Wednesday, January 9, 2019

25 Rules for Writing a Book

1. Pick a topic that is bigger than you are capable of handling, something like the history of entrepreneurship in America.

2. Choose the wrong architecture for the book.  This is important because, while you think you're going to Mars, you'll actually be heading for Uranus.

3. Do lots of time-consuming primary research that you will throw away later.

4. Stop a year into the research process to write another book about, say, the history of modern air conditioning.

5. Realize that some of what you learned writing the other book could be used for the book you were already writing, but in the middle section.  So, research and write the middle section of your book.  And, as you put the cart before the horse, carefully maintain the wrong architecture.


Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Why We Still Need Mister Rogers


First, a confession.  I never really got Mister Rogers, at least while he was performing in his children’s television show.  Maybe it’s because I was very young when PBS, in the guise of its predecessor (NET), was still a primordial ooze of Physics professors writing long equations on chalkboards, grainy British programming, and a cooking show where a quirky lady taught viewers how to turn a calf’s foot into aspic.

When Mister Rogers launched in 1966, it took a while to understand that he was something different and, once paired with Sesame Street in late 1969, something better for children to watch than Soupy Sales or Bozo.  By then I had outgrown my Mister Rogers moment, so only later did I come to appreciate who Fred Rogers (1928-2003) was and his impact on so many people.  Now, after reading Maxwell King’s The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers (Abrams Press, 2018), I have come to understand that we need people like Fred Rogers more than ever.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Will Gettysburg Be Forgotten?

Here's a reflection on Gettysburg and historical memory from the August 2018 issue of Preservation and Progress. For the online issue, see here, pages 3 and 4.

Those of you who visited with us in Topsfield earlier this year will remember Dr. Matthew Moen.  He's pictured below, speaking at Trinity Church along with our friend from the Gettysburg National Military Park, Chris Gwynne.  Matt's note on civility is on pages 10 and 11.

There's lots going on at Gettysburg.  Enjoy the issue!



Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Last Battle is the Biggest One


A few hundred yards along Stone Avenue, just off Chambersburg Road on the Gettysburg battlefield, stands a bronze statue dedicated to John Burns (1793-1872).  The inscription includes a report from Major General Abner Doubleday who wrote that Burns, though a civilian and seventy years of age, “shouldered his musket and offered his services” on the first day of the battle, joining the skirmish line of the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers. When the 150th retired from the field, Burns fought alongside the Iron Brigade in some of the most intensive action of day one.  He was wounded three times and carried home to recover.

John Burns was a veteran of the War of 1812.  He had already served his country.  But neither this prior service nor his advanced age mattered when the Civil War invaded Gettysburg.  As gunfire erupted, he grabbed his ancient flintlock and powder horn, more Ichabod Crane in his “swallow tail” coat and black silk hat than Johnny Yank.  Insisting to Union commanders that he knew how to shoot, this citizen-warrior was provided a modern rifle and bravely traded fire with Confederates until he could no longer stand.

What would possess a 70-year-old veteran to put his life on the line? Perhaps it was Burns’s recognition that the single greatest fight of his life, to preserve the American union, had begun.  It did not matter if he had already served his country.  It did not matter that he was entering his seventh decade of life. Burns opened his door, listened for the gunfire, and then walked toward the battle.


Thursday, August 23, 2018

Food Foolish #8: What About the Birds?

Photo: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic Creative

Whenever I present Food Foolish to a live audience, I always try to end on a hopeful note, saying that if we are smart and diligent, we can reduce food waste. And when we’re successful, the result will be good for everyone: less hunger, reduced carbon emissions, a stable agricultural footprint, more available fresh water, and greater food security for populations around the world.  Nobody loses. 

I usually see people nod in agreement until one evening at a local college, someone asked, “What about birds?” 

“Birds?” I asked. 

“What,” she explained, “would happen to birds that had come to depend on landfills if we stopped wasting food?”

It was a good question.  In the United States and other developed countries, much of the food we waste shows up in landfills.  Unfortunately, I had no answer at the time.  Recently, I decided to try to figure it out: How dependent are birds on human food waste, and what happens if we reduce it—as so many individuals, corporations, and governments are now committed to doing?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Theranos and O-rings: A Note on Disaster Avoidance


On a cold Florida morning in late January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger lifted off from Cape Canaveral.  Just over a minute into the flight the vehicle blew apart and disintegrated, killing all 7 astronauts.  The immediate cause of the failure was a breach in a joint of the solid rocket booster resulting from O-rings that had stiffened and shrunk in the cold.  The maker of the O-rings was Morton Thiokol.

The evening before, knowing that temperatures at launch time could be as low as 30F, NASA and Thiokol representatives conducted a lengthy conference call.  NASA had an ambitious flight schedule and wanted to launch.  Thiokol engineers knew that the O-rings might fail in the cold and came armed with data.  There was shouting, maybe some table pounding.  NASA pressed.  The Thiokol engineers dug in.  Management backed its engineers.  "We all knew if the seals failed the shuttle would blow up," one engineer remembered.

 
And then something happened.  Thiokol management caved, overruling its engineers.  The launch was approved.

I sometimes think of this reversal as a “Morton Thiokol Moment”—when you absolutely, positively know the right thing to do but let yourself get talked out of it anyway.  Maybe it's pressure.  Maybe exhaustion.  Maybe the other side is so adamant that it creates a bit of doubt.
 
The next day, the inevitable happened.  "When we were one minute into the launch,” a Thiokol engineer recalled, “a friend turned to me and said, 'Oh God. We made it. We made it!'  Then, a few seconds later, the shuttle blew up. And we all knew exactly what happened."

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Food Foolish #7: A 2017 Report Card

When Food Foolish was published in mid-2015, John Mandyck (@JohnMandyck) and I argued that minimizing food loss and waste was the most effective way to reduce chronic hunger and mitigate climate change.  We painted the picture of a broken global food model, with humankind wasting one-third of everything produced--some 1.3 billion metric tons of food.  The energy used to grow this mountain of wasted food contributed 4.4 billion metrics tons of carbon equivalents to the atmosphere, diverted enough freshwater to meet the needs of the entire continent of Africa, and destroyed wealth equal to the GDP of France.  And those stunning figures were secondary to the fact that more than 800 million people, nearly the entire population of the European Union and United States combined, went hungry each day.

We demonstrated the magnitude of our broken food model by detailing the loss of some 50 percent of the banana crop in India, impoverishing nearly 35,000 smallholder farmers in that country.  We described the 1.7 million deaths that occur annually due to low consumption of fruits and vegetables--foods that suffer particular loss because of their perishability.  We interviewed professionals who had battled international hunger through the World Food Programme, and those fighting domestic food insecurity at the Houston Food Bank.  We described the impact of micronutrient deficiencies on some two billion people, many of them children faced with anemia, blindness, stunting, and wasting.  And we discussed the impact of a twenty-first century mega-trend, urbanization, which is rapidly creating a global middle class that is just as rapidly becoming removed and detached from its sources of food.

We find different ways to lose and waste food around the world, but we're
all consistent in destroying a third of everything intended for our stomachs.
Saddest of all, we did the underlying math on the global food model and found that not only do we produce enough food to feed all 7.4 billion of us today, but if we can reduce loss and waste, we can essentially feed all 9 or 10 billion of us likely to inhabit the planet by 2050.

More than two years after publishing Food Foolish, as we close out 2017, it's a good time to take stock.  How are we doing?  What progress have we made against climate change, hunger, and food waste?  And what's next?

Here's a brief report card, with two caveats:  All opinions are mine.  And, in Food Foolish University, there is no such thing as grade inflation.

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.

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

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?”

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.


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Another Very Hot Year: Things I Learned in 2016

Another year, another hot one.

In fact, it was a record year for global heat, by a significant margin.  This follows the hottest five-year period on record.  As I write this, the North Pole is 50F above normal.  In the Antarctic, C02 levels hit 400 parts-per-million for the first time in four million years.  For those of you just joining us, welcome to the New Anthropocene.

America's President-elect signed a public letter in 2009 calling for cuts to America's greenhouse-gas emissions.  Three years later, he dismissed climate change as a Chinese hoax.  When he needed votes he promised to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.  After he was elected he admitted to "some connectivity" between climate change and human activity. And then there was the wall he wanted to build at his luxury resort in Ireland to protect his property from the impact of climate change. More recently, a Trump transition official said that the new President might try to eliminate NASA's Earth Sciences department.  And the President-elect in December said, "Look, I'm somebody that gets it, and nobody really knows.  It's not something that's so hard and fast."  (More on this insane flip-flopping is here.)

Imagine a cabinet where the only official who admits that human beings contribute to climate change is the former head of ExxonMobil.  You cannot make this stuff up.  (Seth Meyers has a good piece here.) In the end, The Huffington Post wrote, "It's hard to overstate how anti-environment Donald Trump's cabinet picks are."

So, to begin 2017, we've got that going for us.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Show Me Your Leader And You Have Bared Your Soul

A friend of mine who works in non-profit fundraising says the best way to learn about a person is to ask about their top three charities.  Once someone reveals where they freely and enthusiastically give their money, you can begin to understand what makes them tick.

Another friend says that the five most played songs in someone's iTunes account go a long way toward describing their inner life.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gary Wills has another way of sizing up people. "Show me your leader," Wills wrote in Certain Trumpets," and you have bared your soul."

Friday, October 7, 2016

Spitting Bullets: An Interview with Malthus

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834)  He's smiling.
Me: Are you smiling?

Malthus: I am.  That’s as good as it gets for an eighteenth-century English cleric.[1]  Anyway, I’m ahead.  Winning big time.

Me: How so?

Malthus: You know.  Population.  Food.  Everyone talks about my famous quote: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”  A beautiful quote.  The best quote ever.  Believe me.

And for a long time I was feared.  “Malthus,” they would say, “he was right.”  Get to Broadway much?  Ever see Urinetown, when they all shout “Hail Malthus!”?  That felt good.  Maybe my finest moment.  Everyone on stage is dying and they think of me. 

Sometimes I hum the soundtrack to myself.  Gets me through the last fifteen minutes of morning prayer. 

Anyway, 25 million people died of famine in the nineteenth century.  Sixty million in the twentieth.  Right in line with my calculations.

And then along came Norman Borlaug and his Green Revolution.

Me: Missed that one, didn’t you?

Monday, September 5, 2016

"A Message to Garcia" and Other Odd Business Inspiration (Labor Day 2016)

On the evening of February 22, 1899, editor Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) wrote a short, inspirational essay that ran as last-minute filler in the March 1899 issue of his magazine, The Philistine.  

This “literary trifle,” as he called it, took just an hour to compose.  But, Hubbard said, it “leaped hot from my heart” after his son suggested that “Rowan was the real hero of the Cuban War.”

By "Cuban War," Hubbard was referring to the Spanish American War.  And “Rowan” was Andrew Summers Rowan (1857-1943), a lieutenant in the United States Army charged with the dangerous mission of delivering a message from President William McKinley to Cuban rebel commander Calixto Garcia.  Rowan's mission was a success; he made contact with Garcia, who went on to play an important role during the war in support of U.S. troops.

This is how Hubbard framed the challenge: