Monday, October 24, 2011

Best Practices Are Stupid

40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition
by Stephen M. Shapiro

This unconventional guide provides strategies for fostering innovation. Stephen Shapiro, formerly of Accenture, says most leaders inadvertently suffocate creativity by following tired formulas. His suggestions? Hiring people you don’t like, not asking for ideas, and going above and beyond thinking outside the box. Doing the unexpected is the key to bright ideas, he says. Each chapter concludes with statements like, “When the pace of change outside your organization is greater than the pace of change within, you will be eaten.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Walk In The Park

by Hendrick Hertzberg

Everything else is made in China, so why not pithy aper├žus about Occupy Wall Street? "A revolution is not a dinner party." Or was it a Tea Party that the murderous Communist Mao Zedong (still officially revered in the most populous, most fearsomely capitalist nation on earth) declared that a revolution isn't? Either way, Occupy Wall Street -- O.W.S.? No, let's just call it OWES, in honor of its sympathy for tapped-out debtors over bailed-out creditors-is hardly a revolution. It is a dinner party of sorts, albeit one with donated, often organic food served on paper plates. There's tea, too, of course, mostly herbal-rooibos and camomile, though, not that other herb. (The distinctive aroma that the "straight press" of yore invariably called (“the sweet smell of marijuana" is noticeably absent.) But, whatever OWES is, what will it become? Where is it headed? Will it dazzle or fizzle? Will it catch fire or backfire? Will it end up helping the Democrats or the Republicans? In short, what's the meaning of it all? So far, the best answer is the one that Zhou Enlai, the Great Helmsman's great henchman, supposedly gave when: President Nixon supposedly asked him i to assess the impact of the French Revolution: it's too early to tell. At the moment, all that can be said with certainty- even if Mayor Bloomberg disagrees- is that OWES has become one of the city's most interesting bargain tourist destinations.

Occupy Wall Street does not occupy Wall Street itself, which is narrow, easily cordoned off, and unsuitable for sleeping. What OWES does occupy is Zuccotti Park, a roomy rectangle of trees, benches, and open space two blocks up Broadway from Wall Street and about the same short distance from the 9/11 site. Zuccotti Park-formerly and, by its new residents, still informally dubbed Liberty Plaza-is privately owned but open to all, the result of a zoning deal between the city and a real estate company. The OWES event, which began on September 17th with a minimum of attention from the straight press (now known as the mainstream media), soon got three shots of adrenaline, one small and two big. A false report that Radiohead would serenade the plaza drew a larger than usual crowd. A cellphone video of an N.Y.P.D. deputy inspector spritzing strong pepper spray into the faces of three apparently in offending female protesters, who fell to the ground blinded and screaming, went globally viral. And a Brooklyn-bound march over the Brooklyn Bridge ended in confusion and rancor, with some unnecessary police roughness and seven hundred peaceful marchers carted off to be booked, their wrists bound behind them, uncomfortably and egregiously, in plastic handcuffs. By last week, OWES was soaring. On Wednesday, some of the most powerful unions in the city transit workers, teamsters, teachers, communications workers, service employees- helped pack Foley Square with fifteen thousand people for a rally in support. Afterward, it took them three hours of chanting and sign-waving to shuffle their way through a half-mile police corridor to Zuccotti Park. And OWES has gone national. There are now spinoffs in more than a hundred cities and towns from Atlanta to Anchorage, with plans for more.

At first glance, Zuccotti looks to a casual visitor like a crowded, messy homeless encampment. But it doesn't take long to discern an earnest, underlying orderliness. The plaza is loosely divided into "centers/' each watched over by members of its own "working group." A sizable corner, the Camp, is a jumbled welter of blue tarps, blankets, and stuffed shopping bags, and sleepers--hence the impression of homelessness, though in fact nearly everyone who chooses to spend the night has a home, often just a subway ride away. Next to it is a Comfort center, with piles of sleeping bags and warm secondhand clothes. Elsewhere in the park, there's a Medical center, a Library, a Kitchen (actual cooking has to be done "offsite"), and an Art/Signs center, where people make their own, ranging from the strident ('Jail Corporate Criminals") to the winsome ("I Bailed Out a Bank and All I Got Was a New Debit Card Charge"). The only spot with access to electricity is the Media center, where a portable generator powers the laptops of volunteer programmers. There are many OWES-related Web sites; one, is entirely produced and beamed to the world from Zuccotti Park.

The "ga" in that domain name stands for General Assembly, a daily mass meeting, open to all, which is the closest thing OWES has to a governing body. Because any kind of amplified sound is forbidden, bullhorns included, the meetings are conducted in an ingenious way. A speaker says a few words, then pauses; the audience repeats them, loudly and in unison; the speaker says a few more; the chorus repeats; and so on. If the group is unusually large, the repetitions radiate out, like a mountain echo. The listeners register their reactions silently, with their hands. Four fingers up, palms outward: Yay! Four fingers down, palms inward: Boo! Both hands rolling: Wrap it up! Clenched fists crossed at the wrists: No way, Jose! There's something oddly moving about a crowd of smartphone- addicted, computer-savvy people cooperating to create such an utterly low-tech, strikingly human, curiously tribal means of amplification--a literal loudspeaker.

What OWES doesn't have-and is under some pressure1internal and external, to formulate -- is a traditional agenda: a list of “demands" a set of legislative recommendations, a five-point program. For many of its participants, this lack is an essential part of the attraction. They're making it up on the fly. They don't really know where it will take them, and they like it that way. Occupy Wall Street is a political project, but it is equally a cri de coeur, an exercise in constructive group dynamics, are lease from isolation, resignation, and futility. The process, not the platform, is the point. Anyway, OWES is not the Brookings Institution. But its implicit grievances are plain enough: the mass pain of mass unemployment, underemployment, and economic insecurity; the corrupting, pervasive political influence of big money, the outrageous, rapidly growing inequality of wealth and income; the impunity of the financial industry scammers whose greed and fraud precipitated the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression; a broken political system hobbled by a Republican right willing and usually able to block any measures, however timid and partial, that might relieve the suffering. If Occupy Wall Street can continue to behave with nonviolent restraint, if it can avoid hijack by a flaky fringe, if it can shake the center-left out of its funk, if it can embolden Democratic politicians (very much including President Obama, who, lately and belatedly, has begun to show signs of fight), then preoccupied Main Street, will truly owe OWES. Big ifs all. It's too early to tell, but not too late to hope.

reprinted from The New Yorker, 17 October 2011, p.25

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Why does processing a check cost $18 ?

I am very good about paying my mortgage, but for the first time in five years, I let a payment slip by mistake. The bank quickly demanded $165 in late fees. When I called the bank, the person I spoke with wouldn't budge on the late fee and told me that there would be an additional $18 fee to pay by check. This is one of the biggest banks in the country, and it could afford to cut me slack this one time. I'm a good customer, so why are they punishing me? And why does processing a check cost the bank $18?
R.E., Atlanta, Ga.

Dear R.E.,
They are punishing you precisely because you are a good customer, and because – unlike the bank – you are not too big to fail. You are, in fact, the perfect size to fail. Moreover, your excellent payment record suggests that you will pony up whatever they tell you to pony up. You have three choices in this situation: go on a public campaign of shaming, understanding that banks are incapable of embarrassment; withhold the payment, and watch your credit score go into the toilet; or pay the fee with equanimity, secure in the knowledge that God loathes bankers. As for that $18: the first 52 cents goes to the actual cost of processing the check; $5.70 covers shipping and handling; $2.90 pays the universal connectivity charge; $4.27 goes toward exotic dancers; $1.25 is for a new pole for the exotic dancers; 75 cents pays for chlamydia-detection kits; 40 cents is for baggage fees; and $2.21 goes into an escrow fund that will be devoted to recruiting unqualified borrowers as soon as the government forgets what happened the last time lenders recruited unqualified borrowers.

by Jeffrey Goldberg
The Altantic, November 2011, p160

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Attica is all of us

Another September anniversary just came and went-less noticed, and perhaps harder to talk about, than the famous one. The uprising at Attica Correctional Facility, a New York State maximum-security prison between Buffalo and Rochester, happened forty years ago. Disturbances in A Block began on September 8th, spread through three other blocks on the ninth, and ended on the thirteenth, when state troopers, guards, and others stormed the prison and tear-gassed and shot prisoners and their hostages. Thirty-two prisoners and eleven hostages (all of them prison employees) died. Dozens more were wounded or injured. Subdued by the police, prisoners then suffered beatings and torture.

Many of those who survived the events are now old men. On a mild evening when the setting sun lit the white, multi-steepled main tower of Riverside Church, a panel of seven former Attica prisoners sat on a row of chairs before the altar and talked about the uprising. The huge uptown church was packed; on a weekend of September 11th remembrances, two thousand or more came to this memorial, called "Attica Is All of Us." In the bright lights, each panelist's face shone a different shade of brown, and in the pews, where the overhead chandeliers had been dimmed, audience members who rose to applaud stood out as silhouettes. Jama Joseph, a film professor at Columbia, who presided, tried to get the panelists to talk about Attica as a "people's victory," but they described it as more spontaneous and chaotic-"a ball of confusion," one said.

One panelist's voice was high and soft, like Michael Jackson's, another's was raspy, another's was brisk and deep and confident. "After the one guard, Quinn, was stomped down, I knew they was gonna kill a lot of people, and they did"; ''There was no plan, no plot, no scheme"; "A number of correction officers locked themselves inside a cell block-I walked by, and it was like a different transference of identity"; "People was breakin' into the pharmacy, doin' unbecoming things"; "The Black Panthers and other groups wanted to kill the hostages, but we Muslims was the most disciplined group in the prison, and we took the hostages and protected them with our lives"; 'When the helicopters came in, they started shootin', and this one man I saw, they shot his head off. His head went one way and his body went the other." A panelist who wore a Peruvian-type hat with earflaps took the microphone and then could barely speak. The seconds went by. A weighted silence rose to the church's vaulted ceiling.

After the prisoners' panel, Amiri Baraka, the poet, who lives in Newark, recited the poem that had caused New Jersey to abolish the post of poet laureate out from under him. The poem asks which race has caused the greatest amount of human misery and consists of repeated sentences beginning with "Who." It touched on subjects from the destruction of native peoples, to the "4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers" who were told to "stay home" on September 11th, to the origin of AIDS, to the deaths of Lenin and Princess Diana. It ended with a long, shouted, window-shaking ''Who-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o?"

During a second panel, the Princeton professor Cornel West gave a short oration. He was wearing a three-piece suit with a watch chain across the vest and gleaming white cuffs. As he gestured, the right cuff made emphatic calligraphy in the air: "The Attica brothers who spoke here tonight consecrated this evening! ... America has been niggerized by September 11th, and we have become willing to consent to our own domination! ... Back in '71, the Attica brothers told the truth, but they weren't the only ones, you had a whole cacophony of voices! ... Today that kind of courage is in short supply! ... You better keep love in your heart for the people! ... A new wave of truthtelling! A new wave of witness-bearing! We might get crushed, too! ... But then you go down swinging, like Ella Fitzgerald and Muhammad Ali!"

Earlier, the Reverend Stephen H. Phelps, the interim senior minister at Riverside Church, asked all the members of the audience who had any past or present Attica connection to stand. Then he asked those who knew someone who had been in any prison to stand. Many hundreds of people-perhaps two-thirds of the assembly-were on their feet. Then he said, "Attica is all of us," and asked everybody to stand.

by Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, 26 Sept 2011, p56