Sunday, March 12, 2017

Birding: Just Another Pecking Order

This Eastern Screech-Owl is a celebrity in Newburyport.
I've started birding and, yes, I am as surprised as you are.

Birding is for old people with funny hats.

The truth is, though, it pushes all my buttons.  I love taking pictures.  I love to hike and snowshoe.  I love being on the hunt.  I love doing the reading and studying.  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 delight, change my mind, or change my life.

I read Sean Carroll's The Big Picture, which certainly changed what I knew about the universe.  Then I read Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others, which I should have read before I saw Arrival, but liked even better.  Next, I finally finished Zinsser's On Writing Well, which I should have read 30 years ago.  So I'm three-for-three.

And then I picked up a copy of Yuval Harari's Sapiens which, I now believe, explains nearly everything that has confused me about life and my fellow human beings, especially since November 2016.

Here's just some 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.

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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Charles Beard: Historian Entrepreneur

Can an historian be entrepreneurial?  I make the case below that Charles Beard forced Americans to think very differently about their Founding Fathers--just as Lin-Manuel Miranda would a century later.  And Beard sold a lot of books, just as Miranda sold a lot of tickets, both creating a legion of new customers.  Disruptive ideas and new customers: in a knowledge economy, I count this as entrepreneurship.  So, while Beard is not as clear-cut an example as Miranda (whom I profiled here), I nonetheless offer him as an early-20th-century American entrepreneur--and one with particular relevance to America's recent election. 
One of the more controversial political ideas in early twentieth-century America was a novel interpretation of the Founding Fathers offered by Columbia University historian Charles Austin Beard (1874–1948). 
In a nation whose sense of identity comes not from geography, ethnicity, or religion, but from a set of ideals, history is a high-stakes proposition and the American Founding Fathers still sit in influential positions.  Twenty first-century citizens wonder, for example, what Jefferson and Hamilton might think of our national debt, campaign finance laws, and healthcare reform.[1]  Would Washington endorse military activity in the Middle East?  Would Madison allow handguns on the streets of Manhattan?  Invoking the voices of 250 years ago is a fraught activity because challenging America’s Founders tends to challenge Americans’ sense of identity. 
That makes what Charles Beard brought to market in 1913 not just an important innovation, but perhaps the most influential history book ever written in America.[2]

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:

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Our National Parks at 100 - It Didn't Have to Be

One hundred years ago today, President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill which created the National Park Service (NPS).

Stephen Mather (1867-1930) was named the NPS's first director.  A millionaire and marketing genius behind the "20 Mule Team Borax" brand, Mather was also a ferocious conservationist who worked tirelessly to protect the nation's wilderness areas and make them accessible to all Americans.

Mather's equally talented lieutenant, Horace Albright (1890-1987), took on all the nitty-gritty projects the "big picture" Mather disliked, including shepherding the National Park Service bill through Congress in 1916.  Albright would become the superintendent of Yellowstone (the first national park), and the second director of the National Park Service upon Mather's retirement.

The story of the birth of the National Park Service is told by Albright (from his book Creating the National Park Service: The Missing Years [1999]) and is a reminder that one of America's crown jewels didn't necessarily have to be.  That's still true today; our national parks are under threat from climate change, pollution, encroachment of mining/oil and gas, traffic, invasive species, and under-funding.  (The sum: 84 million acres, 59 national parks, 353 national monuments, battlefields [including my favorite] and historic sites, $12 billion in deferred maintenance, and an NPS budget that's grown 1.7% annually from 2005 to 2015 while the federal budget grew 39%.)

Albright's tale, then, is one of tenacity, vigilance, success--and warning:

The summer of 1916 was one of the hottest on record in Washington.  It seemed to drag on endlessly . . . .Getting the national park bill through Congress was a thankless job, for 1916 was an election year.  More importantly, it was a presidential election year.  To the incumbents, getting reelected was the only thing that counted, so they were frequently back home campaigning . . . .

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Luxury of Feeling Good

A few weeks ago I took Amtrak round-trip to New York City.  I enjoy riding the train, which usually gives me three or four undisturbed hours to work each way.  On this particular day I was feeling just a wee bit green, like that time I should have gotten off the sailboat 15 minutes earlier than I did. 

I knew I was in trouble when I opened my iPad and tried to read.  A little rumbly.  A little hazy.  A little green.  I closed the cover, and my eyes, and thought happy thoughts. 

Maybe it was too much sun the day before, or maybe something I ate.  Maybe it was simply the human condition.  Whatever the case, I was just slightly off my game that day—not too sick to cancel the trip, but not quite well enough to be comfortable and productive.

There exists in our modern world the presumption--or maybe better--the luxury of feeling good.  Some combination of the right food, enough sleep, exercise, aspirin and flu shots, and access to real medical care when required have been foundational to my decades in the workforce.  Yours too, undoubtedly.  I know there are unfortunate people who suffer without relief, but most of my co-workers through the years have been able to function comfortably on a daily basis thanks to the many blessings of modern life, from coffee to cold packs to dentists to Tylenol, that keep us upright and productive.

What makes the luxury of feeling good so special is that we are among the very first generations of humankind to expect each day to be pain-free and generally comfortable.

Expecting to Die on Your First Job

Monday, July 25, 2016

Roger Babson and the Wisdom of Dogtown, Redux

If you are interested in hiking Dogtown, see here.
Gloucester, Massachusetts, is a beautiful fishing and summer community located on Cape Ann, adjacent to the town of Rockport.

Nested away from the shoreline between the two towns is an ancient neighborhood of about 3,600 acres once called the Common Settlement, but known today as Dogtown. At the time of the American Revolution, the Common Settlement was one of the town’s most prosperous areas, home to about 100 families. 

After the War of 1812, however, farmers seeking less rocky soil and residents desiring homes along now-peaceful beaches began to depart from the area.  The neighborhood gave way to the poor and outcast, faithfully captured in Anita Diamant’s The Last Days of Dogtown.  By 1830 the once prosperous area was abandoned, leaving behind old cellar holes and packs of feral, howling dogs.

Babson was an entrepreneur, investor,
naturalist, and historian.
During the Great Depression, Roger Babson (1875-1967), founder of Babson College, commissioned unemployed Finnish stone-cutters to carve inspirational inscriptions on some two dozen boulders spread throughout Dogtown. Babson's family, which owned the land, was entirely underwhelmed by the project.  In 1935 he wrote:
Another thing I have been doing, which I hope will be carried on after my death, is the carving of mottoes on the boulders at Dogtown, Gloucester, Massachusetts. My family says that I am defacing the boulders and disgracing the family with these inscriptions, but the work gives me a lot of satisfaction, fresh air, exercise and sunshine. I am really trying to write a simple book with words carved in stone instead of printed paper.
Today, Dogtown is dense woodland crisscrossed by hiking trails.  Dogtown Road is still the main thoroughfare and features the remains of cellar holes.  

And, like tweets left by a retreating glacier, Babson’s wisdom remains.  Some of the inscriptions are universal.  Some are quaint.  Some may have been tongue-in-cheek.  But for the stonecutters who needed the work, they must have been a godsend.  And for those who hike the area (as I did a few weekends ago), seeking out these boulders is like an Easter egg hunt.

These three inscriptions will give you the general drift, as well as an idea of Babson's sense of humor:

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Entrepreneurs and the Mythical Big Dream (Weathermakers 2016)

Today is the 114th anniversary of modern air conditioning, courtesy of Willis Carrier.  It was on this day in 1902 that Carrier signed a set of design drawings that would become the world’s first modern air-conditioning system, installed at the Sackett-Wilhelm printing plant in Brooklyn. 

This year also happens to be a milestone of sorts because it's the first anniversary on which no American alive today was alive then; the country's oldest supercentenarian, Adele Dunlap, was born on December 12, 1902, a few months after Carrier's design was installed.  The gentle passage from current event to history is complete.

Over the course of Adele Dunlap's life, the global HVAC market has grown to more than $90 billion annually.  It’s responsible for untold productivity--including keeping the Cloud up and running so you can read this blog post.  It’s also made millions of people more comfortable and happier—including me as I write this post on a 92F New England day. 

In Weathermakers to the World we trace this remarkable story, the full trajectory of modern air conditioning from Brooklyn to the Vatican, the Sun Belt to Singapore.

But Who’s Your Daddy?

Willis Carrier is called the Father of Air Conditioning, in part, because of this famous 1902 design.  But he really earned his claim to fatherhood in 1911 when he gave to the entire industry a decade of intellectual capital in the form of his Rational Psychrometric Formulae, and a series of foundational equipment designs.  Carrier and his engineering teams had come so far, so fast--and saw so much opportunity they couldn’t possibly address--that by 1911, if they really wanted to lead an “industry,” they had to invent an industry by putting some competitors in business. 

That’s one way to build a $90 billion legacy.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Plutarch, Brand, and Tickets to "Hamilton"

Earlier this month, Lin-Manuel Miranda announced that he is leaving Hamilton, the Broadway hip-hop musical he wrote and in which he stars.  And when the Tony Award-winner departs after July 9, he’ll be accompanied out the door by another Tony-winner, Leslie Odom Jr., who plays co-star Aaron Burr, and a third mainstay of the cast, Phillipa Soo, who plays Eliza Hamilton.  That means the hottest ticket on Broadway, the winner of 11 Tony awards, called “the great work of art, so far, of the twenty-first century” will lose its three major leads.

So, if you happen to have tickets for Hamilton on July 10, will you really still get to see Hamilton?

I’m reminded of an old thought experiment called the Ship of Theseus. 

Theseus, the founder of Athens, had an impressive ship that won many battles.  When the ship was finally retired, the grateful citizens of Athens preserved it in their harbor.  But every so often a rotten plank on the ship would need to be replaced.  The question Plutarch asked was: After replacing the first plank, was it still the Ship of Theseus?  How about when half the planks were replaced, would it still be the Ship of Theseus?  And how about all the planks?

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Zen of Fish: Everything I Knew About Sushi Was Wrong

I just finished The Zen of Fish, and I am now completely and totally intimidated by sushi.

Author Trevor Corson observed a female sushi-apprentice and her classmates over a 12-week class at the California Sushi Academy, reporting on the personalities, the fish, and the history of the fish. And I now understand why the chef has been scowling at me from behind the sushi bar all these years. To wit:
1. Stirring green globs of wasabi into your soy sauce overwhelms your capacity for taste and smell and is very distressing to the chef, who probably got up at 4:30 a.m. to find the freshest fish possible--fish that you can no longer taste.

And by the way, real wasabi is a rare plant that is notoriously difficult to grow; what you're eating is a mixture of horseradish, mustard powder, citric acid, yellow dye no. 5 and blue dye no. 1. Which you have now mixed in soy sauce to make soy goo. Which won't kill germs or parasites, contrary to urban myth. Only your tastebuds. Only the chef's self-esteem.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Useful Math for Liberal Arts Majors

In 1988, John Allen Paulous authored Innumeracy, a great little book that wondered why so many smart people are numerically illiterate, and what the consequences of such ignorance are.  Last week Paulous hit home for me when Donald Trump complained about delegate theft--despite having won 45% of all delegates on just 37% of the popular vote. 
Four out of three Americans have trouble with percentages, I’m told.  And something like 104% struggle with fractions.
I learned long ago, however, that numbers can be the key to success and happiness, if only presented in the proper fashion.  With that in mind, I have assembled some of the numerical rules and laws which can be understood by anyone--a hack for my fellow liberal arts majors--and can truly improve your life.
The 50% Rule of PowerPoint Fonts 
Most people know Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint.  But here’s another, even simpler “golden rule” of PowerPoint presentations that will keep most of your decks in good working order: Always use a font size at least as large as half the age of the oldest person in the room. 
So, if you’re addressing the 70-year old Chairman, go no smaller than a 36-font.  If you are charming a 45-year old VC, insist on no less than a 24-font.  And it’s almost impossible to go too big.
The secret here is that large fonts aren’t just more legible but also mean fewer words.  Which helps with a corollary law that says managers over 50 will only pay attention for about 50% of the time you are presenting, anyway.

Three ingredients--a not unreasonable recipe.
Only Make Recipes with Three to Five Ingredients
Less than three and it’s mixing, not cooking.  More than five and it’s hard work, and easier to order a pizza.

Pain is Always a 10

If you should ever find yourself in a hospital emergency room dealing with something less than imminent death, and the nice lady at the check-in desk asks, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how badly does it hurt?"--you must say "10."  Do not let her see you hesitate.  You may not say, "Mostly 7 with spikes of 10." Anything less than a constant, unrelenting 10 and you will be placed at the end of the line.

Everybody lies about how many hours they work in a week, how much they read, how much they weigh, how old they are, how much TV they watch--and how much it hurts.  Lie about your pain or lose your place in line.

Double the Feeders, Triple the Feed

I'm not entirely sure why this is true, but my local Wild Birds Unlimited dealer, Henry, warned me--and he was right.  Suppose you have one bird feeder in your yard and you fill it with one bag of seed each week.  If you then install a second, equal-sized feeder, you will end up purchasing three bags of seed every week to keep the two feeders full.

There is some underlying socio-economic principle at work that probably has much broader applications.  Maybe Ayn Rand or Karl Marx could figure it out.  Maybe John Audubon.  There's maybe even a graduate economics thesis here.

Never Buy the Second Cheapest Bottle of Wine on the Menu

Sommeliers know where you live, and it's quite likely to be at the intersection of "don't know much about wine" and "don't want to look like a cheapskate."  Consequently, what you'll inevitably do is skim the wine list and purchase the second cheapest bottle of wine on the menu.  That's the one with the massive mark-up.

Why?  Because sommeliers know where you live.