THE WEEKLY BLAB
Volume 11, Issue 16–June 27, 2017
Yes, It’s Been a Long Time
Things have been busy with the end of semester activities and the Weekly Blab has been a casualty—two months without a new issue? How have we all survived without it?
Summer is finally here and we seem to be alternating between nice warm sunny days and heavy rain, sometimes several times within the same day. It has been an unusually wet season. You may have read about flooding all along Lake Ontario, and the water level has been quite high along the St. Lawrence River as well. Lots of people ask why the locks on the river haven’t been opened more, but that would cause flooding in Montreal and other downstream places. We went down to the waterfront when we were in Ogdensburg on Saturday and the small pavilion that juts out into the river as a viewing area was closed due to the high water level. There were also a small number of sandbags along the water’s edge.
It was (on and off) a nice day—quite breezy though and the water was a bit choppy. As a result, there were only a few boats out and about—much fewer than normal.
Back at home, I bought some Cambridge Soundworks speakers for the TV an music system in our master bedroom. I’ve always liked Cambridge Soundworks stuff and have a set of their speakers hooked to the super audio system in the Music Room downstairs. Unfortunately, the company seems to have mostly gone under. You can buy used speakers, of course, on eBay at this point, so I bought a set of five small speakers at a cheap price, figuring if they were no good I could always throw them out. As it turns out, the speakers were fine but the subwoofer was of the passive variety, so I ordered a new Polk Audio subwoofer on Amazon. It showed up last Wednesday, so I hauled it upstairs (it turned out to be much larger than I thought) and hooked it up. The subwoofer makes a real difference with a small speaker set-up, and the sound is now quite good. I liked it so much that I ordered a second one for the Living Room downstairs, where I have another passive subwoofer that I think was working when I was down in Georgia, but isn’t working up here (or at least I can’t figure out how to bring it back to life).
Speaking of stuff I bought online, I had picked up a volume of the Anchor Bible commentaries a few weeks ago, since I had gotten interested in the apocryphal book of Judith after listening to the Vivaldi opera on the same subject (Judith Triumphant). The book turned out to be really interesting, with a good translation and lots of interesting footnotes, clarifying comments, as well as good discussions of the evidence for and against the historicity of the Judith story, and the strong use of irony within it. All the Anchor Bible commentaries are like that. They’re meant for the interested non-specialist, and are well written and well regarded by experts. The series began being produced way back around 1965, and is only nearing completion now (though new volumes by new authors of books already released are being produced, so the series will likely go on forever).
Long story short, I decided to buy more of them. Looking once again to eBay, I found a person down in Louisiana who wanted to sell a 50-volume collection of these commentaries, and we agreed at a reasonable price. He shipped the books in two big boxes, the first of which showed up on Friday. The box contained most of the volumes from the Old Testament, and I’ve started reading the one on Genesis, which is also very interesting. The second box showed up yesterday, and Jill and I hauled them all upstairs, where they’re lined up in order, waiting to be read.
The Starfish and the Spider
Speaking of new books, SUNY’s new chancellor, Kristina Johnson, who starts this September, sent me (and all the SUNY presidents) a copy of the book “The Starfish and the Spider” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. It’s a rather short book, subtitled “The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” that has been a best-seller on the business book list for quite some time and has garnered lots of good reviews.
The basic idea here is that some organizations and companies are like spiders—they stand on multiple legs (the various divisions in the company) and are controlled from a central “head” (usually by a president and senior staff, located at the corporate office). Such companies have certain advantages, such as centralized control, uniformity, and consistency, but also certain disadvantages: most notably, they are relatively easy to disrupt by targeting their leaders and central office. An example of this was the original version of Napster. The various record companies shut Napster down pretty quickly, by launching lawsuits against its leaders and corporate office, saying that it was engaged in illegal practices.
Other organizations and companies are like starfish—they are decentralized, and if one part of the organization is cut off, the rest of the organization can still function without it. In fact, if you cut off a leg of a starfish, the starfish will grow a new one (and in some cases, the leg you cut off will grow a new starfish). Such organizations are much harder to disrupt—just like the mythological hydra, if you cut off one head, 10 more will take its place. When Napster was shut down, several other file-sharing enterprises replaced it, the most prominent today being e-Mule, which has no apparent president nor central office—the e-Mule software is downloaded on to people’s computers, which then operate as a diffuse set of servers for the files being shared. Since there’s no president or central office, there is no one to sue to shut it down. Of course, there are no profits either, since the software is free and you don’t have to pay to use it or to share the files.
The main point of the book seems to be that “spider” type organizations are unstable in the long run, especially now that the internet allows the easy disruption of many major market sectors. They would be better served, the author argues, by becoming more starfish-like—not necessarily by going all the way (and having no president or central core), but adopting a hybrid model where the various “legs” would have much more autonomy, input, and decision-making authority, but would be held accountable for their results. In the hybrid model, the “head” would still have the final say, but would normally function in a more open and advisory capacity—keeping the focus on major goals, helping define general principles, seeing if progress is being made, and holding the divisions accountable.
The major take-aways from the book are:
- Large companies and organizations used to be dominant, but today, small decentralized ones are more flexible and better able to compete.
- Adding members to a network make existing members more valuable [each new seller or buyer added to eBay adds value to the existing sellers and buyers—there are more things to buy and more people to buy them].
- If you want creativity, you have to accept some chaos, since creative people don’t like to be controlled.
- Knowledge is (and should be) distributed across the organization, not kept secret or concentrated at the top.
- Give people in the organization an opportunity to contribute—they want to, and will often do it for free [Look at the number of people who write articles for Wikipedia or product reviews for Amazon, all for free].
- Catalysts are important [They help things happen because they believe in them, but then step away and allow others to take charge].
It will be interesting to see what the Chancellor has in mind from this.
I’m also interested in your opinions—I hope everyone would agree that SUNY Canton is a hybrid system, where the various divisions have a lot of autonomy and there are some opportunities for people to contribute ideas and strategies, but are we starfish-like enough? Are there some changes we need to make that would give people more buy-in, encourage creativity, and still let us set and reach critical goals? Let me hear from you, and I’ll print the replies in a future Blab [I’ll withhold your name if you want me to].
Last Time’s Trivia Contest
Last time’s contest dealt with word that begin with the letter “V”. Our fastest five responders with all five correct were Lenore VanderZee, Debbie Flack, Patrick Hanss, Christina Lesyk, and Kirk Jones. Just come to my office on the 6th floor of MacArthur Hall to get your prizes—a duplicate CD from the vast Szafran repository. Here are the correct answers:
- Common white-colored flavor of ice cream. Vanilla.
- He was the bad guy in Star Wars, who turned out to be Luke’s father. Darth Vader.
- You better give your sweetie a gift on this February day. Valentine’s Day
- I’ll bet you think this Carly Simon song is about you. You’re So Vain.
- The kind of dinosaur causing trouble in the movie Jurassic Park. Velociraptor.
This Time’s Trivia Challenge
Continuing our trek through the alphabet, this issue’s challenge is about words that begin with the letter “W”. The first five with all five correct wins a duplicate CD from the vast Szafran repository, or whatever else I’ve dredged up as a prize. No looking up the answers now! SEND ALL ENTRIES BY EMAIL TO firstname.lastname@example.org since if you put them as a response on the BLOG, everyone will be able to see them.
- First president of the United States
- Superheroine whose secret identity is Diana Prince.
- The tennis championships are held here, in England, this July.
- If one of these grocery stores opened in St. Lawrence county, people would die of sheer happiness.
- Mozart’s first name.