I blog, therefore I am

Limbaugh vs. Steele

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The price of higher standards

A letter to a disappointed fan of Bill Richardson

It's quite natural to be disappointed in our public officials. We expect them to be honest, scrupulous, dignified. Sometimes, perhaps more often than we care to appreciate, they are not.

If I might gently offer some words of caution and realpolitik...

First, citizens who decorate their leaders with expectations are bound to be disappointed, at least a few times. Who among us has not disappointed others? How can we reasonably expect even our best and brightest to be saints? Woe to lesser mortals if even the saintly will sometimes sin!

Second, politics is almost by definition a dirty occupation. It almost rivals warfare in that regard, and of course, the two are inextricably linked. Is it reasonable to expect this occupation to be always fair and clean? Of course, our officials should strive for goodness, and let us thank those who play nicely! But the nature of politics is that of a contest. Reasoned negotiation does not always triumph over shady dealing, underhanded manipulation, or even violence. I think we must accept such possibilities before we can address how to improve our social systems.

Of course, the Constitutional Framers did this and were at least somewhat successful in establishing a system of counter-balancing institutions. That was neat. And it sort of still works, at least barely. But subversion and corruption continually attack and diminish this beautiful political edifice. But can we really expect that the brilliant stratagem would last indefinitely? Honestly, I'm rather surprised it has survived a Civil War, two world wars, and cold war, a depression, McCarthyism, a handful of assassinations, the struggle for civil rights, and sundry lesser threats over the course of 230-ish years.

Third, our own mythologies and cultural constructs -- the American Dream; the American People; the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave; Manifest Destiny; the good fight; Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (which I enjoy comparing to either "Peace, Land, and Bread" or "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"); the American soldier who becomes the American "warrior" and "hero," especially when killed; and on and on-- all these bits of myth conspire to confuse us. Above all, the notion of "the West" as a superior font for government, liberal democracy, the rule of law, and other similar conceits, underlies all our present myths. These are all self-serving beacons. By their light we see what we hope to see and ignore what lurks in the shadows. And there in the shadows, our own shadows, is where we must confront reality.

(At the risk of bringing in a new perspective, it might help us to appreciate that humans are primarily social and biological creatures, driven by instinct, yet also requiring the tribe (however civilized or not) to sustain our identities (however personal we believe them to be). And thus can a richer, more useful understanding of human behavior begin. So, let's throw away notions that we are angels or devils, and instead appreciate that we are the result of vast evolutionary history over many exceptionally challenging environments.)

Which brings me to Bill Richardson, and we can include Gov. Blagojevich, Elliot Spitzer, and Ted Stevens from recent months. We paint our myths on these public servants, perhaps more deliberately than on others. And perhaps it is right that we do. After all, without standards we are certainly doomed. But when they fail to live up to our myths (and they are great and heavy decorations!) should we tear our hair and wail? Should we allow our panties to get all in a bunch? I think not.

I'm not arguing that we lightly accept ethical failures. But it does us no good to bemoan the fact that many, perhaps most, public servants will exercise poor judgment or succumb to personal weakness. Until we are all saints, I think we must carefully measure how we deal in judgment.

If there is a sustainable approach available to us, it may be our willingness to reconfigure civilization from within. This would be a project on a vast scale over decades, if not centuries. And it will be made from fine steps mostly, except for the occasional exceptional feat. I suppose we are a part of that experiment without quite knowing it. Maybe leadership on global climate change will be the nexus for that experiment. Maybe.

So, let go of those tainted governors, the hypocrite lawyers, the smarmy senators. Let the political foibles of the moment fade. They are like dust. Take that dust and compact it into bricks for a new age, a better day.

Applying thermodynamics to business systems

This is just a quick post and by way of update to say a little something about what I’ve been thinking about. First, some news. I’ve accepted a full-time staff position at Cisco Systems. When it comes to the infrastructure of the internet and broadband, Cisco hardware and services comprise much of the backbone. My role is as a Business Analyst within the Finance organization, and specifically within Strategic Pricing and Services. Our teams are busy defining, designing, and building the next generation of client-facing services. I’m involved in trying to get my head around the systems that we intend to nurture to fruition.

Which brings me to thermodynamics. Roughly put, thermodynamics is the science of energy-- how energy flows, how work is obtained, and how to define and measure everything about energy processes. The basic conceptual framework is the “system,” which operates on the “surroundings.” And basic concepts include temperature, heat, pressure, and entropy, all of which can be understood at a macro or a micro level. The micro level is particularly interesting (to me) as it explores how vast numbers of atoms (or electrons or molecules) behave and affect the surroundings.

Four Las that Drive the Universe
I’ve been reading Four Laws that Drive the Universe by Peter Atkins. It’s a very slim volume that recounts the basic concepts for a general audience. There is no math in it, save a few very useful simple and general equations which help to express the crucial (and famous) laws. The first two laws are so famous that even many lay people have been exposed to them (or at least very prosaic interpretations). The first law states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only transformed. The second law states that no process can ever be completely efficient, and is sometimes expressed that there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine.

It turns out that not only do the laws hold for energy processes, but similar laws also seem to work for information processes. In fact, it may well be that all systems (even business systems) must obey such laws. And if such laws hold, then entities and relationships that are analagous to energy and entropy will also apply to other sorts of systems. And if that is true, as I think it must be, then an understanding of thermodynamics may prove interesting (at the very least). Long story short: I’m now thinking about systems, energy and information flow, metrics, chaos and order-- and I’m glad I have a job in which to approach my new systems analysis subject with my interest in technical and creative work.

Joan-of-Arts web project

I've completed the Joan-of-Arts web site! And I'm quite pleased with the results.

I'm pleased that I was able to design a solid web site that really serves a client in so many ways: stylistically, technically, and economically. Small projects can be a big challenge, primarily because the funds are usually limited. And that means that in order to be viable, the vendor must find ways to achive quality results with cost-saving approaches. This is not easy or simple. Planning is essential. So is a willingness to manage expectations and scope.

In the case for my client Joan Schulze, I reviewed her original site and took inventory. Then I proposed an alternative structure. After that was approved, I created three different layout concepts, one of which Joan was instantly attracted to. That design was developed, with Joan adding content changes along the way. I used a small collaboration site here at Stylus and Slate that Joan could login to and see progress and pay invoices.

URS assignment

Boy, it's been a busy time. So busy I haven't even blogged recently. But I thought I'd add here that I was recruited to a short contract at URS Corporation. I'm working to support a proposal to build a new hospital facility in Oakland, CA. My part of the job is almost microscopic. But it's still a wonderful position to see a large corporation in action. The assignment came by way of TechProse, a technical writing agency. I met TechProse founder Meryl Natches in a technical communication class, and she encouraged me to develop my informal interests through formal education. Technical communication is a natural fit to project management, another practice I continue to develop. And at URS it's easy to see how the good application of these skills supports massive engineering projects.