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Robert S. McNamara Jul. 6th, 2009 @ 11:04 pm

Strangely enough, I've been thinking about Robert S. McNamara a lot these past couple of days. Kim and I watched "The Fog of War" last Friday, and we spent much of the weekend discussing it, mulling over the man, his times, his actions, and how they relate to our current state of the world. News of his death today therefore came as a bit of a shock to us.

One thing that immediately struck me was the way in which Donald Rumsfeld based his public persona - and I believe certain of his actions as Secretary of Defense (at least his second stint at it) - on McNamara. First, there's the distinctive look: Rimless glasses, slicked-back hair, a bit of a know-it-all smirk, a handsome, boyish face. Add to it the idea that this is a Very Smart Guy, the genius kid who's in charge of the Pentagon, the takes-no-crap-from-Generals reformer who optimizes the institution, throws out old-style thinking, cleans house. But I think the comparison has to stop there, and the differences become even more apparent:

For one thing, Robert McNamara was Really Very Smart. In the way that many people that smart end up with Nobel prizes. Rumsfeld may have had some role in pushing through NutraSweet (although Wikipedia gives that distinction to another company executive at Searle), but certainly did cut that firm's payroll list by 60% before selling it off to Monsanto. But that barely reaches the ankles of McNamara's activities at Ford, where he may have killed of the Edsel (truth of this rumor is somewhat questionable, as it was used by Goldwater as a political attack), introduced the smaller and more affordable Ford Falcon AND consolidated Continental as a Lincoln. More importantly, he pushed for the introduction of amazingly innovative at the time safety features like a steering wheel that didn't impale the driver, and (drumroll please...) seat belts. However many deaths McNamara may have been responsible for, he probably contributed to orders of magnitude more saved lives with that single accomplishment.

Another key difference: Rumsfeld was SecDef twice, and he committed his most famous blunders the second time around. By the time McNamara left in disgrace, he was personally transformed. He'd acted dutifully, and I think very patriotically in support of his president, but his stint nearly destroyed him as a person. He was (I believe this on the basis of the interview he gives in "Fog of War") a deeply moral man, and he spent his remaining years trying to make up for some of the damage he'd done by laying out what he believed were his (and the administration's) major mistakes. Rather notably, Rummy and Bush completely failed to heed McNamara's lessons, chief of them being to empathize with, and understand the enemy.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Rumsfeld will publish a memoir very late in his life, detailing his mistakes, trying to make up for the incredible mess he helped make worse in the Middle East. But he doesn't have a lot of time, and he doesn't seem to be doing this now. One of the main reasons I believe that McNamara was a good man is his activity afterwards as president of the World Bank, and his eventual shift to smaller, more land-and-agriculture based projects for that institution. Even as Secretary of Defense, McNamara was cautious - as best as I can tell, he had pretty much always advocated for American withdrawal from Vietnam, contrary to his public statements to the opposite. It can be argued that he should have voiced his private concerns more publicly, but I fail to see what that would have gained him, or America. He evidently believed that it was better that a good man work from within the system, doing what he could, than voice open protest from outside. When he drafted what amounted to his resignation letter, he did so carefully. He gave Johnson a very reasoned way out, and LBJ could (and arguably, should) have followed McNamara's final memo, and saved a lot more American and Vietnamese lives in the process.

Okay, one final difference, not exactly trivial but kind of funny in its symmetry. McNamara's first act as SecDef was to accidentally undermine Kennedy by revealing that whatever Missile gap existed was in the United States' favor. Rumsfeld, in contrast, based much of his activity as SecDef during Ford's administration trying to prove that America was losing the Nuclear Race.

In conclusion to this short ramble, admittedly based largely on watching "The Fog of War", various obituaries that appeared today, and some hurried Wikipedia research, I have to admit that I believe Robert S. McNamara to have been a true Mensch. Some of his actions were wrong, sometimes disastrously so. But he never shied away from looking back at them, trying to figure out how he'd been led astray, what mistakes he'd made. He had borne amazing amounts of responsibility throughout his life, and done so with great personal cost, without complaining, and pushing his agenda where he could. Not only was he Very Smart, but he tried to use his intellect to the betterment of his country, and eventually the world. He was far from perfect, but impressive even in his failures. I'm putting McNamara's books on my reading list, and will hopefully have more to say about this extraordinary individual after reading them.

May he rest in Peace.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

On being (not so) special May. 15th, 2009 @ 02:27 am

alligator sketch, originally uploaded by Wisp.

Suppose for a second that it's determined that I can (by some ex-machina objective test) draw better than 99.9% of the general population. That is, for every one of me, there are one thousand others who draw worse. Considering that a lot of people out there can draw quite decently, this should mean that I'm an exceptional artist, right?

Metropolitan Madison houses some 500,000 people by a recent count quoted on Wikipedia. Applying bonehead statistics, this means that there's a good chance that there are about 500 people IN THE MADISON METRO AREA ALONE who draw as well, or better than I do. For the whole United States, some 300,000 people draw as well or better than me! In the whole world (gulp), the figure becomes something like 6 million.

Ok, so I'm not so special. But what if I'm the BEST artist (or at least, best in drawing by the same imaginary test) in all of Madison Metro area, a goal I'm pretty certain I'll never be able to reach. That still translates to 600 people across the USA, and 12,000 people in the whole world who would draw as well, or better than I do. Even then, I'm not really special, now am I?

And this doesn't just apply to drawing. It applies to IQ (if you believe in it being a measure of anything other than ability to take IQ tests), strength, hard work, ingenuity, talent in any particular field, or any other potentially measurable or competitive quality.

There are a lot of places you can go with this thought. For one thing, there are plenty of very clever people out there, many of them competing directly with you. They tend to band together. Whenever you're told that you're part of a very special team because the people on it are the best, be wary - there are other such teams out there, even if it your team does happen to be as awesome as claimed. Which means, your team, or company, or school, or whatever, had better have something BESIDES just good people.

Here's another one: Every "big" idea you are likely to come up with, will already have been thought of by somebody else, and likely committed to paper (digital or otherwise) by this point. This obviously does not apply to thoughts concerning local observations, which many fewer people are privy to. The operative word here is "likely" - I'm sure there are some good big ideas that haven't been found yet. Just don't bank on being the one to stumble across one of these.

And further: On not becoming a big fish in a little pond. In spite of the above, I still think it's critical to improve, compete, and have a realistic measure of my own worth. There's no reason to give up hope just because I'm not all that special. Sure there may be 500 people in the area who are better than I am at something, but perhaps there's enough of a market that companies are looking for MORE than 500 such people to fill their ranks. And whenever demand outruns supply in this case, I can make a decent living. And if there's need for only 200 such people, then I need to either a) get better or b) move to some other location where I'm needed.

There's plenty more, I'm sure. For now, I'm leaving you with the image of an alligator that I drew today at the zoo, where I met up with several classmates from Ed's figure drawing class to do some animal sketching. I think I'm getting pretty good, but I'm really under no illusion that I'm fantastic. Or special. Or anything even close.

Landscape with wheelbarrow May. 4th, 2009 @ 08:38 pm

Landscape with wheelbarrow, originally uploaded by Wisp.

Sara would laugh at how many photos I took. Here's why: As we were driving the impossibly twisty Tobago roads, I'd be leaning out the passenger's side window with my camera resting on my arm, viewfinder not even to my eye, and just snap pictures as we passed by anything interesting. I had the ISO set to about 640 or so, Shutter priority at about 1/1000th of a second to eliminate motion blur, and lens set to wide angle, to further reduce possibility of blur, and to increase the chances of a good capture.

Needless to say, most photos taken this way weren't all that interesting. But I got enough keepers - that I don't think I would have gotten any other way, that I think the experiment worked. I really wanted to capture the atmosphere of the drive, and this photo does precisely this.

Other entries
» figure drawing 1, February 25 2009

figure drawing 1, February 25 2009, originally uploaded by Wisp.

30 minutes, Conte crayon and prismacolor black pencil. This might possibly be the best figure I've drawn up to this point. I feel like I'm finally beginning to have an intuitive feel for the anatomy of the torso and upper arms - and this is my second full figure drawing class, not counting several other mini-courses. I guess this stuff just takes time.

On another note, I was developing some interior designs for the comic I'm currently working on and feeling pretty good about them. Then, today, I saw up on the wall of the animation studio some student work from previous years, showcasing fantasy interior design and... my jaw just dropped. My sketches suddenly looked silly, unfinished, ill-thought out and just generally unsatisfying by comparison. On the bright side, I now have a good idea of the standard I need to hold myself up to, and have some pretty good guesses as to what it is that makes those interiors so awesome, and how I can improve my work to match.

» Spring 2009 crop of classes

Wisconsin Capitol, state street, originally uploaded by Wisp.

After the spectacular online disappearing act of last semester - four classes will do that to you - I'm back to taking... four more classes. This time, it's Photography (black and white 35mm film, darkroom and all), Oil Painting, Figure Drawing - offered by the animation department - and, just because I'm still nominally a graphic design student, Electronic Page Layout.

The photo is from a roll developed in a darkroom by yours truly for my class. I'm just now learning all the stuff that most creative people my age did in school, and then abandoned for newer digital techniques: how to develop film, make contact sheets, work an enlarger, develop a finished print - I'm finding it all amazingly invigorating: Watching the image appear as a whole, floating out of a white sheet in the developer bath, as opposed to line-by-line from an inkjet. It's odd, a more contemplative approach to photography. Overall, what this program is teaching me is to slow down, think about what I'm doing and what I'm about to do, be more intentional in all my creative actions. I feel that going back to analog techniques forces that approach on me more than a digital workflow ever did.

Photo particulars: Nikon F3, 35mm f/2 lens, probably set at f/8, 1/80 sec (I should be taking notes when I shoot!) Ilford HP5 black and white ISO 400 film. Negative scanned on Epson 4990 flatbed scanner, enhanced and corrected in Adobe Lightroom.

» Saska, 1997-2008

Saska, 1997-2008, originally uploaded by Wisp.

Our cat, Saska, died on Christmas Eve morning, after a short and mostly painless illness. She was the most trouble of all our cats - often intentionally clumsy, always the most reckless of jumpers, finding her way to our highest shelves and crannies, knocking random things off. She could also be very sweet and curl up on our laps and purr, especially just as we were about to get up to do something. We'll miss her.

» Sunset, Lesser Slave Lake

Sunset, Lesser Slave Lake, originally uploaded by Wisp.

Well, I'm done with the first day of the semester: I decided to drop Print Production, as there's no way I can handle five classes as intense as the ones I had today. I already have assignments (ok, exercises) due for Wednesday in two of my classes. And they're looking to be very interesting courses: Graphic Design and Typography, taught by two very motivated, no-nonsense instructors who realize that they're being asked to teach in one semester what has traditionally been split across two.

» In my father's back yard...

Flags in my father's backyard, originally uploaded by Wisp.

...there is a row of flags. Canada and Wrocław are flying out front, so excuse their absence from this set. And a Union Jack is hidden behind the Polish flag in this particular photo.

I'm back from my trip to Edmonton, and getting ready for the fall semester that begins Monday. Summer was... less productive than I'd hoped. Maybe the constant rush of assignments and school-related work will snap me back into shape. If so, I'll resume blogging on a regular basis.

» evening illustration, 7.10.08

evening illustration, 7.10.08, originally uploaded by Wisp.

After picking him up from daycare, Kim took Eli to Vilas park on bike, where I met up with them, also on bike. As we sat there watching Eli running around, I noticed the clouds getting downright threatening, and heard the uninterrupted growl of thunder getting closer. No sooner had we closed Eli up in his Chariot and hidden our stuff away in its waterproof rear compartment, than the downpour started. It was an intense but warm summer shower, and it was surprisingly fun to bike back home in it. Kim and I got soaked through and through, but Eli stayed dry. And it was neat to arrive back at the house and enjoy some freshly made coffee as we dried off and watched the rain outside.

» evening illustration, 7.8.08

evening illustration, 7.8.08, originally uploaded by Wisp.

We went to Stacie's new place for art night tonight, and took Eli along (as a cross between wishful thinking and experiment)... and... it worked out great! I've got most of page 4 of BYOB3 penciled out, and will soon start detailed pencils on page 5. I tried painting a scene in acrylics earlier today with little success... gotta revisit the basics of acrylic technique - I still can't seem to get the hang of that medium! And I did switch, on Chris Gargan's recommendation, from water to gloss medium for the thinning agent.

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