So you Wanted to Be President

9/17/14

There's a chill in the air in New York.  It's getting harder and harder to pretend it's still summer.

Obama was recently on TV talking about ISIS, and insisting that his administration has a strategy for dealing with them.  I'm on my way home and it's starting to rain. I'm imagining layers of difficulty that a President has to deal with when selling policies to the public.

As you know, ISIS has been taking over much of Iraq and Syria, committing atrocities against women and children, burying victims alive, and instituting Sharia law in the new areas under its control. Their actions are so horrific that Al-Queda is afraid of being associated with them.   When ISIS beheaded the first of the two American journalists, we took notice. 
 
Religions can inspire people to heroic acts of compassion, and also to vile acts of barbarity. But as President, you have to downplay the religious factors mixed up in all this.   Never mind that when ISIS takes over a region they immediately demand that everyone convert to Islam. The President best not talk about this. Religion in the U.S. is sacrosanct, off limits for criticism.

Embracing beliefs that we feel to the depths of our hearts, but without evidence, can open the door to both wonderful good and, in some cases, unimaginable bad.   But most of your constituents reject the idea that religious beliefs can lead to terrible behavior.  Neither do you want to insult allies of Islamic states, where religion is also sacrosanct.  And so instead of viewing ISIS' actions as a mix of religious, ethnic, and political factors, you must subtract religion from the equation and maintain that ISIS is not Islamic. And the Inquisition was not really Catholic.

The strategy for dealing with ISIS is not going to be an easy one to formulate.  You do not want to bring (many) more U.S. troops into the region, and so you hope to successfully train and advise Iraqi and Syrian troops to be the boots on the ground against ISIS.  But the idea that there is a new multi-ethnic government in Bagdhad with an effective fighting force may be wishful thinking.  Iraq has been described as more a collection of tribes and ethnicities than a nation. And in their recent battles with ISIS, Iraqi forces ran for the hills.   In Syria, you'll need to identify members of the moderate Syrian opposition, "vet them" (whatever that means), arm them, train them, and hope you didn't arm the wrong groups.  This may not be easy to do. On the other hand, you could team up with Syria's Assad, but he's an international pariah.

Iran is a power in the region that may have the will and the means to take on ISIS.  But some overly-influential political groups in the U.S. like AIPAC are concerned that your administration will soften its adversarial relationship with Iran.  So there may be problems in teaming-up too closely with them.  And Iranian leaders may find it politically unappealing to buddy up with the U.S. anyhow.

But your job is not merely to develop military and political strategy.  You also have to go on TV to convince the American people that you have a strategy.  And remember, most people watching aren't really interested in paying attention to the details of the issues.  So you can forget about discussing the strategy or the rationale behind it in much depth. They will pay attention to the forcefulness of your words, and the intonation of your voice.  So you'll need to convey a left-hemisphere-of-the-brain strategy using right-hemisphere holistic cues. Most important, you will need to comfort our patriotic God-fearing right hemispheres by beginning and ending your speech with "God bless America". That would be equally true if you were a leader of a Middle Eastern country (but not true if you were the leader of a European country).  Your constituents mostly want to know that you are a man of strength and religious faith.  Quite a job you signed on for.

The man in line at FedEx

9/9/14

I went to the FedEx office down the street to send a package. The man ahead of me in line was in his mid to late 30s.  He wasn't in business attire, but was neatly dressed in a button-down shirt and dark trousers.  The lady at the counter asked, "Do you need this delivered by tomorrow?"

"Yes, ma'am," he said. (For my friends from down south: you don't hear a lot of "Ma'am" up here in the north. Definitely not here in the Big Apple.)

Looking at the mailing address he'd completed on the form, she said, "What beautiful penmanship you have!"

He said, "Thank you ma'am. My mother was a dictator. Lutheran."

What's in a name?

8/31/14

I started back at City College. I waited ten minutes for the elevator before giving up and walking up the stairs to my office on the 5th floor.  In my office, I notice that the Keurig coffee maker still has water in the reservoir from over a month ago.  I change the water just to be safe.

I'm thinking about the way we name things.  The two new anti-migraine drugs that I mentioned recently have the enticing names ALD403 and LY2951742.  Marketing teams will eventually christen them something like Relpax or Midrin (the names of other popular anti-migraine drugs). Someday a shameless advertising exec will call the newest drug "Headache free and feelin' sexy!"  They'll sell a ton, make a fortune, and there will be no looking back.

People and things are renamed all the time. Reginald Covington became Elton John.  Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan.  You'll probably never hear a radio announcer say that " .. we just listened to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Reginald Covington," and there will be no talk about the legendary singer-songwriter Robert Zimmerman.

Why don't (enough?) people respond positively (enough?) to Reginald Covington and Robert Zimmerman? Too many syllables? Robert Schwartz has the same number of syllables as Bob Dylan.  What's wrong with Schwartz? Too Jewish? Too German? Not cool? If the writer of Knockin' on Heaven's Door had stuck with his birth name, and a generation had grown up with Robert Zimmerman albums, maybe musicians today would be changing their names to ones that sound like Zimmerman. Maybe.

Sometimes the name is not just about the sounds of the words and the sensation they evoke. When I was on the Boston College faculty, there was a lot of talk about changing the name of the institution. Boston College isn't really an undergraduate College, but a university (it has undergrad and PhD programs).  When the place started out, it was a college, mostly for kids from working-class Irish-Catholic families. Today it's a national university with a lot of scientific research, etc, but they're stuck with the name Boston College. They can't change it to Boston University, because the name's already taken. Someone actually suggested Boston College University. Kind of like Robert Zimmerman Dylan.

City College has its own name issue.  It's really The City College of the City University of New York, which doesn't fit too well on a bumper sticker.  But here we don't spend a lot of time on things like names.  We're more worried about getting the elevators fixed.

It's the notes you don't play that make the difference

8/25/14

I'm back in the U.S. I write this post, and instead of thinking about the topic of the post, I think about the writing itself, and especially the editing. That's what the post's about. When I first started blogging, I never thought about this. I hardly edited. I'd write, press a button, and the post would appear on the blog for anyone to read. Authentic and thrilling. Editing was for stuffy magazines and newspaper articles. Fuck that.

Then I reconsidered.

I'd visit other blogs and saw that when the posts were wordy they were hard to read. I'd lose my concentration, skip paragraphs. A little editing would have made them easier to read.

One day, I came across a funny post about blogging. The author wrote about bloggers who believe that that "if your writing looks polished, well-structured or (gasp!) edited, you’ll be shunned as a member of the evil literati". He was describing me. But he disagreed. His exact words were "People want the raw unfiltered you—just as much as they want raw, unfiltered tap water in Malaysia."

His post was sarcastic, but it reinforced the direction I was leaning.  Cleaning up the writing doesn't make it inauthentic, just like cleaning your apartment before a friend arrives doesn't make you a phony. The lived-in look may not be as charming as you think.  If it were a choice between style and substance, of course you'd choose substance. But there's no choice required. A little bit of filtering won't ruin the taste of the drink.

There's an editing game I sometimes play.  After writing a piece, I'll look at the word count.  Then I'll try to shave it down by some arbitrary amount, say 10%.  It almost always reads more cleanly and easily afterwords.

The act of editing and 'removing' involves judgments, and that's part of the game. As jazz trumpet player Miles Davis said: “It’s the notes you don’t play that make the difference.” And the words you delete make a difference too.