Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, September 30, 2006


I just attended my first charette. "Charette" is a French term for a meeting of the minds on architectural design issues. In this case, it was a meeting of all interested people at the Emerson Waldorf School to discuss what we're going to do with our beautiful wooded campus for the next twenty to fifty years.

It was an intersting process. Firstly, because the meeting was almost entirely about process. There were hardly any concrete decisions along the lines of "put this building here." Rather, it was strictly a philosophical and organizational discussion about how we make those decisions: what criteria do we use to evaluate a particular building plan? What formal process should we follow for making those decisions and then executing on them?

So what did we learn? Mostly, that making a new building happen is fiendishly complicated. A maze of poorly thought-out, poorly-documented county ordinances and rules, which are interpreted differently every day of the week, threaten to scuttle your plans at any moment. There is an eternal tension between the design ideals of the Waldorf pedagogy and the financial expediency of the moment: it seems like we can never afford to build exactly the building we would like to have. The immediate needs of the community are clamoring for a specific solution, and yet you know that whatever decision you make is going to have repercussions for the next fifty years. And getting enough consensus out of the community to make all these things happen is well-nigh impossible. It makes my ass tired just thinking about it.

I have decided that this is the ultimate test of leadership. There is probably enough vision, good will, volunteer labor, and money among the whole community to get these building projects done. But it is going to take some extraordinary leadership to coalesce all those forces into a plan that actually happens. All those things that used to sound like empty corporate phrases -- like vision, and shared values, and organizational will -- are suddenly very relevant. Building is one of the few things that ordinary people attempt to do that cannot possibly be done alone. And yet ordinary people do it, all the time.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Of course YOU'D say that

Kenny had another great point in his lecture on Monday:

"Now, all of you have certain beliefs that you feel strongly about, and I'm sure that all of you know for certain that you believe those things for really good reasons -- because they are true. But when you look around at everyone else, and they happen to believe something else, you're inclined to think that they believe those things because 'they're that kind of person.' "

In other words, "psychology precedes philosophy." We can see clearly in other people the fact that beliefs stem directly out of how people think . . . but we don't often consider ourselves in the same light. We can't really take our values and beliefs at face value, unless we first consider where they come from. Why we believe is often more important than what it is that we believe.

So, can I look at myself this way? Is there anything that I believe for no good reason, other than "I'm that kind of person"? The only thing I could think of was my Protestant work-ethic . . . I believe that hard-working people are morally superior to people who aren't hard-working. But I can also see that that's because I'm hard-working. I still genuinely believe there is merit in hard work . . . but possibly not as much as I had previously thought.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Memento Mori

"Let's play dinosaurs."
"Oh, I dont' want to, Aidan. I'm really tired."
"Well, you don't have to do a lot . . . you can be the plant-eater, and I'll be the meat-eater.
"Uh . . . OK."
"'Cause, you'll be dead soon."
"And, you rest a whole lot, when you're dead."

Doctor Follow-Up

I've been helping the UNC SKS organize some of their events, and while things went relatively well with their lecture last night, there was definitely lots of room for improvement. I've been doing this sort of thing for so long that I keep forgetting that it's a definable skill that needs to be learned and which can and should be taught. It got me to thinking about what principles are core to being an effective organizer of people and processes.

Augie drilled a few principles into my head about organizing people:
  1. What's the plan, Stan? Or, "Nothing happens by accident." If you want something to happen, then you need to have a plan for it to happen. A plan is an explicit who-what-where-when-why for the particular task or objective. If you don't say who is going to do it, or when it's going to get done, or even define the ultimate purpose for why the task is being done, you can't expect that things will get done right, much less done at all.
  2. What's in it for them? Augie constantly exhorted us to put ourselves in the other person's position, and to understand what they wanted and needed, and to keep those factors in mind when we dealt with them for anything. So much of organizing people boils down to getting people to do things for you, and so you're constantly put in a position of asking people to go out of their way for you. Whether it was your peers, your boss, your workers, or someone else entirely, you always have to start with: "What's in it for them? Why should they care about this?" Some people would see this as slippery sales-talk, but it's actually very genuinely spiritual: people want to help you, when you genuinely want to help them.
  3. Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up. One eventually learns by hard experience that Murphey's Law is especially applicable to project planning: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. The only known antidote is follow-up: constantly checking to make sure things are going the way you want them to go. Everything has to be verified. If you ask someone to do something, you have to check in with them to see if they actually did it. If they tell you that they did it, you sometimes have to check that they actually did do it, and did it correctly. Nothing is ever really done so much as it is contantly in the process of being done. How much follow-up is enough? I think the standard to strive for is "prove beyond reasonable doubt." If you have any doubt that something has actually been done, you probably need to do more follow-up.
  4. Communicate constantly. Organizations that excel at logistics (the U.S. Army comes to mind) emphasize communication. Lots and lots of communication. There's a lot that can be said about communicating effectively, but the most important things with organizational work is that the communication is constant and redundant. Constant communication means that nothing is done without information being shared: if you do something, you tell people about it. If you don't do something, you tell people about that. Redundant communication means that both sides of the communication are constantly mirroring their understanding of each other back to the other party, to avoid all possibility of misunderstanding. For instance, if the commanding officer asks his recon, "How many enemy units do you see? Over," the recon will answer, "I see one, two, three, four, five enemy units, over." The CO doesn't say, "How many are there?" nor does the recon simply say, "Five." Every question defines the exact answer; every answer includes the question that was asked.

I think if someone internalized these principles, all other organizational best practices would become natural and obvious.

Einstein, Bill Gates, and the Buddha

SKS stalwart Ken Felder gave his "Einstein, Bill Gates, and the Buddha" last night at UNC. It had been a long time since I had heard Kenny speak publically -- I had forgotten how much fun it can be.

One idea that Kenny brought out that seemed new to me was one of his (several) pocket-definitions of spirituality: "Spirituality is the complete retreat from faith. By faith I mean believing in anything without a reason for believing it [what Ken Wilber would call "without any validity claims"]. Faith means that you don't believe in a God just because you want very much for a God to be there. It doesn't mean not believing in a God just because you don't want to be bothered with having to find out whether their is a God or not. Blind belief and blind disbelief are equally lazy. Maybe there is a God, and maybe there isn't -- find out. That is spirituality."

Usually I am exhorting people to articulate their philosophies and their beliefs, because all too often they are hazy and vague and poorly defined, and its hard to be true to values that are poorly defined. But Kenny kind of flipped that on its head -- it's relatively easy to stake out a particular dogma and deploy your intellectual defenses around it. It's much harder to live in a state of suspension of beliefs, insisting on Truth instead of opinions. Perhaps that's the meaning of the Zen saying: "Only cease to cherish opinions."

I find myself much more in that state these days. On the one hand, I care much more about the spiritual path than I have for a long time. On the other hand, I have far fewer opinions about what that path is necessarily going to look like. I don't feel very sure about the purpose my life, or the purpose of Life in general, or what's going to happen to me when I die. And yet that seems like a movement in the right direction. I remember Fleet Maul once said: "Spirituality is becoming more and more comfortable with less and less ground to stand on." It isn't really what I was looking to find, but Emptiness seems to be where I'm winding up.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


"Dad, I'm sad."
"Because mom says I can't take the beeswax to bed."
"But Aidan . . . it's not like you're going to model something in the middle of the night!"
"Yeah . . . but I hold it in my hands when I'm sleeping, so when I wake up in the morning it will already be warm and ready to make something."
"Wow . . . so you're can't even stop when you're sleeping, huh?"
"I don't waste any time! Either I'm looking at a book, trying to decide what to make next, or I'm making it."


The Smart Money

The New Yorker had an interesting piece on their financial page about the regulation of gambling in the United States. American culture has a profoundly ambivalent relationship with gambling. On the one hand, it is (I think, rightly) seen as an economic scourge on the poor and source of addictive destruction to many. On the other hand, it is in some circumstances fun and engaging. I don't think anyone would watch the horse races with so much enthusiasm were there not some money riding on the outcome.

I find this topic especially interesting because I, personally, have the same schizophrenic relationship with the notion of gambling that the country has. When it comes to lotteries and Vegas-style casino gambling, I am as puritanical as they come. I think it's ugly, wasteful, stupid, deceitful, and a blight on the nation. If someone told me they enjoy playing the slots or shooting dice, I would think less of them.

When it comes to betting on sports, however, I am the mildest of moderates. When someone tells me they are filling out their bracket for the NCAA, I think better of them, because (in theory, at least) they actually understand enough of the game to have an intelligent opinion on the matter. Rather than dulling people's brains (as Vegas does) sports betting seems to heighten everyone's intellectual engagement in the whole affair. And while there are still lots of people who ruin themselves over sports betting, I just don't seem to have the same disdain for them.

Then, there are the markets. Commodities, stocks, bonds, futures, IPOs . . . people bristle if you call them "speculative," but the truth is that everyone who is investing is placing their bets. The range of risk is a lot more varied, but the nature of the game is really no different. Everyone is trying to correctly predict the future, and predict it better than everyone else. Not only do I not mind this sort of thing, I deify it -- it's the invisible hand of the marketplace, the power of collective knowledge that makes for an intelligent and responsive economy, the souce of all the wealth that holds up our political and personal freedom. People did not always see it that way . . . it was, at one time, illegal in this country to speculate on the price of wheat.

So, if I had my way, I would banish all pure-chance so-called games and completely open up all other forms of gambling. I would let the government take a healthy cut of the revenue in taxes, but I would never let the government actually run such ventures themselves (a la state lotteries). I would regulate the bookies with approximately the same level of scrutiny as the financial markets, for approximately the same reasons: to avert outright fraud and remove conflicts of interest. There would be a legal and regulated market for gambling, which wouldn't completely kill the illegal market but probably keep it out of trouble.

Who'll take the other side of that?