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Pre-Modern Family: My Fourth Trip through the “Iliad”

note: Off-topic post.  Way off-topic.  It relates neither to my new career as a math teacher or my old career as an advertising something-or-other.  Proceed with caution.

I first read the Iliad between my freshman and sophomore year in college, inspired by the truly inspiring Martin Ostwald.  Still a boy, I enjoyed the boys’s adventure aspect of the story, one of the first great combat narratives ever committed to paper.  As a recovering Dungeons and Dragons player, I could easily imagine myself slipping on Diomede’s greaves and sailing into the Trojan host with fervid glee.

When I told Mr. Ostwald that I had read it, he took his pipe from his mouth (perhaps metaphorically) and issued a challenge in two words: “in Greek?”

Hence I read it again as an analyst, decoding the letters, words, syntax and structure in a language that I never quite came to grips with yet one I bluffed someone into thinking I knew well enough to minor in it.  When I wasn’t wrestling with the text, I occasionally got to ponder the great questions about the book, such as the meaning of honor.

I even accidentally wrestled with an even greater question, “what is the meaning of ‘time’ in the Iliad?”  The poem only mentions time in passing, usually in some metaphor regarding sunrise (“rosy-fingered dawn”) or sunset.  It turns out that the fellow student who raised the question in a paper meant τɩμἠ, which transliterates as “time” (pronounced “tee-MAY”) but means “honor.”  Fun question though.

After a few years in the working world, I took an adult education course through my alma mater that involved reading the Iliad and Odyssey again.  This time, I immediately glommed onto the source material as an allegory about organizational management, of all things.  That is, Agamemnon reminded me of every son-of-a-bitch boss I ever had, Achilles stood in for the arrogant-but-effective star and Odysseus resembled the scheming ladder-climber who lurks somewhere in every cohort of middle managers.  Moreover, the whole structure of maybe three people making decisions for thousands without any input from them rang a little to true for a 30-something advertising veteran.

So, just as Paul Simon’s records make more sense when you reach the age he was when he recorded them, the text took on newer meanings with each re-reading.  However, unlike my previous readings, I went into my fourth time through the epic with a specific goal, to understand how the Iliad works as a family story.

I suppose as I near 50, family takes on added definition to me.  The family that raised me no longer exists as such.  All my grandparents have gone as has my mother and favorite aunt as well as some supporting characters.  Smaller though by no means less momentous meals have replaced the big Thanksgiving and Passover dinners of the past.  I guess I always expected continuation but I find myself in a new thing entirely.

More to the point, recent events both personal and professional have made family the first thing on my mind pretty much all day every day.  Naturally, as a new teacher, I see evidence of both supportive and non-supportive families every day.  I see a brother and sister whose ability and persistence in math couldn’t differ more.  I see miniature versions of my students in grades 6 & 7 and larger versions in the high school.  I hear from parents and guardians via email and I call them on the phone.

My own family has moved into a new set of hopes and needs.  My wife and I are helping our dyslexic son apply to high school.  Our daughter is overcoming her ADHD and blossoming as a student and an artist.  My father-in-law is falling deeper and deeper into dementia.  My brother has some form of heart disease.

At the same time, family is often all I have time left for.  New teachers essentially build their own toolboxes of lesson plans, homework assignment, quizzes and tests, which means they’ll probably never work harder than in their first years.  I also have the same after-class responsibilities as other teachers, such as faculty meetings and training.  I have graduate school as well.  What time I might have spent on myself generally goes to my family.

As a reflection on family, the first book of the Iliad has rewarded me handsomely.  Since I focused on derring-do, technical factors or organizational son-of-a-bitchery in previous readings, I hadn’t fully appreciated how family binds the work together.  At bottom, of course, the epic focuses on two pairs of brothers fighting for family honor, after a fashion.  Hector feels obliged to protect his prodigal brother.  Agamemnon, jerkoff though he may be, also needs to protect his brother’s interest as well as uphold the normal order of things.  You don’t just steal another man’s wife, no matter how hot you think she is.

I had forgotten, though, how often Homer used patronymics–fathers’ names.  Maybe reading War and Peace a few years ago should have reminded me.  Just in the first book, we learn that Agamemnon’s father is Atreus, that Achilles’ father is Peleus, that Zeus’ father is Cronos and that in turn several gods are children of Zeus.  We’re also introduced to the father-daughter pair of Chryses and Chryseis and Achilles’ cousin Patroclus.  We meet Achilles’ mother, Thetis, as well.

Remember that this first book involves a tangled set of family disputes.  It starts with Chryses begging Agamemnon for his daughter, whom he’s kidnapped and presumably raped as his captive (this is not evidence of his son-of-a-bitchery in the context of bronze age rules of engagement).  As a priest of Apollo, Chryses begs his patron for revenge, so Phoebus starts killing Greeks with either metaphoric arrows or real disease, depending on how you read it.  This pisses off Agamemnon, who decides to pack Chyrseis off back to her father and takes Achilles’ human war trophy (Briseis) in compensation (by contrast, this is evidence of Agamemnon’s son-of-a-bitchery in the context of bronze age rules of engagement).  In turn, Achilles calls on his mom to intercede with Zeus, who we must remember is Apollo’s father.  Zeus reminds Thetis that he wants to help but doesn’t want to annoy his wife, Hera (Apollo’s stepmother since Zeus couldn’t keep it in his pants and had him by Leto).  Got all that?

In short, book one of the Iliad already resembles a mid-series story arc from The Sopranos.  It readily displays that importance and responsibilities of of family.  We seek succor in our families but we also inherit their struggles.

I suppose there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Why Not Blockchain for News?

For the first time since color film, Kodak might be onto something.

Provider of mobile technology since ’88.  1888.

Pundits have already savaged The Great Yellow Father‘s entry into blockchain with KodakCoin.  After all, Bitcoin and cyrptocurrency hype continues to soar despite cautions from pretty good sources.

However, before consigning KodakCoin to the scrap heap, consider what Kodak and its partner WENN digital media created the product to do.  They intend to take advantage of blockchain’s distributed ledger to track the usage of photographs.  If you’ve never waded into the mire of photography digital rights, consider yourself lucky.  Fair, compensated use of photographs bedevils photographers and commercial entities who use photographs alike.

Also consider the larger opportunity: fake news.

Photo manipulation (e.g. Photoshop) has forced us to question the reality of a photograph since the days of Matthew Brady.  Now the ability to create a realistic photograph from nothing but algorithms has started to emerge.  A distributed ledger could verify that a picture of, say, Elvis shaking hands with President Nixon, really happened.

Why stop at photos?  Couldn’t we use a blockchain-driven technology to allow consumers to see who actually created a news article or video?  Sure, we can assume that a story appearing on the Wall Street Journal’s website really came from a WSJ reporter.  However, when we see a dubious news story in our Facebook feed, couldn’t something like KodakCoin let us know where it really came from?

I can’t wait to see how Kodak–wait for it–develops this idea.

Plannerben’s Foreign Policy

Last fall, John Chipman, the director-general and chief executive of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, advanced the notion that in our globalized world, “every company needs a foreign policy.”

The New York Times, 31 January 2017

I can’t say that as the owner of a very small business–as small as you can get before you cease to exist–that I’d ever considered the need to have a foreign policy before.  However, executive orders issued by our nation’s President have inspired me to think about the global nature of my business and to respond accordingly.

If it seems ludicrous that a consultant should have a foreign policy, consider this: most of my clients are multi-national and global companies.  Over the past 27 months, I’ve worked with one ad agency that’s part of a Paris-based holding company and another agency based in London.  Those agencies’ clients, in turn, include a global bank accused of bribery in China and a UK-based company with businesses across the globe.  I helped a mid-sized US agency pitch a bank holding company based in Japan.  I’ve even worked for two companies based in that most foreign of locales, New Jersey.

So, while I don’t jet-set around the globe, I do recognize that my work depends in a large part on working with people from anywhere and everywhere.  These people include foreign nationals, naturalized Americans, undocumented residents and people with countless political and religious beliefs not to mention gender identities and sexual preferences.  I can’t count ’em because it’s none of my damn business so I don’t keep a record.

As such, I commit Plannerben | Anecdata to support and work with people and companies in any nation as long as they believe that our differences are strengths and not weaknesses.  I will work with people of any political stripe, with any belief system as long as they recognize that what connects us as humans outweighs what separates us.

I strongly reject President Trump’s attempt to wall off America from the world.

Like my daughter, I support international diplomacy

I recognize that I’m not Apple.  I’m not Hard Rock Hotels for that matter.  And it’s not like Kim Jong Un is burning up the phone lines trying to hire me.  I do not anticipate any substantial negative or positive reactions to our policy.  However, I accept John Chipman’s challenge above as an opportunity to think about my business and how I conduct it.  Even in New Jersey.

Absolutely, Ridiculously, Gratuitously Off-Topic

I’m just going to dive right into this one: I’ve thought more than any sane person should about what car I’d want to drive in a post-apocalyptic world.

I can’t help it.  My condition stems from the double whammy of a 1980s adolescence replete with nuclear hysteria (Mad Max, The Day After, Ronald Reagan) and an incurable itch to own a cool extra car.  If I could monetize wasting time on eBay Motors looking at old junkers, I’d scoff at the people who won a billion in Powerball.

Of course, not all apocalypses are created equal.  Oh, no.  Of course not!  If you had planned for an environmental catastrophe and found instead that you had awoken to a zombie outbreak, you wouldn’t be caught dead, so to speak, in a vehicle that could cross lakes but couldn’t mow down a passel of the formerly living.

So let’s dive right in.

Scenario: Unspecified chemical catastrophe blotting out the sun and denuding the Earth of all living things

As seen in: The Road

Preferred vehicle: VW Beetle (type 1) Continue reading

Yogi Berra, my Personal Ancient Greek Tutor

I’m going off-topic today (well, not very off-topic considering how frequently I write about baseball).  I couldn’t let the passing of Yogi Berra go by without discussing how he helped me make it through my ancient Greek minor in college.

The scene begins 2500 years ago, when Herodotus wrote his history of the wars between Persia and the Greeks.


My 28-year-old copy of a 2500-year-old book

 As the first widely-published Western writer of history, Herodotus earned himself the honorific “Father of History.”  However, his approach to truth did not always stop at the credible.  For instance, he claimed that Ukraine was full of werewolves and that Egyptian women pee standing up.  Of course, he wasn’t an idiot, either.  He often used language to indicate that he had heard a particular tale but that he neither endorsed nor gainsaid it.

In a Greek class I took as part of my minor, I wrote a paper about one of his his most famous apocryphal tales, a dinner between Croesus (the “rich as Croesus” Croesus) and Solon, the author of Athens’s first legal code.  Croesus, you may recall, held the world record for most poorly-interpreted military intelligence until George Bush came along.  An oracle told Croesus that if he crossed the River Halys, a great empire would be destroyed.  Unfortunately, the oracle meant Croesus’s Lydia, not the Persian Empire across the river.

Before the disastrous invasion, the emperor and lawgiver enjoyed a chatty meal.  Croesus asked Solon what made people happy.  Solon famously answered “call no man happy until he be dead.”  At first, this reply sounds incredibly gloomy.  However, Solon went on to explain that people who had ordinary lives but who somehow sacrificed themselves for a higher purpose achieved the highest level of happiness.

In my paper, I made sure to note this nuanced meaning of Solon’s assertion.  To hammer the point home, I employed the greatest footnote of my academic career:

c.f. Berra, Lawrence Peter (Yogi): “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

Thank you, Yogi, for helping me achieve what modest academic success that I did.  Should you meet Herodotus in the afterlife, I hope Red Smith is on hand to record the conversation.