Mighty Ron, Strong Ron

Mighty Ron, Strong Ron

Ron likes to brand things,
to hear the sizzle of his power
singeing then searing
the hides of others,
scenting the smoke
sweetly suffused with the suffering
of those daring to defy him.

He especially loves leaving his black
mark on wobbly-kneed youngsters
before they learn to resist
and are lost. Before
they seek solace and strength
in books or bodies, ideas or selves
that disturb Ron. Disgust him, really.

Ron brands them for their own good
(and for his, of course),
a great circle of lookers-on cheering
as Ron lifts his bony knee,
releasing the calves that dart away,
in pain, afraid, into the corral
of Ron’s staunch ranch,
his control unquestioned,
a strong and mighty man;
“Just see how strong,” they whisper.

Ron brands the old ones as well,
brands them with an ancient acid,
two parts fear, three parts rage,
five parts blinding bigotry.
Ancient, yes, but still so vividly effective;
They all receive, in fact, their branding
like a benediction.
“This will keep you safe,” he says,
“And free.” Though maimed, they cheer,
happy to now be captives
in Ron’s mighty corral.
“Ron loves liberty!” they sing,
and Ron winks, thrilled by their bleating,
despising their stink.

In the dead of night, though, mighty Ron
is fearful and frail within,
dreaming of a brimming poisonous puss
that threatens to pop off his head
as his face turns red, witnessing
a nightmare rush of crazed calves grown
and vicious, nipping, half-blind sheep
busting down Ron’s mighty corral,
turning the ranch to splinters,
masses yearning to be free,
a disastrous stampede.

Ron reels and shouts and brandishes
his once red iron, now black as death.
Stubbornly, stupidly trampled,
he explodes like a lanced boil,
spewing a noxious white goo
that cascades like slick sleet
over Ron’s once staunch ranch,
to forge an infected wasteland,
a lasting legacy of mighty Ron, strong Ron.

Featured image: Colorado. Branding calves, a photochrom print by the Detroit Photographic Co.

On the Pros and Cons of Bias Toward Action

One of my goals for 2023 is not just to be wiser but to develop more of a “bias toward action.” I’ve heard this term used a lot in business in recent years, often in relation to personalities like Elon Musk.

Musk’s reputation has, correctly I think, taken some major hits lately. So far, he has done little to cover himself with glory at Twitter, where his temperamental and alienating egotism has alienated many employees, users, advertisers and journalists.

And yet, I’ve admired a characteristic of his that predates his recent misadventures: that is, a bias toward action. Bias toward action is, of course, the tendency to favor action over inaction. The virtue of bias toward action is that actions are, in essence, a way of testing reality itself.

Testing Your Assumptions

You can, after all, think through a certain issue thousands of times but, until you test your thoughts via actions, you can’t know how those things will play out in the real world.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re an introvert sitting on an airplane. You put in your earbuds and watch something on your iPad because you assume the person sitting next to you has no interest in chatting and, even if they do, you might wind up caught in a very unpleasant, exhausting conversation.

Now, without a bias toward action, you’ll never know if any of those assumptions are true. So, you’ll never even try to engage with that person, who might not only be very interesting but a crucial professional contact for you to make. Your bias toward inaction could make your life more impoverished in various ways.

Learn More by Failing Fast

Bias toward action is related to the concept of learning more by failing fast. Failing fast is often embraced by tech startups so they can get to a quality product more quickly. For example, you create a software product and, through extensive beta testing and/or rapid product releases, you quickly find out what is and isn’t working.

Although failing fast is often associated with software development, it can be applied in other industries as well. Which brings us back to Elon Musk. Musk has had great success in using a fail fast approach in other industries, including his rocket company SpaceX.

During an interview for a 2005 article in Fast Company, Musk is quoted as saying, “Failure is an option [at SpaceX]. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”

This amounts to a willingness to accept short-term failures in order to gain long-term successes. This is how SpaceX was ultimately capable of landing the first stage of a rocket safely back on on a sea barge. That success (and many subsequent successes) came only after a series of failures. Ars Technica reports:

SpaceX was willing to fail. As it had many times before. The company originally tried to land the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket at sea in January, 2015, after delivering a Dragon spacecraft to orbit….Rough seas prevented a barge landing the next month, and when the company tried a drone ship landing again in April, 2015, the propellant valve stuck and the rocket tipped over after coming down on the barge. Two more failures would follow in January and March … before the company finally stuck a sea-based landing. Each time the company had learned from previous mistakes until it finally knew enough to succeed.

The Problems with Bias Toward Action

That’s not to say that bias toward action and failing fast are always the way to go. You don’t jump off a three story building just to see if you can survive the fall. The risk of some failures is not worth the potential reward for learning something new. Sometimes a bias toward action just seems dumb, as Dilbert is scathingly aware of.

“Action bias” is not just a philosophical approach but a psychological phenomenon in which people prefer action to inaction, sometimes to disastrous effect. This can occur in many different professions. In the field of medical decision-making, for example, “there is the predisposition of professionals to interfere, even if not interfering would be a better option.”

Sometimes the psychological or social pressures behind action bias are powerful. “Our propensity for action … stems from our need to be in control,” reports The Decision Lab. “By taking action, we feel as though we’re actually doing something to forward ourselves or to better our situation. Actively doing something makes us feel as though we have the capacity to change things, while doing nothing makes us feel like we’ve given up, and have accepted that we can do nothing more. Essentially, action makes us feel better about ourselves than inaction, which serves as reinforcement for this behavior.”

Action bias can cause us to do things such as overreact to short-term dips in the stock market by selling stocks that shortly thereafter correct and climb higher. Or take the example of a coach who decides to tweak the starting line-up of his team after a close loss and so makes team performance worse.

Seeking the Sweet Spot

So, bias toward action and the embrace of fast failures can be powerful routes to greater success. But, when adopted unwisely, they can do more harm than good.

The secret is to know when to adopt this bias toward action. In my own case, I want to lean a little more into action and less into passive cogitation because I’ve tended toward the latter too often. That said, I want to be wise about it. Sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor.

We’ll see where how things go. For now, though, you may want to ask yourself where you stand on the action/passivity spectrum. Are you so afraid of failure that you’re unwilling to take chances even where you should? Or are you so wired for action that you’re constantly doing dumb stuff that winds up backfiring on you?

Whichever way you lean, ask yourself if a course correction is called for. Then, well, take action. Or maybe not. Life is tricky.

Featured image: Action Man image by Fuzzerboots, May 3, 2018

Bossism Is Back, Baby!

Bossism, a term once reserved for political bosses, is making its way into modern business jargon, inspired by Elon Musk at Twitter and massive downsizings in today’s top technology firms.

What’s Bossism?

Writing in the New York Times, Kevin Roose refers to bossism as a worldview that is shared by many executives, company founders and investors, especially those in the technology industry. He calls it “a belief that the people who build and run important tech companies have ceded too much power to the entitled, lazy, overly woke people who work for them and need to start clawing it back.”

In Defense of Bossism

Roose asserts that these believers in bossism view Elon Musk as their standard-bearer and role model. Of course, Musk famously purchased the social network Twitter and quickly fired at least three-quarters of the staff. “Mr. Musk’s defenders,” Roose writes, “point out that Twitter hasn’t collapsed or gone offline despite losing thousands of employees, as some critics predicted it would. They see his harsh management style as a necessary corrective, and they believe he will ultimately be rewarded for cutting costs and laying down the law.”

Of course, by many standards, Musk’s takeover of Twitter has been a disaster, both for Twitter as a business and for other companies that Musk leads, especially Tesla. “In three months,” a recent article in The Verge reported, “Musk has… largely destroyed the equity value of Twitter and much of his personal wealth. He has ­indicated that the company could declare bankruptcy, and the distraction of running it has caused Tesla stock to ­crater, costing him $200 billion.”

But the champions of bossism would argue that all the evidence isn’t in yet. Maybe in a year’s time, the chaos will be over and a new, streamlined and profitable version of Twitter will have emerged. On that front, time will tell.

As for Tesla, its shares surged 33% this week, the best weekly performance since May 2013. So, Musk’s boosters may have the last laugh at any media naysayers.

Sensible Wave of the Future or Reactionary Ghoul of the Past?

Massive Layoffs in Techville

One reason many tech bosses are rooting for Musk is that they too must make serious cuts to their workforces. Their profitability is at risk. After all, the days of virtually free money are over. These layoffs became common in the second half of 2022 and have continued into 2023.

For example, Microsoft and Alphabet are just a couple announcing widescale layoffs in the third week of January. Crunchbase reports:

More than 46,000 workers in U.S.-based tech companies have been laid off in mass job cuts so far in 2023 … and the year is just getting started. That number includes Microsoft’s 10,000-person cut and Google parent Alphabet’s 12,000-person layoff announcements this week.

But bossism goes beyond downsizings. In one recent All In podcast, investor David Friedberg said in an interview with Musk:

[T]here’s a lot of technology companies that have CEOs and investors and boards. And we all talk to a lot of them and they’re all now having a conversation like, look at what Elon did at Twitter. How can we do something as aggressive, as swift, as deep? Do you think much about kind of the model you’re playing for other businesses and other business leaders, particularly in Silicon Valley and how you’re operating Twitter?

So, yes, there is admiration for the deep cuts Musk was willing to make in his workforce. However, this kind of panegyric suggests that what some of the bossist wannabes admire is not just the cuts. It’s the aggression, speed and boldness he has shown at Twitter.

The Upper Hand…for a While…Maybe

The hope of the bossists is that a downturn in the technology industry, and perhaps the widely predicted recession-to-come, will gives senior executives the opportunity to crack down on their respective workforces. They want to force employees back into the conventional workplace. And, they want to instill the kind of discipline needed to boost today’s anemic rates of productivity growth.

Maybe that will indeed happen. In a year’s time, the remote-and-hybrid-work trend may have tapered off considerably and more employees could be burning the midnight oil, so to speak, just to keep their jobs. We may all come to realize that pendulum of corporate power has swung back to the bosses and that, in the final analysis, this is best for everyone.

Nadia Rawlinson, former chief people officer at Slack, asserts, “The current tech work force is used to every voice getting a vote, and it will now have to yield to a new world — one with heightened expectations and disciplined investment. Not considering the winds of change will put the careers of many empowered workers at risk.”

Or not.

There are, after all, countervailing trends that could turn bossism into a short-lived and reactionary chapter that will close sharply on the noses of its champions as soon as the economy rebounds.

The Ongoing Battles for Talent

Tech Help Wanted

There are several reasons to be skeptical of idea that the bossism will be a lasting trend.

First, as of December 2022, the U.S. unemployment rate was only 3.5%, the lowest its been in the last 10 years.

Second, these newly laid off technology employees are tending to find new jobs quickly. In fact, SHRM Online reports, “About 79% of recently laid-off technology workers landed a new job within three months of starting their search, according to a ZipRecruiter survey. Nearly 40% of recently laid-off tech workers found jobs less than a month after they began searching.”

Both of these data points suggest that losing a job is not an existential crisis for most in the tech industry. They have alternatives, at least for now, and so are not likely to be bullied into unsatisfactory work arrangements by the latest acolytes of bossism.

Boomers Out

But there are other issues that can influence the long-term feasibility of bossism as well. For one thing, there has been an ongoing decline in college enrollments since at least 2015, suggesting there will be a long-term shortage of well educated workers, a little publicized disaster that few are even discussing, much less proposing solutions for.

Another point is that much of the Boomer generation has left the workforce and has no intention of returning. The U.S. workforce is still about 3.5 million workers short of what would be expected based on pre-2020 trends. The primary reason for this is that many older workers — around two million of them — have retired earlier than they’d planned to prior to the pandemic.

No Babies Aboard

Then there are other issues such as reduced immigration and lower birth rates. Immigration took a nosedive during the pandemic and, despite the ongoing outrage about a flood of illegal immigrants at the U.S. border these days, legal immigration is only just starting to rebound. At the same time, U.S. birthrates have been on the decline, and immigration is needed to make up this shortfall.

These trends, along with changing attitudes toward work among younger workers, suggest that old-timey, top-down, damn-the-torpedoes, nose-to-the-grindstone bossism will have a difficult time reestablishing itself long-term in any healthy economy.

The Unfortunate Politics of Bossism

I want to back up a bit to elaborate more on the concept of bossism.

Roose’s use of the term seems to originate with a John Ganz piece in Substack, where Ganz borrows the term from the history of apartheid: that is, baasskap or boss-ism.

Something like a class-consciousness of the most reactionary section of the tech bourgeoisie now appears to be crystallizing and, with it, a concomitant set of political practices and ideologies…. The ideology, stripped of all its mystifying decoration, is actually pretty simple and crude: it says “bosses on top.” … But this vision of “freedom” is not only shared by the bosses and their paid ideologues—there is a “mass” component of the politics as well: this ideal of freedom is shared by a mob that worships the power of the oligarchs and wants its own freedom to consist in the total license to behave online without encountering moral sanction from the pestering wokes or to have personal consequences of any kind.

This is, of course, a politically charged and downright terrifying view of the bossist philosophy. Once I read it, I realized that there’s there’s no way to fully extricate politics from the bossist world view, especially at a time when the second richest person in the world seems to have embraced rightwing politics–and at a time when such politics is increasingly authoritarian and anti-democratic.

I deeply wish we could leave politics out of it, but the miserable truth is that politics has explicitly and, I believe, dangerously encroached on virtually every aspect of American life these days.

Bossism versus Talentism

The Charming Boors of Bossism

I am, by nature, a person always scrambling to look at issues from multiple points of view. I can, for example, see the innovative benefits that a person like Musk can bring to Twitter even while bemoaning the kooky, ham-handed, and hypocritical way he’s been going about many things there.

Likewise, despite the sometimes sociologically silly, not to mention darkly hilarious, opinions espoused by the All In peeps, within their own sphere of business knowledge (or, as they might call it, their “kill zone”), they’re also clearly canny and powerful members of the investor class. And, they obviously value vision, energy, ambition, entrepreneurialism, boldness, analytics and intelligence, all virtues in which I believe.

But beneath their bestie bromance confabs, there’s a strong undercurrent of amoral cold-bloodedness that implicitly values capital returns above most everything else (except maybe family and poker) and has little patience for any “woke” ethics that challenge their own self-serving world views and, more to the point, their investment prerogatives.

In many ways, they reflect the good, the bad and the ugly of bossism.

The Sketchy Tenets of Talentism

Talentism is a term originating with Professor Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. He argues that “the world of the future is not the world of capitalism, it’s the world of ‘talentism’.”

The idea is that talent rather than money is the true currency of the global economy. “[T]he world’s precious resource is talents,” he states. “It’s not financial capital any more. Capital is always available if you have a talent which is unique.”

Schwab believes this precious resource can be dramatically expanded via digitalization and AI.

“I see fantastic new opportunities in education by combining digitalization with artificial intelligence. That will lead to a situation where not only a selected elite has access to education, but everybody can have access to education. But it is the duty and obligation of companies to provide the necessary platforms. Then I think everybody has it in his or her own hands to use those platforms to acquire the skills which are needed in the future.”

It’s a lovely ideal, one that I share in some ways.

But, more to the point, I think we can use Schwab’s idea of talentism to balance the idea of bossism.

The Modern Limits of Bossism

Schwab’s idea is compelling but a gross exaggeration. There are plenty of people in the world whose unique talents will never be fully harnessed or even recognized. That’s because they lack capital to exploit those talents and/or anyone with capital willing to invest in them.

The ultimate success of talent is largely based on human networks, though that’s a subject for another post.

But talent can be incredibly valuable if properly financed and leveraged. That’s why bossism is such a limited concept, no matter how appealing it is in Silicon Valley at the moment.

Because, unless slavery makes a global come back, employers can’t own the talents of another human being. The best a boss can do is harness those talents with the permission of their owners. The desire to hire and retain those talents is behind all the hubbub about employee experience in recent years. Bosses must help create good employee experiences in the workplace if they wish to leverage the value inherent in talentism.

So, to the degree bossism means making dramatic cuts to headcount, it can only be a short-term strategy. No company can lay off its way to long-term health. At best, they can engage in downsizings that conserve cash and ameliorate the near-term concerns of investors. For a short time, the need to reduce capital needs (e.g., payroll) outweighs the need to increase talent-based capabilities.

Where Bossism and Leadership Merge

Despite being the flavor of the day, bossism isn’t just about cutting staff and somehow “taking power back” from employees. From what I can tell, it is also about about moving quickly and boldly to make productive changes. It is about harnessing the aforementioned virtues (vision, etc.) rather than just wielding some large, ego-driven cudgel against talent.

And this is where good leadership comes in.

A great leader has all the virtues of a boss with few of the vices. She is a custodian of both capital and talent, knowing both are essential to long-term success. She seldom if ever needs to bully. She may not let a good crisis go to waste, but neither does she deeply alienate her followers and sow chaos unnecessarily.

So, beware the gilded appeal of bossism. It is the ultimately the way of the past, not the future, the way of the weak, not the strong, the way of the child, not the adult. Reach higher. Do better. Be an actual leader.

Featured image: Thomas Nast depicts Tweed in Harper's Weekly (October 21, 1871)

American Turkeys: Identify U.S. Politicians Dressed as Pilgrims

Happy Thanksgiving!

Why identify U.S. politicians on Thanksgiving? Let me explain.

I actually had an ancestor on that cold little ship packed with the quasi-lost and often clueless immigrants who had to have their pasty white behinds saved by the merciful, generous and hospitable natives of the land.

Given the way things turned out for the natives, I get that this is not a day everybody wants to celebrate.

On the other hand, the idea of two groups of incredibly different people peaceably sitting down to share a common meal is a good lesson for our rabidly partisan age.

Who could be more divided than our politicians these days? I put in images below so you can identify U.S. politicians as they stand today. (Some will, of course, soon be swapped out.)

Please take them in the spirit in which they are intended, with humor and goodwill to all people (even the ones we consider fantastically dumb and/or cruel) for at least this one day.


You can make it a game if you like.

  • One point for every politician you can identify by name
  • Another point for if you can remember their actual title

Answers supplied below

From top left moving right and then back down to the left:

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House

Kevin McCarthy, Republican Leader

Steny Hoyer, Majority Leader

Steve Scalise, Republican Whip

James Clyburn, Majority Whip

Elise Stefanik, Republican Conference Chairman

Katherine Clark, Assistant Speaker

Gary Palmer, Republican Policy Committee Chairman

Hakeem Jeffries, Democratic Caucus Chairman

Kamala Harris, Vice President

Patrick J. Leahy, President Pro Tempore

Charles E. Schumer, Democratic Leader Chairman of the Conference

Richard J. Durbin, Majority Whip

Mitch McConnell, Republican Leader

John Thune, Republican Whip

John Roberts, Chief Justice of the United States

Ketanji Brown Jackson, Associate Justice

Joe Biden, President of the United States

Identify Your Leaders Drawn Leonardo-style

When I was a kid, we had this huge book of prints by Leonardo da Vinci. I loved it. Still do. So, just for fun, I used Stable Diffusion AI to get 30 images of 20th and 21st century political and business leaders as they might have been drawn by da Vinci. Check them out and see if you can identify your leaders. (And, by identify your leaders, I don’t mean to infer that these are all people that you personally would consider your leaders.)

I am pretty amazed at how well generative AI handles this task. And there’s the added bonus that we are using an artist who can’t make any copyright complaints. I fact, I wonder what da Vinci would say. I imagine he’d be both intrigued and appalled. Our of all the great artists of his age, I think da Vinci would fit best into the 21st century. I don’t know if he’d be a solitary iconoclast artist or the billionaire owner of a technology firm, but either way he’d be make his way.

The answers are at the end.

Top to bottom:

  1. Bill Clinton
  2. Bill Gates
  3. Boris Johnson
  4. Donald Trump
  5. Indira Gandhi
  6. Joe Biden
  7. Mahatma Gandhi
  8. George W. Bush
  9. Kamala Harris
  10. Hillary Clinton
  11. Jimmy Carter
  12. Justin Trudeau
  13. Emmanuel Macron
  14. Mao Zedong
  15. Narendra Modi
  16. Margaret Thatcher
  17. Angela Merkel
  18. Nelson Mandela
  19. Benjamin Netanyahu
  20. Barak Obama
  21. Oprah Winfrey
  22. Vladimir Putin
  23. Xi Jinping
  24. Elon Musk
  25. Mikhail Gorbachev
  26. Ronald Reagan
  27. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
  28. Donald Trump (again)
  29. John F. Kennedy
  30. Nikita Khrushchev

Adrian Tchaikovsky: Quotes for Our Era of Leadership

This is just a quick post about “Adrian Tchaikovsky on leadership.”

Occasionally, though not often enough, I connect with an author: the way they write, think, imagine. Their prose style.

Over the last year or so, one of the writers I’ve connected with is British science fiction author Adrian Tchaikovsky. He’s prolific, brilliant and always entertaining, and his education in zoology often shines through in fascinating ways.

In one of his books, Bear Head, he was riffing on our current unsavory age of political demagoguery.

I should say this isn’t his usual style. I got the feeling that he was venting about recent political trends in Great Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere.

As I write this on a Saturday morning, the news is filled with the election of Giorgia Meloni, who has come to power in Italy. That made me think of Tchaikovsky’s riffs, which I had highlighted in my Kindle. Here are some categories I’ve applied to them.

On hate, fear and politics

  • [H]ate was not just a fire to destroy, not just an excuse to panhandle donations. Hate was an attractive force.
  • [T]he generation that held those chains are yesterday’s men, trying to hold on to power by whipping up fear of the other, just like always.

On authority, virtue and the metagame

  • [T]here’s a metagame…[Y]our worker who ‘kisses ass’ is seen as management material not because they give their all to the company, but because they spend that effort they would otherwise give to the company on looking like they give it all to the company. They spend it on all the little social games instead, and because effort spent on the metagame is focused entirely about the appearance of virtue, it overshadows those who are actually performing the primary task, it overshadows actual virtue.
  • [T]he people who end up in authority are generally not those focused on whatever the purpose of the community is, but are focused on achieving positions of authority.
  • [T]hat meant the people who achieved status and power were by definition the least qualified to have it
  • [M]etagamers could hack organisational structures and procedures to promote themselves without needing to be good at the primary task of the organisation

On leader parasites

  • He was an ingeniously evolved parasite, the scion of a strain honed over generations to fool wider humanity into following his orders and tending to his needs.
  • [My] mind kept coming back to that insect in the ant’s nest that convinces the ants it’s more ant than they are, so that they serve up their own larvae for its delectation.
  • There was nothing to engage behind those eyes, barely anything more than a voracious id, a sense that was all me me me….a pattern of behavior that could be as mindless as some insect’s mimicry of an ant, that let it into the nest to eat the young.
  • [T]here’s a predatory bug that releases the pheromones of its prey more strongly than ever the females do, so that the witless wooers come from miles around to be devoured. …And yet there’s nothing true within it, nothing at all.
  • A parasite that prospers because it presents an exaggerated performance of its host species’ salient characteristics. Not just passing for human, but passing for superhuman: putting out all the tells so that you think they’re super-confident, super-dynamic, super-inspiring, exactly the man to follow to the end of the earth. Far more so than anyone who actually has reason to be confident, or to be worth following….more human than human, a colossus, possessing all the virtues the viewer might want to see.
  • [He] wasn’t about being loyal to underlings, he was about taking their loyalty and wringing every last drop of use from it before discarding them.

There’s clearly more to be said about the role that parasites play in ecosystems–and that demagogues play within the complex reticula of political economies and human limbic systems–but we’ll leave it here for now.

Featured image by José Clemente Orozco:The Demagogue

The Karst Bridge: Darkness and Light in Florida Spring Country

I owe my love of Florida spring country to living there once upon a time. My family and I lived in Lake County, FL for years, and it was generally a happy time. Lots of hikes in the Ocala Forest, lots of visits to local springs such as Alexander, Juniper and Silver Glenn.

I didn’t worry much about politics back then. So what if I lived in a more conservative Florida county? No biggie. In local elections, I often voted for incumbents who’d reportedly (according to the local press, anyway) been doing a good job. These tended to be Republicans. Fine.

My Gulag

Times have changed. Today, partisanship has reached extraordinarily toxic levels, with some Americans espousing violence as a way to settle political differences. This is a kind of mass madness. When I expressed concern about what was happening on Jan. 6th, an old schoolmate of mine, now an avid Trump supporter,  wouldn’t condemn the violence. Instead, he told me he refused to be imprisoned in “my gulag.”

My gulag? I assured him I have no gulag on my modest estate. What would I do with one? I have a hard enough time tending to our unruly little stand of bamboo trees.

Gulag? Such a strange word, a Soviet word that I assume had been ringing in the tirades of certain social media posters or cable news personalities. A word that shapes and warps the realities of the people hearing and using the term.

Black Flags in a Green Country

I was reminded of this weird exchange when we were driving the country roads of the Big Bend region of Florida. It was not a surprise to see Trump flags and political posters dotting the country landscape. People do not give up their political allegiances very easily these days. Trump, enmeshed in many scandals that would have sunk earlier politicians, has proven this beyond any doubt.

What was less expected was the number of black American flags. Sometimes they’d fly on people’s front porches, or we’d see them lined up at the end of long rural driveways, or even waving in the backs of pickup trucks roaring by. I had never heard of, much less seen, these flags before. My first impression was of something ominous and surreal, something intentionally harkening back to the black shirts of Mussolini’s Italy.

Later on, I googled it to see what those flags portend. I saw some left-leaning media interpreting these flags in very grim ways. For example, on Salon I found the following explanation:

In one troubling new development, Trump supporters have begun flying all-black American flags, in an implicit threat to harm or kill their opponents — meaning nonwhite people, “socialist liberals,” Muslims, vaccinated people and others deemed to be “enemies” of “real America.” As media critic Eric Boehlert recently noted, the liberal opinion site Living Blue in Texas is sounding the alarm about the specific meaning of the black flag and the Republican-fascists support for terrorism and other political violence.

If I had been able to ask the drivers of these black-flag-sporting trucks what it meant to them, would they say something similar? Or, would they talk about standing up for their freedoms in a land ruled by “socialists” who wanted to put them in “gulags”? (Just by the way, we now have a total of just four democratic socialists among the 435 congresspeople in the U.S. House of Representatives, not exactly a tsunami of any type of socialism.)

Trying to Interpret Symbols in Florida Spring Country

As far as I can tell, black flags harken back to pirate flags. Black flags were flown to show that the pirates would provide no quarter to those on the ships they attacked. This means that they would fight to the death and take no prisoners, killing everyone in their path.

Some say that black flags (though probably not black American flags) were sometimes flown by the Confederacy. The Sun reports, “Confederate army soldiers flew the black flag to symbolize the opposite of the white flag of surrender. The black flag meant that the unit would not give in nor surrender and that enemy combatants would be killed.”

So, who are the perceived “enemy combatants” of today’s black flag wavers? I’m not sure. As far as I can tell, those enemies are largely imaginary caricatures of other Americans, which makes the sight of such flags especially troubling.

We Floridians probably interpret American black flags in different ways. Still, I believe that those who display the flags generally express a willingness to violently resist or attack whatever forces they perceive as aligned against them.

Spurious Divisions

The vast majority of Americans generally want the same things. That is, we want to live in a safe and secure environment. We want an economy in which we can find work. We want to feed our families, afford decent shelter, and enjoy some of goods things in life.

We want individual liberty balanced by enough collectivism to ensure things like good roads and bridges, a reasonably strong military, and enough social systems to help people who have fallen on hard times (as when they get sick or lose their jobs). In short, we still want–as Jefferson first put it–life, liberty and ability to pursue our own forms of happiness.

If we agree on all this, why is there so much outrage, animosity and division in our country today? Why do some people feel the need to fly black flags amid beautiful countryside?

Our Divisive Leaders

Much of it boils down to leaders and media personalities intent on gaining power, influence and money by making Americans believe we are far more divided than we truly are. After all, demonization works. It works to keep to the powerful emotions of fear and loathing engaged, emotions that override our reason. 

Suddenly, we see threats everywhere. People who cross the border because they are desperate for work and a better life are viewed as dangerous “invaders.” The anxious parents of kids confused about their sexual identity are demonized as “groomers.” And people who simply disagree on political issues from tax burdens to energy policy are viewed as “enemies” rather than fellow Americans.

These grotesque exaggerations are used to keep our emotions charged so that cable channels can sell more advertisements and politicians can convince us that they are “fighting for us” rather than just cynically appealing to our darker selves so they can gain ever greater power.

Gorgeous Light

In many respects, the Florida Big Bend area is an Arcadia. The people (at least the ones we met) are friendly and good natured. The countryside is expansive fields–some farmland combined with lots pastures populated by horses, cows, goats and chickens.

But we were specifically there for the freshwater springs, which are often fantastic places of cool, crystalline waters set like jewels in the primeval greenery of old Florida cypress and oaks, maples, sweet gum and honey locusts.

Peacock Spring, by Cynthia Vickers

Springs are places of light. In the largest springs, there is a boil of water that can be seen from the surface, a boil that makes the light shimmer all around. Because the water is typically crystal clear, the light doesn’t just reflect off the surface, however, but fills the entire spring down to the very bottom. The best springs are living windows into sacred worlds from which flow, in tremendous volumes, that water so essential to our lives.

Glades of Shadow

But springs are also places of shadow and power. For every first magnitude spring, there are powerful pulses of water surging upwards from limestone caves. That’s why you will sometimes see intrepid cave diver types at the springs and sinks of Florida. They are, essentially, underwater spelunkers, a dazzling but dangerous hobby that has too often resulted in tragedy.

And then there are the spring denizens, not least of which are snakes and gators. Indeed, the caretakers of today’s Florida springs are not shy about informing visitors about the potential dangers via their signage.

So, it’s little wonder we were a tad nervous when we arrived at our first spring of the trip: Lafayette Blue. It was a weekday and, despite the fine weather, we had the entire spring to ourselves. That made the scene spookier than it would otherwise have been.

Lafayette Blue is unique in that the two parts of the spring are divided by a natural bridge made up of karst. It’s a remarkable sight. On the day we were there, the lighter part of the spring flowed out into the Suwanee River, frequented by schools of mullet and some larger fish that I took for bass. There were also smaller specimen such as sunfish and chubb. On the surface were thousands of waterbugs, moving dimples of light

On the other side of karst bridge is the deeper, darker part of the spring where I snorkled with less confidence, intimidated by shadows and rocky ledges. Even the two large turtles over whom I swam looked wary, unaccustomed to visitors in their dimly lit lair.

America Undivided

As we drove miles through rural Florida on our way to various springs, I thought about the ways in which Lafayette Blue reflects America itself: a mix of dark and light, a clearly divided yet ultimately connected and singular entity, an inspiring, beautiful yet intimidating and sometimes dangerous place.

I know it’s a strange and somewhat strained metaphor, but like the karst bridge over Lafayette Blue, the divisions between red and blue America appear rock hard. And, in fact, these perceived divisions could lead to the end of democracy itself in the U.S. But this isn’t a foregone conclusion. Lafayette is a single spring just as we are a single state in a still-united nation, no matter how much certain “leaders” want to turn us against one another.

The green and rural parts of Florida will always feel like home to me. Despite our rural/urban divides, all Floridians reside in the same fantastical, surreal landscape: a rainforest growing atop porous limestone through which flows cold, clear waters that burst and bubble up from these incredible, life-giving springs. Our divisions are mostly illusory, manufactured by people who don’t have our best interests at heart. The sooner we realize this, the better we’ll be able to savor the light and dark gifts of this preposterously beautiful state.

On Why Gen Z May Have a Great Future After All

Poor Gen Z. In the United States, the oldest members this generation (born between 1997 and 2012, give or take a few years) have only recently entered adulthood, and it’s been a pretty rough ride so far.

Let’s say the eldest are 25. That means that since their 18th birthdays, they’ve seen the divisive Trump years, the turmoil of the pandemic, an attempted insurrection, a sudden surge in inflation, record global warming, a couple of recessions (yeah, I’m calling this one even if the NBER isn’t), an invasion in Europe, the greatest amount of political polarization since the U.S. Civil war, and the descent of the U.S. political system into the category of flawed democracy.

It’s little wonder that they’re turning out to pessimistic about the future. The world in general and the U.S. in particular has looked like a real shit show in recent years, and the immediate future isn’t looking all that bright, either.

But will Gen Z really be the generation that comes to adulthood just in time to see economies collapse, the world burn up, nation states fall apart, and Orwellian authoritarian states become the norm?

Sure, it could happen, especially if they (and the rest of us) don’t fight against those dystopian futures. But here’s the thing. If you squint a bit, you can detect signs that the Gen Zers might have a pretty great future after all.

Here are just a few of the trends we can point to:

  • The emergence of a go-go green world: Few have commented on the trend so far, but renewable energy is growing at exponential rates. If we only confine ourselves to solar and wind globally, the rate of growth is doubling every 3.75 years. Even if we round this up to 4, these two energies alone will provide more power in 2034 than was generated globally in 2021. The future will be renewable, and soon. That’s not a bad way to spend your early adulthood.
  • The rise of the smart (and hopefully super helpful) machines: Artificial intelligence is advancing at remarkable rates, which may have massive implications for productivity, innovation and more. Recently DeepMind announced it had successfully used AI to predict the 3D structures of nearly every catalogued protein known to science: over 200 million proteins found in plants, bacteria, animals, and humans! Sure, it was hard to hear that astonishing news amid all the hubbub about the end of the Chaco Taco, but history will judge this a major historic event (DeepMind, not the Taco). If AI can so quickly be productive in this one extremely challenging area of science, then imagine the impact it can have on worker productivity in general. As productivity rates rise over the next decade or more, so will income per capita (in theory). Of course, those gains need to be properly redistributed throughout the workforce, but that’s a different challenge. Yes, powerful AI could potentially have a number of truly terrible repercussions as well, but let’s focus on the bright side here.
  • The dazzling advances in microbiology. The protein-folding achievement just noted is one part of a much larger set of advances in microbiology. CRISPR, for example, is an astonishing technology. The rapid creation of the Covid-19 vaccination was just one the modern miracles brought to you by microbiology. These advances will continue and, in fact, speed up due to aforementioned machine learning techniques. If we can avoid the specter of bioterrorism, these advances might well mean that Gen Z will be the healthiest and longest-living generation in history. Death? Hah. That was so 2020s!
  • The renaissance in reformed political systems. Yes, the U.S. as well as various other nations are in danger of turning away from democracy and toward totalitarianism. Based on the popularity of scary-ass demagogues like my governor Ron DeSantis, we might well see the Orban-ization of America in the near future. However, at the same time, there are various grassroots movements (e.g., RepresentUS) that are seeking to reform the more corrupt and dysfunctional aspects of government. Perhaps if the U.S. can build up its immunity to demagoguery and neo-fascism quickly enough, there could be a flowering of pro-democracy movements here and abroad. This could eventually lead not just to more democracy globally but to more functional forms of democracy than have ever existed.
  • The rise in environmental protections and the strengthening of Earth’s ecosystems. Humanity has done an enormous amount of harm to the global ecosystem, but, along with the advancement in renewables, there will also be more programs such as 30×30, which is is a worldwide initiative for governments to designate 30% of Earth’s land and ocean area as protected areas by 2030. Now it even looks as if the U.S. might be able to pass the The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which would put about $385 billion into combating climate change and bolstering U.S. energy production through changes that would encourage cuts in carbon emissions. So, Gen Z may be the first generation to spend its early adulthood in a global culture that finally takes serious steps to heal much of the environmental damage humanity has already wrought

Sure, there are lots of things that could go disastrously wrong. Some of them surely will. But there are also a lot of things that could go very right. Since the Gen Zers can’t tell for sure, they can join one of the many movements to make things better.

At the very least, they’ll be able to enjoy the comradery of people trying to improve things. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to help create a way better world than the one they’ve inherited so far.

Featured image: By Dian Dong, Toronto climate change activist Alienor Rougeot calling upon the public, with the youth, to take action in one of Fridays for Future's earlier climate strikes, 15 March 2019

On U.S. Misleadership

Generally speaking, it’s not our fellow Americans who are the problem. It’s the leaders — or, rather, the misleaders — desperately trying to keep Americans in a state of outrage and divisiveness for the purpose of ratings, money and power. I call the whole thing misleadership.

When they actually sit down and talk, Americans realize that they have most things in common. When they allow themselves to be immersed in their tribal echo chambers, however, they get the impression that the “others” are nothing like them.

We need to abandon our echo chambers and give up our outrage. The echo chambers are, I believe, typically nurtured by bad people who don’t give a damn about us. That is at the heart of today’s misleadership. The misleaders only want our fury, the path to their power.

We Used to Know What Demagogues Looked Like

We used to know true demagogues when we saw them. But we are out of the habit in the U.S. The Americans who fought for liberty in the middle of the 20th century got a clear look at the dangers of misleadership in the form Adolph Hitler and others.

But who watches those old German black-and-white news clips anymore? How many Americans could even pick Joseph McCarthy or George Wallace of of a lineup?

We are no longer afraid of the “strong men” who gain their power by feeding on the unreasoning outrage of their followers. We have lost our immunity. As never before in recent history, our immune system has a very tough time fighting off the deadly demagogue virus. We are deeply vulnerable as a result. And so is our democracy.

Featured image: Filter Bubble Graphic by Evbestie. An echo chamber is "an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own." This echo chamber (yellow circle) is closed and insulated from rebuttal (8 arrows).

Are We All Crew on the Pequod Now?

We are all in the same boat, as the saying goes. But what scares me is that maybe that boat is ultimately as doomed as the Pequod in Moby-Dick.

On the Pequod and Spaceship Earth

I went to Disney World a couple of weeks ago. Although I didn’t go into the Spaceship Earth ride in the Epcot part of the park, I got a good look at it from a helium balloon in the Disney shopping district. A little while later, a Facebook friend posted the famous Earthrise photo.

The point is I’ve been thinking about the Earth as an astonishing and gorgeous spaceship that is, as far as we know, utterly unique in the cosmos. Is this spaceship a metaphor or fact? Well, the planet is moving around the sun at nearly 30 kilometers per second, which amounts to 67,000 miles per hour. But that’s not the only movement. Our whole solar system, gravitationally tied to the sun, is zipping around our galaxy at about 490,000 miles per hour.

So, yes, we are literally on a kind of spaceship.

At the same time, of course, I’m been writing about leadership lessons in the great novel Moby-Dick. I’ve been pondering whether or not there was any avoiding the tragedy of Ahab (spoiler alert) destroying the Pequod and killing every member of the crew (aside from our narrator Ishmael, of course).

On the Dark Obsessions of Ahab and Putin

Ahab spends a lot of time by himself obsessing. In fact, when we first hear of him, Captain Peleg tells Ishmael, “I don’t know exactly what’s the matter with him; but he keeps close inside the house; a sort of sick, and yet he don’t look so. In fact, he ain’t sick; but no, he isn’t well either. Any how, young man, he won’t always see me, so I don’t suppose he will thee.”

As of Chapter 21, we still haven’t gotten a look at Ahab, the only word being that “Captain Ahab remained invisibly enshrined within his cabin.”  In Chapter 23, we are told, “Captain Ahab stayed below.”

This reminds us of current events. The stories about Russia’s dictator, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, are eerily similar these days. We hear that “Putin himself was isolated, from other foreign leaders and from his own advisers and allies” in recent times.

Some of this isolation has been inspired by the pandemic, but it seems to have gone beyond that: “Questions have been raised over whether Covid-19 has fueled Vladimir Putin’s paranoia after claims emerged the isolated president spent time ‘stewing in his own fears’ after ‘withdrawing into himself’ during the pandemic.”

Some speculate that Putin’s psyche, already demented by his years in the KGB, has been further warped by his isolation in a bunker, where he has had a great deal of time to obsess about “the West,” perhaps in the same way Ahab obsesses about the great whale that has harmed him so.

On the Failure to Stop a Megalomaniac

In Moby-Dick, there are multiple failures to stop the tragedy. As we’ve noted, Peleg allowed Ahab to take the Pequod to sea even though he should have known better. Later on, Starbuck comes to understand how dangerous Ahab is, but he can’t bring himself to mutiny against his captain, and it’s not clear that he’d have the crew’s support if he did.

That leaves the crew itself. The crew members could have put an end to Ahab’s mad quest but they didn’t feel as if they had the power. That’s what a dictator does. He (and it is usually a he, with a few exceptions) makes others believe that he rather than they have the power, even if it’s based on an illusion. Dictators know how to divide and conquer and cast an aura of invincibility even though their deepest fear is that they will be exposed as the frail, vulnerable and all-too-fallible individuals that they are.

As I write this, there is no knowing how the current invasion of Ukraine will end. What we do know is that Putin himself has raised the specter of nuclear war. Of course, aside from not being a fictional character, Putin is no Ahab. He is being resisted on many fronts. Yet, sitting on the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons, Putin has the potential to do untold damage to all the inhabitants of the ship called Earth. It’s as if we are all now crew members aboard the Pequod.

I don’t know if Putin is as obsessed and insane as Ahab. Maybe he’s a cold-blooded strategist rather than an emotional cripple, or maybe he’s somewhere in between.

Nor do I know if there’s any stopping him. Is there a Starbuck who could act against him in Russia? Could the Russian nation itself rise against him?

From what I’ve read, these are both long shots. There’s no telling how this will end.

What I do know is that it’s scary, at least from my perspective, that the fate of the planet rests largely on the shoulders of, again from my perspective, one very bad and possibly mad leader.

If we have the chance, we crew of the Spaceship Earth should do our level best to rid ourselves of the kinds of weaponry that makes it possible for one Ahab-like leader to so easily scuttle the vessel on which we ride though the star-studded seas. I’m afraid, though, that most of us can no longer even imagine the possibility of disarming our tripwire weapons of mass destruction. If so, then perhaps we have no more autonomy than the ill-fated crew of Melville’s tragic tale.