Tuesday, April 7, 2020

I Hear a Bass Drum (What Happens When We Flatten the Curve)

I originally posted this short essay in 2009 but dusted it off last night after I received an email from a friend. He wondered if people really understand what it means to "flatten the curve" of the Coronavirus outbreak.  

If successful, fewer of us will get sick, hospitals will be less overwhelmed, and fewer of us will die. That scenario is the win.  

Victory, however, leaves more of us who have not contracted the virus. No "herd immunity." Ongoing anxiety for the healthy and well.

"We won't have a vaccine for another year," he wrote."If we go back to 'normal' once the curve is flattened, the rate at which the virus spreads will simply accelerate again.  I can't understand why our leaders are setting expectations that we'll be back to normal in a couple of months.  From my perspective, we're going to have to practice physical distancing for another year unless we find an effective cure, can manufacture it in large quantities, and distribute it so that it's immediately available to everyone who needs it . . .

Am I missing something here?"

I first encountered this phenomenon, where logic speaks one truth but authority another, circa 1973.  I still remember the class like it was yesterday.


In my sophomore year in high school, we took a class called Political Ideology. It was taught by a terrific teacher, Orin Holmes, who announced on the first day of class that if we “played school” with him we would flunk.  Nobody was quite sure what that meant, but we were game.

About a month later, we walked into class and found that Mr. Holmes had projected on a screen an ancient Greek building with impressive columns. He explained that the Greeks were experts in perspective and had, with this building, bowed the columns (that is, made them fat in the middle, tapered at the ends) to create the illusion that they were perfectly straight.

“See,” Mr. Holmes explained, “how they are tapered to look straight?”

We all shook our heads.  Yes, of course, the Greeks were brilliant.

He tried again. “See the bow? See how it makes them look perfectly straight?”

Again, a great bobbing of heads. 

Finally, he turned off the projector, clearly distressed. “Does anyone see the problem?”

There was silence. Problem? The Greeks. Columns. Perspective. Bowed. Straight. We got it.  What problem?

Then Mr. Holmes said, “If I don’t teach you anything else this year, I want to teach you to think for yourself--to take an independent point of view. If I tell you something is straight, and it looks bowed, you should say something like, ‘Mr. Holmes, the Greeks blew it. They didn’t understand perspective all that well, because they bowed the columns to make them look straight--and they look bowed. I see it with my own eyes.’”

We all hung our heads. We’d been busted playing school.

Monday, April 6, 2020

COVID-19: Simple Advice for a New Kind of Long Tail

We are drowning in advice about how to cope with the current pandemic.  It's well-meaning, and much of it is helpful.

But we’re all different. One person might be searching for a new podcast to pass the time while another might not have access to the Internet.  One friend might need advice on how to turn her living room into a home office, another on how to cope with two young children in a 1,100 square-foot apartment.  One might be looking for a new investment strategy, another worried about paying this month’s rent.

Amidst all these good intentions, I tried to find in my reading this weekend a few simple truths.

1. The virus writes the rules.

“There is a saying among epidemiologists, Alex De Wall of the Boston Review writes: “If you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen one pandemic.”

In other words, we barely know what’s going to happen this week, much less six months from now.  Seasonality and duration of immunity are both unknowns.  Our willingness to practice social distancing is another.  We don't know why the virus kills some and spares others.

Maybe you were infected last October and have been asymptomatic and feeling fine ever since.

Seen one pandemic--seen one pandemic.

The reason, explained Margaret Chan, WHO director at the time of SARS, is that “the virus writes the rules.”

2. Prepare for a long process.

Friday, April 3, 2020

You Can’t Manage What You Don’t Measure: This Time It’s For Real

In 1721, minister Cotton Mather took to the streets of Boston during a smallpox epidemic to collect data that would prove his theory that inoculation was far less deadly than catching the virus naturally.
Mather understood intuitively what future thinkers like Peter Drucker would one day preach: You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

America's first permanent head of the nation's census office divided all of history into two periods: superstition and statistics.  

The ability of Americans to take a vast trove of data and turn it into useful information resulted in the creation of what Daniel Boorstin called “statistical communities.”  Examples from his Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Americans: The Democratic Experience, include:

"Innovation on Tap: The Movie", Podcasts, and Guest Posts

"Innovation on Tap" was awarded the 2020
Silver Medal in the "Entrepreneurship and Small Business"
category by Axiom Business Books

Below is a collection of excerpts, guest posts, reviews, videos, podcasts, interviews, and book talks related to Innovation on Tap, which was published in October 2019 and can be ordered from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Greenleaf Book Group, and Indiebound.  The book is available in hardcover, Kindle, and Audible.

Also available, free of charge, is a special set of notes prepared for entrepreneurs, business class instructors, and book groups that explore the leadership and innovation issues presented in the book. See Special Notes for Entrepreneurs here.


The video below is a 30-second summary put together by Booksplainers.

Published Excerpts of "Innovation on Tap"

Friday, March 27, 2020

In Praise of Home Delivery (Redux 2009)

This post was first published in November 2009.  I tried this week, in the midst of the pandemic, to schedule Peapod delivery.  It was booked solid.  For weeks.

When I was a kid, we had a milkman.  Johnny the Milkman. We’d spot him making a delivery and run to meet his truck.  Johnny the Milkman had a great boxy vehicle without passenger seats.  Both sliding doors were left open to catch the summer breeze.  A huge block of ice sat melting in the middle of the truck’s floor, meant to keep the glass bottles of milk and cream cold.   

In the days before OSHA and seatbelts and common sense, Johnny the Milkman would let us jump on board and dangle our arms and legs out the passenger door for a few stops, dragging our Keds on the road as we drove from house to house.  Then, to complete the nightmare for our mothers, he’d give us an ice pick and we’d stand on the slippery floor to chip off a handful of cold, crunchy microbes to chew on.

There's nothing that says nostalgia like a seven-year-old with an ice pick, dangling his legs out of a moving truck full of loose glass bottles, sucking on dirty ice.