Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Bring Your Dog to the Vet, Stop for a Hamburger on the Way Home

A long time ago at a company meeting I tried to say something positive about productivity.  The revenue generated by each person in the company had grown dramatically over the past few years and I wanted people to know how much we valued their efforts.

In doing so, I made two mistakes.

First, in general terms, we’re all in favor of increased productivity.  In many ways our economic well-being depends on it.  However, what’s admired generally is not necessarily treasured individually, because productivity writ small often means that the value I’m providing you is growing faster than what you’re paying me.   Increased productivity down in the trenches feels like you owe me.

Second, I naively used the word “headcount” during that fateful employee meeting, as in “Our revenue per headcount has skyrocketed in the last 18 months.”  Headcount is a perfectly ordinary word that helps measure labor.  If you work 40 hours a week and I work 20 and someone else works 10, then it's easier to say that we have “1.75 heads” than we have “1.75 equivalent people.”

However, one person’s ordinary measurement is another’s insult.  A few minutes after the meeting a group of employees had gathered in my office to say they were hurt by being referred to as “headcount.”  I explained why I used the term, apologized, and removed it from my public vocabulary.

I know what the problem is, and it’s real: Once we turn something into a unit of measure, especially a unit of productivity, we devalue it.  Sometimes it loses its humanness.  Sometimes it loses its soul.

There was a good piece recently in the New York Times Review of Books about animal rights literature where I learned a new term: speciesism.  In simple terms, it means we value certain species of animals, like our pet cats and dogs, to the point where they become part of the family.  Meanwhile, other equally sentient animals--meaning creatures that can experience pleasure and comfort and fear and pain every bit as much as our cats and dogs--are treated brutally on our farms and in our slaughterhouses.  It’s discrimination based on species.

I bring my dog to the vet and on the way home stop for a hamburger.

What happens to cows?  They become heads of cattle.  Units of measurement.  And pigs?  Pork bellies.  They get traded on a commodities exchange.

If the cows could get together and visit the farmer who just gave the speech about productivity, they’d probably tell him that they’d really rather be referred to as Bossie and Elsie and not “heads of cattle.”  Just look up “head of cattle” on Google and you’ll see questions like “How many head of cattle can you have on an acre of land?”  That sounds an awful lot like a unit of production to me, and an animal that’s just lost its soul.

The great blight on America was slavery, when human beings were measured in terms of their productive value.  Even Jefferson wrote ugly when he realized he could enhance his wealth by having his slaves reproduce rather that acquiring new ones.  "[A] woman who brings a child every two years is more profitable than the best man on the farm."  That’s Jefferson applying a make vs. buy decision to human beings.  That’s a Founding Father illustrating vividly that turning  living creatures into units of production does as much to debase the  measurer as the measuree.

It’s Jefferson’s unintended gift to a world in which we measure everything.  We possess dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of sensors for every person in America.  A recent McKinsey study concluded that data being generated globally increases by 40 percent annually.  All that data encourages us to measure stuff and make it better.  Be more efficient.  Raise our productivity.  Increase the yield on our head of cattle.  Get more pork bellies for our dollar.  Improve our revenue per headcount, as it were.

It reinforces why “headcount” was so offensive all those years ago.  It also helps me understand why our youngest daughter is an avowed vegetarian.  Two good lessons, I think, to start the new year.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Do Your Job

If you’ve ever launched a business, you’ve been faced with the task of writing a Vision statement and a Mission statement.  One does one thing, the other does another, and I can never keep the two straight in my head.  But I do know that having a clear idea of what the business should look like a few years down the road--what I call the “end state,” which I can keep straight--is awfully important to running a successful enterprise.

Now, if you’ve ever run a business, and published a Vision and Mission statement to the team, you have undoubtedly run into this situation: Some consultant will meet your team, perhaps at an offsite training, and report back to you that, regretably, nobody but nobody knows the Mission and Vision of your company.

You can gnash your teeth and beat your breast, knowing that you have been diligent in spreading the gospel.  Maybe, however, there’s something else going on.

I’m a New England Patriots fan, and every Monday Coach Bill Belichick is interviewed on the radio about Sunday’s game.  Belichick is, without a doubt, the worst interview in sports.  He reveals nothing.  When the Patriots play badly he says, “We didn’t make enough plays to win.”  When they play well he says, “We made enough plays to win.”  If you are looking for some kind of erudite exposition of the game, you’ve come to the wrong interview.

But Belichick says something so often it’s almost humorous: “We just need people to do their job.”  It's a kind of mantra for him.  When his players are interviewed they will often deflect a question by saying “Coach just needs me to do my job.”

Just do your job.  That’s what one of the smartest, winningest coaches in the history of football tells his players: Just do your job.  Is there a game strategy?  Of course.  Belichek knows it, as do his coaches.  I assume he discusses it with his team during the week.  But he doesn’t ask his players to memorize the strategy, or be able to recite it.  That’s his job.  When he creates the game plan each week, that’s his job.  And, when his wide receiver runs five steps, cuts left and looks over his inside shoulder for the ball, that’s his wide receiver’s job.

Just do your job.  That’s how the Patriots win.

There’s a reason your team doesn’t know the Vision and Mission by heart: It doesn’t help them do their job.  I promise, if it did, they would know it cold.  It’s not that they don’t want to know it, of course, or be reminded, or recognize that they’re contributing to it.  They just don’t need it memorized to do their job.

In the mid-1980s I was managing cable TV properties in Illinois.  These were the go-go days of cable when we were opening up new neighborhoods and people were chasing the cable TV truck down the street hoping to schedule an installation.  One day I got into it with one of our key suppliers--their fault, no doubt--and they withheld shipment of some important material we needed for installs.  We went from dozens of happy new customers a day to none, and the phones began ringing off the hook.

Finally, on a Friday, I solved the problem and, in a show of support (or punishment, depending on your perspective), asked our management team to be in the warehouse bright and early on Saturday morning to help assemble product for the installers and get them on the road quickly for special weekend installs.

There we were, putting together installation packets, when Jeff, the Warehouse Manager came over.  “Thanks,” he said, “for helping out.”  I beamed.  What a great GM I was.  “But,” he added, “if you did your job, you wouldn’t have to do mine.”

That message stuck, big time.  (It’s 28 years later and I still remember.)

All of which is to say, if you are running a business, your job is Mission and Vision and End State.  Figure it out.  Make sure the team is working toward it.  Go ahead and sell it internally from time to time.  Do your job.

But your Customer Service Manager is supposed to make customers deliriously happy.  Let him do his job.  Your VP-Sales is supposed to sell tons of stuff.  Let her do her job. 

Mission and Vision have their place, but Bill Belichick is right.  One critical secret to success is simple: Just do your job.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sometimes It's Marketing, But Sometimes It's Just Plain Reality

It’s hard not to appreciate and occasionally even quote from Ted Levitt’s 1960 Marketing Myopia, in which he challenged leaders to define their businesses around the customer, not the product.  Levitt led his essay with a classic example of the railroad, saying:
The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew. The railroads are in trouble today not because the need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, even telephones), but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry wrong was because they were railroad-oriented instead of transportation-oriented; they were product-oriented instead of customer-oriented.
I have long taken this critique of the railroad as a matter of faith.  Yet, even now as I write it, I wonder: the very industry that taught the rest of the world how to operate a successful big business apparently did not understand it had to compete with autos and planes for passenger traffic?

Could it be, as Levitt suggests, after decades of dominance that the railroad was suddenly asleep at the switch?

The other day I was thumbing through a couple of early-1950s editions of the Saturday Evening Post and was struck by what I saw.   Here, for example, was what Pullman was advertising:

Yes, it’s stereotypical to the point of being racist—welcome to the good old days.  But, what does the Executive Secretary of the National Association of Oil Equipment Jobbers say?  “Recently, I had to go to St. Louis for a meeting.  Instead of flying, as I had been doing for the past four years, I decided to take an overnight Pullman.  It happened to be raining when I left.  No matter. The train was exactly on time, and what’s more, I didn’t get drenched before boarding.”

Our Oil Equipment Jobber goes on to admire the big, comfortable seat, the ability to get work done, the privacy, the great night’s sleep, the wonderful breakfast, and the unwrinkled suit.

How could an ad be any better defined around the customer?  Pullman seemed intent on fighting for its share of passenger traffic.

(By the way, sorry the images are clipped.  I tried to define my home scanner as a “full-sized Saturday Evening Post color delivery solution” but, alas, it insists on being a simple home scanner.)

But that wasn’t all.  Next, the Southern Pacific, “America’s Most Modern Trains,” invited passengers to see the Pacific Coast while dining in a car fashioned after Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood, viewing scenery through oversized windows and walking through feather-touch doors to their reserved Chair Car seats.

Are you confused?  Isn’t this the industry maligned for fifty years because it wanted to haul freight, not passengers?

Here’s another clue as to how competitive the railroad was: watch how it gets positioned in competitive ads.  In fact, there appeared to be a rock-em sock-em, three-way battle going on among the train, auto and plane industries for passengers.  The babies were booming and everyone wanted a piece.

Here’s a great example from a 1953 Post. The top panel of this ad is incredibly effective.  It shows a scene from 1911—the distant past—and a gleaming Pierce-Arrow.  Even then, the Ethyl Corporation suggests, the automobile was king.   In fact, that old plane has crashed, which undoubtedly played on a widespread public fear of 1950s airline travel.  And in the background?  That’s a train nearly consumed by its own smoke, a dirty, wretched beast of the Old World.

Today, of course (glance down!), there’s only the auto to consider, and “it isn’t unusual for a motorist to drive from New York to California in seven or eight days.” 

The airplane was no shrinking violet in this battle.  This 1950 ad shows motorists stuck in the snow while (top left) the American Airlines plane flies “above ground-level weather.”

And just to complete this wonderfully vicious advertising cycle, here United Air suggests that the poor old train is a topic of humor because “you can look down and laugh at icy roads, drifts of snow and long-delayed ground transportation.”

The truth is, the battle for passengers was fully engaged, with the railroad pitching as hard as the automobile and the airplane.  And, I no longer buy Professor Levitt’s assertion that the railroad defined itself poorly.

Sometimes, the limits are simply not in the definition but in the reality.  From Boston today I would take a car to Portland, Maine, a plane to San Francisco, and a train (if there is any way to avoid the airport) to New York City.  Each industry may define itself anyway it likes, but the reality is that there’s more definition being provided by schedules, body searches, cellphone access, weather, time and traffic than most anything Marketing can offer.

We might as well argue that the Rolodex would still command a huge market share if leaders has defined it as a networking solution.  The phonograph would be competitive with the iPod if marketeers had only thought of itself as an "entertainment delivery system."

Sometimes it's Marketing, but other times its just plain reality.  In any event, I’m done beating up the railroad.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

10 Years After: How We Remembered

10 Years After, 2011: New York City will commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with a ceremony at the World Trade Center site on Sunday, when the nation pauses to grieve for the dead and reflect on the decade since terrorists toppled the Twin Towers, damaged the Pentagon and crashed a jetliner in rural Pennsylvania.  President Barack Obama and his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, will be among the eight current or former elected officials to deliver readings at the ceremony, which is set to begin at 8:35 a.m. with the sound of bagpipes and drummers. Mr. Obama, the first sitting president to attend the annual ceremony, gave the green light earlier this year for the military mission that killed Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the deadliest foreign attack on American soil.  While most of the attention will focus on New York's ceremony, there will also be events at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, plus many smaller observances in communities across the country, from a stair climb in Seattle to a 9/11 memorial dedication in Sarasota, Fla. (September 10, 2011)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Living the Incandescent Life

I enjoy the march of technology as much as the next person.  That doesn't mean, however, that when some treasured object is obsoleted, I don’t experience a pang of regret or nostalgia.

For example, I love my scheduling software, but I also miss the New Year’s Day ritual of sitting down with my old Day-Timer and manually moving lists, birthdays and important phone numbers from the old beat-up book to the pristine new.  It was a right-of-passage into the new year.  Now, everything I do follows me magically, whether I ask it to or not.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

In 1826 Eli Terry installed a $200 clock in the town hall of New Haven, Connecticut.   All went well until townspeople noticed that the Terry clock was falling further and further behind the nearby Yale College clock.  At first the Terry clock lagged, gradually losing some 15 minutes.  Then it began to gain, eventually racing ahead of the Yale clock by 15 minutes before, over the course of weeks, gradually falling behind again. 

Broken?   Not likely.  Terry was arguably the most distinguished clockmaker in America and among the earliest practitioners of uniform, interchangeable parts.  Meanwhile, Yale’s clock had been designed by the talented Simeon Jocelyn, another favored son of Connecticut, and had been telling seemingly reliable time for years.

The difference—and it’s one we rarely consider today—is that Terry’s clock offered mean time—solid, consistent hours that reflected an average of the sun’s daily variation—while Jocelyn’s clock followed the sun itself.  As Michael O’Malley writes in his book, Keeping Watch: A History of American Time, the question among the puzzled New Haven community was not “what time is it,” but “what is time?”

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Hoodies and the Point of No Return

When I was 30 years old I was playing a fair bit of tennis.  I was not very good, so decided to take some lessons.

I met my instructor one morning and we hit for about 10 minutes before he walked up to me and asked, “How old are you?”


“Well, if you were 20,” he said, “I’d force you to learn a two-handed backhand.  And if you were 40 we wouldn't even bother-- I’d just work on improving the one-handed backhand you already have.”

“But,” he continued, “since you’re 30, I’m going to give you the choice:  Which would you like to do?”  Of course, that was his way of saying my backhand was pitiful and needed reconstructive work.   He was also asking me, in a sense, if I’d reached the point of no return.

Next month, Starling Lawrence will step down as long-time editor-in-chief of WW Norton, the largest and oldest employee-owned publisher in the United States.   He joined Norton in 1969 and became the top editor in 1993.

Lawrence, who is 68, commented, “I have certainly enjoyed this job. . .[but] I’m not particularly knowledgeable about electronic publishing. . .And frankly, if I were 20 years younger, it would be imperative that I understand and educate myself on those issues.”  Then he added, “But that has seemed less important to me because I’m frankly not a consumer of e-books myself. It’s not something that touches me personally.”

This was Mr. Lawrence essentially saying to his tennis instructor, “You know, Bjorn, I think I’ll keep my one-handed backhand.”   He’d reach the point of no return.

It's something that happens all the time, especially as you get older.  I suppose for women there's that moment when they decide to cut their hair short, or maybe to stop dyeing it.  For older folks there's the time when they stop pretending they're just "resting their eyes" and just 'fess up that they like to nap.

It seems everyone in techland is wearing a hoodie these days, thanks to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg.  Investors in Silicon Valley even have cashmere hoodies.

I was in a Bob’s Store the other day looking at a rack of hoodies thinking, hmmm, everyone who’s anyone wears a hoodie these days.  Maybe I should get one.

The last time I wore a hoodie, I think, I was about 9 years old and fishing with my Dad.  The hoodie I have in mind would have had a Boston Patriots logo and some combination of quahog juice, fish slime, and Almond Joy on it.  (Thanks, Dad.)

Unlike Mr. Lawrence, I’m a big fan of electronic publishing--but I get his point.  Sometimes you have to leave the kids stuff for the kids.  I walked away from the hoodie rack, picked out a couple of polo shirts instead, and went on my way.

Ditto with tennis.

After a few seconds of slightly offended contemplation, I decided to stick with my one-handed backhand.  To prove his point, I guess, my instructor then hit about 100 balls to my backhand, most of which I wafted into the net.

Shortly after that I fixed my backhand when I stopped playing tennis altogether.   I already possess a horrendous golf game, and there's no real need to stink at two sports.

That’s a point of no return from which I have never looked back.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Marketing Myopia on Ice

1960, Theodore Levitt’s “Marketing Myopia” was published in the Harvard Business Review.  It became an instant classic by reminding leaders to focus on the customer instead of the product.  

This challenged CEOs to properly define their business: Railroads should have discovered they were in the transportation, not railroad, business.  When TV appeared, Hollywood should have found itself in the entertainment, not movie, business.  And oil companies should have defined themselves as being in the energy, not oil, business.  (Except for those that went into the nuclear energy business, and then they should have stayed in the gold old oil business.  Every concept has its limits.)

Anyway, that was in 1960, a long time ago.

The other day I stumbled upon a November 1928 (even longer time ago) letter from George B. Bright of George B. Bright Co., Refrigerating Engineers and Architects, of Detroit.  Bright found himself uncomfortably straddling two sides of a great divide, with his old ice manufacturers on one precipice, and the new mechanical refrigeration guys on the other.

In 1928, ice was clearly on the backside of its lifecyle.  An important growth industry for a generation, there had been 35 commercial ice plants in America in 1879 and 2,000 by 1909, while ice consumption tripled to almost 15 million tons annually.  Clever men like Frederic Tudor made a career of sawing pond ice and delivering it mostly intact to faraway places.  The ice wagon became a familiar sight on city streets, the “Ice Today” sign in windows.  Every home had a wooden icebox, and a water pan that had to be emptied daily.

Then, out of the slaughterhouses and breweries came a singularly disruptive consumer technology, mechanical refrigeration.  Ice wagons became a thing of the past and the Ice Man didn’t cometh.  In the 1920s, the household refrigerator became an essential piece of kitchen furniture: In 1921, 5,000 mechanical refrigerators were manufactured in the US; in 1931, over one million, and six years later, six million.

That’s the impossible situation where George B. Bright, refrigeration engineer,  found himself in 1928.  And, in the interest of preserving the peace and cultivating all of his clients, he wrote them a letter:
Things have been and are moving fast in the entire refrigerating field.  Three years ago we saw the ice industry ‘run down at the heels’ while its new competitor the mechanical refrigerator was in the first flush of exultant prosperity.  The old established order of things seemed doomed and the extremes of optimism and pessimism were on every hand. . . 
Today much of the chaff of competition has blown away and tho there is a never-ending group of newly hopefuls entering the mechanically cooled refrigerator field---those most firmly entrenched have settled down to a steadier gait, both as to production, advertising, and ethics.  Much good has already come out of it all.  The mechanical group has learned a healthier respect and a certain tolerance for the older order of things while he in the ice industry on the other hand is learning to become a business man—a merchant if you will—finding curiously enough that there is room enough for everybody and that the other fellows advertising is doing more good than harm. . . .

Now comes the line that Ted Levitt might have referenced, but 32 years later: “On every hand is a growing appreciation of the fact that what we all have to sell is ‘Refrigeration’ and not Ice as a commodity nor even a machine as such.”

Cool, eh?  George Bright, refrigeration engineer from Detroit--when Ted Levitt was just three years old--already had it right.  Nah, he didn’t say it like some high-falutin academic.   But he understood a central truth of Marketing in a crazy time of rapid change: His old clients weren’t in the ice business.  And his new ones certainly weren’t in the mechanical refrigerator business.  

What they were selling to consumers was refrigeration.

Bright seems to have been successful in his chosen field, and with that kind of calming wisdom, you might understand why.  He could well have closed his letter with the Eskimo proverb which says, “You never really know your friends from your enemies until the ice breaks.”

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Echo Chamber: Sounds Just Like Heaven

On an April evening in 1960, small-time crook Rocky Valentine was shot by police, only to awaken and find himself unharmed and in a world where everything he wanted he got. Every wish he desired was granted.

Of course, this all happened on small black and white screens across America in an episode of The Twilight Zone called “A Nice Place to Visit.”  We watched Rocky for most of the 30 minutes granted him--a month in TV time--as he luxuriated in his good luck at having ascended into heaven.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Five Big Fat Business Lies

There may be 50 big, fat business lies floating around the Web, but something happened the other day that encouraged me to jot down the first five that came to mind. 

Number 1 Big Fat Business Lie: There are no dumb questions.

I’m sorry to say that there very much are dumb questions, and if you ask one in front of people you are trying to impress, they will think you asked a dumb question.  If you keep it up they will think you are dumb.

I have seen a manager, in an attempt to encourage give-and-take at a meeting, announce that there were no dumb questions.  Then I heard someone ask a dumb question.  Then I saw some people wince and a few others smirk.  The manager had lied.

My correction to this nugget of wisdom is simple: Don’t ask dumb questions.

Number 2 Big Fat Business Lie: Only bring me a problem if you also bring me a solution.

I would discourage you ever saying this, especially if you have, say, 10 or 20 years experience and you’re addressing someone with, say, one year experience.  This advice is a recipe for disaster.

My revised advice to give a direct report: Solve all the problems you feel comfortable solving on your own, but bring me the ones you can’t solve and we’ll work on them together.

Number 3 Big Fat Business Lie: Fail often in order to succeed sooner.
Try this on an assembly line.  Maybe cooking fries at McDonald's.  How about preparing monthly financials?  The truth is, if you fail often you will not have a job.  There are such things as smart failures which businesses will tolerate because they move things ahead.  But failing often?

I think not.

The big lie really comes from Silicon Valley, that failure is somehow a badge of honor.  If you haven’t failed you haven’t been on the bleeding edge of anything exciting.  Oy.  What they mean to say is that good entrepreneurs (who are often on the edge of something exciting) are sometimes going to fail, and they cannot let it wipe them out.  Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and all that.   But truly, spending three or four years of your life to have nothing but scars to show,  and destroying  $10M or $50M or $150M of someone else’s capital, cannot possibly be a badge of honor.

Think of A.G. Lafley, the former CEO of P&G, who told the Harvard Business Review this month that he thinks of his failures as gifts.  

Only people who are wildly successful can talk trash like this.  (As you know, A.G. Lafley has been wildly successful.)

Coming soon in the HBR: Warren Buffet considers all his losing investments to be blessings from heaven.

Take my advice on this piece of misguided wisdom: Fail as little as you must and succeed as often as you can.

Which turns out to be common sense and not something, hopefully, that you’ll have to put on a motivational poster in your office.

Number 4 Big Fat Business Lie: This isn't really a company function.

Right.  Go ahead and put that lampshade on your head.

Some things can’t be erased from your co-worker’s memories, including that time you over-imbibed after work and didn’t make it to the rest room in time.  That wasn’t really a company function, after all.  And that picture your friend posted to Facebook.  There was nobody from the office within 20 miles when that shot was taken.

My advice: If you are employed and have two feet outside your domicile, consider it a company function.  If you’re on Facebook and you don’t have the flaps down and your tray table in the upright and locked position, it doesn’t matter where your feet are.  It’s a company function--and you’re the star attraction.

Number 5 Big Fat Business Lie: Every problem is an opportunity.

Some are, and it’s not a bad idea to approach them all that way.  To start.  But the truth is, some problems are just unwelcome, aggravating, distracting problems.  And the faster you can figure those out, the better chance you have of not wasting your time trying to make lemon meringue pie.

My advice: Fix problems quickly.  Exploit opportunities fully.  The two don’t really look that much alike, so don’t confuse them.

There you are.  Five big fat business lies.  Any questions? 

Remember, there are no dumb ones.


Thursday, March 31, 2011

And When I Die. . .Just Take The iPad

A few years ago after my mother died, my wife, sister and I had the somber task of cleaning out the condo in which she and Dad had lived.  There are few harder things in life than going through your parents’ stuff and having to make decisions about keeping, giving-away or tossing-out.  The giving-away and tossing-out feel a little bit like betrayals, even when it’s hard to see how anyone could really want a slightly charred, very thin oven mitt with a rooster on it.

Think, though, about all those photo albums. (My father took a million pictures.)  The stereo and all those CDs (and cassettes and albums!).  Books everywhere, including beloved cookbooks.  Radios.  Old calendars. The game closet with the beat-up versions of Life and Clue. Forty years of collected Christmas cards.

Christmas ornaments, too.  That was the saddest part for me.  Of course, we kept a few, and mailed the ones to my siblings that had their names.  But let’s face it, many of the ornaments a family hangs each year just aren’t going to make the leap to the next generation.  Especially when the next generation has already accumulated its own box of ornaments that aren’t going anywhere but in the trash someday.
Still, looking down into that dumpster at the old family ornaments scattered about was maybe the hardest part of the entire experience for me.

Now that I’ve depressed all of us, let’s leap ahead 40 years so I can make sure we're all truly miserable.  

There.  See?  It’s my children cleaning out the condo my wife and I shared.  But wait. 

Where is everything?

Yes, there’s a paper-thin wide screen monitor on the wall that is so cheap they’ll just leave it for the next tenant.  And some furniture that they’ll take or give to Goodwill.  And hopefully someone will want my carpenters tools, which include hammers and saws owned by my father and grandfathers.

But all those books?  On the iPad.  In the Cloud.

Stereo?  10,000 songs?  iPad.  Cloud.

Camera.  Albums?  20,000 photographs?  Videos?  Home movies? iPad, iPhone, Cloud.

Cookbooks and recipes.  Nope.  iPad. Cloud.

No radios.  No alarm clocks.  No watches.  

Not much in the way of paper of any kind.

The game closet with Stratego and Parcheesi and Life?  Check the iPad.

Almost anything that constitutes an idea--literary, musical, informational--will be in the Cloud.  Clean up my iPad, clean up my life.  All you’ll need is a few passwords.  

Not quite yet, of course.  But a generation or two from now?

I’m thinking the only thing that may not make it to the Cloud is yours truly.  But hopefully, as Randy Newman points out in Harps and Angels, there’s still time.

Oh, about the Christmas ornaments.  Yes, somewhere on the iPad is a dumb Christmas tree app from the one year none of our kids and their families could get home and we decided it was too much trouble to go out and buy a tree for just the two of us.

I'm thinking, just to add the slightest bit of cheer to this post, I downloaded the tree app from a beach in Hawaii.

But still, kids, in a box in the garage, you’ll have to deal with the old family Christmas ornaments.

It won't be any easier for you than it was for me, I'm guessing.  Sorry.

Won't it be nice to know, though, that some of the stuff that really matters will never be reduced to the Cloud?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

5 Things I Learned About the US Constitution

I’m finally catching up with my personal reading and dove into a couple of old New Yorkers, only to stumble upon a great article and familiar name.  Jill Lepore was writing about King Philip’s War way back in the day, and has since gone on to bigger battles of all sorts.  She is now David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University where she also chairs the History and Literature Program.  Jill is a regular contributor to the New Yorker.
Her January article about the Constitution, "The Commandments: The Constitution and its Worshippers," was positively eye-opening. 
A few facts, a little history—next thing you don’t know what to believe.
I can admit to reading the Constitution exactly once when I was forced to in college.  That one reading apparently puts me in rarefied air among Americans, who seem as likely to misquote and misuse the Constitution as they are unlikely to read it.  At 4,400 words (before the Amendments), it’s one of the shortest constitutions in existence--but still too long, it seems, to read.
Here are some of the (often verbatim) lessons from Jill’s good article:.

  1. Anti-Federalists charged that the Constitution was so difficult to read that it amounted to a conspiracy against the understanding of a plain man--that it was willfully incomprehensible. Patrick Henry believed that what was drafted in Philadelphia was “of such an intricate and complicated nature, that no man on this earth can know its real operation.”  Benjamin Franklin was sure that the document had its faults, and just as sure that the framers were fallible.  He called the Constitution an “instrument”; he meant that it was a legal instrument, like a will. William Manning, a New England farmer and Revolutionary veteran, thought that it was another kind of instrument: “It was made like a Fiddle, with but few Strings, but so that the ruling Majority could play any tune upon it they please."
  2. Ratification was touch and go. Rhode Island, the only state to hold a popular referendum on the Constitution, rejected it. In state ratifying conventions elsewhere, the Constitution passed by the narrowest of margins: eighty-nine to seventy-nine in Virginia, thirty to twenty-seven in New York, a hundred and eighty-seven to a hundred and sixty-eight in Massachusetts.
  3. The original Constitution was simply filed away and, later, shuffled from one place to another. When New York’s City Hall underwent renovations, the Constitution was transferred to the Department of State. The following year, it moved with Congress to Philadelphia and, in 1800, to Washington, where it was stored at the Treasury Department until it was shifted to the War Office. In 1814 as Washington, D.C. burned, three clerks stuffed it into a linen sack and carried it to a gristmill in Virginia. In the eighteen-twenties, when someone asked James Madison where it was, he admitted to having no idea.  In 1875, the Constitution found a home in a tin box in the bottom of a closet in a new building that housed the Departments of State, War, and Navy. In 1894, it was sealed between glass plates and locked in a safe in the basement.  And then, in 1921, a miracle: Warren Harding called the Constitution divinely inspired, ordering the Librarian of Congress to take the parchment out of storage and put it into a shrine.  Presumably, that was the year it became holy and immutable.
  4. “Find It in the Constitution,” the Tea Party rally signs read. Forty-four hundred words and “God” is not one of them, as Benjamin Rush complained to John Adams, hoping for an emendation: “Perhaps an acknowledgement might be made of his goodness or of his providence in the proposed amendments.” It was not. “White” isn’t in the Constitution, but Senator Stephen Douglas, of Illinois, was still sure that the federal government was “made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.” What about black men? “They are not included, and were not intended to be included,” the Supreme Court ruled, in 1857.  Railroads, slavery, banks, women, free markets, privacy, health care, wiretapping: not there. “There is nothing in the United States Constitution that gives the Congress, the President, or the Supreme Court the right to declare that white and colored children must attend the same public schools,” Senator James Eastland, of Mississippi, said, after Brown v. Board of Education. “Have You Ever Seen the Words Forced Busing in the Constitution?” read a sign carried in Boston in 1975. “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” Christine O’Donnell asked Chris Coons during a debate in October. When Coons quoted the First Amendment, O’Donnell was flabbergasted: “That’s in the First Amendment?” Left-wing bloggers slapped their thighs; Coons won the election in a landslide.  But the phrase “separation of church and state” really isn’t in the Constitution or in any of the amendments.
  5. About a quarter of American voters are what political scientists call “know nothings,” meaning that they possess almost no general knowledge of the workings of their government.  For futures, none of these phrases are in the Constitution: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” (Karl Marx, 1875) “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  “All men are created equal.”  “Of the people, by the people, for the people.”  You have been warned.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Little More Inspiration

I was lucky enough to spend a day this week with a ninety-five year old CEO. Not an occasional one, either, but a full-time, fully energized, meet-with-customers and visit-operations-in-five-states, entrepreneurial CEO who has held his title for over 55 years.
He doesn't take the elevator. He doesn't wear glasses. He works out at least five days a week, including 30 minutes stretching and 30 minutes on the elliptical machine. He looks 70, maybe.
He built a company gym in his beautiful, four-year-old facility so that others might exercise with the same consistency as he does. He built the facility because he wants to be well positioned in an area he thinks will grow over the next decade.
He won the Legion of Merit in WW II. His reaction: "I'm the luckiest guy in the world."  
I could not tell if, over his long career, he made money faster than he gave it away, or vice versa. Suffice to say he is successful and generous in equal measure.
He grew up in the Great Depression, in the Great Dustbowl, without indoor plumbing or electricity. Today he has a Blackberry and wanted a tour of my iPad, wondering how much better the iPad2 would be.
There is a sign hanging in his office, from his employees, with their goal of reaching $1billion in revenue in 2017.  This CEO will be 100 then.  There's a good chance they'll do it.  There's an even better chance that not only will he live to see it, but he'll be around to enjoy it even if they are delayed by a year or two.
He has 95 years behind him and spends all of his time thinking about what’s in front of him.
I sure was.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Modern Rip Van Winkle

I'm always fascinated by how people--business and otherwise--perceive the passage of time.
We are convinced, and tell ourselves often, that life is moving faster now than ever before.  
I’ve written several times about this issue, in Shift Happensand again in Are We All Just Being Cry Babies?
Me,  I’ve settled at a kind of mixed conclusion: On an absolute basis it isn't hard to argue that life is faster than ever. (See here for a recent & quick digression on the subject.)  But we also reside in a huge, robust ecosystem of information and analytics and forecasting that, on a relative basis, leads to a kind of cultural anticipation that may make our world, if anything, appear slower than that of our grandparents.
You might recall we’ve examined this question of pace with Rip Van Winkle, Lafayette, Daniel Webster, Henry Adams, Alvin Toffler and even an essay from Time magazine in 1973 on the perceptions of returning Vietnam War veterans.  It’s good remembering that Rip Van Winkle is, itself, adapted from a much older German fairytale.  Historian Joyce Appleby’s conclusion, after closely studying the American generation born around 1780, is worth restating:

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

One Camera, One Picture and a Time Machine

Suppose I gave you a digital camera with enough memory for exactly one picture.  One and only one.  Oh, and you get a time machine, too.

In fact, suppose I put you in the time machine and gave you the opportunity to travel into the past and take exactly one picture of anything you wanted.  Anything at all.

Think about that for a minute.

Images are incredibly powerful and especially relevant in a world that can manufacture and distribute them as easily as ours.   Witness Facebook, YouTube, and your smartphone. 

When it comes to images, we now live in a time when it's nearly impossible to lose anything, even things we wish would get lost.  So it's occasionally a surprise when a set of images that seem important disappear.

Take for example the first Super Bowl played in 1967.  It was recorded by two of the three major networks.  Green Bay beat Kansas City 35-10.  It was the first of one of the most remarkable video juggernauts in the history of media, its descendant played out this last Sunday before 111 million fans.  Yet the Wall Street Journal reported recently:
In a bizarre confluence of events, neither network preserved a tape. All that survived of this broadcast is sideline footage shot by NFL Films and roughly 30 seconds of footage CBS included in a pre-game show for Super Bowl XXV. Somehow, an historic football game that was seen by 26.8 million people had, for all intents and purposes, vanished.
It was, the WSJ said, the Holy Grail of American sports videos.  Missing for over forty years.  A search for the tape went worldwide, including checking on the persistent rumor that Hugh Hefner had taped it in the Bunny Mansion.  All to no avail.  Until now.

"The Paley Center for Media in New York. . .has restored what it believes to be a genuine copy of the CBS broadcast. The 94-minute tape, which has never been shown to the public, was donated to the center by its owner in return for having it restored. It was originally recorded on bulky two-inch video and had been stored in an attic in Pennsylvania for nearly 38 years."

If you've ever visited the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, which chronicles the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy, you'll get to see the famous Zapruder film.  But you'll also get to see a raft of other home movies taken that day by Americans ready and able to record important images.  Zapruder was historic in what he captured, but he was not alone in being there to try.

In 2008 the New England Historic Genealogical Society discovered the earliest known photo of Helen Keller.  It was a wonderful find and created a sensation--because we love images.

I myself am kind of an image junkie.  I have about 10,000 family and genealogical images on a hard drive in my office, with about 3,000 more paper pictures to convert.  That spans all the way from "what a good father you are for taking pictures of your children" to "could you be any more obnoxious, Dad, with that camera?"

When I come back in my next life I'm going to be a National Geographic photographer. 

Or maybe work for Vanity Fair.  In the last twelve months alone I've received three unbelievable books of images, including the stunning Vanity Fair Portraits book--everyone from H.G. Wells, Ernest Hemingway, and George Gershwin to Run-DMC, Joan Collins, Madonna and a shot of Tony Curtis that will give you nightmares.  For years.

The second miraculous book of images (which I've mentioned before) is Maureen Taylor's The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation, 70 images of veterans, loyalists, Native Americans and African Americans, all of whom lived through the American Revolution.  The story of how she gathered and dated the photos alone is worth the price of admission.

Third, and perhaps most profound, is a beautiful coffee table book, The Gernsheim Collection, an archive amassed by Helmut and Alison Gernsheim between 1945 and 1963.  It includes the world's earliest known photograph from nature taken in 1826.  Ever wonder what Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cite looked like in 1838; it's there.  The Acropolis in 1842; yes.  Soldiers resting in the Crimean War in 1855; unbelievable.  (That's Alice of "Wonderland" fame on the left.)

Indeed, if you are looking for some quiet, powerful time away from technology, one of these incredible book of images will provide it.

All of which brings me back to my original question.  What did you decide?  What great historical image would you, your camera and your time machine capture for the rest of us? 

Years ago I read a science fiction story about a Time Machine company that offered group tours to various historic events.  Their number one destination?  The Crucifixion.  Macabre and a little distressing, I know, but probably not all that far off.  Maybe your preference would be the manger scene, or the Sermon on the Mount--I'm just guessing some image of Jesus shows up in a few of your answers.

Me? Caesar crossing the Rubicon, or one of Hannibal's elephant charges?  Maybe.  King Tut?  How about Washington crossing the Delaware, or with his Cabinet?  Confucius?  Helen of Troy?  Cleopatra?  Moses? Galileo?  Bach?  Gutenberg printing a book?  DaVinci painting the Mona Lisa?  Construction of the Forbidden City? Sun Tzu swinging a sword?  Egyptians building a pyramid?  A group shot of Abraham, Isaac and family, or just a bustling day in Ur of the Chaldees?  Marco Polo on the Spice route?  Magellan crossing the Straits of Gibraltar?  The first humans crossing the Bering Strait?  The first humans departing Africa?  A Neanderthal?  An image of men, or Martians, planting one of those Easter Island monoliths?  Stonehenge being built? A mastodon?  A dodo bird?       
Your great-grandfather, the one the family won't talk about any more?

Let me know. 

In the meantime, I'm going to be busy getting another picture or two of my family, despite the abuse it will undoubtedly invoke.