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Did you all watch Moana? That movie was amazing! It may be my favorite Disney movie (and I am a big fan of hand-drawn animation instead of the computer rendered stuff, so that is really saying something). The eponymous hero is brave and truly heroic, yet her strength does not come from magic or violence (or a marriage proposal from some foppish prince), it comes from constant striving to go farther and understand things better. That is a rare thing in our entertainment world.
There is an amazing revelation early on in the movie. Moana longs to leave her island paradise and sail the broad oceans, but society forbids anyone–even a hereditary princess–from sailing beyond the reef. Then, in a scene of breathtaking wonder, Moana discovers the secret history of her people. They were not originally from that island…once they were fearless explorers who sailed across the Pacific Ocean on enormous exploration canoes. Yet they have become insular—obsessed with rules, hierarchies, and the past. Not only have they become fearful and small, but they have caught all available fish and their fruit groves are dying…
Naturally, the talk about Moana has largely centered around two things: (1) whether it is secretly an allegory of American politics (I don’t think it is…exactly…but clearly there are uncomfortable parallels); and (2) whether it bowdlerizes Polynesian culture (it does, but, come on! kids’ cartoons flatten and distort every story and the movie presents Polynesian culture with respect and wonder). “Hercules” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” destroyed those stories: in Disney’s hands they literally ended up with opposite meanings (and endings) than in the original versions, but you don’t hear French people and ancient Greeks complaining.
Lately, in our world, everyone seems to be becoming ever more tribal. We are swift to find (or imagine) insult about anything concerning our group or worldview, and strangely unable to perceive the wonder and possibilities of the bigger picture. I have been writing about princesses because I want people to stop being so stupid and tribal. We need to re-examine the leadership archetypes we grew up with so that we can make some better choices.
There are two antithetical reasons we sell the concept of princesshood to little girls. The first reason is about making children behave. If you master rules and norms, people will like you and you will succeed. The other is about true leadership, not by coercive means like threats, lawsuits, or bossing people around, but by generosity, and imagination, and beautiful example. If you making your life into something remarkable and amazing, other people are drawn towards you and want to follow you.
Everyone has to tread the line between these two poles– whether you have to submit to the whims of the great masters and the weight of society–or whether you can build a life of beauty, meaning and worth on your own terms. Moana masters both, and is able to lead her people beyond the reef back to their true heritage of exploration and discovery.
People worldwide are growing dissatisfied with the self-satisfied conclusions of the post Cold War era of globalization and automation. They ask whether we should turn back the clock to make society more insular, static, tribal, and impoverished (yet more safe), or whether we should instead keep growing, learning, and discovering—even if it puts us at danger. It strikes me that there can only be one answer: the insular society of the 50s was not really all that safe. The only way is forward; there actually is no road back. We will keep exploring this idea, but in the meantime watch Moana, and tell me your opinions about princesses (or share some favorite childhood memories). We are starting from the beginning in rediscovering what is best about leadership and how to move on to a future which is worthwhile. Reexamining some cherished archetypes is a good place to start, but there is a lot we need to talk about concerning where we want to go and who we want to be.
There can only be one subject for today’s short post: congratulations to NASA for successfully landing the large space rover Curiosity on Mars! The touchdown was a stupendous triumph of engineering and space-faring: you can check out the ridiculous precision which was required on the NASA produced digital animation Seven Minutes of Terror. There is even an amazing photo of the actual landing taken from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a multipurpose spacecraft which has been orbiting Mars and diligently assembling a comprehensive picture of the place.
The Curiosity is a very alien looking vehicle. A deliciously irony about our space exploration program is the extent to which our current technology resembles the clichés of the golden age of science fiction. The Curiosity literally arrived via flying saucer. It has six insectoid wheeled legs and a laser blaster! If it landed it my back yard I would grovel before it and offer to take it to the president or maybe throw a hatchet at it and call the Air Force (depending on how I construed it intentions).
The Curiosity beamed back a few photos from Mars to prove it arrived safely: now it will go through a series of diagnostics and start-ups before the real research gets started. The actual measurements it takes will be pored over by astrophysicists and geologists for decades. However, in a larger sense, a substantial chunk of the real research has already taken place—the scientific and engineering challenges which went in to creating the lander are as big a part of the program’s utility as the information stream from the surface of an alien world.
Of course the success of the Curiosity has a frustrating side: the comments on all of the news sites were filled with complaints from myopic Luddites who were angrily whining that the United States is wasting its money on Mars. “We humans need to get our own house in order before we start worrying about red rocks on Mars. There are millions of children who go blind every year from parasites and malnutrition and you’re worried about sending a robot to Mars to collect stupid red rocks,” wrote Matthew Smith in a typical anti-research anti-progress comment. Fortunately, such views seemed to be a minority today, but they always call for a stern rebuttal. Many of the the technologies which we use every day and undergird our economy grew from the space program (and related defense research). To cut back on such research is to abandon our prosperity and technology leadership in the future but, more worryingly, it is to abandon the future.
Humankind needs to understand both astrophysics and aerospace engineering far better: missions like Curiosity are a way to accomplish both those goals. Additionally Curiosity is working on some questions unique to Mars, a world which once had oceans and an atmosphere and now does not. That seems like something we should understand better for its own sake, but it also suggests that microscopic life might still dwell on Mars (or at least the remains of extinct life could exist in fossils). Finally, we did not spend the money on Mars. The government spent all of that money here, on salaries for engineers and scientists and on R&D for high tech industries. China is amazingly proficient at penching pennies and producing plastic junk, but it will be a long time before they can build anything as complicated as the Curiosity and the equipment which took it to the surface of Mars (although hopefully they are trying—we could use some new partners in space and some friendly competition might get us moving a bit faster).
The space shuttle program ended this morning when the Atlantis lander touched down at 5:57 AM Eastern Standard Time at the Cape Canaveral spaceport. The national and international media has elegiacally noted the end of the 30 year program, most commonly with articles which sound a dirge-like note concerning the final end of the manned space program (with undertones of America’s decline as a spacefaring, scientific, and military power as well). I am glad those articles are out there because I feel that our inability to ensure adequate funding for basic blue sky research has put the nation’s economic future in jeopardy. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, national greatness has come not from abundant natural resources or a large hard-working population (although the United States has both of those things) but from innovation after innovation. To quote Representative Frank Wolf, a member of the NASA appropriations committee,“If we cut NASA, if we cut cancer research, we’re eating our seed corn.”
However, I am concerned that the story is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat and it shouldn’t be. Despite its ever shrinking budget, NASA is actually doing a great deal in space right now as, to a lesser degree, are the world’s other space programs. Five days ago NASA the spacecraft Dawn went into orbit around the protoplanet Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt. Next July Dawn will power up its ion thrusters and fly to the dwarf planet Ceres, an enigmatic pseudo-planet which seems to harbor secrets of the solar system’s beginning under its oceans. Dawn is only one of ten planetary missions currently in orbit (or, indeed onworld) across the rest of the solar system. These are MESSENGER, Venus Express, Chang’E 2, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars rover Opportunity, Dawn, and Cassini. Additionally the following eight spacecraft are currently in flight: New Horizons is headed for the dwarf planet Pluto, Rosetta is currently flying to the comet Churymov-Gerasimenko, Japan’s Akatsuki and IKAROS are both in solar orbit, the spacecrafts Deep Impact and ICE, are awaiting further instructions, and finally Voyager 1 and 2 are still out there exploring the distant edge of the solar system. I picked out the projects involving NASA in green (I have already written about the Japanese solar sail Ikaros and our Mercury mission so check out my hyperlinks). These are just the far traveling missions–there are also dozens of near-Earth spacecraft studying the sun, the stars, deep space, and, most of all, the earth.
The shuttle program is not quite as dead as it seems, the Air Force still has two small robot space shuttles and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which spawned all manner of world changing technology) is working on next generation spaceplanes. A single-stage-to-orbit space plane (which takes off and lands like a normal plane) is still far off, but aerospace engineers seem confident they could build a two-stage-to-orbit crewed space plane around scramjet technology.
I’m going to miss the shuttles—the white behemoths were major features of my childhood. Back in the early eighties they seemed to hold out all sorts of promises for a glorious future in space. But childhood comes to an end and the shuttles really never lived up to expectations. Now as we Americans sit grounded (unless we want to pay the Russians 50+ million dollars for a seat on one of their old Soyuz spacecrafts), it is time to think about what we want. Maybe humankind will catch a break and see breakthroughs in molecular or nuclear engineering which leave us with a new range of materials and energy possibilities (despite its long quiet phase, I still have high hopes for the National Ignition Facility). I have always harbored fantasies of a nuclear power plant on the moon with an attached rail gun for space launches. I also like the idea of a space elevator, or a twirling toroid space habitat with false gravity. The always deferred Mars mission is exciting too (although we have talked about it so long that some of its glitter has come off). But I’m open to other ideas. We all should be. We need to talk about it and then we need to decide on some ideas and fund them quickly. Seeds need to be planted to grow.
I was reading the accursed “Captivate Network” on the elevator today and, as usual, it had some feeble management hints—this time about how leaders can foster a sense of humor. It caused me to reflect that most of the good leaders I know don’t have much of a sense of humor. I believe this humdrum fact may contain clues about the nature of leadership and the hierarchical structure of human society.
Like many underlings, when I am at my day job, I have to work hard not to chime in with quips about the (many) ridiculous paradoxes and quirks of the workplace. Even if everyone else in the office enjoys a bit of clowning, humor sets the big boss on edge. Although he is too much of a politician to say anything, a careful observer can notice a moment of icy distaste settle on his face when anybody says something funny.
Part of this undoubtedly has to do with his agenda and his calendar. He runs a tight ship. Things must get done, and time constraints proscribe horseplay. Also the boss has to appear to be fair; and humor has an obvious power to unsettle and alienate. Looking back to middle school we all remember that the class clown could be a terrifying force of mockery and insecurity. A clever comedian can use jokes to exclude people from groups or shame them socially. Perhaps the boss needs to appear to be entirely above such things so he does not inadvertently slight someone or create a hostile environment.
But there are larger and more fundamental forces at play concerning bosses’ humorlessness than just good time management and coverage from liability. A comic sensibility is a wonderful tool for dealing with stress and uncertainty, however managers have even better tools for dealing with such things: namely us, their employees, who can be used like chess pieces to solve their problems. Additionally the boss has charisma, a forceful personality, a logical mind, self-discipline, and an extreme ability to organize things. What need hath he for laughter?
Also, as dog owners know, humor is a function of hierarchy. Lower status dogs are funny and amiable. They roll on their back and put their paws up in submission. They clown and cavort like puppies. Alpha dogs are more like wolves or bankers—serious, ruthless, and businesslike. Perhaps the boss becomes animated and fun when placed in a room filled with his superiors. Although, for the record, I have seen him “making rain” with wealthy individuals—and, although he was most convivial and used many humor-like turns of phrase, I don’t believe he was funny, nor did he particularly enjoy the jokes of others (even as he worked hard to produce an approximation of mirth).
Possibly too the boss could be holding his humor in reserve. In the Hornblower novels (a series of adventure novels about a great naval commander), the admirable captain conducted his life without humor or sentiment except in extreme situations. When everything was on the line, Hornblower’s subordinates were always shocked to find that their lofty captain was able to make jokes and be extremely affable. It allowed the sailors to get through the truly trying times–like when their frigate was being blown to smithereens or they were being sent to Paris for public execution. Perhaps in similar situations other emotionally-restrained bosses could pull off some big laughs.
Finally there is the nature of society. From personal first-hand accounts I know that the despised George W. Bush Junior was funny and amiable, with a knack for making people around him feel at ease. When he tried the same thing on cameras however it came off as shallow and uncaring. Any attempts to make fun of himself or the affairs of the nation (and both were frequently patently absurd) were derided by his enemies as callous and oafish. Lincoln apparently had a similar problem but was smart enough not to allow television cameras at official events (and brilliant enough that his witticisms were scintillating even on paper after 150 years). It seems like the current president suffers from such a problem too. He has certainly receded from being a mildly funny person whom people liked into a distant, dour technocrat. On top of that, even now, American society is still fundamentally puritan with a dislike of idle laughter in favor of good hard work.
I’m sorry to write such a dour and earnest essay concerning the (possible) humor of leaders. I know whole that whole species of comedy exist concerning how funny bosses are without meaning to be. I think that such entertainments, however, are aimed at bad bosses, whereas I like and respect my humorless boss as a superb and powerful leader [as an aside, I wrote the boss in this essay as an abstract figure—certainly not my actual bosses, business associates, or editors!]. I even kind of like and admire the hapless United States president (both this one and the last one) for earnestly struggling with the problems of the world night and day in a crazy media environment which usually prevents him from being very human and then requires him to emote like crazy every once in a while. In the final assessment of leadership and humor, though, I fear that, at least in contemporary America, the one usually precludes the other.