Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Managers Are Evil

For all of you who have worked your way up to a position of authority, I want to congratulate you.

I want to compliment you on achieving your rank & level of responsibility through hard work or education or dutifully kissing the correct butt or whatever it is you did to earn the right to tell other people what to do. I mean it. No one gets to where you are by accident, so if you got there, whether it's the rank of manager or director or supervisor or "lead associate" or sergeant or whatever nomenclature your particular organization has adopted, I salute you.

I'm sure you're proud of yourself, and rightfully so. You make more money than the people who report to you, and that's not insignificant. After all, which of us would show up for work if we had to do it for free?

Oh, and I also feel the need to let you know that you're a big reason why I believe the human race will one day become extinct, like the woolly mammoth and the dodo bird.

Now, I'm not talking about real leaders, the heads of companies, the people who create a business or a product or an idea and work like hell to bring it to the marketplace and thereby change the world. I'm not talking about captains of industry or inventors or innovators or artists.

Those people -- the people who create things and who change the status quo -- have been and will be the salvation of us all, if in fact we can be saved. They'll cure cancer, find a way for us to stop burning oil for energy, and come up with whatever is going to replace the Iphone.

No, who I'm talking about are you clipboard-carrying, schedule-making, dress-code-enforcing busybodies who are just that teensy bit smarter (or faster or more of a suck-up) than the workers around you so that you get recognized for it and are given the keys to the office and the privilege of writing everyone else's yearly reviews.

I'm not talking about workers. Lord knows, we need people who work. (Indeed, it wasn't workers who caused the latest global financial crisis -- it was management.)

No, I'm talking about people who watch other people work.

The fact that managers exist -- and that you need to exist at all, you supervisory personnel -- is the reason why I think the end of civilization as we know it is nearer than we think.

Think about it. We all recognize the need for geniuses, for the people whose creations help us live our lives more safely and comfortably than any generation before us. And we also know instinctively that we need people who work, who follow directions and build stuff and repair it and man the trenches of our economy.

It's the people in the middle who are the necessary evil that's going to get us all killed.

After all, we're human beings. We (at least most of us) are born with amazing powers of perception and cogitation that computers cannot even begin to approach. From birth, most of us can do things that inventors are spending millions of dollars trying to get robots to do, like tell the difference between a rock and a housefly, cook an omelet, or drive a car safely from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.

It would stand to reason, then, that given all this innate ability that has enabled us to use tools and subjugate the planet to the point that we're about to break it, that each of us could figure out our individual jobs and do them without needing someone to check in with us every shift to make sure we're doing it. It would be logical to assume that each of us could know whether or not we're a genius who needs to go out and start up the next Facebook or Google or Starbucks, and, if we're not, we could get ourselves a job we could live with and go do it until the day we retire or get replaced.

In an ideal world, those of us who aren't destined to invent the MRI or create the "Star Trek" franchise would find a job, read the job description, and do that job to the best of our ability for the rest of our careers.

But, no.

Those of us who aren't geniuses (including me) go out and get jobs and need to be supervised. We need to be watched at work, or nothing would get done. This is a stone cold fact, and it's the reason why communism was a flawed idea from the get-go. Without competition and consequences, people get lazy. Capitalism provides the competition, and managers provide the daily consequences.

Without management, every business in the world would fail. Without supervision, we would spend our shifts playing stupid office games like "copier rorschach" or cruising the internet for porn.

Now, it wouldn't happen overnight. All (or at least most) of us start our jobs with the best of intentions, so thankful for that package of wages and benefits that we really do have the company's best interests at heart. But, then, as we settle into our jobs and get to know where all the cameras are, we start to cut corners.

We take an extra 5 or 10 minutes on our breaks. We let the phone ring and ring instead of answering it. We don't wash our hands on our way back from the bathroom. We help ourselves to some office supplies because our kids have a big project they're doing at school. And, pretty soon, the business goes belly up because of inefficiency and waste.

This is why we need managers. They're a necessary evil, like cops and landfills. (And, according to public radio's Marketplace, a Stanford University economist has proved it.) Managers are a bad thing that we need in order to survive in a competitive and unforgiving world, which probably means we're doomed.

So, for all you managers and supervisors, I want to take a moment to salute you. We need you. And it feels good to be needed, doesn't it? You should feel good knowing you're in the same category as sewage systems and antidepressant drugs. And, because we need you, we're screwed.

(Note: I spent years in management, doing painstaking research for this blog entry.)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Djibouti by Elmore Leonard

by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard is one cool operator. Now in his eighties, with over forty novels to his credit (a large number of which have been adapted for the movies), Mr. Leonard is still working his beat, creating lean, dialog-driven crime-fiction that features more chuckles than gunplay (and there is always gunplay).

Here's a representative sample from his new novel:
"It was on the History Channel all the ships he owns. You ever watch it?"
"I love the History Channel."
"You never saw it in your life."
"I've heard of it."
In Djibouti, Leonard's 44th novel, he has shifted locales, setting his story in the horn of Africa rather than the streets of America. But longtime readers of Leonard's novels will feel right at home from the opening chapter, recognizing the trademark style of the prose, which scans like a screenplay and includes a motley assemblage of characters, none of whom seem to quite trust each other, for what usually turn out to be very good reasons.

There's Dara, the beautiful, Oscar-winning filmmaker who's come to town to do a documentary on Somali piracy. There's Xavier, her big, worldly sidekick, an impossibly agile septuagenarian whose feelings for Dara may be more than collegial. There's Harry, the Saudi diplomat who's ostensibly in town to try to talk some sense to the pirates. There's Idris, a pirate who's made good but who seems nostalgic for action on the high seas.

And, of course, there's more, including some terrorists, some tourists, and a large tanker full of dangerously volatile natural gas. Oh, and there's a billionaire Texan sailing around with a super-powered rifle and a model who's auditioning to become his wife.

As I've mentioned, in Djibouti as in all of Leonard's novels, there's not much exposition. And we get no pungent, thickly-worded descriptions of place. Nor do we get any of that prosaic riffing that fattens the pages of many contemporary novels. No, in Djibouti, it's all talk and action, but mainly it's talk, the give-and-take of characters making their moves and testing one another. Nearly everyone in an Elmore Leonard novel knows more than they're saying, and they're all anxious about saying too much. Even the cockiest character worries about looking stupid, which is only natural in a world where everyone is playing some sort of angle, whether it's legal or not.

Some of this can lead to exchanges that get a bit cute, and certainly some of the scenes between Dara and Xavier fall into this category. So I realize that there are those who don't enjoy Leonard's way with dialog, where characters knowingly exchange barbs the way boxers use jabs to test their opponents' reach. This can lead to scenes that are just so coolly cinematic that detractors could argue that it's best to wait for the inevitable silver-screen adaptation. But I think it's fun as hell to read.

And not everything Leonard is doing in Djibouti is old-hat. There's an interesting back-and-forth in the first half of the book with chapters that unfold in "real-time" and some smaller, more intimate chapters where Dara and Xavier are looking at the footage they've shot, narrating to each other the events of the story. It's as metafictional as Elmore Leonard is ever going to get, and the fact that it's dialog between his main characters as they look at video footage sets up some connotations that resonate slyly, given what we all know of Leonard's own relationship with Hollywood. He even manages to include a casting suggestion or two.

Crime fiction works best when it illuminates the interplay between our best impulses and our worst. Leonard knows this, and he also knows that our worst impulses stem from our deepest desires, becoming itches we can't stop scratching. This is why his plots are not the clockwork conspiracies of other thriller writers. Instead, Leonard's plots are half-assed improvisations, driven more by the vagaries of personality & appetite than by some sort of evil puppet-mastery. Indeed, the real villain in Djibouti (and there is one who stands out more than the rest) seems to be motivated more by a cardinal sin than by any criminal logic.

In this sense, Djibouti is as realistic as it gets, never mind the fact that some of the more "current-event" aspects of the novel (the Islamic terrorist angle, for instance) feel tacked-on like so much window-dressing. Sure, the bad guys are dangerous and resourceful, but they're also impulsive. Most crimes are. It's just that, in a story like Djibouti, the stakes are explosively high.

In the end, I have to recommend Elmore Leonard's Djibouti. But I recognize it's probably an acquired taste. I myself acquired it long ago. In fact, I'm addicted.

by Elmore Leonard

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Social Network - directed by David Fincher & written by Aaron Sorkin

directed by David Fincher & written by Aaron Sorkin

I have to admit that I'm a fan of Aaron Sorkin, dating all the way back to his A Few Good Men, which began life as a play and then became a blockbuster movie with a truly A-list pedigree that featured Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Keifer Sutherland, Kevin Pollak, and Rob Reiner. (Whew!)

Sorkin's writing, as best characterized by the acclaimed TV series that he has helped create (such as the underappreciated Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), features rapid-fire, scintillating dialog that is as substantive as it is stylized, provoking as much thought as laughter.

So, when I heard that he was adapting Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires into a screenplay, I was excited. The book itself is informative enough about the creation of the network that links more citizens of the world than any other, but I anticipated that Sorkin would do for Facebook what he had done for the White House. I felt sure that Sorkin would dramatize it with vivid, memorable characters while giving us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the nuts-and-bolts reality of the place, all the while making us laugh.

Then I heard that David Fincher was also attached to the project, and my hopes soared even higher. I remember respecting (if not exactly enjoying) Fincher's first feature film, Alien 3, which was so existentially bleak and so stylistically dark that audiences hated it, even though I think it perfectly captures the nihilistic spirit of that particular sci-fi franchise.

Fincher is a master of cinematic atmospherics, and, although he has made his Hollywood bones with blockbusters like Se7en and cult-faves like Fight Club, for my money, his best movie is Zodiac, which created an entire cityscape of dread that was as suspenseful as any horror movie. Others may favor The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which reunited Fincher with Brad Pitt, but I find that movie strangely undramatic, despite credible performances from everyone involved.

And Sorkin & Fincher's The Social Network begins with a bang, in a scene between Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg and his erstwhile girlfriend, played by Rooney Mara. Their banter is vintage Sorkin, set amidst the chaos of a crowded college bar, and it's a master class in constructing a conversation between characters who are at cross-purposes. Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as socially-inept but brilliant, and Mara plays Erica, an intelligent & perceptive young woman who has had enough of Zuckerberg's obsessive oddness. What's more, she finds his naked ambition a bit off-putting, a sign that he sees other people as nothing more than a means to an end. Zuckerberg may be a contemporary stand-in for Gatsby, but Erica is no Daisy.

It's a scene that anchors the character of Zuckerberg for us. He's a social climber who's especially bad at interpersonal interactions, though apparently he's some kind of super-nerd. He thinks social acceptance is essentially an equation, and he's got the math-smarts to solve it. And Erica is a stand-in for normality (or as close as it gets in the ivy-league). But normal just isn't in the cards for our hero, and he's blind-sided by her rejection, which will haunt him for the rest of the story.

After Erica conspicuously leaves him in the bar, Zuckerberg wanders home and begins building what will become Facebook, stepping on more than a few toes in the process and getting himself mixed up with some very fast company, including Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake), the founder of Napster who functions as a kind of devil-on-the-shoulder of Zuckerberg.

The rest of The Social Network unfolds in what could be called a "deposition-with-flashbacks" format, detailing the building of Facebook from its origins as a network for college students to its emergence as a multi-billion dollar corporation with worldwide penetration. It's fast-paced, and every scene has a payoff, whether it's a punchline, a sight-gag, or some ironic image. And it's interesting for its portrayal of how an internet startup can explode into relevance seemingly overnight. Don't we all wish we could come up with a widget or website that could not only change the world but make us wildly rich?

So, is The Social Network just another movie in a long line of American rags-to-riches stories? In a way, yes. (And I've already compared Zuckerberg to Gatsby!) But the reason such stories are so popular is that they capture particular zeitgeists so perfectly. Oliver Stone's Wall Street is compelling not only for the story it tells but for the era it depicts. And so it is with The Social Network. I predict that future generations will still be viewing The Social Network, though I can't decide if it will be with regret or nostalgia.

But the movie has problems (it's awful talky), not least of which is the central dispute that causes the very lawsuit that frames the movie. The key issue is why Zuckerberg squeezed out his former classmate and original investor, Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield). Though The Social Network presents lots of evidence as to why such a move was made (such as the fact that Saverin wasn't a part of Facebook's move to Silicon Valley or the implication that Saverin's ambitions for Facebook were decidedly more modest than Zuckerberg's), the scene where Zuckerberg actually decides to shut out Saverin is never depicted. It's a bit like Hamlet without the soliloquies. All we get are the contracts and the fireworks.

Besides Sorkin's always-enjoyable dialog, the bravura camerawork and tactile photography of Fincher is also ever-present, but it's never ostentatious. It never calls attention to itself (except in a scene depicting a rowing tournament). Instead, Fincher's work sets a distinct and vibrant stage in which his characters don't so much perform as inhabit. It's a world that those of us who have never set the world on fire can only hope to catch glimpses of, but it's clear from this movie (as it should be clear to anyone with a shred of wisdom) that it's also a world that is choked with human folly.

In the end, I very much enjoyed The Social Network. Then again, I'm kind of a nerd myself. But, tellingly, I didn't recommend the movie to my girlfriend, who is as addicted to Facebook as anyone alive and so should enjoy the story of its genesis. I guess I also realized that she's more like Erica. She's just too normal to think this kind of story is fun.

written by Aaron Sorkin & directed by David Fincher
starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield  & Justin Timberlake

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Tiger by John Vaillant

by John Vaillant

As I've mentioned before, I make a habit of reading several books at once. Most times, it's 3 or 4 books, but sometimes it's as many as 6. I've been doing this my whole life, so it seems a bit silly to list rational reasons for this behavior. My compulsion for reading is as ingrained as my compulsion to breathe. In fact, I have trouble falling asleep at night if I don't read something first.

But I think one of the main reasons I read several titles at once is that, as much as I am compelled to read, I am also a creature of moods. And keeping a variety of books at hand is a way of always having a book that matches my current mood. Sometimes I feel more like digesting a bit of biography rather than getting entranced by the plot twists of a piece of crime fiction. Other times I feel like taking in a bit of history rather than enjoying the music & profundity of a volume of poetry. It's good to have variety in one's diet, is it not?

Now, every once in a while, one of the books I'm reading will eclipse all the others, enthralling me so that I stop reading anything else. The other books just have to wait, like so many pining bridesmaids, until I finish with this new favorite.

Not only is John Vaillant's The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival just such a book, but I also read it 3 times through before it released me from its spell.

That's right: for the past week or so, I have read and re-read nothing else but this amazing book. It's that magical.

The Tiger begins with a cliffhanger of a prologue, and then proceeds towards a horrific scene where a man has been devoured so completely that there is literally almost nothing left to bury. What could have done this, considering that the man was armed and well-versed in survival techniques? Though the answer is obvious, given the book's title, the reasons for this attack are complex and chilling. It turns out that the devourer acted on motives that are, paradoxically, all-too-human.

Set in a remote corner of eastern Russia just north of China, The Tiger tells the tale of a man-eating tiger that went on a rampage in December of 1997, terrorizing a remote village full of experienced hunters. A team of rangers is called into action to track this tiger, and the resulting showdown is so mindblowingly cinematic that, as of this writing, news reports are circulating that a movie adaptation of this book is in the works, with Brad Pitt already attached.

However, I don't suggest waiting for a movie version. Indeed, part of what makes The Tiger such a wonderful experience is the lyrical & comprehensive way that John Vaillant builds the truly exotic world in which this story takes place. Chapters alternate between a kind of real-time re-enactment of the tiger's attacks (and the resulting chase by the rangers) and the author's prodigious research into the history and ecology of the area.

The context that Vaillant builds into his book is as important as the action itself, because such context gives weight and meaning to what happens, so that we begin to understand why this particular tiger acted the way it did. And the author is able to weave these alternating chapters into a seamless narrative, which is a testament to his skill as a writer. Even on my third pass, I marvelled at how well this book is built.

Here, Vaillant describes the particular species of tiger that his book deals with:
"To properly appreciate such an animal, it is most instructive to start at the beginning: picture the grotesquely muscled head of a pit bull and then imagine how it might look if the pit bull weighed a quarter of a ton. Add to this fangs the length of a finger backed up by rows of slicing teeth capable of cutting through the heaviest bone. Consider then the claws: a hybrid of meat hook and stiletto that can attain four inches along the outer curve, a length comparable to the talons on a velociraptor. Now, imagine the vehicle for all of this: nine feet or more from nose to tail, and three and a half feet high at the shoulder. Finally, emblazon this beast with a primordial calligraphy: black brushstrokes on a field of russet and cream, and wonder at our strange fortune to coexist with such a creature. (The tiger is, literally, tattooed: if you were to shave one bald, its stripes would still be visible, integral to its skin.) Able to swim for miles and kill an animal many times its size, the tiger also possesses the brute strength to drag an awkward, thousand-pound carcass through the forest for fifty or a hundred yards before consuming it."
Truly, this is a formidable beast, and Vaillant does a great job of explaining "our strange fortune to coexist with such a creature." It turns out that our history with tigers is long and complicated and fascinating.

Tigers are the kind of large predators that humans have been dealing with since before we civilized the planet, and their influence on us has been profound. But, in the last century or so, humanity has had a more profound effect on the tiger, and it is this effect that is the true theme of the book. In fact, Vaillant argues that this effect (in terms of poaching and loss of habitat) is the real cause of the titular tiger's rampage.

Indeed, although The Tiger is structured much like a police procedural, with the tiger's attacks being the crimes which set the climactic hunt into motion, the book ends up being about much, much more. In reading it, I learned a lot about Russian history and the current economic chaos (spurred by China) that has enveloped this area. And, besides the telling of a spellbinding adventure, the author offers up the following justification for his story in the epilogue:
"In order to appreciate the true value of this animal -- the necessity of this animal -- humans need reference points that mesh with their own self-interest. Probably the most compelling of these, beyond the sublime image of a tiger in the wild, is the fact that an environment inhabited by tigers is, by definition, healthy. If there is enough land, cover, water, and game to support a keystone species like this, it implies that all the creatures beneath it are present and accounted for, and that the ecosystem is intact. In this sense, the tiger represents an enormous canary in the biological coal mine. Environments in which tigers have been wiped out are often damaged in other ways as well: the game is gone and, in many cases, the forests are, too."
In short, John Vaillant has brilliantly used this particular incidence of a tiger gone rogue as a window through which we can see how humanity is affecting our environment, often in ways that do not bode well for our collective future.

The final confrontation with the tiger is, as I've said, an unbelievably cinematic moment, with at least one detail that would have struck me as too far-fetched had I encountered it in a work of fiction. As it is, it's a scene that left me shaking my head in appreciation.

In its blend of thriller, history, and ecology, The Tiger is a compelling and entertaining book, rife with indelible images and import. I heartily recommend it.

by John Vaillant