The missing Menorah

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On this day in AD 70 the siege of Jerusalem ended with the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus, son of Vespasian, at the head of a Roman army.

According to the historian Josephus the Menorah of the temple was taken as spoils of war and brought back to Rome.  It was carried in the Triumphal Procession of Vespasian and Titus and is recorded on the Arch of Titus.

Using the spoils taken from Jerusalem Vespasian constructed the Templum Pacis, the temple of peace in the Forum of Vespasian.  The Menorah was stored in the temple for hundreds of years until the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455 AD.

The Vandals brought the Menorah back with them to their capital in Carthage, in the Roman African province, modern day Tunisia.

One hundred years later the Vandals had become soft from living on the fat of the land.  Their armies were no longer the terror of the western Mediterranean.  Emperor Justinian of the Eastern Roman Empire sent his favourite general, Belisarius, to retake Africa for Rome.  In 533 AD Belisarius defeated the armies of King Gelimer and his brothers.

According to the historian Procopius the Menorah was found amongst the treasures of the Vandals and was taken to Constantinople.  It was displayed in the Ovation given by Justinian to his victorious general.  Gelimer was prostrated before the Emperor, and was allowed to live out his life on a Roman estate.

According to Procopius Justinian gave the Menorah back to the Jews in Jerusalem.  On the one hand it is hard to believe that such an ardent Christian emperor would have given this treasure to people he regarded as little short of heretics.  On the other hand he may have looked at the fate of the Second Temple, Rome and Carthage and wondered if he really wanted to keep the Menorah in his capital.

Whatever the truth this is the end of the tale for the Menorah.  It is never seen again.  Some say it is hidden in the Vatican City and the Vandals never found it.  Others say it was looted from Jerusalem when the Persians sacked the city in 614 AD.  Some think it was in a ship that sank in the Tibur when the Vandals were leaving Rome and that it lies at the bottom of the sea outside Ostia.  Others think it was still in Jerusalem during the Crusades and was taken by the Knights Templar.  Whatever the truth it is a tempting theme for a “Da Vinci Code” style adventure, or a new quest for Indiana Jones.

Psalm III : by Allen Ginsberg
To God: to illuminate all men. Beginning with Skid Road.
Let Occidental and Washington be transformed into a higher place, the plaza of eternity.
Illuminate the welders in shipyards with the brilliance of their torches.
Let the crane operator lift up his arm for joy.
Let elevators creak and speak, ascending and descending in awe.
Let the mercy of the flower’s direction beckon in the eye.
Let the straight flower bespeak its purpose in straightness — to seek the light.
Let the crooked flower bespeak its purpose in crookedness — to seek the light.
Let the crookedness and straightness bespeak the light.
Let Puget Sound be a blast of light.
I feed on your Name like a cockroach on a crumb — this cockroach is holy.

 

Pompey Day

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Sept 29th is undoubtedly Pompey Day.  Pompey the Great (Magnus) was born on Sept 29th 106 BC.  He was murdered on the orders of Ptolemy in Egypt on Sept 28th 48 BC.  In 61 BC on Sept 29th he celebrated his third and final triumph, for his victory against the pirates.  Organising a triumph on his birthday was an indication of the sway held by Pompey in Rome.  At the height of his power he was a man who could not be denied.

This campaign was a phenomenon of the time.  Pompey secured proconsular Imperium over the Mediterranean Sea and all land for 50 miles from the coast.  This put Pompey above every other governor and general in the Roman world.  It made him the most powerful man in the world.

Furthermore, it made him one of the richest men in the world.  The “War against the Pirates” had a lot in common with the current american “War on Terror”.  The “enemy” is a fluid quantity.  Pirate fleets had arrangements with rulers and Roman provincial governors all across the Mediterranean.

Pompey cleaned out some of the most annoying pirate fleets and stabilised trade across the Mare Nostrum.  He then brokered deals with pirate captains and local rulers the length and breadth of the sea.  They became his clients, under his protection, and they paid tribute to him.

So Pompey made a fortune and the people of Rome celebrated him as a war hero.  I wonder if the Bush family studied the classics?

Within 10 years the scourge of piracy was as bad as ever.

War on Terror

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On this day, Sept 29th in the year 61 BC Pompey the Great celebrated his third and final triumph for his victories over the Pirates and Mithridates.  His war against the Pirates is seen by many to be the Roman equivalent of the “War on Terror”.  Basically an elaborate political sham which sets up an un-winnable conflict which results in putting a lot of money in the hands of a small number of individuals, and securing political positions for a number of years.

Pompey used the “War on Pirates” to secure his most extraordinary command ever.  He was given pro-consular imperium over all of the seas from Gibraltar to Judea, and over the coastlines for 50 miles inland in every province, for the purpose of “hot pursuit” of pirates.  This gave him senior authority over the governors of the coastal provinces for the purpose of this campaign.

He ostensibly swept the seas free of pirates, making him the “First man in Rome” and securing for him the juicy task of the war in the East against the fabulously rich empire of Mithridates.  In reality Pompey drove many of the “Pirates” out of their towns and cities, and then negotiated with them for their “peaceful” return as loyal subjects of Rome.  This status involved payment of hefty fines and tributes to Pompey and his Legates.

It was nothing if not a masterstroke.  I wonder, what was the Roman equivalent of Halliburton and Lockheed-Martin?

The truth is, the so called “war on terror” is simply the realisation of George Orwell’s 1984.  The principle that “War is Peace”.  By keeping the populace focused on a constant shifting state of war, against an enemy that is impossible to beat, those who wield power can quash any serious attempt to oust them from their positions.  If the opposition organise in any meaningful way, simply raise the “threat level” to orange and red, drive through some new law, and arrest the leaders as terrorists.

The trigger for the ancient Romans was the grain supply.  For modern Americans the trigger is the oil supply.  It costs a lot of public money to keep those privately owned oil tankers running.  The working man pays taxes to keep an aircraft carrier on station in the straits of Hormuz.  As long as the oil flows the oil barons continue to line their wallets.  They make political donations in the right places to keep the wheels greased.

So what happens if the environmental groups lobby for better energy management and for the US to be energy solvent?

You can get the CIA or FBI or Secret Service to blow up a large public building in New York you will have a queue of terrorist organisations lining up to claim responsibility.  If you don’t find one even better, make one up.  You can spend decades trying to track down a terrorist organisation that never existed.

As long as people look to the sky in fear of the next attack they will not worry about pithy concerns like gas mileage, CO2 production, low level ozone, blower tests or deep water drilling.

War against a foreign country only happens when the moneyed classes think they are going to profit from it.………………………………….George Orwell

The magic touch in Business

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How do you protect businesses from the brilliant decision makers who end up getting it all wrong?

The human mind is a pattern recognition engine.  It is an excellent learning tool.  When you spot a situation you have been in before, the mind tells you “oh yeah, I know this, here is how we moved through this situation the last time”.

There are positives to this, and also negatives.

The positives are that we learn rapidly from each other.  Spend an afternoon trying to learn a video game on your own, and then try it with your 14 year old son beside you.  With the benefit of his experience, and his bank of knowledge, built from games played by his social network, you very quickly pick up the things you need to know, and learn the distractions that you can safely ignore.

In business it is vital to have people in the room who have been there before, who saw the situation before, and can tell the strategies they used to work through it.  That is not to say you should slavishly follow an old strategy.  Remember, the competition also have a guy in the room who was there last time around.  If they lost the last “match” chances are they are going to adjust strategy this time round.  But the starting point is to know what happened in the last war.

The biggest danger in the “pattern recognition” engine is the way it craves order in chaos.  The human mind abhors uncertainty.  When faced with pure chaos it scrambles for anything that might make sense.  Derren Brown, the UK “magician”, illustrated this with a very funny episode “Trick or Treat” where he wired a sensor to a goldfish tank.  Each time the goldfish swam past the sensor a counter added a score.

In a separate room he assembled a group of people, who were told they could win an amount of money if they managed to get the counter to 100 in a given time.  They did not realise that they had no control over the counter.  They jumped, shouted, ran about, organised themselves, disorganised themselves, and sometimes it seemed to work.  The counter moved.  So they would repeat what they did, and fail.  Their brains were trying to make order out of chaos.

It is this struggle to make order from chaos that has led to some of the worst episodes in human history.  When things are at their worst, the pressure to find an answer is more acute, and we do some really bad things or make some really bad decisions.  Aztecs harvesting thousands of heads, Celts burning people in wicker men, burning witches, self immolation, sacrificing virgins, anything that might work.

Then into this space you get people with an agenda, who see that the time is right to lay blame on a section of the community.  God is displeased with us because we tolerated  Jews/Gays/Irish/Blacks/Dancers/Gamblers/Alcohol whatever.  Now the time is rife to rid ourselves of this evil and set ourselves straight with some made up divinity who seems to have a pretty nasty and narrow minded agenda.

Of course this would never happen in the business world.  When we operate in the workplace we make rational decisions, based on logical analysis of events, and we don’t allow demagogues to hijack the agenda and drive us collectively to construct a new tower of Babel…..do we?  Well, sadly we do.  We see success and we see the guy who causes the success and we assume that he must have the “secret”.  OK he isn’t slicing off heads and rolling them down the front steps, but he may be doing the business equivalent.  Look at Enron, Nick Leeson in Barings Bank, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, securitization of sub-prime mortgages, contracts for difference.  The truth is, the more confusing a derivative is, the more magical it seems to those who cannot understand how it works.  Many senior managers in banks failed to spot the magic tricks for what they were, because they were working at first.

In World War 2 both Churchill and Hitler interfered with military strategy.  The lucky thing for the British was that some of Churchill’s early interventions were disasters, and he bowed to sound military analysis later in the war.  The unlucky thing for the Germans was that all of Hitler’s early interventions were successful.  His cabinet believed that he had a magic touch, and his interference became more pervasive and more damaging

In the workplace if you have senior managers who are seen as having a magic touch, that in itself should be a warning sign.  These managers should be subject to MORE monitoring and analysis to ensure they are making commercially sound decisions.  Instead the opposite holds true.  The manager who delivers a big win is given more latitude than his non-performing counterparts.  He may buy into the belief that he has that bit of magic, and he may carry out less and less analysis on his own decisions.  He is given more and more resources to “gamble” on the next big move.  If he is given enough rope he will ultimately make the bad decision that costs the company dearly.

A worse situation is that the manager is someone with an agenda.  His agenda is not aligned with the corporate goals.  His decisions are being made to line his own pocket, at the ultimate expense of the business itself.  The greater the flux in the market, the greater the uncertainty, the easier it is for this person to make the call that can collapse the business.

In Ancient Rome a triumphant general was made up to look like a God for the day of his triumph.  He rode through the city in a chariot at the head of his army.  A priest in the chariot had the job of repeating constantly, in his ear, “Remember, you are only a mortal”.  In business we need those kinds of priests.

 

What can we do to protect businesses?

  1.  Operate the same decision control procedures for all managers.
  2. Ensure that charismatic “stars” have grounded detail analysts on their teams.
  3. Make sure everyone understands how an investment works, there is no magic money.
  4. A solicitor on the decision team to ask “is this legal?”
  5. Post-decision analysis.  Something that appears in every textbook, but seldom exists in reality.  We are all focused on the next big thing and it seems wasteful to analyse what is over.  We should bring in a cold resource, from outside the decision team, who will demonstrate what elements of the success were due to team decisions, and what elements were down to general market movements.  The winning teams hate these guys, but they can separate the myth from the reality, and greatly change the way you will approach the next opportunity.