Peter Bogdanovich in three movies (may he RIP)

The acclaimed movie director Peter Bogdanovich passed away yesterday at the age of 82. He directed several excellent films, but let me highlight three to give people a look into his work. Ironically, I watched two of his older films, “Paper Moon” and “The Last Picture Show” in the last few days, so I wonder if someone new the end was near and aired them..

Yet, the one I like the most he made in 1985 with Cher as a caring but tough mother in “Mask.” “Mask” starred Eric Stolz as a young teen whose facial bones grew in a distorted manner causing acute, tremendous pain and leaving him with a mask-like look. His mother would help him meditate through the pain to avoid giving him debilitating pain medicine. In my view, this movie was Cher’s best work, even better than in “Moonstruck,” where she won an Oscar.

The first scene in which you realize she is comforting her in-pain son is extremely poignant. Sam Elliot stars as Cher’s biker boyfriend. In spite of the pain and scary countenance, the teen was very smart and congenial, making fun of himself before others would. And, unless you saw the credits, you would never know the lead is played by Stolz, who is excellent, as well.

“The Last Picture Show” usually gets the most fanfare. Based on Larry McMurtry’s book and his co-written screen play with Bogdanovich, it is a black and white movie about small town life in Anarene, Texas in 1953. Cybil Shephard (in her first role), Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Sam Bottoms and Randy Quaid are the high schoolers featured, but a great cast of adults play key roles with Cloris Leachman (who won an Oscar for Supporting Actress), Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, Ben Johnson and Clu Gulager.

Teen and adult angst are the key themes portrayed showing people will look for love even when they appear to have someone who fills the role. Interestingly, the only overtly protagonist is the silent role played by Sam Bottoms and maybe the sage like role of Ben Johnson, with all of the other characters being various shades of gray revealing our imperfections. Yet, you do feel for many of them at times, even though they do things you may not care for. Leachman’s Oscar is very deserving as she plays a dramatic role very different from her comedic future ones.

“Paper Moon” is another black and white film about a depression era con man played by Ryan O’Neal who travels Kansas and Missouri with his daughter. His actual daughter, Tatum O’Neal steals the show in the role and wins a deserved Oscar for her first performance. Madeline Kahn also plays a key role as the father’s new girlfriend and threat to the welfare of the younger O’Neal.

The lessons of making money through cons are passed down to the daughter, who he is traveling with to take her to stay with her aunt after her mother passes. She turns out to be an even savvier business-person than her father, knowing when to push on the accelerator or hit the brakes. She could also give an up-to-date accounting of the money her father owed her.

I wonder if the adult actor realized he was the straight man for this rising star. He does a great job in the role, but your eyes are on her facial expressions most of the time, as she is frustrated and bewildered by her father. Bogdanovich would later team with Ryan O’Neal in “What’s up Doc? with Barbra Streisand.

All three are excellent movies. “The Last Picture Show” though had an extra hurdle to overcome when it was given an X rating. It included a skinny dipping scene where some full frontal nudity is visible for a few females. To me, the scene was unneeded the way it was shot and much could have been accomplished with more subtlety. I forewarn you in case there are younger eyes in the room. Nonetheless, the story is good and worth the effort, as are the other two.

Being silent is not enough

The courageous few Republicans who are among the truth tellers in their party are strong in principle, but seem to be standing alone or in small groupings way too often. For their truth telling, they are knowingly vilified and some even receive death threats by fans of the former president. Yet, they do it anyway.

Most of the elected officials in the party are keenly aware that Congresswoman Liz Cheney’s question of is the Republican party going to be the party of truth or party of Trump a more than fair question. Yet, they have chosen to be silent. In essence, they are saying to themselves “Don’t poke the bear.” They want to avoid being highlighted by the former president and his bullying and untruthful bent, whose followers will join in the fray.

This spineless tactic is not new. Back in the heyday of the Communist witch hunts and Senator Joe McCarthy, the populist candidate had a huge following. The Republican even rivaled the popularity of President Dwight Eisenhower. From Jon Meacham’s book “The Soul of America,” the historian points out Eisenhower detested McCarthy for his baseless claims that he frequently made up on the spot. Yet, Ike would not publicly demean McCarthy for his claims, only to offer mild comments from time to time.

He and the other Republicans tolerated McCarthy. They remained silent. It was not until the most respected TV journalist Edward R. Murrow exposed McCarthy for what he was that his impact began to ebb. But, the impact of McCarthy’s baseless accusations lingered on for years. The famous question asked by a senior Army official of McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” could be asked of the most recent former president, another populist who tends to make baseless claims.

I encourage all of you who agree with the purpose of this post, to consistently let elected Republican and other officials know you appreciate their political courage for pushing back on the incessant and well-documented untruthful actions and words of the former president. And, let your Republican Senators, Congress person, and GOP leaders know you are concerned about this untruthful path the party has taken. The GOP has lost any veritas it had left. I even let them know how much I admire the courage of the truth tellers and it is a shame they are getting death threats.

The accusations of sedition toward the former president tend to focus more on what he failed to do last January 6. In my view as an Independent and former Republican voter, his consistent baseless claims of election fraud, which he has tried to prove and failed miserably in courts, audits and recounts, are what greased the skids for what happened on January 6.

As his niece said, “My uncle will burn it all down to avoid losing the election.” I knew he would act this way, but what makes me more frustrated are the sycophants who publicly cover for his Big Lie and the too silent many in party leadership who are letting him do it. And, what they fail to realize based on previous history and current actions, the former president will throw them under the bus in a New York minute, even placing them in physical danger with targets on their backs if they do not play ball with him.

Opportunity missed – a revisit

Happy New Year. This is a repeat of an old post from five years ago. Its message is still apt.

One of my favorite quotes about opportunity is “Opportunity is missed because it is often dressed up as hard work.” To me, this speaks volumes. Too many look for easy answers, when success comes from doing some heavy lifting.

Along these lines, in his book “Outliers,” two of Malcolm Gladwell’s four traits of successful people involve opportunity. I should mention the other two are being smart or talented enough and putting in 10,000 hours or more of practice. But, the two pertinent to this discussion are recognizing opportunity and seizing opportunity.

A quick example illustrates this point. By the time he was age 21, Bill Gates was one of the top programmers in the world. Why? He had the opportunity to work on the mainframe computer after 1 am at the University of Washington. As Gladwell points out, it was recognizing this opportunity and getting up or staying up to program while others slept or had fun. He was learning.

Gladwell points out that even the smartest of people sometimes overlook opportunity. In a genius grant project, money was given to watch these geniuses flourish, but many of them were not successful. The reason is they missed opportunity. The ones who were successful either saw opportunity or had someone who brokered opportunity for them.

Some very smart people fail to see that they are in competition for people’s time, interest and money. By waiting until something is perfected or their schedule frees, that opportunity may be gone.

So, what conclusions can be drawn from this brief discussion. First, don’t be frightened of hard work. A man will never be shot while washing the dishes.

Second, keep your head up, network, ask questions and just be involved in your surroundings. Connect dots by looking for or asking about things you see in someone’s office or something you saw online.

Third, be prepared for these moments. Do your research on companies and people that you are meeting with. This will help in making those connections.

Fourth, seize opportunities. If you are driving and see an interesting shop – stop the car and pull in. This is a metaphor for business, volunteer or investment opportunities. Since the average person has had eleven jobs by the time they’re forty, take a chance on something that interests you. But, honor that interest and invest your time in it. These life experiences will build your wisdom.

Opportunities abound. Look for them. Seize them. Work them.

Holiday wishes for politicians, candidates and voters (ten years later)

Happy holidays to all. I wanted to close the year with a few holiday wishes to various constituencies – politicians, candidates and voters – as we move into a full campaign year. Please note this piece was written ten years ago, but still holds true.

For all parties, I strongly encourage you to read “That Used to be Us” by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum. The subtitle is ” How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We can Come Back” and I think it should be required reading for all politicians and candidates. The voters would be benefit greatly as well as it will help us keep the first two groups honest and focusing on the right things.

I wish for politicians and candidates to focus on things of import and less on platitudes. The 2012 Republican presidential debates have tended to focus on less important things and we need to ask tough questions about where we are as a country and how do we do what is needed on the major issues of the day. We have tended to dumb down the debates about issues that have been decided (abortion) or that run counter to what is actually happening (global warming). It is hard for me to take someone seriously who wants to do away with the EPA or will choose which judicial rulings he will obey.

I wish for politicians and candidates to think more before they speak. Our problems are complex and deserve well thought out answers. Herman Cain was toast long before his personal crises, as he had not done any homework in preparation for the most important job in the world. I also wish for politicians to tell the truth or use meaningful information to support a cause. Not all data is equal and biased survey data needs to be identified and ferreted out. I have taken a survey gleaned by Newt Gingrich’s team and, frankly, it was biased from the outset and I told them so.*

I wish for politicians and candidates to collaborate with others. They do not have all of the answers and some don’t have a good hand to begin with. So, it is imperative they collaborate with others across all spectrums. This is a major reason I am an independent voter. Collaboration is the key to our success.

I wish for voters to take everything a politician says with a grain of salt. With the infamous words uttered by Senator Kyl earlier this year when he was caught in a lie, “please don’t interpret my comments as being factual,”  he gave us the proper advice. Senator, we will take that advice to the bank. We will not believe anything you say from this point forward. The Democrats should not gloat as they have tended to misrepresent a fact or two, as well.

We voters also need to keep the politicians and candidates between the white lines. We should consider all portrayed facts or survey data in the right context. Who conducted the survey? Where did the facts come from? Does this person have a history, both good or bad, with the subject? Some congressman are supported by lobbying groups and they will vote 100% of the time on issues in favor of the lobbyist’s cause. Their opinions should be discounted as being overly biased.

Our problems need serious people and serious discussions to address them. Going back to the book noted above, we have wavered from our mission, but we can rectify our problems if we think long term and approach our problems together. If we continue our partisan bickering, we will likely fail in these endeavors.

Thanks for reading. I wish for each of you and all of us, a prosperous New Year.

*Note: Herman Cain, the pizza chain tycoon, got early press in his presidential candidacy for his simple 9-9-9 tax plan, as he called it. The problems started appearing when he could not explain what it meant and he started contradicting himself. Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, started out strong in 2012 in his presidential run, but he fell by the wayside when his over-confident manner rubbed too many the wrong way. People forget his own party removed him as Speaker for similar reasons in the 1990s.

Built to Last – a revisit to a still relevant book

This is a repeat post from about nine years ago. It is longer than my current posts, but I did pare down a few dated anecdotes.

As a retired business person, my favorite business book is “Built to Last – Successful Habits of Visionary Companies” written in 1994 by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. “Built to Last” is a data driven book that looks at the habits of 18 highly successful companies and contrasts their results to the second-best competitor in their industries. While the data supports their arguments, it is an easy read and not an arcane business book. To me, its lessons can be translated to any organization or governmental entity, be it national, state, provincial or local. If you would like to explore it more, check out the WikiLeaks summary of the book which is quite good.

While I read this book several years ago, today’s business, political and governmental climate of more short-term thinking troubles me. As our country does not have the patience to see if an idea works, we are destined to try small band-aid solutions that will never get at the underlying problems. I would say, though, band-aids can help if they move things incrementally forward, but many of our problems will take longer term planning and execution that will go beyond the terms of office of those making the decisions. This occurs in business as well as governments. The businesses who are publicly traded must meet analysts expectations on a quarterly basis. Think of how many times you have seen a business do better, but miss expectations and are crucified. So, it is not uncommon for businesses to forego longer term solutions that are not “accretive” or additive to short-term earnings.

Clearly, the same holds true in governments whether they are in the US or abroad. In these partisan days, we have too many people kicking the can down the road. They won’t take necessary action during times of prosperity and have predictable problems grow and must be resolved during times of economic strife. They did not learn their bible lessons from Joseph who had a dream that his Egyptian captors should save grain from the seven years of fortune, as seven years of famine would follow.

In “Built to Last,” the 18 companies studied dwarfed the performance over time of that of their best competitors.  They did not just dwarf the industry average performance; they significantly outperformed some very good companies. There were several lessons learned from these companies that formed the “successful habits” presented in the book. A brief review of these habits and some analogies follow:

Build a clock, don’t just tell time

These organizations were built from the outset to do more than just one thing. In fact, some of the companies failed at their first idea. Yet, they built a framework to develop new ideas and concepts. This is needed in government as well as business and non-profit organizations. What is the framework to plan and execute our strategies? In the US, this framework for future strategy has to be done in a thoughtful, non-partisan manner. Otherwise, we all will fail.

Be more than profits

These companies are all good community citizens. They recognize that for their business to flourish, their communities must be vibrant and take care of those less fortunate. This helps their customers and employees. It shows this is a great place to work. It also helps their shareholders, as the performance numbers are powerful. In the book it highlights how Dow Chemical survived one the worst chemical spill disasters in India, in part because they were a good community citizen. People knew the company was mortified by this tragedy and worked with them to rebound. Contrast this to the company whose coal-miners were killed in West Virginia two years ago. This company had a long history of trying to usurp the law and had a trail of audit issues for safety violations.

While we do need to reward and promote success, we have to be more than profits. Paraphrasing Gandhi, a community’s greatness is measured in how it takes care of its less fortunate. We have to help those in need climb the ladder. Otherwise, we will end up with the haves and have-nots. Having seen the “Hunger Games” last night, it is not unlike some dictatorial cultures where those that have do well and those that do not live in poverty. We have places like that on Earth today and our economic disparity in our own country is rather disgraceful for a free country.

Preserve the core but stimulate progress

These companies had enviable track records of success and had a core set of businesses. Yet, they all looked to grow. They realized to survive they had to progress, to make things more efficiently, more effectively and seek new avenues for growth. Our country has an enviable construct of government. It bothers me greatly when people want to mess with that construct. That is our core. Yet, we do need to work to define what is truly needed and develop a longer term plan for progress. We have added tools (laws, regulations, bureaucracies) over time to help us progress, so we need to review these and make sure they are still effective. Where our tools are outdated, redundant or less effective, we should refine them to promote progress. But, we need to preserve the core.

Set Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGS)

Many people have heard or used this term, but don’t know where it came from. These companies have been successful because they set bold goals or BHAGs. One of the boldest goals noted in the book is that of John F. Kennedy when he declared at his inauguration that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  At the time, America had seen several launch failures, not unlike the recent North Korean missile failure. So, it was indeed a BHAG. And, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in July, 1969. We need more of this in business and government. While the President has declared and set mpg standards for cars, something like we will make America’s energy production entirely green by 2050 would be a BHAG I think we should strive for. To do this would require a lot of planning, industry support and buy-in and execution.

Cult-like Cultures

One of the more interesting habits was this one on cult-like cultures. They cited the customer service focus of Nordstrom and how the customer came before the shareholder. Their mantra is if we take care of the customer, the shareholders will make more money. They actually inverted the pyramid structure, putting the customer at the top.  New employees would need to adopt this or leave. Other companies had similar culture issues. Equating this to our country, Americans believe fervently in freedoms. They also believe in fairness. So, when things begin to look unfair, Americans will act. That is our cult-like culture. Yet, we need our community conscious leaders to let us know when things are becoming unfair.

Try a lot of stuff and keep what works

The successful companies are constantly trying new ideas. Sometimes they fail. It notes the example of Texas Instruments who used to be a darling of Wall Street. Back in the 1970’s, they had a leadership group that would actually publicly humiliate you for perceived dumb ideas. Guess what happened? Idea creation went to zero and TI fell by the wayside. In an another example, I read where a CEO made a $10 million mistake on a new venture. The Chairman of the Board called him in and instead of telling him he was fired, congratulated him on trying something new. That is why he had hired him. This is an interesting converse to the TI story.

In today’s world, I hate to see when people are unfairly punished for failures, real or perceived. We are human and we mess up. We make decisions based on the best information available.  I would want to understand why things failed.

Good enough never is

I switched the order of the chapters as I see a lot in this chapter with the above.  These companies never rested on their laurels. They always said this is good, but we could be or do it better. They never are satisfied with good enough. They strived to be more. This is one of the geniuses of Steve Jobs. He never was satisfied with good enough. He was quite adamant and even an asshole about it. Yet, those who worked with him saw his vision come true time and time again. There were many times when he could have let an inferior effort get to the market place, but he was enamored with the art and elegance of the product. He wanted the Mac to look good on the inside as well as the outside. He wanted the walls of the factory to be painted white as it shows the dirt and had to be cleaned more. He wanted the impression that if we care so much about cleanliness, we really care about our products.

Home grown management

This habit was equally amazing to read about. I will cite these numbers incorrectly, but out of the 500 or so leaders these 18 companies had over time, 495 of them came from within. Meaning these companies promoted recognizable leaders from their own ranks. This went against a preconceived notion. In actuality, promoted leaders were recognized for their success as natural transitions, their promotion opened other promotions which led to better career-pathing and the companies benefited from the intrinsic knowledge of how to get things done in the company, whose counsel to seek out and whose to avoid.

My old company made the mistake of hiring outside leadership several times in the last eight years. Each time, the leaders were eventually fired. It became a revolving door. Each time the leaders would try ideas that had been tried before and failed in this company. Several times decisions were made and announced and the employees knew the day of the announcement that the decision was poor. They would inevitably not know who to trust, so they would bring in new leaders from outside. As these folks were not known commodities, the mistakes would be magnified. And, the good internal candidates would leave creating a greater void.

New blood is good when effectively used. A company needs new ideas. Yet, it cannot throw out what makes them successful with the bath water. Our country needs leaders of all types. We cannot have only new leaders who have never governed before. And, we cannot just rely on leaders who have only governed.  We need people who know how to get things done who know others in other areas of government. Yet, we do need new ideas as well.

If you have not read this book, I would encourage you to do so. There are good lessons for many types of governance. The businesses and governments who think long term and embrace these successful habits will flourish. And, so will we as citizens, customers, shareholders and employees.

Imperfect American hero dies at age 98 – Bob Dole

In an article in Yahoo! Finance called “Bob Dole dies at 98, leaving lasting legacies on Social Security and food assistance,” by Bob Werschkul, the following brief obituary can be found:

“Bob Dole, a former Senate majority leader who unsuccessfully ran for president against Bill Clinton, died Sunday. He was 98 years old. He is survived by his wife Elizabeth Dole, who was also a U.S. senator, and a daughter, Robin, from a previous marriage.

One of the giants of American politics in the 20th century, Dole will be remembered for his heroism in World War II, his time as Senate Majority Leader, his 1996 run for president, and even his unlikely turn in a commercial for the maker of Viagra.

But perhaps two of his most enduring legacies on American life came earlier in his nearly 50-year-long career in public office. As a U.S. Senator, Dole was at the center of deals on the Social Security program and on food stamps (now known as SNAP) that have left lasting imprints on how Americans interact with these two programs.

In his memoir, “One Soldier’s Story,” Dole wrote that when he is asked about the accomplishments in the Senate he is most proud of, his ‘answer sometimes surprises people’ — he listed Social Security as his top answer alongside passing the Americans with Disabilities act, a civil rights law that prevents discrimination based on disability.”

I recognize fully that some folks may not appreciate Dole for some of his other stances, but even progressives should note his pride and help in getting three major pieces of legislation enacted that impact so many lives. Even without his legislative accomplishments, Dole served in the Army and survived World War II when many thought he would not. He was awarded a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts for his courage and physical punishment that lasted the rest of his 98 years.

I was telling a retired neurosurgeon yesterday about Dole’s push for better access to healthcare. This neurosurgeon is among a national group of doctors pushing for Medicare for All. As we discussed the Affordable Care Act, I mentioned there are elements therein of Dole’s healthcare plans he was pushing in his 1996 presidential campaign. Some of these elements also found their way into Romneycare in Massachusetts, to which the ACA has similarities.

So, think about this legacy. Social Security, SNAP, the Americans with Disabilities Act and some elements of the ACA. But, of course, today we have more strident tribal politics, which flavor way too many things. What many folks need to better understand today is there is not one politician who will say and do things you agree with 100%. Nor should it be. This is a lot like all relationships.

We need to avoid taking people’s head off when they don’t agree with you. There is an old line that applies to any organization – be diplomatic when people disagree with you, as they may have supported your idea in the past and may very well in the future. Dole was imperfect, but he knew this. We should as well.

A Beautiful Mind has it Right – the Nash Equilibrium shows the power of working together

The following post was written seven years ago, but holds true even more so today with the recently passed infrastructure bill as well as the need to work together in our global economy on trade, environmental, and human rights issues.

One of my favorite Russell Crowe movies is “A Beautiful Mind” directed by Ron Howard about the schizophrenic Ph.D. in economics, John Nash. If you saw the movie, you know that Nash won the Nobel Prize in Economic Science for his theory which became known as “Nash Equilibrium” that was used in game theory, economic development and other areas. In short it was all about maximizing everyone’s gain. From Wikipedia, this example might help define what Nash’s theory was all about:

“Stated simply, Amy and Will are in Nash equilibrium if Amy is making the best decision she can, taking into account Will’s decision, and Will is making the best decision he can, taking into account Amy’s decision. Likewise, a group of players are in Nash equilibrium if each one is making the best decision that he or she can, taking into account the decisions of the others in the game.”

The reason I raise is this is that we can all benefit more if we work with each other rather than against. If we all try to win the game, whatever that is, we will actually end up in a collective lesser state. This is a key reason why collaboration is vital to the success of most endeavors, including and especially politics. But, let me use a real example of how a region can benefit more economically through collective partnering under Nash Equilibrium.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, we have a terrific new “transmodal distribution facility” that is near the airport. The facility is adjacent to and incorporates railroad train tracks in the distribution process. It is also very conveniently located to three interstates (I-85, I-77 and I-485) and a fourth four lane highway (US 321) which connects to I-40 about forty miles away. If you know your North Carolina geography, you will know that Charlotte is right on the border with South Carolina and several towns in SC are actually included in the Metro Charlotte area.

A key reason for its success is more than the rail, highway and air access. Charlotte is also a convenient driving distance from ports in Charleston, South Carolina, Wilmington, North Carolina, Savannah, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida. With the deepening of the Panama Canal set to be complete in 2015, bigger ships can sail from Asia-Pacific (China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, etc.). Yet, unless these ports are dredged to become deeper, the bigger ships cannot enter the harbors there and will sail past. Activity has begun in various stages, but here is where Nash Equilibrium should come to fruition.

The states of North and South Carolina (and Florida and Georgia) should work collectively along with business and the Federal government to deepen all ports noted above. We will all benefit more greatly if we invest together. This would be true on other economic investments where we should work less at cross purposes and compete as a region. I recognize there have been pockets of success where this has been done, but to me, with the significant cost of dredging these harbors and the stalemate in fighting in Washington where Congress is moving money around to fund a very limited transportation budget for infrastructure, this a keen example of why we must work together to benefit more.

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell have been promoting a bipartisan investment in our infrastructure, each representing the major political parties. LaHood said this is the best jobs program we could possibly have. And, as I have said before, borrowing money to invest in assets, is different from borrowing money for operations. This is where we need to spend our money as the collective return on investment is huge.

So, to the state legislatures and Congress, let’s get with it and work to invest in America’s ports and roads. As Rendell said, if we don’t deepen our ports, the ships will sail right by us to Canada. John Nash indeed had a beautiful mind. We should follow his direction to maximize our collective gain.

Banning Fahrenheit 451 – Really?

In an editorial in The Charlotte Observer yesterday called “NC is vulnerable to a new wave of book banning,” by Sara Pequeno, she clearly and correctly notes “Restricting books is a trademark of fascism.” Pequeno is referring to North Carolina Lt. Governor Mark Robinson who received a lot of flak a few months ago about his homophobic comments. It should be Mr. Robinson is proud of his comments and did not deny them offering they relate to specific books he wants banned from public schools. While several of the books are about sexual preferences, one was even more telling in its irony – “Fahrenheit 451.”

As more than a few folks may know, “Fahrenheit 451” is about an autocratic regime cracking down on people reading books. In fact, the title represents the temperature needed for a book to burn. The folks burning the books were called “firemen.” So, it is ironic that a book on banning and burning books is on a list to be banned. At least, banned in the mindset of the homophobic Mr. Robinson. What I take from this is Mr. Robinson does not want people knowing that banning books is not a good thing.

Here is a summary of the book and its origins from Wikipedia:

“Fahrenheit 451 is a 1953 dystopian novel by American writer Ray Bradbury. Often regarded as one of his best works, the novel presents a future American society where books are outlawed and “firemen” burn any that are found. The book’s tagline explains the title as “‘the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns”: the autoignition temperature of paper.

The lead character, Guy Montag, is a fireman who becomes disillusioned with his role of censoring literature and destroying knowledge, eventually quitting his job and committing himself to the preservation of literary and cultural writings. The novel has been the subject of interpretations focusing on the historical role of book burning in suppressing dissenting ideas for change.

In a 1956 radio interview, Bradbury said that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 because of his concerns at the time (during the McCarthy era) about the threat of book burning in the United States. In later years, he described the book as a commentary on how mass media reduces interest in reading literature.” 

It should be noted that anytime someone is equated with Senator Joe McCarthy, that is not a positive thing. Maybe they will ban Margaret Atwood’s book “The Handmaid’s Tale” as we certainly would not want people to see what living in autocratic, dystopian environment looks like. But, there is one thing for certain. If you want to bring greater attention to a book or movie, tell people they cannot read it.

Nice boys don’t ask questions like that said the minister (a repeat post)

The following post was written about seven years ago, but remains relevant today. As a person of faith, we should not shy away from askng questions. I truly love the encouraged dialogue in the Brown family.

Earlier this week, Dan Brown the author of “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” appeared on CBS Good Morning. It was fascinating to learn of his upbringing as he was raised by a mathematician father and a very devout mother who was the church choir director. Brown even sang in his mother’s choir. He said he was raised to ask questions and lived in a very healthy balance of science and religion.

Brown noted it was not uncommon around the dinner table to question all things, such as what if Jesus was not the son of God and was a mortal prophet? This type of questioning was encouraged as it opened his mind to discussion. It also let him gain a better understanding of religion in the context of greater scientific information. When he became concerned that the Big Bang Theory seemed to be at odds with the bible’s view on creation, he went to ask his minister. The answer he received was not welcoming of discussion. The answer resides in the title to this post. “Nice boys don’t ask questions like that,” said the minister.

He said this was a life changing answer. It had the opposite effect from what the minister likely intended. Brown said it told him that we should be questioning more things in the bible especially where the text doesn’t jive with scientific data and leading thought. Many who have discussed the Big Bang Theory have noted that it need not, by itself, contradict a divine hand of creation. But, that is not the answer he received.

Since he wrote “The Da Vinci Code” which is based on the plot that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child, he was asked on the show about the recent papyrus that indicated that Jesus was married, but was proven to be not authentic. Brown notes that religious scholars over time have discussed whether Jesus was married. The book and movie just made the issue more known to others. He was not saying Jesus was or was not married. Brown was simply noting that it has been discussed in religious scholar circles.

So, we should question texts such as the bible, especially when considering the context of when they were first written and later translated. I have written several posts about people of faith teaching against science and scientific exploration. For the home schooling mothers (and fathers) and owners of the Creationist museum that talk about the dinosaurs walking with man on an earth that is only 7,000 years old, this does a huge disservice to the children. They are being taught that others will try to dissuade you from these teachings, which will only alienate the kids from their teachers when the truths become more evident.

As someone of faith, to repeat a message that I have been noting in earlier posts, it is not possible that every word in the bible is true or any religious text for that matter. They each have good messages and teachings to live by, but even if divinely inspired, these texts were written by imperfect men, interpreted and reinterpreted by imperfect men, and translated and retranslated by imperfect men. God did not dictate, so the men related what they believed to be true in the context of their own biases, understandings of science, and human imperfections. And, they were men. Women are treated as second class citizens and even chattel in many religious texts.

For a minister to give the response to young Dan Brown’s question like he did, showed his own lack of faith in the document. The bible has many great lessons, but it also has parts that don’t get brought up much in sermons. We must question things. King Solomon, who is revered in the bible for his wisdom, implies God gave us a brain and we honor him when we use it. So, we should use it and ask questions.

We need to reconcile what the text means in the greater context of science and history.  For those who believe the earth is only 7,000 years old, when data literally beneath your feet refutes what you are saying about the age of the earth, then you should pause and think. If we don’t allow an updated understanding of the bible and religious texts, then people will pay attention less and miss the key messages that Jesus had for us. And, that would be a shame.

When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water – a revisit to an old post

The following post was written nine years ago. Since that time the global water crisis has annually been noted as the number one or two long term concern by the World Economic Forum. Plus, we have had crises like the one in Cape Town, South Africa where they came perilously close to running out of water and Flint, Michigan where a lead pipe system caused health issues for disenfranchised populations. Caution, this is a little longer than my current posts, which I have tried to shorten.

The title above is a quote from Benjamin Franklin which speaks volumes. Water is a very dear resource and we truly do not know its ultimate value until it is gone or our access to it is limited. I recently completed one of the best history books I have ever read “Water – the Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization” by Steven Solomon. Solomon has written for the New York Times, Business Week, The Economist, Forbes and Esquire among other places and is the author of “The Confidence Game,” so the book has an investigative storytelling bent which makes history come alive. Yet, it is not just a history book as he brings us to today’s times and provides us with cautions to heed as we move forward.

In short, the book shows the ability for great civilizations to rise, thrive and fall based on their ability to control water resources for drinking, farming, manufacturing, sewage and transportation. Through this we learn the vital role that bringing water into an area for use and then using it to sweep away sewage from that same area can have in enhancing or debilitating our lives. To paint an ugly picture, London in the mid-1800’s had a terrible period, as did other major cities, where cholera, dysentery and other diseases were prominent. The period was called “The Big Stink” as sewage was not be adequately washed away and was actually being dumped into the same drinking water sources. After years of postponement (sounds like our debt crisis) of dealing with it, the smell became so grotesque that Parliament had to act within 18 days to set in motion a plan to resolve it.

I use this example rather than others as it shows how basic the needs water fills and our inability to use it wisely can be truly catastrophic. Rome was known for its aqueducts and how it flourished with the baths it created. The baths which improved hygiene became so popular, they were the social meeting places where people of all strata kept themselves clean and healthy. It is not ironic that Rome flourished during this time and fell when many of these aqueducts were destroyed by invaders from the North.

To use a more recent example, Teddy Roosevelt is probably the greatest water president in US history. Before his time, the greatest US water accomplishment was the building of the Erie Canal which reduced the cost of goods transport immensely connecting ports. Roosevelt had three major contributions – the building of the Panama Canal, the development of planned water rights and retrieval in the west to help irrigate dry areas for crops and sustenance, and the protection of water sheds via the vast number of parks he created. His inspiration and force of will also led to the building of the Hoover Dam which occurred later and whose success was copied many times over by his cousin, Franklin when he was in the White House.

It is arguable that these water initiatives by Teddy Roosevelt are key reasons the US is as powerful today. I recognize that downplays the roles of many others, but the US leveraged its access to both coasts through the building of the Panama Canal. Plus, it helped the can-do psyche of Americans after earlier attempts by France to build the canal failed. Successful major construction can be uplifting just as failures can be crushing as China saw with the huge failure of a major dam project completed just four years ago.

I wanted to provide a little varied context from the book, as we look at problems of today and the near and longer term future. I had incorrectly given credit for this quote to Jim Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy, but a key chapter title in the book is called “Water: The New Oil.” We have growing concerns in the US, especially in drier parts of the country, but even other areas which are not known for being dry. More on these later. While we have these concerns, we are still referenced as being more water rich than other places on the planet. What this book highlights is the insatiable desire for water in water poor countries is causing the misuse or  unplanned use of water at too fast a pace so that it cannot be replenished. What will bring the Middle East to its knees will be the ever worsening shortage of water. As rich a country as Saudi Arabia is through oil, it is water poor and will very soon be using up its water supply. Other countries are even in more dire straits in that region.

If you move into the African continent you can look to Ethiopia to where the Nile begins, but most of the water is used in Egypt. Issues have erupted around the sharing of water and will continue to be of concern. The building of the Aswan Dam was in some respects a success, but in others a failure as it was built in the wrong place. Much of the water created from the dam evaporates before it is used. The book points out to these kinds of issues as we plan ahead and we must. This issue becomes even more critical in water and economically poor countries. So, globally we need concerted planning on we should use our water resources. This problem will only become worse if we grow unfettered increasing the number of people on our planet and the impact of global warming continues to affect our supply.

Bringing the issue back to the US,  we are water rich, but could be better personal, industrial and governmental stewards of our water. Americans use far more water than others on the planet. We are seeing droughts and water fights between Georgia, Alabama and Florida and Texas has numerous places where the water table has dried up, e.g. The global warming impact will continue to hit the driest places on the planet the most and it is one of the factors there has been the onset of forest fires which we are seeing here and in Australia and Russia.

So, we need to act now to plan ahead with better water usage strategies and not wait for the “big stink” to occur using that as a metaphor for all water problems. And, we need to continue to offer and help other countries develop strategies and execute them at the regional and local levels. One of the ironies is in parts of rural India where the British water management back in the early 1900’s did not reach, they still maintain water councils who provide stewardship over water use. India has grown so rapidly in major cities, that the infrastructure needs updating, but these smaller water council areas continue to be judicious users of water because they had to be that way. We all need to be judicious.

So, what can we do? At the individual level, conservation is key. Three of the greatest water uses are in flushing toilets, washing clothes and washing dishes. If we each can strive for more the more energy-efficient wash cycles and lower water use toilets that could be an enormous savings. There are recycling examples for water where toilets can draw from shower water and rainwater collections can be used for watering plants. We Americans need to cut back on the lawn sprinklers as well as we abuse this privilege. We can do this through use, but also by planting more indigenous grasses and plants. I am also reminded of my Dad’s navy shower restrictions on ship – 25 seconds of water. You used five to wet your body. Then you soaped up and turned back on the spigot for the last twenty seconds of water to rinse off. I am not advocating navy shower limits per se, but we do not need to be like my children either and lounge around in the shower.

Yet, I think we need to be aware and advocate that we should address our problems. There are some very good things going on in our country that can be done elsewhere. Setting aside the Big Stink example, Orange County in CA has successfully reused sewage water as drinking water and for irrigation. As scary as this sounds, they use multiple filtering and cleaning techniques that have proven to work.  There is continued exploration of desalinization techniques with ocean water, but they tend to be very expensive and the issue of what to do with the salt is an issue. Plus, there are some neat things going on in industry to use recycled water for various uses.

On the flip side, we have continued to be poor stewards in other areas and have been slow to act in rectifying these issues. In “Living Downstream,” Dr. Sandra Steingraber has noted we continue to pollute our waters with petro-chemicals which wreak havoc. In Canada, they have outlawed ornamental pesticides for home use due to the air and water poisoning. And, one of the big reasons I am against fracking is, in addition to the toxic issues it causes for air and water, it uses an exorbitant amount of water, 2 – 5 million gallons per fracking well. Fracking did not cause the drought in Texas, but it sure is not helping it now. We need a strong EPA, not a weakened one.

Finally, this is a major issue that affects every resource issue, so it needs to be stated. I am going to ask everyone to set aside their religious beliefs for these next few statements. The earth cannot support the unfettered increase in population.  We are in the neighborhood of 8 million people. If we all consume as Rwandans do, the earth may be able to support 15 million. If we consume the way Americans do, the earth could only support less than 2 million. Please reread these two sentences. So, if we do not have planned birth control, we will run out of food and water. Even if you set aside global warming and its impact which is here and will get worse, we cannot support an unfettered increase in our population. So, when I hear how evil Planned Parenthood and its global partners around the world are by our more evangelical global citizens, my reaction is we desperately need family planning and birth control or we are sentencing ourselves and our children to die or to a much different kind of life. In my bible, God told us to be good stewards of the earth. We all need to step up to the plate now and heed his wishes or we will witness Benjamin Franklin’s caution noted above.