Category Archives: Philosophy

Concord Bridge vs. Kabul, Afghanistan: Where’s Solomon When We Need Him?

Concord Bridge vs. Kabul, Afghanistan: Where’s Solomon When We Need Him


The 4th Grade of St. John’s Grammar School: 1946

(“X” = The Author)

          Back in the Fourth Grade, at St. John’s Grammar School in West Fitchburg, circa 1946, the nuns taught us American History. One day, someone in the class asked how the American Colonists won the Revolutionary War. We knew they were mostly farmers and merchants, and up against England, the greatest military power of that time. Sister Mary Cornelia acknowledged that was a good question, and helped us compile a list on the blackboard of all the reasons we thought that the English lost the American Revolution, and the Thirteen Colonies won and became the United States of America.

Recently,  I’ve been thinking about that list we compiled so many years ago, and comparing it to the existing situation in Afghanistan. I wondered if any of those nearly 250 year old reasons are still valid. I think enough of them are to warrant consideration today.

I’ve updated the language, but basically we Fourth Graders agreed that:

1. The English believed they were fighting for an ideal: To preserve their Empire. The Colonists believed they were fighting for their homeland.

2. The English were far from home, and it was difficult, dangerous, and expensive to resupply them.

3. The English were fighting an entirely different war than they had ever fought before. They were used to civilized gentlemen lining up on opposite sides of a field, and shooting at one another, until it was time to march forward, and close with the enemy, in formation, accompanied by bugles and drums. These American Colonists had learned to fight like the Indians, from behind trees and rocks. They were masters of camouflage and the ambush. They made no noises to alert the enemy of their arrival, and disappeared silently into the woodland when they were done.

4. The English had modern, heavy weapons, cannons and mortars and such; but they weren’t very useful against the Colonists who avoided open confrontation. The Colonists struck and fought from cover and concealment, and then faded away to fight another day.

The term “asymmetrical warfare” had not been invented yet, nor had “guerrilla warfare” or “insurgencies,” but the American Colonists understood these concepts: When the odds are lop-sided and stacked against you, make the other side fight the war the way you want to fight it: The way you think you can win.

5. The American Colonists knew the terrain. It was their land, and they could get from here to there a lot faster than organized military units could, marching down public, and dangerous, roads fraught with ambushes and traps.

6. The English couldn’t distinguish the farmers, who saluted them by day as they marched past their fields, from the armed bands that came out at night to wreak violence upon them.

7. The American Colonists could live off the land, and find support at nearly every farmhouse and village. The English got no such support unless they took it, and that just made matters worse.

8. The American Colonists were armed, experienced hunters, and comfortable in their own wild. “Marksmanship was valued,” someone once wrote, “because they had to buy their own lead and make their own bullets.”

9. The families back home in England were tired of their children being wounded and killed by this ragtag band of farmers, and at the vast amounts of money being wasted over here that could be better used at home.

10. The English Parliament, like the English citizenry, grew lukewarm to the entire action over time. They started thinking, in an expression used at the time, “The game is not worth the candle.” One historian wrote that it wasn’t so much the Colonials won the War as it was the English lost it, after becoming tired, demoralized, and worn out from fighting it.

Now, not all these points may be applicable to Afghanistan, and there are many differences between the two situations. The American Colonists, for example, did not fight for the “freedom” to go back years in time to live in comparative ignorance, with large segments of their population poor, uneducated, living in hovels, without medical care, and avoiding all kinds of central authority, except their own zealous religious governance.

The American Colonists wanted their freedom first and foremost. They wanted their own modern economy, the freedom to vote for whomever they wanted, the independence from taxes and imported laws that made little sense over here. They didn’t want religious governance, they’d govern themselves. They saw themselves competing with the English as social, economic and intellectual equals, not fighting them.

But even so, there are enough similarities, beginning with spending our blood and our treasure, and experiencing all the misery, to consider now in Afghanistan the question the English had to consider so long ago:

Is this game worth the candle? Do we belong there? Is it worth our lives, our fortune, our sacred honor? Should we force democracy upon a people who don’t understand it, don’t respect it, and don’t want it?

Can we ever succeed anyway, when we are hard pressed to even define success? Can we negotiate with corrupt religious fanatics and tribal zealots? When we leave, will the Afghans go right back to what they were before we got there – as they have always done? That’s what happened when the Russians left in 1989, and the British left in 1919, and countless others left, as far back as Alexander the Great, in 330BC.

A U.S. Marine officer who met with Afghan tribal elders recently, said he was told: “You Americans have the watches, but we Afghans have the time.”

As Sister Mary Cornelia asked that Fourth Grade class nearly seventy years ago: “Given all that, what would you do?”

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First Universal Law: Do Nothing Stupid!

First Universal Law: Do Nothing Stupid!


Clip Art: Example of a Stupid Act: Holding the Target

            For years, I’ve been collecting Rules and Laws and Truisms to help guide the young, and the not-so-young, through this quagmire we call Life. There are many such helpful collections of useful aphorisms available in libraries and on-line. The book stores are jammed with them, ranging from the occasional deep insight into the human experience, to once-over-lightly philosophical rehashes. It’s not easy to stand out in the crowd today as a wise person, let alone a philosopher-in-training. First, there’s not much of a demand. Second, there are too many of us are trying to do the same thing. Third, some of us are stupid.

Then, I read about Hippocrates, the first physician, and so-called Father of Medicine. He famously told his students that the First Rule of Medicine is: “Do no harm.” I thought that was beautiful. If you cannot make it better, leave it alone. If you can’t cure it, at least don’t make it worse.

I thought about that for quite a while, turning it over in my mind, and trying to make it general enough to apply to a broader spectrum of Life’s experiences and challenges. It took time, but I came up with the ultimate guideline and the title of this piece:

“Do nothing stupid.”

Consider that thought for a moment: How many times have we tried to explain away a mistake or a lack of action by saying to ourselves, and others: “I didn’t know what was the right thing to do.” I can understand that. Knowing the right thing to do in so many different Life circumstances can be nearly impossible; but, somehow, we always know what is the stupid thing to do. Stupid is stupid. It is universal. It is recognized around the world, in every culture, for what it is: Stupid. Some even say stupidity is not curable. Ignorance is curable, through education, but Stupid is forever.

Examples abound: I read about a protester who sat on the railroad tracks in front of an approaching train. That was Stupid. Running naked through the snow in Antarctica is Stupid. Recreational drugs are Stupid. Saying or doing something that you know will needlessly upset or offend another person is (all together, Class): Stupid! Holding up a bank with umpteen TV cameras trained on you and trying to get away with a money bag containing a GPS chip and an exploding red dye is Stupid. And, the list goes on. I’m sure you have amassed a lifetime’s collection of stupid things you have seen, and maybe even a few that you have done. Don’t feel badly: It’s a universal condition that occasionally touches us all. I believe it was Forrest Gump who said: “Stupid is as Stupid does.”

This will be my First Rule. If we don’t do anything Stupid, we won’t get in trouble, no one will get hurt, and nothing will be started which might later, at great pain and expense, have to be stopped.

Furthermore, over time, we may learn that in so many cases, the opposite of Stupid is Smart. We might start to think: “I don’t know what’s Smart in this case, but I certainly know what Stupid is. What’s the opposite of the Stupid thing? Hey, maybe that’s the Smart thing!”

And we’re on our way to Wisdom.

It is my hope that, in years to come, people may speak of me and say: “He always seemed to know the Smart thing to do.” I fervently hope that the worst response they receive is from one who says: “Well, I don’t know if he always did the Smart thing, but I’ll give him this: I never saw him do anything Stupid.”

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Authority vs. Power

I have always been fascinated by the differences between Authority and Power. There are many definitions, but I’ll use these:

Authority is rightful (legal) power. It is bestowed by birth (royal), election, appointment, or opportunity.

Authority is easy to find: It wears special clothing, sits on throne chairs, or in private offices, has an impressive title, and often a large staff. It may be chiseled into marble outside a public building. You even find it on business and calling cards..

Power is the ability to influence the outcome of events. It comes from influence (trust), expert knowledge,  personality, or opportunity.

Power is far less obvious than Authority. Power may look like everybody and everything else, stand quietly in the background observing, maybe even taking notes, and never calls attention to itself through appearances or behavior. Power has good manners. It exists in the shadows. It is often found in adjutants, deputies, chiefs of staff, advisers, spouses, and aides.

Power and Authority often come together. The story is told of Alexander the Great being asked who he thought was the most powerful person in the world. He replied, “My infant son is by far the most powerful. He rules his mother. His mother rules me. And I rule the world.”

Another favorite example of Power is the story told of the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar. Augustus was sending his ambassadors to the far reaches of the Roman Empire, beyond the pall, where they might be subject to attack by marauding tribes. His advisers were discussing how many Roman Legions should accompany them for their protection. Augustus realized that the entire world knew and feared the power of Rome. It was, for example, Rome’s policy to never abandon a war or forgive an insult. If an enemy could hold off one legion, a year or so later, two legions would show up at their back door. Beat them, and next spring you’ll find four legions marching on your gates. Rome vowed this would continue until every man, woman, and child in the Roman Empire was involved in the attack. There was no way to win.

Augustus dictated a message which his scribes put into the language of every tribe they might encounter in their travels. The ambassadors traveled with a light guard to protect them against road bandits  and a scroll bearing the Seal of Rome, known throughout the world. The scroll would be handed, or read, to every distant war lord the delegation encountered. The scroll read: “Do not harm Caesar’s friends unless you are certain you can defeat Caesar in battle.”

The trip went off without a hitch.

There aren’t many dramatic anecdotes about Power alone, but we sometimes see it: The trusted adviser whispering in the king’s, or president’s, ear. The president’s spouse offering an opinion. The general who sends his top sergeant to check out something important for him. The person whom the boss asks for an opinion last and hears in return: “May we discuss this in private?” The salesman who understands the road to the buyer’s office runs right through the gate controlled by the buyer’s administrator. The child who knows that to get something very important, they ask Mom to discuss it with Dad. And, as I learned in my Army days, the lieutenant who learns never, ever to cross the first sergeant.

A history teacher once told me that if you examine the court portraits of the kings and doges of the Middle Ages you will often find a different king on the front throne, but if you look closely enough, you may see the same common looking face, standing in the same spot, often on the king’s right, in several successive court portraits. Sometimes Power outlives Authority.

Always respect the title and the Authority – but – it helps to know where the Power is too.

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The Coffee House Cop-Out

It was 1960. Fresh out of the Army, I had my first job in business, working for an early hi-tech start-up  making epoxy circuit  shells. Mike, my boss, gave me a rare perk: I could accompany him to NYC to check out  the big IRE (Institute of Radio Engineers) electronics show held there each year. We spent an exhilarating first day touring exhibits, meeting potential customers, and networking with other start-ups like ourselves.

Later in the day, Mike asked me if I had ever been to a Greenwich Village coffee house. I had not. He said it was an experience not be missed. The Beatniks sat at small tables listening to each other read their poetry, and  discussing Kerouac’s 1957’s Beat Generation classic, “On the Road.” They signaled their approval by snapping their fingers instead of applauding. I said it sounded like fun.

I met Mike in the hotel lobby that evening, suitably dressed for the occasion: Suit, shirt, and tie. Mike was informally attired. He smiled and said, “You may be a bit overdressed, but come on, let’s go.” Off we went.

The Village club he selected was a little cellar-hole type place, off the beaten track, with a name something like “The Black Widow.” It was dark, smokey, and smelled of strong coffee and other strange fragrances.  I had never seen an opium den, but I imagined this might be how they looked. I was the most overdressed person in the room, and received more than a few critical stares at my appearance.. Mike picked a front row table and we sat, with espresso coffee, waiting for the performance to begin.

The poets were all young, men and women both, my age, and though I had been a college English Major, their free form philosophic verse was different from anything I had ever read (except for e.e. cummings, maybe).  They went on, with rants and complaints, raging against the machine, the system, and the government. I snapped my fingers in appreciation when they had concluded.

The last poet was a young man in his early Twenties, like me. Mike said later we even resembled each other a bit. He came on, unhappy, disgusted, and outraged in the extreme. To my amazement, and amusement, he came over and played directly to me. He raged on about our generational sell-outs, people who couldn’t wait to join the Establishment and share in the plunder, young people without a soul.

I thought it was interesting, and admired his performance. It was filled with his heart and soul. I gave a major finger snapping when he finished up. He stared at me for a moment, mumbled something under his breath, and stomped off the stage in a rage.

Mike said, “It’s over. Let’s go.” We left. On the cab ride back to the hotel, I said, “I thought that last guy was interesting. He seemed to be talking right to me.”

Mike paused a moment, and then replied, “He wasn’t talking to you, Ed.  He was talking about you.”

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Photo Shop and Another Paradigm Shift

This is a photo created by a young Swedish photographer named Eric Johanssen. This talented young man creates images in his fertile imagination then, through his photographic and computer skills, converts them into hard copy photographs for the rest of us to admire and wonder at.

The concept is not new. In fact, there’s an exhibition in New York City this month  featuring manipulated photographs from decades past. One of these shows the infamous dirigible Hindenburg moored to the radio tower of the Empire State Building, sometime in the 1930’s. It’s amazing, and the photo has spread around the web. The problem: It’s a fraud. It never happened. It’s an early manipulated photograph. Back in the 1930’s, this was accomplished slowly and with great photographic artistry. Today,  any competent person can accomplish much the same thing with a computer and  Photo Shop. It happens in great volume too.

This made me realize that we had crept into another major paradigm shift that I hadn’t even noticed: The photograph is no longer the trusty, evidenciary record that it once was, and never will be again.

Remember the classic expression, “One picture is worth a thousand words?” Not any more.

The film noir blackmail threat of “I have photographs of you both … together” means nothing.

The Perry Mason gotcha line, when confronting the culprit with “Don’t deny it. We have the whole thing on film!” A paralegal could get the guy out from under that accusation, and maybe get him a court settlement for his trouble..

Fashion models and celebrities can easily arrange to have a spotless complexion, designer clothes, a new hair look, even drop 20 pounds or so, and it wouldn’t take a photo studio more than an hour to make it all come true.

I have an acquaintance whose grandson makes up authentic looking photographs of family members with historical characters. Would you like to see yourself at the Gettysburg Address standing beside President Lincoln? It can be done.

Finally, of course, we’ll have to bury the old standby: “Seeing is Believing.”

Oh well, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, and all that jazz. The photograph, one more staple of reality and truth we used to rely upon, is gone forever. It has morphed into just one more communication device that can be manipulated to sway the multitudes.

It all gives new meaning to that old philosopher, Groucho Marx’s, classic line: “Who are you going to believe: Me or your lying eyes?”

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You Don’t Have to Hurt Yourself To Do A Good job

Yes, folks, it’s another unpublished book entitled “You Don’t Have to Hurt Yourself To Do a Good Job.” (once said to me by a smart boss who saw I was trying too hard). The book is a collection of some 1200 quotations that I have heard from parents, siblings, neighbors, bosses, co-workers, the military, the Church, and the rest of the world, over the past 70 years. I wrote them all down because I thought they were worth preserving. These are the thoughts from the people who guided me over many rough spots. I present the first 50 of them for your amusement and/or edification:

  • Part 1: It’s Personal:

You Don’t Have to Hurt Yourself to Do a Good Job

          (And other great truths of the business and social universe)

1. Return on Investment (ROI) #101: When an organization succeeds, the people who reap the rewards are not always the people who made it succeed. When an organization fails, the people who pay the price are not always the people who made it fail. –Harvey P. Newquist

2. Budgetary Success: If you exceed budget and succeed, there is forgiveness. If you under spend and fail, there is only death. -Jim Hands, IBM Events Management

3. Compensating Errors: When you screw up horribly in one direction, you’ve probably screwed up somewhere else just as badly. Stay cool and the problem may come out in the wash. -Random Observation

4. Sales Reports: People measure Sales because Sales is easy to measure. -Ray Fortune, Friend, Sales VP, Boss, Character

5. Humility: Don’t put yourself down. The world is full of people willing to do it for you. -Frank Keaney, Friend, Sales VP, Boss, Character

6. Office Equipment: Don’t trust your precious original document to any copier that takes it inside.-Vinnie DeAngelis, Administrator

7. Forecasts: The world is filled with big orders, all of them six months out. -Dick Weber, Sales VP

8. Urgency: Anything that must be signed fast should be read slow. -Random Observation on contracts that must be signed “today!”

9. Reality: Goals are always unreasonably high. Budgets are always ridiculously low. There is never enough time or resource. Get on with it! -Ray Fortune, Sales VP

10. Organizations: The primary purpose of every organization is to perpetuate its own existence. The secondary purpose is to recognize and develop people who share the primary goal, and to isolate and eliminate those who do not. The third purpose is the one you put in the Mission Statement. -Random Observation

11. Martyrs: The single characteristic shared by all martyrs is that they are dead. -Random Observation

12. Wealth: Nobody’s grandchildren ever seriously regretted how the old man made his money.-Random Observation

13. Charity: Before you send off that check to “The Ukrainian Three-Headed Orphans of Pessimism”, is there anyone in your family or neighborhood who needs help? -Random Observation

14. Work Ethic: You’re going to be there 8 hours a day anyway, so work steady and do the things that show. -Howard Quinby, Career Counselor

15. Work Sequencing: Prioritize your backlog and work it off in this order:  (1) Boss Imposed, (2) Organization Imposed, (3) Self-Imposed. -Leo F. McManus, Jr., Elder Brother & Career Counselor

16. Advancement: If you can’t be the brightest, most creative, or largest contributor, be the most loyal. Over the long haul, that’s probably the best approach anyway. -Dr. Michael Schneider, a Techie’s Tech, and one very smart guy

17. Back-Talk/Telling-Off-The-Boss: Don’t trade off 20 years of work for 20 seconds of satisfaction. -Leo F. McManus, Jr.

18. Balance: You’ve got to be content at home or content at work. Nobody can fight on two fronts.-Dr. Paul Ware, Cousin, Heart Surgeon, Life Counselor

19. Happiness: The pursuit of happiness is vastly overrated. Happiness comes when you’re on your way to achieving some other goal. -Random Observation

20. Underestimating the Competition: Be wary of toothless old lions. A toothless old lion can still gum you to death. -Peter Murray, Grammar School Philosopher

21. Accepting Responsibility (by the Boss): The Queen of Hearts never cried, “Off with my head!”-Stan Driban, Attorney and Wise Man

22. Prominence: How come you never heard of me until I was in my seventies? I didn’t want to peak too young. -Ed McManus (me)

23. Partnerships: No matter how big a business is, it’s never big enough for two. -Leo F. McManus, Sr., Father and Counselor Capo

24. Responsibility: If you knowingly and freely accept a job in a bordello, don’t act morally outraged when someone tugs at your drawers. -Random Observation

25. Focus: People at the top tend to deal with what they can handle. -Tony Nicoletti, Friend & Boss

26. Money: It’s very difficult to make a little money. It’s easier to make a lot of money. -George Rosen, NYC Entrepreneur

27. Customer Returns: We don’t make money taking the crap back for credit. -Herb Richman, Exec. VP & Boss

28. Meetings: Never hold a meeting in your own office. You can’t leave early. -A Lewis Rogers, Friend & Boss

29. Sales Compensation Plans: If you give people impossible goals, they will tamper with the measuring system. -Random Observation upon reviewing sales claims

30. Technology: Computers are things you sell. Nobody actually uses them. – Honeywell Manufacturing V.P. when asked, “Why aren’t your records on computers?” Circa 1969

31. Human Resources #101: Round pegs may fit into square holes if you hit them hard enough -Random Observation

32. Mutual Observation: If you can see the lens, the lens can see you. -Random Observation

33. Career Planning: My personal approach was to stick with people I trusted who said, “Come work for me. I’ll pay you 15% more.” -Random Observation

34. Grace: I won’t say he was clumsy, but when he tried to explain what he was doing, he got his thumb caught in his ear. -Wallace B. Haigh, Shop Manager

35. Misdirection: Watch out for the guys who point and scream, “Look at those mice!” while they sneak the elephants by. -Harvey P. Newquist

36. Employee Appraisals (once said of Ed McManus): Some people are worth what we pay them in entertainment value alone. -Michael R. Levy, Friend & Boss

37. Perspective: In 1968 I was on Valium, Maalox, and Vodka because of my business worries. Now, the company is gone, the building is a parking lot, and I wonder what bothered me so. -Random Observation

38. Vocabulary: Language is wonderful. You can call someone a “rectal aperture” or tell them to go have an “illicit carnal soliloquy” – and they’ll just laugh. -Random Observation

39. Honor: I passed the basket at my church until they put in an envelope system. I took that as a reflection upon my honor and quit. -Ned Woods, Father’s Friend, circa 1949

40. Management Prerogative: The boss can do pretty much whatever he wants, as long as it’s legal. Policy is for when he doesn’t care one way or the other. -Random Observation

41. Understanding the Function: The cabbie had a monkey wrench on the seat beside him. The lower jaw was missing. I said, “That’s broken. It won’t work.” “It works just fine,” the cabbie said. “It’s for hitting people.” -Random Observation

42. Impositions: Don’t impose on a friend’s profession. It’s okay to ask a tailor friend to help paint your house, but don’t ask him to make you a suit. -Leo F. McManus, Sr.

43. Experience: No one has 20 years of experience at anything. The good ones have 10 years twice. Most people have 5 years four times. The clods have 1 year –20 times. -Leo F. McManus, Jr.

44. ROI: One percent of something is better than 50% of nothing. -Joe Grammel, Friend & Financial Adviser

45. Decisions: When you have two choices, and neither is clearly better, go with the one that’s least lousy. -A. Lewis Rogers

46. Priorities: Every morning, the Lord gives you a loaded six-gun to get you through the day. If you plink away at rabbits, you’ll have nothing left when the bears come. -Harvey P. Newquist

47. Reference Point: Why are you calling me now? I said to call me mid-week and it’s only Wednesday. -Bernie Powers, Boss, Sales Genius, & Misguided Missile

48. Reference Point: I remember exactly when that happened! It was the year Thanksgiving fell on a Friday! -Bill O’Dowd, Father’s Boss, circa 1948

49. Fabrications: If you’re going to lie to me, dammit, look me straight in the eye and lie like a professional! -Bernie Powers

50. Priorities: It is harder to find a new family than it is to find a new job. -Babe Levine, Boss & All Around Interesting Character

Just think: There are over 1200 more.

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Training the Economic Underclass

There is a big difference between education and training. In education, the student is given instruction in a broad variety of subjects, usually related to the career path being pursued. In training, the student is instructed in accomplishing one of more specific tasks in the most efficient, cost effective, and error free manner possible.

Video and computer training courses are gradually replacing live instruction. That is because they are  cheaper, consistent, and people with short attention spans are more likely to sit and watch a TV type program than they are to sit in a live classroom.

One large coffee franchise has such video programs on making coffee, displaying pastry to best advantage, and recording orders and sales. The trainee need no longer worry about properly ringing up a complicated order. The numbers on the register have been replaced by color photos of the product. If you want to ring up the big beef cheeseburger, you press the button with the picture of the big beef cheeseburger on it. No need to count back money either. The display tells you the exact change owed the customer based on what was bought and the amount given you.

What training doesn’t do, is prepare you for bigger challenges beyond the front line, entry level job. Yes, there are additional training courses for such things, but you may not even learn about them unless you display both aptitude and performance.

The logical extension of all this, I have read and been told, is that an employer can make a decision early on as to a candidate’s potential with the firm, and train them accordingly. In other words, their growth may be capped very early on based on some manager’s assessment of their value to the company, and their ability to learn.

This could be a real issue in keeping the economic under class in the economic under class. These people are not always getting educated in the schools. I am amazed at the numbers of people who leave high school at age 16, or even after graduation, basically unable to read, write, or even speak the language properly. Assuming they are honest and conscientious young people who want to work for a living, and get ahead in life, how will they ever be prepared for anything beyond entry level jobs?

And whose fault is this? As usual, there’s enough blame to go around. It starts with the kids themselves who have little to no interest in schools or learning. It includes the schools who are more anxious to get these kids through the system than they are to educate them. It has to do with teacher unions that have more interest in protecting jobs based on seniority more than achievement. It has to do with taxpayers who are reluctant to take on the tax burden of new schools, programs, and staff. It has to do with politicians who speak support but vote otherwise, it has to do with the parents who see all this happening and don’t even try to do anything about it.

What is the answer? I wish I knew. Never before have the schools been so packed with young people, only some of whom are there to learn. The days of “hall guides” have long gone and been replaced by closed circuit TV, metal detectors, and even armed police officers. It’s not even always clear who is in charge, the staff or the kids themselves.

Some years ago, there was a movie called “Blackboard Jungle.”  It had to do with a big city school system being run by threatening and intimidating student gangs. We all considered it fantasy. It wasn’t. It was a peek into the future, where we all live today.

I do know that our educational levels as compared with other industrialized countries seem to be lowering, year by year, bit by bit. Maybe we need some sort of “Peace Corps” equivalent, not in some far off country, but right here in P.S. 22 just down the street. Maybe the Corps would be retired educators, disciplinarians, counselors, people of accomplishment and integrity who can see the problems, jump in, and help resolve them.

Whatever we do, we need to do it soon.

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Speaking for the Wind

Back around 1990, I picked up some stamps at the post office. My friend Barbara saw them and said, “Oh, a commemorative stamp for Theodore Von Karman. Do you know his great accomplishment?” I had no idea. She told this story:

“Theodore Von Karman was a brilliant, Hungarian-born, professor of physics at Cornell. When I was there in the 1950’s, they told us of his great adventure.

In 1940, the State of Washington, opened the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge. It was the third longest suspension bridge in the world, behind the Golden Gate and George Washington bridges. They opened it in July, and it collapsed in moderate winds the following November, just 4 months later. It had to do with the principles of harmonics and wind working together to create a deadly vortex. The principle was not well understood at the time. The engineers and architects studied the situation and decided the bridge had been built properly, the collapse was an anomoly, and they decided to build it again, exactly as they had before.

Prof. Von Karman heard of this decision, and attended their meeting. He warned them that if they built it again exactly as they had, it would collapse again exactly as it did. He tried to explain his theory of harmonics, but the staff became aggravated and defensive. They accused Prof. Von Karman of ulterior motives. They demanded to know his interest in their business; whom did he represent, and for whom did he speak?

Prof. Von Karman replied: “I speak for the wind.”

The bridge reopened nearly 10 years later, using a new scientific principle called ‘The Karman Vortex Street.’ It has influenced the construction of every long span bridge in the world, built after that date.

In 1963, at age 81, Prof. Von Kármán was the recipient of the first National Medal of Science, bestowed in a White House ceremony by President John F. Kennedy.”

Note: You can see a film of the bridge’s collapse on YouTube.

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Situational Morality

Back in the 1950’s, Charles E. Wilson, president of General Motors, was quoted as  saying: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” That’s not exactly what he said, but that’s the way the press reported it, and he was widely criticized for his arrogant, corporate-centric attitude. He tried for clarification, but didn’t deny saying something to that effect. He didn’t claim that he had “misspoke.” He said what he believed was true. He was talking from within the framework of his own corporate ethical system.

Every ethical system requires that we establish a touchstone by which we judge good or bad, right or wrong. We measure our ethical issues against that touchstone. If that standard happens to be General Motors, then what is good for GM is indeed good for all, and what is bad for GM is bad for all.

My question is: What is that touchstone or standard, and how do we select it?

Most of us base our ethical systems on The Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, or some  revealed Truth, such as Jesus’ great commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself for the love of God.”

But, we see educated, intelligent, and basically good people letting their moral compass swing away from the central path and choosing another touchstone. such as an organization, success, or profit,  and taking that as the standard from which they measure right or wrong.

In the case of Wall Street, it might be the acquisition of wealth and the continued survival and growth of their firm. In the Catholic Church scandal, the bishops chose the protection of the Church’s institutional reputation above the welfare of the laity and their children. A Saddam Hussein might place the success and continuation of his government above the people’s interests, and even their lives. A politician may sacrifice a career for “the good of the Party.” An inventor may rush a product to market without adequate testing or safeguards to achieve recognition, market position,  or sales. A university may turn away from recognizing and dealing with abuses so as not to jeopardize a successful athletic program. Athletes, taking the achievement of medals and records as their touchstone, might justify the taking of steroids as “right.”

I think we can all add examples of our own. They abound.

I find that there are many actions being taken in all these fields to get people’s thinking back on  track. The Big Three Steps in this arena are:

1. Ethical Training: Many organizations already have such training as part of their familization program. They tell the new people what they stand for, and challenge newcomers and old-timers both, to know and do what is really expected of them. These are continuing, not one-time programs. There are responsible officers on the corporate staff who monitor, conduct follow-on training sessions, and deal promptly with ethical issues and violations.

2. Third Party Auditing: No organization can audit itself. No exceptions here: None. They can monitor and make course corrections, but they are simply too close to be trusted with the true problem situation. They may “understand” what drove the person to do what they did, and minimize, cover-up, or even ignore, the problem. Every organization must have outside, disinterested, third party auditors, perhaps reporting to the board of directors, who can talk to everyone in the organization, see everything, understand everything – and take action or make recommendations accordingly. There may be no secrets kept from this auditing team.

3. One Responsible Manager: It all has to come together at the top with one credible, responsible, competent person in each organization, again perhaps reporting to the board. The US Army calls this person the “Inspector General.” Some papers and media outlets call their top ethical person “The Ombudsman.” Many firms now have a corporate “Vice President of Ethics.” These key people have the training, view, motivation, and clout to deal with the problems, and engage the outside third-party auditors assigned to the organization.

They are such people as may be closest as humanly possible to Plato’s ideal of “Philosopher Kings.”

These steps, enforced with the proven carrot and stick (the carrot as the reward, the stick as the punishment) will help bring everyone back to the real world where what we say and do truly matters in the human paradigm that too often exists outside the organizational interests.

We start to accomplish this by establishing our own ethical touchstone of honor, integrity, consideration, and perhaps even The Golden Rule.

It is against this standard that we decide good or bad, right or wrong.

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Quote Attribution: Research or Plagiarism?

As a speechwriter, I frequently incorporate relevant quotations into a client’s talk. Most of them are from books and literature that I have read, or speeches that I have heard, read, and seen. I always credit the source. I write: “As JFK once said,” “In the words of George Washington,” or even, “As Plato wrote.” That’s all fine. But what if you don’t remember where you heard it? What if you check the reference books, go out onto the Internet, or even Google it, and it still doesn’t show up? I have a rule of thumb:

1. If you honestly do not know the source, quote it: “As someone once said.” Then if a listener says: “Hey, that was Calvin Coolidge’s line,” you just give old Silent Cal credit in the next edition.

2. If I think I know, I’ll use something like: “I once heard this said of Henry Ford.” If it’s a classic funny line, I might write: “I think it was Mark Twain who said.”

3. If I have no idea at all, I’ll use: “Someone once said.”

The purpose is to use the quotation to support your premise, or make an important point, without laying false claim to the line itself. Also, by the reference to higher authority, you may wrap your point or argument in additional credibility.

Don’t over agonize about attribution anyway. It’s hard to find anything in recent times that wasn’t said, in perhaps a different way, back in Ancient Rome or Athens. I take this line as a guide:

I’m pretty sure it was that learned philosopher, Charley Brown who once said: “Don’t waste first rate devotion on a second rate cause.”

P.S. Someone recently sent me this quotation: “The trouble with quotes on the Internet is that it’s hard to determine whether or not they are genuine.” -Abraham Lincoln

Thanks, Abe. Well said.

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