Gore Vidal and the People’s Airplane

March 27, 2016


Vidal with President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, 1961 (credit Everett/Rex)

I recently skimmed through a biography of Gore Vidal after seeing it on display at the local library.

An intimate, authorized yet frank biography of Gore Vidal (1925-2012), one of the most accomplished, visible and controversial American novelists and cultural figures of the past century.

At a similar time, I also happened to see a good documentary on him on Sky Arts.

As is often the case, the childhood of these exceptional people is also quite exceptional (I’m always hoping they’ll be mundane, they rarely are).

Here’s a revealing example (see video above):

In November 1933, Gene Vidal announced the Bureau’s plan to make owning a personal aircraft as commonplace as owning a Model-T Ford. The Bureau invited aircraft manufacturers to design a simple, safe vehicle that would sell for a target price of $700. Unfortunately, the manufacturers never thought that was feasible, even though at least one of the innovations that came out of the contest—tricycle landing gear with a steerable nose wheel—did end up influencing future designs.

In 1936, Vidal and 10-year-old Gore were filmed at Washington D.C.’s Bolling Field, demonstrating how easy it was to control one of the competition winners, the two-seat Hammond Model Y (a later version of which is in the Smithsonian collection).

As they say, “supremely confident at an early age”.

Some memorable Vidal quotes:

“I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.”

“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

“A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.”

“Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

“The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven’t seen them since.”

“Andy Warhol is the only genius I’ve ever known with an IQ of 60.”

“A good deed never goes unpunished.”

“All children alarm their parents, if only because you are forever expecting to encounter yourself.”

“Fifty percent of people won’t vote, and fifty percent don’t read newspapers. I hope it’s the same fifty percent.”

“The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.”

The Journey and the Destination

March 19, 2016

Journey Bowie

Towards the end of last year I decided to do some planning and when in this frame of mind I came across this quote (there are many variations on it):

“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end.” – Ursula LeGuin

This made me think that, independently of however much you plan, even schematically, things happen along the way that change you and the way you think about things. A few weeks ago I came across the Bowie quote above which I thought gave another interesting viewpoint!

Photo credit: here.

Writing Novels

March 19, 2016

Amusing snippet from an article on the highly prolific Georges Simenon:

Frequently able to write a novel in 11 days, by the age of 29 Simenon was simultaneously defending and proclaiming the rate at which he churned out his fiction. ‘I haven’t written that much,’ he said. ‘I’ve only published 277 books.’

Nor did he slow down much in later years: his biographer Pierre Assouline writes how, in the twilight of his life, Alfred Hitchcock telephoned to speak to Simenon only to be told by his secretary he couldn’t be disturbed because he was writing a new novel. ‘That’s all right, I’ll wait,’ he replied.

Igniting Exciting Conversations

March 7, 2016

There are lots of articles on the drawbacks of formal presentations (death by Powerpoint etc). I’ve certainly gone through many presentations that have ranged from boring to incomprehensible.

In a concise article, Jack Welch offers three tips (extracts below):

Rule #1: Keep your message simple. Not simplistic, mind you. Not dumbed down, either. But simple, as in not over-complicated and completely graspable.

It’s quite likely true that if the idea or premise can’t be made simple (but not simplistic) then there’s probably something wrong with it.

Rule #2: Tell your audience something they don’t know. I’m always amazed when a manager comes into an executive or board presentation and basically recites materials that all of us have already received by email.

As you can imagine, this would certainly grab people’s attention. This relates to Rule 1 of course!

Rule #3: Let your passion rip. I don’t get it, but there’s a popular strand of thinking that speakers gain credibility in front of audiences by appearing pensive and logical, almost contained to the point of flatness, like a 3-star general giving testimony before Congress.

This is sometimes more a question of confidence than anything else.

I quite like this extract, which I think gets to the heart of the matter:

“Giving a speech/presentation is not about relating information or a point of view so that people go, “Hmm,” and move along. It’s about igniting exciting conversations that go on long after you’re done talking.”

Consequently it will be invaluable to think through how you’d keep these conversations going and how best to benefit from them.

The Paradox of Unanimity

March 2, 2016

I’ve been on lots of committees; for projects, bids and also charity work.

So, I was interested to come across this (see here):

Under ancient Jewish law, if a suspect on trial was unanimously found guilty by all judges, then the suspect was acquitted. This reasoning sounds counterintuitive, but the legislators of the time had noticed that unanimous agreement often indicates the presence of systemic error in the judicial process, even if the exact nature of the error is yet to be discovered. They intuitively reasoned that when something seems too good to be true, most likely a mistake was made.

In a new paper to be published in The Proceedings of The Royal Society A, a team of researchers, Lachlan J. Gunn, et al., from Australia and France has further investigated this idea, which they call the “paradox of unanimity.”

And under More Examples (further down the article):

5) In many committee meetings, in today’s big organizations, there is a trend towards the idea that decisions must be unanimous. For example, a committee that ranks job applicants or evaluates key performance indicators (KPIs) often will argue until everyone in the room is in agreement. If one or two members are in disagreement, there is a tendency for the rest of the committee to win them over before moving on. A take-home message of our analysis is that the dissenting voice should be welcomed. A wise committee should accept that difference of opinion and simply record there was a disagreement. The recording of the disagreement is not a negative, but a positive that demonstrates that a systemic bias is less likely.