s embers burned slowly but steadily for one hundred and twenty-one years until Lenin’s October Revolution fuelled it into open flame.  At its zenith, socialism ruled fully two-thirds of the world’s population – a more explosive expansion than any comparable modern ideology or religion.  Yet today, two hundred and nine years after its genesis, socialism is a spent force.  All of her children have forsaken her: her communist offspring, China and Russia, backed away from command economies in the 1990s; her democratic offspring, such as Britain’s Labour Party, have abandoned their prior focus on nationalising private enterprise and the radical redistribution of wealth.  Almost no one, except die-hards, believes that a fully nationalised economy is politically or economically viable anymore.  Virtually everywhere socialism had succeeded capitalism, capitalism has subsequently been restored — in whole or in part.  The inevitable progression of dialectical materialism does not seem quite so inevitable nor quite so progressive anymore.

Tracing the history of socialism from cradle to grave, the scope is epic and the narrative compelling.  Mr. Muravchik’s book is a thoroughly enlightening and entertaining history of socialism as seen through biographical vignettes and excerpted works of selected socialist luminaries:

  • François-Noël “Gracchus” Babeuf (1760-1797), the first advocate of revolutionary socialism, political journalist by trade and supporter of the French Revolution by inclination.  Publisher of the political journal Journal de la liberté de la presse (later the Tribun du peuple), and populariser of Sylvain Maréchal’s 1796 tract the Manifeste des Égaux.  Babeuf tirelessly agitated for the radical redistribution of wealth and restructuring of society via a great revolution.
  • Robert Owen (1771-1858), father of the co-operative movement, Welsh industrialist and philanthropist.  He believed that nurture, not nature, formed man’s character, and that changing society was as simple as exposing men to the proper cooperative education and ideas.  In 1826, Owen founded the community of New Harmony, Indiana, based on his utopian concepts.  New Harmony foundered only three years later, impoverished by a lack of productivity and riven by societal discord over the suppression of individual property rights.
  • Karl Marx (1818-1883), the god of scientific socialism, and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), his prophet.  Men like Owen propounded the rationality and desirability of socialism, but the collaboration of Marx and Engels clothed socialism with a veneer of historic inevitability via allegedly scientific calculus.  Under Marxian theory, the rich would become fewer, the poor would get poorer, and the middle class would disappear almost entirely.  The predestined clash of the rich and poor would generate the spark of a worldwide socialist revolution.  Marx and Engels did not see that human agency was necessary or required; rather the grand sweep of History itself would bring about the inexorable socialist revolution.
  • Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932), theoretician, politician and Engels’ star protégé.  Publisher of Sozialdemokrat magazine.  Fifty years after Marx and Engels’ predictions, Bernstein observed several faults with Marxist theory.  First, the rich and middle classes were both more numerous, and the poor’s standard of living had gone up, not down.  Second, ownership of capital became more, not less, diversified over time. Third, as the working class became wealthier and their concerns were addressed, they became less and less enthusiastic about any notions of radical social revolution.  Bernstein published some of these findings in a series of articles entitled Probleme des Sozialismus (Problems of Socialism), and abandoned the revolutionary aspects of socialism.  Instead he began to advocate the amelioration of workers’ concerns through democratic action and incremental modification of capitalism.
  • Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924), lawyer, Russian revolutionary, leader of the Bolshevik party and first Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars.  Whereas Bernstein abandoned the revolutionary project in favour of the common workers’ goals, Lenin abandoned the common worker in favour of revolutionary zeal.  Lenin postulated that it was no longer necessary for the workers themselves to start the worldwide socialist insurrection, but that a vanguard of intellectuals (not unlike say, Lenin himself) could jump-start the process for them.  Most telling, even Lenin himself could not implement a fully socialist economic policy, and food shortages forced him to adopt the New Economic Policy (allowing peasants to keep and sell a portion of their produce) in 1921, a tacit turn back toward capitalism.
  • Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), by turns soldier, journalist, author and comic-opera dictator of fascist Italy.  Initially a member of the Italian Socialist Party, Mussolini left when the party refused to back Italy’s entry into the First World War, joining a pro-war socialist party (Fascio Autonomo d’Azione Rivoluzionaria) instead.  Mussolini even called himself a socialist as late as two years before ascending to the office of Prime Minister, and frequently described fascism as “a heresy of socialism”.  Both fascism and socialism sought to motivate the common man through the vision of a secular millennium, attained through a radical popular revolution.  Both ideologies promised the result of that revolution would be an equal, fraternal society created, maintained and furthered through the apparatus of the state.  And just like socialism, fascism relied upon a spirit of collectivism, heavy nationalisation of industry, expropriation of capital, and thorough social re-engineering.  What differentiated fascism was a particular focus on nationalism, fevered visions of ethnic greatness, and the utter abandonment of socialism’s traditional internationalist rhetoric.   Despite the rise of this heretical challenge, socialism would emerge even stronger after the Second World War.
  • Clement Attlee (1883-1967), lawyer, soldier, member of the Fabian Society, leader of the Labour Party and forty-second Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.  The Labour Party dismantled Sir Winston Churchill’s wartime national unity government two weeks after Germany’s collapse, and in the following election their leader, Attlee, won a landslide victory.  The Labour government went on to nationalise vast sectors of British industry, including the Bank of England, coal mines, civil aviation, radio and telephone communications, railroads, trucking, electricity, gas, iron and steel.  Attlee’s government also created the ambitious but expensive National Health Service.  Although he was committed to democratic means of advancing the socialist project, Attlee was no less sanguine about the ultimate goal: “We have only gone a few steps towards the kind of society of which we Socialists dream”.
  • Julius Nyerere (1922-1999), economist, teacher, leader of the TANU party and President of Tanzania.  Educated at the University of Edinburgh, Nyerere came into extensive contact with members of the Labour Party and Fabian Society, becoming an avowed socialist.  As President, Nyerere outlawed all political parties except TANU, nationalised all land and introduced an agricultural system based on collective farms, known as Ujamaa (or “familyhood”).  Few of the collective farm locations were properly sited and situated with regard to soil conditions and arable land, and many farmers were reluctant relocate.  They were encouraged to do so by the army and roving, quasi-governmental bands of TANU party members.  This was followed by nationalisation of many industries with a predictable and precipitous drop in agricultural and industrial production.  The World Bank and many First World nations (including Canada) rushed to bail out Tanzania in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Canada also sent military advisors to train the Tanzanian armed forces.  By 1976 the Ujamaa agricultural policy was an obvious failure, and Tanzania had fallen from Africa’s largest exporter of agricultural products to the continent’s largest importer.
  • Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), cigar maker, trade unionist and first President of the American Federation of Labour.  Gompers was entirely concerned with the economic aspects of socialism — better working conditions, higher wages, job security, and so on.  Unlike many of his socialist contemporaries, he saw no allure in the political agenda of socialism, and had no desire to upend the existing social order in favour of a radically different one.  This did not prevent him from advocating strikes or labour-friendly legislation, though.  At the end of the AFL’s 1903 convention Gompers famously declared “I want to tell you Socialists, that I have studied your philosophy … I have kept close watch upon your doctrines for thirty years; have been closely associated with many of you, … And I want to say that I am entirely at variance with your philosophy … Economically, you are unsound; socially you are wrong; industrially, you are an impossibility.”
  • George Meany (1894-1980), plumber, trade unionist and fifth President of the American Federation of Labour.  Meany, like Gompers before him, was a strong believer in a symbiotic, cooperative relationship of labour and capital.  A staunch anti-communist, Meany knew Stalin’s repressive USSR was no friend to the average working person.  Meany published maps showing the locations of Soviet gulags, deplored the wretched state of workers rights inside the so-called “workers’ paradise”, and denied AFL membership to unions that specifically endorsed Communism.  Serving on the advisory board of the Marshall Plan, Meany and the AFL sought to foster non-communist labour unions around the world.  Meany once boasted that the AFL “remains the most powerful mass organisation in the world in complete opposition to Communism”.
  • Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), revolutionary, soldier, paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China.  A contemporary of Mao Zedong, Deng identified and sought to remedy production and motivation problems inherent in socialist economies long before most of his Central Committee peers.  When he assumed the pinnacle of power, Deng resurrected the Chinese economy through something he called “socialism with Chinese characteristics” — elsewhere known simply as capitalism.  With Russia’s ailing post-communist economy as counter-example, Deng sought to implement economic reforms without significant political change.  Deng is also known more infamously to Western audiences as the man largely responsible for the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
  • Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-), lawyer, apparatchik and last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.  Gorbachev believed the economic reformation of the Soviet economy could only succeed if accompanied by political reform as well.  Unfortunately his political reforms provoked a coup attempt and, ultimately, brought about the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 — well before economic liberalisation could restore the ailing Soviet economy.
  • Anthony “Tony” Blair (1953-), aspiring rock star, lawyer, leader of the Labour Party and fifty-first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.  Blair abandoned Labour’s traditional support for redistribution of power and wealth, “closed-shop” trade unionism, nationalising industries, and Fabian socialism.  In 1997, Blair branded the Labour party the “party of business” and declared “the era of tax and spend is dead and buried”.  Additionally, he endorsed previous Tory policies like privatisation, stating “I believe passionately that our government will fail if it sees its task as dismantling Thatcherism. We can’t just switch the clock back.”

As a former socialist, Mr. Muravchik treats his subject matter with respect and admirable objectivity.  He skilfully brings each era and each personality to life with lively and fascinating detail, all drawn from primary sources.  This is a must-read for conservatives, and not merely because we agree with the conclusion the author draws!  It is essential to comprehend the nature and history of socialism (and its failure) in order to avoid ill-fated conservative efforts at large-scale social re-engineering.

A particularly interesting section is the epilogue, where Mr. Muravchik describes the situation of Israeli kibbutzim.  Kibbutzim are collective farms, where four to five hundred people live and breathe socialism in every facet of life.  As Mr. Muravchik describes it:

The kibbutzim practiced socialism of a very pure kind.  The members rotated jobs, took their meals in a common dining hall, lived in identical little dwellings and deposited their offspring while still in swaddling clothes in children’s homes.  The youngsters lived and studied with their peers, save for a few hours’ visit with parents each evening.
The movement officially adopted Marx’s formula “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”  Kibbutzniks rarely saw money, for goods were distributed according to exquisite standards of fairness.  The goal was to go beyond mathematical equality to “human equality”, taking into account discrepancies in biological, familial and other circumstances.  Committees were formed to weigh special requests, and were in turn answerable to a general assembly, usually held weekly, in which every member was eligible to participate.  Everything was thoroughly democratic.

Joshua Muravchik, Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002) p. 322.

The disintegration of the kibbutzim was gradual and entirely unexpected.  The founders assumed, naturally, that children raised in the kibbutzim would be the best kibbutniks, thoroughly marinated from birth in ideas of complete equality and complete partnership.  What actually happened was that the first generation of kibbutniks established their collective farms with enthusiasm.  Their children were somewhat less enthusiastic but still clung to the spirit of their fathers.  But the third generation of kibbutzniks invariably wanted to promote change — or worse, disavow all the socialist ideals of the kibbutz.

The communal child-rearing strategies were the first to go.  Many kibbutz-raised people spoke well of their upbringing, but were very reluctant to have their own children raised in the same fashion.  Moving the children back in with their parents initiated a sort of domino effect; the communal dining hall was the next cooperative effort to fall.  Then clothes, which were communally owned, became articles of private property.  As time went on, kibbutzes slowly ceased to resemble communal farming arrangements and became much more like traditional towns, with private dwellings, private property, private industry, and so on.

Mr. Muravchik theorises, properly in my view, that human nature itself is incompatible with socialism’s underlying goal of creating a “new man”.  Humans are driven by an inextinguishable ego.  We like freedom.  We like to have our own property.  We want to own our own clothes and dine in our own dining rooms.  We do not want to rotate through a series of jobs every week, some of which are more agreeable than others.  We do not want to be isolated from our child’s upbringing.  And certainly, we want the just rewards of our own initiative and labour.  Socialism’s failure is also, paradoxically, part of its allure — the idea than man’s character and motivations can be perfected in this present world.  What it forgets is essential and unchanging human nature — we are all individuals, wanting things our own way; differing greatly in the amount of personal energy and resources we are prepared to expend not only for our own benefit, but also for that of our fellow man.

Religion, in the form of voluntary individual acceptance and practice of faith, may create changed attitudes and a personal interest in the welfare of one’s fellow man; coercive political, economic and social engineering definitely do not.

The book concludes that socialism has effectively died as a movement.  Very few leftist parties support radical wealth redistribution, the wholesale restructuring of civil society, and mass re-engineering of human behaviour.  Capitalism has won the judgment of history, ascendant virtually everywhere.  Socialism can act as a tax on free-market systems, but nowhere is it discussed as a total alternative.  As Mr. Muravchik notes, today we debate the proper extent of that tax.

By no means all socialists were killers or amoral.  Many were sincere humanitarians; mostly these were adherents of democratic socialism.  But democratic socialism turned out to be a contradiction in terms, for where socialists proceeded democratically, they found themselves on a trajectory that took them further and further from socialism.  Long before Lenin, socialist thinkers had anticipated the problem.  The imaginary utopias of Plato, More, Campanella and Edward Bellamy, whose 1887 novel, Looking Backward, was the most popular socialist book in American history, all relied on coercion, as did the plans of [Babeuf’s] Conspiracy of Equals.  Only once did democratic socialists manage to create socialism.  That was the kibbutz.  And after they had experienced it, they chose democratically to abolish it.

Joshua Muravchik, Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002) p. 344.

Category: Ars Gratia Artis, Historica  Tags: ,  Comments off

On Leadership

First published 15 March 2005.

Volumes have been written on this subject, and every few years some talented schmoe gets rich writing books about their half-baked management theories: “management by objective”; “management by walking around”; “total quality management”, et cetera.  Collectively these theories are not worth the paper they are printed on.  They are useful for getting ossified organizations to adapt periodically, but they are useless if you need to know the core basics of how to motivate and coordinate your fellow human beings.

Good leadership skills are not hard to develop, but they do require some active thought and energy.  They also have a polaris, a guiding star, and it is this: integrity.  To motivate free people into superior performance you must have their respect; and their respect will not be forthcoming until they know they can trust you.  Companies and leaders today have forgotten this to a large extent.  They focus on compensation and perks to lure people into demanding roles, but they have forgotten that people want compensation beyond the material, too; they want a mission they believe in, and superior leadership to help get them there.

My idea of good leadership comes straight from the Army Officer’s Guide, by LTC Lawrence P. Crocker.  I picked up the 45th edition when I was seventeen (and looking forward to an Army career); the principles of leadership described in it have been my guide ever since.  I’ll try and distill some of the essentials here.

THE CORE: INTEGRITY

Integrity is a simple concept but very few people practice it well.  It is essentially a code of personal honour; living in harmony with the best traditions of truth, justice and mercy.  If you are a man of integrity, your word is your bond.  You will keep your word and act in the best interests of your employer and your employees even when doing so harms your career.  If you can do this consistently, you will enjoy the trust and confidence of your superiors and those you lead.  Your statements of fact will be accepted, and your statements of opinion will be respected as sincere.  If you cannot act with integrity, then you have no business being a leader.

BASIC PRINCIPLES

Service. Many captains of industry and politicians forget that they got where they are by serving a public need.  You were hired to serve the company, in noble or ordinary tasks.  Do not turn up your nose at unpleasant tasks but embrace them.  Those who can be trusted to execute small tasks can also be trusted with the great.  No one will hand additional responsibility to someone who can’t manage the simple things.

Accomplish the mission. You have been hired by the business to contribute to its goals and profitability.  If you cannot accomplish the tasks you are given, within resource and policy limts, then the company has no reason to employ you.  You have to strive to be good at what you do.  There is no substitute for victory.

Leadership.
Most managers are not trained to lead, and this problem is compounded by the anti-authority attitudes most employees bring to the table.  Good leaders plan work, delegate it, and see that it is done skillfully and in cooperation with others.  Plan your work and communicate clearly.  The very first day I was at IBM, my boss took me into his office and said “we expect you to transition to a senior role within six months.”  It was a bit of a shock at first, but I appreciated the candour.  It said to me “we work fast here, and you need to step up to the plate right away”.  You must also be willing to be led by your superiors, recognizing that no position is so great that it is not accountable to another.  If you are responsible for a project or action that fails, accept responsibility for it no matter what the cost.

You all remember Major Harry Schmidt and Major William Umbach.  They were the F-16 flight that mistakenly fired upon and killed Canadian soldiers training at Tarnak Farms outside Kandahar, Afghanistan.  Major Schmidt went the way of the careerist, fighting court battles and desperately trying to save his own skin.  He was found guilty on four counts of dereliction of duty, and subsequently grounded, reprimanded and docked one month’s salary.  Major Umbach chose the better way, to act with integrity.  He did not fight a PR battle to save his own hide, but accepted his reprimand with quiet grace.  All charges against Major Umbach were dismissed, and his request for early retirement was granted.  Major Umbach knew that he screwed up, knew that his screw up came with a heavy personal price, and he was prepared to pay it.

I am a human like everyone else, and while I like to think that my career has done a lot of good, I have also screwed up royally sometimes.  I have offered my resignation when I felt that a screw-up was so gigantic that it affected the company as a whole and my department’s standing within it.  I have never been called upon to give my resignation, but I have had colleagues and superiors alike commend me for offering it, and being willing to take responsibility for not just the good, but also the bad. Good leaders do not shift the blame, they take responsibility — even at considerable personal cost.

Loyalty. Your loyalty must be beyond reproach.  It should extend upward to your superiors whom you may dislike, outward to your peers with whom you may be in competition, and downward to each of your subordinates.  If you should do something unwise and forfeit the loyalty of any of these groups, it may never be regained.

One day at IBM I had a pile of twelve top-priority clients to support, all with Severity 1 server crashes and all in various stages of panic.  Severity 1 at IBM means you are in contact with the client at a bare minimum of once every hour until the problem is resolved.  One of the IBM Canada vice-presidents contacted my boss with another incident, and asked for me to handle it right away.  Well, my boss knew that twelve Sev 1s was a lot to handle in one day, and he wasn’t about to load on one more. He ran the VP through the list of twelve, and said “which one of these clients do you want us to drop so that we can tackle yours?”  The VP didn’t hassle us again, and that boss’ stock went up a few thousand bucks in my estimation.  I would work for him again at any company, in any role.  That is the sort of loyalty that commands respect and admiration from your subordinates, and that’s what you should be aiming for.

Discipline. You as a leader set the example for your subordinates.  Demonstrate the attitudes and actions you want your staff to emulate.  Don’t just spit out a memo and expect them to live up to it.  It is in our nature to detest hypocrisy, even as we are all subject to it on occasion.  If you want to earn the respect of your peers and your subordinates, you have to live by the rules you set.  If you expect them to work late, then you have to work late too.  If you expect them to go the extra mile for you, then you need to go the extra mile for them.  Your conduct sets the tone for your department, and an undisciplined department is of no earthly good to any company.  When it comes to discipline, lead by example or not at all.

When I worked for a Crown corporation, the CIO stayed in her office all night while my team resolved a major hardware and software problem.  She wasn’t directly involved in the effort, but she didn’t think it was right to go home when all of us were slaving away half the night.  She stayed in the office until the last one of us had left.  I don’t necessarily hold fond memories of my time in public service, but I do respect that CIO for her symbolic gesture.  Be willing to make the same sacrifices that you’d ask of your staff.

Readiness. “Be prepared” is not just the Boy Scout motto, it’s also essential to good leadership.  In each and every job you will be called upon to step outside your job requirements, to go above and beyond the call of duty.  Do not shrink from these opportunities.  Be flexible and adaptable, ready to change your way of thinking or your business processes.  Be ready to tackle whatever challenges arise.  Do not fall into the careerist “it’s not my job” mentality or the scelrotic “it’s not the way we’ve always done things” attitude.  That way lies the highway to mediocrity.

Many companies do not bother to think about the future and what sorts of jolts and surprises may be heading down the road.  During the “Northeast Blackout” of August 2003, the Crimson Permanent Assurance’s supreme level of preparedness was a great comfort to me.  The building designer had thought to install a large diesel generator that provided several days of power to not only emergency lighting, but the elevators as well.  Corporate Facilities regularly tested the diesel generator and checked its tank reserves.  The data centre architect had installed an extremely large UPS that could not only power the mainframe and all of our client-server systems, but replenish its reserves from the diesel generator.  Our disaster recovery team had located several backup systems at a remote location that could be fired up at a moment’s notice, and those systems were tested every few months.  This kind of preparedness cannot be improvised once a crisis is underway.  It has to be bred into the thinking of an organization, and it has to be maintained, not unlike nuclear missiles, in a constant state of alertness and readiness — even if these systems and processes are never used.  Someone in management thought these things were important and as a result, when the crisis came — we were sitting pretty.

But readiness is not just about hardware, it’s also software — a mindset.  The day of the blackout, my entire department went above and beyond the call of duty.  We all stayed late to shut down the servers, and myself and three others remained at the office until about 2300 to assess UPS and diesel power reserves, and assist the business with recovery plans.  At about 0400 the following morning, power was restored to the building and we four were paged to come back in to begin network and server infrastructure start-up.  The rest of the group was just as important, standing watch in 12-hour shifts to ensure that, in the event of a brown-out or other hiccup, senior technical staff were in the building 24×7 for the next 3-4 days.  My boss, incidentally, was in the very next group to stand watch, after the initial four.  Readiness and adaptability are essential.

Take care of your people. The company has given you responsibility for governing a group of individuals.  These employees look to you for direction and also for provenance.  Give them the tools they need and the rewards they deserve.  Make sure they understand your expectations,  and find out theirs.  Live up to them.  If they perform exceptionally, reward them exceptionally.  Protect them, insofar as you can, from undue pressure or unjust criticism.  Show them that loyalty flows down the chain of command, as well as up.   Sometimes, the company won’t ante up and you will have to pay for this stuff out of your own pocket.  Do it — it’s worth the investment.  It demonstrates that you care enough and want the best for them, even if it costs you personally.

A lot of companies are cheap in rewarding people for exceptional deeds.  Some do silly things like treat employees to catered (or worse, pizza) lunches if they do a good job.  In I.T., pizza is what you eat when it’s 0100, tomorrow morning is the project deadline, and you have no other choice because all the restaurant kitchens are closed.  I always avoid reward lunches unless they are at four- or five-star joints; I can eat at a three-star (or heavens, order pizza) any time, and it’s not a reward to me.  Here’s how to do it right.  A few years ago, I had a project team of eleven people that had to perform a complicated web deployment for me that ended up being scheduled the same night as the staff Christmas party.  The deployment took up most of the evening and we missed the party as a result.  I took them all to the Rosewater Supper Club for dinner a few weeks later, and we had a ball.  People need exceptional rewards for exceptional service, otherwise they will think you are taking them for granted.

If you are not in management, or do not manage the people you wish to recognise, you can still reward them.  Take colleagues to lunch, give them a gift certificate or some token of your appreciation for a job well done.  Don’t forget them during the holidays, either.  At Christmas I send flowers to my headhunter and her accounting department (their office seems to be almost entirely staffed by women).  Their work allows me to find jobs and get paid, and it’s only right that I remember them and reward them for it.  Everybody that contributes to your success should get recognition of some kind, even if it’s just a simple thank-you e-mail cc:ed to their boss.  There is not one person on the planet who doesn’t like to be appreciated for the work they do.

Cooperate. Try and get along with your superiors, equals and subordinates as best you can.  Avoid useless personality conflicts; these will occur in any company, any role, at any level of the chain of command.  If you find yourself in a personality conflict, then do not let it escalate.  Get your emotions under control and deal with the other party fairly, even generously.  Don’t get into one-upmanship by carbon copying snarky e-mail to their boss.  Keep it all private and under the radar, to let them save face too.  Take the enemy out for coffee or drop by their office when they have a free moment, and make whatever peace you can.  Your job is to complete whatever mission the company assigns you, not to carve out and defend your own personal fiefdom.  You can’t do your job effectively if the people on your team want to see you fail.  Don’t perpetuate a divisive morale problem — be part of the solution.

Respect the chain of command. Don’t undermine your superiors; if you disagree with anything they say, corner them privately and discuss it.  Respect their dignity and honour and they’ll respect yours.  If you take cheap shots in a meeting and try to score political points, expect them to do it to you.  If you need command guidance, don’t go over your boss’ head to his boss; let him have first crack at the situation.  Treat your boss with respect whether he/she deserves it or not; they’ve earned it by virtue of their rank.  Respect the office, not the individual.  You’d want them to treat you nicely if the positions were reversed.

So what is the objective of all this advice? In crass marketing terms it’s establishing your brand.  In real-life terms it’s building sterling character, which will see you through all times, all situations, all companies, good or bad.  A brand with integrity and a good name is highly sought after.  If you can do these things, you’ll be on the road to being a better leader; someone whose advice and counsel people will seek.  You may not make millions, but you’ll be happier, you’ll have happier employees, and you’ll have succeeded in life by any reasonable definition.

“A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”

Proverbs XXII 1, NIV

Category: Industria  Tags: , ,  Comments off