Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tuesday Quote of the Week

"We are subjected to hurricane alerts, terror alerts, Amber alerts, and yet, no one seems to be alert."
~~Jamarhl Crawford

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Johnson Syndrome

I remember reading a long time ago, back in a prior life when such things mattered deeply to me, about a business theory based on Lyndon Johnson’s behavior during the Vietnam War. The war wasn’t going well, the strategy wasn’t working, and, rather than step back and reevaluate, LBJ figured that more of the same—more of what wasn’t working—would do the trick. So he threw more troops in (a troop surge if you will) and, well, surprise surprise, it didn’t work.

This somewhat natural reaction, to refuse to admit that a well-thought out plan or strategy might need to be reevaluated and either altered or abandoned in favor of a new, revised approach, became known as the Johnson Syndrome. (At it’s most basic, when the computer freezes, continuing to hit the delete or enter key over and over before finally changing strategy and rebooting is a prime example.) Some businesses did use this to their advantage. Johnson & Johnson (perhaps they felt an affinity with the name), for example, used it to inculcate a culture of failure. It was okay to admit a mistake as long as it resulted in change. To avoid their people (and ultimately their company) becoming mired in the status quo, they encouraged a climate where frequent reassessment of goals and benchmarks became the norm, so that mistakes and business strategies were constantly challenged.

So, what does this have to do with anything? Well, lately I’ve been thinking about it as I’ve been thinking about quitting—good or bad?—and the whole idea of reevaluating goals from a personal perspective. I wanted to revisit the Johnson Syndrome, so I was interested in whether or not people were still talking about it. So I did a Google search.

I found several hits for a skin disease: Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. I didn’t spend much time there…skin diseases aren’t quite my thing. (My curiosity does have some bounds, usually based on the ick-factor.)

Other than that, I didn’t find much. But I did stumble upon an interesting phenomenon. It turns out there were a few mentions of the Johnson Syndrome, but all based on various idiosyncrasies of Lyndon Johnson. To wit:

• One computer programming business site made mention of it in what could also be called the good-news syndrome. As they described it, when his advisors brought LBJ bad news about the war, he got angry. So rather than incur his wrath, they only brought him good news and ignored the bad, so he only had a partial view on which to base his decisions. (This could also be described as the tell-them-what-they-want-to-hear syndrome.)

• According to the History News Network blog archives, Doris Kearns Goodwin coined the term to describe the experience she had writing Johnson’s memoirs to explain why presidential biographies tend to be dull. LBJ would tell her all of these interesting stories about himself, but when she showed him the manuscripts, he would routinely take them out because they weren’t “presidential” enough.

• And just a couple months ago, the Aussie paper Herald Sun trotted out the Johnson Syndrome to describe the excitement politicians of a financial bent have when it comes to talking about budgets. As Roger Franklin put it: “Such a talent would have made him a natural in Canberra yesterday, where it was all about the dead president's second-favourite subject: spending other people's money.

“Unveiling big budgets was so thrilling, he once confessed, that he had to remind himself it was a lot like losing bladder control—a hot moment for him, even if no one else saw it the same way.

“If you want to call it Johnson Syndrome, then a black-suited Treasurer Wayne Swan seemed firmly in its grip as he strode into work just after 9am and faced the day's first barrage of questions.

“He had slept like a baby, he said, confident that six months of bean counting would chart a 10-year course towards security, justice, prosperity, honesty and a fair go for all.” (It’s actually a pretty funny article, as it goes on to tell how, confident swagger aside, the rest of Canberra, Australia, didn’t feel the same way.)

So there you have it. Four different syndromes after one man. That has to be some kind of a presidential record.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Where are the photos?

It's not just the flag-draped coffins we aren't seeing: The New York Times takes a look at the disparity between the number of casualties in Iraq and the number of photos coming across the wires.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

This is your brain on Google

Is Google Making Us Stupid?” inquiring minds at the Atlantic Monthly (July/August) want to know.

Google’s power and appeal (or powerful appeal or appealing power?) cannot be ignored. But while Google does put a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, it, at the same time, closes off even more from consideration. Yes, they have been trying to remedy this by scanning every book they can get their electric mitts on (copyright be damned), but they make it too easy for students, scholars, and writers to neglect all the source information that is hidden in archive boxes and bookshelves in out of the way libraries. Not to mention that there is something tactile and satisfying in touching and reading an original letter that has long been hidden away and all but forgotten about that you just can’t get from keyboard clicks and the glow of a computer monitor.

All that being said, the folks at the Atlantic Monthly are getting at something more basic and elemental. All that quick reading that we are doing by flipping through Google snippets and flitting from Web page to Web page is having a physical effect on our brains. (As McCoy once said, “They’ve got Jim’s brain!”) Only it’s not the aliens, we’ve done it to ourselves by how we now read. As the Atlantic Monthly’s Nicholas Carr puts it, “what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

As it turns out, reading is not as hardwired into our brains as speech and oral communication is. This is evident, clearly, in the history of communication. We were speakers and listeners long before we were writers and readers. And we brought the instinct for oral communication, according to researchers at Cornell University, along with us on our evolutionary journey from the sea.

Reading, apparently, is not that fundamental.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tuesday Quote of the Week

"I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one."
~Henry David Thoreau (from Walden)

[Fun with Thoreau]

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Bald is beautiful...

...or at least it'll keep you cool.

Speaking of hair, or in this case lack of it, New York Times writer Glenn Collins took some time during the recent heat wave to visit New York barber shops and see what the guys were up to. Not surprisingly, men across the city are taking it off. Taking it all off.

Why not? If it can be a fashion or a political statement or even a way to stave off looking one's age, why not be a way to keep cool? Of course, it's a men only kinda thing, unless you're Sinead O'Connor or are angling for a part in a Star Trek movie.

"It is her own hair; she bought it."

I don't really have anything to add or say about this comment. It's just one of those random, overheard comments that need to be remembered, maybe for dialog, maybe for the title of a novel, or just for a laugh.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Friday Lyric of the Week

"I'm free -- I'm free,
And freedom tastes of reality
I'm free -- I'm free,
And I'm waiting for you to follow me."

From The Who's Rock Opera, Tommy

Performed live at Woodstock...

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Tuesday Quote of the Week

"Grass cannot truly be uprooted, for the earth in which it grows comes up with the roots, ready for replanting."
~~I Ching

Saturday, July 12, 2008

City Snapshot

So last night when I was walking the dog--yeah, it was kinda of late--this guy fell into step with me for part of the way. He clearly had had a few. The conversation started with comments on my dog's markings and went on from there. This guy was on his way home to Southie and was talking about helping his buddy look for an apartment. The conversation then turned to who actually lives in the South End (he decided that I fell under the "artsy" category). We also talked about street smarts...well, I called it street smarts, he called it always expecting to get your head kicked in.

Somehow, the conversation turned to how he recently broke a few toes. No, it didn't happen on the streets of Boston...it happened in his bathroom. It wasn't too spectacular of a story, just a little odd. Apparently, a picture that had been hanging there forever fell as he was standing there and landed on his toes. What was funny was that halfway through telling me, a complete stranger, he realized what he was describing (he was making sure he demonstrated the stance properly), but he just shrugged and continued on with the story.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

You mean you can use it for punctuation, too?

A comma is as good as a semicolon to a weak sentence.

The article by Roy Peter Clark, "Good Semicolons Make Good Neighbors," was posted on Poyntner's website today. It praises the semicolon, which would probably have died off due to indifference, misuse, or ugliness except for the one practical purpose it still seems to serve: How else would we convey that we are winking?

Researching Arctic Ice

Research scientists have started to tag along on regular Coast Guard flights to get up close and personal with the arctic sheet ice. The researchers are hoping to get more detailed data on something the the Coast Guard has been noticing lately: The ice, while spectacular in this photo, is shrinking.

The following article, "The smaller picture:
Colorado scientist prepares to collect detailed data on Arctic ice" by Drew Herman, appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror (Alaska) on July 1:

From 1,000 feet up, the Arctic sheet ice looks like the top of a piƱa colada when you lose the race to drink it before the froth melts. In the 24-hour sunlight of late June, open water only appears as isolated patches connected by dark, narrow veins.

From his perch at an observation window in a Coast Guard C-130 airplane, Mark Tschudi estimated a thickness of about 3 feet for the largest of the flat, motionless ice islands. The smaller shards might be 1 foot thick, he said.

Tschudi, a remote sensing scientist from the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research at the University of Colorado in Boulder, hitched along for the June 19 Arctic Domain Awareness flight from Air Station Kodiak. ADA is a Coast Guard program aimed at familiarizing crews with operating in the far north — something they expect to do more and more as global warming shrinks polar ice and shipping lanes open across the top of the world.

“That’s how it’s been going,” Tschudi said. “Last year we hit an all-time minimum for coverage in the Arctic.”

Although the ice extended to every horizon, and usually reaches minimum coverage only in September, he did not expect to see it so thin and so close to shore as the summer solstice neared.

But Tschudi was not completely surprised, either.

“The ice in the Arctic has been shrinking every year,” he said.

For now, however, the extreme latitudes get little traffic, leaving scientists with few platforms for gathering data on an issue of global importance.

“Satellites are a big one,” Tschudi said. “That’s, of course, the big picture for the Arctic.”
For the smaller picture, researchers need to get closer to the surface.

In an important international study in 1998, a Canadian icebreaker was allowed to freeze into the Arctic ice and drift for months, giving scientists a close-up platform for their instruments.
Only two of the U.S. Coast Guard’s three Arctic icebreakers are operational.

Tschudi’s trip with ADA let him check the viability of mounting specialized instruments on a C-130.

“The Coast Guard is really cooperative with this stuff,” he said. “Since these guys fly every two weeks, it’s a great opportunity to get lots of photography that way.”

A row of downward-facing flare tubes at the rear of the aircraft’s cabin offer a promising mount. With technicians at the University of Colorado machine shop, Tschudi plans to develop a compact, fully automated instrument package with a laser profiler, a spectral radiometer and a high-speed camera.

“If that works out, we’ll be able to fly all three of those on every one of these flights,” he said. That would yield a regular stream of data, the foundation of reliable science. “It’s the old ‘picture’s worth a thousand words’ sort of thing.”

Tschudi’s specialty is pond coverage, the shallow pools of water on the surface of sea ice. Spectral analysis tells him what is on the ice.

“That helps the modelers predict how fast the ice is going to melt,” he said.

Some models predict an ice-free Arctic summer within the next six years. Several nations, including Russia, Canada and Denmark, have recently shown the flag in the region many expect to become more important for commerce and resources.

Coast Guard pilot Lt. Steve McKechnie and his crew have flown ADA missions since last summer. The day-long airborne patrols have already become as regular as weather permits, with missions planned for nine months per year.

The June 19 flight left Kodiak at 10 a.m., made a touch-and-go landing in Kotzebue, then skirted the coastline about 50 miles north of the shore to Barrow. After another touch-and-go at 3:25 p.m., the crew turned back to Kodiak, arriving in time for dinner.

The planes’ routes vary, with detours toward anything that looks like a boat, even if it turns out to be a chunk of ice casting a boat-shaped shadow. Sometimes they check on the oil pipeline, alert for environmental or security problems.

Aiding the scientific community is a bonus, adding to the list of Coast Guard functions.
For Tschudi and his colleagues, the Arctic flights add to the solid scientific ground under their feet even as the solid ice goes away. Tschudi said people often ask them if global warming is real and whether humans are responsible.

“There’s a lot of information being put out from various sources in the media,” he said. “The bottom line is yes, there is a man-made influence to the global warming that is occurring.”
How much of the warming comes from human activity is another question, but that people are speeding it up appears clear.

There may be more or less ice in the Arctic Ocean in any given year, Tschudi said, “but the trend is down, definitely.”

[Photo information: The shadow of a Coast Guard C-130, flying at about 1,000 feet, falls on offshore sheet ice west of Barrow during an Arctic Domain Awareness flight, June 19. Photo by Drew Herman.]

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Doubleshot

As much as I hate Starbucks and all that they stand for, I keep finding reasons to go back (in addition to the obvious...sometimes they're the only show on the block).

The latest is the venti doubleshot. Five shots (yes, five) of espresso, some sweetener, and a little milk all over ice. Especially on a day like today, when I need all the help I can get to make pushing through the humidity even remotely worthwhile, this makes my previous summertime favorite (a caramel frappachino affogato) seem like sissy stuff. And it's a lot easier to ask for. (If I have to explain one more time what affogato means to a Starbucks' barista, when it's not my word but theirs, I may just scream.) And, oh yeah, did I mention the five shots of espresso?

Tuesday Quote of the Week

"A writer is a man who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do."
~~Donald Barthelme

Friday, July 4, 2008

Friday Lyric of the Week

"The world was moving she was right there with it,
And she was.
The world was moving she was floating above it,
And she was, and she was.

She was glad about it... no doubt about it,
She isn't sure about where she's gone,
No time to think about what to tell them,
No time to think about what she's done,
And she was.

And she was.

And she was."

From "And She Was" by the Talking Heads

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Tuesday Quote of the Week

"An answer is always a form of death."
~John Fowles