From the commonplace book: Daniel Bell on why you have no time

From the The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society:

When productivity is low, time is relatively cheap. When productivity is high, time becomes relatively expensive. In short, economic growth entails a general increase in the scarcity of time.

This is from a later section in Bell’s great book, in a section called “The New Scarcities.” Before the abundance of mass production, it was material goods that were scarce. Now that most people have what they need (and more) materially, it is abstract things that become scarce, specifically for Bell information, coordination, and time.

While experiences to be had and objects to be enjoyed multiply, time remains finite. While we now have hundreds of restaurants where we can eat dinner, we will only have enough time and appetite for one dinner per day. And furthermore the cost of choosing where to have it and the anxiety that we might be having it somewhere better or with someone better are additional costs which were not felt as acutely as before.

We are time poor because we are rich in so much else.

How do you solve problems?

When I have to solve a problem, I need silence, time, and no interruptions. For most of my life I assumed this was how everybody did it, and noisy and more collaborative approaches struck me as just invasive or dumb. Thanks to my sister, who forced me to take a psychological test that defined my “workplace personality,” I learned that my way of solving problems is just one of many effective approaches.

What I take for interruptions are what others think of asking for help. What I take for needless time-wasting in chatty meetings others think of as necessary collaboration. I still despise either of those approaches, but I do know they can be valuable and that others think of them as work.

So, when life presents you with a challenge, what’s your approach? Retreat or collaboration? What drives you nuts about the way your colleagues approach problems?

My Memory of George H. W. Bush

I sang in the Yale Whiffenpoofs, an a cappella group that’s been around for over a century and was invited more than once to sing for Yale alum George H. W. Bush. My group met him during the administration of his son. We were singing at the Yale Club in New York and he was in the front row.

It’s traditional for every set the group sings to end with The Whiffenpoof Song, and all alums get the honor of being invited up.

We made a point of saying that all honorary Whiffs were welcome to come up and sing too, which caught the president’s attention. He hesitated a bit, then got up and joined us. He hadn’t sang while at Yale and he’d been made an honorary member by some past group while in he was in the White House.

But he joined us anyway. He knew all the words to the song and put his arms over the shoulders of the Whiff on his right and left during the chorus, as tradition demands. And afterward he shook each of our hands and seemed to genuinely appreciated the honor, as perhaps only a Yalie can.

I didn’t agree with his policies and wouldn’t have voted for him if I’d been able back in the 1990s. But he had a grace, charm, and gravitas which filled the room. We could use his touch in the world of presidential politics today.

 

For Your Long Weekend Read: Deciphering the Library of Herculaneum

Here’s what may be the mother of all long-term data storage problems.

When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., it sealed the extensive library of a wealthy Roman under many feet of ash and earth. Scrolls that wouldn’t have otherwise survived two thousand years were preserved intact and dug up in the 1750s. Since then, they’ve pinballed around Europe, exchanged as gifts between kings and emperors and been locked away in rarefied institutions. They might contain lost works by some of the superstars of antiquity, like Sappho and Aristotle.

Trouble is, nobody can read them because they are lumps of blackened carbon that crumble to dust when you try to unroll them. A few have been deciphered but the majority remain rolled up.

Now, a group of scholars and physicists are trying to use equipment capable of peering into the scrolls without unrolling them, detecting details at the molecular level. A grain of sand left by a reader in between two layers, the faint raising from page-level of dried ink, or the groove of a stylus are all detectable.

Even though this piece came out in The New Yorker three years ago, it’s news to me. It’s the kind of wonder that doesn’t often make it to the headlines, but should.

Even with Merkel’s Leadership Coming to an End, the EU is the Moral Leader of the West

The Associated Press is providing hour-by-hour updates of the meeting of the G20. It’s politics meets social awkwardness, as the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin hang out in close quarters with world leaders from the EU and other regions.

Back before November 2016, when grown-ups still ran U.S. foreign policy, it would’ve been a no-brainer that the U.S. would have issued a joint statement with other G20 leaders condemning the murder of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi and also punishing Russia for stepping right over the edge of legality with their recent seizure of Ukrainian ships, part of their ongoing effort to claim the territory as their own, which has been an on-again-off-again Russian territory since at least the days of the British Empire.

But in the bizarro world we’re living in, the EU faction is writing its own statements upholding a rules-based international order and democratic norms, while Trump, Putin, and Mohammed bin Salman gad about in their own morally vacant, transactional, no-man’s-land.

Thank God for Old Europe, keeping it together for anybody who cares about making sure the Enlightenment project doesn’t collapse.

Copy Critique: How to Tell a Complex Story In Just a Few Words

More from the exhibit on WWII propaganda currently up at the FDR Presidential Library.

Apart from the gorgeous imagery here, this is an incredible example of economy and power in storytelling. The narrative told is a complicated one: Don’t talk about what you’re working on for the war effort, because spies are listening, and if they learn about shipping or attacks in advance, they might relay those orders to Berlin, who would then attack, costing lives or resources. And don’t buy into the idea that just one person mentioning something isn’t important. What one person says or doesn’t say can cost or save lives.

Got all that?

Well, you could get the same from two words of headline copy plus nine words of optional copy and an image composed of two well-balanced elements.

Everything on this poster is doing work: the size of the hand, the movement from left to right, the use of color, the choice of civilian clothes for the figure, and the transformation of the newspaper into an accusatory pointing finger.

As a copywriter, I’m normally annoyed when clients or designers ask me to use fewer words. “But the words are doing all the *work*” I often think. The images are just there to grab people’s attention to get them to think.

With this little masterpiece from the golden age of print advertising, I’m inspired to think otherwise.

From the Commonplace Book: Dickens on Whimsy and National Security

Well, not quite national security, but national strength anway.

It is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales be respected. A nation without fancy, without some romance, never did, never can, never will, hold a great place under the sun.

-Charles Dickens, from Frauds on the Fairies

The wage premium for liberal arts grads, the continuing technological edge that the U.S. still enjoys over China (despite our comparative lack of investment in research), the inventiveness of our defense programs, and the appeal of our pop culture abroad are all built on our imagination, not our efficiency.

Hat tip to The Week, November 16, 2018 for pointing out the quote.

Copy Critique: U.S. War Propaganda from 1942

Advertising has at least one thing in common with the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. It is a vast collective creative project undertaken in anonymity. Nobody cared, least of all the stonemasons, who built the pillars and spires of a church as long as they stood upright. And nobody cares who makes the art and copy of great ads, as long as they get the message across.

But unlike the cathedrals, advertising is ephemeral. Beyond annual award shows, we don’t stop to appreciate and learn from classic work. That’s why it was a rare thing to see a collection of World War II propaganda posters at the FDR Presidential Library this weekend. Many of them are a perfect union of words and visuals, made with brevity and power that would put social media mavens to shame.

Example number one is this beauty from 1942. It conveys with three words and one symbol what a long-form copywriter like myself would take at least 300 words to get across. I was humbled by it, and pass it along to you.

Get the message?

Punctuation & Civilization

As Kenneth Clark said, “Manners are small morals.” I’d say the same about punctuation.

The part of the mind that remembers the rules for capitalization after a semicolon or whether to use “who” or “whom” is also the part of the mind that strives to think clearly about the matter in front of it. Punctuation guides our grammar and through our grammar it guides our consciousness.

Mary Norris, The New Yorker’s “comma Queen,” says as much in her latest piece. If you think of yourself as a member of The Resistance against the immorality and incompetence of those in power at the moment, she says that a good place to start is with a clean, beautiful statement of the truth. To speak truth to power, in other words, it is essential to first know how to speak.