Ace of Base(line) — A New Paper on Building a Credible PMB

Glen Alleman, a leading consultant in program management (who also has a blog that I follow), Tom Coonce of the Institute for Defense Analyses, and Rick Price of Lockheed Martin, have jointly published a new paper in the College of Performance Management’s Measureable News entitled “Building A Credible Performance Measurement Baseline.”

The elements of their proposal for constructing a credible PMB, from my initial reading, are as follows:

1.  Rather than a statement of requirements, decision-makers should first conduct a capabilities gap analysis to determine the units of effectiveness and performance.  This ensures that program management decision-makers have a good idea of what “done” looks like, and ensures that performance measurements aren’t disconnected from these essential elements of programmatic success.

2.  Following from item 1 above, the technical plan and the programmatic plan should always be in sync.

3.  Earned value management is but one of many methods for assessing programmatic performance in its present state.  At least that is how I interpret what the are saying, because later in their paper they propose a way to ensure that EVM does not stray from the elements that define technical achievement.  But EVM in itself is not the end-all or be-all of performance management–and fails in many ways to anticipate where the technical and programmatic plans diverge.

4.  All work in achieving the elements of effectiveness and performance are first constructed and given structure in the WBS.  Thus, the WBS ties together all elements of the project plan.  In addition, technical and programmatic risk must be assessed at this stage, rather than further down the line after the IMS has been constructed.

5.  The Integrated Master Plan (IMP) is constructed to incorporate the high level work plans that are manifested through major programmatic events and milestones.  It is through the IMP that EVM is then connected to technical performance measures that affect the assessment of work package completion that will be reflected in the detailed Integrated Master Schedule (IMS).  This establishes not only the importance of the IMP in ensuring the linkage of technical and programmatic plans, but also makes the IMP an essential artifact that has all too often be seen as optional, which probably explains why so many project managers are “surprised” when they construct aircraft that can’t land on the deck of a carrier or satellites that can’t communicate in orbit, though they are well within the tolerance bands of cost and schedule variances.

6.  Construct the IMS taking into account the technical, qualitative, and quantitative risks associated with the events and milestones identified in the IMP.  Construct risk mitigation/handling where possible and set aside both cost and schedule margins for irreducible uncertainties, and management reserve (MR) for reducible risks, keeping in mind that margin is within the PMB but MR is above the PMB but within the CBB.  Furthermore, schedule margin should be transitioned from a deterministic one to a probabilistic one–constructing sufficient margin to protect essential activities.  Cost margin in work packages should also be constructed in the same manner-based on probabilistic models that determine the chances of making a risk reducible until reaching the point of irreducibility.  Once again, all of these elements tie back to the WBS.

7.  Cost and schedule margin are not the same as slack or float.  Margin is reserve.  Slack or float is equivalent to overruns and underruns.  The issue here in practice is going to be to get the oversight agencies to leave margin alone.  All too often this is viewed as “free” money to be harvested.

8.  Cost, schedule, and technical performance measurement, tied together at the elemental level of work–informing each other as a cohesive set of indicators that are interrelated–and tied back to the WBS, is the only valid method of ensuring accurate project performance measurement and the basis for programmatic success.

Most interestingly, in conclusion the authors present as a simplified case an historical example how their method proves itself out as both a common sense and completely reasonable approach, by using the Wright brothers’ proof of concept for the U.S. Army in 1908.  The historical documents in that case show that the Army had constructed elements of effectiveness and performance in determining whether they would purchase an airplane from brothers.  All measures of project success and failure would be assessed against those elements–which combined cost, schedule, and technical achievement.  I was particularly intrigued that the issue of weight of the aircraft was part of the assessment–a common point of argument from critics of the use of technical performance–where it is demonstrated in the paper how the Wright brothers actually assessed and mitigated the risk associated with that measure of performance over time.

My initial impression of the paper is that it is a significant step forward in bringing together all of the practical lessons learned from both the successes and failures of project performance.  Their recommendations are a welcome panacea to many of the deficiencies implicit in our project management systems and procedures.

I also believe that as an integral part of the process in construction of the project artifacts, that it is a superior approach than the one that I initially proposed in 1997, which assumed that TPM would always be applied as an additional process that would inform cost and schedule at the end of each assessment period.  I look forward to hearing the presentation at the next Integrated Program Management Conference, at which I will attempt some live blogging.

Family Affair — Part III — Private Monopsony, Monopoly, and the Disaccumulation of Capital

It’s always good to be ahead of the power curve.  I see that the eminent Paul Krugman had an editorial in the New York Times about the very issues that I’ve dealt with in this blog, his example in this case being Amazon.  This is just one of many articles that have been raised about the monopsony power as a result of the Hatchette controversy.  In The New Republic Franklin Foer also addresses this issue at length in the article “Amazon Must Be Stopped.”  In my last post on this topic I discussed public monopsony, an area in which I have a great deal of expertise.  But those of us in the information world that are not Microsoft, Oracle, Google, or one of the other giants also live in the world of private monopsony.

For those or you late to these musings (or skipped the last ones), this line of inquiry when my colleague Mark Phillips made the statement at a recent conference that, while economic prospects for the average citizen are bad, that the best system that can be devised is one based on free market competition, misquoting Churchill.  The underlying premise of the statement, of course, is that this is the system that we currently inhabit, and that it is the most efficient way to distribute resources.  There also is usually an ideological component involved regarding some variation of free market fundamentalism and the concept that the free market is somehow separate from and superior to the government issuing the currency under which the system operates.

My counter to the assertions found in that compound statement is to prove that the economic system that we inhabit is not a perfectly competitive one, that there are large swaths of the market that are dysfunctional and that have given rise to monopoly, oligopoly, and monopsony power.  In addition, the ideological belief–which is very recent–that the roots of private economic activity is one that had arisen almost spontaneously with government being a separate component that can only be an imposition, is also false, given that nation-states and unions of nation states (as in the case of the European Union) are the issuers of sovereign currency, and so choose through their institutions the amount of freedom, regulation, and competition that their economies foster.  Thus, the economic system that we inhabit is the result of political action and public policy.

The effects of the distortions of monopoly and oligopoly power in the so-called private sector is all around us.  But when one peels back the onion we can see clearly the interrelationships between the private and public sectors.

For example, patent monopolies in the pharmaceutical industry allow for prices to be set, not based on the marginal value of the drug that would be set by a competitive market, but based on the impulse for profit maximization.  A recent example in the press lately–and critiqued by economist Dean Baker–has concerned the hepatitis-C drug Sovaldi, which goes for $84,000 a treatment, compared to markets in which the drug has not been granted a patent monopoly, where the price is about $900 a treatment.  Monopoly power, in the words of Baker, impose 10,000 percent tariff on those who must live under that system.  This was one of the defects in a system that I wrote about in my blog posts regarding tournaments and games of failure, though in pharmaceuticals the comparison seems to be more in line with gambling and lotteries.  The financial risks of investors, who often provide funds based on the slimmest thread of a good idea and talent, are willing to put great sums of money at risk in order to strike it rich and realize many times their initial investment.  The distorting incentives on this system are well documented: companies tend to focus on those medications and drugs with the greatest potential financial rate of return guaranteed by the patent monopoly system*, drug trials that downplay the risks and side-effects of the medications, and the price of medications is placed at so high a level as to eliminate them from all but the richest members of society since few private drug insurance plans will authorize such treatments given the cost–at least not without a Herculean effort on the part of individual patients.

We can also see the monopoly power at work first hand with the present lawsuits between Apple and Samsung regarding the smartphone market.  For many years (until very recently) the U.S. patent office took a permissive stand in allowing technology firms to essentially patent the look and feel of a technology, as well as features that could be developed and delivered by any number of means.  The legal system, probably more technologically challenged than other areas of society, has been inconsistent in determining how to deal with these claims.  The fact finder in many cases has been juries, who are not familiar with the nuances of the technology.  One need not make a stretch to pick out practical analogies of these decisions.  If applied to automobiles, for example, the many cases that have enforced these patent monopolies would have restricted windshield wipers to the first company that delivered the feature.  Oil filters, fuel filters, fuel injection, etc. would all have been restricted to one maker.

The stakes are high not only for these two giant technology companies but also for consumers.  They have already used their respective monopoly power established by their sovereign governments to pretty effectively ensure that the barriers to entry in the smartphone market are quite high.  Now they are unleashing these same forces on one another.  In the end, the manufacturing costs of the iPhone 6–which is produced by slave labor under the capitalist variant of Leninist China–are certainly much lower than the $500 and more that they demand (along with the anti-competitive practice of requiring a cellular agreement with one of their approved partners).  The tariff that consumers pay for the actual cost of production and maintenance on smartphones is significant.  This is not remedied by the oft-heard response to “simply not buy a smartphone,” since it shifts responsibility for the establishment of the public policy that allows this practice to flourish, to individuals who are comparatively powerless against the organized power of lobbyists who influenced public representatives to make these laws and institute the policy.

The fight over IP and patent (as well as net neutrality) are important for the future of technological innovation.  Given the monopsony power of companies that also exert monopoly power in particular industries, manufacturers are at risk of being squeezed in cases where prices are artificially reduced through the asymmetrical relationship between large buyers and relatively small sellers.  Central planning, regardless of whether it is exerted by a government or a large corporation, is dysfunctional.  When those same corporations seek to not only exert monopoly and monopsony power, but also to control information and technology, they seek to control all aspects of an economic activity not unlike the trusts of the time of the Robber Barons.  Amazon and Walmart are but two of the poster children of this situation.

The saving grace of late has been technological “disruption,” but this term has been misused to also apply to rent-seeking behavior.  I am not referring only to the kind of public policy rent-seeking that Amazon achieves when it avoids paying local taxes that apply to its competitors, or that Walmart achieves when it shifts its substandard pay and abusive employee policies to local, state, and federal public assistance agencies.  I am also referring to the latest controversies regarding AirBnB, Lyft, and Uber, which use loopholes in dealing with technology to sidestep health and safety laws in order to gain entry into a market.

Technological disruption, instead, is a specific phenomenon, based on the principle that the organic barriers to entry in a market are significantly reduced due to the introduction of technology.  The issue over the control of and access to information and innovation is specifically targeted at this phenomenon.  Large companies aggressively work to keep out new entries and to hinder innovations except those that they can control, conspiring against the public good.

The reason for why these battles are lining up resides in the modern phenomena known as disaccumulation of capital, which was first identified by social scientist Martin J. Sklar.  What this means is that the accumulation of capital, which is the time it takes to reproduce the existing material conditions of civilization, began declining in the 1920s.  As James Livingston points out in the same linked article in The Nation, “economic growth no longer required net additions either to the capital stock or the labor force….for the first time in history, human beings could increase the output of goods without increasing the essential inputs of capital and labor—they were released from the iron grip of economic necessity.”

For most of the history of civilization, the initial struggle of economics has been the ability for social organization to provide sufficient food, clothing, shelter, and medical care to people.  The conflicts between competing systems has been centered on their ability to most efficiently achieve these purposes without sacrificing individual liberty, autonomy, and dignity.  The technical solution for these goals has largely been achieved, but the efficient distribution of these essential elements of human existence has not been solved.  With the introduction of more efficient methods of information processing as well as production (digital printing is just the start), we are at the point where the process of less capital in the aggregate being required to produce the necessities and other artifacts of civilization is accelerating exponentially.

Concepts like full employment will increasingly become meaningless, because the same relationship of labor input to production that we came to expect in the recent past has changed within our own lifetimes.  Very small companies, particularly in technology, can have and have had a large impact.  In more than one market, even technology companies are re-learning the lesson of the “mythical man-month.”  Thus, the challenge in our time is to rethink the choices we have made and are making in terms of incentives and distribution that maximizes human flourishing.  But I will leave that larger question to another blog post.

For the purposes of this post focused on technology and project management, these developments call for a new microeconomics.  The seminal paper that identified this need early on was by Brad DeLong and Michael Froomkin in 1997 entitled “The Next Economy.”  While some of the real life examples they give from our perspective today provides a stroll down the digital memory-lane,  their main conclusions are relevant in how information differs from physical goods.  These are:

a.  Information is non-rivalrous.  That is, one person consuming information does not preclude someone else from consuming that information.  That is, information that is produced can be economically reproduced to operate in other environments at little to no marginal cost.  What they are talking about here is application software and the labor involved in producing a version of it.

b.  Information without exterior barriers is non-exclusive.  That is, if information is known it is almost impossible for others to know it.  For example, Einstein was the first to observe the mathematics of relativity but now every undergraduate physics student is expected to fully understand the theory.

c.  Information is not transparent.  That is, oftentimes in order to determine whether a piece of software will achieve its intended purpose, effort and resources must be invested to learn it and, oftentimes, apply it if initially only in a pilot program.

The attack coming from monopsony power is directed at the first characteristic of information.  The attack coming from monopoly power is currently directed at the second.    Doing so undermines both competition and innovation.  The first by denying the ability of small technology companies to capitalize sufficiently to develop the infrastructure necessary to become sustainable.  Oftentimes this reduces a market to one dominant supplier.  The second by restricting the application of new technologies and lessons learned based on the past.  The nature of information asymmetry is a problem for the third aspect of information, since oftentimes bad actors are economically rewarded at the expense of high quality performers as first identified in the automobile industry in George Akerlof’s paper “The Market for Lemons” (paywall).

The strategy of some entrepreneurs in small companies in reaction to these pressures has been to either sell out and be absorbed by the giants, or to sell out to private equity firms that “add value” by combining companies in lieu of organic growth, loading them down with debt from non-sustainable structuring, and selling off the new entity or its parts.  The track record for the sustainability of the applications involved in these transactions (and the satisfaction of customers) is a poor one.

One of the few places where competition still survives is among small to medium sized technology companies.  In order for these companies (and the project managers in them) to survive independently requires not only an understanding of the principles elucidated by DeLong and Froomkin.  Information also shares several tendencies with other technological innovation, but in ways that are unique to it, in improving efficiency and productivity; and in reducing the input of labor and capital.

The key is in understanding how to articulate value, how to identify opportunities for disruption, and to understand the nature of the markets in which one operates.  One’s behavior will be different if the market is diverse and vibrant, with many prospective buyers and diverse needs, as opposed to one dominated by one or a few buyers.  In the end it comes down to understanding the pain of the customer and having the agility and flexibility to solve that pain in areas where larger companies are weak or complacent.

 

*Where is that Ebola vaccine–which mainly would have benefited the citizens of poor African countries and our own members of the health services and armed forces–that would have averted public panic today?

Saturday Evening Music Interlude — Three from Mary Fahl

There is only one word to describe the music and voice of Mary Fahl: breathtaking.  Hailing from Rockland County, New York, she has been making music since the early 1990s, initially with the respected group October Project, which had a loyal and growing following until Epic records unceremoniously dropped them.  Her music has been featured in film and television, which spans genres from pop/rock, to classical, to alternative rock, and to folk.  Her powerful contralto voice has been compared favorably to Grace Slick.  Among current artists I would compare both her music, breadth, and themes with Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine.

 

More on Excel…the contributing factor of poor Project Management apps

Some early comments via e-mails on my post on why Excel is not a PM tool raised the issue that I was being way too hard on IT shops and letting application providers off the hook.  The asymmetry was certainly not the intention (at least not consciously).

When approaching an organization seeking process and technology improvement, oftentimes the condition of using Excel is what we in the technology/PM industry conveniently call “workarounds.”  Ostensibly these workarounds are temporary measures to address a strategic or intrinsic organizational need that will eventually be addressed by a more cohesive software solution.  In all too many cases, however, the workaround turns out to be semi-permanent.

A case in point in basic project management concerns Work Authorizations Documents (WADs) and Baseline Change Requests (BCRs).  Throughout entire industries who use the most advanced scheduling applications, resource management applications, and–where necessary–earned value “engines,” the modus operandi to address WADs and BCRs is to either use Excel or to write a custom app in FoxPro or using Access.  This is fine as a “workaround” as long as you remember to set up the systems and procedures necessary to keep the logs updated, and then have in place a procedure to update the systems of record appropriately.  Needless to say, errors do creep in and in very dynamic environments it is difficult to ensure that these systems are in alignment, and so a labor-intensive feedback system must also be introduced.

This is the type of issue that software technology was designed to solve.  Instead, software has fenced off the “hard’ operations so that digitized manual solutions, oftentimes hidden from plain view from the team by the physical technological constraint of the computer (PC, laptop, etc.), are used.  This is barely a step above what we did before the introduction of digitization:  post the project plan, milestone achievements, and performance on a VIDS/MAF board that surrounded the PM control office, which ensured that every member of the team could see the role and progress of the project.  Under that system no one hoarded information, it militated against single points of failure, and ensured that disconnects were immediately addressed since visibility ensured accountability.

In many ways we have lost the ability to recreate the PM control office in digitized form.  Part of the reason resides in the 20th century organization of development and production into divisions of labor.  In project management, the specialization of disciplines organized themselves around particular functions: estimating and planning, schedule management, cost management, risk management, resource management, logistics, systems engineering, operational requirements, and financial management, among others.  Software was developed to address each of these areas with clear lines of demarcation drawn that approximated the points of separation among the disciplines.  What the software manufacturers forgot (or never knew) was that the PMO is the organizing entity and it is an interdisciplinary team.

To return to our example: WADs and BCRs; a survey of the leading planning and scheduling applications shows that while their marketing literature addresses baselines and baseline changes (and not all of them address even this basic function), they still do not understand complex project management.  There is a difference between resources assigned to a time-phased network schedule and the resources planned against technical achievement related to the work breakdown structure (WBS).  Given proper integration they should align.  In most cases they do not.  This is why most scheduling application manufacturers who claim to measure earned value, do not.  Their models assume that the expended resources align with the plan to date, in lieu of volume-based measurement.  Further, eventually understanding this concept does not produce a digitized solution, since an understanding of the other specific elements of program control is necessary.

For example, projects are initiated either through internal work authorizations in response to a market need, or based on the requirements of a contract.  Depending on the mix of competencies required to perform the work financial elements such as labor rates, overhead, G&A, allowable margin (depending on contract type), etc. will apply–what is euphemistically called “complex rates.”  An organization may need to manage multiple rate sets based on the types of efforts undertaken, with a many-to-many relationship between rate sets and projects/subprojects.

Once again, the task of establishing the proper relationships at the appropriate level is necessary.  This will then affect the timing of WAD initiation, and will have a direct bearing on the BCR approval process, given that it is heavily influenced by “what-if?” analysis against resource, labor, and financial availability and accountability (a complicated process in itself).  Thus the schedule network is not the only element affected, nor the overarching one, given the assessed impact on cost, technical achievement, and qualitative external risk.

These are but two examples of sub-optimization due to deficiencies in project management applications.  The response–and in my opinion a lazy one (or one based on the fact that oftentimes software companies know nothing of their customers’ operations)–has been to develop the alternative euphemism for “workaround”: best of breed.  Oftentimes this is simply a means of collecting revenue for a function that is missing from the core application.  It is the software equivalent of division of labor: each piece of software performs functions relating to specific disciplines and where there are gaps these are filled by niche solutions or Excel.  What this approach does not do is meet the requirements of the PMO control office, since it perpetuates application “swim lanes,” with the multidisciplinary requirements of project management relegated to manual interfaces and application data reconciliation.  It also pushes–and therefore magnifies–risk at the senior level of the project management team, effectively defeating organizational fail safes designed to reduce risk through, among other methods, delegation of responsibility to technical teams, and project planning and execution constructed around short duration/work-focused activities.  It also reduces productivity, information credibility, and unnecessarily increases cost–the exact opposite of the rationale used for investing in software technology.

It is time for this practice to end.  Technologies exist today to remove application “swim lanes” and address the multidisciplinary needs of successful project management.  Excel isn’t the answer; cross-application data access, proper data integration, and data processing into user-directed intelligence, properly aggregated and distributed based on role and optimum need to know, is.

Finding Wisdom — Four novels by Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer passed away this year on July 14, 2014.  Rarely is there an opportunity for a gifted writer to be both brave and essential.  She was both of these throughout her 90 years.  Gordimer, of course, was a South African novelist and short story writer.  Her fiction dealt with the issues regarding race and the racial apartheid that defined South African society during a time when writing and openly speaking about such issues was forbidden.  She addressed these issues when similar regimes of apartheid, white supremacy, and racial segregation were in force elsewhere, most notably in the American South and in Rhodesia, thus her words spoke to millions beyond the borders of her native country, where many of her books were banned.  But she went beyond just writing, placing herself in jeopardy by joining the African National Congress (ANC) in support of overturning apartheid during a time when membership in that organization was illegal, participating in anti-apartheid demonstrations, and hiding ANC members in her home from the police who were sought for arrest.  She was close friends with the attorneys of Nelson Mandela’s defense team during his trial, helping him prepare his “I Am Prepared to Die” speech, which he gave during his defense in 1964.  Years later, after his release from prison, Gordimer was one of the first people Mandela sought out.

Gordimer’s fiction explores the society around her in a progression of discovery that I suspect very much traces her own intellectual and emotional progression.  She had begun writing when she was 15 years old, a largely isolated only-child of nurturing and protective parents.  By the time she was married for the first time and had her first child in her mid-twenties, she submitted one of her stories to The New Yorker and was published there for the first time in 1951.  Additional stories–which she continued to believe was the most essential fictional form for her time–and novels ensued; quite a number of them.

In her first novel, The Lying Days, which she published in 1953, we follow the growing awareness of a twenty-four year old woman by the name of Helen Shaw to the realities of both apartheid and the small town life–with its other prejudices and taboos–in which she lives.  It is in this novel that Gordmer’s keen eye for the essential truth of a matter and her ability to communicate it in her fiction was first revealed.  The vultures of South Africa hover everywhere, she wrote, over both the veld and the cities, and in doing so they look down on all of the people of the plain and the cities, both the rich and the poor.  In the city of Johannesburg and its outskirts where poverty tends to collect, as in all cities, there is that thing called charity.  But, she wrote, ”in South Africa there is one difference, a difference so great that the whole conception of charity must be changed.  The people…were not the normal human wastage of a big industrial city but…the entire black-skinned population on whose labor the city rested…too poor to maintain themselves decently because no matter what their energy, their skill, their labor was not allowed value above subsistence level.”  But if this were her only insight it would be slight indeed, but Gordimer plumbs the society around her with a keen eye for detail: the brute labor and hopelessness in working in the local mine, the Jewish boy who dare not talk of his identity or declare his love for Helen, the black girl with whom Helen befriends in university who cannot come to Helen’s home, and who would be turned away in any event by Helen’s parents.  Helen’s lover as young woman, Paul, works to provide some measure of human kindness to the poor of the city and is frustrated at every turn.  Through the eyes of Helen and the other characters in the novel we see a panorama of the conflicts and frustration that makes up South African society under its strictures and oppressive taboos regarding race, ethnicity, and religion.  From the outside–and now with the benefit of history–we can see that this is a regime that cannot hold.  But beyond a novel of ideas, the greatest sin that Gordimer committed as a member of that society in this first novel is what is essential to making a great writer, it is in humanizing her characters and bringing them forth as three dimensional, communicating to the reader that these people in their interactions have an internal life like our own, regardless of their skin color or their background.  To those conservatives and defenders of the social order in her own time, this was just the first of many sins should would commit.

In the story Occasion for Loving, which was published in 1963, is told by the observant third party.  In this novel Jessie and Tom Stilwell are part of the liberal intellectual class of South Africa, leading a comfortable suburban existence.  It is through Jessie that the story is told.  The Stilwells supplement their income by renting out extra space and in this case it is to newly married Ann and Boaz Davis.  Boaz is a composer but he has been suffering writer’s block and so is busy collecting and transcribing the native tribal music of Africa before it disappears.  He is also Jewish in a land hostile to Jews.  Ann, for her part, is open to experience and challenges convention at every turn.  She is a young English woman used to getting her way.  Into the picture enters Gideon Shibalo, a talented and passionate young African man who has received a fellowship to study painting in Rome, but who is denied a passport by the South African authorities.  The Stilwells and Davises feel for Gideon’s injustice.  The Stilwells, in particular, given their status live in a world where normal social convention doesn’t seem to touch them. They travel to the townships at will and have contact with the Africans in defiance of the authorities, supporting organizations to overturn apartheid.  Along the way Ann falls in with Gideon.  But this is not some esoteric societal transgression.  The relationship between Ann and Gideon is a political crime with serious consequences if they are found out.  It is hard to tell Ann’s motivation when she and her lover decide to run away together, whether her personal “occasion for loving” is due to her true feelings or some other high minded motivation to save the young man’s dreams.  And so it is with all of the characters and the tragedy which this story becomes.  They try to insulate themselves from their actions through intellectualizing their actions, refusing to see that “…Every contact with whites was touched with intimacy; for even the most casual belonged by definition to the conspiracy against keeping apart.”  In the end Ann is convinced by Jessie, who faces her own conflicts regarding her former first marriage, the child from that marriage, and her three children with Tom, to end the affair and return to Boaz.  In the end she is a realist regarding the difference between familial love and sexual love.  But Ms. Gordimer is not going to let her characters off the hook that easily, lest the book become another trivial potboiler.  She uses this form to explore the other aspects of the characters, the affair, and the larger context in which they occur.  Jesse may be a realist in matters of the heart, but can she really understand the motivation for the basic freedoms that Gideon is denied?  In the story’s “occasion for loving,” how complicit are the Stilwells and Davises, for all of their liberalism and moderation, in the oppressive and racist system that was South Africa?

A Guest of Honour published in 1970 garnered her the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, which was her first major literary award.  It tells the story of a British colonial administrator by the name of Evelyn James Bray.  Mr. Bray is a pariah among the white settlers of the colony that he serves because of his activism in favor of the black freedom movement, and is forced to flee as a result.  A while after these events, however, the colony is granted its independence and Mr. Bray is invited back to the new republic by its chosen president.  The president is Adamson Mwete, a popular and gregarious man who lives in poverty one day only to be propelled to the head of a new country the next.  His closest friend and advisor has been Edward Shinza, both an intellectual man and one who can turn thought into action.  The two men–Mwete and Shinza–completed one another, were opposite sides of the same coin, but when Bray returns he notices that Shinza has fled to the bush.  Bray, who initially takes a passive role in celebrating the newly independent state, is pulled into the events that now take on a life of their own.  For the differing visions of Mwete and Shinza play out across the country in real time.  Mwete believes that the state first and foremost must benefit in order for everyone to benefit, while Shinza sees the benefits of freedom needing to play out in practicality, changing the lives of the people for the better.  Mwete is the more adept politician and so overwhelms his old friend and ally.  In implementing his program, he outsources the country’s mines to foreign interests, with the state sharing in the profits.  The hitch is that the workers must accept lower wages and poor working conditions.  The unions are thus co-opted to enforce the will of the state, as is the former independence party apparatus.  The workers, who had been the vanguard of the independence movement, are suppressed.  As popular discontent grows Mwete enforces ever increasingly oppressive measures, creating a police state not so different from the one that existed prior to independence, tying himself closer to the empire from which the country fled.  Foreign interests are invited in to bolster the regime and the rich are allowed to keep their fortunes and rule over the wage earners, subsistence farmers, and the poor; tied as they are to the largesse of the state and foreign economic interests.  Soon the old revolution returns, the president flees to England, and foreign troops arrive to restore order.  The storyline in A Guest of Honour seems all too familiar today with the benefit of 44 years hindsight since its publication; similar stories having been played out across Africa and Asia.  It is the story of a revolution gone bad, of ideals betrayed to expediency, of greed, of human stupidity and ignorance borne of the desire to do good but without the tools or the knowledge to know how to go about it.  It is an indictment of paternalism, of colonialism, of economic imperialism, and the savage cruelty of the strong over the weak.  For Gordimer writing from the perspective of 1970, it is a warning–a cautionary tale–of how things could turn out in the wake of apartheid’s removal.  But it is not simply a didactic exploration of philosophies or politics or consequences.  The characters live and breath and–all too frequently–err, as those in all great literature do.

Gordimer’s 1974 novel The Conservationist won her the Booker Prize, the most prestigious literary award in England, the equivalent to the National Book Award in this country.  To many it is considered her masterpiece, though there are many candidates for that title.  The novel’s lyrical telling is much like an impressionist painting, allowing the reader to see details that are only faintly described, the colors and overall effect communicating more than the misleading simplicity of the subject matter.  The main character is a wealthy white industrialist from Johannesburg by the name of Mehring, and it is through his perspective that the story is told.  He buys a 400 acre farm less than an hour from his work as a meeting place for his mistress, Antonia, and because the losses from the farm’s operations is a tax write-off.  In his mind he loves the land, but treats it as any other investment, viewing the productiveness of the cattle and cornfields as the ultimate measure of his stewardship while, at the same time, dismissing the concerns and well-being of the Zulu caretakers who run the farm.  The same can be said for all of the people in his life–he is disconnected from them and sees them only in terms of his holdings or what they offer him, in particular the need for young women to feed his sexual appetite.  The farm’s foreman, Jacobus, finds a dead body on the farm.  The police are called but the deceased man is black, and so the circumstances of his death are of little official concern.  The police bury the body where it is found.  This knowledge haunts Mehring throughout the novel.  The story, of course, is allegory, but one that contains a great deal of psychological wisdom and human insight.  It deals with the immediate issue of apartheid but it reveals much about human nature.  In the mind of Mehring we find a man whose self-image is driven by wanting to be seen as doing the “right” thing, of being a “proper” human being (one cannot characterize the self-interest he seeks and which is his central defining characteristic as “good”), at least in his mind’s eye.  That the language and perceptions of a racist and materialist worldview color his perspectives does not in the least come to mind.  For all of his wealth and internal drive there is little self-reflection or self-awareness.  It is only when the body of the unidentified black man is exhumed by a flood and he witnesses the black farm hands burying the man as if a relative that he feels his own isolation.  But that is the condition of all who would be rulers of a kingdom, even the petty ones of our own times.

In her overall body of work, for which she received the Nobel Prize in 1991, Nadine Gordimer challenged in her writing not only apartheid but all forms of oppression.  Her books are both cleared-eyed and brutally honest.  The wisdom to be learned from her body of work sits not in the polemics of freedom, but into the insights of how people come to terms with a great evil.

There are other works that I could have chose aside from these four.  There are her works that were famously banned in her native country:   A World of Strangers (1958)which tells the story of a white South African man who witnesses the brutality of apartheid and is force by conscience to join an organization like the ANC.  The novella, The Late Bourgeois World (1966), which was banned for a decade, directly attacks the privileged white suburban life upon which the slavery and repression of the black majority is based.  Burger’s Daughter (1979) about the daughter of a Communist activist in South Africa in the wake of her father’s death.  July’s People (1981) banned during the apartheid and post-apartheid period, in which she imagines a black revolution turned oppressive against white people, an upside down apartheid.

There are also the more recent novels.  A Sport of Nature (1987) about an angry young woman without a cause who is caught up in the politics of South Africa without being emotionally touched by them,  The House Gun (1998) explores the psychology of seemingly reasonable people who are forced to face the reality of their lives from a single act of violence.  The Pickup (2001), about the challenges of two lovers from different cultures without a country.  No Time Like the Present (2012), which chronicles the struggle of life in South Africa after the struggle.

In all of Ms. Gordimer’s works there are connections that tie people together even under a system of forced separation, though the psychological barriers of separation are just as real.  In the end, no matter what kind of justifications are built to separate people or that people use to insulate themselves or their tribe or their identify, the fact is that we are all connected in some way for what happens in the world around us.  Her writing attacks prejudice wherever it tries to hide, whether it be in others or in ourselves.

In thinking about the significant body of work left by Nadine Gordimer–for the short stories and short story collections, which I haven’t addressed here, are significant–I am struck by the fact that the American South never produced an author of the same stature in dealing with the defining evils of segregated southern society.  Certainly no one that combined Gordimer’s bravery, conviction, and writing talent.  Instead, we are left with only the alcohol-infused paternalist voice of William Faulkner, who dealt with issues of “miscegenation” early, but the oppression he witnessed is chronicled only obliquely, writing directly about what went on as a matter of course only once:  in his excellent Intruder in the Dust.  There are fairy tale stories and domestic concerns of Eudora Welty, the southern gothic of Carson McCullers, and the apologists like Robert Penn Warren (later reformed),  and Elizabeth Spencer.  Harper Lee, a southern expatriate, gave us To Kill a Mockingbird and nothing else.

This is not an indictment, necessarily, of American southern literature.  Certainly the effects of Jim Crow and the Black Codes have been told by African American authors (James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and others) and the occasional works of white southerners (such as William Styron) to great effect–and there are certainly other aspects of living in the American south.  But I find it interesting that the one voice during a significant period in our own history that consistently spoke against racial prejudice and oppression and the blind spot that societies construct to mask its effects and beneficiaries–and which appeared regularly in publications like The New Yorker–came from a South African author.  For this we owe a great deal of thanks to Nadine Gordimer.

Saturday Music Interlude — Three from London Grammar

London Grammar consists of vocalist Hannah Reid, guitarist Dan Rothman, and multi-instrumentalist Dot Major.  Out of university from Nottingham, U.K., Reid and Rothman met in the dorms and began recording and posting their music on-line.  “Hey Now” became an internet viral hit in 2012 and they released a debut album in 2013.

Their music is dominated by the emotive voice of Reid, whose powerful vocal instrument always stays in the foreground but is supported and propelled effectively by both Rothman and Major.  The three acting in empathy effectively mine the emotional potential of each song.

The following two videos from WFUV showcase the band’s raw talent in an organic, unproduced setting.  Their version of Chris Isaak’s classic “Wicked Game” performed here is a their performance evokes both the sorrowful reflection and obsessive passion expressed in the song’s lyrics, though it is apparent that “Hey Now,” a self-penned song, possesses more urgency and passion in the minds and hearts of the artists.

Finally, here is their most recent official video which most effectively displays the band’s potential backed by full instrumentation and with Reid’s disciplined but powerful vocals tested to their full range.