Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Notes from the Digital Chasm

I have two friends.  I’ll call them Bert and Ernie.  

Bert is 72 (a Baby Boomer), lives on the East Coast, and is mostly retired after a successful career in consumer marketing, including running a business that made stuff (as opposed to, say, a business that manufactured zeros and ones).  Bert is technically savvy and aware, and usually has the latest i-Gizmo.

Ernie is in his early 40s (a Gen X), lives on the West Coast, and teaches at a private boys’ school.  He’s a runner, and a good one, not to mention being an enthusiastic and fearless early-adopter of technology.

In February, I wrote a post comparing tech giants of the twenty-first century (gathered at Trump Tower) to those of the nineteenth century (see here).  Needless to say, I was underwhelmed by the current crop, writing:
Online shopping vs. surgical anesthesia. Online search engine vs. cast-iron construction. Online social networking vs. the system of interchangeable parts. Online payments vs. the mechanical reaper and new forms of corporate organization.  Computer software and consumer electronics vs. vulcanized rubber. Computer technology vs. the first American steam locomotive.  Middleware vs. the telegraph.  Big Data vs. the rotary press. 
I wondered in the post if maybe historian Richard Hofstadter had been correct when he wrote, "Once great men created fortunes; today a great system creates fortunate men."

That’s when Ernie dropped me a note from Oakland.  It was clear I wasn’t looking closely enough at what our modern industrial giants had wrought.   Here’s what he wrote:

Monday, July 17, 2017

Happy 115th: 15 Pictures the Tell the Story of Modern Air Conditioning

It was 115 years ago today that Willis Haviland Carrier signed a set of mechanical drawings which, soon after, became the world's first modern air-conditioning system.  And it was 5 years ago that we published Weathermakers to the World, telling the story of Dr. Carrier and his namesake company.

Below, I've chosen 15 pictures that tell the story of modern air conditioning.

1. Most of us don't remember the world "before cool," and may only experience it occasionally on a dash between our air-conditioned car and our air-conditioned office.  One rule-of-thumb illustrates the heartiness of our great-grandparents, however: Only when the temperature plus 20 percent of the humidity equaled 100 did everyone give up and go home.  So, 80F plus 90% humidity = 98. . .keep working!

I especially like this ad, which was one in a series used by Carrier, because it shows young Willis (in the lower left-hand corner) hard at work on his new invention.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Technology's Triassic Period: A Look Back at 1999

From Wired 1999: Some believed Y2K was
 the end of technology's Triassic Period.  Others
knew better.
The Triassic Period was a time when archosaurs roamed the planet.  Some of these not-quite-dinosaurs were impressive nonetheless, walking on two legs, hunting in packs with their sharp teeth and claws, and flying.  Life was good until, after 50 million years—ka-boom—the Triassic Period ended.  Whether the result of volcanic eruption, asteroid strike, or climate change, three-quarters of life on Earth disappeared.

Scientists now know that after each of Earth’s mass extinctions, five in all, whatever life survives gets back to work with a vengeance.  Biodiversity after cataclysm flourishes.

And so, the Triassic and its archosaurs gave way to the Jurassic Period, when true dinosaurs dominated the land.  Tyrannosaurus.  The stuff of movies and nightmares.  The stuff of endless bedtime books for small children. 

Last month I sat down to read Wired magazine, all twelve issues (purchased on eBay) from the year 1999, back-to-back-to-back.  I wanted to try to place myself in the world of consumer and office technology just before the turn of the century, and to understand how, and how much, things had changed. 


Wired's January 1999 cover
As I read, I felt like I was visiting a place that I knew, but was just slightly off, like the way a week in the Triassic might have felt to a T-Rex.  In 1999, we were celebrating all kinds of colorful technological archosaurs, fascinating creatures with teeth and claws, touch screens and desktop-syncs.  But they weren’t yet dinosaurs, and we kind of knew that, too.  Biodiversity was flourishing, but many observers understood that we were still short one good extinction before technology’s Jurassic Period could get underway.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

What Killed the Greatest Show on Earth?

This month, after 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus is going out of business.  The greatest show on earth will cease to be.  

What killed the circus?

Some people believe that the death spiral began when elephants departed the Big Top last year after decades of public scolding and legal pressure.  But ticket sales to Ringling Bros. have been declining for the last decade.  In fact, there’s something particularly important about “the last decade.”

Kenneth Feld, chairman of Feld Entertainment, which bought the circus in 1967, said as much when he wrote, “There has been more change in the last decade than in the preceding 70 years.”[1]

That’s the real story.  It wasn’t the loss of elephants that killed the circus.  It was something far bigger, and--even as I write this--it’s killing more than the greatest show on earth.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Birding: Just Another Pecking Order

This Eastern Screech-Owl is a celebrity in Newburyport.
I've started birding and I'm having a blast.  I love hiking and snowshoeing.  I love taking pictures.  I love being on the hunt.  I love doing the reading and studying and figuring out habitat and migration.  And since November, I've been looking for reasons to avoid my Facebook and Twitter feeds, if only to preserve my sanity.

I call it trading Tweets for tweets.

My introduction to birding has been through my backyard feeder, Henry at Wildbirds Unlimited, Carol and the great people at Audubon, The Big Year, H is for Hawk, my new Sibley and Peterson, my e-bird alerts, and a bunch of group excursions looking for owls and eagles and hawks (oh my).

And I'm still a complete rookie--which is good for the soul.  My life list has 38 birds.  They even place me in the front seat of the van when I head off with a group of experienced birders so I "don't miss anything."  When I was first to spot an eagle a few weeks ago, I heard one of the charming older ladies in my group whisper, "Beginner's luck."  So, I'm starting in right field--but at least I'm in the game.

And, as in every human endeavor, with birding, there is a pecking order.  Just like at the office, where there is a clear pecking order.  At the gym.  At the local diner.  At church.  My wife plays in bell choirs and, yes, even when nice people are swinging 3/8-inch thick solid Aluminum/Titanium alloy, polished tempered tone chimes, in unison to Bach, there is a pecking order.

Today's rare bird alert.  It's hard
not to want to drop everything
and go looking.
We are, after all, just apes.  In the case of birding, apes with Swarovskis and scopes and tripods and cameras.  But just apes.

Here's one recent example.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Yuval Harari's "Sapiens": I Think I Finally Get It

At the start of 2017 I checked the actuarial tables and determined, at 12 books per year, I had about 168 books left to read.  Give or take.  That's not a lot.  So I decided then and there that I would read only books that had the potential to change my mind, or change my life.

Yuval Harari's Sapiens is one of them, not only because it's as absorbing as a novel, but I now believe it explains nearly everything that has confused me about life and my fellow human beings since November 2016.

Here's a little of what I learned:

Thursday, February 9, 2017

What's a Picture Worth: Tech Giants, Now and Then

A few weeks ago, President-elect Trump met with the giants of American technology.  Thirteen of the nation's best and brightest were invited to the Trump Tower in New York and gathered around a shiny table to hear the President tell them, "I'm here to help you folks do well."

You can decide for yourself how that will all unfold over the next few months, but what struck me about the meeting was this picture:


Even at this distance, from this angle, you know many of the players.  There's the guy from Amazon.  The guy from Google.  There's the lady from Facebook.  The guy from Apple.  Oh, and there's Peter Thiel, seated at the left hand of the President.  Thiel, the Wall Street Journal reported, helped orchestrate the event, including nixing a number of "monster companies" that wanted to attend.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Big Data Meets 2017 Resolutions


It's that time of year when we all resolve to be happier and healthier, and that often means better eating and more exercise.  But in a culture of "Big Data," why not look to data to know what makes us happier and healthier?  And what better place than the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has been following two cohorts of white men (sorry ladies) for almost eighty years, since 1938.

Now under the direction of Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, the study monitors physical health and keeps tabs on social activities, quality of marriage, and job satisfaction.  The result?  Good relations are the best way to stay happy and healthy.  Younger folks are happier with more relationships, older folks with a few quality relationships. And everyone does better with a strong, supportive marriage.  "Over these 75 years," Waldinger says, "our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships with family, with friends, with community."


Fitbits and gyms, diets and triathalons may help, but it all comes back to people.


And now you know.


Happy 2017!


More Heat to Start 2017

When John Mandyck and I wrote Food Foolish in 2015, we focused first on hunger and then on its relationship to food loss and climate change.  While our interests ranged from carbon emissions to fresh water to urbanization, we never lost sight of the fact that 800 million people around the world are chronically hungry, and that climate change, at its roots, is a question of social justice.
An article in the recent issue of the MIT Technology Review ("Hotter Days Will Drive Global Inequality") makes this all too evident.  “Extreme heat, it turns out, is very bad for the economy,” the article states.  “Crops fail.  People work less, and are less productive when they do work.  That’s why an increase in extremely hot days is one of the more worrisome prospect of climate change.”  Scientists at Stanford and the University of California have now hung some numbers on this threat, estimating that the average global income is predicted to be 23 percent less by the end of the century than it would be without climate change.
Warmer weather, and weather extremes, are going to destroy a quarter of all economic wealth created by human beings by 2100.

Reframing the Question

An excellent article in the recent HBR by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg  (“How Good Is Your Company At Problem Solving?”) surfaced a problem that faces some of the most aggressive,  get-it-done entrepreneurs: They don't spend enough time framing the question before they rush in to solve it.

Here' how it works:  You own an office building.  Your tenants are complaining that the elevator is too slow. 
How do you solve the problem?

One perfectly good way is to upgrade the elevator or install a new one, making the elevator faster.

Another—and this is genius—it to put mirrors up around the elevator, which causes people to stare at themselves, an infinitely interesting activity.  People stop complaining.  The elevator is no faster, but the problem has been reframed from “How do we speed up the elevator?” to “How do we make the wait more pleasant?”

Entrepreneurship Past: Three Losses

Me in my Monstro nightmare.  More below.
We recently lost three good people of special note to folks interested in entrepreneurship.

The first, distinguished American historian Joyce Appleby, died on December 23, 2016 at age 87.  She began her career as a newspaper reporter but was told she “didn’t have the brassy spirit to be successful.”  So, while raising three children at age 32, she began her Ph.D. training in history, eventually writing several important books about the formation of the United States.  Appleby taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, for most of her career, was selected to serve as the Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University, and served as president of the Organization of American Historians.  She also challenged some of the giants of history over just what motivated the Founding Fathers--not bad for someone who started late, in a male-dominated field, and lacked a brassy spirit.
A classic for entrepreneurs
My favorite Appleby book is Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans.  Her research for this book included reading dozens of memoirs of Americans born in the early Republic.  She found her subjects to be optimistic and entrepreneurial in ways that sound very much like modern America.  “The elaboration of a national market depended upon many, many young men leaving the place of their birth and trying their hands at new careers,” she wrote. “The range and sweep of their entrepreneurial talents, defined best as the ability to take on novel economic undertakings as personal ventures, suggests the widespread willingness to be uprooted, to embark on an uncharted course of action, to take risks with one's resources. . .Those who did so turned themselves into agents of change.”  Doesn't this sound familiar?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Some Say Icebergs, With Apologies to Robert Frost (A Bauble)

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
Yet as for ocean ships that ply
On frigid seas where icebergs lie
If we insist they perish twice
I think we know enough of steam
To say that for destruction fire
Is also great
And plenty dire.