And Then On Thursday Everything Folded In On Itself . . .

Every couple of weeks we get together with a small group of people for "wine night" in which Jen pick out a selection of wines and I make dinner. Jen calls it the "Humpday Tipples" because we hold it on Wednesday and because we tipple. Part of it is an excuse to try new wines but it also serves a purpose for Jen in that it helps her with her wine studies, which is one of the extracurricular activities she's undertaken as of late. Of course, the other part of it is that we get to get loaded.

So anyways, one of the side benefits of the Humpday Tipple is that while we tipple, we develop brilliant new schemes. Sadly, most of these brilliant new schemes are lost to the ethyl but every once in a while a brilliant new scheme survives into the hazy next day. Which brings us to the latest brilliant new scheme: The Professional Devil's Advocate.

Some of us in the group work in the general field of consulting of one sort or another. Or at least that's sort of what it seems like, since sometimes I don't totally understand what the field of consulting is all about. Anyway, last night somehow we got onto the topic of consultants, or consulting, or whatever it is that the term "consulting" refers to, since like I just said, sometimes I don't totally understand what the field of consulting is about. And anyway, it occurs to us — probably all of us at one time, which is generally the mark of brilliance, or at least drunkenness — that there should totally, totally be Professional Devil's Advocates, because wouldn't be cool for there to be a whole battery of "anti-consultants" whose sole purpose is to pick apart what the original consultants come up with because consultants sometimes seem to be in the habit of telling a client what that organization wants to hear? (I don't get why some act like this is a bad thing.)

It takes only a couple of minutes for everyone to agree that we should go into business as Professional Devil's Advocates. We will start a firm and beat the bushes for clients. We will recruit experts in the field — every field! — to function as team leaders in the business. We will make a living telling clients how their new plans will suck, or that the other consultants have produced a pack of lies designed to circularly confirm what the client has wanted the consultants to tell them. It would have been an awesome idea in 2002! (In fact, someone seems to have suggested this back in 2002.) Slate could have profiled us. We would call ourselves the No Men (as opposed to Yes Men — get it?).

Because really, who doesn't want to sit back and say why things are wrong, or why they will remain wrong, or why nothing someone tries to do will ever be right? You could call it purposelessly contrarian, needlessly reflexive or even anti-American, but deep down you know that it would feel good to do this and actually get paid for it and that really is the American dream.

At some point after everyone agrees that this would indeed be a brilliant new scheme it occurs to me that someone should perhaps play the role of Devil's Advocate for the Devil's Advocate idea and attempt to tease out scheme's deficiencies. I ask whether this already exists in the role of "auditor" and am quickly shouted down that auditors are probably too scientific for what we are proposing and that an auditor's role is just to count shit. OK, fair enough, I'm still game then.

Then it happened — my head felt squishy this morning while I was making the bed and it suddenly occurred to me that Mission of Burma guitarist Roger Miller had a side project in the late 1980s/early 1990s called "No Man." Is it possible that the name was derived from "Yes Man"? The British band No-Man seems to have taken its name from the phrase "No man is an island" (adding parenthetically "Except for the Isle of Man").

I will now insert a link and embedded video of this W.B. Mason ad that played over and over during the 2010 baseball season (back when we had MLB Extra Innings):

Some take exception to W.B. Mason commercials. See here and here, for example. I always found the lady's tone so grating — first she sneers "the dullest reality show I've ever seen" like she's so above watching dull reality shows and then she follows that with that elliptical "or maybe not . . ." phrase that ends the commercial. For a time I felt that there was something especially pernicious about the combination of the disinterested sneer/voyeuristic thrill that the actor expresses in a span of only eight seconds. Like so many mid-week, mid-season baseball games, the commercial — or rather this eight-second clip — made me fatigued, sad and pensive about the way we consume media. No seriously, I swear to God — this W.B. Mason commercial made me sad — over and over and over again during this past baseball season. There's a reason she's reading a big paperback while a newspaper sits splayed out on the comforter in front of her and she's watching television at the same time — all at 3 in the morning, mind you. It hurts my head thinking about how much media this lady consumes, and how schizophrenic she is about both sneering at it and being absolutely compelled to watch it.

You could argue that I am reacting so strongly to this eight-second clip because I recognize this impulse in myself, which would be a fair observation. If true, then it makes me sadder — it's bad enough to see yourself in a W.B. Mason ad and that much worse to have to admit that you should probably take it to heart. Who But W.B.? Who indeed. Who indeed.

But you know what the worst part of that commercial is? The "To be continued . . ." at the end. I hate "To be continued" and the ellipses at the end of "To be continued." And yet . . . and yet I not only still continue to use ellipses — and not the Word auto-corrected dotdotdot but the luxurious dot dot dot — the kind of ellipses that breaks word wraps and makes editors cringe. Those are like heroin to me.

To be continued . . .

Posted: December 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Back Of Napkin, Half-Baked Theory, Shiftless When Idle | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

On Managing Expectations

In New York City there has been a certain amount of pushback to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's appointment of a magazine executive to run the largest school system in the country. She is being rolled out and heralded as a manager with "almost 40 years of experience," but as far as anyone can tell, her only education experience has been tackling the issue of childhood obesity.

The move toward unorthodox approaches in education probably started with the A Nation at Risk report in 1983. Since then districts and communities have been experimenting with innovations like vouchers and school charters (both initially cost-cutting moves championed by conservatives) and leadership roles filled by those from outside the field of education. With the latter, it used to be that you'd have to be someone really big and exciting — a military general or something like that (John Stanford in Seattle, for example, and others in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.this Times Room For Debate post and the associated entries is a pretty interesting back and forth about the issue).

The Mayor's pick is a creep toward a candidate who is just a good manager. This Post article features a quote from the candidate that has been typical of the message that the mayor and his supporters (what few there are in this case) have been repeating:

"The mayor has been very clear about the fact that he really wanted a strong and effective manager, and I've had almost 40 years of experience with that," said Black, 66, head of Hearst Magazines. "I will be the next chancellor."

So we go from inspirational big-time organizational leaders to the head of a magazine company. I don't think this would have happened in the 1990s when school systems were in need of "outsiders" with "fresh eyes."

It seems silly to keep asking this, since it's something that nearly everyone in New York City — with the notable exception of the obsequious Observer editorial board — has been asking for a week now, but can you think of another entity that would replace its leader with someone from outside the industry with no experience whatsoever? Seriously — I might be spacing on an example right now, but in any "results-oriented" entity, it seems that the person in charge needs some time to get up to speed. No wait, I guess I've seen some examples in some movies about the British royal family. Wasn't Queen Victoria like this? Oh yeah, Jen had this on the other night.

The Observer editorial board had an interesting argument that went like this:

It would be refreshing to hear somebody other than the mayor acknowledge the sacrifices that Ms. Black will make in the name of public service.

Setting aside the self-congratulation inherent in the setup there, you get the sense that people — maybe even "the elites"! — treat public service as some kind of Adopt-a-Highway clean-up day. You also get the sense that the editorial boards in New York treat public policy debates as a form of debate club, where if you write eloquently enough and dredge up enough half-baked supporting arguments, you'll do what you need to do to push forward grand ideas. The piece focused mostly on how Joel Klein, the previous chancellor, had a supposed lack of educational experience and that turned out just fine, so Q.E.D. It reminds me of the incurious manner in which the city's editorial boards supported the mayor's third term, and smacks of talking points in the same way.

It's absurd on the face of it to think that someone without a background in education can be an educational leader, but that's where we are today. And it's not just administration — for years now people believe that if you have enough energy and pluck, it's possible to be an effective teacher. Maybe, but you still need to understand the basic tenets of pedagogy, and it's not good enough anymore to rely on your own imperfect memory of what it's like to be in a classroom. That's not to say that a lot of education classes aren't bullshit, but it seems a little harsh to get rid of training altogether.

There's a demeaning subtext to that argument, by the way; by saying that all training and most experience is bullshit, you're implying that any relatively smart monkey could do the job. It would certainly fit the mayor's temperament to think that.

Then again, maybe there's a story behind the story. Smart people are always trying to divine meaning behind inscrutable decisions; that's the legacy of contrarianism at work. Maybe it's more satisfying to know that our leaders are devious and cunning than they are capricious and dimwitted.

Posted: November 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For Reals No For Serious | Tags: , , , , ,

Here Are Three Ways We Can Punch Up Your Sunday Styles Piece

There is an article in today's Sunday Styles section called "The Great Unwashed," a trend piece in which the author somehow tracked down at least three people who don't bathe everyday and who are willing to be quoted in the newspaper.

Maybe you think this kind of contrarianism is dated, a vestige of oughts-era American culture. Personally, I think it's fantastic to see quicker nostalgia. It's like it's 2003 again, and I'm reading Christopher Hitchens in Slate — on a computer monitor! — and I find myself nodding in agreement, maybe even vigorously nodding in agreement, about just how low the Axis of Weasel can go.

That said, here are three ways this really, really great trend piece could have been a really, really, really great trend piece:

1) An Economy Angle: Some people — OK, one person — don't shower for environmental reasons, but isn't there anyone out there who has cut back on buying deodorant because it's a luxury item? Everyone's feeling the pain; that part writes itself.

2) Limited "Scope": Why stop at showering and deodorant? I bet there are a lot of people out there — three, at least! — who have eschewed brushing their teeth, as well. This would be fascinating to try to understand.

3) Missing "To Be Sure" Paragraph: I like the idea of legitimizing the concerns of those who worry that they're going to get cancer from aluminum, but whatever happened to good old "I'm lazy and don't give a fuck"? The piece feels like it's missing that extra oomph a real dirty dude could provide.

Posted: October 31st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Broken Link | Tags: , , ,