Monday, January 31, 2011

Second Excerpt from 'Twelve Towers'

Silhouetted in the doorway was the dark shape of a woman with her head on fire!
        Bleddyn’s breath came back to him in painful gasps. He rolled over onto his knees, his breath forcing its way back into his lungs in loud frog croaks. Head swimming, he crawled back up the dirt pile to find his father. His father had been low down in the middle of the tower and, as he climbed, he saw that the entire tower was collapsed and screams of agony were bleeding out of it. Bleddyn saw the priest organizing the uninjured men to get the wounded ones out of the pile.
        “How many men are down there?” demanded the priest of each new man and finally an old, grizzled veteran answered him. “Ten men were shoring up t’foundations while Tarrant and t’Saxon were placing t’cross-brace. Looks like all of t’boys placing t’new logs are here. Pray for t’others Father Drew, they mon be dead.”
        Father Drew set the men up in a chain gang and led them in removing the logs, one by one. Periodically he shouted down into the pile, calling for any survivors. Bleddyn stood frozen, still holding his puzzles and scarcely breathing. His father was huge and the strongest man he had ever seen but these logs were enormous. How could he have survived? He took heart in the memory of his father telling him, long ago, “Never count me out son, I’m a survivor.”
        During one of the breaks a thin cry emerged from the pile. “Help us!” This re-invigorated the men and even the wounded men rushed to help remove the logs. Finally, the entire log pile raised by a foot and the head and shoulders of a man squeezed his way through a small opening and out came the man who had been arguing with Gwilym. After him followed one, then another, then more and more men until ten men had emerged. The last one asked for a brace. “Fred is helping the Saxon hold up the last log. If he lets it go, the whole thing will collapse!”
        On his way back down with a couple of iron bars, he was stopped by another man who squeezed out and declared, “He can’t hold it any longer, he said run for it!” Both men leaped up for the waiting arms of their comrades who pulled them to safety just as the logs groaned once more and settled down even lower.
Sobered by this second collapse, the men removed the logs from the pit. Word passed from man to man how Gwilym had jumped down off the diagonal beam during the first collapse and had used his own huge body as a brace to provide a space for the ten men below to survive. They spoke in awed terms of the man’s muscles, his giant’s strength,

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Leadership within the Arab Turmoil

It has been a busy January. Coptic Christians start off rioting to protest a shooting that spreads throughout Egypt. Tunisia's government collapses, protesters take to the streets in Lebanon and Yemen, and even the West Bank and Jordan are boiling. Where will this all lead?

I watched the Iranian revolution, while traveling in Europe in 1979, and was dismayed to see how the pro-democracy leaders were roughly pushed aside by the Revolutionary Guards who fought to install a theocracy of Ayatollas.

What will happen in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan? I'm afraid that one of two things are most likely. One will be the crushing of the opposition like last year's crushing of the polical opposition in Iran. Or, worse yet for the US and Israel, the installation of Muslim theocracies. These groups are ready opponents, with strong Iranian backing and are just waiting to rush in and fill the power vacuum left by their despotic predecessors. The Muslim Brotherhood's backing of  Mohamed ElBaradei smacks of polical expediency, designed to lend credibility to their cause. I've no doubt that, with Mr. ElBaradei at their head, they will win an election, then toss him aside to set up another Iranian-backed religious dictatorship.

Mr. ElBaradei is one of the few Egyptian leaders who seems to be keen about setting up a real democracy. I hope he lives up to his committment to not seek the leadership until an effective democratic process has time to take hold. He is smart enough to know that, due to Mubarek's repressions, the only opposition existent is the Muslim Brotherhood.

I doubt the ability of any Arab country to go against millenia of clan rivalries to set up a democratic country. We watched in the 1990's as the Philippines and Eastern Europe threw off their dictators and embraced democracy (except maybe Russia).  But it seems to be impossible for Arabs, Persians or Afghans to do anything similar. I am especially fearful that the Coptic Christians, who started this all, will be the first victims of a Muslim dictatorship that takes Mubarak's place. All eyes are on Mr. ElBaradei.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Any leaders running this government?

Watching last night's 'State of the Nation' speech and the Republican response I had one question. Where are the leaders in this government? First we had Obama spewing boring platitudes, then making crazy predictions like doubling exports by 2014 and giving 80% of Americans access to high speed rail.

Then we had some baby-faced Republican rebut his comments. I read the speech again just now and got what I heard the first time, 'Blah, blah, blah, we're going down the same road as Greece, Ireland, the United Kingdom.'
Here's the speech, see if you can find anything useful there:
Paul Ryan's rebuttal

As I looked around at the people in the Capitol, I didn't see anyone I'd like to see represent this nation. Even McCain has disappointed me. The kind of people I'd like to see run this country don't seem to want the job. One man who is my idea of a great leader just died this week. You might have read of Richard Winters in the book or watched him portrayed in the excellent series, "Band of Brothers."

Here is a link to his obituary:
Times Obituary Richard Winters

For more information, check out his Wikipedia entry:
Wikipedia entry: Richard Winters

Here's a man whose leadership was recognized by his men to the point that they rebelled against the leadership of their lousy commanding officer and risked their careers to have him replaced. Although Winters agreed with their assessment of Sobel's poor leadership, he had to grace to tell the world that: "he felt that at least part of Easy Company's success had been due to the training that Sobel had put them through and the way he had built the team."

His leadership in battle was so excellent that his techniques are still taught at West Point. With 35 men he routed a German force of 300. But he stood out mostly for his humility and quiet leadership that inspired men to follow him to their deaths if needed but victory as it turned out.

Why don't men like Dick Winters enter our government? They're probably as sick of it as I am.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

First few pages of 'Twelve Towers'

Just then he felt a hard, heavy blow in his chest and he was flying off the dirt pile and out of danger.

Chapter 1 - Huish
Merlin stepped off the barge and was escorted by the young priestess into the presence of the Lady of the Lake. She grasped both his hands and sat down opposite him by the fire.
“Arthur is now accepted as High King?” she asked. 
“I have returned from the ceremony. Most of the lesser kings have accepted him, the rest will rebel.”
“And still I worry about the new religion. They have no respect for the Goddess. They call us witches and demons. Will Arthur put an end to it?”
“Arthur has publicly pledged his allegiance to Avalon. Yet he is pledged also to protect all of Britain, Christians as well as Druids.”
“So the old fight continues below him.”
“We have a common enemy in the Saxons. They cut down the sacred groves and demolish the ring stones.”
She looked thoughtful. “What can we do to bind the High King closer to Avalon?”
“We must prove valuable to Arthur. We can add a layer of protection to Britain. There is an old enchantment that might work. It is complicated and will take time but, if it is done properly, the spell will bind all of Britain to Avalon.”
“How can I help?”
“We need six towers to be bound together and bound in turn to Avalon. The builder of these towers must be of the old royal blood and the towers must be sanctified with the blood of Avalon. The first tower is being built now. You have a priestess who can perform her part of the spell. Let us look into the well and find our builder.”
Merlin and the Lady of the Lake walked to the sacred well. Viviane waited until the wind rippled the surface of the water and then cast her spell. The view was of a patch of British countryside from above, as a bird would see when flying over it. The view swooped down to see a construction site in progress. Men were swarming all over a large hole in the ground inside of which log walls were being placed on top of each other. At first the view zoomed in on a young boy sitting just outside the site, on the hill caused by the dug foundations, playing around with a pile of small sticks. “Too young!” cried Viviane.
The view panned out again and then zoomed in on a large, blonde man, deep in the center of the works, arguing with a smaller dark-haired man. The view shifted as the bird flew around the site. The man’s face was obscured by his depth within the site. Finally Viviane uttered a high-pitched scream and both men looked up straight up at her. The blonde man’s strong face and blue eyes focused straight into Viviane’s. Viviane was shocked and stepped back.
“You’ve tricked me, Merlin!” she cursed. “How did he get there?”
“Fate is sometimes a cruel master.”
“But he is not even in charge. And he looks like a Saxon. How will he be the one?”
“Fate,” he replied. “Let us watch.”

Bleddyn smiled to himself and looked up from his two completed wooden puzzles. His father had told him that these would keep him busy until he returned with their lunches but Bleddyn could hear the shouting and hammering of men still hard at work on the other side of the hill. He hesitated, remembering his father’s words of warning: not to approach the works, but his eagerness to show his skill to his father won out. As a hawk screeched above, Bleddyn stood and stretched, brushed his long blonde hair away from his brow and started climbing up the dirt pile leading to the work pit. He was tall and fit from the exercises his father gave him. The loose dirt made it difficult to get to the top of the pile but eventually he was able to look over the lip into the works.
The men had been building swiftly this morning. Logs had been stacked on top of each other to make

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Governmental leadership over road deaths

Today I'd like to discuss governmental leadership. There is a group of governmental organizations that have shown excellent leadership over the last 40 years. Their mission has been to save lives on the roads of Australia.

When I lived there, the total number of road deaths was featured at the top of the first page of the daily newspaper. In a perfect example of 'That which is measured is improved' this number was looked at by millions of people every day.

Seat belts were made mandatory in 1970 and that number dropped significantly. The acceptable blood alcohol level for driving was set at 0.05% and serious fines and jail time was instituted. And, in a move that would cause ACLU members to blanch, road blocks were set up randomly to pull over people to test their levels.

A Traffic Black Spot system was put into play where dangerous intersections, defined as having at least one serious accident a year for the last three years, were given money to be redesigned for safety. See the below link for an example of this.

Spending money on Black Spots is a great use of the Pareto principle where 20% of the intersections are causing 80% of the deaths. A few million spent here is saving billions elsewhere in addition to saving lives.

One of the more visible facets is the graphic advertising campaign that a government owned organization called TAC places on TV to scare people into driving safely. Below is a compilation video which aired during the Christmas driving season, a time similar to the Memorial day or Independence day weekends in the US for high road deaths. The video is graphic so be prepared to cringe at some of the images.
If you liked the compilation, follow the links to the individual videos.

How effective have these tactics been? Look at the graph below. It shows the amount of road deaths per 100,000 people over time. Notice the big drop in 1970 when seat belts were made mandatory. See the way road deaths have dropped far more than American road deaths over the same period. (Light Blue dots)
Click on the graph for an enlarged view, then press the back key to return.

Citizens pay taxes to governments in exchange for safety and conveniences. The government builds roads for us, institutes laws to govern safe behaviors on these roads and hires officers of the law to enforce these laws. Is the slight loss of rights, (random road stops testing drivers for a blood alcohol levels of greater than 0.05%) too high a price to pay for the increase in safety on our roads? With my oldest son turning 17 soon, I don't think so. Especially after watching that video.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Obama's speech on Tucson shooting

Lee Iacocca, in his speech about the nine C's of leadership, says that the most important aspect of a leader is his ability to shine through a crisis. The first question Lee wants to ask any leader is: "Where has he or she been tested and did they pass the test?"

During some future post I'll show you Lee's great speech. Today I want to focus on President Obama and how he dealt with his most recent test. The politics of today's America have become extremely polarized with both Democrats and Republicans pulling further towards the left and right. Whether this was partially to blame for a mentally ill man shooting a congresswoman and many bystanders in Tucson last week is debatable. But the shooting was one more polarizing event in this trend. Fingers were being pointed on both sides.

Then President Obama gave a speech at the Memorial Service. He used the platform to bring forth two major themes:
  1. We Americans should use this moment to heal and move closer together rather than allow it to drive us further apart.
  2. Christine Green had high hopes for the democracy of this country. We should live up to her expectations.
If you get time, look at the speech in its entirety. You can find it anywhere on YouTube.

I provide below a short excerpt of the speech that illustrates the two themes and shows the skill with which the President captures and expresses our emotions. Bill Clinton may have said that 'I feel your pain' but Obama shows that pain to us. When he pauses for 51 seconds I don't believe it was just to acknowledge the applause. I felt that he was thinking of his 9 year-old daughter, just as I was thinking of my 10 year-old sons. And I believe the crowd felt it too and sustained the applause to support him.

Leaders have shown throughout history, the power that a great speech can have to inspire their followers. President Obama is the latest in a long line of great orators. There is much to learn from his speaking skills.
                                         Obama's speech excerpt

So, did President Obama pass the test this crisis put him through?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

No leadership dooms Biggest Loser competition

It amazes me to see how a simple project can be doomed by the lack of a clear leader.

Last night's 'Biggest Loser' featured a simple project. The team had to construct a pontoon bridge out of a stack of large, heavy, inflatable rafts that could be attached to each other to reach an island in the middle of a river. On the island was another stack of rafts with which they had to construct another bridge to reach the other side of the river.

Their rival team had already completed this task and had set the time to beat of 39 minutes.

The team were given a few minutes to strategize and it became clear immediately that they were going to fail. Many people asserted their right to be the leader but no-one allowed themselves to be led by any others. I saw several reasons why no leaders emerged:

1) The game is set up to have the contestants compete against each other in the long run so there was a lack of trust in the short run
2) There was no one vocal leader who asserted their leadership at the beginning
3) Many different people put forward different strategies but no one grasped anyone else's strategy

When the time for planning had ended and the horn sounded to start the competetion, all the contestants knew and even said out loud that they had no strategy. Yet they all started running around with their own plans to complete the project. A couple of minutes of focused planning would have solved this but they all ran straight to their jobs, using competing strategies and getting in each other's way. At times some were standing around waiting for others to do things, some were floating rafts, others were dragging them.

There was no communication before or during the project. People were shouting competing commands but no one was listening to anyone else.

What lessons can we get from this episode?

A) If no clear leader is assigned or emerges during the planning session, you must take the reins yourself or advance the leadership of the person you think is most suited for the job. This leader must be respected enough by the group to allow them to follow him/her for the duration of the project.
B) Even if you are competing with your peers in the long run for that promotion, that key project, that bonus, don't let this get in the way of short-term goals like project success. If the project fails, another PM may get blamed giving you a short-term gain but you also might all be out of a job.
C) Spend enough time to plan the project so that you have no-one working at cross-purposes, even if that time is taking away some of the execution time of the project. You will finish the project earlier in the long run.
Communication means listening to others, not just talking. The old adage of two ears and one mouth applies to project management.