Monday, December 31, 2007

"Open Secrets"

Why does common knowledge remain unacknowledged within an organization? SFGate has tapped into an unreported vein of lore about the San Francisco zoo.



"I was putting a sign up in front of the tiger exhibit, with my butt hanging over the edge," said the former keeper. "The cat was pacing back and forth at the bottom of the grotto." The keeper said one of his more seasoned colleagues happened by, grabbed him by the belt loop and jerked him back, away from the edge. "He shared the secret that people knew - the cat could jump up and take me down," the keeper said.

And well known in zoo lore is the story about an entomologist who, as a teenage science student in the late 1950s, visited the tiger grotto with former zoo director Carey Baldwin to see if the enclosure was secure enough to contain the tiger.

"Mr. Baldwin had been told by one of the zookeepers that the tiger might be able to escape by jumping across the moat and onto the flowerbed between the public guard rail and the moat," the entomologist, David Rentz, recalled in a posting on his Web log.

"We got a large piece of meat and tied it to a long bamboo pole and approached the tiger enclosure. We were at the other end of the bamboo pole - about 15 feet away from the meat. Baldwin held the pole at the edge of our side of the moat. Once the tiger saw it, he literally flew across the moat from his position on the other side, grabbed the meat, and sprung back to the grotto all in one graceful movement.

"It happened so quickly that it was hard to believe what we had seen," Rentz said Saturday in a telephone interview from his home in Queensland, Australia. "It scared the hell out of me. It scared the hell out of both of us.

"Then Mr. Baldwin closed the tiger's access to the outside - supposedly forever," Rentz wrote on his Web log. "Notes were left to the zookeepers to never let this tiger outside again."

Dan Oestreich describes the phenomenon of "undiscussable" problems within organizations. Their existence is known with the same certainty as anything else. What distinguishes these problems from others is that they deal with subjects that are impossible to schedule on an agenda. By tacit agreement their discussion is "verboten". Oestreich writes:

An undiscussable is a work-related problem that people hesitate to address with those who can do something about it. It isn't that people don't talk about undiscussables. They talk about them frequently -- in the hallways and parking lots, bathrooms and across the cubicles. But it isn't with the person or the people most often associated with the issues. AKA "the dead moose on the table," it's what people come out of a meeting to share with one another privately that should have been part of the agenda.

Organizations and even whole societies are full of undiscussable subjects. They even go out of their way to create these "open secrets". When Mark Steyn is threatened by the Canadian Human Rights establishment for expressing his views on radical Islam it eventually has the result of creating another verboten subject.

Not just the Canadian Human Rights people, but a whole spectrum of organizations throughout the world, create taboos which eventually stifle the internal cognitive processes within them. And those taboos are so entrenched it often requires a crisis -- an impending bankruptcy, a corporate takeover, or a revolution -- to overturn them. Management consultants are paid large amounts of money to initiate "communications processes" through which the unacknowledged problems of a failing organization can once again re-enter the realm of "actionable knowledge".

The San Francisco zoo story provides an example of something all too common within organizations: the emergence of the open secret. If Carey Baldwin is to be believed, the keepers of the SF Zoo have known for nearly sixty years that the tigers kept within their enclosures only out of their own free will. The wall and moat were shams to preserve the illusion that the big cats were enclosed. In reality, the public's safety was dependent on the behavior of the "good kitties". Given their only recently marred record, the tigers have really exceeded our low expectations of their behavior.

In contrast, human institutions can be less intelligent than we give them credit for. They can ignore critical information simply because the word is out that the subject is not to be discussed. They can take data and bury it; discover knowledge and extinguish it. Because they have internal interests which take priority over their official ones. Even the death of a 17 year old zoo visitor won't change things. The only thing anyone can be sure of is that all parties concerned will hire lawyers who, by track record, are far more dangerous than tigers.

52 Comments:

Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

Similarly, organizations have unwritten rules, which my quick thoughts distinguish from open secrets.

Break an unwritten rule and the powers that be will find a written rule to deal with you. No matter how trivial. I have seen that action a number of times.

12/31/2007 12:17:00 PM  
Blogger Alexis said...

Institutions are made up of people. I think open secrets happen especially when there is an obvious weakness.

Ahem... Let's say that (based on my expertise within my field), I know how to kill tens of thousands of people in my local area. Let's say I also know how the problem can be solved, but don't trust the willingness of the local political establishment to solve the problem. Look at it in cost-benefit terms. If I shoot off my mouth and talk about the problem, there is a low chance the problem will get solved. Yet, there is an even higher risk that shooting off my mouth will not succeed in convincing local politicians to solve the problem but will alert the terrorists to a glaring vulnerability. So, it's in my interest to shut up and hope that al-Qaeda doesn't realize that my hometown exists.

Also, people have a tendency to ignore that which bothers them. I personally have a problem with keeping messes, but not because I like messes. Instead, I will often "not see" the mess right in front of me because I semi-consciously decide not to see it. It is sometimes more work to actually clean up a mess than it is to pretend that nothing is wrong.

This can have comic aspects. There was a time, when I was in college, when a man masturbated in public at the local student union. For about twenty minutes, nobody "noticed". Finally, a young lady from a big city out of state noticed and alerted the student union office, and the building staff alerted campus security. Yet, for about twenty minutes, a man had been playing with himself in a public place in a conservative town. This was probably because all the other students were so embarrassed at seeing public masturbation that they wouldn't report it to authorities. At a different time, I had seen a couple conduct sexual intercourse at a public rest stop, and my reaction had been to refrain from looking and act as if I hadn't seen anything; I was just too embarrassed to admit to anyone that I had seen what I had just seen.

I think open secrets usually stem from embarrassment at a societal level, and can emcompass any organization. Now, does al-Qaeda have any open secrets we can exploit?

12/31/2007 12:46:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

One of the things you find upon reviewing the architecture of a data store is the extent to which information has become inaccessible due to poor design. It's information that management has bought and paid for; that operators have keyed in or otherwise captured that is just Lost in Space.

Organizations often know a lot more than they think they know. Data miners and management consultants are often in the business of making this information economically accessible.

Open secrets are a category of information which have become inaccessible due to the high internal political cost of retrieving it. With respect to larger society, one of the advantages of a democracy and free speech is that it prevents the emergence of 'undiscussables'. It is the slow strangulation of the unacknowledged problems that often kills totalitarian societies. Codes of political correctness will ultimately impose a very high cost on the societies which adopt them.

12/31/2007 12:54:00 PM  
Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor Has No Clothes expresses this same sentiment.

This effect is very obvious, with Steyn's persecution in Soviet Canuckistan (Pat Buchanan's best contribution to modern day politics), people unwilling to talk about Islamic predations, people unwilling to talk forthrightly about various problems our society faces. Better to ignore it and walk on by then try to start an honest discussion and get hauled before some thought police board.

They stuck a hotwire to my head
For the things I said and did
They made these feelings go away
A model citizen in every way

12/31/2007 01:18:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

In my experience the existence of “verboten” topics indicates that there is Something Else Going On; bringing up that topic and dealing with it will inevitably require the organization to focus on a much larger, hidden, topic that would imperil its very existence.

Consider the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. People chose to ignore the problems with the solid rocket boosters in cold weather because to do so would imperil the very existence of the entire program. The Shuttle had been sold as a lower-cost replacement for expendable rockets; by 1986 it had been found to be both incapable of replacing even existing rocket designs and far more costly as well. Anything that imperiled the launch schedule might bring those facts to light. So, in the end, the Challenger was launched in conditions that not only exceeded those that had raised concerns, that not only exceeded that which the boosters had been tested to, but that exceeded the original design specifications. The topic was so verboten that it could not be discussed even under conditions where it obviously had to be. It was the equivalent of the tiger jumping out of the cage, going down town, and dining on the Mayor’s staff.

In the case of Mark Steyn and the Canadian Human Rights Reich, the Something Else is quite obvious: The human rights people cannot deal with defending an ideology that is hostile to the very principles it supposedly embodies.

In the case of the SF Zoo, the real question is: What is the Something Else?

12/31/2007 02:11:00 PM  
Blogger DanMyers said...

RWE,

Agree emphatically with your Challenger analogy. Nothing could affect the schedule..Nothing...

The common thread within all of these "Open Secrets" is the bureaucracy that spawns them. ANY bureaucracy exists to fulfill a mission that is morphed from its original mission to the "protect your boss" or "protect your budget mission". It is inherent in any bureaucracy.

Arguably, the only cure is a rotational system of qualified staff to replace the current staff on an irregular basis. But, this doesn't do anything for efficiency in the original mission. It has to be factored into the overall goals of the system. This is often built into large corporations to "provide experience" to upper management. It does this, but also clears a bit of the "upper air".

12/31/2007 02:58:00 PM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

Open secret of Clinton's "bimbo eruptions", up to and including rape charges. At what point would the media have finally summoned up enough guts to inform voters what was going on.

When Bubba had leaped a moat, scaled a fence and actually killed a Gennifer?

12/31/2007 03:32:00 PM  
Blogger hdgreene said...

It was the director of the Zoo who saw the stunt with the hunk of meat. How much higher do you go, governor? He just didn't want to spend the money to fix the problem. Something high tech like, you know, steel bars

I liked that he posted a note telling Zoo keepers not to let the big cats outside. I guess after about ten years that post-it must have fell to the floor and got stuck to someones dirty boot.

Well, I've seen a lot of programs about how predators are misunderstood. Now it seems Zookeepers are, too.

12/31/2007 03:50:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

DanMyers: The approach the Air Force took way back in the 50’s with space launch was to have an independent group of highly specialized experts – the Aerospace Corporation - look at everything and report on it, both directly to the people responsible and if required to the bosses as well. NASA despised the idea, thinking that such a group insulted their professionalism, among other things. After Challenger NASA again considered the idea and rejected it. After we lost Columbia they announced they were at last doing it – but as far as I can tell they have not yet.

The company I work for developed a capability to perform analyses related to a certain kind of terrorism-related vulnerability. When it showed the law enforcement types that their plans were wrong they reacted promptly and fiercely. They confiscated all the capabilities to perform such analyses. Such knowledge was too dangerous to have out there. In their view it was better to remain ignorant than to risk the Wrong People getting the information. As a result we don’t talk to them any more.

12/31/2007 05:16:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

In living color:
The Caring Side of Hitler.
Rare colour footage of Hitler reveals the frail truth about 'family man' Fuhrer

On the ancient newsreels he is a manic and intensely powerful figure, barking his orders and urging the Nazis on to world domination. But colour pictures have emerged of a very different Adolf Hitler

12/31/2007 05:55:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

New tiger security expected in a month.

The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department is drafting plans for a new tiger-grotto security system at the San Francisco Zoo that should be in place within 30 days, according to a spokesman for the zoo.

The security system, which will be designed by the architect responsible for the zoo's new Grizzly Gulch exhibit, will be paid for through city bond funds, said Sam Singer, a spokesman brought in by the zoo in the wake of the fatal tiger mauling on Christmas Day.

Singer did not have any details about the plans.

"They are in the first stages of drawing something up right now, working with the zoo and animal experts on something that is both safe for the animals and safe for the public," Singer said.

He said representatives of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the accrediting body for zoos, are scheduled to come to inspect the San Francisco Zoo next week and will be asked to review the plans for the new security system.

Meanwhile, the two brothers that survived last week's tiger attack have maintained their silence. The father of the 17-year-old boy killed in the attack says the brothers have not contacted him since the incident.

12/31/2007 06:03:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Hello, Dolly! Well, hello, Dolly!

12/31/2007 06:15:00 PM  
Blogger amr said...

RWE:
I have been saying such things for eons. The seals in the boosters were not designed for such low temperatures. I experienced similar but less serious problems with such seals in a different application. And the three engineers who wanted to postpone the launch were subpoenaed to testify in front of the Rogers Commission and shortly afterwards lost their jobs. Note how the government protected them.

I know how that works. Years ago I was doing performance testing audits under a QA edict at a facility under construction and I, foremost among others, was impacting the program since we auditors were finding way too many errors that showed the testing program was failing to meet objectives but was pretty much staying on schedule. I had performed such testing in the past and was not so easily fooled. We were there to start with because of previous programmatic problems. This necessitated a “massive” layoff of one, me, to fix management’s problem with our findings. But they stayed on schedule after I was sacrificed, my coworkers obviously got the message, and they didn’t have to reperform the testing. Fortunately my reputation was not marred and after a month of unemployment I found another job. Being a Dudley Do-Right is not good for job security and ones stress level, but your conscience is certainly clear, if that counts anymore.

12/31/2007 07:24:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

RWE, wonder if you saw this back when it won the prize.
What the Marines would rather not have us know!
---
Far From Battlefield, Marines Lose One-Third of Harrier Fleet

After that and the Osprey, I think the Marines should let the Navy pick their Aircraft.
(I'd give em updated A-10's)

also...
Somehow the F-18 has a better record than the air force, even with carrier operations.
---
What's up w/that?

12/31/2007 09:02:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

When the Germans, and Rockets, Came to Town

12/31/2007 10:05:00 PM  
Blogger Fat Man said...

"When Bubba had leaped a moat, scaled a fence and actually killed a Gennifer?"

Didn't hurt Teddy Kennedy none.

12/31/2007 10:10:00 PM  
Blogger Annoymouse said...

Management by nature fosters an air of insularity. Nobody ever told Genghis Khan that his fly was down. Leaders need to foster open forums of discussion where anything goes to salt the creative juices but command and control demands a certain orthodoxy. All could benefit from hanging a simple pine suggestion box.

12/31/2007 10:12:00 PM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

I've recently been remembering the good old days, when it was thought that if you had a secret that was dangerous to society and your evil greedy bosses didn't want to do anything about it, all you had to do was fight and climb your way to the nearest newspaper to have the scandal break wide open and then things would be done about it. Lacking a handy newspaper, getting your scandal on "60 Minutes" would be equally a good way to get it fixed.

Entire movies have been based on this fail-safe scenario of trusting in the media to do the Right Thing if they are informed of an egregious wrong, with the most prominent probably being "All the President's Men".

Now, of course, the journalists of the world and of America are the very LAST group of people anyone with a hidden scandal would want to trust to blow a scandal wide open and shine the white-hot light of publicity on nefarious deeds.

Personally, I'd take my scandals to the Internet, and Belmont Club would be a good place to start.

12/31/2007 10:41:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Course the NYTimes is Still the Paper of Record as THE Place for leaking National Security Secrets.

12/31/2007 11:20:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Can They Stay Safe?
Trying for a truce that could save the Americas’ biggest cat.

12/31/2007 11:39:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Big Feeder, Big Eater
Bronx Zoo, 1947

1/01/2008 01:07:00 AM  
Blogger ErnieG said...

This problem has been known for a long time. Niccolò Machiavelli, the first political consultant, suggested that his Prince have one man with the license to tell him the truth.

1/01/2008 05:06:00 AM  
Blogger insight said...

ernieg, this is also the traditional role of the court jester.

1/01/2008 07:27:00 AM  
Blogger Jeff Burton said...

I think it almost bizarre that you have posted as many times as you have about the tiger incident. There's something on display here, but I'm not sure quite what.

1/01/2008 09:11:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

Jeff, I think it's bizarre that you have nothing to say, but still felt it imperative that you post something announcing that you have nothing to say.

And I'm pretty sure I know what's on display when you do that.

1/01/2008 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

Actually, one of the secrets of The Kahn’s success was that any one of his horde could demand to have a chat with the boss to raise some concerns. They were a bunch of “barbarians” who were so “modern” in their organizational structure and tactics that it makes you wonder about time travel. By the way, did you know that more people today are genetically related to Genghis Kahn than anyone else in history?

The Kahn was also the first recorded Environmentalist Whacko. He hated cities and at one point considered depopulating the whole of northern China just to ensure good grassland for his horses.

Doug: The Marines have elevated the “Live In the Mud” idea to a basic part of their warrior concept. The Harrier was supposed to be great for that because it could launch from a mudhole rather than those big long Air Force runways that were such an object of derision. Of course, the AV-8 could not carry very much very far. As an old joke goes, VTOL means Von’t Take Off Loaded. S/VTOL stands for Still Von’t Take Off Loaded. A friend of mine recently said he talked to a USMC crew chief who said the Harrier was all but worthless; it could not haul enough ordnance far enough to be useful.

And we quit talking about the Frisco Tiger Incident some time ago, which was not the main focus of our host’s original post, anyway.

1/01/2008 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger Zach said...

I think the open secret phenomenon is the only explanation for why a fully-operation, planet-destroying Death Star could possibly have such an obvious design flaw that would allow a single shot to cause a chain reaction that would destroy the entire Death Star. I'm sure some contractors knew it was a problem but were afraid to go to Darth and tell him. But they definitely talked about it around the water cooler.

1/01/2008 12:29:00 PM  
Blogger Hans said...

As an operational risk manager for a large financial corporation, I saw some evidence of a troubled culture when the zoo's director said to the media that while the fence was woefully short, no assessor had brought up the concern in a formal finding.

In my environment, we're also battling a "compliance culture." If a risk is not reported from official outside auditor channels, it is ignored. Usually the rationale is that there already are too many official audit issues for the budget to address, so external audit is used as a screening tool for risk treatment.

This results in non-audit items (e.g. much operational risk) being ignored until a disaster occurs. Many notable catastrophes have emerged from areas external auditors were not responsible for reviewing.

Unfortunately, solutions like additional regulation further reinforce this reactive approach. Hiring directors and managers that seek out and identify risk regardless of whether it's a regulatory concern is one method of addressing this problem.

1/01/2008 12:45:00 PM  
Blogger D said...

http://harowo.com/2007/12/31/africom-the-military-projection-of-foreign-policy/

1/01/2008 12:54:00 PM  
Blogger Louis said...

Would that be like going to Bali and expressing doubt about man made global warming?

1/01/2008 01:57:00 PM  
Blogger Dan Kurt said...

"Why does common knowledge remain unacknowledged"

Forget Tigers and Harriers, get to the real problems we face:

1) mediocrity being institutionalized with Affirmative action;

2) our youth being dumbed down because all "races are of the same potential intelligence" so that standards must be dropped in school to not stress the mentally challenged ( that is, Blacks and Hispanics as a group );

3) unbridled, non selective immigration will/is destroying the cohesion of the USA;

4) through 50) are a take home quiz for self study!

Alas, is there any Hope?

Dan Kurt

1/01/2008 02:41:00 PM  
Blogger jj mollo said...

I thought for a moment that you all were talking elliptically about the War on Drugs. But then I realized that drugs are bad for people and we have to fight them.

1/01/2008 02:58:00 PM  
Blogger otherwhen789 said...

Dan Kurt:

“Alas, is there any Hope?”

If you believe in Jesus, there is.

Otherwise, scientifically speaking, of course not. In the long run we’re all dead. One day the sun will explode and there goes the Rain Forest!

Eventually the universe will either collapse in a Big Crunch, or continue to expand until proton decay and the 2nd law of thermodynamics leaves a vast empty nothingness forevermore.

All we are is dust in the wind, dude.

Hope is to be found only in the Resurrection. If you’re going to get all scientific about the question of whether all men really are created equal, you are already halfway down the road to despondency and doom.

It’s not fair that the reality seems to be that all men are created unequal, even when broken down statistically by race. But Americans have a creed; in essence we ARE our creed, and we must try to live by it or else give up and die.

1/01/2008 03:29:00 PM  
Blogger Sorge said...

"Now, does al-Qaeda have any open secrets we can exploit?"

Yes. Sex between al-Qaeda/Taliban men and boys.

1/01/2008 04:00:00 PM  
Blogger Nomenklatura said...

We should remember that in a litigious environment certain kinds of knowledge are dangerous to be aware of, or comment on.

I recently had to mention to a doctor that if his group were to use a new software system to set up a peer-review quality monitoring system, the legal impact could be to make all of them responsible for any mistake made by any of them. Thanks to the inequity imposed by an over-aggressive legal system, for any individual it's better not to know, even though the outcome is socially sub-optimal.

My bet is that the jobs of all of the employees at the SF Zoo were safer if they didn't bring this tiger issue up.

In our system, the responsibility for addressing this sort of incentives problem is directed to the room marked 'Directors', but too often (at both private companies and public organizations) that door effectively has a sign on it which says either 'Gone Fishing' or 'Out to Lunch'. It's a place the responsibilities are sent, to not be discussed.

1/01/2008 04:07:00 PM  
Blogger sbw said...

Marcus, at our organization we have only one unwritten policy... it is that there is no such thin as an unwritten policy. Nothing like a paradox to make the point.

1/01/2008 04:14:00 PM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

But Americans have a creed; in essence we ARE our creed, and we must try to live by it or else give up and die.


Unlike the law of gravity, creeds can be changed, as can Constitutions. For example, if it were voted on by a majority the American creed could very easily be changed to "all men are created equal except for [insert religion, ethnicity, and/or sexual orientation here]", and then we could go on from there living our new creed of being Americans.

1/01/2008 04:52:00 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

You should say, rather, that we had high expectations of the tigers' behavior, and the tigers exceeded them admirably.

1/01/2008 06:05:00 PM  
Blogger otherwhen789 said...

NahnCee:

“Unlike the law of gravity, creeds can be changed”

Unfortunately, I believe that is false.

Creeds take on a life of their own, and in some ways become more real than the people who are defined by them.

Christians who stop believing in Jesus, Jews who stop believing in the God of Abraham and so forth sink into despondency and stop breeding. Woody Allen is no substitute for Moses.

The great challenge for religions is to maintain continuity with the beliefs of the past without forsaking the advantages of modernity. Because a creed must blend the old with the new, as seamlessly as possible, or it loses credibility, cohesion, and motive power.

I suspect that if Southwest Airlines stopped being “the little airline that could” after the big guys tried to kill it, it would soon stop being anything at all.

1/01/2008 06:29:00 PM  
Blogger newscaper said...

RWE said
In the case of the SF Zoo, the real question is: What is the Something Else?

Candidates - "Animals are innocent/cuddly and people are the only real dangerous predators"
-or-
"Cages are always bad"

1/01/2008 07:07:00 PM  
Blogger Christy said...

Is the problem in part our unwillingness to identify acceptable risk? When forced to deal with risk we, as a society, must set the standard at zero risk. Zero risk is unworkable, however, so we ignore risks we ourselves find acceptable. And we don't talk about it officially, because someone with less tolerance of risk will unbalance our working system.

I guess I'm saying that we are not good at risk/benefit analysis and tend to avoid all the issues that demand it.

1/01/2008 07:27:00 PM  
Blogger Graham said...

A recent un-discussable "open secret" of major consequence was sub-prime lending.

Many knew there were waterfalls ahead but boosted their bonuses as fast as possible.

A few firms must have "discussed" the situation and sold short for protection.

My guess is that in firms like Merrill, it was verboten.
"Shut up and sell!"

1/01/2008 07:54:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Appraisal Fraud

At a recent mortgage-fraud seminar in Orange County attended by scores of appraisers seeking to meet the new requirements, Smith said it was common for appraisers to seek comparative prices, or "comps," that match clients' price objectives rather than perform the objective analysis that they are required to do.

If sales in an immediate area don't support the desired price, appraisers look elsewhere, perhaps to a higher-end neighborhood not much farther away, he said.

"We have an army of appraisers that don't know they're wrong," Smith said in an interview. "If you are trained to search for comps based on price, that's what you will do."

That won't change much until appraisers are allowed to take the time necessary for a proper evaluation -- typically a day or two -- rather than rush through two or three appraisals a day as companies often require them to do, he said.

During the housing boom, inflated appraisals could remain undiscovered as rising home prices quickly caught up with puffed-up valuations. But flawed appraisals encouraged recklessness and in some cases fraud, experts say, exacerbating foreclosures and lenders' losses once prices began falling.

The issue isn't new. Inflated appraisals were blamed for enabling savings and loans in the 1980s to make rash investments that ultimately cost taxpayers hundreds of billion of dollars.

1/01/2008 08:11:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

Is the problem in part our unwillingness to identify acceptable risk? When forced to deal with risk we, as a society, must set the standard at zero risk.

While most people accept a zero-risk situation is impossible we may actually demand -- subconsciously of course -- that the risk be hidden from us. Otherwise our enjoyment is ruined. In times past there was the memento mori to remind us that even on a summer's day the possibility that something could go terribly wrong was always present.

But moderns are less tolerant of disappointment. We don't want to be told that astronauts can die horribly; that wars are sometimes lost; that things fail or unaccountably break. That eventuality is regarded as "unfair" even though it is merely relatively improbable. The modern copywriter must on no account emphasize the necessity of "blood, toil, sweat and tears" in a cause one might lose anyway.

The "open secret" is not so much at variance with life as with our expectations of life. The ultimate open secret is the fact that we must live without guarantees. And to mention that is poor salesmanship. In that sense we've become more childlike than our ancestors. We've grown afraid of the dark because we've forgotten that through it lies our only chance at the light.

1/01/2008 08:39:00 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

All persons are answerable equally in the presence of our Creator.
All will answer when addressed.
All are answerable to live up to their essentially equal dignity
at that moment in the center of all creation. This is the creed that seems to call Americans forth and separate them from other peoples. This inner sense of self is connected to the Liberty which Jefferson with Franklin's help cited in the Declaration in 1776. We ask this of each other. We saw it, Rudy saw it, W saw it, they took it up down there at the World Trade Center on September 11 in the character of those who went beyond mortal duty.

On Wednesday, I can't wait to hear what Rush has to say about the Tiger.

Here is what Blake wrote:

THE TYGER (from Songs Of Experience)

By William Blake

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?


What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?


When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?


Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


1794

1/01/2008 09:16:00 PM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

Excellent reminder, Richard.

I often suspect that there is a desperate aspect to the rejection by secular humanists and avowed atheists of any spiritual basis to reality. By denying it, they allow themselves a universe in which there can be no objective standard they must live up to.

That might be okay if it were just a hidey hole for adults who can't tolerate the notion of being judged, or being found wanting in their performance. But they go further and insist that all children be trained to think there is nothing to be learned from failure except shame, and banish the possibility of failure from education.

The result is now three generations of high school graduates who are functionally illiterate, unable to spot false logic in the propoganda being fed them, and unable to distinguish between a Proton and a Crouton.

1/01/2008 10:16:00 PM  
Blogger michael i said...

Re: Dan Kurt's quiz (1/01/2008 02:41:00 PM)

4) In America, women and men are equal citizens -- except only men are subject to the military draft and draft registration.

I leave 5 through 50 to others.

1/02/2008 12:59:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

Newscaper: Actually I was thinking of something far more basic and unrelated.

For example, I would be willing to bet you that the management at the Frisco Zoo spent far more time on issues such as sexual harassment, racial sensitivity training, suicide prevention awareness, the glass ceiling that no doubt allegedly existed for minorities and females, the cost of employee health care, the proper precentage of homosexuals employed there, the concerns of PETA, support of the United Way charity, and Global Warming than they did on issues such as tigers getting out of their cages.

Unfortunately, in any bureaucracy, the virtually pointless little artifically generated issues have clear, strong and fierce advocates, responsibility defintions and penalties - as compared to issues such as The Reason the Organization Exists In The First Damn Place.

They may not be able to figure out who is responsible for blowing up a Space Shuttle or letting a tiger eat the customers but they sure as hell can figure out who to sue, fire, or put in jail if some person thinks they have been wronged in some arcane and absurd manner.

1/02/2008 06:25:00 AM  
Blogger newscaper said...

RWE,
Gotcha :)

My dad retired after 35 fed up years in US Customs and saw this sort of thing up close growing like a cancer. Plus my wife is a public school teacher at whats actually a pretty good school, bogged down by NCLB on top of everything else.

SF writer Jerry Pournelle puts it this way:
"Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions."

From my personal experience I'd add a couple more examples of self-perpetuating, make-work organizations from the "compliance" industry -- ABET university program accreditation, and ISO9000.

1/02/2008 08:53:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

What has the UN ever actually accomplished?

1/02/2008 09:27:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

Newscaper: Thanks for the Jerry Pournelle quote. I probably read it at some time but did not recall it.

A basic principle I have found is that the government is ONLY potentially barely competent at things which it does FOR ITSELF. One factor in this is the reason that most government programs go wrong nowadays: the proliferation of policy wonks in the government has become so widespread that it is very, very difficult to actually establish a policy or a plan. It is in fact so hard that minor details such as the actual resources required cannot be given proper consideration – to do so would make the difficult absolutely impossible.

What this means is that collectively, the US Government does not believe in the very concept of management.

1/02/2008 12:07:00 PM  
Blogger Greybeard said...

I wish the Marines could and would adopt the A-10 as a Ground Support platform. We need something that can loiter for long periods, fly slow enough to ensure accuracy, and then destroy targets so effectively.

I guess the Air Force feels if it can't go a gazillion miles per hour, it's not up to their standards.

The feminization of America WILL lead to our ultimate downfall. We need Men who are Warriors, and the ability to speak freely about ALL of the problems faced by our society.

1/03/2008 07:35:00 PM  

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