Friday, September 19, 2014

Creativity, Inc. : Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
(with Amy Wallace)
Most movie-goers will be familiar with the wide range of award winning computer-animated movies produced by Pixar (beginning with Toy Story in 1995 through to Monster University in 2013), and they might know some of their principal directors and recurring voice actors.  They may also have come across the name of John Lasseter (Pixar's Creative Officer), and some of the other players in Pixar's history - Steve Jobs, various folks at Disney, etc.  Outside of the film world though, one might only have ever seen Pixar President Ed Catmull at the Oscar ceremonies picking up Pixar's many awards.

Aside from being a pioneering computer scientist, Ed Catmull was also thrown into various leadership positions throughout his career along his route to realizing his dream of creating computer animated movies.  This book could easily be picked up as an insider's guide to the inner workings of Pixar, and many important players of the entertainment world (George Lucas, Michael Eisner, and Steve Jobs to name-drop a few).  It could also be picked up as an entertaining biography of one of Pixar's principal founders.

And while this book is indeed all those things, it's primary role is to be a book about business leadership.  Once his initial dream was realized upon the release and success of Toy Story, Catmull found himself in the position of figuring out what his next challenge should be.  He determined that it would be to figure out how to maintain and grow his fledgling company, and to ensure that it remain flexible, creative, and focused on excellence.

He writes very clearly using many concrete examples from Pixar's organizational history, providing insight into the following challenges a creative organization can face.  Many problems revolve around the development of organizational culture in order to foster an environment of openness and honesty with the ability to speak candidly regardless of position within the company.  Employees at every level have different insights into the way things work, and suggestions for improvement.  They should be able to speak without fear of reprisal.  The creative organization should also be able to respond to change and deal with random events in the environment, and be structurally resilient to adapt and grow in the face of these changes.  Catmull outlines how all of these issues have been addressed (in ongoing processes) at Pixar.

I think that many of the lessons from the book can be applied in any workplace (not just entertainment companies), and Catmull deliberately keeps the definition of "creativity" very vague such that his ideas would resonate in any context.  The only big blind spot that is never addressed - probably because in his world the answer is obvious - he assumes that any given organization is staffed by highly motivated people who are committed to excellence - they just run into problems sometimes.  In order to fix these problems, Catmull needs the workers to be engaged with their workplace and be sincere in their desire to improve their working environment.  And maybe in his world anyone just punching the clock and doing the bare minimum would be fired straight away, but sadly not all workplaces are like that.  Catmull addresses many things to improve performance and workplace engagement, but nothing about how to get a mediocre worker to become engaged and become interested in taking on new challenges.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does Creativity, Inc. strike a balance between being a Hollywood expose, a biography, and a business manual?  Given the intent to be a business management book, how does it succeed?
  2. "Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.  Doing all these things won't necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier.  But ease isn't the goal; excellence is."  This one quotation pretty much sums up the whole book.  Does Catmull hit the nail on the head here?
  3. Do you think the management advice offered here is applicable in any of the workplaces you have experienced?
  4. Many anecdotes in the book revolve around Pixar's Braintrust.  What do you think of this type of committee, and could other organizations use one?
  5. If you are not a manager or supervisor, is this book still worth reading?  What would the non-manager gain by reading it?
  6. What is creativity?  How is the term used?
  7. Have you seen any of the movies referenced by Catmull?  Does your view of them change after reading this book?
  8. How important is prior knowledge of Pixar and its movies to the reading of Creativity, Inc.?
  9. Would you want to work for Ed Catmull or Pixar?
  10. What is the most significant thing you learned from this book?

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's online catalogue

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America

In 2012 John Waters hitchhiked from his home in Baltimore to his apartment in San Francisco. He wrote about his experiences thumbin' rides across the USA in Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America. I am a huge fan of Waters and have read three of his other books, including Role Models. With Carsick I was prepared for a hilarious few days at work where I always read during my lunch and dinner hours. My colleagues no doubt would have to deal with me trying in vain to keep my food in my mouth for all the laughing I was in for. Carsick was divided into three parts; the first two parts however had nothing to do with Waters's actual hitchhiking adventure. Waters spent two thirds of his book writing at first fantasy dream hitchhiking tales, where he got picked up by hunky truck drivers and finding the man of his dreams. The second part of the book was devoted to fictional disastrous hitchhiking experiences. Unfortunately, none of these stories were very funny. With Waters, he doesn't need to make things up to get laughs; his gift is in the way he chronicles reality as he sees it. The more I read the fictional hitchhiking stories the more I wondered if he really had enough true adventures to fill a whole book. Were the fantasy and disaster stories all an afterthought? Was hitchhiking across the country less adventurous (or easier) than he had thought, and the fictional best and worst that could happen only literary padding? When I look at the notes I took, I hardly wrote a thing until after page 192, when the section entitled "The Real Thing" began, which shows that I didn't find the fiction all that interesting.

Waters has a wicked gift for description, and he can complete an entire picture with only a few words. I can't control my laughter at his degree of perception. For example, when he is forced to stand on the side of the road holding out his cardboard sign in a downpour:

"You can't imagine the misery of waiting for a ride in the endless pouring rain."


"...I'm sure I now look like a sopping-wet junkie Mary Poppins."

The number of people who recognized Waters when they picked him up was about the same as those who didn't. Those who did not often thought he was a homeless person or a drug addict, and many drivers insisted on giving him money.

Waiting by the road, never knowing when your next ride is going to pull up, can get discouraging very quickly. Waters wrote down all the time he spent in a day hitchhiking compared to the time he actually spent travelling in someone's car. Needless to say, there is a lot of wasted time standing around doing nothing when you plan to hitchhike across the country. You can feel his frustration:

"Once again I'm stuck. Nobody stops. I stand here for four more hours. What the fuck am I gonna do? Maybe no one will ever pick me up!"

Yet instant relief when someone pulls over:

"It's always a shock when someone actually stops for you. It takes a second to sink in, and then you panic, grabbing your stuff, afraid people will change their mind and pull off."

Waters frequently drew references to his own films, which might be required viewing before you pick up Carsick. Oddly, after he made the above comment about indecisive (or prankster) drivers pulling off as the hitchhiker approaches the car, he didn't mention the scene in "Pink Flamingos" where Divine does precisely that, cackling while driving away, as the camera angle makes it seem as if the car itself is rocking uproariously with her.

Still, from coast to coast, Waters has trouble catching lifts. Truck drivers swoosh by, sometimes yelling out an apology for not stopping. While checking in at a motel, Waters says to a man waiting with him in line:

"I tell him truckers can never pick up hitchhikers these days because of all the restrictive new rules, but he says without missing a beat, 'Well, believe me, they'd pick you up if you had a vagina.'"

I was on the floor reading the next passage:

"Then one of the staff of the rest area walks out of the building and heads toward me. 'You can't hitchhike,' she says flatly. 'The cops told me it was okay, and I've been hitchhiking in rest areas all across this state with no problem,' I lie, almost with an attitude. I notice this lady has few teeth--maybe the staff is work-release from prison, I think, instantly dentally profiling her. Suddenly her whole face changes in surprise, 'Are you John Waters?!' she shouts with sudden friendliness. 'Yes,' I say, completely shocked that she recognizes me. 'Okay, you can stay,' she says with a complete law-and-order turnaround. I know I should be mad she was shitty when she didn't know who I am and now practically kisses my ass when she does, but when you're hitchhiking your usual value system collapses."

As Waters travelled further westward, he rejoiced when he crossed into Nevada:

"We see a sign for a town coming up actually called Oasis, Nevada. When we pull through this, I would imagine, once highly anticipated burg, all that is left off the freeway are about five dilapidated buildings, deserted, rotted, and boarded up. What happened? Who was the last to leave? Are there squatters inside? What a perfect village--its name itself is a lie!"

Observations like those are why I enjoy Waters as a writer. He could be sitting on my couch telling me all about his cross-country thumbing adventures. His writing style resembles rapid conversation and since the oral element is so pronounced, I reread all the funniest parts, because they seemed like jokes after all. Who doesn't enjoy reading, or listening to, a hilarious joke, even the same joke, over and over?

Waters seemed quite surprised by the level of uxorial devotion expressed by his male drivers. Behind every one of his married male drivers was a great woman. Life on the road for these men gave them plenty of time to think, and to be thankful and grateful for the women they had at home waiting for them. Waters seemed genuinely touched to hear these men confide their deepest feelings they had for their wives. In spite of having written an entire section on hitchhiking horrors, Waters never met anyone like Ted Bundy. He ended his coast-to-coast trek with a sense of pride in American spirit and generosity.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo

In January 1968 the American spy ship USS Pueblo was captured while outside North Korean territorial waters and its crew was held prisoner for an entire year. The illegal abduction of the vessel and its aftermath, known as the "Pueblo Incident", kept the Lyndon Johnson administration on tenterhooks wondering whether or not the 82 crew members would be murdered or set free. Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo by Jack Cheevers is a 2013 publication about this event that stunned a nation and instilled fear of a second war in Asia.

I had read about the capture of the Pueblo in many of the books I have on the DPRK, yet not an entire book on the subject. Act of War provided a background of the personal life of the captain, Lloyd Bucher. Cheevers interviewed Bucher although the captain died in 2004. While Bucher was in command, the Pueblo found itself in a most vulnerable position. Although it was outside the twelve-mile DPRK maritime boundary, it was nonetheless approached by North Korean ships, fired upon and subsequently boarded. The Pueblo could do nothing as no other American ships or planes were in the area and the two machine guns on board were no match for the hostile fire that befell them. Bucher had to make up his mind, and fast. Save face by showing at least an attempt to fight back with his relative pea shooters, which no doubt would have led to more casualties and further deaths of his men? One of his firemen, Duane Hodges, had already been killed and several other men were injured. The Pueblo was surrounded and the North Koreans were firing. SOS was signalled and help was on the way, or was it? 

The Pueblo was a poorly outfitted spy ship, and had no facilities to dispose or destroy the mountains of confidential paperwork on board. Sailors could not possibly have shredded or burned all the documents in the time when they realized enemy ships were approaching to the time that the Koreans boarded. Some sailors were left with no other option but to rip up piles of paper into bits. Faced with enemy fire, an injured crew and no help coming, Bucher was placed in a situation no captain ever wants to face: that of giving up the ship with loads of top secret cargo. That he gave up the ship without a fight would haunt him in the court of inquiry that followed.

From January to December, Bucher and his crew of 81 were beaten and tortured, but they would not confess to the crime of trespassing into North Korean territorial waters. Starved and deprived of sleep, the crew was also forced to sit through indoctrination sessions where they listened to lectures about the evils of American capitalism and the glories of Kim Il Sung. Their captors even offered to give them their freedom if they became spies for the North. In spite of the endless cycle of torture, which Cheever described in such vivid detail I often winced and reached for various personal body parts as I read, the men would not sign forced confessions or apologies. While some of the crew had written their own memoirs about their year of imprisonment, the level of detail in the methods of torture they experienced may not have been revealed until now.

The North Koreans wanted an apology from the Americans for spying on their country and for straying into their national waters, yet the American authorities always denied that the Pueblo had even come close to the twelve-mile limit. The United States was exceptionally vulnerable in dealing with the DPRK as its military resources were stretched in Vietnam and did not want to face the possibility of starting a war with the North. So while the DPRK used torture against the Pueblo crew, the US used diplomacy. The sickeningly emaciated and injured crew was paraded in front of the media, forced to sing the praises of their captors and humane treatment, while the Americans could only sit back and watch. The Pueblo Incident had left the United States shamefully embarrassed:

"A small communist country with a bathtub navy had picked off the Pueblo. How had this national mortification come to pass? Why hadn't the ship been rescued? Did the potential gains of seaborne surveillance justify the risks?" 

The North wanted an apology to shame the United States internationally, yet understandably the US did not want to apologize for a crime it did not commit. The North would not budge, however, and for all we know it would have happily kept the crew as prisoners, subjecting them to torture, beatings and starvation, until they got whatever they demanded. As 1968 wore on, President Johnson was facing increasing public pressure to do something. His administration also had to calm the trigger-happy finger of South Korean president Park Chung Hee, who threatened to invade the North even if the United States didn't. Thus in order to prevent war and also to save the lives of their 82 citizens, the US decided to sign a letter of apology, provided they could "pre-repudiate" it first. The idea of repudiating the apology before signing it was of no consequence to the North Koreans. They obviously wanted a letter to show to their own people and also to the world at large, who obviously would have already seen the American repudiation first. Propaganda purposes at home outweighed any international opinion as the letter of apology was printed in newspapers and blown-up to gigantic proportions on the Pueblo itself.

The crew was released just two days before Christmas. A court of inquiry followed, where Bucher felt as though he would have to take the fall for the whole affair. Bucher's defence always put his crew first: should he have saved American face by firing the two machine guns in vain, likely resulting in the deaths of more of his crew? Or was it better to give up the ship with only a minimal fight, in order to save his men's lives, and hope for a rescue? Public opinion, however, was always in his favour, as Bucher and his crew were treated as heroes by the American public wherever they went:

"Americans embraced Bucher for the reason that he hadn't thrown away lives for the sake of some quixotic notion of military honor or tradition. The more thoughtful ones understood, too, that regardless of the court's outcome, Bucher for the rest of his days was condemned to mentally replay the events of that ferocious afternoon in the Sea of Japan, doubting and second-guessing himself, wondering whether he'd been tough enough, searching his innermost self for some mortifying streak of yellow."

The court of inquiry, however, was looking to lay blame. How very un-American it was to hand over a spy ship full of top-secret documents without a fight. Yet:

"That issue--whether or not Bucher had the ability to fight back at the time he surrendered--was the central legal conundrum facing the court of inquiry. On its surface, 'the power to resist' seemed like a convenient rhetorical yardstick for measuring whether a skipper had lived up to the don't-give-up-the-ship ethos. As far as many naval officers were concerned, if Bucher could have fought back but didn't, he was a coward, a disgrace to the service. But could the power to resist be quantified? If so, how? By number of fighting men? By number and type of weapons? By degree of courage and determination?"

Cheevers exposed the military negligence to provide proper surveillance for one of its own spy ships. Nor did the military outfit the Pueblo with proper disposal equipment, especially for the vast quantity of confidential information it was carrying. Yet Bucher, while officially let off the hook, never felt truly vindicated and chose to retire early, as much from the repercussions of post-traumatic stress as from the sneers and taunts of servicemen who felt he was a coward.

Act of War came with a centre spread of many photos. Among them was a shot taken in 2009 of the "genocide museum" in Sinchon. The photographer credit was none other than my roommate during my 2011 trip to the DPRK, Ray Cunningham. I was surprised and also disappointed that Cheevers didn't include a photo of the fireman Duane Hodges, the only sailor who was killed during the capture. 

During my visit to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 2011 I visited the USS Pueblo, and took the following photos of the ship, anchored in the Taedong River:

Port side of the USS Pueblo, taken just before boarding

Spy equipment belonging to the American imperialist aggressors

More spy equipment

Pueblo booty


The "pre-repudiated" American apology, blown up to a size to fill a wall

Starboard side, taken from a lunchtime cruise of the Taedong River