Archive for February, 2006

Addendum to “Prolificity: Stock your head”

27 February 2006

When I jotted down my thoughts on keeping problems in mind that you could think about in the odd moments of the day, I had forgotten this anecdote from the late mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota:

Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”

I say “forgotten,” because I stumbled across it yesterday while on a laptop cleaning frenzy. I had jotted down Rota’s words a couple of years ago . . . and then neglected to keep them in my own mind during the interim.

The quotation is taken from Rota’s talk, “Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught.” (You can find a nice PDF version here.) In finding the links to it, I’ve discovered much more about Rota himself. He was a fascinating man and a great scholar, as this obituary from MIT makes clear. His work bridged mathematics, philosophy, writing, editing, and teaching. From what I can tell–especially given this page of remembrances and honors–Rota’s life presents a fine model of what a scholar should aspire to be. Besides the speech already quoted, I can recommend Rota’s lecture on “10 Lessons of an MIT Education.” Even if your field is not mathematics (mine certainly isn’t!), there is much of value there.


Book review: Jared Diamond’s Collapse

26 February 2006

This review of mine originally appeared in the 2 January 2005 edition of the Austin American-Statesman.

Guns, Germs, Steel and Litter: From Easter Island to Greenland, Jared Diamond Looks at Civilization’s Ecological Rise and Fall

Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” is an impressive work of history. It is broad in its learning and vast in its scope. It is written in a fluent narrative voice that would be the envy of many novelists. And it might actually make a difference in how people think about the world. It is, in short, a book that no self-respecting historian would write.

For a while now, the trend among academic historians has been to produce microstudies marked by narrow focus and exhausting theoretical rigor. When historians do work on a larger canvas, they tend to portray big, obvious topics — lives of presidents, major wars or famous incidents such as the Lewis and Clark expedition. The kind of innovative megastudies that Diamond pursues are disdained as too broad, too ambitious — beyond the reach of any properly strait-laced specialist.

Thank goodness Diamond is not a historian by profession. He is a scientist and, even by the lights of science, a polymath — an ornithologist, physiologist, evolutionary biologist and biogeographer. As such, he is not subject to the narrow dictates of the historical profession, which means he is free to write the sort of history that a lay audience — an intelligent lay audience, mind you — is interested in reading. This was demonstrated by the huge sales and Pulitzer honors won by his last book, “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” That subtitle almost seems like a slap at the historical establishment’s allergy to master narratives, but it aptly reflects Diamond’s devotion to what he calls “history’s broadest pattern.”

“Collapse,” the latest result of Diamond’s interest in the big picture, is a cautionary, but far from gloomy, tale that elevates the tone of environmental debate above fearmongering and ideological squabbles. Where “Guns, Germs and Steel” explored why certain societies managed to conquer large parts of the world, this one studies the reasons — particularly the ecological reasons — why certain societies have failed.

To elaborate his ideas, Diamond considers several collapsed civilizations, including those of Easter Island, the Anasazi, the Maya and the Greenland Norse. In each case study, Diamond draws on the work of specialists, from anthropologists to pollen scientists, to build a picture of why and how each civilization came to ruin. In the case of Easter Island, for example, he shows how islanders’ religious beliefs, tribal allegiances, and use of the land — all of which played a role in the creation of the island’s famous stone statues — reinforced one another in a vicious circle that led to deforestation, extinction of food species and, finally, civil war and population collapse. (Again tipping his hand as a nonhistorian historian, Diamond enlivens his case studies by frequently sharing his emotions. He opens one chapter with the admission that “No other site I have visited made such a ghostly impression on me as Rano Raraku, the quarry on Easter Island where its famous gigantic stone statues were carved.”)

Diamond gives brief attention to societies that managed to solve problems of isolation, climate change, population pressure and social turmoil, such as Iceland, New Guinea and Japan, and then turns to several current societies that suffer from these same threats. For example, Diamond offers the case of Hispaniola, where the Dominican Republic shows signs of sustainable growth while Haiti suffers from an environment as poor as its economy. Haiti’s past leaders enacted laws that drastically limited foreign ownership of property but never limited the population’s use of trees for fuel. By contrast, longtime Dominican dictator Joaquin Balaguer actively sought foreign investment, outlawed logging, strengthened the country’s robust system of national parks and subsidized gas stoves to reduce pressure on Dominican forests.

The last section of “Collapse” departs markedly from most current works of history. While many environmental historians write postscripts about how their studies relate to larger themes, these chapters are often long on generalities and short on policy specifics. Diamond, by contrast, devotes three long chapters to the lessons learned from his far-flung studies. He traces past societies’ downward spirals to a small set of reasons: “failure to anticipate a problem, failure to perceive it once it has arisen, failure to attempt to solve it after it has been perceived, and failure to succeed in attempts to solve it.”

To his credit, Diamond doesn’t demonize the world of commerce. He’s a passionate environmentalist, but also a passionate realist. “If environmentalists aren’t willing to engage with big businesses, which are among the most powerful forces in the modern world, it won’t be possible to solve the world’s environmental problems,” he writes. Given the sorry track record of many environmentalists on this score, the point bears repeating.

Diamond’s final chapter lays out a dozen of the world’s worst environmental threats — destruction of natural habitat, chemical pollution, water shortages and so on. In the book’s most practical turn, he lists and rebuts a slew of typical one-liner objections such as “Environmentalists are always crying wolf.” One of his best rebuttals counters the claim that “Technology will solve our problems.” After noting that “All of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology,” Diamond delivers this withering rhetorical question: “What makes you think that, as of January 1, 2006, for the first time in human history, technology will miraculously stop causing new unanticipated problems while it just solves the problems that it previously produced?”

Diamond’s central thesis is one of hope: Despite major threats to the global environment, societies can act wisely. Many of our ancestors certainly got it right: Intensive but sustainable agriculture was practiced for centuries in the highland valleys of New Guinea; deforestation in Japan was reversed by a succession of Tokugawa shoguns hundreds of years ago. We moderns have it even easier; the advance of scientific knowledge should heighten our ability to anticipate, perceive and solve such problems.

Of course, the customs of certain professions make it less likely that the necessary information will get out to the public at large. Perhaps Diamond’s next book will boast the subtitle “How Certain Academic Disciplines Fail or Succeed.”

Considering grad school? Read these.

26 February 2006

Some books I have found useful:

If you’re only going to read one of these, make it the Peters book, which is pragmatic in the extreme. If you can read two, read Peters and Verba. But the most useful thing I’ve found is this free e-book from Prof. Phil Agre of UCLA:

Networking on the Network: A Guide to Professional Skills for Ph.D. Students

It’s sad but true that graduate students–a slice of the population loaded with really smart people–are often very dumb when it comes to the nuts and bolts of putting together a successful career. Yes, it’s scholarship, so in one sense it ought to be about ideas and hard work and new discoveries. But it’s also an industry, so common-sense careerism will always have a place–a legitimate place. Grad students, no matter how brilliant, ignore this advice at their peril.

Heist Pictures: From my lips to the Guardian’s ear.

26 February 2006

What was I just saying about heist pictures? This morning I find this tidbit on the Guardian Unlimited blog:

Everyone loves a good heist

[…] There has always been an ambivalent attitude towards particularly daring robberies, whether carried out by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or our own Great Train Robbers, or created on film in Oceans Eleven. While people hate muggers who pull knives on their victims and thieves who break into the homes of the elderly, carrying out a spectacular multi-million pound robbery will win the grudging admiration of the nation. The muscle or menace involved in pulling off the job will be cheerfully overlooked.

Why is this?

However hard banks and businesses try to persuade us that such robberies are not victimless crimes, there is a feeling that if the money is taken from the big boys – banks, security companies, Mayfair jewellers – then no one has been too badly damaged by it. […]

Well said. In talking about the forthcoming “Inside Man,” Spike Lee stressed that it was a thinking person’s thriller, with no shooting. However, the trailer makes it look far more menacing than “Oceans Eleven” or “The Great Train Robbery.”

Commonplace: Emerson

26 February 2006

“Look sharply after your thoughts. They come unlooked for like a bird seen on your trees, and if you turn to your usual task, disappear, and you shall never find that perception again. Never, I say, but for years perhaps, and I know not what events and worlds may lie between you and its return.”

Good management is everywhere.

26 February 2006

You can find good and bad examples of management in any context. Clearing out some files, I came across this long ESPN profile of Leo Mazzone–by acclamation the greatest baseball pitching coach of this era. You don’t have to like (or even understand) baseball to appreciate the power of his techniques.

Future Hall-of-Fame pitcher Greg Maddux:

[In training,] There are no parachutes on your back, no cones to run around, no 10 different meetings talking about something that doesn’t concern you. All the other stuff, you don’t partake in. So you spend less time doing nothing, and you spend all your time doing what it is you have to do to get better on the mound.

Mazzone in reply:

You don’t think pitchers appreciate that? Running all these drills and doing all this stuff before you get on the mound is not very bright. Your first priority is to get on the mound and practice your craft, without being fatigued from drills that are not going to mean near as much as you trying to make pitches.

This is another way of saying “First things first, second things not at all”–an apothegm that’s been taped to my computer monitor for years. Mazzone has always kept his players in shape, but primarily by having them throw a lot. Radical concept, no?

One more thing in the first-things-firt vein, this one more baseball-specific. Here’s a quote from big-league pitcher Kent Mercker, who worked under Mazzone for six years:

I think there is an understanding, whatever team you are on, whoever your pitching coach is, whoever is hitting, if you can go knee-high down and away on the corner, you are going to be successful. I don’t think that’s a mystery, but I think it’s the fact that he stresses, he harps on it, he doesn’t let you forget that. There is not a 10-minute period that goes by in a day where he doesn’t say that to somebody.

The heading for that part of the article is “Down and away, got it? Down and away, got it?” Mazzone is willing to be repetitive to implant this fundamental principle into the minds of his charges. His mantra is the converse of a famous observation made by all-time-great hitter Ted Williams in his book The Science of Hitting. Williams said that “baseball history is made on the inner half of the plate”–that is, the part of the strike zone nearer the hitter. Williams waited for the ball inside so he could drive it harder, and thereby make baseball history with big hits. Mazzone consistently–incessantly–coaches his pitchers not to give those pitches to hitters.

If you like baseball, read the article. It’s the perfect thing for a Sunday morning during Spring Training, especially if you like your management lessons with a spoonful of honey.

Live every day as though it were your last.

25 February 2006

This post from Seth Godin set me thinking . . . what if we lived every moment as though it might be our last? What if we engaged every challenge as though our lives depended on it?

My great-grandmother died early this morning in Georgia. She was old and full of years–she would have been 98 in two more weeks. She was a farm wife with a third-grade education, a devout Christian, mother of four, and one of the world’s great cooks. Best I can tell, she watched the news every day for all the decades that she owned a television, and she had opinions about how the nation and the world was being run. She loved everybody, and everybody loved her back. We’ll miss you, Ma Baines.

Not all of us will be so lucky.

Let me repeat something I quoted earlier: “Whatever you do, just make sure you throw every pitch with conviction.” It’s a good test: If you can do it with conviction, it’s worth doing. If you can do it knowing that you’re a terminal case, do it. We’re going to be dead a long time; if you can’t do whatever it is with a straight face while holding that thought in mind, then don’t do it.

Notes on job-hunting: It’s not over until you win.

25 February 2006

[This is part one in a series. Part two is here.]

Several friends of mine are looking for work these days. Some are without a job, some are leaving jobs, some are in jobs they hate. All have the same objective: something better than this. If this sounds familiar to you, keep reading.

The common thread among most of these job-seekers is that they don’t have a bone in their body oriented toward sales. They’re writers, artists, thinkers–damn smart ones, too–but they are not self-promoters, or at least not natural self-promoters. One of the toughest things about the process of finding a new job is that it asks people like this to turn into super-sellers for as long as it takes to land something new. In and of itself, this stinks. It’s one of those tough realities of life that you just have to face and surmount as serenely as you can. The good news, though, is that you’re selling something great: you!

Starting with this post, I’m going to offer some guidelines about how to find better work. These tips are not hypothetical. I have used them, and they work. In fact, they are working for me now–even though I have no plans to leave my company–because they are helping me redefine my working role. I hope they are helpful to you. Please share your own best career-improvement tips in the comments section.

Rule #1. It’s not over until you win. This is the cardinal rule, the unbreakable rule for successful career change. Finding a new job or reaching a level of enduring satisfaction in your career is not something you snap your fingers to achieve. The biggest mistake that I’ve made in my own job searches, and by far the biggest mistake that I’ve seen others make, is to form in advance some sort of mental picture about a “reasonable” amount of time and effort to put into the search. Abandon that illusion! There is no “reasonable” amount of time. If you have to temp for six months while you find or create the right position, so be it. If it’s year, it’s a year. It all depends on who you are, where you are in your career, and what you’re trying to do now.

Note that seemingly long delays in finding the right job may have nothing to do with you. The job market is notorious for the friction it contains. Information doesn’t flow freely. Employers seeking new workers and workers seeking new employers often aren’t able to find each other. There might be a great job waiting for you in a great department at a great company . . . except that the company’s H.R. department can’t get its act together. The list could go on, but my point is this: Don’t beat yourself up over the market or the opportunities that fail to materialize for you. Don’t indulge your fantasies of how the market should work. Just deal with it as it is, frictions and all.

So how do you push ahead to winning? Above all, define your outcomes in advance: Are you just looking to pay the rent for now? Do you want a great job that pays at least $N per year? Do you seek to exercise benevolent global hegemony? Or maybe you just want an honorable, low-stress, decent day job so you can write poetry evenings and weekends? Any one of these goals is fine. In fact, you ought to have more than one: the immediate need to fill now (sanity, rent money), a bigger goal for a year from now ($N per year, maybe a promotion), and a long-term ideal for where you’re headed in the future (making a living writing poetry, becoming a partner in your firm, retiring at age 50). But whatever you do, write down your goals in advance of your job search. If you don’t know what winning looks like, you can’t figure out what to do to get there.

Now comes the hard part: Acknowledge the reality that your efforts must be open-ended until you reach your goal. It’s not a matter of sending out a hundred resumes (not a great strategy anyway, according to many experts) and waiting. It’s not a matter of looking really hard for a week and then waiting. It’s not a matter of contacting ten friends and then waiting. There is no waiting. You work full-time until you achieve your goal–at which point, you’ll switch over to working full-time at your new job. The point is that the amount of your work doesn’t change just because you don’t have an employer right now: you keep putting in full days. In fact, you may have to work overtime if you’re hunting for a new job at the same time that you’re working at an old one. Don’t complain to me about it: I’m just describing the weather of the working world.

This is going to mean more work than you want to do. It’s going to mean more grief than you think is reasonable to sustain. It could mean dozens or scores or hundreds of e-mails, resumes, and so on that don’t go anywhere. Get Zen with it: it’s just so. But you don’t have to do it alone! Because you’re going to . . .

Rule #2. Get help. You need skillz, baby. Many people stumble through job-hunting because they think they know what’s involved with it: you send out resumes, you fill out applications, you wait for a call. But this conventional wisdom for job hunting is actually no wisdom at all. In fact, the traditional way of job-hunting is a pretty lousy way to land a job you want.

Fortunately, what with this new “Internet” thing to go along with the old “public library” thing, help is close at hand. A great place to start is David Lorenzo’s Career Intensity blog, which is connected to his forthcoming book of the same title. Even though I’m not looking for a job, I check it out every day for great tips on how to create better situations for myself in the working world. Even if you don’t share the level of emotional “intensity” Lorenzo is talking about, you can benefit from his posts, which blend his own rich experience with a lot of sound common sense. Best of all, he’s full of energy and often posts several times per day.

Lorenzo and I are both regular readers of Keith Ferrazzi, the go-to guy for business networking. Ferrazzi (whom I’ve written about before) hates the kind of backslapping that gives “networking” a bad name; he’s all about building real human relationships in a business context. His blog and book are well worth your time.

Finally, there’s a good reason What Color is Your Parachute? has sold so many copies: it works. Dick Bolles offers gentle advice–sometimes abstract, sometimes quite specific–for those seeking change in their careers. You won’t get the intensity or drive embodied in Lorenzo’s or Ferrazzi’s work, but you will find much of value on his site.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll address cynicism–the biggest enemy of any effective job search.

Heist Pictures: Inside Man.

24 February 2006

Folks, I need some help. Prompted by the imminent arrival of the Spike Lee / Denzel Washington / Clive Owen / Jodie Foster project “Inside Man,” I’m working on an essay about heist pictures generally.

How you can help? Please answer these questions for me:
–Just because I use the term doesn’t mean it’s ubiquitous, so . . . When I say “heist picture,” do you know what I mean right away, or do you need some definition?
–What’s your favorite heist picture? Why?
–Why do you like heist pictures? Or, if you don’t, why not?

As for “Inside Man”: I saw the trailer when I went to see Jackson’s “King Kong.” It caught my attention instantly with the closeup headshot of Owen talking. It looks well-plotted and tense. It debuts in the middle of March.

The official “Inside Man” site, with links to the trailer and to podcasts from Spike Lee.
“Inside Man” IMDB entry.

Thank you for your help.

Very much worth your time: William Germano

24 February 2006

Yesterday I had the good fortune to attend a seminar given by William Germano, the author of Getting It Published and From Dissertation to Book. Germano has been editing scholarly books for more than 25 years, and has much to say about the business, the philosophy, and the psychology of academic publishing. His presentation was low-tech but highly personal and humane.

Germano was speaking to an audience of Ph.D. students drawn from across the disciplines. He took great pains to spell out for us the differences between doctoral dissertations and publishable book manuscripts–two beasts very often confused for one another by writers of the former. Many dissertations, Germano said, are actually “big book reports,” written for an audience of five (the dissertation committee) and afflicted with the “aphonia”–the “willed voicelessness”–of the academy. Books, meanwhile, must be narratives with a voice that tell a story around a particular “through-line”–a central thread that ties together all the parts into a whole.

In the past I’ve read Getting It Published and enjoyed Germano’s essays for the Chronicle of Higher Education. It was a pleasure to find out that he is so thoughtful, funny, and engaging in person. If you’re in the business of writing for scholars, do yourself a favor by reading Germano’s books, and by all means take the opportunity to hear him speak if you can.