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    • And They Made A Desert: 80 to 90% Drop In Nutrients In Food
      Stumbled across this lovely chart the other day. The core fact most people, including the folks in the “best every world” Panglossian movement (like Pinker) don’t seem to understand, is that even if they were right (questionable), the prosperity we have is based on burning down our house. “Sure is hot! Hottest it’s every been!” […]
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Saturday: Takin’ care of business

Are you pondering what I'm pondering?

As I was saying, I’ll be out of work in about a month.  But my lab partner (let’s call her B.) and I are still incredibly busy.  That’s not an attempt to make us look irreplaceable, because no one is, really (except Steve Jobs).  It’s just a fact.  There’s just an incredible amount of work on our plates.  I have about 4 reports to write up and, if I’m lucky, three more datasets to solve on Monday.  We’re also transitioning our projects to other people and other sites so there are meetings to attend.  Oddly enough, B and I are still having fun.  In that respect, we are a lot luckier than some of the other people who were laid off with us who we met up with at an outplacement orientation recently.  B and I are in a pretty good place right now mentally, well, comparatively.  We know that there’s more than enough work to keep us occupied until the very last day and even then, we might not get it all done before we leave.  Work has become our refuge.  There’s nothing more relaxing than spending time in the lab doing things that make us feel competent.

But some of my laid off colleagues have been told not to attend meetings anymore.  That has been devastating to them in so many ways.  They’re bitter, defensive and hurt.  Verily I say unto you, oh corporate overlords, don’t do this to your people if you can help it.  There’s nothing more morale deflating than to be told that your input and expertise is no longer needed.  If you still have people on site who are waiting it out, by all means, put them to work doing something. You and the employee will benefit from keeping a positive outlook.

B and I are very thankful to our colleagues, past and present, who have offered us sympathy and support.   Some of them have sent us messages out of the blue to reassure us that we are good and dedicated scientists and they want to help us.  Others have made sure to include us on project meetings and have encouraged our input.  Some of our friends ask why we even bother at this point.  It’s just that we are working on stimulating and interesting projects right now and are learning a lot of new things.  We want to keep our skills fresh and we want to keep learning in this area of research long after we leave.  B and I seem to be of a similar mindset in this respect.  We do it because we want to, we do it for ourselves and our colleagues who will still be working on our projects after we leave and we do it because one of these days, we expect to see our work turned into real results.

Which brings me to a new book I’ve been listening to, Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan.  Well, that wasn’t a very smooth segue.  So, why do I bring it up?  Heffernan has written a book about the perils of conformity and competiveness.  Heffernan’s book suggests that competitiveness leads to conformity and, subsequently, to blindness, that inability to see or acknowledge when you’re going off a cliff in your business, political and personal life.  I’d recommend this book to Obots who could really benefit from its insights but, ironically, I doubt they’d see themselves as suffering from the shortcomings described in this book.

What Willful Blindness describes really well is the pitfalls of modern corporate culture and the deleterious effects that conformity, distancing and competitiveness can have on a business’s core function.  Heffernan uses BP, Electronic Arts and Enron as poster children for what not to do to your employees if you want to succeed.  BP, Enron and two Wall Street firms, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns are particularly egregious when it comes to the number of business school grads who are assimilated and conform to climb the ladder to success.  They are so caught up in their own careers and oneupmanship that they become completely disconnected from the industry they oversee.  In BP’s case, cost cutting measures and staff reductions at a refinery in Texas City, Texas, resulted in the death of 15 people.  The operators were burdened with so much work after a 25% reduction in staff that some of them had gone over 30 days without a day off and were subsisting on 5 hours of sleep a night.  The Texas City explosion whalloped BP in the stock price for a couple of years and the stock was only beginning to recover when the Deepwater Horizon disaster hit.

Willful Blindness recounts many such corporate horror stories of cost cutting for bonuses and lax oversight due to disconnection that you’d think the business community would have learned their lessons by now.  But, paradoxically, their lemming-like behavior in pursuit of out Jonesing the guys in the next office up or the next corporation over has accelerated.  While the underlings look on with horror from their sleep deprived minds, the business guys drive the whole enterprise over a cliff.

I’m on the last chapter where Heffernan poses some possible solutions.  Most of them involve having the guys in the front office appoint independent auditors and reality checkers.  Heffernan’s experts recommend that the CEOs and executives encourage dissent and reward people who do not have a personal agenda.  But that relies on the executives realizing that they have a problem, er, which seems to be the point of the book- they don’t want to know.   And anyone who has been in an environment where cost cutting is all the rage knows that to speak up is to invite an unwelcome outcome.  So, for the time being, in the Obama age, don’t expect there will be a new honesty from the people most affected by the conformity in the boardroom.

I haven’t found anything technically wrong with Willful Blindness but I’m going through it slowly and critically, as the author would suggest, to see if all of her points hang together.  In the first chapter, she explains how it is that you will probably never hear anything out of your comfort zone on Pandora because your preferences have all been carefully analyzed.  All the recommendations will be based on what you already like.  Oddly enough, her book was an audible recommendation for  me, probably because I had read Malcolm Gladwell’s books that are similar in style and content.

She also talks about the Cassandras.  Anyone who has read this blog for the past three years will know I and other co-bloggers here and in a subset of the left blogosphere fall into this category.  Psychologists don’t know what makes us tick yet.  There’s no clear pattern that emerges.  Maybe we’re just born that way.  I do suspect it’s a bit of both nature and nurture.  Someday, they’ll pin it down.  Maybe it can be taught.  But maybe it just has to do with being comfortable in our own skins, not seeking or needing as much approval from our peers as other people.  If there is a neurotransmitter feedback loop in conforming to the crowd, we have either less of it or have learned to neutralize it, substituting our own positive reinforcement.  But until we figure it out, we should expect that target audiences, whether they are in business or politics, will “go along to get along” and savvy manipulators will exploit the tendency to short circuit analysis with group dynamics.  The Cassandras will see it coming, speak up and get ignored until the rest of the population suffers enough to catch on.  Until then, we can expect a lot of sleepless nights as the wheels of business grind on.

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