COB-77: meeting with management

ruler's messenger: linguist's staff

Many bureaucrats dread meeting with first-level management, to say nothing of meeting with second, third, fourth, fifth, and so on levels of higher management.  In actual meeting practice, any level of management means a person filling a position.  In other words, the boss is probably a human being.  And also a bureaucrat just like you.

So there’s no need to scratch your head and puzzle over what to say to a boss.  Just tell the boss that you will do exactly whatever she tells you to do. “What exactly do you want me to do?”  “How exactly should I do that?”  To be a good bureaucrat, you must sincerely believe that your job is to do exactly what you are told to do.  You shouldn’t be afraid of management.  Schedule as many meetings as possible with management.  If you do only what management tells you to do in the way management tells you to do it, then your performance reflects management’s performance.  You will have no risk of getting a poor performance evaluation from management.

In other bureaucratic issues this month, Mark Cuban, despite his appalling lack of bureaucratic credentials, provides an incisive analysis of facebook’s business:

Its a time waster. That’s not to say we don’t engage, we do. We click, share and comment because it’s mindless and easy. But for some reason FB {facebook} doesn’t seem to want to accept that it’s best purpose in life is as a huge time suck platform that we use to keep up with friends, interests and stuff. I think that they are over thinking what their network is all about.

In other words, wasting time creates billions of dollars in business value, over-thinking is a major strategic danger, and facebook shouldn’t try to change what it does.  These lessons are not just for facebook’s business planning department.  They are for everyone.

Neal Stephenson at the World Policy Institute offers some encouraging news about the slowing of innovation.  He observes:

Most people who work in corporations or academia have witnessed something like the following: A number of engineers are sitting together in a room, bouncing ideas off each other. Out of the discussion emerges a new concept that seems promising. Then some laptop-wielding person in the corner, having performed a quick Google search, announces that this “new” idea is, in fact, an old one—or at least vaguely similar—and has already been tried. Either it failed, or it succeeded. If it failed, then no manager who wants to keep his or her job will approve spending money trying to revive it. If it succeeded, then it’s patented and entry to the market is presumed to be unattainable, since the first people who thought of it will have “first-mover advantage” and will have created “barriers to entry.” The number of seemingly promising ideas that have been crushed in this way must number in the millions.

In the era before Google (BG), “Been Tried Before” (BTB) could be used to help stop new ideas, but often BTB was not considered credible. For example, in 74 BG the company C-T-R changed its name to IBM. C-T-R had a distinguished bureaucratic record that included developing a time clock that recorded a worker’s arrival and departure time on a paper tape.  IBM in the BG era went on to develop personal computers that have tended to devalue bureaucratic hierarchies. In the era after Google (AG), IBM bureaucrats can much more effectively assert BTB to stop products like the PC.

Judy Sims reports that newspaper executives aren’t supporting innovation.  That’s probably because they have heard the news that innovation is slowing. You can see an example of this slowing of innovation at the Bangor Daily News (Maine), where two anchors made a weighty on-air resignation (“Take this job and shove it: Fed-up Bangor TV anchors quit on air”) before they had a chance to sit in the new anchor stage set designed for the news station.

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of Bureaucrats.  Enjoy previous bureaucratic carnivals here.  Nominations of posts to be considered for inclusion in next month’s carnival should be submitted using Form 376: Application for Bureaucratic Recognition.

Seleucid-era calendar in 14th century Zayton, China

A Chinese port city known as Zayton (present-day Quanzhou) was home to a large, diverse Eurasian population during the period of Mongol rule from c. 1280-1368.  Zayton encompassed Hindu temples, Muslim mosques, and Christian churches.  Yet within this cosmopolitan environment, differences in culture apparently were deeply felt.  Consider this Christian epitaph written in Zayton in Syriac script in 1305:

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, forever, Amen.  In the year one thousand six hundred and sixteen of the reckoning of Alexander the Great King, son of King Philip from the state of Macedonia, in the Year of the Dragon of the Chinese reckoning, on the sixteenth night of the ninth month in the congregation’s calendar, … [*]

The numbered year refers to the Seleucid era, which began in 311 BGC with the division of Alexander the Great’s empire.  Persons living in Central Asia continued to use that Seleucid-era calendar after becoming Christians, after maintaining their Christian faith within a dominantly Islamic society, and after moving to China.

That the Gregorian / “common era” calendar is so widely used today is quite remarkable.  Desire to get dates right for spiritual and ritual actions spurred rulers’ support for astronomers and astrologistsJews divided bitterly over solar and lunar calendars.  Considerable diversity in calendars existed among Christians in Europe through at least 800.  How does our most uncommon era have an “common era” calendar?  Perhaps persons today live more in the present and are less concerned with how to calculate and name past and future dates.

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Read more:

Source notes [*]: Inscription Z2r, trans. p. 261 in Eccles, Lance, Franzmann, Majella, Lieu, Sam, “Observations on select Christian inscriptions in the Syriac script from Zayton,” pp. 247-278 in Gardner, Iain, Samuel N. C. Lieu, and Kenneth Parry. 2005. From Palmyra to Zayton: epigraphy and iconography. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols. .

al-Biruni treats Hindu idolatry like ancient Greco-Roman idolatry

By the early eleventh century, Greco-Roman thought was much more respected and eagerly studied in the Islamic world than was Hindu thought.  One obstacle to Muslims engaging with Hindus was Muslims’ perception that Hindus worshiped idols. In his monumental work on India, early-eleventh-century Muslim scholar al-Biruni described Hindu idolatry as similar to Greco-Roman idolatry.  Greco-Roman idolatry caused little intellectual and religious concern to Muslims.  In al-Biruni’s view, Hindu idolatry likewise should cause little intellectual and religious concern to Muslims.

While both Christians and Muslims were adept at recasting ancient Greeks as proto-coreligionists, al-Biruni showed more respect for the fullness of truth. Al-Biruni described ancient Greek belief in “the First Cause,” which can be analogized to belief in the one God of Islam.  Al-Biruni declared that Plato wrote:

God is in the single number; there are no gods in the plural number.[1]

Nonetheless, al-Biruni also reported that the ancient Greeks believed in spirits that ruled the world in various ways: “they called them gods, built temples in their names and offered them sacrifices.”  According to al-Biruni, Galen, who was the leading medical authority in the ancient Islamic world, described Asclepius and Dionysos as divine beings.  Al-Biruni also transmitted Galen’s story of a stone statue of Hermes.  That stone statue spoke to its maker in a dream and declared, “Now I am no longer a stone.”  Al-Biruni also noted that the ancient Greeks used the word apotheosis “which has a bad sound in the ears of Muslims.”[2]  Greco-Roman non-Christian religion had largely vanished by the time of the coming of Islam.  Greco-Roman idolatry was thus easy for Muslims to ignore.  Al-Biruni, in contrast, described many Greco-Roman beliefs and practices that would offend Muslim beliefs.

Sol Invictus, an idol of the late Roman Empire

Hindu beliefs and practices, in al-Biruni’s view, were much like those of the ancient Greeks.  Al-Biruni described Hindus as recognizing seven classes of spiritual beings who continually quarrel and fight. They occasionally had intercourse with human beings.  Al-Biruni observed:

If you compare these {Hindu} traditions with those of the Greek regarding their own religion, you will cease to find the Hindu system strange.  We have already mentioned that they called the angels gods.  Now consider their stories about Zeus, and you will understand the truth of our remark. … {Zeus} married certain women one after the other, doing violence to them and not marrying them, among them Europa, the daughter of Phoenix, who was taken from him by Asterios, king of Crete.  [3]

Those stories attribute to Zeus “anthropomorphisms and traits of animal life.”  Moreover, according to al-Biruni, “Brahman {apparently meaning a Hindu god} is described in the same way as Zeus by Aratos {Aratus}.”[4]  Al-Biruni’s accounts of Hindu gods and Greeks gods aren’t coherent.  But al-Biruni’s primary point is that both Hinduism and ancient Greek religion fall short of Islam in similar ways.

Al-Biruni emphasized the importance of elite beliefs.  The Greek scholars and Greek philosophers that Muslim scholars translated and studied were Greek elites.  Al-Biruni directed attention away from popular Indian practices, towards learned Hindu thinking:

The educated among the Hindus abhor anthropomorphisms of this kind, but the crowd and the members of the single sects use them most extensively. They go even beyond all we have hitherto mentioned, so as to speak of wife, son, daughter, of the rendering pregnant and other physical processes, all in connection with God. They are even so little pious, that, when speaking of these things, they do not even abstain from silly and unbecoming language. However, nobody minds these classes and their theories, though they be numerous. The main and most essential point of the Hindu world of thought is that which the Brahmans think and believe, for they are specially trained for preserving and maintaining their religion. [5]

Indian elite texts described in detail the construction of idols.  In al-Biruni’s view, these texts illustrate “how the crowd is kept in thraldom by all kinds of priestly tricks and deceits.”  Al-Biruni reported that these elite tactics had great effects:

When the ignorant crowd get a piece of good luck by accident or something at which they had aimed, and when with this some of the preconcerted tricks of the priests are brought into connection, the darkness in which they live increases vastly, not their intelligence.  They will rush to those figures of idols, maltreating their own figures before them by shedding their own blood and mutilating their own bodies.[6]

Such idol-worship al-Biruni excused more than condemned.  It indicated common, ignorant persons being exploited.

Al-Biruni saw economic exploitation of idols and idol-worshiping as preferable to some other alternatives.  When Islamic warriors invaded Sicily in the mid-seventh century, they captured “golden idols adorned with crowns and diamonds.”  The (Muslim) Caliph didn’t destroy the idols.  He ordered the idols to be sent to India to be sold there.  Al-Biruni approvingly observed:

for he thought it best to sell them as objects costing sums of so-and-so many denars, not having the slightest scruple on account of their being objects of abominable idolatry, but simply considering the matter from a political, not from a religious point of view. [7]

Similarly, when Muslims conquered the Indian city Multan about 712, they didn’t destroy Multan’s main Hindu idol, which attracted many visitors and much money.  Instead, the Muslims took a share of ongoing revenue from the idol. About 986, an Ismaili army seized control of Multan in battle among Muslim forces.  The new, Ismaili ruler of Multan destroyed the idol.  Al-Biruni described this new ruler as “the usurper” and approvingly noted that “the blessed Prince Mahmud swept away their rule.”[8]  Al-Biruni seemed to regard economically exploiting an idol to be preferable to destroying it.

Al-Biruni favored ignoring idols intellectually.  Al-Biruni reported ancient Greek devotion to more than one god and ancient Greek use of idols as mediators and embodiments of gods.  Such practices encompassed Plato and Galen, Greco-Roman thinkers highly respected in the Islamic world.[9]  Al-Biruni’s solution to this troubling strand of Greco-Roman thought was Aristotle’s wisdom, taken from legends of Alexander the Great. According to these legends, Alexander the Great sought help from Aristotle in addressing a Brahman’s criticism of Greek idolatry.  Aristotle reportedly answered the Brahman for Alexander:

If you maintain that some Greeks have fabled that the idols speak, that the people offer to them and think them to be spiritual beings, of all this we have no knowledge, and we cannot give a sentence on a subject we do not know.

“I don’t know” is truly a classic legal defense.  Al-Biruni warmly approved this Aristotelian wisdom:

In these words he {Aristotle} rises high above the class of fools and uneducated people, and he indicates by them that he does not occupy himself with such things.[10]

Al-Biruni wanted Muslim scholars to treat concerns about Hindu idolatry according to Aristotle’s wisdom, and to study Hindu thought as seriously as they studied Greco-Roman thought.

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Read more:


[1] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910) p. 35.

[2] Id. pp. 34, 35, 124, 36.

[3] Id. pp. 91, 95, 96.

[4] Id. pp. 95, 97.

[5] Id. p. 39.

[6] Id. pp. 122, 123.

[7] Id. p. 124.  Lavish, pre-Islamic venerating of statues is important for understanding Byzantine iconoclasm.

[8] Id. pp. 116-7.  Muhammad ibn al-Qasim was the initial Muslim conqueror of Multan.  According to al-Biruni:

he thought it best to have the idol where it was, but he hung a piece of cow’s-flesh on its neck by way of mockery.

Id. Hanging cow-flesh on a Hindu idol probably would have destroyed its revenue-generating potential in attracting Hindu pilgrims.  Elsewhere al-Biruni noted:

they {Hindus} never desire that a thing which once has been polluted should be purified and thus recovered, as, under ordinary circumstances, if anybody or anything has become unclean, he or it would strive to regain the state of purity.

Id. p 20.  The claim about hanging cow-flesh on the idol may have been a fiction intended to assuage Muslim concern about economically exploiting the idol rather than destroying it.  The ravaging of India by Mahmud of Gazna (“blessed Prince Mahmud”) seems to have generally appalled al-Biruni.  For more on the temple of Multan, see Friedmann (1972).

[9] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910) pp. 123-4.  Al-Biruni quotes loosely from Plato’s Laws (Bk. 4) and closely from the surviving Arabic translation of Galen’s De Moribus (Ethics), which al-Biruni calls De Indole Animae.

[10] Trans. Sachau (1910) p. 124.  A Hebrew text written in fourteenth century France — one of the many, different, surviving manuscripts of the Alexander legends — has the Brahman King Dindimus write to Alexander:

We, the Brahmans, do not slaughter sheep and oxen for the glory and honor of the gods. We do not build temples in order to place images and idols of silver and gold in them. We do not do as you do.

Trans. Bonfils & Kazis (1962) p. 140.  Similar to the wisdom that al-Biruni records from Aristotle is part of a fourth-century saying of the desert monk Abba Sopatras:

Do not get involved in discussions about the image.  Although this is not heresy, there is too much ignorance and liking for dispute between the two parties in this matter. It is impossible for a creature to understand the truth of it.

Trans. Ehrman & Jacobs (2004) p. 306.


Bonfils, Immanuel ben Jacob, and Israel Joseph Kazis. 1962. The book of the gests of Alexander of Macedon: a mediaeval Hebrew version of the Alexander romance. Cambridge, Mass: Mediaeval Academy of America.

Ehrman, Bart D., and Andrew S. Jacobs. 2004. Christianity in late antiquity, 300-450 C.E.: a reader. New York: Oxford University Press.

Friedmann, Yohanan. 1972. “The temple of Multan: a note on early Muslim attitudes to idolatry.” Israel Oriental Studies, 2, 176-182

Sachau, Eduard. 1910. Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī. Alberuni’s India. An account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about A.D. 1030. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.