Monday, November 30, 2009

Public Service

From The Social Contract (1762), written by Enlightenment political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778):

As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens, and they would rather reserve their money than with their persons, the state is not far from its fall. When it is necessary to march out to war, they pay troops and stay at home . . . In a country that is truly free, the citizens do everything with their own arms and nothing by means of money; so far from paying to be exempted from their duties, they would even pay for the privilege of fulfilling them themselves. I am for taking the common view: I hold enforced labor to be less opposed to liberty than taxes.

Rousseau's robust notion of citizenship, and his wary view of markets, may seem distant from the assumptions of our day. We are inclined to view the state, with its binding laws and regulations, as the realm of force; and to see the market, with its voluntary exchanges, as the realm of freedom. Rousseau would say this has things backward - at least where civic goods are concerned.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"You don't learn anything from talking to sameness."

Judith Jamison is the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She offers the following advice:

When you're dealing with numbers, see the people behind those numbers, and understand that they're just like you. You just happen to have a college degree and you could be very, very smart. But they might be smart in other ways that you aren't. And give people full credit for being who they are. It's so important to remember that.

And it starts with, "Hello, how are you?" and listening.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Jump Point

Author Tom Hayes explains a "Jump Point as a change in the environment so startling that we have no choice but to regroup and rethink the future." The economic history of the world is punctuated by Jump Points. The tricky part has been identifying them at the right time. Very often, we mistake the arrival of a stunning new invention for the Jump Point: we get mesmerized by a new innovation, think the world has changed the day a new technology leaves the lab. But that is rarely, if ever, the case. That is not the Jump Point.

Instead, technology revolution is a fitful process ("Technology revolutions always take longer than predicted, but arrive faster than anticipated."). New technologies take time to be absorbed and diffused. We are a curious species; it is human nature to tinker, and experiment, test, and play. And most inventions improve with applications, adoption, and time. Therefore, most Jump Points occur well after the enthusiasm settles and the parade has passed.

In his book, Jump Point: Now Network Culture is Revolutionizing Business (2009), Hayes writes the following:
  • The convergence of personal computing and communications has created a worldwide network that allows people to connect directly to each other without middlemen, brokers, or arbiters between them. This is a lousy time to be a middleman, broker, or arbiter.
  • Consumers, overwhelmed by information overload, struggle to reconcile the many competing claims for their attention in daily life. This is a bad time to be an attention-stealing interruption advertiser.
  • People don't want anyone dictating when they do something, buy something, or watching something. This is an unfortunate time to be in an inflexible or time bounded business.
  • People don't want restrictions on how they use, enjoy, manipulate, store, or share their property. Trying to command and control information rights is a loosing proposition.
  • Consumers are acutely aware of their power to change the equations, flip the ratios, and obliterate the old market rules. Provide mechanisms for customer influence and expression . . . or go home.
  • People don't trust their governments, large corporations, or political parties; they have an inherent trust in one another and in authenticity. This is a dangerous time to be untrustworthy, shifty, or phony - especially if you are a large, established institution.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Age Of Nonlinearity

Engineers are linear thinkers – the systematic process of thought following known cycles or step-by-step progression where a response to a step must be elicited before another step is taken. This “inside-the-box” thinking typically involves sequential ordering of concepts within a framework of fixed constraints. It is a process with low acceptance of ambiguity and a low tolerance for failure.

Historically, reading has been the most linear of activities. People of the Western world learn to read left to right, up to down. People in the East are taught to read right to left, down to up. Either way, from our earliest days forward we have been trained to process information sequentially, from start to finish, rudimentary to complex, from point A to B to C, and so on. Essentially, we have been taught to be linear thinkers.

Consider the ideas of Tom Hayes in Jump Point: How Network Culture is Revolutionizing Business (2008):

But our information world and format is no longer linear. It is increasingly marked by hyperlinks. Hyperlinks, or simply links, are navigational elements within electronic documents that take the user form one reference or document to another. The journey of discovery from one point to another one can take us in an infinite number of directions in pursuit of a train of thought or the right information. There is an element of discovery and serendipity to the use of links. You never know where the process of exploration will take you: you may be one click away from adventure.

Since the arrival of the hyperlinked Internet, people increasingly are becoming nonlinear thinkers. Our brains have been retrained to find information and process it differently that those of the hunt and peck, assembly-line, Dewey Decimal System past. Naturally, this reprogramming shapes and informs our communications, our work, and even our world view. Instead of drilling down a single path, Web users today are more likely to let the information lead where it will. And with an array of tools to make or “tag” their paths, we are prone to set ourselves free to stumble upon new things, new ideas, and never-before-imagined places. And, we are more likely to share our findings with others, as well as take counsel of our fellow travelers. The linear world of engineering was about “search” – the future world of nonlinear engineering will be about “discovery.”

And there are broader cultural implications to this nonlinearity as well, such as a greater acceptance of ambiguity and a tolerance for failure. The social acceptance of experimentation and failure, as well as a belief in redemption after failure. That mindset comes from a core belief that trial and error – discovery – is important, and that trying is more important than dreaming. This is nonlinear thinking at work. The message for engineering – the coming market will not punish you for experimenting and failing; in fact, the opposite is true. New customers will reward your innovation and willingness to be nonlinear.

Go To Where The Jobs Are

“Go west young man and grow with the country.” The modern version of the Horace Greely (it was really John B.L. Soule of the Terre Haute Express – but no matter) recommendation might be “Go West, or East, or North, or South young men and women and grow with the world.” With unemployment at 10.2 percent and climbing compared to welcoming job markets in China, Dubai, Brazil, and Singapore – individuals are leaving the U.S for better opportunities overseas. At MIT’s Sloan School of Management, 24 percent of the 2009 graduates found jobs overseas, a jump from 19 percent last year.

Jobs don’t just come to you. More often, you have to go to the job. Too many Americans resist that truth and instead wait for their dream jobs to come knocking at their door. They treat the idea of living in a certain city or state or country as an entitlement that they’re not willing to surrender.

As Empires go, we have become a stationary bunch. The British Empire, after all, was based on people trying to get away from Britain. For a long time the only universal was to be English - you had British citizens in places like Hong Kong, India, and Africa extending the influence of British commerce, international relations, and culture. They are a country open to the sea which takes you everywhere - and they took advantage of their opportunities. At heart, the English are an island people of international merchants, traders, travelers, buccaneers, and pirates - international spirits.

Both individuals and the country are being left behind - research how many Chinese citizens are living in Africa exploring the many opportunities it provides. In some respects we have lost our “get-up-and-go” genetic makeup – where the native-born could learn from immigrants, foreign students, and anyone else who has the moxie to leave behind family, friends, and the familiar in search of a better life. Go far, stay long, see deep.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Better Citizens

We have taken what "The Greatest Generation” build and gave us and we have become the “Grasshopper Generation.” Consumers of almost everything in our path – consumers of our economic future, consumers of our international goodwill, consumers of our energy resources, consumers of our educational heritage, consumers of the environment, consumers of our national infrastructure – consuming today without any regard for the future.

We also consume the public space where many solutions to our problems rest – from health care reform to improvements in the education system to climate change. We blame others – leaders, institutions, political parties – the current paralysis is never the fault of the “Grasshopper Generation.” But think about it – the “Grasshopper Generation” has allowed money in politics to become so pervasive that lawmakers spend most of their time raising it and selling their souls. We allowed the gerrymandering of political districts. We consume the cable TV culture of shouting and segregation. We consume campaigns versus governing. We allowed a globalized business structure and culture to have no apparent home or local interests – which rarely speak out on health care reform, education problems or our financial health and future.

As Tom Friedman pointed out in The New York Times – the “Grasshopper Generation” comes up with the same answers – we need better leaders. But what is often painfully missed is that the first step in developing and finding better leaders is for the “Grasshopper Generation” to become better citizens. We have numerous problems and issues that will require thoughtful national debate and discussions – this collective conversation is the very heart of good citizenship. Health care reform is but one example – where 80% of our cost problems are probably in 20% of our population. Should we discuss the 85-year old grandmother with liver cancer who is in ICU at $10,000 per day - that we can keep alive three additional months for another $2,000,000? Is it a hard, painful, and emotional process and discussion? Is it the toxic blend and mixture of politics, medicine, religion, and economics? Yes - - but absolutely necessary – with the firm understanding that the first steps in this discussion starts as civil conversation among concerned and informed citizens.

The solutions to our problems will be painful and will require real sacrifice from all our citizenry. It will require the “Grasshopper Generation” to become better citizens – better educated, informed, willing to sacrifice, and thoughtful – with an orientation toward pragmatic and long term ideas and solutions. It may take 10 million people marching in Washington DC on a cold Saturday in March. Not as an angry mob in search of people and places to fix blame on, but as silent and concerned citizens who understand that this is our fault and our future. That all the solutions have the same path – taking more responsibility and becoming better citizens.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Dangerously Out Of Scale

The debt economy – where the top of the pyramid has national debt now topping $12 trillion. The cost of servicing that debt is expected to exceed $700 billion a year in 2019, up from $202 billion this year. The surge in borrowing over the last year or two is widely judged to have been a necessary response to the last financial crisis and deep recession, and there is still a raging debate over how aggressively to bring down deficits over the next few years. But there is little doubt that the United States’ long-term budget crisis is becoming too high to postpone.

According to The Economist – thinking about the crisis and potential solutions extends to the military. Students at National Defense University in Washington DC, were recently given a model of the economy and told to fix the budget. To get the federal debt down, they jacked up taxes and slashed spending. The economy promptly tanked, sending the debt to higher levels than before. The lesson: “You’ll never get re-elected and you do more harm than good,” concluded Eric Bee, an air force colonel who took part in the exercise.

The debt economy has no exceptions – everyone, from homeowners, private equity investors, our largest bankers – have taken on enormous amounts of debt. The sub-prime debt crisis highlights what Charles Dickens said about credit, “Credit is a system whereby a person who cannot pay gets another person who cannot pay to guarantee that he can pay.” Debt did not get dangerously out of scale because the system was broken. It got out of scale, in part, because the system worked.

As The New Yorker pointed out in the November 23, 2009 issue:

The government doesn’t make people go into debt, of course. It just nudges them in that direction. Individuals are able to write off all their mortgage interest, up to a million dollars, and companies can write off all the interest on their debt, but not things like dividend payments. This gives the system what economist calls a “debt bias.” It encourages people to make smaller down payments and to borrow more money than they otherwise would, and to tie up more of their wealth in housing than in other investments. Likewise, the system skews the decisions that companies make about how to fund themselves. Companies can raise money by reinvesting profits, raising equity (selling shares), or borrowing. But only when they borrow do they get the benefit of a “tax shield.” Jason Furman, of the National Economic Council, has estimated that tax breaks make corporate debt cheaper than corporate equity. So it’s not surprising that many companies prefer to pile on leverage.

“The lack of money is the root of all evil” – and using the tax code to formulate public policy (i.e., support development and home ownership) and modify economic behavior probably goes a long way in supporting Mr. Twain’s observation. The hurdles are both political and psychological – tax breaks have been around for a long time.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"All models are false, . . .

. . . but some are useful.” The famous quote from George Box, a pioneer in quality control and time series analysis, perfectly sums the risks associated with advanced analytics and decision modeling/automation. The sub-prime mess is an example of the misadventures in modeling. Where financial models were seen, not as tools, but as answers. Where individual mortgages were like grains of sand – and studying the individual grains under the microscope didn’t give a clue as to what was going on in the whole sand pile. Where small changes in individual grains of sand can trigger huge and dynamic changes in the overall pile. Where complex systems tend to become more complex as time goes on – the systems never get simpler.

Modeling and decision science is a delicate balance of the core subject matter and material – combined and blended with deduction, insight, and inference. It is having the ability to recognize the difference between too simple and simply wrong. In the November 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review, Thomas Davenport outlines his thought on balancing decision tools with human intuition in the article entitled, “Make Better Decisions”:

Warn managers not to build into their business analytical models they don’t understand. This means, of course, that to be effective, managers must increasingly be numerate with analytics. At as the Yale economist Robert Shiller told the McKinsey Quarterly in April 2009, “You have to be a quantitative person if you’re managing a company. The quantitative details really matter.” Make assumptions clear. Every model has assumptions behind it, such as “Housing prices will continue to rise for the foreseeable future” or “Loan charge-off levels will remain similar to those of the past so years.” (Both these assumptions, of course, have recently been discredited.) Knowing what the assumptions are makes it possible to anticipate when models are no longer a guide to effective decisions.

Practice “model management,” which keeps track of the models being used within an organization and monitors how well they are working to analyze and predict selected variables. Capital One, an early adopter, has many analytical models in place to support marketing and operations. Finally, cultivate human backups. Automated decision systems are often used to replace human decision makers – but you lose those people at your peril. It takes an expert human being to revise decision criteria over time or know when an automated algorithm no longer works.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Year 2020

You have two ways to increase the supply of food – find new fields to plant or invent ways to multiply what existing ones yield. The nations of the Persian Gulf are likely to see their populations increase by 50 percent by 2030, and already import 60 percent of their food. Many such countries, like Saudi Arabia understand the limitations of increasing agricultural production in desert geography. The Saudis see the same statistics as the rest of the world. Between now and 2050 the world’s population will rise by a third, but demand for agricultural goods will rise by 70 percent and demand for meat will double. Increasingly they are looking to the third world, notably Africa, snapping up land. The cold calculus is that Africa has the land, Africa has the water, but unfortunately, they don’t have the system or sometimes the financing to complete large-scale agricultural projects.

“Blood in the street” investing has come to the sleepy agricultural sector. Both increasing biofuel production and demand coupled with poor harvests in 2006 and 2007 illustrate the dangers and perils of food shortages and commodity hyperinflation – especially when the poor in the developing world spend between 50 and 80 percent of their income on food. But risk and danger always breed opportunity – investment banking firms like BlackRock and Goldman Sachs are showing increased interest in overseas agricultural development.

In the November 22, 2009 issue of The New York Times Magazine, in the article “Agro-Imperialism” – author Andrew Rice addresses what a Thomas Malthus like Year 2020 might look like:

“Beware of 2020 and beyond, because we think there could be genuine food shortages by that period,” Susan Payne, the chief executive of Emergency Asset Management, told the audience during a talk on Africa’s agricultural potential. She showed a series of slides citing chilling statistics: grain stocks are at their lowest levels in 60 years; there were food riots in 15 countries in 2008; global warming is turning arable land into desert; freshwater is dwindling and China is draining its reserves; and the really big problem that contributes to all the others – the world’s population is growing by 80 million hungry people a year. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that in order to feed the world’s projected population in 2050 – some nine billion people – agricultural production needs to increase by an annual average of one percent. The means adding around 23 million tons of cereals to the world’s food supply next year, a little less than the total production of Australia in 2008.

“Africa is the final frontier,” Payne told me after the conference. “It’s the one continent that remains relatively unexploited.” Emergent’s African Agricultural Land Fund, started last year, is investing several hundred million dollars into commercial farms around the continent. Africa may be known for decrepit infrastructure and corrupt governments – problems that are being steadily alleviated, Payne argues – but land and labor come so cheaply there that she calculates the risks are worthwhile.
Additional information on Emergency Asset Management - and the Emergent African Agricultural Land Fund -

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Societal - Information - Technology Systems

The computer science community is talking about 2010 as the birth year of "Societal - Information - Technology Systems" - known as SIS. The world economy and civilization have evolved into a complex grid of networks. From the transportation network to the telephone network to your local electric grid - large, complex networks and systems marked by the same similar characteristics. The big three traits are waste, inefficiency, and stupidity. For example, utilities lose more than 50% of water supplies around the world because of leaking infrastructure. In the United States alone, congested roads cost billions of dollars a year in lost work hours and wasted fuel. The inefficiencies hit hard at key sustainability issues - if the U.S. power grid were only 5% more efficient, this would eliminate greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of 53 million cars.

Waste and inefficiency are tightly linked to system stupidity. The fixed network is not intelligent: roads, power grids, and water distribution systems are essentially networks of dumb pipes. Making these networks smarter is viewed as a means to increase overall system efficiencies.

Technology is the driver behind this dynamic process. The Internet has been about connecting people - but what is needed is a greater emphasis and strategic vision on connecting things. Thanks to Moore's Law (a doubling of capacity every 18 months or so) - chips, sensors, and radio devices have become so small and cheap that they can be embedded virtually anywhere. Today, two-thirds of new products already come with some electronics built in. By 2017 there could be 7 trillion wirelessly connected devices and objects - about 1,000 per person. Sensors and chips will produce huge amounts of data. And IT systems are becoming powerful enough to analyze them in real time and predict how things will evolve. IBM has developed a technology it calls "stream computing." Machines using it can analyze data streams from hundreds of sources, such as surveillance cameras and Wall Street trading desks, summarize the results and make decisions.

Not strictly limited to infrastructure, SIS is also applicable to environmental projects. One example is the SmartBay project at Galway Bay in Ireland. The system draws information from sensors attached to buoys and weather gauges and from text messages from boaters about potentially dangerous floating objects. The system was developed by the Marine Institute ( and Dublin based TechWorks Marine ( The information the new buoys provide, which previously could only be collected by going to sea, will be beamed by radio to the Marine Institute's headquarters at Oranmore. There it will be analyzed and used to guide coastal zone management plans, advice for commercial fisherman, fish farmers, and water users of all kinds.

Look for SIS applications and a movement toward automated sensing, real-time measurement, data integration, modeled decision support, value pricing, and strategic risk management. Advanced water information management could include supply chain optimization, leak management, "smart levees", weather event assimilation, and pumping/energy management.
A video of the SmartBay application can be viewed at -

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Industrial Policy

The words "Industrial Policy" harken back to an era of Lenin and Trotsky. But with climbing unemployment, 10% of all households at risk for foreclosure, an inefficient educational system, eroding pension security - if not "Industrial Policy", then what is needed? America's political system, especially as it has evolved in recent times, almost guarantees an absence of strategic thinking at the federal level. The stark truth is that the United States has no long-term economic strategy - no coherent set of policies to ensure competitiveness over the long haul.

Michael Porter is the Bishop William Lawrence University Professor of the Harvard Business School. Porter is one of the leading authorities on competitive strategy and competitiveness of nations and regions. His undergraduate degree is in aerospace engineering from Princeton University. In an October 30, 2008 BusinessWeek article entitled "Why America Needs an Economic Strategy," Porter writes the following:

We need a strategy supported by the majority to secure America's economic future. Yet Americans hear the same old divisive arguments. Republicans keep repeating simplistic free-market thinking, even though the absence of all regulation makes no sense. Self-reliance is preached as if no transitional safety net is needed. Some Republicans even argue passionately that the country should have no strategy because that would be "industrial policy." Yet the real issue is not picking industry winners and losers but improving the business environment for all American companies, something we cannot do with identifying our top priorities. Overall, Republicans seem to think business can thrive without healthy social conditions.

Democrats, meanwhile, keep talking as if they want to penalize investment and economic success. They defend unions obstructing change in areas like education, cling to cumbersome regulatory approaches, and resist ways to get litigation costs for business in line with other countries. Democrats equivocate on trade in an irreversibly global economy. They seem to think social programs can be achieved only at the expense of business.

To make America competitive, we have to get beyond this thinking. Political leaders, business leaders, and civil society must begin a respectful, fact-based dialogue about our challenges. We need to focus on competitive reality, not defending past policies.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Eight Principles of the Network

The word "network" occupies a central seat in the lexicon of contemporary language and thought. From the emergence of "social networking sites" to the "medical network" of the family physician to the crash of our company's "IT network" to the "transportation network" in your city - - the word has become firmly attached to modern culture and business.

The study of networks is a relatively new discipline or, rather, multidiscipline. It is a hybrid science, combining, among other things, mathematics, physics, engineering, biology, sociology, and economics. At its core is an understanding that we are all connected to a vast network of life. Our natural ecology is a network, the human body is a network, and each of us is part of a social network of interdependent relationships.

The eight principles of the network from Jump Point: How Network Culture is Revolutionizing Business (2008) by author Tom Hayes are as follows:
  1. Networks are made of connected "nodes."
  2. Nodes connect directly to each other.
  3. Some nodes have more connections than others.
  4. The more connected a node is, the more valuable it is.
  5. Information in a network moves like a virus, from node node.
  6. Nodes spread information according to self-interest.
  7. Big networks contain smaller networks.
  8. Networks want to grow; the bigger, the better.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Hypothetical Versus Reality

A father and his son are in the den one night. The son asks his father if he could explain the difference between the hypothetical and reality. The father thinks for a minute. The best place to start is with your mother. Go upstairs and ask her if she would sleep with a complete stranger for $1,000,000. The son does as instructed and goes upstairs and discusses the issue with his mother. He comes back down and informs his father that she would indeed sleep with a stranger for $1,000,000. Good the father says, go ask your sister the same question. He does and gets the very same answer – yes, she would sleep with a stranger for $1,000,000. Finally, the son demands, what does this have to do with the concept of the hypothetical versus reality? First off, the father informed his son, we have shown that the net worth of the household has just hypothetically increased by $2,000,000. The son agreed – what about reality? The father looked at this son – the reality is we just found out we have two hookers in the house.

Life is a constant struggle and movement from the hypothetical to reality. It starts at the moment of birth with the understanding that anything and everything is hypothetically possible. Over a lifetime, the hypothetical gives way to reality. The seven-year old just starting to play baseball enjoys the hypothetical opportunity to play in the major leagues. For the vast majority, the reality of ability, interest, and circumstance changes one’s outlook from 100% hypothetical to 100% reality. Nothing is more hypothetical than birth and nothing is more real than death. What you end up with is a gradual movement from one to the other.

Engineering follows the same path, from the theory of the hypothetical to the reality of the practical. The first semester of engineering coursework is 100% hypothetical – mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, etc. – the hypothetical foundations of engineering. Gradually the coursework moves from the hypothetical to reality. The development of a practicing engineer parallels the same path – less hypothetical and more reality. Over a 60-year career, we should probably think more about this imbalance – where more reality is needed earlier and more hypothetical is needed later. This would especially be true in industries and fields with rapidly changing technology – where retraining and constant introduction of the hypothetical, theory, and new knowledge are critical drivers of success. Changing demographics may also dictate the need for additional “theory training” as the date with 100% reality gets pushed farther into the future.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Decisions, Decisions

One of the key tasks of a manager is to settle six important questions within the context of decision making:
  • What decision needs to be made?
  • When does it have to be made?
  • Who will decide?
  • Who will need to be consulted prior to making the decision?
  • Who will ratify or veto the decision?
  • Who will need to be informed of the decision?

If good decision-making appears complicated, that is because it is and has been for a long time. Ideally, decision-making should occur in the middle ground, between reliance on technical knowledge on the one hand, and on the bruises one has received from having tried to implement and apply such knowledge on the other. To make a decision, if you can't find people with both qualities, you should aim to get the best possible mix of participants available. Ultimately, you are attempting to have the decision worked out and reached at the lowest competent level.

Monday, November 16, 2009

It's the water board stupid!

In the November 13, 2009 issue of Time, writer Stephan Faris addresses climate change with his article, "What If The Water Wins? Holland, master of resisting the sea, may shift strategies in a warmer, wetter world." The article addresses both Dutch technology and master planning. The technology discussion outlines Dutch advances in dams, dikes, locks and gates - engineering the grand barrier. The master planning component recognizes that taller dikes just magnify the consequences of failure. Thus, the Dutch are experimenting with surrendering turf to the water altogether, purposely flooding some areas to protect more vulnerable zones downstream.

But the most telling and important information comes at the end of the article in which Faris notes:

Yet the secret to the Netherlands' success isn't the strength of its barriers. "It looks like science and engineering," says Piet Dircke, an urban-water-management consultant at Arcadis. "But the main lesson to learn from the Dutch is funding." The country is divided into water boards, elected bodies with the ability to levy taxes whose sole responsibility is to provide safety from the waves. First formed in the Middle Ages, the water boards are the country's oldest form of representational government and a major factor in its flood-proofing prowess. "The value of a dike is only seen when it fails, " says Huizinga [Vice Minister for Transport, Public Works and Water Management]. "The water boards mean that there is always the money to maintain them."

That's the significance of Dutch history for the talks in Copenhagen, where the allocation of adaptation funding for the poorest countries is shaping up to be a major point of contention. While the Netherlands can afford to keep its citizens dry, countries like Bangladesh - equally threatened by global warming - simply can't. The World Bank has estimated an annual cost to developing countries of $75 billion to $100 billion to adapt to rising sea levels. But rich countries have been reluctant to commit the funds. In the run up to the talks, the Dutch were among the first to stress the importance of adaption. They, more than anybody else, should know what that will take.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Faceless and Humble

In the November 23, 2009 edition of Fortune, Steve Jobs of Apple was crowned the CEO of the Decade. The article summarizes Jobs and his legend with the following paragraph:

He is the rare businessman with legitimate worldwide celebrity. (His quirks and predilections are such common knowledge that they were knowingly parodied on an episode of The Simpsons.) He pals around with U2's Bono. Consumers who have never picked up an annual report or even a business magazine gush about his design taste, his elegant retail stores, and his outside-the-box approach to advertising. ("Think different," indeed.) It's often noted that he's a showman, a born salesman, a magician who creates a famed reality-distortion field, a tyrannical perfectionist. It's totally accurate, of course, and the descriptions contribute to his legend.

During the same week, The Economist ran an article entitled "The Cult of the Faceless Boss." Bosses that keep their heads down - the faceless CEO versus the imperial boss. The current financial crisis has produced a wave of popular fury about over-paid executives and their unaccountable ways. In this sort of climate it is not just the paranoid, but the faceless, who survive.

But the article points out that "the best ambassadors for business are the outsized figures who changed the world and who feel no need to apologise for themselves or their calling. There is no long-term comparative advantage in being forgettable." As stated in the article:

Facelessness - or at least humility - is also the height of fashion among management consultants and business gurus. Corporate headhunters are helping firms find "humble" bosses. Jim Collins one of America's most popular gurus, argues that the best chief executives ae not flamboyant visionaries but "humble, self-effacing, diligent and resolute souls." Business journalists have taken to producing glowing profiles of self-effacing and self-denying bosses such as Haruka Nishimatsu, the boss of Japan Airlines, who travels to work on the bus and pays himself less than his pilots, and Mike Eskew, the former boss of UPS, who flew coach and shares an administrative assistant with three other people. I can only be a matter of time before somebody writes "The Management Secrets of Uriah Heep": "be umble, be ever so umble."

Yet there is surely a danger of taking all this too far. A low profile is no guarantee against corporate failure, as the former bosses of two companies lauded by Mr. Collins, Fannie Mae and Circuit City, can tell you. In general, the corporate world needs its flamboyant visionaries and raging egomaniacs rather more than its humble leaders and corporate civil servants. Think of the people who have shaped the modern business landscape, and "faceless" and "humble" are not the first two words that come to mind.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The First of Three Women

Rebecca Solnit is the author of ten books, including the recently published book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disasters (2009). In the book, Solnit surveys several disasters over roughly the last century, including the 1906 San Fransisco earthquake, the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. Her central thesis is that "disaster throws us into the temporary utopia of a transformed human nature and society, one that is bolder, freer, less attached and divided than in ordinary times."

Many engineering organizations and professional societies are reinforcing their efforts in the areas of disaster planning, and post-disaster investigations, planning, and engineering. Events such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina have exposed disaster planning and response efforts and issues within segments of our critical infrastructure. Clearly the engineering, construction, and technology components of this are highly important, however another critical part of disasters that engineers should understand are the social and humanistic components. Sort of the "social intelligence" understanding that engineers should have with respect to the disaster topic line.

As Solnit writes with respect to the 1906 San Fransisco earthquake - people opened their homes to strangers or simply gathered in the streets to create improvised rooming houses and cafes. What many written reports emphasize is not the hardship but almost party like atmosphere that come with having survived and then rediscovered a place in the community. The joyful aftermath of a disaster, Solnit writes, "is by its very nature unsustainable and evanescent, but like a lightening flash it illuminates ordinary life, and like lightning it sometimes shatters the old forms."

Solnit argues that evidence and research does not support what is typically seen in Hollywood disaster films. The public almost never panics en masse, let alone runes wild: People tend instead to be calm, clear headed, competent, and surprising altruistic. Indeed, ordinary citizens are not only the first but quite frequently the best responders to disasters. Official efforts can go wrong precisely because they are excessively paternalistic, militaristic, and authoritarian.

Solnit believes these ephemeral utopias raise radical possibilities for social arrangements (What white elites tend to fear more than the disaster - is the social destabilization that they believe will follow. Some of the heavy handed mixtures of racism and fear demonstrated in New Orleans after Katrina get at what Cormac McCarthy wrote in his novel The Road - ". . . in the history of the world it might be that there was more punishment than crime . . ."). But they go largely unappreciated, due in large part to the mainstream medias adherence to preconceived narratives that have more to do with Hollywood Solnit claims, than with actual events. At best, ordinary citizens are depicted as passive victims who linger in the disaster area until they are rescued by the authorities. At worst, they are seen as dangers to themselves and to each other, prone to panic, looting, and violence. Only one thing can head off chaos: swift and decisive action by the police, the military, and authorities.

Dave Eggers also ways in on disaster social networks and individual efforts. In Zeitoun (2009), Eggers tells the true story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the owner of New Orleans based Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor LLC., and his individual and group efforts during the aftermath of Katrina. With the aid of friends and a canoe, he was able to rescue countless people and families. He was latter arrested and jailed by New Orleans authorities on suspicion of terrorist activities. The following passage by Eggers points out some of the issues that Solnit has brought up:

In New Orleans, Zeitoun was invigorated. He and never felt such urgency and purpose. In this first day in his flooded city, he had already assisted in the rescue of five elderly residents. There was a reason, he now knew, that he had remained in the city. He had felt compelled to stay by a power beyond his own reckoning. He was needed.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Organizational Complexity

Organizations are dealing with increasing levels of complexity. From dysfunctional management to burdensome regulations – people and organizations want to understand the impacts of complexity. The current theme of the financial sector is “too big to fail” – the complexity theme associated with some of our larger financial institutions could be “too big to manage.”

Fundamentally there are four basic types of organizational complexity. The first is the dysfunctional. Examples include the duplication of activities due to mergers or reorganizations, and ambiguous or conflicting duties. This type of complexity is simply bad. The second is designed. Complexity for the sake of competitive advantage. The supply-chain and mass-customization of Dell is an example. Complexity becomes part of the business plan. The third is inherent. The difficulty of getting the work done – like open heart surgery. The actual surgery requires time and high levels of skill, but is not complex. The logistics, planning, and insurance forms/processing – that is the complex part of the process. The fourth is imposed. Largely beyond the control of the company – events shaped by industry regulations, non-governmental organizations, and trade unions.

There are three basic strategies for dealing with complexity. The first is reduction. An example of reduction is to simplify the organizational structure to make accountability clear. Review job descriptions and job classification categories might be another. Outsourcing of non-strategic activities could also be considered.

The second is channeling complexity. Some people and groups deal better with complexity than others. You may want to direct certain activities and processes to certain people and groups. Strengthening the central planning function is an example. The central team can create templates to help the different operating units with their planning efforts and assist in preparing other materials for planning and budgeting discussions.

The third is absorbing complexity. Accept it and make it part of the business plan. Absorbing is broader and deeper than channeling – giving a much more widespread group of managers the skills and attitudes they need to work with complexity. What are needed are ambidextrous people that have the ability to keep the business ticking on a daily basis while looking for ways to expand it and improve it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Leadership and the Sponge

Admiral Patrick M. Walsh is the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. He is one of the youngest commanders of the U.S. Fleet in history. Admiral Walsh is a Dallas native and graduate of Jesuit College Preparatory School in north Dallas. Graduating in 1973, he excelled as a student leader, academic honors student, and athlete – clearly representing Jesuit’s theme, “Men for Others.”

The Pacific Fleet’s area of responsibility encompasses about half the Earth’s surface, stretching from the waters off the West Coast of the U.S. to the western border of India and from Antarctica to the North Pole. There are few regions as culturally, socially, economically, and geopolitically diverse as the Asian-Pacific. The 36 nations that comprise the Asia-Pacific region are home to more than 50 percent of the world’s population, 3,000 different languages, several of the world’s largest militaries and five allies with the U.S through mutual defense. Walsh is in command of five aircraft carrier strike groups, 180 ships, 1,500 aircraft, and more than 100,000 sailors, Marines, and civilians.

Admiral Walsh is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. He attended graduate studies in the International Relations curriculum at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, as part of the Admiral Arthur S. Moreau Scholarship Program. Walsh graduated first in his class and received a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy, entered the Doctorate Program with distinction and subsequently received a Ph.D. He is representative of the new breed of high ranking military leaders – like U.S. Central Commander, General David Petraeus, who is a graduate of the United States Military Academy with a master’s degree in public administration from Princeton University and a doctorate in international relations from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton.

Walsh is a naval aviator with the handle “Sponge.’ It was given to him early in his career by fellow officers because he absorbs all the extra jobs that no one wanted. The idea of “absorbing” is critical in the context of leadership. Leaders, like Walsh, must absorb a huge amount of information and insight with the goal of looking deep, focusing on the things that move and change. As Larry Page, co-founder of Google, has pointed out, “If you look at people who have high impact, they have pretty general knowledge. They don’t have a narrowly focused education.” Leaders that can absorb ideas in a holistic manner and across traditional boundaries and barriers. They have both horizontal and vertical thinking and absorption skill sets. Their absorption skills allow for thinking outside the conventional mode that results in a cognitive reframing of what is possible. Leaders like Walsh and Petraeus understand that the quality of any outcome depends on the quality of your strategic thinking. Absorptive leaders realize, “I use all the brains that I have, and all that I can borrow.” Absorptive leaders have an ability to get into listen-only mode - - where listening is about learning. Where absorptive listening never allows asking the usual questions. Both Walsh and Petraeus face an environment and world that is only revealed in quick glances – no sooner known and explained, the event has changed – the known way becomes an impasse. This results in a constant struggle for absorbing. The absorptive and strategic leader must consider all the options – not just the obvious ones – and to retain these in his or her mind. Absorptive leaders have a wide-ranging curiosity and willingness to embrace change combined with an intuitive ability to see and absorb a problem or issue in a larger context and a willingness to rejigger their organizations continually to grapple with ever shifting challenges and circumstances.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Original + Unique = What?

Jeffery Katzenberg, the chief executive of DreamWorks Animation SKG, had the following observations regarding leadership:

In the world today, the most important thing is making people feel secure. We're in a moment when people don't want to take risks, they don't want to gamble. In my business, it you stop being creative and innovative, you're finished.

And so striking this balance, the equation works quite simply like this: To succeed at the high end of the movie business, you must be original and unique. Now if you were putting an equation up on the white board and you wrote "original + unique = what," the answer would have to be "risky." And if you said "risky = what," the answer would be "some failure." If you don't make failure acceptable, you can't have original and unique.

And so in a world that brutally punishes failure, we work so hard to provide for our 2,000 employees the understanding that they are expected to take risks. There will be misses, and it's O.K. We're prepared for it. They're not as good as hits, by the way. But we don't run the enterprise thinking that every simple thing will be a hit. It can't be. That's what I'd call a gravity-defier.

Monday, November 9, 2009


Europe, in particular France, has become the leader in the integration of precision farming with satellite-based intelligence. For farmers, working out the optimal amount of seed, fertilizer, pesticide, and water to scatter on a field can make, or break, the subsequent harvest. Laboratory analysis on a regular basis is costly, many times unavailable, and is not real time (or close to it).

Satellite imaginary can reveal, with surprising precision, the properties of the soil, the quantity of crops being grown, and the levels in those crops of chlorophyll, various mineral, moisture, and other indicators of their quality. If recent forecast weather data are added to the mix, detailed maps can be produced indicating exactly how, where, and when crops would be grown. The service usually costs less than $5 per hectare for a handful of readings a year, and can increase yields by as much as 10%.

Such precision farming using satellite-based intelligence is in its infancy. Even so, it is catching on quickly. Five times a year, for example, a satellite-surveillance service provided by a cereal-growers’ co-operative called Sevepi (based in Dovains, France) e-mails its members a map of their fields, divided into three or four color-coded zones per hectare. For each zone, one of about 50 fertilizer formulas is recommended. On top of this, if the stems of the wheat are tall and rain is expected, an appropriate dose of growth-regulator is recommended for each zone (long fragile stems snap more easily in down pours). Farm vehicles equipped with GPS systems automatically mix and apply the prescribed dose to each area.

RapidEye, a German satellite operator, began selling data in March that will help forecast harvests. The company’s data, which cover both Europe and the Americas, break field productivity down into patches just five meters square. Inexpensive data on the productivity of land is valuable to governments, too. Insurance companies have also shown an interest in the technology – with the focus on studying satellite data with a view to selling crop-insurance policies to governments of countries that might be threatened by famine. Along with crop analysis, RapidEye sees the technology as being valuable in land cover analysis, change detection, infrastructure monitoring, feature identification, and risk management.

More information regarding RapidEye can be found at or updates at

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"You're #%?!&*$ with the magic!"

In 2003, Mel Karmazin made a trip to the Google campus in Mountain View, California. At the time, Karmazin was the CEO of Viacom, which was the world's fourth-largest media company. Ownership ranged from CBS to Paramount Studies to Simon & Schuster. Karmazin's investment bankers had recommended that he should visit Google and meet their two founders.

He met all day with Google founders Larry Page and Sergy Brin. It was an odd setting, Karmazin with his roots in the old world of traditional media and advertising and the two Stanford computer scientist and their world of code and algorithms. Karmazin saw the worlds of media and advertising as mystery - "You buy a commercial in the Super Bowl, and you're going to pay two and one-half million dollars for the spot. I have no idea if its going to work. You pay your money, you take your chances." Page and Brin saw the same world differently - one of less mystery, and more metrics. As Page and Brin relayed to Karmazin - "Our business is highly measurable. We know that if you spend X dollars on ads, you'll get Y dollars in revenues per industry, per customer." At the end of this single day and visit, Karmazin had "heard the chimes at midnight." He had seen the threats to his industry, his company, his world and culture. He saw the future and offered his infamous protest to the two scientists, "You're #%?!&"$ with the magic!"

We need more Pages and Brins - especially in the health care industry. Although some form of health will probably pass this year, consider the outline of the future offered in the November 8, 2009 issue of The New York Times Magazine in the article, If Health Care Is Going To Change, His Ideas Will Change It: Dr. Brent James Will Make It Better:

The health care debate of 2009 had so many moving parts that it has sometimes seemed impossible to follow. The crisis behind the debate, though, is about one thing above all: the scattershot nature of American medicine. The fee-for-service payment system - combined with our own instincts as patients - encourage ever more testing and treatments. We're not sure which ones make a difference, but we keep on getting them, and cost keep rising. Millions of people more have incomes pinched by rising insurance premiums. Medicare is on a long-term path to insolvency. The American health care system is vastly more expensive than any other country's. but our results are not vastly better.

Any bill that Congress passes this year is unlikely to fix these problems. The lobbying groups for drug companies, device makers, insurers, doctors and hospitals have succeed, so far, in keeping big, systemic changes out of the bills. And yet the modern history of medicine - nonetheless offers reason for optimism. Medicine had changed before, after all. When it did, government policy played a role. But much of the impetus came from inside the profession. Doctors helped change other doctors.

What is truly needed at this point in time is to have the medical version of Page and Brin meet with insurance executives and leaders in the health care industries. Something fundamental needs to be done - less mystery and more metric - where people start protesting "You're #%?!&"$ with the magic!" Engineering and engineers have a critical role to play in this transformation of medical services and health care. We need to remember that engineering is about pushing the envelope - we need to assume and remember our mission is to disrupt traditional ways of doing things. We have a long and storied history of #%?!&"$ with other peoples' magic.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Three Kinds Of Scenes

From Vitruvius, De Architectura, on the theater, c. 27 B.C. -

"There are three kinds of scenes, one called the tragic, second the comic, third the satyric. Their decorations are different and unalike each other in scheme. Tragic scenes are delineated with columns, pediments, statues, and other objects suited to kings; comic scenes exhibit private dwellings with balconies and views representing rows of windows, after the manner of ordinary dwellings; satyric scenes are decorated with trees, caverns, mountains and other rustic objects delineated in landscape style."

Business theater can combine scenes from both the tragic and comic. As described by Andew Ross Sorkin in his book Too Big to Fail: The inside story of how Wall Street and Washington fought to save the financial system and themselves (2009) - - defrocked Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, John Thain, of Merrill Lynch preferred his business theater to look like the following:

Thain hired celebrity interior decorator Michael S. Smith (whose clients included Steven Spielberg and Dustin Hoffman) to renovate his office, the adjoining conference space, and the reception area, including repainting, carpentry, and electrical work. Thain didn't pay much attention to the details, focusing mainly on the fact that Smith had happily brought over his favorite desk from his old office at the NYSE. But Smith billed the firm $800,000 for his services and submitted an itemized list of goods that included an $87,000 area rug, a $68,000 credenza, and a $35,115 commode. The executives in the billing department who cut the checks, however, were so aghast at such profligacy that they made copies of the receipts, which they would later used against him.

Business theater at its best - set design by Vitruvius and a play of Shakespearean quality.

Cowboy Boots and the Conductor

I had the opportunity to attend a performance of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra last night. The performance are held in the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, located in the Dallas Arts District. Engineering, technology based companies, and individual engineers have an impress record of supporting the arts in Dallas. Examples include Texas Instruments and their support through the Texas Instruments Classical Series. Other important sponsors include Exxon Mobil, AT&T, Cecil and Ida Green Youth Concert Series Endowment, and Ross Perot.

The conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is Jaap van Zweden. Since van Zweden's debut, the DSO has received consistent praise for stunning interpretations of works including Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Verdi Requiem, Mahler's Symphony No. 5 and many more. His other titled positions include music director of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Kamer Filharmonic (2005-2013). I was able to attend a private reception for van Zweden following the performance. He had changed into jeans and cowboy boots - very impressive!

Provided below is the "Golden Rules for Audiences." The list fits well with respect to concerts, movies, theatrical performances, or the corporate presentation:
  1. Go easy with the atomizer; many people are highly allergic to perfume and cologne.

  2. If you bring a child, make sure etiquette is part of the experience. Children love learning new things.

  3. Unwrap all candies and cough drops before the concert begins.

  4. Make sure cell phones, beepers, and watch alarms are off. And don't jangle the bangles.

  5. The overture is part of the performance. Please cease talking at this point.

  6. Note to lovebirds: When you lean your heads together, you block the view of the person behind you. Leaning forward also blocks the view.

  7. Thou shalt not talk, or hum, or sing along, or beat time with a body part.

  8. Force yourself to wait for a pause or intermission before rifling through a purse, backpack, or shopping bag.

  9. Yes, the parking lot gets busy and public transportation is tricky, but leaving while the concert is in progress is discourteous.

  10. The old standby: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Your Phone In 2012 Meets AR

The New York Times came up with their predictions regarding what mobile phone technology might resemble in 2012. The big thing is mobile phones may look like a current version of your smart phone – but they will be much more computer than phone. Look for 8-inch fold-out screens, a big virtual keyboard for easy text input, numerous sensors to detect your surroundings (detect what?), and software smart enough to anticipate your needs and sharp enough to respond to conversational commands. Go to to look at the virtual keyboard technology.

Augmented reality (AR) also might be an addition to the 2012 version of your phone. Augmented reality really starts with the understanding that virtual reality (VR) never quite lived up to the hype. What was always missing was a convincing sense of immersion. Virtual reality doesn’t feel like reality.

Rather than trying to create an entirely simulated environment, AR starts with reality itself and then augments it. Fundamentally you are overlaying digital information on top of the real world. Using a display, such as the screen of a mobile phone, you see a live view of the world around you – but with digital annotations, graphics, and other information superimposed upon it. The data can be as simple as the names of the mountains visible from a high peak, or the names of the buildings visible on a city skyline. At a historical site, AR could superimpose images showing how buildings used to look. On a busy street, AR could help you choose a restaurant: wave your phone around and read the reviews that pop up. In essence, AR provides a way to blend the wealth of data available online with the physical world - the bridge between real and virtual.

The driving technology behind some of this is the emergence of mobile phones equipped with GPS functions, tilt sensors, cameras, fast Internet connectivity, and crucially a digital compass. The combination of all these functional elements enables a handset to determine where it is, its orientation relative to the ground, and which direction it is being pointed in. The camera allows it to see the world, and the wireless Internet link allows it to retrieve information relating to its surroundings, which is combined with a live view from the camera and displayed on the screen.

A good example of AR can be viewed at -

If in 2012, you still drop your mobile phone/computer/sensor assistant into the toilet - - Best Buy’s Geek Squad suggests a bowl of uncooked rice. First, take out the battery and memory card. Then, leave the back of the phone off so the rice can get into the small places. For best results, leave the phone under the rice for several hours. Then make sure all the rice is out of the cell phone. Next use a hair dryer on a cool setting to ensure there is no water left before putting the battery back in.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Abundance Wins

The story of the 20th century is extraordinary social and economic change driven by abundance. Information technology is a perfect example – computers made information abundant. Just as water will always flow downhill, economics flow toward abundance. Products that can become commoditized and cheap tend to do so, and so companies seeking profits move upstream in search of scarcities. Where abundance drives the cost of something to the floor, value shits to adjacent levels.

Of the top 100 companies in the Fortune 500, only 32 make things you can hold. The other 68 traffic mostly in ideas, not resource processing. Don’t get me wrong – there’s still a lot of money in commodities, but the highest profit margins are usually found where gray matter has been added to things. A few decades ago, the most value was in manufacturing. Then globalization rendered manufacturing a commodity, and the price fell. So the value moved to things that were not (yet) commodities, further away from hand-eye coordination and closer to brain-mouth coordination. Today’s knowledge workers are yesterday’s factory workers moving upstream in search of scarcity.

Chris Anderson, in his book Free: The Future of a Radical Price (2009) discusses this further with the following commentary:

These days that scarcity is what former U.S. labor secretary Robert Reich called “symbolic analysis,” the combination of knowledge, skills, and abstract thinking that defines an effective knowledge worker. The constant challenge is to figure out how best to divide labor between people and computers, and that line is always moving.

As computers are taught to do a human job (like stock trading), the price of that job drops close to zero, and the displaced humans either learn to do something more challenging or they don’t. The first group typically gets paid more than they used to and the second group gets paid less. The first is the opportunity that comes with industries moving toward abundance; the second is the cost. As a society, our job is to move toward abundance; the second is cost. As a society, our job is to try to make the first group bigger than the second.

Abundance thinking is not only discovering what will become cheaper, but also looking for what will become more valuable as a result of that shift, and moving to that. Its engine of growth, something we’ve been riding since even before David Ricardo defined the “comparative advantage” of one country over another in the eighteenth century. Yesterday’s abundance consisted of products from another country with more plentiful resources or cheaper labor. Today’s also consists of products from the land of silicon and glass threads.

Abundance wins and some engineers and engineering organizations will be losers. It is a zero-sum game – a participant’s grain is exactly balanced by losses of another participant. Abundance will always be on the winning side of the equation. As for engineering – we are like the wild salmon. We are in a constant struggle to keep moving upstream away from abundance and toward scarcity. This is fundamentally about the forced movement from the commoditization of abundance to the scarcity of new ideas, innovation, new attitudes about old problems, etc. The Brain-Mouth Era – where lifelong learning, multidisciplinary education, and constant re-training make for strong swimming salmon on the long and difficult journey upstream.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Jargon And Buzz Words

Engineering knowledge is becoming increasingly segmented and specialized. Because of this, so does the language. Jargon is about efficiency - imagine the great blot of words it would take to explain highly specialized material to a non-specialized audience. But if the audience shares that certain specially, writers shouldn't even try - that audience knows the terms and expects them.

Take a small and simple bit of jargon - signage. To someone involved in, say, a city transportation department, that little word carries big meaning. It means the whole subject of signs: deciding where they go, how they should look, what they should say, ordering them, paying for them, installing them. A lay person might ask: Is that even a word? And the answer is yes. It is a word to the specialist who understands it, and it's an exceptionally useful and meaningful word - a brief way to say much.

That's good jargon - a specialized term for a similarly specialized audience. The challenge for the engineer is imparting specialized knowledge and insights to the rest of the world. That means translating good jargon into plain English for a lay audience. The following passage, taken from an employee newspaper brief, shows what happens when specialized jargon is not translated:

Recent enhancements to the Voluntary Personal Accident Insurance and Accidental Death and Dismemberment plans include increased coverage for paraplegia and hemiplegia insurance and the addition of spouse vocational training benefits and double benefits for dismembered children.

The insurance jargon would be OK if the readers were insurance specialists rather than lay readers. The writer, from the company's human resources department, has probably been exposed to this sort of language so much that it sounds like English to him or her. But it doesn't to others. How might this passage have been written with the lay reader in mind:

The company has increased insurance for accident victims. The new plan increases benefits for employees who suffer paralysis of both legs or of one side of the body as a result of an accident. It also provides for spouse training and doubles benefits for children who lose a limb.

A buzz word is a word that taken alone might be both clear and meaningful but slips into meaningless "buzz" when accompanied by other buzz words. The phrasing is usually noun heavy, as in "process capability results." Try this little game with buzz word phrases. Put together something that sounds like it means something - "system remediation integration." Then mix up the same words: "remediation integration system" or "integration system remediation." Each combination will be equally highfalutin - and equally meaningless.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Peak Roads

Sustainability can be confusing. The messages and discussions can range from Mad Max ("Their leaders talked and talked and talked. But nothing could stem the avalanche. The thundering machines sputtered and stopped. The cities exploded. A whirlwind of looting, a firestorm of fear.") to Alice Waters ("What about her tireless advocacy for sustainable farming? It has changed the way we think about food, and how we eat.") to Al Gore ("First and foremost we need to generate investment returns for our clients. We believe we have already accomplished the goal of integrating sustainability research with fundamental equity analysis in the design of our investment process, but the proof, as always is in the pudding.")

Engineering has a tendency to only focus on the "How" questions of an issue or debate, while ignoring the critical who, what, and why components of an argument and discussion. Want to add a green roof - we can show you the how. Want to debate and discussion the core issues of a critical public policy position - we pass on that one. With our fixations on the how, we are missing other important trends and issues. The infancy stage of sustainability is still about looking at "why" and in some corners making remarkable leaps to the "what" that the engineering community needs to fully understand and appreciate.

Consider the outlook of Bryn Davidson, the executive director of the Dynamic Cities Project, a Vancouver-based nonprofit that helps communities adapt to the challenges of oil depletion and climate change. He writes the following:

Ultimately, sustainability means coming to terms with natural biophysical limits. So we have to get past the idea of planning around extrapolation of past trends. The future may be different than the past is the first thing that we need to come to terms with. This is where the idea of peak roads comes in: If we can say to ourselves, "We have as much road capacity today as we will ever need," then we can start to ask what that means in terms of how we should actually start designing our cities. This shouldn't be thought of as a default "anti-roads" statement. But our numerical models show that we simply may not have enough fuel (and biofuel, and electric cars) to use more road capacity that what we have today.

Peak oil meets peak roads. The path of "getting better versus getting bigger." Mad Max meets Alice Waters meets Al Gore meets Bryn Davidson. I am not sure this philosophy was in the book when the engineering community started reading, "Sustainability: Good for Us and Society." It is important we follow all the debates and discussions with respect to the formulation of public policy associated with sustainability. The engineering profession must always be on guard to the potential damage that can be done by Utopian fixers ("Utopia is not a place one can live."). Like they say "the proof, as always, is in the pudding."

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Leadership And Negative Entropy

Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard's president, outlines the most important leadership lesson that she has learned:

The most important leadership lessons that I have learned have to do with understanding the context in which you are leading. Universities have enormously distributed authority and many different sorts of constituencies, all of whom have a stake in that institution. You're always interacting with them learning from them and directing your energies toward helping pull and push them in the direction you wish to move.

I spend a huge amount of time reaching out to people, either literally or digitally, and with alumni networks all over the world, so that I can connect. Leadership by walking around - that's a digital space now, it's virtual space. An enormous amount of my job is listening to people, to understand where they are, how they see the world so that I can understand how to mobilize their understanding of themselves in service of the institutional priorities.

A component of leadership is related to entropy. That's the idea that all things run down, that order is inevitably lost. But if entropy exists, so does its opposite. It is possible to create order. It is possible to take things to a higher state. It is called negative entropy.

An example of negative entropy is connectivity. The connectivity potential is illustrated with the telephone network. Building transferable knowledge and connectivity - negative entropy - is what humans are doing. And the information potential of a network grows faster than the number of connections. It grows exponentially with the number of combinations. Robert Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet, suggested that the value of a network was the square of the number of connections. We are only two years away from having three billion human beings connected to the Internet. Square three billion - it's a big number - making a large network staggeringly valuable.

By "walking around" the digital landscape, Dr. Faust is fundamentally attempting to create negative entropy.