“an expert on Brecht, the law of contract, the price of light bulbs and how to stack loo rolls”

The full text of Henry Hitchings‘ review of Nicholas Hytner‘s memoir in the current TLS isn’t available online, but there is just enough to include this gem:

“The artistic director of a modestly resourced theatre once told me that his job obliged him to be an expert on Brecht, the law of contract, the price of light bulbs and how to stack loo rolls.”

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Elegy of Fortinbras, Zbigniew Herbert

Years ago, I read Zbigniew Herbert’s wonderful “Elegy of Fortinbras.” I studied “Hamlet” for the Leaving Cert. Brendan McWilliams somewhere wrote that he had a pet theory that the Shakespearean play one studied for the Leaving had a profound influence; one was immersed at a highly impressionable age in close study of one of the most psychologically and culturally influential dramas of all time.

I had always read “Elegy of Fortinbras” as an expression of fundamental kinship between Fortinbras and Hamlet, especially the closing line of the poem. For me, Fortinbras was the one who lived and now has to make a fist of the boringly pragmatic business of running Denmark. Hamlet was the idealist who has died in a suitably glamorous way, yet their positions could have been reversed.

I am linking to the text of the poem on the Crystal Notion blog. The blogger has her own analysis of the poem, one based on a much closer reading of the poem in many ways than mine. She also reflects on it in the context of her own political activism. It is an interesting analysis and one which makes me read the poem afresh. I have made some comments directly on her blog. Among other things, I reflect there on whether my reaction to the poem may have something to do with my own professional perspective

Sitting on the Fence

I’d like to share a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, a Polish poet who resisted both Nazi occupation and Soviet totalitarianism.  His poem Elegy of Fortinbras draws a contrast between the practical Fortinbras and the introspective Hamlet: the man of action and the man of inaction.

(TW: suicide)

Elegy of Fortinbras

Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man
though you lie on the stairs and see no more than a dead ant
nothing but black sun with broken rays
I could never think of your hands without smiling
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests
they are as defenceless as before The end is exactly this
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers

You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier
the only ritual I am acquainted with a…

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Leandro Herrero: “An enlightened top leadership is sometimes a fantastic alibi for a non-enlightened management to do whatever they want”

Auto reblogging is perhaps a little narcissistic but this is something that has relevance far beyond healthcare…. Dr Herrero’s blog is highly highly recommended.

A Medical Education

From Leandro Herrero’s  website, a “Daily Thought” which I am going to take the liberty of quoting in full:

Nothing is more rewarding than having a CEO who says world-changing things in the news, and who produces bold, enlightened and progressive quotes for all admirers to be. That organization is lucky to have one of these. The logic says that all those enlightened statements about trust, empowerment, humanity and purpose, will be percolated down the system, and will inform and shape behaviours in the milfeulle of management layers below.

I take a view, observed many times, that this is wishful thinking. In fact, quite the opposite, I have seen more than once how management below devolves all greatness to the top, happily, whilst ignoring it and playing games in very opposite directions. Having the very good and clever and enlightened people at the top is a relief for…

View original post 506 more words

Josef Pieper on silence and leisure

I came across this on the ever wonderful First Known When Lost blog:

“Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality:  only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.  Silence, as it is used in this context, does not mean ‘dumbness’ or ‘noiselessness’; it means more nearly that the soul’s power to ‘answer’ to the reality of the world is left undisturbed.  For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.”

Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture (translated by Alexander Dru) (Ignatius Press 2009), pages 46-47.  The text of the book is based upon a lecture delivered by Pieper in Bonn in 1947

Pieper was not a thinker I was familiar with before reading the blog. His work has  been featured in Brain Pickings. Here, the focus is on Pieper as a prophet contra workaholism:

Pieper traces the origin of the paradigm of the “worker” to the Greek Cynic philosopher Antisthenes, a friend of Plato’s and a disciple of Socrates. Being the first to equate effort with goodness and virtue, Pieper argues, he became the original “workaholic”:

As an ethicist of independence, this Antisthenes had no feeling for cultic celebration, which he preferred attacking with “enlightened” wit; he was “a-musical” (a foe of the Muses: poetry only interested him for its moral content); he felt no responsiveness to Eros (he said he “would like to kill Aphrodite”); as a flat Realist, he had no belief in immortality (what really matters, he said, was to live rightly “on this earth”). This collection of character traits appears almost purposely designed to illustrate the very “type” of the modern “workaholic.”

I’d be interested to find if the concept of hesuchia is explicitly discussed in Pieper’s book. To recap (from Alastair MacIntyre’s After Virtue):

Hésuchia appears in Pindar (Pythian Odes 8.1) as the name of a goddess; she represents that peacefulness of spirit to which the victor in a contest in entitled when he is at rest afterwards. Respect for her is bound up with the notion that we strive in order to be at rest, rather than in order to struggle ceaselessly from goal to goal, from desire to desire.

 

“the primacy of the material world over the digital”

From Janan Ganesh’s “Notebook” column in the FT, 29/10/16 (firewalled):

As the internet stirred at the turn of the 1990s, its distance-closing properties were talked up. Speculative accounts of the near-future involved little things like the abolition of geography, with executives plugged into each other via remote interfaces regardless of where their offices were or whether they had any.

Amid all this, the Heathrow debate is wonderfully grounding in its tactile basics. We are talking about a line of concrete, and aircraft no faster than a generation ago. The world economy still rests on jet engines, container vessels, warehouses, US Navy-patrolled shopping lines. People and things still need to move around in real space and time.

When Robert Solow, the American economist, said the computer age is “everywhere but the productivity statistics” it was still 1987. His attempt to curb our credulity about what machines can do reads even better after three decades of Palo Alto hype.

Another economist, Robert Gordon, has charted the meagre returns achieved by the internet compared with innovations such as electricity in The Rise and Fall of American Growth – some people’s idea of the best work of nonfiction of 2016. For a sense of the primacy of the material world over the digital, you can pore over his 780 pages of you can reflect on the concrete strip that is roiling British politics.

https://embed.ted.com/talks/robert_gordon_the_death_of_innovation_the_end_of_growth

Fifty Ways to Build a Hedgehog House

Fifty Ways to Build a Hedgehog House

Well, not quite fifty – but there is a range of methods seen in these YouTube videos on the apparently simple project of how to  build a hedgehog house.

Sometimes one gets the impression that this is a much much more ecologically and environmentally aware age than, say, twenty or thirty or forty years ago. This may be true of the number of people who  self-identify as someone who “cares about nature” and conservation, or consumer preferences in terms of environmental-friendliness being a popular marketing approach. In terms of species loss and biodiversity decline, however, recent years have seen many species take a pummelling – and I don’t think this can be seen as the legacy of earlier decades. Insect numbers are in a dramatic decline over recent years.And “ordinary” species of the British Isles such as the hedgehog are also declining steeply.

hedgehog_1

Building a hedgehog home is something you can do to help hedgehogs. Hedgehog Street, a British initiative jointly run by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, point out that no matter how lovely your hedgehog home is, if there isn’t access for hedgehogs to your garden than there is no point. Hedgehog street also point out that a natural feature is a very good way of encouraging hedgehogs to stay:

The best way to provide a nesting option for hedgehogs is by creating a natural feature, such as a compost heap or log pile, as this has the added benefit of encouraging insect prey too. Artificial hedgehog houses (or hibernacula) are also used by hedgehogs and can be great fun to make.

If you leave a messy patch in a quiet undisturbed area of your garden then hedgehogs might make their own nest there either to hibernate in or to rear their young. However, if you want to improve your chances of having a resident hedgehog you could either buy or make them a home.

There are a plethora of how-to videos on YouTube on hibernaculum (singlular of hibernacula -which seems to be a hibernation chamber for any creature) construction. Much the most straightforward is this from Wildlife Connections at Chester Zoo, very much of the “cut a few holes in a cardboard box” school:

You won’t be that surprised that the above approach is the one I tried with my children yesterday evening. Here’s another straightforward, child focused holes-in-a-box-with-a-bag-on-top video:

Here’s nice video that, aside from an echoey quality to the narration which is a bit distrating, is quite entertainingly dinky and is a variation on the cardboard box with a few neat features added from the YouTube account Alice Loves Internet:

Much, much more elaborate approaches are possible. This video from the woodwork/upcycling site Rag’n’Bone Brown is entertainingly produced – and the narrator assures us that it took “two hours from start to finish” – but as it involves jig-saws, belt sanders, bitumen paint and an impressive variety of woods this is something that I don’t think I’ll be knocking off in anything like two hours:

Finally (for now) here’s a Danish approach that is extremely thorough and well-insulated -I will leave the viewer to judge the degree of equipment and effort required.

Management Secrets of the Manhattan Project: The Dabbler, July 16 2015

As featured on the BBC website… I am well aware of the moral issues pointed out by the the third commentator here. Perhaps the somewhat arch tone passed him by, and the mockery of management guides such as The 48 Laws of Power mining history for boardroom-friendly insights. Reading Leslie Groves’ autobiography, no doubt full of omissions and half-truths and evasions, I was struck also by the quantity of organisational know-how (in every sense of the phrase “quantity of organisational know-how” you can think of) And perhaps the canonisation of Oppenheimer and demonisation of Groves slightly annoys me. And could a man described thus be all bad:

First, General Groves is the biggest S.O.B. I have ever worked for. He is most demanding. He is most critical. He is always a driver, never a praiser. He is abrasive and sarcastic. He disregards all normal organizational channels. He is extremely intelligent. He has the guts to make difficult, timely decisions. He is the most egotistical man I know. He knows he is right and so sticks by his decision. He abounds with energy and expects everyone to work as hard or even harder than he does. Although he gave me great responsibility and adequate authority to carry out his mission-type orders, he constantly meddled with my subordinates. However, to compensate for that he had a small staff, which meant that we were not subject to the usual staff-type heckling. He ruthlessly protected the overall project from other government agency interference, which made my task easier. He seldom accepted other agency cooperation and then only on his own terms. During the war and since I have had the opportunity to meet many of our most outstanding leaders in the Army, Navy and Air Force as well as many of our outstanding scientific, engineering and industrial leaders. And in summary, if I had to do my part of the atomic bomb project over again and had the privilege of picking my boss I would pick General Groves.

The whole thing is here

The Art of War, ascribed to Sun Tzu who may or may not have existed, was not written as a guide to advancing up the management structure of insurance companies, but it is now a staple of management literature. Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power enlisted a whole host of historical figures, from Joseph Duveen to Madame de Pompadour, in the cause of imparting hints on rising up corporate ladders. “Change management” gurus endlessly cite Heraclitus and Marcus Aurelius out of any context. It is surprising that a more recent example of management genius has not become more cited than it is.

The atomic age began at 5.30 am on  July 16th 1945, at Alamogardo, New Mexico, with the Trinity Test, the first successfull detonation of an atomic bomb. Three weeks later, Hiroshima would experience the second detonation. The Trinity Test is indelibly associated with the famous footage of Robert Oppenheimer looking tragic and solemn, and  declaring that in the immediate  aftermath of the test, he thought of the words of the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”.

Oppenheimer is invariably the focus of much of the discourse around the atomic bomb’s development, but the overall project was directed by Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army Corps of Engineers.

In artistic treatments of the birth of the bomb, Oppenheimer is cast as Faust, or Prometheus, with Groves  as Mephistopheles or simply an uptight bureaucrat. This is the mode of James Thackara’s “America’s Children”, of John Adam’s opera “Dr Atomic”, of the Paul Newman/Dwight Schulz vehicle “Shadow Makers”. While perhaps artistically satisfying, and hinting at perennial themes about the hubris and nemesis of human achievement, this tends to obscure that what was initially known by the codename Development of Substitute Materials and later the Manhattan Project (as the Corps of Engineers component was part of the Manhattan Engineering District was a gigantic technical problem that became an enormous moral and political one.

A different Oppenheimer emerges from  Stephen Walker’s Shockwave, an account of the days from Trinity to Hiroshima. Immediately after the success of Trinity, “his old friend Isidor Rabi watched him as he strode across the camp. Something in Oppenheimer’s bearing chilled his flesh. ‘I’ll never forget the way he walked,’ he said later. ‘It was like High Noon – I think it’s the best I could describe it – this kind of strut. He’d done it.’ Gone was the fragile self-doubt, replaced by something quite different: the intoxicating certainties of power.” Later, after learning from Groves that there had been a “successful combat drop” of one of Los Alamos’ “units”, ie that the bombing of Hiroshima had occured – Oppenheimer entered the lab’s weekly colloquium of scientists: “like a prizefighter he clasped his hands together over his head in the classic boxer’s victory salute.”

As Peter Hennessy points out in his introduction to The Secret State, his scholarly study of the elaborate network of bunkers and security installations drawn up by Whitehall in response to the nuclear threat of the Cold War, the men and women who worked on nuclear war were not parodic Dr Strangeloves but ordinary enough human beings. When it comes to considering the existence of nuclear weapons, wringing our hands and saying how unimaginable it all is and how much we’d like to vomit (a la Martin Amis in “Thinkability”) is not a long term policy.

 Groves was a kind of genius as much as Oppenheimer; a genius of logistics and organisation. Having restored Managua’s water supply after a devastating 1931 earthquake, and then built the Pentagon, he was the logical choice for managing a project as gigantic and as the Allied atomic bomb project (the British project codenamed “Tube Alloys” was subsumed into the Manhattan Project over time). Of course, thanks to Klaus Fuchs, the Soviets knew about the bomb from before the start.

After the war, Groves received a comeuppance from future President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who informed him that he would never lead the Corps of Engineer and presented him with a detailed account of complaints about his arrogance, irascibility, blatant manoeuvring for promotion and power and general disagreeableness. Of course, these may well have been the qualities that made him great. Realising that no project as big would ever come along again, Groves retired from the army in 1948 and after various rather half hearted corporate gigs, wrote his memoir Now It Can Be Told in 1962.

Now It Can Be Told is a compelling read about project management, about how Groves pre-empted (in his account) the bureaucratic wrangles. Groves generally refers to the project by its proper Corps of Engineers’ acronym MED. There is pretty much zero hand wringing about the ethics of whole enterprise, and not much on the science. It is a somewhat straightforwardly-written with a few flashes of wry humour, but above all replete with gems of project management wisdom.

One of the most striking, and most relevant in the age of email and text and other impersonal communications, is that nothing beats the human touch to get things done:

As a matter of fact, we never had much trouble with government regulations and so called “red tape”, probably because whenever we encountered potential difficulties, we did not resort to letter-writing through channels. Instead, a competent officer was always sent immediately to the trouble spot with orders and authority to resolve the problem.

Groves himself applies the in-person-visit treatment to another legendary – and rather “difficult” – World War II figure, “Wild Bill” Donovan of the OSS:

I was astounded to learn how thoroughly unsatisfactory the relationships were between G-2 [military intelligence] and OSS. AS I was leaving at the close of our discussion, Donovan remarked that I was the first general office who had ever come to see him in his officer. He appeared to be quite touched by this and insisted on personally escorting me out of the building and sending me back to my office in his own car, even going so far as to insist on holding the door for me while I got in. Buxton told me afterward that OSS would have supported us fully in any case, but my call ensured the utmost in special treatment for the MED …. Going out of our way to establish initial contacts with other organisations and individuals through calls by senior personnel, instead of by letter or telephone, was common practice in the Manhattan Project.

Groves spends a lot of time on the nature of organisational power: “As I pointed out to Senate committee, ever since the failure of the tribunes of Rome no executive group has ever functioned well.” Interestingly in the light of subsequent events with Eisenhower, in one passage he recounts how then-Undersecretary for War Robert Patterson and General Eisenhower specifically refused to be given secret information: “As General Eisenhower put it, ‘I have so many things to deal with that it puts an undue burden on me to be given any secret information, as I am then forced to think constantly about what is secret and what is not.’ Later, with Senatorial criticism that too much reliance was being placed on Groves, this policy changed, to Patterson and Eisenhower’s regret and Groves’ relief.

Groves’ memoir also covers Project Alsos, the Allied operation to discover how much progress Nazi Germany had made on its atomic bomb project, and an equivalent operation regarding Japan. The latter led to a public relations issue about the destruction of Japanese cyclotrons, which was not what the MED wanted at all. Various miscommunications and misunderstandings became public knowledge (this was November 1945)  and Groves, as well as reflecting on the difficulties of absorbing new and untrained staff, illustrates a basic principle of media management: “The press as a whole seemed quite surprised by this frank and open admission of error. As a result, this incident quickly lost its news value and the clamor soon subsided… the basis truth was demonstrated here again, that honest errors, openly admitted, are sooner forgiven.” Of course, this is coming from a man who had presided over one of the most secretive projects of all time.

Towards the end of his book Groves, in his methodical way, provides a handy list of the reasons why the project succeeded:

First, we had a clearly defined, unmistakable, specific objective. Although at first there was considerable doubt whether we could attain this objective, there was never any doubt about what it was. Consequently the people in responsible positions were able to tailor their every action to its accomplishment.

Second, each part of the project had a specific task. These tasks were carefully allocated and supervised so that the sum of their parts would result in the accomplishment of our overall mission. This system of compartmentalisation had two principal advantages. The most obvious of these was that it simplified the maintenance of security. But over and above that, it required each member of the project to attend strictly to his own business. The result was an operation whose efficiency was without precedent.

Third, there was positive, clear-cut, unquestioned direction of the project at all levels. Authority was invariably delegated with responsibility, and this delegation was absolute and without reservation. Only in this way could the many apparently autonomous organisations working on the many apparently independent tasks be pulled together to achieve our final objective.

Fourth, the project made maximal use of already existing agencies facilities and services – governmental, industrial, and academic. Since our objective was finite, we did not design our organisation to operate in perpetuity. Consequently, our people were able to devote themselves exclusively to the task in hand, and had no  reason to engage in independent empire-building.

Fifth, and finally, we had the full backing of our government, combined with the nearly infinite potential of American science, engineering and industry, and an almost unlimited supply of people endowed with ingenuity and determination.

 

You can almost hear the yearning nostalgia of Groves for his glory days, the days of “clear cut, unquestioned direction” and “maximal use of already existing agencies.” Clearly war time conditions allowed Groves’ genius to flourish, and the shades of grey of peacetime policy making did not suit him.Now It Can Be Told also reveals only a certain amount of Groves the man. Management is ultimately about people, and while his “people skills” were such that would earn stern reprimands from HR today, he also inspired people to produce their utmost. One of his subordinates, Kenneth Nicholls, perhaps summarised this management genius the best and fills out the picture of Groves’ own memoir:

 

First, General Groves is the biggest S.O.B. I have ever worked for. He is most demanding. He is most critical. He is always a driver, never a praiser. He is abrasive and sarcastic. He disregards all normal organizational channels. He is extremely intelligent. He has the guts to make difficult, timely decisions. He is the most egotistical man I know. He knows he is right and so sticks by his decision. He abounds with energy and expects everyone to work as hard or even harder than he does. Although he gave me great responsibility and adequate authority to carry out his mission-type orders, he constantly meddled with my subordinates. However, to compensate for that he had a small staff, which meant that we were not subject to the usual staff-type heckling. He ruthlessly protected the overall project from other government agency interference, which made my task easier. He seldom accepted other agency cooperation and then only on his own terms. During the war and since I have had the opportunity to meet many of our most outstanding leaders in the Army, Navy and Air Force as well as many of our outstanding scientific, engineering and industrial leaders. And in summary, if I had to do my part of the atomic bomb project over again and had the privilege of picking my boss I would pick General Groves.