Monday, October 20, 2014

World Order by Henry Kissinger

Plain cover, deep interior

Old yes, but a master-student
Henry Kissinger has been a public official (National Security Adviser and Secretary of State), a private consultant, and a college professor. At age 91, Kissinger has donned his professorial hat to take the student on a grand tour of international relations. But this IR course doesn’t start with the world of today. Professor Kissinger recognizes the deep roots of history, and he begins with the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). There in time and space begins the tour, moving through the establishment of the European balance of power international system, the French Revolution, the Congress of Vienna (about which he wrote a definitive work), and through to today. After Europe, he takes us on historical and contemporary tours of China, Russia, the Middle East (especially Iran), India, and the rest of Asia. Only then does he turn his attention to the U.S., which he dubs the “reluctant superpower”. He comments extensively on the growth of balance of power political perspectives first promoted on the world stage by Theodore Roosevelt, and the international idealism (and institutionalism) of Woodrow Wilson. The two traditions sit uneasily (and sometimes alternatively) as guiding principles of U.S. foreign relations. Kissinger notes the tension and ambiguity that the two traditions represent. He notes that Richard Nixon, who would seem the epitome of an international realist in power, chose to hang a portrait of Woodrow Wilson in his White House. Nixon heard the song of idealism even if he did not answer it. 

For all of the revealing history and perspective, I found Kissinger’s remarks about technological changes addressed to the present and immediate future some of the most interesting insights of the book, contained in his chapter on “Technology, Equilibrium, and Human Consciousness”. (Pretty hip for someone publishing at age 91!) Whatever one’s judgments about Kissinger’s actions as an office holder, one cannot question his credentials as an unparalleled master teacher of the system. 

My have only two brief criticisms. First, he slights political economy. We do live in an increasingly interdependent world, although some want to ignore this. To what extent this has affected and will affect international actors doesn’t receive much (if any) scrutiny. Second, he doesn’t peer into the future and the possible repercussions of climate change or perhaps a new global pandemic (I don’t think that Ebola is a likely candidate, but something new could be). How resilient is this system? He talks about the challenges in terms of the current alignments and threats, but I think that this ground is shifting. Nuclear weapons are a huge concern, but an unlikely threat if the current system remains intact. But if the current system breaks down, then  . . . . 

I’m keeping this review short because there are already some fine reviews out there: former Secretary of State (and possible future president) Hillary Clinton, Ian Bremmer (Eurasia Group president and author), and Amitai Etzioni (GW prof & public intellectual) to list three that I found useful.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation by Roger Ames and David Hall

"Making This Life Significant"

This book is one of the fundamental texts of civilization. It is distinctly Chinese, yet it now belongs to the world. Or at least it should belong to anyone interested in a unique and inviting perspective on the world. Of course, English language readers have a huge number of translations to choose from, but of the several that I’ve read, this is my favorite.
Ames is the China scholar, while the late David Hall comes out of the traditions of process philosophy and pragmatism. Together, they bring a sense of scholarly precision about the source and context of the original texts (and sources and completeness always becomes an issue with a text this old and revered) along with a perspective about how we can understand this work in the contemporary world. For instance, they identify the concept of the focus and field as a central metaphor in the work. Their commentaries on each chapter often refer to ideas familiar to current readers as consistent with process philosophy and pragmatism. (Daoism isn’t consistently with a static metaphysics, that’s for sure.) The commentary helps readers grasp the often allusive words and implicit references in the text that would otherwise leave readers baffled and confused. For contemporary readers from the West, the text communicates in terms of metaphor and allusion that are alien to our normal way of thinking. This is how they define their project: 

We will argue that the defining purpose of the Daodejing is bringing into focus and sustaining a productive disposition that allows for the fullest appreciation of those specific things and events that constitute one’s field of experience. The project, simply put, is to get the most out of what each of us is: a quantum of unique experience. It is making this life significant.

Ames, Roger; Hall, David (2010-05-12). Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation (Kindle Locations 285-288). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 
There are no doubt many fine translations available for this classic, and each one no doubt sheds insight and re-creates the intention of the text, but this one is my reigning favorite. I feel like I’m viewing a new field with two trusted guides who help me gain the proper focus.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Review of Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler

Hold it! I think your going to like this picture

Reading what for me is the latest installment from Eric Ambler (originally published in 1938), I can’t help thinking of a Hitchcock movie. Not any particular one—perhaps The Many Who Knew Too Much with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day or North by Northwest with Cary Grant would be exemplars—where ordinary persons become entangled with espionage. In this case, a person loosed from the protections of citizenship by the shifting sands of European nationhood suffers a problem, a big problem, when someone accidentally mistakenly takes his camera. The police become involved, and Mr. Vadassy must try to sort things out. However, he’s not a spy or an especially clever fellow, at least in this type of affair. He’s an ESL teacher. He must try to figure out who took his camera and the photos that led the French counter-espionage authorities to him. He must identify the culprit, in much like an Agatha Christie novel, from a small group of guests at a quaint resort hotel on the French Riviera. Vadassy is no Bourne, no Bond, not even a Smiley. He’s just a guy forced into a devilishly difficult task. 

Although this novel didn’t prove my favorite Ambler, it still has the atmosphere of pre-war Europe, the innocent plunged into fearful terrain, and the clean, clear writing and plotting that make Ambler a pro. The little society of the resort and the machinations of the authorities that try to make Vadassy their agent, prove more complex and baffling than a mere mortal can hope to manage. Thus builds the tension to the end, and in the end . . . well, you’ll have to read it to learn about that.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Review of Time Warrior: How to defeat procrastination, people-pleasing, self-doubt, over-commitment, broken promises and chaos by Steve Chandler

This book serves as a fine companion work to Steve Pressfield’s The War of Art and Do the Work!. While Chandler focuses on the familiar theme of “time management”, both he and Pressfield focus on getting things done (and not necessarily as David Allen would have you do it). This book is pithy and easy to read. It could be shorter, and it’s no literary giant. But the message is worthwhile. In fact, in tight, short sentences, Chandler packs some wallop. His style, in addition to his quotes, tends toward the aphoristic. Accordingly, what follows are my quotes of him, his sources, my aphoristic thoughts generated by his insights, and my meta-comments [in brackets]. (I capitalize some words on my own accord as key terms taken from or inspired by Chandler.)

  • Non-linear time management involves three options: Now, Not Now (but a date certain), & Never. [I think he should include a fourth: Now Later. For instance, one can use almost any Now to take out the garbage or do the dishes, but some Nows are better than others for productivity. Some tasks are Labor (Arendt), which is by nature  repetitive and doesn’t need special attention. Chandler implies that all Time is equally valuable, but this isn’t so. Some, like me for instance, prefer to perform more demanding, creative tasks in the morning, with less demanding tasks—dishes, reading & answering emails, garbage, etc.—left to the afternoon.]

  • Empty the Mind about the Future because the Future = Fear.
  • Develop a bias for Action
  • Develop a laser-like Focus like Bruce Lee or Rocky Marciano (via Joyce Carol Oats).
    Joyce Carol Oats
    [Yes, you read that correctly. It seems she has a thing about boxing.]
  • Act as a Warrior, not as a Worrier.
  • Keep your Soul alive by not seeking to Please Others. Do what you choose
  • Make Time, don’t expect to Find Time.
  • Thinking makes it so. We act (or refrain) based on our beliefs. 
  • Sustain Focus. Avoid Distraction. Use the rifle, not the shotgun. 
  • “We use our crayons (our imagination) to scare ourselves instead of to create.” Chandler, Steve (2011-02-14). Time Warrior: How to defeat procrastination, people-pleasing, self-doubt, over-commitment, broken promises and chaos (p. 15). Maurice Bassett. Kindle Edition.
  • Use Process Goals, not big, long-term goals. [Compare Scott Adams of Dilbert fame: use Practices not Goals to create Future.]
  • “Be brief. Be swift. Be effective.” (19).
  • Create Now. 
  • “Don’t think in terms of patterns. None of this: “I always” or “I never” because those globalizing thoughts will never serve you. They will scare you and make you a pessimist.” (22).
  • Start small. 
  • Slow down. 
  • Don’t over value Information. “[I]t is active creation that will produce wealth and well-being. Not information.” (27).
  • Create Value by serving others. 
  • Incubation vs. Procrastination. Incubate but Act. 
  • “No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.—Alan Watts (30). 
    Alan Watts
  • The time warrior steals from the future. Then she pours her stolen gold—all of it—into the present moment.” (30). 
  • Don’t Know, Choose. Choosing is the key to Acting. 
  • “I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost more than 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot, and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life... and that's why I succeed—Michael Jordan (37). 
  • “It really isn't fear of failure that stops us from trying exciting things. It's fear of the appearance of failure. It's the fear of looking like a failure.” (37).
  • Theory is good for the intellect, but action is good for the soul. It's also good for your mental health, your physical health, and your pocketbook.—Robert Ringer (39).
  • Act, then Feel. Not vice versa. 
  • Serve, don’t seek to Please. 
  • Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don't open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.—Rumi (49). [I have to issue a small dissent here. My reading, especially in the morning (preferably after meditation) isn’t a passive act. It’s creative. I don’t just read, I Learn. For me, reading is a very creative activity. Besides, I don’t play a musical instrument & C would kill me if I started singing in the morning.]
  • Change Others through an Inspiring example.
  • Be in the Moment. Don’t cling to an Identity. I’m a . . . [fill in the blank]. You can be that—or more—or less. 
  • The question isn't, Who is going to let me; it's Who is going to stop me?—Ayn Rand (57). [I haven’t “been Ayn Randed”, but I can’t argue too much with this one thing. See, I’m not going to cling to my identity as knowing her to be full of . . . “well, never mind”.] 
  • Create, don’t React. 
  • Issue is Problem Management, not Time Management. Deal with a Project or Challenge, not Time. 
  • We love to solve problems—if they’re not ours. 
  • Problems of Time are often problems of Emotion (Feelings). 
  • Complete. Finish strong. Keep a “killer instinct”. 
  • Unfinished Projects become Worries that become Energy Vampires! 
  • Completion Creates Energy. Procrastination drains Energy. 
  • Don’t Feel like doing It? Do It! 
  • In the face of suffering, ask “How can I help?”, not “How to do I feel?”.
  • Not “How do I survive this [catastrophe]?”, but “How do I use this?”. 
  • Warriors make friends of deadlines, which seem (and sound) so ominous. 
  • “The human brain is a magical bio-computer. It sends us energy when we send it something clearly inspiring. But it drags us way down when we feed it something that is negative or depressing. The key to all of this is that we send it.” (88)
  •  “The breakdown of language foretells the breakdown of results. Always. . . .[If I don’t keep a commitment] I have misused the word commitment, and language no longer means anything. So now anything I say is just noise that conveys no power at all. My language can no longer make anything happen. It can still be descriptive (it can tell you how I feel, it can describe the past) but it can no longer be generative (it can't make things happen). . . . [A] commitment is something you keep, no matter what.” (90). 
  • What gets measured gets done.
  • Emerson has written many wonderful essays on [acting] and one of the things he said is “Do the thing and you shall have the power.”(110)
  •  “Creative people need some kind of structure. . . . Paradoxically, the best creativity comes from working with the most structure you can possibly impose on yourself.” (114).
  • “What do I feel like doing right now? That is the worst question I could ever ask myself during my workday. On a weekend that’s a fine question. “What do I feel like doing? I’ll watch a little baseball, I’ll play the guitar.” That’s fine, but in my workday, the feeling question is the worst question I can ask myself. The best questions are: “What do I want to produce?” and “What structure would guarantee that?”. (115). 
  • Create your own Urgent. 
  • Skip Willpower and simply Choose to Begin. 
  • Begin—to begin is half the work, let half still remain; again begin this, and thou wilt have finished.—Marcus Aurelius (121).
  • “Why do I want my lack of action to be about a “thing” inside me I don’t have? The answer is this: I would rather find and identify some defect in myself than take that first step. Isn’t that the easier, softer way to live? Identifying flaws and defects all day?” (122). [Pressfield names “the thing”: Resistance. But whether you name it to overcome it or you simple ignore it to overcome it, the only weapon that can work is Action. Do, do, do.]
  • “Whatever it is you are not doing, notice that you are choosing not to do it. There’s no defect in you! There’s the opposite of a defect. There is, instead, a power. A power to choose. Choose to, choose not to, same power. Always power.” (122-123). [My only quibble is that some people fail to recognize that they are making a choice (always making a choice) and therefore don’t exercise the conscientiousness or self-reflexivity necessary to realize what’s going on. I think that this requires a great deal of self-awareness. If not, why would Chandler have to teach this? Why would piles of books have ever been written about the Will and Willpower? (I know because I’ve read a lot of them.) Why would we worry about weakness of will? What if the choice is do or not do, such as whether to eat a Twinkie when you’re hungry? What if “not doing” is the best choice, then the default “Do” will fail us. We see weakness of will (akrasia) all of the time in ourselves and others. We discount the future hyperbolically. We make a choice—and we know damn well that we’ll later regret it. St. Paul and St. Augustine and others after them weren’t addressing a non-existent problem. So, grading as the Chinese might, I’d say Chandler is about 60% right on this issue.]
  • Love what you’re doing, whatever it is. [Can be challenging.]
  • “The perception you have of anything is always what drives your feelings and your actions and your thoughts.” (133). 
  • Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.--Vincent van Gogh (141). 
    Van Gogh
  • Fear is the absence of Love, as dark is the absence of light.
  • “Live Now, Procrastinate Later”: great title (Robert Holden). 
  • “I experience a stressed-out feeling whenever I think about the deadline for a creative project. But my stress comes from having that project be in the future. Non-linear time management doesn’t allow that line that stretches into the future. Because the linear thought process always produces stress. Unreasonable stress.” (175). 
  • “You can create the future—through process-goal-setting and achievement—without living in the future. Just like studying a map before you go somewhere. Or looking at a menu before the meal. You don’t walk on the map. You don’t eat the menu. Once you’ve created your goal and project you set the future aside.” (182). 
  • “All creativity emerges from inquiry.” (188). 
  • “Thought always comes before a feeling and causes the feeling.” (196). [A key component of Stoic thought per Richard Sorabji.]
  • Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another.—Walter Elliott The Spiritual Life (202).
  • Stop lying to yourself.
  • Aristotle: “Whatever we learn to do, we learn by actually doing it. People come to be builders, for instance, by building, and harp players by playing the harp. In the same way, by doing just acts we come to be just. By doing self-controlled acts, we come to be self-controlled, and by doing brave acts we become brave.” (206-207). 

Let’s stop here. Lots of excellent ideas and perspectives. A fine and lasting tonic.