Monday, October 31, 2011

VOR’s Turn: The Irish Samurai

Despite being a WW II baby (May 23 1944) and thus brought up in a period when both Germany and Japan were not thought of with much affection, I have long been intrigued by Japan.

It was strange, really, because most of the books I read when I was growing up were ferociously anti-Japanese, I did not know any Japanese, and most of the movies I saw were equally unforgiving.

Beyond that, a much admired uncle, Joe Lentaigne, had fought the Japanese in WW II and had endured terrible privation while fighting with Orde Wingate’s Chindits. After Wingate had been killed, General ‘Fighting Joe’ Lentaigne had gone on to command the Chindits, and, as it happens, Wingate’s son, also called Orde, had been in my class at school.

The Chindits, by the way, were special forces who fought behind enemy lines and were supplied from  the air. It was a brilliant idea which ran ahead of the capabilities of the air forces of the time. The men achieved some military successes, but suffered horribly.

My anti-Japanese influences did not end there. When I was 19 – which would make it 1963 – I once had the privilege of spending an evening with the famous Australian author Russell Braddon, whose book, THE NAKED ISLAND, was as powerful an indictment of Japanese wartime cruelty as you are likely to read. Russell had experienced this first hand.

He had been a prisoner of the Japanese for four years, from 1942-45, in the notorious Changi prison in Singapore.

Russell was a delightful man (he died in 1995), and a talented writer, but suffice to say that, at that time, he still was not minded to forgive the Japanese. He had seen numerous friends die quite unnecessarily from malnutrition and disease in Changi, and he had also witnessed, and been the victim of, much brutality.

He had also witnessed a number of executions by decapitation. He was of the opinion that Japanese culture was fundamentally flawed and, in a word, hated them.

In my opinion, he had earned the right, but though I thought about his words a great deal – I was much impressed by him – my interest in Japan did not waver.

A further negative regarding Japan was that, in those days, anything cheaply, and frequently badly, manufactured, seemed to come from either Japan or Hong Kong.

Times have certainly changed.

So where did my interest in, and respect for, Japan come from? I don’t really know, but I suspect I read a couple of contrarian books – I have been reading 2-4 books a week for most of my life, and I know I was profoundly impressed by various features I read (and looked at) in the National Geographic. Their standard of photography has always been commendable.

My conclusion went roughly along these lines: Here is a culture which is certainly different, but which makes a great deal of sense within its own parameters, and which is impressively focused on the excellent, and the beautiful. As to its behavior in China, Korea and during WW II, one has to appreciate that Japan was still in the middle ages less than three generations earlier, and cultural confusion under such circumstances was scarcely surprising.

Eventually, in the Nineties, I made it to Japan to do research for my second book, RULES OF THE HUNT. It was a truly marvelous trip which pretty much confirmed my conclusions. I have always wanted to go back, but somehow that has never been possible. I regret it deeply. It’s a truly fascinating country, and culture. And I made some good friends there.

I was reminded of Japan when I watched THE LAST SAMURAI recently. It’s a stunningly beautiful movie starring Tom Cruise and directed by Edward Zwick which somehow was not as well received as it might have been.

I enjoy it more every time I see it. It brings back many, many, marvelous memories.

As for the rest, it will be in my memoirs.

But, by the way, the original title for my first book, GAMES OF THE HANGMAN, was to have been: THE IRISH SAMURAI. I always saw my protagonist, Hugo Fitzduane, that way (albeit without a master) and still do.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Threats To Our National Security That Stem From Within. #2: THE HIJACKING OF OUR DEMOCRACY BY THE RICH & CORPORATE INTERESTS

coup d'etat- back cover

Image by matt griffin via Flickr

We tend to associate the word “coup” with armed force and – not infrequently actual violence – but, almost certainly, the insidious power of money has even more coups to its credit.

It reduces the seizing of power to an investment decision. It is also administratively and logistically simple. No troops or tanks required; and those you need to over-power - will take plastic.

Where this country is concerned we have experienced an interesting variation on the traditional secretive coup. In our case, those who have bought power, have largely – though certainly not completely - operated in plain sight by perverting the Constitution. They have bribed their way into power; and intend to hold on to it in exactly the same way.

Politicians come cheap. Return on such invested capital is excellent; and there is a track record to prove it.

The Supreme Court has been complicit in this power grab in a whole series of pro-business judgments which first all ruled that corporations, from a legal point of view, had the same rights as people; and secondly that corporate money was the equivalent of free speech and must, therefore, go unchecked.

From then on, the decline of effective representative democracy was inevitable. Why should a politician listen to his constituency when he has been bought into office with corporate money; is maintained in office in the same way; and will similarly benefit when he or she retires? Research shows that he or she does not.

The system has now been so corrupted that even at a time of unparalleled income inequality and widespread unemployment – a consequence of a rigged taxation system and the lack of worker rights – the Republicans feel quite safe in blatantly advocating tax (and other) reforms, which will further aid the transfer of wealth to the Rich and Corporate Interests; and further advance social inequity.

Such behavior is shameless, reprehensible, and morally wrong, but the Republicans feel they can get away with it because they now control so many of the levers of power – and particularly of propaganda – that resistance will be futile; even if they fail to capture the presidency as such.

Their rationale is simple. The Rich and Corporate Interests have bought both parties (and have manipulated the Tea Party into the bargain). Bribery rocks! Well, that may be a slight exaggeration; but that it works, is certain.

Look no further than the continuing support of the financial sector by the Democrats for proof of this, plus the glaring absence of programs advancing social equity. In effect, the 99% have no representation.

Unfortunately, history shows that social inequity invariably results in social unrest and, not infrequently, violence. And where does violence lead? It has featured in our history before. The term we used to describe it was: “Revolution.”

The V for Vendetta mask may soon look less benevolent.


America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.
Abraham Lincoln

Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable - a most sacred right - a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world.
Abraham Lincoln






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Saturday, October 29, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Smorgasbord

Painting from my Work Ethic series: Ei and Sco...

Image by p0ps Harlow via Flickr

I’m taking a temporary respite from my rather somber pieces about Our Threats From Within.

Apart from any other reason, it is Saturday, my self-designated day of relaxation and utter idleness. I would have added “utter degeneracy” as well but one has to be cautious in this internet age. Besides, I’m older these days and content with “leisurely degeneracy.”

I don’t really become utterly idle, but the point is that I try and abandon the work ethic for the day, and make everything optional. In short, I delude my mindset into believing that I ‘m not working because I have to, but for the sheer pleasure of it – and entirely voluntarily at that.

It’s a surprisingly successful technique. There is a lot to be said for self-delusion when you know you are deluding yourself. Or is someone manipulating me to think just that?

I’m deluding myself into thinking: “Im-possible.”

The above cartoon has been borrowed from that amazing site THE BIG PICTURE. I said before that is was a positive cornucopia of good things. Let me now substitute: “Smorgasbord.”

The following came from the same source.

"My colleagues, they study artificial intelligence; me, I study natural stupidity." -Amos Tversky, Stanford psychologist and a founding father of behavioral economics











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Friday, October 28, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Threats To Our National Security That Stem From Within. #1: THE DETERIORATION OF OUR HEALTH & OUR FOOD CHAIN.

Vitruvian Man, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

Image via Wikipedia

This is a much more serious issue than we seem to be willing to accept. 

It combines our basic ability to function as productive human beings, with vast economic and lifestyle penalties (if we cannot perform at least as well as our peers in other countries). 

This is not just about physical health – as generally considered – because it relates directly to our intellectual productivity as well. Where most of us are concerned, we need to be adequately fit and healthy to perform at our intellectual optimum.

The exact situation varies by the person, but if many Americans are in mediocre health, then the drag on our collective national performance can be imagined. We don’t think as well as we might; we don’t learn as fast as we could; we don’t innovate as effectively as we might; and our reasoning abilities are adversely affected. And to cap it all, our longevity is impacted.

An ever increasing body of evidence points to the fact that we don’t have to imagine such a subpar future. We’re already living it, and experiencing its consequences; and the trends are adverse.

The evidence would take a book to summarize, but let me give some examples:

  • The fact that our infant mortality rate is excessively high.
  • That fact that over 70 percent of young Americans of recruitment age are unfit for military service.
  • The obesity epidemic.
  • The fact that roughly half the adult population that has health insurance is on legal medication.
  • The fact that about a quarter of the adult population is on anti-depressants.
  • The fact that the evidence indicates that Americans, compared to other populations seem to be sicker as we get older.
  • The fact that our longevity is lower than that of most other developed nations.

Why does this situation exist? To answer that question one has to think about the problem holistically. Diet, smoking, lifestyle, pollution and working conditions are just some of the factors involved, as is our mediocre and excessively costly health care system combined with mass ignorance, plus a culture that believes that the solution to every ill is a pill rather than prevention.

It is noteworthy that most of the above factors involve corporate greed in some way. If we allow our corporations to do virtually anything (on the altar of unfettered capitalism), and accept the notion that a corporation’s only duty is to make money for its shareholders, then we should scarcely be surprised that our health will be sacrificed in the process. And that is exactly what is happening.

The threat of terrorism is as nothing compared to this ongoing, self inflicted, self-evident, national catastrophe. In terms of human suffering and lives lost, it is, indeed, another holocaust.

And the enemy is us. Yet, apart from tokenism, we seem near oblivious.







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Thursday, October 27, 2011

VOR’s Turn: We Are Sitting Under A Volcano, Yet None Are So Blind As The Greedy; And The Institutionally Conditioned

Pundits on talk shows like to refer to the 24/7 news cycle, and “The Age of the Internet,” and imply that we are all incredibly well informed these days.

I often wonder if this is true.

Polls continue to indicate a frighteningly high level of ignorance in the U.S.; and my impression about mankind in general is that is that not only is our capacity for rational analysis decidedly limited, but we are not particularly well equipped to handle large volumes of data.

We can’t remember most of it, we’re not particularly good at connecting the dots, we are delusional when it comes to multi-tasking (we think we can, but mostly we can’t) and we find too much data confusing.

After that, personal agendas and vested interests enter the picture, and they tend to trump facts again and again. And then comes ideology, the curse of the thinking classes. I tend to think of ideologies in terms of religion or politics; but they also exist in many other forms, and, in particular, can be induced by institutions, whether corporate, or government, or academic, or religious. Whatever be the form, the end result – if an ideology - equates to intellectual blindness. It is a common ailment.

I’m thinking this way, both because I normally do; and because I’m struck by the fact that trends and developments of significance so often go unnoticed.

For, instance, in the late Eighties and Nineties, when I was working on such books as GAMES OF THE HANGMAN, RULES OF THE HUNT, and THE DEVIL’S FOOTPRINT, it was blindingly clear to me that terrorism would be used against the U.S. in the near future; and I said as much repeatedly.

Subject to some notable exceptions such as the remarkable Vaughn Forrest and his Congressional Task Force On Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, I was substantially ignored. After all, terrorism in those days belonged in the box marked ENTERTAINMENT; and anyway what could an author of fiction know that the security services did not?

I could answer that last question in detail, but since I’m merely trying to illustrate the point that we are disconcertingly bad at recognizing trends and developments of significance, I’ll move on.

The next obvious example was the Great Recession. I forecast that in 2004. I thought it would start in early 2008, last for several years and that housing prices would fall by a third. I wasn’t the only person who forecast such doom and gloom, but certainly neither the mainstream media nor the  government seemed to be remotely concerned. As to why the Fed, with all their resources, ignored the obvious, one cannot but wonder.

As matters stand, though there are obvious threats like the Chinese, the U.S. is unlikely to be seriously threated by any external conventional enemy, using conventional weapons, but is eminently capable of destroying itself, or at least of inflicting the kind of damage on itself that will take decades to recover from.

If such is the case, and I believe it is, then we are misallocating our National Security resources. Further, I believe a threat from within is more immediate than any external threat.

Here, I had better explain that when I say “from within” I am not referring to infiltrated terrorists or enemy sleeper cells (though they exist). I am talking about this society’s capacity to self-destruct in some way. I am talking about structural flaws in the American Way of Life. As is becoming self-evident, they are many. This is not to bely our strengths, which are numerous, but to focus attention on matters we can do something about; if we want to. The latter is far from clear.

Bottom line: We are our own worst enemies.

Let me list the principal threats to our National Security that stem from within. – in the next post.








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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Could It Be That The Food We Need To Keep Us Alive, Is Killing Us? Yes!

Bill Maher at the PETA screening of I Am An An...

Image via Wikipedia

The comedian and talk show host, Bill Maher, regularly quips – and not in jest – that the regular American diet, is killing us.

I have collected an increasing amount of data that supports this conclusion.

It’s not that we are eating a hamburger, and dropping dead there and then; but more that our diet is causing a steady degradation of our health.

It shows up in all kinds of ways:

  • Our obesity epidemic.
  • The fact that we don’t live as long as those in other developed countries.
  • The fact that we tend to be sicker, as we get older, than those in other developed countries.
  • The fact that over 70 percent of young Americans are not fit enough for military service.
  • The fact that our largely factory-farm/intensive agriculturally produced food is neither wholesome nor healthy.
  • The fact that we are the most drugged nation (based upon legal medications alone) in the history of mankind.

In that context, I would urge you to read the following letter featured by the commendable Mark Bittman in the New York Times of October 25 2011. It was written by New York meat wholesaler, George Faison.


Hey Chefs:

This note explains my thinking about why I believe that you should be pursuing clean agricultural ingredients as standard practice in your restaurants.

Our food supply system is broken. Badly. 80 percent of the U.S. beef production is controlled by four industrially producing companies. Three of these companies also process 60 percent of the nation’s pork.[1] Too much chemical fertilizer and pesticides are used to produce our crops. The variety of crops produced around the world has diminished dramatically in the last 60 years. There are now nearly 5,000,000 fewer American farmers since the 1930s.

Yes, this industrial structure has significantly lowered the monetary cost of the food we consume. But this is misleading. While the amount of money we spend on food has declined, the quality and nutrition supplied by this food has deteriorated. As a country, about one third of all adults are obese, and since 1980, the incidence of obesity has tripled among children ages 2-19.[2]

In 1960, we spent 18 percent of our take home pay on food and 5 percent on health care. Now we spend 9 percent of our take home pay on food and upwards of 17 percent on health care. According to Michael Pollan, during his Oprah interview in February, “We spend less of our money on food than any other people at any other time on this earth.” What’s wrong with this picture?

People have gotten used to eating cheap food and it is killing them. There is little flavor and little nutrition and we eat more and more, because so much of it has been engineered to trigger consumption (salt and sugar have been proven to be addictive, like nicotine in cigarettes).

Regarding meat and poultry, here is what drives me to promote naturally raised meats.

By clean I mean the following:

1. Antibiotic free: Over 70 percent of the antibiotics used in this country are fed to the animals we eat. 70 percent! The practice is banned in Europe. The antibiotics are fed to animals housed in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). They are so densely housed that they get sick. The producer gives them feed treated with antibiotics so they won’t get sick. Hogs are crammed into concrete and metal pens with grates that allow the excrement to fall through. Chickens are packed into closed houses where the lights are turned on four times each day to make them eat more often. Conditions like these would make any animal sick.

The key problem when antibiotics are overused is that it can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It is a great threat to our country’s health. In fact, there is an antibiotic-resistant Staph bacteria called MRSA that is definitely impacting employees working on hog CAFOs. According to the CDC, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that in 2007, 18,650 people died of MRSA, whereas approximately 16,000 died of AIDS. Additionally, JAMA reported that MRSA was also responsible for upward of 94,000 life threatening illnesses.[3]

2. Hormone Free: Hormones are given to dairy cows to produce more milk and beef cattle to accelerate weight gain. The goal is obviously to maximize production in the shortest amount of time. Hormones are hell on dairy cows, causing them to lactate practically round the clock, which is abusive, and the quality impact on beef cattle is huge. Forty years ago, Prime grade made up 6 percent of all beef carcasses graded. Today, that percentage is 1.5!

According to the owner of a very large cattle processor who is well respected in the beef industry here in the U.S., the reason for the reduction in cattle quality is directly related to the use of hormones. The cattle grow quicker but they put on more water weight. The amount of time required for the muscle to develop and the fat to intersperse during grain feeding is shortened by 35-50 percent thanks to hormones. The result is cheaper cattle for the most part. But it is absolutely less flavorful. And there is less highly marbled Prime cattle rising to the top, resulting in dramatically higher prices for Prime beef over choice.

Commodity cattle that are fed hormones are moved to a feedlot after as little as 9 months. There, they are given antibiotic-laced feed to keep them healthy while they adjust to a largely grain diet (that’s like you moving from a salad-based diet to an all-cheese diet overnight). These cattle are intensely fed for 75-100 days. Very efficient. Very cheap.

Naturally raised cattle are on pasture for 16-20 months before transferring to a low density feedlot where they are fed a mixed diet (dried grass/grain for 200 days in a naturally raised, clean program; 400 days for a wagyu program). It takes a lot longer to raise clean, healthy cattle, and this is why they cost more. But they taste a lot better and they marble better. Our naturally raised, clean beef program typically grades over 20 percent Prime, and that’s a lot more than commodity at 1.5 percent.

But the impact of hormones in our food system is becoming increasingly controversial. The practice is banned in Europe. The use of hormones in our food supply has been linked to the earlier onset of menstruation in young women in western societies over the last 40 years. (These dates coincide with the introduction of hormones as an additive/growth stimulant in dairy and beef cattle.) The issue with earlier onset of menstruation is that it is associated with a vastly greater incidence of cancer in women, breast and cervical.[4] That is just one reason why many of our retail customers are ordering DeBragga’s grass fed or naturally raised beef.

So why does this matter to you? Maybe it doesn’t. But from where I sit, I see more and more of our chef/restaurateurs making the switch to naturally raised meats and poultry for the reasons I describe above, and more (like animal welfare, for example). We know that a greater and greater number of our clients, especially in New York City, are looking for these ingredients, even expecting us to be offering them. As an industry, restaurants are on the cutting edge. Not just in culinary technique and quality, or décor and service, but in the quality and production standards used to make the ingredients in our recipes.

Yes, naturally and humanely raised meats cost more. Maybe you can counter the higher monetary cost by offering smaller portions. Or expect chefs to charge more money for it.

I do not think the solution to our food supply problem is to use poorer quality ingredients because they cost less money. In the long run, the true cost of these meats is so much higher.


[1] Hendrickson, Mary and William Heffernan. “Concentration of Agricultural Markets.” Department of Rural Sociology, University of Missouri. April 2007.

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[3] Journal of the American Medical Association, October 17, 2007.

[4] Sellman, Sherrill, “The problem with precocious puberty,” Nexus Magazine, Vol 11, 3, April – May 2004.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Vision Is A Wonderful Thing

Biosphere 2 near Tucson, Arizona, USA.

Image via Wikipedia

Biosphere 2 near Tucson, Arizona, USA.

Image via Wikipedia


Image by kurichan* via Flickr

Some years ago I went to see Biosphere 2 in Arizona and was completely blown away by it. Officially, it was closed, but I managed to sneak in; and I was just plain awed by it.

Apart from the fact that it was visually spectacular, to me it represented vision personified. Here were people trying to do something extraordinary. True, they were not entirely successful, but even their failures were inspiring.

I left feeling invigorated and inspired; and hugely impressed; and thinking people at their best are fantastic. That feeling has never left me. I know, with absolute certainty, that human potential remains substantially untapped. We are capable of doing so much; yet mostly we don’t.  But the thought that we can – and sometimes do - remains ever with me; and when I see something inspiring, I react with Pavlovian enthusiasm.

The above relates to Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to establish a research facility on Roosevelt Island. Bloomberg, on behalf of New York, has offered the land and $100 million in infrastructure improvements in exchange for a world class science and engineering campus.

Response, so far has been impressive. It seems clear that New York will get its facility.

I love this kind of stuff!





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Monday, October 24, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Americans, Delightful Though, Of Course, We Are; Are Some Of The Most Brain-Washed People In The World.

Mind Control (Stephen Marley album)

Image via Wikipedia

As you may gather, if you have read a number of these blogs, I am fascinated by how people think; or, in many (arguably most) cases, don’t think.

I tend towards the view that most of our big issue (Job Creation, Healthcare etc.) problems are solvable, and again and again am surprised – I really mean disappointed - that not only are these problems not dealt with, but readily available solutions aren’t even considered. Yes, I know the flaws innate to human nature are the primary reason, but I don’t think it is just that. I also think other factors are involved. Let me proffer some thoughts:

  • Conditioning. Americans, pleasant to meet though most are, are some of the most brain-washed people in the world. We don’t use Madrassas. Primarily, we use corporations. They are exceptionally well-equipped for the task. They have massive resources, and (subject to some notable exceptions) they are unconstrained by feelings of social concern, or decency, or values of any kind. They are focused solely on the pursuit of profit. Such motivation means that they are not only unrelenting in their self-promotion, but that their own cultures are about as conformist and authoritarian as can we achieved. As befits our culture of consumption and excess, we use total immersion from birth to death. It works. The combination of commercial, government, and social propaganda – much of it more myth than fact - imbues such a strong sense that the American Way of Life is superior, that any fresh thinking has a hard time getting accepted. That might not not matter if the American Way of Life really was superior, but, across a wide range of issues, palpably it is not. We should be out learning how other societies do things better, but mostly, we refuse to. In contrast, where other countries think they can learn from us, they do. They benefit from the best of both worlds; and, predictably, that gives them the advantage.
  • Ideology. Ideologies stem in many cases, though not all, from conditioning. They are dangerous because they involve shutting down one’s mind in favor of blind belief. Accordingly, it becomes culturally acceptable, for instances, to pay people so badly they need Food Stamps; or to cut back on Health Care (as Wal-Mart is doing now). Or to cut back on research in favor of short-term profits (as many U.S. corporations are doing right now). As for the effect of ideology on our politics, the current self-inflicted paralysis speaks for itself. As for the combination of ideology and religion in our politics; it is toxic.
  • Specialization. Specialization works best when it evolves from a broad base of experience and where one’s underlying philosophy is, and remains, holistic. In contrast, we have evolved a Third Level educational system which tends to teach more and more about less and less. The end result is the emergence of what I tend to think of as “professional illiterates” – professionally qualified people who tend to know remarkably little outside their own area of expertise; and who, not infrequently, don’t talk to each other. Look no further than the medical profession for examples where different specialists, treating the same patient, not only fail to communicates, but are not even coordinated. It is unconscionable.
  • Experience. There is just no substitute for broad experience of life if you want to use your mind to best advantage. That involves – as a minimum - travel, languages, reading, study, an appreciation of the arts, and the active cultivation of one’s critical faculties, together with a keen eye and an open mind. Add in a diversity of work experiences, and perhaps a little combat. There is nothing like being shot at to focus the mind. It really does get you out of your comfort zone. Throw in a period of poverty. Sprinkle with commercial successes and failures. There are few things more brain-deadening than success and riches alone. After all that lot, there is a reasonable chance that an interesting, thoughtful, compassionate, and creative human being will emerge.

The above thoughts have been prompted by reading an extract from WIRED’S publication, I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words

The following is the quote that got my attention:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have." ~Wired, February, 1995

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Andrew N. Liveris Is A Brilliant Communicator. He Also Happens to Be The CEO of Dow Chemical.

View of Capitol Hill from the U.S. Supreme Court

Image via Wikipedia

The U.S., at present, is not a democracy though it masquerades as one. Fundamentally, it is run by the Rich and Corporate Interests to their own advantage.

If they don’t benefit, it doesn’t happen. Since Congress is bought and paid for by those self same interests, they follow orders. Much the same situation exists at state and county level. Corporatism rules. It has no right to, but it does. It is an absolute violation of the Constitution.

If you doubt me, just look at unemployment. Currently we have 25 million people either unemployed, or underemployed, or who have dropped out of the job market, yet Congress refuses to do virtually anything. Much as Congress doesn’t do hunger and poverty, it doesn’t do unemployment. Yet, do you doubt for a second that if the tens of thousands of corporate lobbyists were agitating for action. and supporting their pressure with campaign donations, that disastrous situation would continue to exist. It would not. Corporatism really does rule. It also does not care about unemployment. Indeed, it likes it. High unemployment undercuts the ability of labor to bargain.

I’m against corporate control of our economy with ever fiber of my being. I’m well aware of the limitations of democracy, especially in a society where many of the potential voters are ignorant of the issues – as is the situation in this country - but still believe that it is a better system of government than the alternatives. I regret deeply that the U.S. has, in fact, if not in name, abandoned it.

For all that, I’m not against corporations as such. I think the notion that a corporation is legally a person is a corruption of the law, and a damming indictment of the integrity of the Supreme Court; and I would like to see corporate power diminished in a significant number of ways; but such qualifications apart, I wish them good fortune.

It is in that context that I draw your attention of Andrew N. Liveris. He is the CEO of Dow Chemical, a corporation with a dubious reputation, but he’s a superb communicator; who – based on what I have heard so far – speaks a great deal of sense. He is also an advocate for the revival of manufacturing in the U.S., and the author of MAKE IT IN AMERICA: The Case for Reinventing The Economy.

He argues for “smart manufacturing” and he makes a compelling case. As I keep on arguing, we don’t have to be in this ridiculous economic mess. The solutions are out there, and so are some extraordinarily talented people. But, there is a disconnect in how our society is structured so that it’s needs rarely seem to be met by the talented.

It wasn’t always thus.


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Saturday, October 22, 2011

VOR’s Turn: No Wonder I Turned To Eagle & Cuckoo.

Citizens registered as an Independent, Democra...

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Eagle & Cuckoo haven’t had much of a look-in on this blog recently, and I’m feeling quite guilty about it.

Given that they are entirely fictional characters, that may seem something of a stretch , but the truth is that once I have created a character in reasonable depth, he or she becomes real – as far as I am concerned.

By that, I don’t mean totally real – as in I would invite one of them out to lunch. Instead, I mean that I think about them a great deal and am concerned, in an omniscient sort of way about their development. I want and expect them to evolve as people. I give thought to how they live in steadily increasing detail. How does Hugo Fitzduane, who lives in an old Norman keep on an island off the West of Ireland, feed himself? Does he cook, or if he doesn’t, who does? How and where does he shop? What does he do all day? Given the number of people he has killed (always in a worthy cause) is he suffering from PTSD?

That is not as crazy as it sounds because every character I have created actually has his or her roots in reality; so, in a way, when I’m plotting fiction, I’m also thinking about reality. I’m recalling people, places and situations, and then letting my subconscious take over. Fortunately, it is a subconscious with a work ethic which rarely lets me down.

We have a deal. If I supply it with plenty of material, it will deliver. By material, it doesn’t mean watching TV. It means having real life adventures and experiences which it can really do something with. And if I get shot or knifed in the process – and there are other hazards – why to serve the interests of literature is noble. We’ll ignore whether a thriller is literature or not. It is a good motivational quip. 

E&C rather broke the pattern. I haven’t spent much time socializing with eagles to date – I admire eagles, but am not overly fond of heights and my un-assisted flying capabilities are limited – but when I was searching for a way of discussing our current rather horrendous economic situation, in a slightly less in-your-face way, E&C just popped into my head. 

I guess Eagle’s origins are obvious enough – Eagle being the national bird – but Cuckoo is harder to pin down. Perhaps he stems from the fact that our current situation is cuckoo. We don’t need to be in this situation at all. There are solutions to all our problems, but the Republicans are so hell bent on making Obama a one term president that they seem quite content to wreck the country in the process. And for good measure, they seem to revel in a particular kind of spiteful intransigence which is remarkable reminiscent of the school bully. Again and again, their behavior could well be described as mean and nasty. 

I would mind less if they had rational alternative policies, but they don’t. Instead they pump out the same old propaganda about excessive regulations, and taxes being too high while ignoring any and all contrary evidence (of which there is a great deal). Further, they are so blatantly in the pockets of the Rich and Corporate interests that the chances of their advancing all our interests – as a government should – are zero. In short, they are deeply corrupt, both morally and financially, as is the system as whole. It has been rigged to benefit the few at the expense of the many and the great wonder was that more people didn’t spot this earlier. Good grief, it is not a new development. The process started in the early Seventies and has been gathering momentum ever since.

So why weren’t the Democrats screaming about this decades ago. The data were available. Even if they couldn’t interpret the figures themselves, there is no shortage of socially concerned economists. Yet, somehow the enormity of the havoc being wreaked on the American Dream was missed. Could it be because the Democrats were equally corrupted by the Rich and Corporate interests? It seems highly likely. Correction: It is certain.

This raises serious questions about President Clinton’s conduct. True, he presided over a period of sustained economic prosperity, but he doesn’t seem to have been concerned that this growth was essentially debt fueled, and that the tilting of the economy in favor of the Rich and Corporate interests was continuing. Since, by all accounts, he is an extremely intelligent man, why did he not try to redress the situation? Instead, he chose to be silent on the subject. Power came ahead of principle.

What puzzles and distresses me about all this is the near complete absence of reasoned debate. The Republicans have in effect said: “We are the party of the privileged, and since we have enough economic power to buy control of the system, pretty much regardless of who is elected, why should we care about the wellbeing of most Americans? Our rice bowls are filled by the 1%. The rest of you, the 99%, are just not really our concern. Anyway, we have a strong enough propaganda machine to keep enough of you docile no matter how outrageously we behave. True, you might think the media would cut us to pieces, but they don’t because, to a very large extent, we own them, As for the balance, they have such a peculiar idea of balanced reporting that we can still get away with almost anything. In short, we are grabbing all the marbles because we can. And what has fairness got to do with rugged individualism. Rugged individuals grab what they can and to hell with the rest. That’s the American way.”

To be fair to the Republicans, at least that has the merit of being a coherent point of view. It is a philosophy of greed and thuggery. It is despicable. It is almost certainly Un-American. But at least it is clear.

What the Democrats stand for is very far from clear. Nominally, they are the party of the Working Class; but the Working Class doesn’t exist any more… It has, somewhat mysteriously, become ‘The Middle Class;” the class of most Americans. Of a regular guy doing a regular job who probably belongs to an union.

But wait: Government unions apart, the union movement is almost dead. And it is far from certain that the Democrats will give them the kiss of life. Why so? Well, modern Democrats get a significant amount of their funding from corporations – just like the Republicans. And corporations hate unions, particularly in the U.S., because unions are now the only force available to counteract corporate power. Clearly, they have to go.

I could write pages about the weakness of the Democrats (and I’m sorely tempted to) but let me show restraint, and merely state that the Democrats come across as a bunch of wimps with no clearly defined policies.

Do they want to rein in corporate power – which they clearly should? I have absolutely no idea.

Do they really want to improve working conditions and give Americans the same sort of rights that currently exist in Europe? I see no evidence to that effect.

Are they concerned about the fact that the earnings of the average American have not increased in forty years – and are now declining? I really don’t know. I suspect not.

Do they think the financial sector should be reformed from its gullet to its zatch? Not really, both because leading members of the party are in bed with the banks, and because they don’t really understand all that technical stuff…

Judas Priest! This is a case of the corrupt and ignorant bamboozling the wanting and ignorant. It’s not a debate. It’s a competition over which party can rape and pillage to best advantage.

No wonder I turned to Eagle & Cuckoo.






















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Friday, October 21, 2011

VOR’s Turn: The Illusion of Skill Is Deeply Ingrained In the Culture Of The Financial Sector.

Punch cartoon from 1843 depicting events inspi...

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I like to keep myself reasonably well informed, and to that end, spend a couple of hours each day checking out a wide variety of sources with as open a mind as I can muster.

The latter is not always easy, but I have found it helps if – as a minimum – one is aware of one’s prejudices; and is prepared to think holistically (to assess one’s findings in context, to look at both the big picture and the specific situation, and to join the dots).

Also, I’m blessed with friends, who don’t necessarily agree with me politically, so I’m constantly being forced to question my own judgment. Indeed, let me admit this confidentially (because it is decidedly un-American) I’m even prepared to do something truly shocking: To change my mind.

Quite why I don’t rely on watching TV in the evening for my news, like roughly three-quarters of the U.S. population is a good question, but I don’t. I guess I’m after vastly more perspective, depth, rigor, and subtlety of mind; and nobody could accuse TV news of boastings such virtues. Further, there are some truly marvelous alternatives  around if you are are prepared to dig, so I find my efforts, generally speaking, are well rewarded. And I try, where possible, to incorporate what I learn in my writing. Or so I like to believe .

Let me re-emphasize that there are some truly terrific thinkers, analysts, commentators and writers out there; and I have a suspicion that if our movers and shakers consulted them more, this Great Nation would be in vastly better shape. However, anti-intellectualism seems to be a regrettable, yet widespread feature of American life, and certainly the behavior of our politicians seems to illustrate that point. Would that it stopped there. It is rife in the business community, in the military, and in academia. Instead, the focus, all too often, is on preserving the status quo; on enhancing one’s own image; and, all too often, on blocking innovation.

It is a tragedy, because the answers to many of our problems are out there – frequently in plain sight – yet there seems to be a reluctance to look, let alone listen. Instead, energy is applied to the politics of the situation rather than searching for a solution. And ideology rather than reason dominates. Since ideology is another word for blind belief, and ignorance is a close relation, that is not an encouraging situation. As for facts, they seem to be held in scant regard. I get the feeling that soon they are likely to be regarded as un-American.

To appreciate the significance of what I am endeavoring to communicate, It might be helpful to examine how so many other countries have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps while we have been preening ourselves, and muttering about American Exceptionalism, while the pay of most working Americans has stagnated for nearly 40 years.

A reasonable person, faced with such appalling evidence, might conclude that we should be out there in the streets, engaging in massive civil disobedience, and arguing for more enlightened policies. Instead, the vast majority of us are doing nothing while the buying power of both our earnings and our savings is eroded.

Are we dumb or delusional or both? Or just plain lazy.

PhotoThe good news is that where American talent shines, it can, indeed, be exceptional. One such example is Barry Ritholtz’s financially oriented blog THE BIG PICTURE, which, apart from being consistently witty, contains a veritable cornucopia of data, from charts to articles to quotes to Ritholtz’s own thoroughly entertaining writing.

I salute the man.  His URL is or Google THE BIG PCTURE. Either way, have a look. His huge following speaks for himself. This guy is good.

The following is his QOTD of October 21st 2011

Our quote of the day comes from an article in this Sunday’s NYT magazine, Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence by Daniel Kahneman:

“The illusion of skill is not only an individual aberration; it is deeply ingrained in the culture of the [financial] industry. Facts that challenge such basic assumptions — and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem — are simply not absorbed. The mind does not digest them. This is particularly true of statistical studies of performance, which provide general facts that people will ignore if they conflict with their personal experience.”

I find that, unfortunately, to be terribly true.

Daniel_KAHNEMAN[1]For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Kahneman, he is a professor at Princeton and Nobel laureate. He is notable for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making, and behavioral economics.









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Thursday, October 20, 2011

VOR’s Turn: The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Writer

Leonardo da Vinci is well known for his creati...

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“Creativity is hugely about stamina.”

I have written this before many times, but it is worth repeating.

The core reason?

Creativity is about innovation and change; and we humans seem to be programmed to resist it. We like our comfort zones, and will resist any and all attempts to drag us out of them. We believe in the devil we know, rather than that new thing, new person, new idea. New means different, and “different,” just in itself, reflects a challenge.

For all that, we crave something new, so creativity is hugely about hacking through the thicket of initial hostility and enduring – sometimes for years, often for decades - until one’s work is recognized. I suspect that sometimes it never is.

What keeps one going?

The work itself. If you are genuinely creative, you will cultivate an inner voice which will tell you, in no uncertain terms, whether you are doing good work or not. That inner voice is an amazingly powerful motivator.

But, is it possible, one could be merely delusional?

Absolutely! But that is why the fates gave you a sense of humor.




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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Maybe We Should Take The Concept of A Sociopath More Seriously. It Would Explain A Great Deal.

Reading books makes me think; writing them even more so.

And since I have only recently completed the manuscript of book HOW EAGLE & CUCKOO SAVED AMERICA: A BIRD’S EYE VIEW OF THE MESS WE ARE IN, I have been giving considerable thought to the notion that sociopathic behavior may lie at the root of many of our present troubles.

Could it be that we regularly promote, elect, or otherwise appoint such people to positions of power, authority and influence. Could it be that many of corporate CEOs, politicians, and other mover-and-shakers are sociopaths.

Certainly, much of the evidence supports this hypothesis. Yet, here’s an odd thing. We make absolutely no effort at all to screen those we chose to be our leaders for sociopathy.

When you think about it, that makes no sense at all because sociopaths are innately untrustworthy and dangerous. And their actions are likely to have adverse consequences.

But, what is a sociopath? Definitions vary slightly, but in essence it is someone who is:

  • Superficially charming
  • Manipulative
  • Narcissistic
  • Lacking in empathy
  • Amoral – lacking in remorse, shame or guilt
  • Deceitful
  • Untrustworthy
  • Prone to socially damaging behavior

The 2003 documentary THE CORPORATION made the point that much of the behavior of the modern U.S. corporation is sociopathic, both because such an organization is focused solely on profit, and because of its pattern of behavior.

Since it defies both commonsense and decency for a corporation not to factor in its obligations to its personnel, suppliers, customers, and society as a whole – yet such is the case - I found its arguments persuasive.

This is not an argument against capitalism. It is an argument against the particular form of capitalism that is currently the norm in the U.S. right now.

It is particularly prevalent in the financial sector. Here we have a group of people who have laid waste to the economies of much of the developed world, and who have fought every attempt to reform their behavior, spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. Further, they have displayed virtually no remorse at all. Meanwhile, as a direct consequence of their behavior, the vast majority of the jobs that were lost during The Great Recession have not been regained, and the earnings of the average American family are in decline. The damage to the U.S. as a whole, both financially, and in terms of human suffering, is incalculable. This Great Nation has been set back a decade economically, and, quite possibly, has been pushed into permanent decline.

But have such people suffered any consequences? In the main, the answer is: No.

Why not? Well, they have corrupted both the political process, and those who are legally empowered to regulate them. They have bought enough of our political system to render themselves immune from legal consequences. The Constitution has been suborned.

Apart from Occupy Wall Street, outrage over this man made economic and social disaster has been extraordinarily muted, and does not speak well of the health of this democracy. The sociopaths are clearly in the ascendant.

It might be wise to reflect upon one simple statistic. According to official figures, the amount that the U.S. Government has pledged to support the U.S. financial sector so far exceeds $16 trillion dollars. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are being thrown out of their homes, legitimate businesses can’t get credit, the number of unemployed and underemployed people is around 25 million, and our infrastructure is crumbling.

Perhaps we should take all of that as a hint that sociopaths are, indeed, dangerous; and do something about it.




Tuesday, October 18, 2011

VOR’s Turn: The Strange Case Of The Telepathic Magazine.


Image via Wikipedia

I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that magazine, The Atlantic, is telepathic; or, at least, its web site is.

There, you can not only peruse the monthly magazine, but have your brain revved up by reading its daily articles.

They are all eminently readable but, not infrequently require the reader to think. Extraordinary!

Indeed, in that regard they display an almost un-American attitude. The dumbing-down of the U.S. is not accepted. Perhaps that is where the name, The Atlantic, comes in.

But where does telepathy come in? Well, although it is ostensibly a general interest publication, rarely a day passes that it doesn’t come up with at least one piece that gives a fresh perspective on a subject that I’m keenly interested in. They have me triangulated. Beyond that, its writers seem to have mastered The Art of The Second Question.

The Second Question issue refers to the fact that an alarming number of U.S. journalists, after asking the first question about an issue, fail to ask a follow-up question, even when the answer they have been given, is either incomplete, false or inadequately explained; which is more common than not.

Why is this? Are they inadequately knowledgeable, or is there a convention in U.S. media that it’s impolite to push too hard. Advertisers might get upset. Future interviewees might decline to see you. I don’t profess to know the answer (though I have my suspicions). I do hold the view that U.S. democracy would be better served if American journalists were more tenacious. If you want an example of what I mean, listen to the BBC, or watch Jeremy Paxman on BBC’s Newsnight (which makes an appearance in the U.S. once a week).

Paxman not only looks world weary and sceptical, but has a voice and body language to match, and is cowed by no one. Some might regard him as aggressive. I think the words “Well briefed, frighteningly intelligent, and thoroughly professional,” describe him better. Nonetheless, I will admit that just before an interview starts, he can look like a beast of prey awaiting his dinner. And he eats his fill.

Which brings me back to The Atlantic. Today, amongst other gems, there is a marvelous article by Derek Thompson headed: What Does A U.S. Worker Really Cost which, typically, adds fresh insight; and then a gem – clearly written specially for yours truly by Clive Crook – headed: How To Write Fiction.

What can I say! I need all the help I can get. Let me close by quoting from the piece.

Speaking of novels, I'm a fan of Geoff Dyer, ("Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi") as you may recall. I recommend this short article of his on how to write fiction.

The satisfactions of writing are indistinguishable from its challenges and difficulties. It is constantly testing all your faculties and skills (of expression, concentration, memory, imagination and empathy) on the smallest scale (sentences, words, commas) and the largest (the overall design, structure and purpose of the book) simultaneously. It brings you absolutely and always up against your limitations. That's why people keep at it - and why it's far easier to give advice about writing than it is to do it.

The word “awesome” is used far too much. It is applicable here.





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Monday, October 17, 2011

VOR’s Turn: The Creativity Bug Lingers.

Belly dance

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If you have read some of my recent posts, you will know that creativity is very much on my mind right now.

I guess it is prompted by a long held view that the notion that money is commensurate with success – as measured by one’s peers and society in general – represents both a corruption of values and defies commonsense.

The former is self explanatory. The latter is illustrated by the fact that numerous people do things for reasons other than financial reward. Creative people are one such group – and here I include the spectrum from writers to belly dancers. Since belly dancers are prettier, the illustration features one of them.

Arguably, most of us hope for fame and fortune, but, in truth, most of us are realistic enough to know perfectly well that the majority of us will achieve neither. Or that success is fleeting.

But we love what we do – when we get a chance to do it - and we gain enormous satisfaction from it.

‘Satisfaction’ is probably selling it short. If you knew how much pleasure I get from writing – if I was a braver writer, I would use the word ‘happiness’ - I’d probably have pickets outside my door wanting a share.

Creative people apart, many of us find numerous other activities incredibly fulfilling. The list is endless. Just as well because this world of ours has a wide spectrum of needs.

And yet somehow we have elevated the accumulation of riches to a special status virtually regardless of how such wealth is accumulated. The concept that we all all have a duty to society, and that the phrase ‘ the common good’ has real meaning, seems to have been stripped out of our culture.

I don’t grudge anyone becoming wealthy, or at least comfortable; but I think the consequences of our three decades long experiment at pampering the rich at the expense of society as a whole speaks for itself. Under almost every heading one might care to name – it has proven to be both corrupting and disastrous.

The truly worrying thing is when people, who are fundamentally quite content with their occupations, bow – and I use the word metaphorically - before wealth. And feel dissatisfied.

Achievement is a fine thing; but the possession of wealth, in itself, deserves no respect. And the manner of its accumulation is relevant.

Since I have raised the subject, I’m now tempted to tell a tale or two about belly-dancers, but … they can wait for another time.



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Sunday, October 16, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Further Thoughts On Creativity; And More David Loew Photographs

America For Sale: “One Day All This Will Be yours”

You have only got to watch children play to realize that virtually all children are creative. Here, I speak with some authority as the eldest of twelve, and the father of five. They are not all creative in the same way, or to the same extent, but the creative spark is there nonetheless. Frequently, it is more than a spark; it is a flame.

All too often, neither spark nor flame survive our educational systems.

Why is that?

To answer that adequately would take a book, but let me offer some thoughts.

  • Our education systems are far more concerned with forcing children to conform than with nurturing creativity. We call this ‘socialization.’ By that we mean conditioning our children to accept the American Way of Life. That, in turn, is much more oriented towards mass conformity and consumption than creativity.
  • True education has much more to do with supplying children with basic tools, and then encouraging them to think for themselves, and to question everything. All children want to learn though not necessarily to accept what we want to teach them. Conversely, the last thing our current system wants is to be questioned.
  • Managing creative children is vastly more demanding than looking after socialized children, and requires teachers of a higher caliber than are generally available today. It is also more satisfying.
  • Socialized parents tend to produce socialized children thus perpetuating a society in which creativity is suppressed to a significant extent. To change that requires fundamental change. The need for it is becoming self-evident.
  • The U.S. is a surprisingly authoritarian culture and our schools reflect that fact. As a consequence, we don’t allow children enough autonomy and responsibility to permit creativity to flower. Here I would like to emphasize the point that there is a difference between authoritarianism and discipline. One is a rigid top-down approach. The other, ideally, is inwardly generated and involves trust. U.S. society is worryingly short on trust.
  • Much of our education is implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) directed towards preparing our children for either the professions or corporate employment. Subject to some exceptions, both environments are oriented towards the status quo, and are the antithesis of creativity.

I came to these views from observation and first principles. Subsequently, I saw a TED lecture by Sir Ken Robinson and wanted to cheer.

Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an internationally recognized leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation.  He is also one of the world’s leading speakers with a profound impact on audiences everywhere.  The videos of his famous 2006 and 2010 talks to the prestigious TED Conference have been seen by an estimated 200 million people in over 150 countries.

Sir Ken Robinson's URL

Back to David Loew. He is a stunningly good portrait photographer, in addition to his other talents, but the two images I’m showing today are particularly timely given the long overdue emergence of OWS. The captions are his.

We have traded quality for price and jobs for corporate profits.   We are no longer governed, we are ruled.

David Loew's URL






Friday, October 14, 2011

VOR’s Turn: As A Society, We Don’t Pay Nearly Enough Attention To Creativity. Time We Did. Introducing The Genius Of David Loew.

Broken Lost And Abandoned - January 1st 2011

Up until Occupy Wall Street, the most admired of our society were either celebrities, who were instantly identifiable – and sometimes famous only for being being famous; or generic classes which we aspired to join because they earned the most money.

Such classes include bankers, doctors, lawyers, and corporate CEO’s. At the top of the tree, most members earn millions – sometimes billions – and for the last few decades have been marketed as our role models.

In repayment for this adulation, we are experiencing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, one of the worst and most expensive medical systems in the developed world, the corruption of our legal and political systems, and a corporate culture that is so suffused with greed that it no longer identifies with the National Interest; and is so short term in its thinking, that it is busy destroying the Middle Class and its very own market.

Simply put, we have been worshipping false gods; and will be paying the price for generations. That fact has been evident for decades, but it appears that at last it is beginning to be recognized. Changing it won’t be easy. Greed, by definition, lacks a moral compass.

I don’t wish to decry the utility and importance of money, but fundamentally what really drives progress in a society is confidence – a belief that tomorrow will be a better day. And confidence is instilled by achievement – a pattern of success that is innately inspirational. Sometimes that success is financial, but mostly it has to do with creativity in all its forms. Creativity uplifts in a way that nothing else does. It awes, motivates and inspires. It touches our emotions in a way that financial success alone does not. Sometimes the two are combined but all too often creativity is not accorded the recognition it deserves.

It’s time to change our mindset and to appreciate that creativity is what drives our society. In business, it is called innovation. It’s exactly the same thing.

Creativity is manifest in many different forms. In my last post, I commented on the totally awesome World Trade Center Memorial.

Today, I’m introducing you to the extraordinary talent of David Loew, Photographer, Designer, Artist and Visionary. I’ll be writing more about him in the future.

You may contact him at The man is brilliant.



Antique Beauty – January 2009




Wednesday, October 12, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Fortunately, the U.S. Is Not Just About Money. Sometimes, It Is About Unsurpassed Excellence.

Visualization by Squared Design LabPaul Erdman has long been one of my favorite authors. Sadly, he died in 2007. He wrote financial thrillers with great wit and clarity. He could make complex financial instruments and maneuvering seem almost comprehensible.

Just as well he had a sense of humor. The Swiss put him in jail after the bank he ran in Basel, Switzerland, collapsed after speculating in cocoa futures (something I know a little about from a previous life).  He was released on bail, fled, and was convicted in absentia.

While imprisoned he wrote his first novel THE BILLION DOLLAR SURE THING. His second novel, THE SILVER BEARS, was made into a 1978 movie starring Michael Caine.

Erdman made a memorable observation about America.

"The entire essence of America is the hope to first make money--then make money with money--then make lots of money with lots of money." -Paul Erdman

The thought that life here is just about money – though it contains a great deal of truth - is depressing. Fortunately, this extraordinary country redeems itself in surprising ways. Last night I watched a Nova documentary which illustrated one of them. It was about the World Trade Center Memorial and was absolutely riveting.

People at their best are extraordinary.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

VOR’s Turn: A Salute To OccupyWallStreet

California: The Cornucopia of the World. Room ...

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We all like to think that we are rational, clear-thinking individuals who are eminently capable of filtering out the hype from the substance where any type of mass communication is concerned. (We do concede that inter-personal communication is trickier to assess.)

For the life of me, I don’t know why we think this way, because the evidence is sharply tilted to the contrary.

Propaganda, whether it be political or commercial, WORKS!

It works on you, and it works on me. The degree may vary, but the fact that propaganda works has been established beyond the point of debate. Advertising – just so we are clear – is propaganda. And advertising works on all of us to some degree even if it only communicates name recognition. Here is the tricky point: Name recognition – even when it is negative - conveys familiarity and credibility virtually regardless of the subject at hand. We are programmed to be suspicious of people, ideas,  cultures, places and products we don’t know. Propaganda drops our guard. In fact, if Stalin – albeit guilty of some of the greatest crimes against humanity in history - was alive and retired here today, he would probably be addressing the Tea Party as a motivational speaker.

How so? Well, his extreme views apart, he has (or should have) name recognition; and this is a celebrity culture. Sadly, given the state of our educational system right now, it seemed appropriate to add the qualifier

Propaganda is particularly effective when people are, so to speak, conditioned to being conditioned. What do I mean by that? I’m referring, in particular, to the combination of educational and media influences which prepare Americans for adult life. They embed fundamental assumptions which are not necessarily true. Indeed, some are outright lies. Many are distortions. Some are admirable. However, on balance such assumptions are worrying. They distort our ability to think clearly to a truly alarming extent. In short, they foment ignorance.

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

- Isaac Asimov, column in Newsweek (21 January 1980).

In terms of specifics – instances where propaganda has been outstandingly successful – I would like to draw your attention to the following:

  • Government is the problem: This is pernicious nonsense, because the simple fact is that we need government because there is a great deal we cannot do by ourselves no matter how rugged and individualistic we are. Also, there are services we need and want, which government is best equipped to provide. Social Security and Medicare are two. The list is long. Clearly, there can be good government and bad government – and there is vast room for improvement in ours - but the same applies to any institution or activity, government or private, created by humans. We are a flawed species. Nonetheless, the Right Wing has succeeded in establishing a fundamental mistrust of government – a different thing entirely from keeping a prudent eye on things - as a consequence of four decades of propaganda. That has led to a massive destruction of confidence in government, and the current state of gridlock whereby commonsense action to help the economy – and there are numerous excellent ideas available - cannot be implemented. In effect, they have seriously damaged our social capital – trust and willingness to cooperate – to a point where the National Interest is being harmed. A country without social capital is in trouble.
  • The U.S. is overtaxed: Currently, the U.S. is one of the most lightly taxed countries in the developed world. What is wrong is that those who either have, or earn the most, are proportionately paying the least. That is palpably unfair and inefficient. and to have a 71,000 page tax code is ridiculous. 
  • A rising tide raises all boats: This is code for saying that if you favor the rich, the rest of the population will benefit too. The track record is otherwise. Since about 1974, the bulk of the American population has seen no increase in real earnings while the top few percent have prospered. Meanwhile, the populations in numerous other countries have thrived. Quite why almost no one either spotted, or made an issue of this extraordinary situation, is answered by the belief of so many Americans is such clichés as: “We have the greatest economy in the world.” We do have the largest; but, as it happens, we also have one of the un-fairest – and have had for decades. It is noteworthy that after a long period during which both the rich and corporations have prospered, the earning power of most American households is in decline. After nearly four decades of frozen earnings, that is bitter gall indeed.

It is in the context of the truth, that propaganda has an excessive role in American life, that I would like to express my admiration for all those involved in OccupyWallStreet. They have cut through the propaganda – a rare thing in the U.S. – and they are drawing attention to the core fact that if we don’t change the status quo, the consequences will be extremely unpleasant at best; and they could be catastrophic.

The protesters are widely accused of having no message (propaganda yet again). In fact, they are focused on the fundamental one.







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