Monthly Archives: February 2010

Greece versus Rome

No, I’m not going to offer a view on Greece’s economic plight, or anything about the PIGS. Go to A Fistful of Euros for that.

What provoked this post was the coincidence of reading two recent novels inspired by the classics. One is a likely bestseller, but the other is one of the most thrilling books I’ve read in ages.

Start with the bestseller. Robert Harris’ Lustrum (retitled Conspirata for some reason in its US edition) is the sequel to Imperium, and follows the machinations of Cicero’s reign as consul in the Roman Senate, followed by his period as Pater Patriae (father of the nation). As with all of Harris’ novels, it’s a great read, with enough warp and weft from ancient Rome to tickle readers who care about classical history.

Before you put your feet up with Harris, however, run to your nearest bookseller to buy Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey. I read Michiko Kakutani’s scintillating review in The New York Times (“stunning and hypnotic”) and went straight to my local bookstore. The conceit of the book is that it uncovers 44 lost episodes, fragments, dead ends, reimaginings from Homer’s epic. If you’re a Homer freak like me, your head will be spinning in amazement and awe. If you only have a passing knowledge of Homer, I’m sure you’ll still find the invention wonderful.

I can’t recall the last time when, in the process of reading a book, I’d finish a chapter and then go back to the beginning of the chapter to re-read it. That’s how gripped I was by Mason’s art. Unmissable.

The Times also did a profile of Mason, who is a computer scientist working at an unnamed start-up in Mountain View. If his programs have a tenth of the wit and inventiveness of his first novel, I’d love to use them.

"The Pepsi of Austrian writing"

I’ve written before about my father’s unfashionable taste for Lion Feuchtwanger. Another Mittel European whom he favored was Stefan Zweig, for his fiction more than for his historical works. Many are sitting on my shelves now, part of the library that was divided between my sisters and me. But I’m going to have to take another look, with some trepidation, after reading Michael Hofmann’s evisceration of Zweig in the London Review of Books:

Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing. He is the one whose books made films – 18 of them, and that’s the books, not the films (which come in at a stupefying 38). It makes sense: these are hypothetical and bloodless and stiltedly extreme monuments and monodramas for ‘teenagers of all ages’, as someone said, books composed for the bourgeoisie to give itself culture or a fright, which needed Hollywood or UFA to make them real, to give them expressions, faces, bodies, rooms and dialogue; and to drain some of the schematic grand guignol out of them. Of course he failed the Karl Kraus test – who didn’t? Kraus quotes some yea-sayer to the effect that Zweig with his novellas had conquered all the languages of the world, and adds two words of his own: ‘except one’. The story went the rounds that Zweig had his manuscripts checked for grammatical errors by a German professor, which gets most things about Zweig: the ineptitude, the anxiety to please, the respect for authority, and the use of others.

If you enjoy the virtuoso display of a critic tearing a reputation to shreds, read the whole thing. Feuchtwanger makes a guest appearance, incidentally: “Thomas Mann and his family spent diverting evenings – this in 1939 – debating which of Zweig, Ludwig, Feuchtwanger and Remarque was the worst writer.”

I’m curious what Hofmann, a great translator from German to English, think about the Zweig my father particularly rated, Arnold Zweig (no relation to Stefan, as far as I know). His The Case of Sergeant Grischa was regularly hailed in our house as the greatest anti-war novel ever written. I struggled through it with little reward 35 or so years ago. I should return to it and see what I think.

Undercover Boss — good and bad

I just watched the first episode of Undercover Boss, the new reality show from CBS. The idea is that a corporate executive goes “undercover” to find out what work is like on the frontlines of the company.

Tonight’s episode followed Larry O’Donnell, president and COO of Waste Management, the $13 billion group that handles all sorts of dirty jobs — garbage collection, recycling, waste disposal, and so on. Waste Management made Wayne Huizenga‘s first fortune, growing enormously as municipalities in the US and internationally contracted out services like garbage collection and recycling (an aside: isn’t Huizenga’s success with Blockbuster after WM the oddest one-two success in entrepreneurial history?).

O’Donnell donned WM’s drab uniforms to spend a day on a recycling line, on a garbage route, picking up paper in a landfill, cleaning toilets at an amusement park, and shadowing a woman who seemed to do a half dozen jobs at another landfill. There were some aspects to Undercover Boss that I thought were brilliant. It gives a glimpse of just how repetitive and dreary working life is for so many people. Not only are jobs routinized, but the demands of ever-increasing productivity mean that workers are forced to do more and more and more, to keep up with the requirements of the distant corporate office. Larry, in his undercover role as Randy, couldn’t come close to filling two plastic bags with paper in 10 minutes on the landfill. He was fired.

Local management often came across as the villains. They spy on employees, they sit watching video monitors, they seem to have little connection with the people doing the hard labor.

Undercover Boss also showed how some workers really make the best of whatever confronts them. I wonder how set up the triumph over tragedy stories in this one episode were. Did the producers, for example, know that the supervisor on the landfill went for weekly dialysis? That the woman who juggled several jobs for WM was facing a house foreclosure? It’s possible Larry didn’t know, but someone did.

I cheered along with most of the audience, I’d guess, as Larry learned the lessons of the frontline, and brought the insights back to the head office. Good leaders have been “managing by walking about” for many years, but it certainly helps that the corporate world sees the benefit of a reality check. Bosses are generally far too insulated by salary, perks, distance, fawning executive teams, and so much else, no matter how well meaning they may be.

Needless to say, in the end Larry did the right thing. The woman from the landfill site was promoted to a management role and hired two people to fill the jobs she was doing alone. The great guy helping out with the toilets at the amusement park was celebrated. The tough supervisor on dialysis is now a health mentor for the whole company. And on and on. But is the company going to do anything to spot the thousands of people who are probably just as good as those lucky enough to be plucked from obscurity? Will the lessons endure past the airing date of the program?

I think I can guarantee that the producers of Undercover Boss will have every corporate communications advisor in the country clamoring to get their boss on the next series. It’s brilliant TV, but it also enables a media-savvy boss to paint himself in the best possible way in an hour of prime time.

O’Donnell, by the way, made just short of $3 million in the last reported year for WM, and has about $11 million in options. The program somehow didn’t mention that.

Davos redux

Felix Salmon responds to my defense of Davos the other day.

I agree with almost everything Felix writes. I suspect we generally share a world view, and I’m certainly suspicious of people who are convinced of their own righteousness (I never thought invading Iraq was a good idea, by the way). Where I disagree is the notion that there is some kind of singular Davos crowd or mindset (exemplified in Sam Huntington‘s phrase “Davos man”). Felix writes:

My point isn’t that Davos is influential or powerful in itself, just that it inculcates a mindset in its delegates where they’re convinced that they’re doing good (the oath is a prime example of this), and never stop to modestly wonder whether they’re wrong. And that kind of mindset can be very destructive: if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then Davos is the road crew keeping it smooth and fast.

First, I’m never going to support the idiotic oath that is an innovation in the Forum’s Young Global Leaders project. Felix is right to ridicule it.

What I was trying to point out in my post the other day is that there is a strong group of Davos participants who spend a lot of time questioning premises, intentions and outcomes. They may not make the headlines, particularly of the US and British press, which understandably concentrates on homegrown stars. I think the Davos crowd that Felix decries don’t need help with the paving of the road to hell — they arrive in the Graubunden utterly convinced of their superiority and rightness. There are others who are far more questioning and skeptical. They bridle at the Washington Consensus and other signs of the dominance of an American flavor of capitalism.

My contrast of Percy Barnevik and Jack Welch wasn’t to point out that one of them was nice to my wife. It’s that Welch — and there are other corporate grandees of the same ilk — flew into Davos, said his rehearsed piece, and flew out. The likes of Barnevik seemed more willing to be discomfited and challenged.

Of course Davos is a highly protected environment. It’s highly elitist, while at the same time scurrying for a comfortable middle ground on too many issues (particularly in the kinds of cultural figures it tends to celebrate).

For all that, my view remains that good intentions are rare in that kind of environment — slapped down by Felix as asserting that good intentions are rare in the world, which is a very different statement. It’s a huge flaw that there are too many assumptions there that go unquestioned. It’s very disturbing to read reports that the Google/China dispute was a forbidden topic this year. In my day I never encountered such taboos, and we genuinely tried to foster real debate.

I’ve tried hard on occasions in the last few years to summon up the kind of Davos contempt that Felix is good at. It would be easy to paint Davos in the style of George Grosz or Otto Dix, all decadence and grotesque capitalist bloodsuckers. But even when it might have been commercially valuable to me (there’s a market for tales that the emperor has no clothes), I thought it wasn’t true to the reality of the event I knew. Perhaps I’m too naive or compromised by years of association. Perhaps it’s the difference between a harsh Manhattan outlook and a sunny California one.