Vol. 1 | #7 | 07.13.18

1When Creativity Wants to Drive
There is a stream of thought out there (I don’t think it’s coalesced enough yet to call it a “school of thought”) that extols the virtues of studying improv comedy as a means of growing one’s business management skill. The reason, of course, is creativity, which conventional wisdom in business recognizes is vital to business success.

And yet, most in business still don’t really get creativity or how it works. Here is but one example from some of the smartest business strategists at McKinsey & Co.: a 4-point plan for management practices “associated with creativity and innovation.” Well intentioned it may be, but this is like trying to measure artistic creativity by surveying the size of famous paintings and the amount of oil and strokes used.

The secret to being creative can’t be gleaned from data analysis done on surveys of business executives. Creativity is done by creative people thinking creatively. If you want know how it’s done, listen to comedians, song writers, and artists. That’s just what author and artist Austin Kleon is providing to the rest of us with his post featuring the thoughts of, among others, comedic legends Jerry Seinfeld and Dave Chappelle.

2“Within two days, the baby had a normal heart…”
This story about a new advancement in medical science is simply breathtaking. In short: surgeons remove a scrap of healthy tissue from the patient, spin it through a blender and then a centrifuge to separate the mitochondria from the cells of the tissue, load up about a billion of said mitochondria into a syringe, inject it into the dead or dying heart tissue of an infant suffering from heart defects … and watch as the heart returns to normal.

My favorite aspect of this story was in reading how the idea came about.

Of course it did. So many of the great ideas do.

3The Design Genius of Railway Maps
I found this article about the graphic design work behind railway maps and their use in advertising to be doubly timely and interesting.

First: earlier this week, my family spent an afternoon experiencing travel aboard an old railroad car whose seats were nearly 100 years old. We weren’t traveling anywhere, though. It was simply a 90 minute there-and-back ride on the historic railroad of local significance: the Lebanon Mason Monroe Railroad.

Second: it reminds once again about how thoughtful, purposeful design thinking is critical to visually displaying information. Graphical information is always a representation of an abstraction, and it is there that the power of design work is needed the most.

Communicating abstraction for ease of understanding is an intentional act. The effective communicator/designer understands when to aim for more realism and less abstraction, and when to do the opposite. This is as true for London Underground maps (1933 version | current version) as it is charts, graphs and the Excel spreadsheets that feed them. For a great resource on the latter, check out the work of Ann K. Emery.

4Fire Explained
Here is everything you could possibly need or want to know about the science and technique behind a successful campfire. Getting a good fire going is for me what golf is to others. Most of the time, it is a frustrating, emasculating exhibition of failure. But, every once in awhile, I stumble my way into a roaring pyre. In those rare instances, I turn into Tom Hanks on a deserted beach with utterly no shame whatsoever.

Those who do not understand fire are less apt to enjoy it properly.


5Taking a Picture of Your IQ
There are many people in positions of leadership and power who think IQ holds great value in predicting performance and competence. Per scientists at Caltech, that information can now be uncovered through the use of an fMRI and an interpretive algorithm that turns bloodflow patterns into an approximation of intellectual horsepower.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of IQ obsession and love Stephen Hawking’s take on it: “People who boast about their IQ are losers.” There are others who think otherwise. If this technology proves true (it’s very early), here’s hoping that the ease of obtaining a measurement doesn’t further mechanize our way of assessing people. The last thing we need to do is turn intelligence and IQ assessments into the mental version of the NFL’s obsession with 40-yard-dash times.

If you’ve ever wanted to better understand what IQ scores actually measure — and what “intelligence” means (or doesn’t) — this Q&A in Scientific American is for you.

Vol. 1 | #6 | 07.06.18

1Quarterly Earnings Guidance Needs to Die
Every three months, the leaders of public companies lock eyes with the investment analysts of Wall St. and dance the tango of the “quarterly earnings guidance.” In theory, this practice is corporate transparency in action, as companies bare their books to investors — reporting both how they performed over the previous three months, and forecasting what investors can expect in the near future. In practice, this theory ignores the distorting effect on corporate governance that such a short-term focus inevitably creates.

Fortunately, the days of this practice being the norm are already over {less than a third of public companies do it). A growing chorus of corporate leaders are making their voices heard on behalf of the obligation to create long-term value and include the interests of both employees and the general public beyond just “shareholder value” in making business decisions.

Here’s an excellent read on the topic by the recently departed Lynn Stout, Professor of Business and Corporate Law at Cornell University:

2R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means to Me
If you’re interested in cultivating a powerful culture of engaged people, you cannot ignore the role of respect and how it is communicated by leaders and felt by employees. This article digs into respect, breaking it into two types that offer an interesting way to think about it:

Owed respect is accorded equally to all members of a work group or an organization; it meets the universal need to feel included. … Earned respect recognizes individual employees who display valued qualities or behaviors. It distinguishes employees who have exceeded expectations and, particularly in knowledge work settings, affirms that each employee has unique strengths and talents. Earned respect meets the need to be valued for doing good work.”

Get this stuff wrong, and you’ll likely find the Queen of Soul‘s words come to life:

you might walk in (respect, just a little bit)
And find out I’m gone (just a little bit)
I got to have (just a little bit)
A little respect (just a little bit)

3Origami and Soft Robotics
Researchers with the Air Force Research Lab up the road at Wright-Patterson AFB are working on developing a way for a “soft robot” to move, store and transmit information without using electricity at all. Instead of power coursing through electrical circuits, this research uses controlled humidity and the ancient Japanese principles of origami to manipulate sheets of polypropelene.

4Blue Light, Red Light
Stop and think of the future for a moment. Do you see an image in your head of what it looks like? Now, here’s the question: is it bathed in the hues of blue light, or the amber tones of red/orange light? Chances are, the answer is blue, and that’s largely due to the fact that blue light is what characterizes technology in the here and now. This article not only examines the detrimental effects of constantly subjecting our rods and cones to the blue light of tech, but how pop culture has influenced the shift in our imaginations to blue (from the red/orange reality).

Also, for your listening pleasure and as an exhibition of how my brain’s idea-association engine works, here’s what came to my mind as I read this piece. And yes, I switched my Amazon Music player to “more like this” while I worked thereafter.

5Why Google Has Won the Map Race
For sheer serendipitous reading enjoyment this week, I’ve saved the best for last. That is, if you enjoy a geeky investigation behind the scenes of a product you likely use quite regularly: Google Maps. The level of effort and attention to detail Google has put into its free-to-use mapping app is staggering. On a meta-level, the author put that same level of effort and attention to detail into the research and illustration of this piece. His work is a glorious example of the kind of excellence and generosity I wrote about last week in Forbes.

Vol. 1 | #5 | 06.29.18

1How eBay Shaped the Internet
Over the course of the 23+ years that eBay has been a thing (including its original incarnation as AuctionWeb), I can recall buying one thing from the site. It was a memorabilia poster of some kind (I can’t remember anything more than that) back when I was in law school. The mechanism of scoring great deals on hard to find items through winning an auction never caught on with me. Nevertheless, every time I rate my Uber driver or check user reviews of a restaurant on Yelp, I’m enjoying the fruits of the forest eBay planted.

I confess to being surprised to learn that eBay is still an online retailing juggernaut, ranking #4 among online marketplace sites and boasting a market cap of over $35 billion. Not bad for a tech dinosaur most associated with the ridiculousness of the Beanie Baby mania of the 1990’s — classically illustrated by the divorced couple manually dividing their Beanie Baby collection on the floor of divorce court.

2Speaking of Insane Mania …
There is buying a ticket for the Bitcoin roller coaster, and then there is what these “investors” (gamblers is what Warren Buffet calls them) are doing. The list of security measures employed by bitcoin holding firm Xapo reads like something from a James Bond villain’s lair wish list: servers completely independent of the internet, behind massive vault doors and guarded by armed personnel in underground bunkers on multiple continents with “fingerprint scanners … equipped with a pulse reader to prevent amputated hands from being used.” The only thing missing from this scenario is … you guessed it …

3Childhood Virus Linked to Alzheimer’s?
This isn’t the first time scientists have claimed that microbes (whether viral or bacterial in nature) may be related to the mysterious cause of this vicious disease. What is new is the virus being linked. Previous studies have focused on the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV1). This new study has identified two different herpes viruses — HHV-6) and HHV-7 — which are the cause of the common childhood illness roseola. Even more interesting than the viruses identified are the way researches did so – by examining the brain tissue donated by the families of people who died from Alzheimer’s.

This is just another reminder of how our own brains are the real uncharted “final frontier.” We know so little about how they work. The depth of our ignorance becomes more exposed on a seemingly daily basis by tragic stories like this one.

4Why Edward Tufte Is Wrong … About PowerPoint
Last month I drove nine hours to Princeton, NJ, to see Edward Tufte speak. He’s been called the “da Vinci of Data” and the “Galileo of Graphs,” and his books are as much works of art in themselves as they are instructive resources for how to use design principles in making quantitative data come alive visually. His thesis is simple: how we think about data should shape how we display it, because how we display data will shape how others think about it. Tufte’s analysis of how the data display choices contributed to the fatal decision to launch the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986 is masterful.

Those things aside, the author of this article is right: Tufte’s railings against PowerPoint as a tool are misplaced. Yes, the default stylistic settings are almost always a poor way to display information, but that is easily corrected by some effort and thought by the user … the very things Tufte’s work encourages. They are easily corrected for the very reason that PowerPoint is a remarkably flexible platform on which to design information displays, enabling users to combine a variety of data formats into an end product that is limited only by the user’s imagination.

5Panopticon for Profit
Bridgewater Associates is the largest hedge fund in the world, with over $160 billion under its management. In the last year, it’s founder Ray Dalio, stepped back from its day to day operations and has been spreading the message of his Principles. Dalio’s book of over 200 rules currently sits at #1 (audiobook), #2 (hardcover), and #5 (Kindle) on Amazon’s list of Best Sellers in Business Management. Dalio’s rules are the basis for how BA operates its “meritocracy” built around a culture of what it calls “radical transparency.”

The firm has been working to build these rules into an algorithm that automates much of the firm’s operational decision making. Given the complaints of some as to how the Dalio Way ends up treating its own people, what could possibly go wrong?

Vol. 1 | #4 | 06.22.18

1Dyson on Vacuums, Electric Cars, and “Air Knives”
For all the press and celebrity Silicon Valley tech CEO’s garner as inventors of new technologies, it amazes me that Sir James Dyson remains comparatively hidden in relative obscurity (see below). The engineer whose namesake company is revolutionizing how electricity and air interact in productive ways has far more tricks up his inventive sleeve than just a new take on the vacuum. From blade-less fans to electric cars (!) to turning “air knives” into material-free gates/doors, Dyson is a modern day Edison. Rather than the kind of inventiveness that turns data into dollars through a smartphone app, Dyson continues to use mechanical engineering to invent physical things that make aspects of life actually better.

2CEO’s Facing the Music
The first CEO to face a criminal indictment this past week was Theranos founder and CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. The news is hardly surprising given both the scale of the investor fraud Holmes and her boyfriend/COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani pulled off — over $700 million in funding raised — as well as the potentially life-endangering fraud perpetrated on the patients and doctors who used Theranos’ now invalidated blood tests. As if that wasn’t enough, Holmes had made a habit of hoodwinking more than a few politically powerful players, whether as investors, board members, or as public relations props.

Three days later, it was Rupert Stadler’s turn, as the first criminal shoe to drop in the Volkswagen diesel-emissions cheating scandal fell on the CEO of Audi, the German luxury car maker owned by VW. Unlike Theranos’ Holmes, Stadler was actually arrested and remains behind bars, but not for acts associated with the cheating. Rather, Munich prosecutors allege that Stadler’s detention was necessary to prevent him from exerting improper influence on witnesses as the scandal is still being investigated.

It will be interesting to see if these criminal charges stick and result in long-term prison time, something that has eluded everyone involved in the 2008 financial meltdown and hasn’t gone unnoticed.

3Is the Alexa Prize Doomed to Failure?
The rules for Amazon’s now annual contest are pretty straightforward: “just create a chatbot using Alexa that can talk to a human for 20 minutes without messing up, and you get a $1.5 million prize (with $2 million in other grants and prizes).” This article is not only an interesting look into the challenges of AI-assistant programming and machine learning. It is also a remarkable mirror reflecting just how amazing the human brain is, with it’s ability to organically learn all the rules (hard, soft, unwritten) of speech and deliver it endlessly in an engaging way before it can do basic addition.

4Reading vs Audiobooks vs Animation
Speaking of the brains of kids, this NPR article highlights a new study coming out of my own backyard down at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. By using fMRI scans of children at around four years old, researchers mapped how engaged the various centers of the brain are when presented with stories in one of three formats: audio only, a storybook with illustrated pages and an audio voiceover, and an animated cartoon.

The most interesting part of this isn’t in the conclusion of which medium is best (it should be obvious), but why. As my professional educator/reading expert Wife has explained many times before, there are many layers of skills that are developed well below the surface as a child is passively sitting on a parent’s lap, listening to a story. These skills are necessary for not just reading and comprehension, but also language development and critical thinking. By reading to your young kids on a regular basis, you are doing cognitive programming work that the Alexa Prize teams can only dream of!

5Blockchain Uses Beyond Bitcoin
When most people hear the word “blockchain,” eyes either glaze over or they simulate the rotating wheels of a casino slot machine. There are a lot of explainers out there attempting to clarify the benefits of blockchain, but such conversations inevitably move from how the technology works (distributed ledger, etc) to crytocurrencies like Bitcoin, and end with some vague references to sectors that could benefit from the technology.

A recent study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business aims to more clearly lay out just how this hard-to-grasp technology can actually impact things like foreign aid delivery and medical record portability and protection. I was dumbfounded to read that the state of Montana (!) pioneered putting blockchain technology to use as the means for voters to cast absentee ballots in the 2016 election. Meanwhile, down in Texas, the City of Austin is using blockchain technology in its delivery of social services to its homeless population. Who would’ve guessed that cowboy country would be the forefront of the blockchain implementation revolution?

Vol. 1 | #3 | 06.15.18

1Lemonade – the Elixir of Freedom
On a flight last week, I sat across the aisle from a young couple and their toddler-aged son. The little boy was horizontal in his Mommy’s lap and blissfully sleeping as we backed away from the jetway. Blissfully asleep, that is, until the flight attendant arrived to tell the couple that their child needed to be sitting upright in his own seat for takeoff. After a second instruction minutes later, the Dad responded back with an exasperated “are you serious?” — a response anyone who has had to fly with a non-sleeping toddler can understand. The flight attendant’s response was classic bureaucratese: “Sorry. FAA regulations.” The only thing missing from this substitution of judgment with blind rule-following was a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

I was reminded of this while reading about the latest child-operated lemonade stand to get shut down for failure to have a government-issued permit. Add this one to the long list of permit and zoning rules being used to crack down on 1st graders slinging summer refreshment at a card table for mere coins. But now, kids no longer have to resign themselves to surrendering their lemon-shaded entrepreneurial dreams. In a new video ad campaign, the makers of Country-Time Lemonade have pledged to pay the fines and permit costs of any kid needing the assistance. To put “Big Lemonade’s” team of lawyers and pocketbook to work for you, visit https://www.countrytimelegalade.com/.

The Simpsons - Lemonade Stand

(After writing this and saving it to draft, my daughter and I came across a lemonade stand in a neighborhood near our house. The two little girls running it had an interesting pricing plan: $0.25 for half a cup, $1.00 for a full cup, and FREE if you mixed both lemonade and black cherry flavors. We had the black cherry, which was a bit on the sweet side. 😬 Well worth the $2 regardless. Note the umbrella and the storm clouds behind – these girls were ready to brave the elements! I believe the proper term for a startup operation like this is adorbs.)

2Quit Idolizing Tech Founders
Actually, the wisdom from this Wall Street Journal piece is hardly limited to the tech space. Regardless of the economic sector or organizational mission, turning people into larger-than-life celebrities is a weird human tendency that amplifies the risk of bad outcomes while focusing outsized rewards onto a discrete few. In the words of Jim Collins, author of leadership classics Good to Great and Great by Choice: “There is perhaps no more corrosive trend to the health of our organizations than the rise of the celebrity CEO, the rock-star leader whose deepest ambition is first and foremost self-centric.” Far away from Silicon Valley, this is something members of the Southern Baptist Convention agonizingly have been wrestling with for the past few months.

3The Problem with Complex Systems
Recently I had a problem with the password filing app I use. For reasons I still haven’t figured out, some of my shared folders — “Family Finances” — weren’t showing up in the app. Yes, all of my banking and financial accounts were perfectly safe due to the nearly unbreakable 20-digit passwords featuring letters, numbers, characters and both upper and lower cases. Unfortunately, those accounts were also perfectly inaccessible to me since there’s no way an actual human being (save memory athletes) could remember them. I spent a couple of days getting the issue resolved with the app maker, after which I was finally able to deposit a check via my phone.

As the Security/Functionality/Usability triangle illustrates, the more complex a system becomes (whether in the pursuit of added functionality or more stringent security), the less usable it becomes. For example, last week it was revealed that the background checks needed to screen applications for concealed carry permits in Florida had gone undone for over a year. The reason? — the official assigned to the task couldn’t successfully log into the system. A complex system of applications, information systems, cross-checking databases, and documentation all rendered useless because of a single person who couldn’t get past the login screen and didn’t pursue getting it resolved. The full Inspector General’s report can be viewed here.

Dilbert cartoon

4Monopoly Is the Likely Future of Autonomous Vehicles
This Economist article provides an interesting look at how the ratcheting nature of artificial intelligence (“AI”) learning will shape the marketplace of autonomous vehicles (“AV’s”). There’s nothing inherent about a car and how it is designed, manufactured, and improved that makes a drift towards a single winner monopoly likely. However, the same cannot be said for the software and data sets needed to make those cars reliably drive themselves. And where there’s a market geared toward monopoly, strict government regulation and control won’t be far behind. It’s anyone’s guess whether that control will work enable innovation while protecting consumer interests (as intended – think Microsoft’s antitrust saga of the 1990’s), or if it will instead seek to kill innovation in order to protect the interests of politically connected groups in protecting the status quo (as perverted – think the legacy taxi cab industry vs Uber/Lyft or car dealer associations vs Tesla).

5The Article That Made Anthony Bourdain
Not more than an hour after last week’s newsletter went out featuring the news of the death of Kate Spade, the world of taste and celebrity was shocked yet again by the news of yet another high-profile death by suicide. This time, the victim of suicide’s lies was renowned chef, author, and tv show host Anthony Bourdain. He was 61 years old.

I’ve never watched a single episode of any of Bourdain’s shows, and I’ve never read any his books. However, I saw a video of him telling the remarkable story of how he got his break from writing an article about the insider’s view of the world of the restaurant kitchen. At 44 yrs old, he sent it to The New Yorker “out of alcohol fueled hubris and on the insistence of my mom” with zero expectation of anything happening. And then everything happened. After reading that article from 1999 myself, Bourdain’s best-seller Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly is on its way from Amazon to my bedside reading list shortly.