Conservatism Is Less Than a Culture; It’s a Cult

If you see American “conservatives” as people with a certain political view and try to talk to them, you will be hopelessly confused. You can only understand them if you realize that they are members of a cult.

That word has pejorative connotations. Conservatives will be insulted when I call them members of a cult. Sorry about that, but I’m not just name-calling. It’s the only way that I’m able to make sense of their statements and actions.

What makes them a cult?

First, they have a dogma – a set of core beliefs that they take on faith. This dogma is invulnerable to observable facts. Any fact that contradicts their dogma will either be re-interpreted or ignored.

For example, a core tenet of contemporary conservatism is: “No government can do anything as well as a private corporation.” What happens when the government issues a clear specification for a contract and the corporation that wins the bid fails to deliver on time and within budget? Do conservatives blame the corporation for lying about what they could deliver; failing to produce a useable product; and overcharging for their service?

No. The conservative lays the entire blame on the government for not managing the contract properly.

Apparently, signing a contract with a company in good faith and honestly reporting when they fail to deliver is “mis-mangement”. But only when the government does it. When the corporation does the same thing to a conservative, then the corporation is at fault. But the conservative will invariably add the aside, on the basis of dogma alone, that “if the government had been providing the service, they would have done worse.”

On a far larger scale, conservative policies have brought us into an economic depression, eroded the middle class, increased the disparity between the wealthy and the average citizen, driven countless small businesses into bankruptcy, and increased poverty.

Yet conservatives cling to their economic dogma with utter conviction. No matter how much visible damage is done by de-regulation, lowering taxes to unsustainable levels, and favoring anti-competitive corporate behavior, conservatives will insist that we need more of these policies, not less.

That’s the practical definition of dogma.

Second, conservatives follow charismatic leaders. A few strong personalities deliver the conservative dogma to the masses all day, every day over Fox News, talk radio, and endless best-selling hardcover books.

For most of us, it’s hard to find much charisma in the egocentric Rush Limbaugh, the bombastic Bill O’Reilly, the totalitarian Ann Coulter, or the irrational Glen Beck. Conservatives, though, are endlessly entertained by irrational, egocentric, totalitarian bombast as long as it reinforces their dogma.

Think of these conservative pundits as delivering sermons to their cult and you’ll understand their appeal to that segment of the population.

This brings us to the third characteristic of a cult. An in-group is established which self-identifies and distinguishes itself from everyone else at every opportunity.

This is pretty obvious. Talk to a conservative and he’ll identify himself as such almost immediately. Chances are that he’ll say, “I’m a conservative.” If not then he’ll start spouting conservative dogma in response to almost any statement you make.

You: “Nice day today.”

Con: “Not as long as Obama is destroying the country.”

The clearest indication of the strength of the conservative in-group mentality is their insistence that there is no middle ground. “If you aren’t with me, you’re against me.”

This means that any label applied to people who are not conservatives is automatically an insult. Conservatives consider liberalsocialist, and progressive to be slanders. And they apply those slanders to anyone who is not in the cult, no matter what position he takes on any individual issue.

Cults do not tolerate free-thinking or reasoned dissent.

The dichotomy between the in-group and the out-group is all-encompassing. You can’t agree with them on some policies and not others. If you are not 100 percent conservative, then you are not in the cult and you are one of the bad people.

Once people, rather than ideas, are placed into one category or the other, the classification generalizes to every behavior, attitude, and idea. If you’re not a conservative, you cannot be patriotic, moral, or decent. You have no place in their America.

At this point, the conservative has only two options: to convert you or to abandon you.

The fourth characteristic of a cult is that its members proselytize. This is why it is so difficult to talk to conservatives. You think that they are interested in rational discussion, sharing information, learning, figuring out the truth. That is the purpose of intellectual discussion, right?

Not for the conservative. His purpose is to induct you into the cult. That is why the conservative’s conversation consists of sound bites: bits of rehearsed dogma, irrelevant factoids that sound “truthy”, and a boat-load of name-calling.

He will tell you about his other conservative friends and will recommend that you start listening to conservative pundits on TV and radio.

His meta-message is that he will be your friend only if you agree with him; that you will feel wonderful if you agree with him; and that you will be a better person if you agree with him.

His only objective is to recruit you because every cult needs more members.

The final characteristic of cults is that their followers tolerate exploitation by the leadership. The leaders and the powers behind the leaders create and maintain cults for their own benefit. That is obvious to everyone but the members of the cult.

Cult members donate, tithe, and give the profits of their labor to the leaders. L Ron Hubbard lived on a yacht in the Mediterranean  Reverend Sun Moon lived in a palace; and so forth.

Who profits from the conservative cult? The answer is so obvious, it hardly needs to be stated. America has never had such a wide disparity between the wealthy and the average worker. It has the worst economic mobility of any industrialized country. The rich really are getting richer while the rest of the country is getting poorer and poorer. The Great Recession didn’t reduce the wealth of the elite at all; it made them wealthier.

The conservative masses not only tolerate these conditions, but keep pushing for more of the policies that created them. They can only do that because they are true believers in the dogma of their cult.

If you are not a conservative, I hope that this perspective will help you understand people who are. And if you are a conservative, no problem, you didn’t read past the first paragraph of this essay. Cult members never read or listen to anything that contradicts their dogma or criticizes their leaders.

Yours, Ashley

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Rise of the Celebrity Intellectual

celebrity intellectual is a person known to the general public for his or her intellectual achievements. There are many, many intellectuals who are known to their students and peers, but few of those manage to float into the consciousness of people outside their narrow academic discipline.

We have always had celebrity intellectuals. Socrates was certainly a celebrity in ancient Athens. Mass media made Einstein more famous more quickly than any scientist before him and, arguably, since. Television brought many more scientists, like Von Braun and Oppenheimer and Watson to public view.

Today, though, the Internet has accelerated the dissemination of all kinds of information to previously unimaginable velocities, including the accomplishments of key intellectuals. One of the biggest forces has been the digital broadcasting of Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference talks. has made thousands of talks by designated intellectuals available to anyone who is connected to the Internet.

Suddenly we have so many celebrity intellectuals that we can’t remember their names. But we remember their claims to ideas and accomplishments. It’s not unusual today to hear someone at a party asking, “Did you hear that TED talk by that woman who studies why victims of domestic violence don’t leave their husbands?” That Woman is as much a celebrity as that actress who plays Sheldon Cooper’s mother in The Big Bang Theory. You can be a celebrity even if people don’t remember your name.  

This phenomenon is not a fad. There is good reason to want to hear what the leaders of scientific and cultural revolutions have to say. You don’t have to make any outrageous assumptions to predict that the number of celebrity intellectuals in our lives will be greater than ever before in history.

This has some good effects.

It stimulates interest in intellectual pursuits. The more voters who talk about what they saw on TED instead of on Jersey Shore, the better off we all will be.

And we need more of our youth to aspire to be rocket scientists. Especially when they are inspired by intellectuals on the leading edge of science and technology.

But there are some pitfalls in the creation of celebrity intellectuals.

It begins when someone, like a TED conference organizer, selects an individual to present his or her work. This selection may be based on the existing fame of the individual; or the ability of the person to be entertaining; or even on the personal preferences of the organizer. People may be promoted to celebrity status because of their ability to network, to entertain, or even because of nepotism. Not all celebrity intellectuals are, in fact, the most accomplished intellectuals in their fields.

However, the celebrity is chosen, he or she is then in a position to take credit for creating a whole field of study when, in fact, he or she is normally only the tip of a large iceberg. More than once, I have heard TED speakers present their invention as a unique advance that stands alone when in reality, it is but a single stone in a huge pyramid.

Too often a celebrity uses the phrase, “I invented…” in a sentence which obscures exactly what small part of a much larger technology he or she invented and implies that he or she is personally responsible for an entire academic discipline. Often a discipline that was active and thriving years before the celebrity graduated from high school.

In effect, the celebrity becomes a personification of a field of academic study in the public mind. That’s okay to the extent that it makes the work easier for the public to understand and remember. But, to the extent that research funds are diverted away from other, arguably better, researchers, it can be detrimental to progress.

Worse, celebrity can pervert the scientific method. Science works on constant examination of ideas. Theories must be discarded when flaws are discovered or when new data invalidates them.

The celebrity’s work can become invulnerable to refutation simply because too many people automatically believe in the authority of the celebrity and considers him or her to be an unassailable expert. The celebrity can’t be wrong because he or she is the one who was made famous.

I can give you an example. I heard a talk on TED in which the speaker presented an improperly-designed experiment as confirmation of her theory. Her theory was probably correct, but one of the graphs that she showed did not support her position. I pointed this out in a comment and received, in reply, a couple of poorly-informed, logically-incorrect rebuttals. People were coming to the defence of the speaker, not because she was right, but because she had been chosen by the TED organizers to be the celebrity and I had not. I continued the argument briefly, then took my own homily – “When you are arguing with fools, so are they” – to heart and pursued the discussion no further. It’s foolish to beat yourself bloody against someone armored in celebrity.

When people can’t see past the celebrity to examine his or her ideas with an objective eye, then science has failed.

Neither of these consequences – ignoring other researchers or ignoring flaws in ideas – delivers a fatal blow to science. The entire scientific process has evolved to be robust and recover from such errors. But it takes time and will slow the progress of science to some degree. In fact, to the degree that the celebrity wields influence over other, less famous peers and over the public purse.

I believe that the rise of a culture of celebrity intellectuals will provide a net benefit to society. But that is not a certainty. What is a certainty is that the culture of celebrity intellectuals will not go away, but will become stronger over time.

It will be interesting to watch and see exactly how much the culture of celebrity intellectuals benefits us over the coming decades.

Yours, Ashley

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Use the Doubling Cube to Intimidate

Many years ago, I was taught to play backgammon by an aunt who didn’t understand the game. She brushed the doubling cube aside with the comment, “That’s just for gambling. It doesn’t really matter.”

She was absolutely wrong. The doubling cube is critical to backgammon strategy. She was a serious bridge player and would have been horrified if someone had said, “Bidding in bridge is just for gambling and doesn’t really matter.” Yet it’s the same thing. The doubling cube is the way you bid in backgammon.

First, you have to understand that you’re not playing a single game when you play backgammon on the Microsoft Internet server. You’re playing a match of five points. It can take as many as nine games for one player to accumulate five points, but more often it requires only three or four games because of gammons and the doubling cube.

Without the doubling cube, each game that you win adds one point toward the five points required to win the match. Unless you gammon your opponent. You get two points if you finish bearing off while he still has all his men on the board. Or backgammon him. You get three points if you finish bearing off while he still has all his men on the board, one of which is still in your inner table.

The doubling cube simply doubles those numbers. At any point, you can challenge your opponent with the cube. If he refuses, he forfeits the game. If he accepts, you are now playing for double the number of points. And he now controls the cube. That means that he can challenge you back again and, if you accept, you’re now playing for quadruple the points. And it’s now you who controls the cube.

Doubling and redoubling quickly brings you closer to winning or losing the match. You want to challenge your opponent with the doubling cube if you think that you’re going to win. But if you think that you’re going to lose and your opponent offers you the cube, you should refuse and forfeit. You only accept the cube if you think that your opponent has made a mistake and you have a nearly even chance against him.

If you think that you’re going to gammon your opponent, you don’t want to double. Why not? Because he can refuse and lose only one point instead of being gammoned and lose two points.

The bottom line, is that if you’re doing well, you want to double, but you want to do it before you’re too far ahead. It’s a tricky decision. I’m constantly thinking about whether I should be doubling or not.

On the other hand, if you’re too far behind, you can only hope that you will be offered the cube so that you can refuse and forfeit a single point.

But surely you already knew all this.

When I play, I double often. Maybe on almost half the games I play. Often I double when each of us have only four or five men left on the board.

Why do so many people who play backgammon on the Internet fail to double when they should?

It’s people who don’t know how to double strategically who are most likely to complain that the dice must be rigged and their opponent must be cheating. The fact is, they wouldn’t be as paranoid about cheating if they knew how to use the cube strategically. They wouldn’t be giving their opponents so many chances to get lucky. The cube is a psychological club that you can wave around to intimidate your opponent into submission.

Here’s the situation where the cube can best be used to win. Imagine that you and your opponent are both bearing off and you’re somewhat ahead of him. Gammoning him is no longer in the picture because he’s already taken some of his men off. He might win if he rolls double fours or better and will certainly win if he rolls doubles more than once.

That’s when you double him with the cube. Why? To make him pay if he tries to get lucky.

If you don’t double him, he’ll keep playing, hoping to roll doubles. He’s got nothing to lose by trying. And sometimes he will get his doubles. Sometimes, he’ll even roll two or three doubles. And you’re going to curse the gods or swear that he’s controlling the dice.

Fool. All you had to do was double him when you were ahead. Almost always, he’ll refuse the cube and give you the game. If he doesn’t and keeps rolling, hoping for a streak of big rolls and doubles, then more often than not, you’ll win twice as many points as you should. Then you get to laugh at him.

Consider a crystal clear example. You and your opponent are both bearing off; you both have four men left on your respective one points; and you have the roll. If you don’t roll doubles and your opponent does, you lose. That will happen 13% of the time: ((30/36)/6)=0.13. Why take the chance? Challenge him with the cube and, if he knows what he’s doing, he’ll forfeit. If he doesn’t know what he’s doing and he accepts the cube, 87% of the time you’ll win two points instead of one. Yay!

That’s why I double people in the last few moves of so many games. I’m forcing them out of the game instead of letting them keep rolling and trying to get lucky.

Learn to do that and you’ll not only win more games, you’ll be a lot less likely to think the dice are rigged because you won’t have your opponent coming up from behind and winning with lucky rolls.

Yours, Ashley

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Has My Husband Sexually Assaulted Me?

Some time ago, my husband turned to me and asked, “Have I ever sexually assaulted you?”

A number of my own questions immediately popped into my mind. “Are you an idiot?” “Why the hell would you ask me such a stupid question?” and “Don’t you know?”

This was quickly followed by a number of potential answers, foremost being, “If you had, you’d remember because you’d have been arrested, gone to prison, got divorced, and been murdered in your sleep, not necessarily in that order.”

I found his question vaguely offensive and was tempted to let him know with a sarcastic remark but I couldn’t interpret the expression on his face. He looked sincere. So I settled for saying, “No.”

He turned back to the TV and never mentioned it again.

But his question stuck with me because it is far more complex than it appears on its face.

First, let me say that I’ve never been sexually assaulted  Not by him, nor by any other man. Our sex life is reasonably satisfying and completely vanilla. We’ve never played bondage or simulated rape games that might have been misinterpreted as a real assault.

So why would such a question have occurred to him?

Let’s begin with assault. He said, sexual assault, he didn’t say, rape. The concept of sexual assault has replaced rape in law and that terminology has drifted into popular culture.

Traditionally, rape meant penetration of a woman’s vagina by a man’s penis without her consent. Penetration of her mouth or anus was called sodomy and was sometimes illegal even with her consent. If sodomy was not consensual, it was almost invariably considered equivalent to rape in seriousness.

Rape and sodomy omitted a great many violent sexual acts against women, including violent sexual humiliation, injury to sexual organs, and so forth. These could be prosecuted as any other assault, but there was a feeling that the sexual component made them were more serious than simple assault or even aggravated assault.

Thus, the catch-all term, sexual assault, was written into law. But this was expanded far beyond rape and sodomy to include some minor violations such as touching a woman’s breasts through her clothing without her consent.

Was my husband asking me about forms of sexual assault other than rape that he may have inflicted on me?

Occasionally, when I’m getting out of the shower he is moved to pull me into a hug and caress or massage my breasts and buttocks. He does not ask my consent and I’m not especially fond of him doing that, not because it’s a sexual assault but because I’m damp and chilly and he’s keeping me from getting dressed right away. Annoying but not a crime by any stretch.

Sometimes, when we’re watching television, he is moved to grab a breast and give it a gentle squeeze. That’s also annoying because it distracts me from the program. And because I suspect that he’s motivated to do it, not because he is overwhelmed by my animal sexuality, but because he’s seen a pair of young, firm tits in a bikini or tight sweater on the screen and he’s fantasizing about her as he’s mauling me.

Is this what my husband was asking? If I considered his sometimes ill-timed groping to rise to the level of low-grade sexual assault? Groping that would never land him in prison or get him murdered in his sleep. I can imagine myself saying, “Officer, my husband grabbed my tit when we were watching TV together. I want him arrested and sent to prison.” Surely my husband isn’t concerned about any such ridiculous scenario.

Does he do anything else that might be considered sexual assault? Maybe he’s thinking about the foolish feminists of the sixties, like Dworkin and MacKinnon. Some of them went so far as to claim that any sexual intercourse in which the woman does not experience an orgasm is rape. Their logic is that if the woman does not enjoy the act as much as the man, then she is being abused by the expectations of the patriarchal power structure. Even if she consented.

Certainly there have been times, many times, in our marriage when I was not in the mood and my husband was. So, sometimes I spread my legs for him just to stop him from whining, even though I knew that there was no way that I was going to have an orgasm myself.

But I never resented that. I never felt like I was being bullied or forced into sex. There was no question that if I had said, “No,” he would have accepted my answer; and gone away to pout a bit. And, though I was not sexually stimulated by those acts, I wasn’t physically or psychologically damaged by them, either. I was simply a little bored, about equivalent to any other chore, such as washing dishes or doing laundry. The difference was that the sexual chore took a lot less time than housework. Ten minutes and he was done. I only wish I could get the vacuuming done so quickly. And that a clean house would make my husband as happy.

After considering the physical acts, the only way that remained to interpret my husband’s question is psychologically. We both know that occasionally I get groped a bit and sometimes I agree to sex when I’m not quite as horny than a bitch in heat. He couldn’t be asking if  he did that so he has to be asking how I felt about it.

The exact wording of the question becomes critical. My husband did not ask if I like being groped or guilted into giving him sex. He knows that I don’t like it because I never pretend that I do. I’ve never faked an orgasm in my life. By asking about assault, he must be asking if I dislike it so much that I consider his behavior rising to the level of a crime. Not a felony, but a misdemeanor. The sexual equivalent of illegal parking or stealing a bath towel from a motel room?

That makes his question loaded with an accusation because it implies that I act as though I’m being assaulted when I generously give his needs priority over my comfort.

If that’s what he’s trying to imply, then he deserves more than a sarcastic retort; he deserves a swift kick in the nuts.

I think I should think about his question a little longer before I strap on my steel-toed work boots. I don’t want to over-react. Not until I’m certain what he meant.

I’ll let you know when I finally figure it out.

Yours, Ashley

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Cheating on Microsoft Internet Backgammon

Googling “microsoft internet backgammon cheating”, I’ve found a lot of discussion about cheating on Microsoft Internet Backgammon. Silly, ill-informed, immature discussion.

Are there ways to cheat? Maybe, but probably not the way it’s discussed on the web forums.

Most of the people who complain about cheating, complain that the dice rolls favor the other player. From this, they infer that, somehow, the other player has a program that manipulates the dice rolls to give them doubles when they need them, rolls that let them make points more often than they should, or that block you from getting the roll required to get off the bar.

None of these players can point to a site where you can actually download these mythical cheating programs yourself. At best, they mention a friend of a friend who says that he could write such a program if he felt like it. But he never does.

Almost all of these posts about unfair dice rolls show ignorance about basic probability calculations.

One post stood out because it cited actual numbers. The writer had recorded the number of sixes rolled on the opponent’s first roll on over 2000 games. He found that the opponents rolled a six more than thirty percent of the time when the odds should have been one-sixth of the time. See his mistake? A six will come up one-sixth of the time on one die.  But backgammon uses two dice. When you roll two dice, there are thirty-six possible outcomes. Eleven of them contain a six: 1-6, 2-6, 3-6, 4-6, 5-6, 6-6, 6-5, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, and 6-1. Eleven out of thirty-six is about thirty percent. This guy didn’t prove that sixes came up too often, he proved that they came up about as often as random chance would predict.

But what did he do? He said that now, whenever his opponent rolls a six on the first roll, he concludes that his opponent is cheating and he immediately abandons the game. Now he wins more often. No shit. He only plays when he has a better than average chance after the first roll. Someone’s cheating, all right. But it’s not his opponent.

What should he have done? He should have recorded how often he rolled a six on the first roll, too. Then he would have discovered that he got sixes just as often as the other guy. And his abysmal understanding of probability theory wouldn’t have mattered.

If you’re going to play backgammon, you have to understand this table that shows all the possible rolls of a pair of dice:

Screen shot 2013-02-09 at 2.28.35 PM

Each row is a different face of the first die and each column a different face of the second die.

First, you can see that there are thirty-six possible outcomes. You can see that doubles, which are found on the diagonal occur six times out of thirty-six. Sevens are found on the other diagonal and also occur six times out of thirty-six.

Any single number occurs eleven times out of thirty-six: six times on the row and six times on the column, minus once where the row and column overlap.

You can also see that getting a six and five – 5,6; 6,5 – is twice as likely as getting double fives – 5,5 – but exactly as likely as getting either double sixes or double fives – 6,6; 5,5. That’s why it’s easier to advance out of your opponent’s one point to your safety point at his twelve point if you haven’t advanced your man to his two point.

This table also shows something more subtle and interesting. Look what happens as you move away from the top-left to lower-right diagonal. Rolls in which the dice are separated by one pip – 1,2; 2,3; 3,4; 4,5; 5,6; 6,5; 5,4; 4,3; 3,2; and 2,1 – are more common than rolls in which the dice are separated by two pips – 1,3; 2,4; 3,5; 4,6; 6,4; 5,3; 4,2; and 3,1. And those in turn, more common than three pip separations – 1,4; 2,4; 3,6; 6,3; 4,2; 5,1. And so forth. This means that you’ll more likely make points when you have men on the board that are adjacent than when they are separated by one or more empty points.

You shouldn’t be playing backgammon unless you can visualze this table in your head.

It explains why people often think that the dice are against them. The chances of a double are 1:6. Unlikely, but hardly rare. The chances of two doubles in a row is 1:36 and three doubles in a row, 1:216. If you play a lot of backgammon, you’re going to see your opponent get three doubles in a row once in a while. It does not mean that the dice are rigged. It means that he got lucky. And not lottery-win, struck-by-lightning lucky, only its-sure-to-happen-sometimes lucky. Frustrating  when you’re neck and neck and bearing off, but it happens.

The chances of making a point on the opening roll – 1,3; 1,6; 2,4; 3,5; 4,6; 6,4; 5,3; 4,2; 6,1; 3,1 – is 10:36 or 28%. It’s going to happen a lot. By the way, expert players don’t recommend using an opening 6,4 roll to make a point because starting the game with a point that deep in your home table is not especially useful. I always know that I’m playing someone who has never read about backgammon strategy when I see my opponent do that.

So what do you do when your opponent gets lucky and you don’t? The stupid thing to do is to swear, claim your opponent must be cheating, and storm away from the computer. Stupid, not only because you’re almost certainly wrong, and very certainly immature, but because you never get a chance to learn about coming from behind to win a game. If you play to the bitter end, you’d be surprised how often you can manage to hit a blot as your opponent is bearing off, keep putting him back while you keep advancing, and squeak out a sweet, sweet victory.

How do people really cheat? They do it by getting a program like GNU Backgammon and using it to advise them on strategy. You won’t see them forcing good dice rolls for themselves more often than chance because that’s not what they’re doing. They’re simply playing better than you with fair dice. But they’re playing more slowly because they have to keep consulting the program to get advice before making their moves.

And you? Unlike chess, the best backgammon programs can still be beaten by great players. Forget about cheating and learn to play brilliantly. You won’t win when your opponent gets lucky rolls, but you will win far more often than not.

And you’ll enjoy playing a lot more.

Yours, Ashley

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Are You an Amateur or Professional Writer?

You write fiction. Great! Wonderful! Terrific!

The first question that you have to ask yourself: Is your writing a hobby or a business?

Guess what. I already know your answer: “It’s a business. I’m going to write a bestseller that will make millions of dollars.” That’s what you’ve been telling your spouse ever since you graduated, or quit your job, or decided that you were going to quit your job as soon as you found an agent.

But is that the real answer? Let’s admit the truth. You can’t say that your writing is a hobby because that would sound bad. Hobbies are things that don’t matter. And your writing matters. You take it seriously so it can’t be just a hobby.

First, let me point out that hobbies are not mere play. Hobbies can be serious pursuits that make a difference in the world. Right now, hobbyists are discovering new stars, ancient artifacts, and new species of animals, both alive and fossilized. Hobbyists are writing software that competes with commercial releases. Hobbyists are maintaining museums and libraries and galleries.

Your writing can be a hobby and still be serious. It can be great literature that will become part of the Western Canon. Especially today when you can self-publish any novel as an ebook that will never go out of print.

So what does distinguish writing as a hobby from writing as a business?

What you write and how.

If your writing is going to be a business, then you have to write what people want to read. And not just people, vast numbers of people. Tens of thousands of people have to want to buy every book that you write if you want to feed yourself and put a roof over your head. Hundreds of thousands if you want to live well. Millions if you want to be rich.

There are plenty of books and blogs that will tell you how to write a bestseller. The bottom line, though, is that you have to figure out what other people want to read and write that. Exactly that and nothing but that. You don’t get to write whatever you want. You don’t get to lecture to people. You don’t get to indulge your passion for poetic language. You don’t get to show people how smart you are. You don’t get to write great literature. Most people don’t want to read great literature. They want to be entertained.

Above all, you don’t get to write one book. Bestsellers come in series. Bestselling writers write shelves of books.

That brings us to the how. How do you write?

If your writing is your job then you have to treat it like a job. You sit down at your desk for several hours every day and write. Every day. Not when the mood strikes. And you write. Fiction, not tweets and blogs and emails to friends. Stephen King, for example, sits at his desk for four hours every day, no matter how lovely the weather outside or what special program is being shown on television.

Even the best job isn’t much fun. If writing is your job, then you can’t expect to have fun doing it. Like any job, you have to spend so much time doing it that you become over-skilled in it. The words have to flow almost automatically. Stephen King has talked about “falling through the page” when he is writing. By that, he means that he is no longer paying attention to the words. They have become automatic. His mind is completely occupied with  his characters’ actions.

Writing is an intense intellectual activity. You can’t spend eight hours a day on it. So does that make writing a part-time job? Sorry, no. The rest of the time, you have to promote your writing, negotiate with agents, and, if you’re lucky, answer fan mail.

So let’s ask the question again: Is your writing a business or a hobby?

You don’t have to tell anyone that it’s a hobby. But if you admit it to yourself that your writing isn’t a business then there is a pretty big upside. When you do write the next great English language novel and it sells only a thousand copies, you’re not a failed business, you’re an amazingly successful writer.

Yours, Ashley

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Ashley’s Rules for Brilliant Management

I worked in the federal government for a long time. Thirty years, to be exact. And during that time, I developed a few simple rules for being an effective manager.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I’m not a good manager. Never was. Never liked it. Never did it well. At my peak of success, I managed only a handful of people in assorted capacities. My greatest skill was driving people out of the public service.

Nevertheless, I have worked for and with a lot of managers at all levels and have seen a variety of different management techniques and styles and can make some generalizations about what works and what doesn’t. Mostly I was not a good manager because I didn’t want to spend my time managing people, not because I didn’t know how.

So, for what it’s worth, here is a distillation of what I leaned about being a manager:

First Rule: Exploit people’s strengths.

It’s amazes me how often managers do exactly the opposite. Everyone has things that they do well and things that they do poorly. Most managers concentrate on their subordinates’ weaknesses and harangue, bully , and belittle them for their failings. The manager tells himself that that he’s trying to improve the employee by helping him overcome his weaknesses.

Nonsense. The manager is bolstering his own ego by proving, over and over, that there’s something that he can do that his subordinate cannot.

This happens at every level. A true story. A man was a vice-president of a major bank. He left the business world to become the dean of a business school. After a year, it became clear that he was not suited to the job. He was not well-organized. He did not relate to professors with prickly personalities. He lacked clear vision. Distraught by his failings, the business school got rid of him by convincing him to take a job as dean of another business school far away. The second business school quickly discovered the man’s failings. But they were better managers. Instead of trying to fix him or get rid of him, they looked at his great strength. The man was a brilliant networker. He knew how to rub elbows with the rich and powerful. The second business school re-designed the job of dean. They gave all the management duties to the vice dean and effectively reduced the man’s job to a figurehead. Then they sent him out to talk to potential donors. The man was happy meeting with people and convincing them to give money to the university. He was good at it. He raised a fortune for the department and the department loved him for it.

That’s brilliant management.

Second rule: Hire people who are better than you.

It seems so obvious that you should hire the best people possible. You’re going to be judged by the quality of the work that your group does. Good people will do better work, so you should hire good people.

But it’s difficult and dangerous to hire the best so most managers don’t.

How is it difficult? Because you have to hire people who have skills that you lack. People who are different than you. If you are good at organizing events, you will be tempted to hire someone else who is also good at organizing events. Then you and he will have a great time together, organizing the best events ever. But if you hire someone who is great at statistical analysis, you’ll never be able to talk to him over coffee. You won’t understand what he’s saying and you’ll feel bad.

How is it dangerous? Because a subordinate who’s better than you might make you look bad and might even take your job. Your senior management is going to reorganize before long. That’s what senior managers do. They’re addicted to reorganization because that’s the easiest way to give an illusion of change and progress.

When you are reorganized, you may well find your best subordinate promoted to a parallell position where you’ll now be competing against him for resources, or worse, a senior position where you’ll be reporting to him.

It’s a risk, but it’s a risk worth taking because the alternative is having only staff who are inferior and who will, before long, make you look bad because of their failings. And no manager who looks bad fares well in the next reorganization.

Managers’ natural tendency to hire only people who are like them, but not quite as good, makes organizations rot from the top down. In the first round, a CEO hires vice presidents who are just like him, but not as good. He’s comfortable with them and is not threatened. They look up to him, agree with whatever he says, and boost his ego. But, in the second round, the vice presidents do the same thing. They hire middle managers who are not as good as them because that makes them feel safe and comfortable. Within a few years, you have the Challenger Space Shuttle diaster. NASA had installed so many senior and middle managers with so little expertise that they couldn’t understand the significance of an engineer’s report that the O-rings that sealed the fuel connections to the booster rockets would fail in cold weather.

Bad management kills.

Rule Three: Take your subordinates’ advice.

This is a rough one. You’ve hired people who are better than you. Now they’re trying to tell you what to do. You’re the boss, not them, and you’re going to prove it. You’re the decider and saying, “Yes,” doesn’t sound like deciding; it sounds like giving in. You have the power to say, “No,” so you do. A lot. MBO means Management by Obstruction in your group.

Don’t give in to this temptation or you’ll soon be known as the manager of the group that never does anything, never accomplishes anything, has no vision.

Rule Four: Don’t resent your subordinates.

Your subordinates are geniuses because you hired geniuses. They’re telling you what to do because they have better ideas than you do. You can’t help resenting that. Every day, they’re crushing your ego. So you want to crush them back.

The only solution is to get yourself under control. Remember two things. First, remember that they’re not perfect. Their strengths loom large because you’re exploiting them. Just remember that they have weaknesses, too.

Second, remember that they’re making you look good. Your manager is looking at what your group accomplishes under your leadership. He doesn’t pay nearly as close attention to who’s doing what in your group as you do. Managers’ attention is attracted to trouble spots. If your group is functioning well, your manager is not going to look too closely at the reason. He’s got to spend his time trying to figure out why some other group never manages to get their job done.

Each of these rules is obvious but they are all difficult for the same reason. Every one of these rules is hard on your ego. If you can concentrate on the mission of the organization instead of yourself, you should do well. Dwelling on your own importance is going to bring you down before long.

That’s a lesson that we’ve been trying to learn since the ancient Greeks coined the word, huberis.

Yours, Ashley

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