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."

Monday, April 16, 2018

Just Fade Away: Fleeting Memorials to the Boston Marathon Victims (2013)

This post was originally published on April 21, 2013.

I was in Boston on Saturday morning to attend a meeting just a block away from one of two "spontaneous" memorials to the Marathon bombing victims.  This first memorial had sprung up from the ground at Berkeley and Boylston streets.

Boylston was still cordoned off and deserted except for a half dozen lab technicians hard at work a half mile away, small white-coated shapes moving back and forth across an eerie urban landscape.

Historians have watched the rise of these stunning, organic, makeshift memorials over the past few decades.  "As physical objects they are ephemera," writes Michael J. Lewis of Williams College, "but as a mass cultural phenomenon they are quite extraordinary, and they testify to a deep human need for memorials." These powerful if fleeting statements "look for widely understood symbols," Lewis adds, and "they yearn for resolution and closure."

The Marathon-bombing memorial at Boylston and Berkeley Street was sad and moving, filled with fresh cut flowers and stuffed animals, American flags and photographs.  Many people stopped by while I was there--fittingly, many runners who paused from their Saturday morning workouts--and everyone to a person was respectful.

Monday, March 12, 2018

A Once-In-A-Lifetime, Cookie-Cutter Experience

Last month, my wife and I had the opportunity to cruise for a week in the Galapagos.  By any measure, even those of the jaded world traveler, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

On Thursday of our cruise week, we were anchored in the harbor of Santa Cruz, one of five populated islands in the chain.  After chasing Darwin finches and hanging out with giant tortoises during the day, we were entertained onboard ship that evening by a local Galapagon band and native Ecuadorian dancers, a special treat.  After about an hour of singing and dancing, it was time for dinner, and I found myself the first one downstairs in the dining room.  Steve, our friendly, spic-and-span steward, stood patiently behind the serving line, waiting for my fellow guests to arrive.

“We’re going to be a little late tonight, Steve,” I said.  “Some of us are still upstairs dancing.”

Steve looked at me, smiled, and came as close to rolling his eyes as a professional steward on board a cruise ship ever dares.  “I know,” he said.  “It happens every Thursday night.”

That’s when it struck me: One person’s once-in-a-lifetime experience is another person’s cookie-cutter Thursday night.  In fact, our entire cruise to the Galapagos was actually the practiced craft of a team of trained professionals offering a series of carefully tested, cookie-cutter processes that insured guests were safe, sound, and on schedule as their once-in-a-lifetime experiences unfolded. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Historical Postcards Redux

The most popular post I've ever written dates back to 2008.  It's called "Historical Postcards and the Battle of New Orleans."  It's not my favorite post, or my best written, and I can't explain its popularity.  But it gets at something that still really fascinates me, the question of national memory.  Why do we remember certain events and people (the Civil War, Joe DiMaggio) while others slip away (the Korean War, Stan Musial)?  And what become the indelible images, the "postcards," that are stamped in the memory of a generation?

In the 2008 post, I took a stab at naming the five events that had the greatest impact on my generation (mid-to-younger Boomers): 9/11, the Challenger disaster, the moon landing, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the assassination of JFK.

It's now a decade from that 2008 post, and the Pew Research Center has asked roughly the same question, expanded to include a "series of related events."  As you can see, 9/11 ranks first, followed by the election of our first black President and the tech revolution.

This list, which includes events over some sixty years, can be broken down by generation.  Pew has done that:

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Weathermakers to the World: Playing Photo Detective


I was browsing the Hollywood 2018 issue of Vanity Fair when I came across the picture (below) of the New Yorker Theater.  It’s featured in an article by James Wolcott about Manhattan movie revival houses of the 1970s.  These theaters were the Netflix of their time, a chance for movie junkies to scratch their itch before the advent of DVDs, cable, and streaming.

Opened in 1914, the New Yorker Theater was located on Broadway between 88th and 89th. 

Now, check the marquee.


The picture playing the evening of the photo was The Matchmaker, produced in 1958, Shirley Booth’s last film.  (Shirley would go on to play Hazel on TV, and The Matchmaker would be adapted for Broadway as Hello, Dolly!)  The second feature shown that evening, The Hoodlum Priest, was shot in 1961.  It’s about a priest who ministers to delinquents (no, not what you were thinking).  I examined the photo with a magnifying glass and can also see “Red Dust” as an upcoming attraction.  “Red Dust” is a Clark Gable movie produced in 1932. 

So, three films, 1932, 1958, and 1961.  My guess is they were all revivals ("TODAY ONLY"), and the photo was—as the caption suggests—taken in the early 1970s.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Number One Skill of a Successful Entrepreneur

I've now completed about two-thirds of my latest project, a book called A Nation of Entrepreneurs, and have begun to confirm some of my hypotheses about the entrepreneurial experience in America.

For example, if you asked the average American what makes an entrepreneur successful, he might point to the abilities of the entrepreneur himself.  Leadership, brains, grit—that sort of thing.  Let’s call this the Jobian Theory of entrepreneurial success.  It's a perfectly reasonable position:  Smarter, more talented, hard-working people tend to do better in every walk of life, not just entrepreneurial activities.

But then there are those successful entrepreneurs who don’t have many, or in some cases, most of those skills.  I call them “reluctant” or “accidental” or maybe just lucky entrepreneurs, and profile several of them in Nation.  They tend to be minding their own business, making a living, and stumble upon some innovation or novel business model that is so powerful that it appears to carry them to success, despite themselves.

We all know someone like this, someone who we might not trust to order our lunch but who is rich and successful anyway.  Let’s call this the Business Model Theory of entrepreneurial success.

So we’ve got two factors, personal talent and quality of business model, which seem to determine success.  In the investment world these two elements are sometimes referred to as “jockey and horse,” and inevitably the jockey gets more of the focus and drives more of the investment dollars than the horse.  It’s entrepreneur over idea, so to speak.  I don’t know if this prioritization makes sense, nor am I sure anyone in an industry that only sees returns on about half of their investments knows for sure, but that’s the best current thinking.

My research in Nation suggests, however, that there is a third, related, but perhaps more powerful element of entrepreneurial success than is explained by talent or model, jockey or horse.

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

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.