Category Archives: Philosophy

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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Advice to the Graduates

Another graduation season has passed and, once again, nobody asked me to speak at their commencement. I went through college, the army, stayed married, raised a family, welcomed grandchildren, kept a job forever, survived two acquisitions, two mergers, countless reorganizations, a couple of heart attacks, stayed happy, and am now a self-anointed philosopher in retirement. Maybe if someone asked, I would share the Great Truths that I observed and learned about starting out and surviving in the working world. What the heck, I will anyway:

1. You must create your own game plan: How will you judge success? What matters to you? Is it money, marriage, power, fame, family, church, friends, and in what order? It’s your life, so you get to establish the priorities.

2. Understand that every organization has the same goal: To perpetuate its own existence, and to grow. They reward people who contribute to this goal, and neutralize those who don’t. After this, Increasing Profits is next on every corporate values list. Additional Services is next on every non-profit values list. Evangelization is next on every religious values list.  All other organizational goals are further down the page.

3. Get everything in writing. Companies merge, get acquired, change staff, and go in and out of business. As you get older, you may find that how hard you worked, and how long you were there, matters less than the deal you signed going in. Say: “Of course I trust you. It’s just good business to write it down. I watch my personal interests just as I watch the corporate interests.” Then write it down and get it signed.

4. Don’t confuse courtesy with interest. People with good manners will hear you out, suggest they will get back to you, and disappear forever. Ask specific questions. “When may I hear from you?” “Would next Tuesday be a good time for me to call?” Pin it down. Follow up. If there’s no chance, you might as well know it today.

5. Find a mentor. There are few ladders from one management level to the next higher one, and they are narrow and congested. Someone has to pull you up. Get a mentor whose values you share, and work loyally for them. Display your talents and show initiative. Be trustworthy and balanced. People hire and promote in their own image. It might as well be you.

6. Follow policies and procedures, but watch what the boss does too. Privates and generals don’t have the same perks and privileges, but it helps to know how the top gun thinks.

7. Try for a piece of the action (e.g.: Equity). Stock is good, if you believe in their future. If you don’t believe in their future, start looking around. When a firm succeeds, it’s not always the people who made it succeed that get rich. When a firm fails, it’s not always the people who made it fail that get hurt. Be on the right list.

8. Stay in touch. If you don’t make calls, you won’t get calls. You will learn more from social interaction with your peers and superiors than from any  business book in the HR library. Say:  “The coffee’s on me.” Ask, listen, and never betray a trust.

9. Pursue what you believe in and don’t take “no” from anyone who can’t say “yes.” Some people use policy instead of judgment, and everyone is authorized to say no. That’s just a screening process. Talk to the boss. A company can do anything legal that it wants. Policy is just what they prefer.

10. If you start a business, pick one that you understand. Know your product and market better than anyone else. Add value. It’s hard to sell the same stuff as everybody else, only cheaper. Someone will always make it cheaper. Look to the great  fortunes and learn how they did it. There is no single way: Henry Ford did it with automobiles. Bill Gates did it with software. William Wrigley did it with chewing gum.

Personally, I’ve always admired a business like Wrigley’s, where a great many people give you a little money each. You’re better off than with a few big customers who want to run your show. Big customers are pushy.

Here are a few bonus thoughts: Keep your priorities straight. It’s easier to get a new job than a new family; rich and lonely is just a little bit less lousy than poor and lonely.  Keep your values intact. You can con others but not yourself, and sooner or later you will catch up with you. Listen to people and don’t be defensive. Keep yourself healthy. Good things can’t happen unless you can make them happen. No matter how much you love a company, a company can’t love you back. It’s all about today’s performance. Stay current. Remember Watergate and Enron: It’s not always the bad deed that brings you down, it’s the cover-up. Be the first to call for an Audit. Work smart. Don’t confuse activity with accomplishment.

And – Don’t fight the Establishment unless you want to commit yourself to some non-traditional life style. I’ve never seen anyone win that battle. The Establishment is too big, too smart, too rich, and too powerful. Besides, the Establishment won’t fight you unless you start it. The Brits tell the tale of the Tugboat and the Queen Mary: If the Tugboat tries to turn the Queen Mary by stopping in front of her, the Tugboat will be run over and sink without a ripple. But – if the Tugboat stands off to the side, and throws frequent and gentle shoves in the right direction, the Queen Mary will eventually respond.

And, by the way, don’t believe that the Establishment is just the Top 1%. They may be in there, but The Establishment is also the guy who owns the lumber yard in your own home town, if that’s where you intend to apply for a job.

Finally, if you make it big, pass on what you learned to interested others, and leave something on the table for the next guy. If you just want to use money to keep score, play Monopoly. People don’t get hurt in Monopoly.

That’s my short list of what I think you need to know to succeed in business. Your real education is about to begin.

Now get out there – and survive.

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Chinese Curses

Confucius: 551-479 B.C.

“May You Live in Interesting Times”

            Like many Americans, my youthful understanding of Chinese wisdom was restricted to the Fortune Cookies, I received with my tea, at the Peacock Restaurant in my hometown of Fitchburg, Massachusetts.

They all said clever and upbeat little things like: “A Great Fortune Awaits You” (I kept that one; I’m still awaiting the Great Fortune; it seems to be running late). It went on like this for years, Chinese food once a week with the gang from work, then sharing the great wisdom we found when we broke the Fortune Cookies apart, dunked them into our tea and read each other our futures.

In all those years, we only had one embarrassing moment: My friend, Bill Nicholas, was recuperating from a heart attack and bypass surgery, when we gave him a welcome back luncheon at our favorite Chinese restaurant. When it came time to break open the Fortune Cookie, Bill’s was the only cookie I have ever seen that held no fortune. It was empty. Bill seemed depressed. We all wondered what could be the meaning of this. I guess it wasn’t all that important: Bill is in his healthy mid-eighties now, and we still do Chinese luncheons (complete with Fortune Cookies).

Then one day at work, sometime in the early Seventies, one of my managers said to another: “May you live in interesting times.” I had no idea what that meant, and asked Harvey, my mentor, to explain. “It’s an old Chinese curse,” he said. “It supposedly goes back centuries when ‘Interesting Times’ meant times of great stress, deprivation and even war. It is a harsh thing to say.It was a genteel curse.”

I was hooked. Were there other such Chinese Curses that had escaped my notice? I decided to find out. I already read everything I could find, including the cereal boxes at breakfast, so it was not a big jump to do a little research on Chinese Curses. This research started, pre-Internet, with encyclopedias and reference books, and continued on through Googol and Wikipedia.

I learned that there were three such Chinese Curses, and “Interesting Times” was considered to be the least severe of the lot. Here are the three in ascending order of harshness:

1. “May you live in interesting times.”

2. “May you come to the attention of important people.”

3. “May your every wish be granted.”

I find that third one particularly scary.

Naturally, I now wondered if there was a similar Chinese Blessing. I could find no reference to such a thing, although I did look on and off for years. I found nothing, until recently, that is.

I was reading a book published in England. The author told about the birth of his first son. He showed the infant to an elderly Chinese gentleman who lived in his village, and asked if he had an appropriate blessing for the child. The old man said he had. Bending over the baby, he smiled and said: “May you be ordinary.”

If you think about that for a while, like I did, you’ll realize that considering all the alternatives and possibilities, “ordinary” is a pretty good way to go.

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Protecting Us From Each Other

I recently read a government statement with which both the Republicans and the Democrats seem to agree: The biggest move we make in the short term to save Social Security and Medicare is to eliminate fraud and abuse from the system.

Easy to say and hard to do. People are stealing from each other and cheating the system from one end of the pipe to the other.

Did you ever consider how much money we spend, and waste, on protecting ourselves from each other? Let us count the ways:

1. On an international basis, we support the United Nations, and provide numerous world-wide governments with foreign aid, which includes the supplies, weapons, and training with which they can maintain order and defend themselves.

Don’t forget the Red Cross and other support agencies who render aid to the wounded when that first part doesn’t work.  Also, remember that not all those famines, droughts, and fires we read about are caused solely by forces of nature.

2. Back home, we have the defense budget, which includes the Pentagon and the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard, and all the other uniformed services. We pay to equip and train them, feed and maintain them, and provide benefits and security when they retire.

3. In other parts of the government bureaucracy, we similarly support T-Men, G-Men, Secret Service, the FBI, CIA, NSA, TSA, FEMA, SEC, ATF, DHS, border guards, customs, immigration, and all the other agencies who maintain our defenses against invasion, terrorists, drugs, smugglers, pirates, and various other classes of evil-doers.

4. At the state level we have the highway patrol, state police, National Guard, county sheriffs,  and a host of others agencies that have a “serve and protect” kind of charter.

5. Locally, every city and town has some sort of police force, parole officers, sheriffs, and the like that provide local security. We also have the state version of some of the government agencies listed earlier.

6. We’ve got to remember the courts and penal systems that exist at every level to judge and punish those who who break the law, and for whom we provide free counsel. In some cases, we support the guilty ones in prisons for the rest of their natural lives.

7. Now add the security systems and guards at our shopping malls, the schools, metal detectors everywhere, airport and border security, pepper spray, and remember to add all the locks, alarm systems, and weapons we have in our homes, churches, businesses, and storage sheds. The only reason your car has an alarm and keyed ignition system is so that someone can’t take it without your consent; just as your computer has a code to prevent unauthorized entry and firewalls to guard against identity theft. You pay for all that.

We probably should add something for the drug and food inspectors who make sure we don’t poison each other, self-defense lessons, guard dogs, outside lighting, motion detectors, and that piece of the fire fighters’ budget that deals with arson and the like.

What have I missed? Feel free to add to the list. Let’s throw in a few more bucks for “Miscellaneous.”

Now, what does it all cost, directly and indirectly? The defense budget alone consumes twenty cents of every dollar the government spends. I’d estimate all the rest of it, including foreign aid, consumes another forty cents. That’s about 60% of every dollar spent, everywhere, by everybody. The Gross National Product for 2009 was $14.3 trillion.

Imagine, if that money (up to $8.6 trillion), or at least a good chunk of it, was available for… medical research (say goodbye to cancer, heart disease, and all the other medical killers); education (simply put: goodbye to ignorance); infrastructure (bridges and highways for all!); research and development (a new age of invention and enlightenment); and charity (help for those who really need it).

We could even pay off the national debt in a few years and maybe even have a budget surplus.

Of course there’s no way to do all that at once. It’s mostly pie-in-the-sky and day dreams. But we could make a small start. It all begins with  the corny old stuff we’ve heard all our lives –  like the Golden Rule, Live and Let Live, Mind Your Own Business, and the like. And it all begins at the basic family level, with everybody sticking together, pulling together, and  doing their job. It reminds me of what my Uncle George, the World War I hero, told me on how to get along in the army when it came my turn to serve: “Keep your nose clean and your shoes shined.”

That means it starts with you and me doing what we’re supposed to do.

And we could start right now.

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Riffs: 8/11/12, A More Innocent Time

After a certain age, people start to think about the past as “a simpler and more innocent time.” I used to think that way too about the 1940s.  I was a little boy surrounded by a loving and extended family that buffered me from the real world. Later I learned the truth: That for most of the world, the 1940s meant war, suffering, death, and devastation on a scale never seen before in human history.

I guess if going back in time produced innocence, Sodom & Gomorrah must have looked like Disneyland.

I thought about this again recently when I saw Las Vegas casino owner, Steve Wynn, interviewed on a news program. Mr. Wynn is the city’s largest and longest surviving casino owner, and the reporter commented that Mr. Wynn went back in Las Vegas history to a “simpler and more innocent time.” I immediately thought of Las Vegas being built and run by the likes of Bugsy Siegel and the mob, and chuckled at the naivete of the question. I wondered how Mr. Wynn would reply.

Mr. Wynn thought briefly, and then said: “It may have been a simpler time, but there was never an innocent time.”

Thanks, Mr. Wynn. No revisionist history for you and me.

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