Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Another Very Hot Year: Things I Learned in 2016

Another year, another hot one.

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 21, 2016

Show Me Your Leader And You Have Bared Your Soul

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

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

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

Friday, October 7, 2016

Spitting Bullets: An Interview with Malthus

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

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

Me: How so?

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

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

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

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

And then along came Norman Borlaug and his Green Revolution.

Me: Missed that one, didn’t you?

Monday, September 5, 2016

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

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

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

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

This is how Hubbard framed the challenge:

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 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 Plutarch's 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?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Greatest Race in History: Climate Change vs. Artificial Intelligence

In 2014, two technology historians authored a short essay called The Collapse of Western Civilization.  Naomi Oreskes of the University of California and Erik Conway of the California Institute of Technology assumed the role of a future historian from the Second People's Republic of China, writing in 2393 to mark the tercentenary of the end of Western Civilization (1540-2093).  

The essay is a reflection on what befell Earth and its people, searching throughout for an answer as to why the “children of the Enlightenment” failed to act on overwhelming information about climate change and the damage it would bring.  The only conclusion this future historian could reach was that Western Civilization had fallen into the grips of a second Dark Age “in which denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on ‘free’ markets, disabled the world’s powerful nations in the face of tragedy.”

In other words, future historians would one day decide that we knew what was happening but were powerless to stop it.  Climate change would be seen as the great, slow-motion train wreck of our time.

According to this "future" history, the tipping point for the collapse of Western Civilization came in 2041 when a heatwave destroyed food crops around the world and incited rioting in virtually every major city.  With a mean global warming of 3.9 degrees Celsius, water and food rationing became universal.  Governments toppled.

Richer and better protected than most countries, the U.S. still saw great swaths of its farmland become desert.  The government announced plans with Canada to create a United States of North America to allow a northward population migration.

The second half of the twenty-first century included a devastating shutdown of the Indian monsoon, collapse of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet, some 70 percent extinction of species, and a Second Black Death.  Human life was decimated.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Food Foolish #6: A Year Later

What a difference a year makes.

It was about this time in 2015 that we began assembling material for Food Foolish.  Food waste was an important topic then, but nothing like it’s become in the last twelve months.

I now follow about 70 food-related Twitter feeds, from the Michael Pollans and Mark Bittmans of the world to groups focused on campus kitchens, ugly produce, food banks, and climate action.  Together, they present a picture of improved understanding and rapid acceleration around solving the issues of food waste and climate change.

Some of the 70 or so feeds I follow to keep track of food waste and related climate issues.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

More Dead Entrepreneurs: Grove Street Cemetery at Yale

If you're serious about collecting luxury watches, eventually you'll need to add a Patek Philippe.  If you're a baseball card aficionado, you must, one day, buy a Honus Wagner.  And if you're a serious birder, you'll need to take a bush plane to record the grey-headed Chickadee.

But if, like me, you're trying to collect dead American entrepreneurs, you'll eventually need to bag the Big Kahuna.  The original Steve Jobs.  The Henry Ford-before-there-was-a-Henry Ford.

So, that's what I did.  On my way home from a visit to Gettysburg I stopped at the Grove Street Cemetery, in the shadow of Yale's impressive Sterling Law Building.  That's where I found Eli Whitney. (My first post on this early entrepreneur and his incredible, final invention is here.)

Whitney is the Father of Interchangeable Parts--maybe.  He's the patron saint of the American System of Manufactures--perhaps.  He's the inventor of the cotton gin--quite probably.  And in the 20th century, Whitney became a major bone of contention among technology historians--for sure.  At his death, however, there was no confusion.  The prestigious Niles Register termed his loss in 1825 a "public calamity."

So, on a snowy March morning in 2016, we finally met.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Forty Years After: The Fortune 500, 1976

Forty years ago, the 1976 version of the Fortune 500 appeared in Fortune's nearly-2 lb., 350-page May issue.  The list itself turned 21 that year, and along  with its ads and articles, painted a vivid picture of business in a long ago world.  

Just how far back was 1976?  Well, young entrepreneurial hotshots like Jack Dorsey (Twitter and Square) and Travis Kalanick (Uber) were both born that year, but so too was old, decrepit  Peyton Manning.  That contrast, I think, defines 1976 as "early middle age."

Those of you alive then might remember the Bicentennial celebration, held in the midst of a pretty rough decade.  The elite 500 itself had taken a beating in 1975; “gripped by recession,” the editors wrote, “the 500 suffered the most severe earnings drop in seventeen years.”  

Exxon ($44.8B) was the largest industrial in America in 1976, followed by General Motors, Texaco, Ford Motor, Mobil Oil and Standard Oil of California.  This was the fossil fuel economy in living color.  Tech first appeared in 7th position with International Business Machines ($14.4B) followed by Gulf Oil, General Electric and Chrysler.  Of the next five positions, three were also oil companies.