Thursday, December 17, 2009
Monday, December 14, 2009
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
My friend Jerry sent a terrific blog posting from Jeff Jonas, who writes about “information management and privacy in the information age.”
Talk about a topic full of angst. We inhabit a world in which we despise the fact that Google peers inside our personal email to target click ads, or decides its alright to post pictures on the Web of our backyard. We hate it when government puts cameras up at intersections to catch folks running red lights, or when we plow snow for the state and are required to carry a GPS so our employer knows our whereabouts. And the thought of having an RFID tag on a jar of baby food, so a retailer knows to offer us a discount on diapers, just creeps us out.
Mobile devices in
are generating something like 600 billion geo-spatially tagged transactions per day. Every call, text message, email and data transfer handled by your mobile device creates a transaction with your space-time coordinate (to roughly 60 meters accuracy if there are three cell towers in range), whether you have GPS or not. Got a Blackberry? Every few minutes, it sends a heartbeat, creating a transaction whether you are using the phone or not. If the device is GPS-enabled and you’re using alocation-based service your location is accurate to somewhere between 10 and 30 meters. Using Wi-Fi? It is accurate below10 meters. America
The data reveals the number of co-workers that join you Thursdays after work for a beer, and roughly where you all go. It knows where these same co-workers call home, and just exactly what kind of neighborhood they come from (e.g., average income, average home price) … information certainly useful to attentive direct marketing folks.
Large space-time data sets combined with advanced analytics enable a degree of understanding, discovery, and prediction that may be hard for many people to fully appreciate. Better prediction means a more efficient enterprise and nifty consumer services.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Monday, November 9, 2009
If you’re looking for a very cool holiday gift for your boss or management team, one that will remind him or her--after all the spreadsheets and algorithms are put away--that there still really is an underlying beauty to business, check out Drawing on Brilliance.
Co-authors Randy Rabin and Jackie Bassett rescued original patent lithographs discarded by the US Patent Office--lithographs from folks like the Wright Brothers, Hedy Lamar (yes, the actress of MGM fame who also happened to co-invent frequency-hopping technology), Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Willis Carrier and hundreds of others never before seen.
Was there any story or drawing that particularly struck you?
So, have I solved your office holiday gift problem? No more books about mice or cheese. No more 7 habits or 10 rules or 5 platitudes. Something special, and something you'll return to time and again for inspiration.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
The other day I listened to a New Yorker podcast, one featuring the magazine's cartoon editor, Robert Mankoff. Hespoke with Zachary Kanin, one of a very small stable of regular cartoonists.
Kanin was discussing his typical work-week and mentioned that he draws ten to fifteen cartoons a week. I might have guessed three, and perhaps five in a good week. But Kanin churns out 10 to 15 new ones every week.
He said it’s important to work at that pace because it’s the only way he really stopped doing other people’s cartoons, the only way he really found his own voice.
"Part of the challenge is the discipline to accomplish this every day and the other is to expand my creativity and to help find my artistic voice. The sky is the limit on how the flies will be created. You may have wondered, 'why is he drawing flies?' My other hobby is fly fishing and fly tying. I also welcome the challenge of drawing the natural materials that are used in the flies. So hang on and enjoy the ride for the next 365 days!"
Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can freely write novels no matter what they do—or don’t do. Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work. Occasionally you’ll find someone like that, but, unfortunately, that category wouldn’t include me. I haven’t spotted any springs nearby. I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity. To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort. Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another new, deep hole.
Just get your hammer and chisel out and start pounding.
(First posted in November 2009 and updated modestly in April 2016.)
Friday, October 23, 2009
Shortly after the hire, we had lunch at one of those Chinese restaurants that offers its food by the number. So, a "#23" is egg foo young, fried rice and spare ribs. Each meal is more food than three people could eat, and the kind of food many people would not eat at all.
Anyway, one of the cardinal rules at this place is "NO SUBSTITUTIONS." The menu says "NO SUBSTITUTIONS" in about six places, all in red. Bright red. Big letters. It might as well read "NUCLEAR WASTE."
Here comes the nice waitress. I order a #15. Our new CFO orders a #23 and then says to the waitress, "But I want to substitute chicken wings for ribs."
Just like that. I thought the earth would open up and swallow us.
The waitress pauses, looks, pauses, looks. Frowns. Pauses. And then says: "OK."
That's when I knew he would be a great CFO. Through a half-dozen acquisitions, 40 quarters of growth, the design of compensation plans, and in battles with vendors and partners, he kept asking for substitutions when nobody else dared.
Today, that CFO is our COO. Just another thing that comes from not being afraid to ask for substitutions.
Happy Birthday, Mike!
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Saturday morning, 6:30 a.m.—the single best moment of a long, holiday weekend. There’s a light rain that looks like it’s moving off. I throw on my sweats, drop my iPhone in a Glad plastic bag (a better exercise case than I can find in the Apple store), turn on a podcast of This American Life, and begin a long, hopefully intensive walk through the fall scenery of our little town.
I mention this because last week my youngest brother sent me a book by Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I am embarrassed to say that, not only had I never read Murakami, I have never even heard of him. (If you are as parochial as I, Wikipedia tell us Murakami “is the sixth recipient of the Franz Kafka Prize, is considered an important figure in postmodern literature, and The Guardian praised him as one of the "world's greatest living novelists.")
One runner told of a mantra his older brother, also a runner, had taught him which he’s pondered ever since he began running. Here it is: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you start to think, Man this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself. This pretty much sums up the most important aspect of marathon running.
Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it, but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day. This is the same sort of tack I find necessary when writing a novel. I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly. I think Ernest Hemingway did something like that. To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm.
It doesn’t matter what field you’re talking about—beating somebody else just doesn’t do it for me. I’m much more interested in whether I reach the goals that I set for myself. . .In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.
When I’m criticized unjustly (from my viewpoint, at least), or when someone I’m sure will understand me doesn’t, I go running for a little longer than usual. By running longer it’s like I can physically exhaust that portion of my discontent. It also makes me realize again how weak I am, how limited my abilities are. I become aware, physically, of these low points. And one of the results of running a little farther than usual is that I become that much stronger.
I think this viewpoint applies as well to the job of the novelist. Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can freely write novels no matter what they do—or don’t do. Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work. Occasionally you’ll find someone like that, but, unfortunately, that category wouldn’t include me. I haven’t spotted any springs nearby. I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity. To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort. Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another new, deep hole. But as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening a hole in the hard rock and locating a new water vein. So as soon as I notice one water source drying up, I can move on right away to another. If people who rely on a natural spring of talent suddenly find they’ve exhausted their only source, they’re in trouble.
No matter how much long-distance running might suit me, of course there are days when I feel kind of lethargic and don’t want to run. Actually, it happens a lot. On days like that, I try to think of all kinds of plausible excuses to slough it off. Once, I interviewed the Olympic runner Toshihiko Seko, just after he retired from running and became manager of the S&B company team. I asked him, “Does a runner at your level ever feel like you’d rather not run today, like you don’t want to run and would rather just sleep in?” He stared at me and then, in a voice that made it abundantly clear how stupid he thought the question was, replied, “Of course. All the time!” Now that I look back on it I can see what a dumb question that was. I guess even back then I knew how dumb it was, but I suppose I wanted to hear the answer directly from someone of Seko’s caliber.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
I went card shopping today to find an anniversary card for a couple we've known for years. It’s fair to say that there’s some pretty wretched stuff out there in the form of maudlin, raggedy, iambic pentameters stuffed into $5.00 cards.
To make a loving pair.
There’s a joy just being around you,
A feeling we love to share.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
My to-do list has 91 items. This is the result of a conscious effort in the last couple of months to reduce the list from about 150 items. Even now, if I knock off some of the wish-list stuff like “Climb Kilimanjaro"--the things that will happen on their own, or not--I’m down to maybe 75 items.
Some things are seasonal and appear as reminders once a year. So, they stay on the list but aren’t especially onerous. That gets me down to maybe 50. I know, to a GTD disciple, 50 items is the subset of an uberlist—hardly a list at all. Still, 50 to-dos does seem like a lot.
Last summer I clipped a Peggy Noonan column, “To-Do List: A Sentence, Not 10 Paragraphs,” from the June
“He preserved the union and freed the slaves.”
“He lifted us out of a great depression and helped to win a World War.”
There’s no mistaking those. Noonan went on to suggest that Obama was trying to do too much and, in the process, was missing “The Sentence.” (Her suggestion for Obama was: “He brought
It all reminded me of the way Daniel Walker Howe portrayed President James Knox Polk in What Hath God Wrought. Now, there's a President you don’t think about every day--James K. Polk. But talk about focused and driven; he was a guy built for "The Sentence."
Upon being elected, Polk told his Secretary of the Navy that he would have "four great measures" of his administration: Settlement of Oregon with
How did Polk do? Howe concludes, “Judged by these objectives, Polk is probably the most successful president the
Polk’s extraordinary focus reminds me of the trick an old boss taught me, way back before every pocket had a smartphone. He would take a 3-by-5 card at the start of each fiscal quarter and write down his 3-6 goals for the quarter. Then he would leave it in the corner of his desk where he could see it constantly, or carry it in his pocket when he was traveling. Every morning and evening he'd review the list to gauge if what he was doing contributed to one of those goals; if not, he’d stop and, as he said, get back to work.
There is a story told about a time-management consultant who visited the Pentagon to address a gathering of generals. He asked them how they organized their days. The one answer that stood out: "I write down everything I need to do that day, maybe 25 items. Then I start at the bottom and cross them out until I have only the top three left. Then I go to work."
Leaders of all kinds require extraordinary focus to be successful. I don't know if James K. Polk had a 3-by-5 card, but I'm guessing he didn't have a to-do list with 91 items, either.
Maybe a lesson for you. Certainly a lesson for me.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Right behind the water crisis, of course, is the FIOS and cable crisis, the wireless and web crisis, and the TV and microwave crisis. Followed, of course, by the can’t-see-at-night crisis.
I’m reminding you of things you already know because, as I went for my run that morning, I discovered two utility trucks and a policeman directing traffic around a snapped utility pole. Someone, somehow, on a sunny, dry morning--on a road marked at 35 miles per hour--managed to smack into the pole and turn the attached electronics and cables into a mid-air rat’s nest.
Utility poles are a 19th-century technology, designed originally to carry telegraph lines. The average pole is made of Yellow Southern Pine and stands about 34 feet above the ground.Whack them with one of our modern vehicles and they break like a toothpick.
A Little Thing Far Out
Last week NASA reported that the Hubble Space telescope was sending back stunning images of exploding stars, stellar nurseries and colliding galaxies, thanks to its repair and refurbishment by astronauts in a series of tense spacewalks earlier this year. One image, of Planetary Nebula NGC 6302, shows what our universe will look like four billion years from now.
You may remember that work on the Hubble was almost scuttled when astronauts had a protracted struggle with a stuck bolt. It was the kind of thing that you or I might work on for an hour on a Saturday, give up, and go watch a football game.
In this case, one little bolt stood in the way of activating the Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, which has now shown us what we might look like in 4 billion years.
In a world of endless incoming and frantic multitasking, it's good to remember the upright telephone poles and freed bolts that keep our fragile world from falling apart.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
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.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Booker is a young guy and former community activist and Councilman. Bloomberg is a generation older and well known as the billionaire founder of Bloomberg, LP., a financial software and services giant.
At one point, as the two mayors were being interviewed, Bloomberg began answering a question (about crime or drugs or handguns) by saying, “Of course, Mayor Booker has a harder job than I have.”
That might or might not be true--I don’t know enough to say. But the fact that Mayor Bloomberg recognized his younger peer in such a gracious way says more about Bloomberg than it does about the difficulties of their respective jobs.
Undoubtedly Michael Bloomberg wants to be a wildly successful mayor of
In other words, Bloomberg comes to the job as Mayor with not just wealth, but with all of his psychic income needs met. He’s already successful. He’s already made it. He appears comfortable with himself and his accomplishments.
He could have been the Big Dog in that television interview and he chose not to be; instead, he made the gracious gesture of promoting the young guy next to him.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
My great-grandfather, Richard Albert King, died about ten years before I was born. Everyone in my family who knew him personally is also now gone. So, the memory of my great-grandfather comes down to a few simple items.
I know from family stories that he was a kind and gentle person. I know my father, Richard, was named after him, and it was a good naming because my dad, too, was kind and gentle.
Sometime during the Depression, my great-grandfather was given a part-time job as sexton at his nearby Episcopal Church, more an act of kindness and dignity than financial gain. Its unintended consequence, however, was that mixed families of long-time Presbyterians and Lutherans became loyal Episcopalians, probably a better indication of how religion really works than a burning bush in the desert or a conversion on the road to Tarsus.
Finally, I know that every evening after dinner, my great-grandfather would retire to the cellar (and I mean cellar, not basement) to warm a pot of glue and cut and shape pieces of hardwood to make beautiful inlays. We have a chessboard and lamp from his labors. But the best example of all is an exquisite inlaid table that now resides in the corner of our dining room.
If everything I knew about my great-grandfather came down to this one item, I would see a patient, exacting craftsman with a flair for the creative; a “measure twice, cut once” guy; and someone who built things to last. All things very much worth aspiring to.
That table tells an important personal story and is what I call a piece of really good work.
When I was ten years old my parents bought a run-down house near
So, I spent the summer of my 11th year (along with my younger brother) crawling around under a two-story house, raising it inch-by-inch on jacks, learning how to mix concrete, and trying to avoid digging trenches. Today, I don’t pretend to know how to lift a house three inches and build a stone foundation under it, and I still occasionally dream (claustrophobically) about crawling around underneath, hoping not to see a snake. But, when my father lowered the house down on the new masonry, it was flat and plumb and square. A perfect landing.
From time to time over the last forty years I have driven by that cottage (long since sold), remember my father, and think: that foundation is a piece of really good work.
Today, I’m lucky to be on the Board of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (see here). It’s a group of accomplished and sometimes brilliant people (present company excepted) who come together around the powerful notion that family and history are things worth preserving and celebrating. Some of the Trustees with whom I have worked—David Kruger, Bob Bixby, Richard Benson, John Cabot and Alvy Ray Smith come immediately to mind—have not only had exceptional careers in business, but have written meticulously researched, beautifully constructed, almost monumental family genealogies. (See here for the NEHGS Online store.)
The kind of things you read in awe.
Their books are, each on its own, a piece of really good work, and something that punctuates all its author’s other accomplishments.
This all bubbled up not long ago while I was reading a Sunday New York Times article by Michael Wilson (“Where the Bodies Aren’t Buried”) about the
It seems Green-Wood is close to full after expanding for decades in all of the logical places. The cemetery, often three-deep in bodies, will have to close to new burials in the not-too-distant future. Before that happens, Kestas is trying to get as many people in as possible.
“I have incredible respect for this man, Lindsay Wells,” Mr. Demereckas said. “When I saw, first time, drawings, I was very impressed. I was jealous.”
Imagine Mr. Wells standing in the cemetery just ten years after the Civil War, working alone, making his careful drawings and being so exacting in his measurements that 134 years later in 2009 Mr. Demereckas could find a few square feet of open ground amidst 500 acres in which to bury a modern New Yorker. No audience, no applause, no fame; just Mr. Wells doing a job in the best way he knew how.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
For example, when Ashton Kutcher began using Twitter, his adoring fan base embraced the messaging technology. Meanwhile, much of the rest of
Monday, June 15, 2009
Since then, I’ve read all of Bryant’s interviews, which capture the thoughts of such luminaries as Will Wright (Sims, Spore, StupidFunClub), Clarence Otis Jr. (Darden), Dany Levy (DailyCandy.com), Steve Ballmer (
That’s a pretty heady line-up, and combined, the repository of some real leadership and organizational wisdom.
With that in mind, I’ve distilled the interviews into one, very blunt interview that tries to capture the flavor of what these CEOs are saying (kind of what Pandora does for music). Note that none of them actually said what I wrote below (mostly); it’s just my best guess at what, with a few beers and not being quoted in the Sunday New York Times, they were really saying. Think of it as an unvarnished interview with the “blunt CEO.”
Q: Anything surprise you about the CEO job?
A: Everything I say is amplified. My thinking-out-loud can stop a discussion. A suggestion becomes a mandate. I have to be very careful, go slow, ask questions. People often take what I say, even my musings, at face value. (In fact, about that “killing stuff” in the first question--can we forget I said that?)
A: I’m impatient. I’m anxious. I’m a little neurotic. I can have a bad temper. I run people over if I’m not careful. I can’t always stay focused on you when you’re answering a question because my mind is already on to the next point. I need to listen better. I know that, and I’m trying. Really.
Q: What annoys you most?
A: When people dump a problem on me and haven’t worked a solution. In fact, one way I assess talent is to look for the people who are creating big, far-ranging, creative solutions to our biggest problems. Don’t drop the Rubik’s Cube in my office unless you have a plan for twisting it into shape.
Q: Anything else?
A: Complicated stuff. Business isn’t easy but it should be simple. There are only three or four things that we can focus on as an organization at any one time. My job is to make sure everyone knows what they are. Your job is to stay focused on them, and keep your team focused.
Q: Anything else?
A: I should be able to tell you who we are and what we do and stand for in about ten seconds, without any buzz or double-talk. Likewise, when I ask you a question about your business, you should keep the answer very focused. Once you launch into a monologue I know you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Q: Anything else?
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Perhaps Americans could steal a page from the Spanish, whose socialist government has banned fascist icons. That means Gen. Francisco Franco’s statue was uprooted from the city
It is a reminder that we move history at will--even the big, heavy variety--to suit the purposes of the present.
Monday, June 8, 2009
I also wondered about the “Stan Musial problem,” which Bill James offered up in his marvelous Historical Baseball Abstract (1986): “The image of Musial seems to be fading quickly. Maybe I'm wrong, but it doesn't seem to me that you hear much about him anymore, compared to such comparable stars as Mantle, Williams, Mays and DiMaggio, and to the extent that you do hear of him it doesn't seem that the image is very sharp. . .He makes a better statue.”
Why does that happen, I wonder? It's almost the reverse of the historical postcard, when an event or person who is vibrant and important in public life seems to rapidly fade once her or she is no longer practicing their craft.
Jim Thorpe was voted the greatest athlete of the first fifty years of the twentieth century. Where’d he go? Mary Pickford was the most popular actress and maybe best-known woman in the world, auctioning off one of her curls for $15,000 to raise money during WWI. Where’d she go?
The Mexican-American War of 1846—it's the war in which Winfield Scott taught Grant and Lee how to fight, the war that saw at Veracruz the most dramatic amphibious landing before D-Day--not to mention the subsequent securing of the “Halls of Montezumas” in
For that matter, what happened to George Marshall, who raised an army of 7 million men and was said to be the closest thing to George Washington that
Ever since my post on historical postcards, I've been wondering about cultural memory. It's a fascinating puzzle--this idea of a national lost and found bin--even in the business world. It would be hard for most Americans to name one CEO from the Fortune 500 of 1976, even though these men and women were giants of their time. Malcolm Gladwell has even opined that Steve Jobs will be forgotten someday. Hard to believe? Ask Jim Thorpe. Ask Mary Pickford.
For that matter, ask Clifton C. Garvin, Jr. who, in 1976, was CEO of Exxon, the largest corporation in America.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
We measure the economy every day, for example, but our smartest economists just happened to miss the current worldwide recession. We invent a device like the telephone and then predict that it will never replace the telegraph (on the one hand), and that it will bring about a universal language and world peace (on the other).
In the case of the telephone, however, one person in particular got the future right, and well before anyone else. That person happened to be its inventor, Alexander Graham Bell.
In a remarkable 1878 letter to the organizers of the Electronic Telephone Company,
What is stunning about
was a smart guy, perhaps just brighter than the rest of the world. Bell
was living with the telephone eighteen hours a day, year after year. Better than anyone, he understood its capabilities and potential. Bell
was not a scientist but, like Morse, Edison, Ford, and Land, was both an inventor and capitalist. These men were interested in what might be theoretically possible and what might sell; “the optimism of their speculation was controlled by a profound concern for the balance sheet.” Bell
Personally, I find the last item especially compelling; when Edison’s notebooks on devising the nation’s first power grid were examined, they showed on every page “calculations of the system’s market potential, the price charged for competing gas illumination, the cost of copper wiring, and other entrepreneurial concerns.”
There's something about pushing a technology ahead with a profit motive in mind that creates a sense of clarity. Most successful entrepreneurs become good at telling the story of a rosy future. Some have a great technology but no business plan. Some have a great business plan but no technology. The ones who succeed have both, or access to both, and clearly separate the real and now from the purely aspirational.
So when we think about Alexander Graham Bell running a (so-called) pre-revenue company, and being so very right about its future, we can assume that being brilliant, living 24/7 with the innovation, and avoiding historical analogy were all contributing factors. Maybe, too, the idea of constantly iterating the possible, the impossible, the practical, and the the profitable was also decisive.