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?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Wanted: Enlightened Despots

The worst lie ever told in an Economics class is this: If everyone optimizes his individual happiness, the entire system is optimized.   

I still remember some bright bulb in Econ 1 raising his hand and asking, “So if I give a panhandler ten dollars and he buys hooch and gets drunk, that optimizes the system?”  To which the professor replied that, indeed, it did.  In fact, “Who were we to decide what was right for the panhandler?” 
Since then, I’ve come to understand the very opposite: One of the great ironies of big, complex systems is that if every individual in the system—each link--acts in his or her own best interest, then the system becomes wildly inefficient.  It can hurt the very people it's intended to help.

I know this doesn’t sound like good, laissez-faire capitalism, but when we depend on free enterprise to solve every problem in life, it’s a little bit like the New Yorker cartoon where the young mom holds the baby up to the the dad and asks: “Will the Invisible Hand of the Market be diapering him today?” 

The housing bubble is a perfect example.  People with insufficient income got mortgages and moved into homes.  Elected officials got credit for housing growth and happy constituents, and votes for their reelection campaigns.  Mortgage lenders got big bonuses for production, and their companies grew and got rewarded by investors.

And then came the bust.  Each link did so well that we all went to hell in a handbasket.

What the world needs, I’m pretty sure, is more despots.  Enlightened ones, of course.  What Plato called Philosopher-Kings. And Queens.  That’s what we need.  Despotic Philosopher-Kings and -Queens, sitting atop these huge systems, rapping us across the knuckles when our small-time optimization imperils the greater good.
Here’s how it would work.  You have a sinus infection.  Sorry.  Of course, it’s in your best interest to get an antibiotic--in a week you’ll be good as new.  But I have a sinus infection, too.  Maybe I want some antibiotic.  But, says the Surgeon General Despotic Philosopher-Queen, antibiotics are already over-prescribed and we’re starting to create drug-resistant superbugs.  So, she says, only I can have the antibiotic.  Me.  Not you. That’ll cut the system dosage in half and save the world.  Good for me!  Good for all of us!  See how wise the Despotic Philosopher-Queen is?

Sure, you can try to bribe her.  Fund her re-election campaign.  Threaten a coup.   But this is a Despostic Philosopher-Queen we’re talking about.  She knows best.  From each according to his ability to each according to whom is writing the blog.  Someone wins, someone loses.  

All kidding aside, do you see how hard these systems are to tame?  In order to optimize the whole, someone on the ground is going to have his ox gored.

Speaker John Boehner is the quintessential example of a man who could be Philosopher-King.  Boehner leads the party committed to wringing billions of dollars out of our national budget, as big and complex a system as you could want.  
Funny thing for a would-be Philosopher-King, though.  The Continuing Resolution doesn’t cut the $450 million squirreled away for construction of the Joint Strike Fighter.  The one that would be built in Cincinnati, Ohio (where Boehner grew up), and Dayton, Ohio, the largest city in his congressional district.  The one the military doesn’t want.    

There are a billion like this, of course.  These aren’t bad people, and they’re not doing anything illegal.  They just listened to my Econ 1 professor and are optimizing their little slice of heaven, which is, in theory, supposed to optimize the whole system.  

Look at our healthcare system.  How about foreign aid?  Complex supply chains?   Sensitech, a company I know well, built an entire business on the fact that the various links of the supply chain for Food and Pharmaceuticals have competing interests.  If everyone optimizes his link then you and I sometimes get wilted brown lettuce and saline solution instead of vaccine.  

Competition of the species and survival of the fittest--now there’s a complex system that works.  But make no mistake, it’s brutal.  Not everyone gets lungs and brains, if you know what I mean.   Darwin--another candidate for Philosopher-King--understood that in really healthy, complex systems, lots of individuals lose.  Maybe most.
Which gets us, unfortunately, to the SECOND lie we are all told in Econ 1:  People know what makes them happy.   It turns out we really don't know.  Not even close.  In fact, we willingly make all kinds of choices that cause us great unhappiness. 

Think about where that leaves us: We create huge systems that fail miserably because every link optimizes its own self-interest.  Often in ways that don't optimize their own self-interest.

Wanted: Enlightened Despots.



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.
Inspired?
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.
Inspired?
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.
Inspired?
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.
Inspired?
I sure was.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Beware the Brown M&Ms


Even people who have never heard a Van Halen song may know the rock band for its infamous performance clause calling for a backstage bowl of M&Ms with all the brown candies removed.  Until recently, I had simply chocked this extravagance up to sex and drugs and David Lee Roth’s outsized ego.

But I was wrong.

Many years ago at Sensitech there would be an almost annual changing-of-the-guard when it came to the company’s cleaning services.  Our Office Manager would hire a “great new” service which would be new for a while and great for just a little while longer before their performance tailed off.   Then, inevitably, we’d get another great new cleaning service.

I used to bring a box of raisins to work occasionally as a snack, and one day tossed a raisin at the CFO, missed, and saw it land in the far corner of my office, the one furthest from the door.  At first I was too lazy to pick it up.  Then I forgot about it.

The next morning I happened to look over and, lo and behold, the raisin was still there.

To make a long story slightly longer, over time I perfected the raisin test: If a raisin in the far corner wasn't vacuumed up in two days or less, our cleaning service was almost inevitably on the way out the door.

Little things like that mean a lot.

One of my professors in business school used to say that if you pulled the seat tray down on an airplane and it was dirty, you had to wonder if they airline had missed some important engine maintenance as well.

Little things really can mean a lot.

In my freshman year at college I volunteered at WBRU-FM.  The station was required to maintain a public access file which could be examined by anyone off the street during normal business hours.  The general manger was in charge of maintaining the file, and in those days at least, it was considered important business.

One day I overheard some of the general manager’s buddies kidding him about the file, saying he hadn’t opened it once during the year and had no clue what was in it.  He disagreed vehemently.  The next day I watched as they placed a tuna fish sandwich in a plastic bag, marked a green hanging file "Tuna Fish Sandwich," and proceeded to file the sandwich in the "T"s.

Three months later the general manager still hadn't found the sandwich in the files.

Little things mean a lot.  Little smelly things especially.

I had not intended this post to be about food, but hopefully you get my point.  Well into the 20th century miners in the U.S. and U.K. would bring a canary into a coal mine as an early warning indicator for methane and carbon dioxide.  There used to be a guy in Boston who would size up an interview candidate by how polished his shoes were.  My mother could judge most of Western Civilization by whether they sent a thank-you note.  My dad could judge the quality of a roofing job by how many stray nails he found in the grass after the crew had allegedly "cleaned up” for the day.  (Unfair, perhaps, except that his wayward children did walk around barefoot much of the summer.)

So now, maybe, the brown M&Ms make more sense.  David Lee Roth explained in his autobiography that Van Halen was one of the first bands to take huge productions into smaller markets.  By huge, we're talking nine eighteen-wheelers full of sound equipment, props and rigging.  And, Roth remembered, there were many, many problems at these smaller venues, from inadequate power, to floors that would sink, to issues that might even be life threatening for the band.

Roth wrote: 


The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function.  So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say 'Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes. . . .'  This kind of thing.  And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: ‘There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.’  So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl. . .well, line-check the entire production.  Guaranteed you’re going to find a technical error.  They didn’t read the contract. 
A lowly raisin.  A pair of scuffed shoes.  An errant nail in the grass.  A canary.  An alphabetized tuna fish sandwich.
You never know what will give someone away.  
Beware the brown M&Ms.

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:
Since the invention of the printing press and voyages of exploration, European society has moved through a succession of irreversible developments that have given each generation the strong feeling that theirs has been the great period of change, or even the principal divide between the traditional and modern.  The sense of transformative change is no doubt real, but the repetition of such experiences warns us off the notion that there has been one singular period in the long, arduous, and fateful move away from the world of custom.
This week I discovered another perspective, and one especially relevant because it speaks to our own times.
The March 2011 issue of Esquire tells the story of Ray Towler, a Cleveland man wrongly convicted of rape in 1980.  Exonerated and released on May 5, 2010, Towler spent twenty-eight years and 8 months incarcerated and largely outside the streaming flow of technology and culture that has shaped our modern world.
It’s an anguishing story, but it’s also a reboot of Rip Van Winkle, with author Mike Sager doing a terrific job capturing Towler’s re-entry into modern Cleveland last year.
I would encourage you before reading this, and if you are old enough, to think back on life in 1980 and how it has changed in the last 30 years.  Web, iPhone, Google, no more Fleetwood Mac--yes.  But much more.
Here’s some of what Towler saw and felt:
1. A huge increase in visual color and complexity, as simple as: “Fancy new street signs and crosswalks.”
2. Vast connectedness: “GPS, but he doesn’t know how to use it.  BlackBerry; ‘he’s pretty good with that.’”
3. A surge in diversity:  “The number of nonwhite faces everywhere.”  (Towler is black.)  “When he gets his job in the mail room at a big health-insurance company downtown, he is pleasantly shocked.  There are coworkers of every hue; it almost feels like race doesn’t exist in the same way anymore.”
4. A balancing of gender: “That’s another thing: women.  It’s tripping him out the way they are so aggressive today.  Before, they would just kind of wait around, and you would make your move, and they would make it known what their answer was.  Now they come straight up to him and it’s like, ‘I think we should date, Raymond.’”
5. A rise in visible customer service: “While he’s eating at a chain steakhouse on the outskirts of a mall parking lot, a guy in a suit comes to the table and asks how dinner is going.  Ray wonders politely who he is to be asking. . .and is flattered to learn he is the manager of the entire place!”
6. Automation (& the need for education!): “Wherever he goes, everything is computerized.  The gas station, the convenience store, the hardware store: Swipe this, enter that code, do it yourself.  Automated supermarket checkout?  You wonder why people are crying about needing jobs.  It used to be anybody could get a job in a grocery store.”
7. So many choices: “Which car insurance.  Which cereal.  Which deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, shampoo.  Rows and rows of products. Varieties, sizes, colors.  Which is cheaper. Which is better?  What’s the best buy?  Which gum to chew?  When he went into prison there were, like, two kinds of chewing gum.  Now there are a zillion.”  (Maybe too many: see here.)
Technology, yes...but: Choice.  Diversity.  Gender balance.  Complexity. Automation. Service. Connectedness. 
More flavors of gum than you can chew in a lifetime.  
A fascinating story, and one--like Rip Van Winkle--that's rapid and sometimes jarring, but doesn't sound too bad in the telling after all.