Against the Gods

Peter L. Bernstein wrote “Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk” in the late 1990s, well before the financial meltdown of 2008 or the dot come bubble burst a few years later. The book itself is a good refresher of the history of mathematics and provides a reasonably entertaining and well written history of risk.  Before getting to the book though, a quick detour about Bernstein himself.

A Life Well Lived

Bernstein died in 2009 at the age of 90.  Over those nine decades he was born into relative wealth, served as an officer in World War II, worked for the US federal government, taught university, took over his father’s investment business, sold the business for a tidy sum, wrote ten books – 3 in his late 80’s and became a respected academic.  WHEW

For anyone of us, a few of the above accomplishments in our lifetime would be gratifying (including making it to 90) let alone the number he accomplished.  In other words, Bernstein can be said to have had a life well lived.

The Good News from the Gods

Some of the reviews on have critiqued Bernstein’s writing style.  It is not the most elegant I have ever read but it was reasonably engaging and not too technical.  He takes a chronological approach to risk but this is really on the mathematics of risk.

He notes the restrictions early western mathematicians had including the Roman numeric system, the enlightenment and renaissance (to get beyond the notion that all things are pre-ordained by God), bookkeeping, forecasting, algebra and an unfinished game of chance.

To this last point, the question was how best to divide up the winnings of a game with a fixed number of iterations of the game that was partially played.  This question spurred the mathematics to ask the question about probabilities and the future.  Risk management was born.

From the renaissance, Bernstein takes us through the development of more advanced mathematics, game theory and then finally the rise of the Quants in computerized trading.

In other words, the book is a good and reasonably accessible refresher on the history of mathematics and specifically the development of statistics and financial mathematics.  Bernstein does explore some of the human side of risk.  For example he discusses those old favorites of behavioral economics: loss aversion, regression to the mean / Prospect Theory, ambiguity aversion, etc. In other words, a good historical romp that ties in some familiar and some unfamiliar details into a reasonably good overview of the mathematics of risk…

The Bad News about the Gods

… and therein lies the biggest problem with the book, big on math short on the story of risk.  There is so much more that Bernstein could have incorporated into the book.  For example

  • How is risk perceived and managed in different cultures.
  • How have the Christian and Muslim beliefs about risk and interest rates changed their respective trajectories.
  • What has been the impact over the past 50 years on risk management given that risk has now being overtly managed.
  • How have institutions such as the military, healthcare or pharmaceuticals changed in how they managed risks.
  • What was the impact of large-scale events on the acceptance and management of risk, for example did the Black Death make people more or less risk averse and how did this affect risk management.

In a way it is too bad that Bernstein wrote the book when he did or that he did not write it say 10-12 years later.  I would have been interested in his views on the 2008 financial crisis and the work of Nicholas Taleb, etc. who also discussed risk, statistics and randomness.

In the End

So, a good read if you enjoy history, mathematics and what a fuller understanding of the concepts of risks.  A revised edition would be great, or even better, a second volume with more depth and breadth.  Never the less a read that rounds out anyone interested in Risk Management.

A few Quotes and Thoughts

Publisher’s Description: With the stock market breaking records almost daily, leaving longtime market analysts shaking their heads and revising their forecasts, a study of the concept of risk seems quite timely. Peter Bernstein has written a comprehensive history of man’s efforts to understand risk and probability, beginning with early gamblers in ancient Greece, continuing through the 17th-century French mathematicians Pascal and Fermat and up to modern chaos theory. Along the way he demonstrates that understanding risk underlies everything from game theory to bridge-building to winemaking.

p. 15: Time is the dominant factor in gambling.  Risk and time are opposite sides of the same coin, for if there were no tomorrow there would be no risk.  Time transforms risk, and the nature of risk is shaped by the time horizon: the future is the playing field.  Time matters most when the decisions are irreversible.

p. 197: The essence of risk management lies in maximizing the areas where we have some control over the outcome while minimizing the areas where we have absolutely no control over the outcome and the linkage between effect and cause is hidden from us.

p. 228: Keynes argued that interest is a reward for parting with liquidity, not for refraining from consumption.

p. 232: Game theory says that the true source of uncertainty is in the intentions of others.


Enterprise Risk Management – And a bit of Sales

In my ongoing effort to remember what I read, a few notes about a book on Enterprise Risk Management: Mastering 21st Century Enterprise Risk Management: Firing Dated Practices | The Best Practice of ERM | Implementation Secrets; by Gregory M. Carroll. 

Full Disclosure: Fast Track Founder

Before going any further, the book is written by the founder of an Australian company, Fast Track, which sells ERM and compliance software.  On the one hand there is a bias in the book toward the software.  On the other hand, EXCELLENT!, the company has been thinking about ERM for more than 30 years, who better to comment.

The ERM I Was Expecting

I have been on the periphery of the Risk Management Biz for most of my career and it never impressed me very much.  It seemed like a bolt on activity to compile a ‘telephone book‘ of risks that would never happen.  Worse, risk management takes precious management and organizational time away from operations which ironically increases risks.  This is not to discount the value of risk management though and having mitigation plans for many of the likely scenarios (hacks, robberies, natural disasters, etc.).  Starting with mitigation is why I wrote the blog series on ‘Anitfragile Risk Management (ARM)‘.

This book is short (about 80 pages) and has some good practical advice on ERM.  I would not buy the full version but definitely take a good skim/read via your public libraries online services.  The following xx items are my key takeaways from the book; there are more but these are ones that I will likely return to a few times.

  • Risk Management in 30 Seconds.
  • Acknowledgement that Risk Management is a Dark Art
  • The Nature of Risks
  • Risk Management is Really Opportunity Optimization
  • Ten Rules for a Successful IT Project

Carroll presents a vision or ERM that is much closer to my view of ARM… to a point.  So notes on the great points he makes in his book and the limitations of thinking about risk management when you are in the business of selling ERM systems (these editorial comments are in italics).

Risk Management in 30 Seconds

In ten paragraphs, Carroll runs through what is Risk Management, the summary of the summary is as follows (pp 4-5):

  1. 00:00 Definition: The level of uncertainty in any situation. Risk management is a system that identifies, quantifies and attempts to reduce or eliminate uncertainty.
  2. 00:25 Identification: ERM starts with a set of corporate objectives covering all aspects of the enterprise’s intents. Understand organizational risk appetite: the level of risk that can be tolerated on an on‐going basis.
  3. 01:00 Assessment: A subjective and preventive evaluation of each uncertainty in a specific area of operation by internal subject matter experts. A risk matrix grades the impact of a risk based on likelihood of it happening and the effect (consequences) if it does.
  4. 01:40 Control: A control is an action or measure that can alter an uncertainty.
  5. 02:00 Mitigation: Mitigation is a fancy word for an action that reduces or eliminates a risk.
  6. 02:45 Review: Review is value add and facilitates continual improvement.

This is a good overview and is entirely consistent with ISO 31000.  Carroll’s point in this section is that risk management is not especially difficult and that a simple framework can help you.  The ARM methodology turns the above 3 minute overview on its head however and places review and mitigation first and the other activities subordinate to these value add functions. 

Acknowledgement that Risk Management is a Dark Art

Carroll describes risk management as being 80% Art and 20% science (p. 12).  This is part of his view that organizational change and people management are central to an effective ERM systems.

Carroll is on the right track here but I would change his allocations slightly.  I would put the Art part as being 90%, the Process Changes as being 9% and the ERM system itself as being 1%.  Risk/Opportunity management is primarily a state of mind that is dependent upon trust, adeptness, competence of people.  An ERM without this is doomed to failure, an organization with these attributes already has an ERM system.

The Nature of Risks

Carroll differentiates between the ‘Nature of Risk’ and the ‘Types of Risk’.  Nature is a higher level classification that groups risks conceptually; how the risk presents itself and how it is subsequently managed (p. 13); they are as follows:

  1. Technical Risks are the broad group of risks whose state can be measured discretely and against which quantitative limits can be set and monitored. They are caused by variations that affect the system and are managed through use of mathematical models.
  2. Operational Risks are around the internal operations of a business, predominantly dealing with people, processes and systems and what most people think of in enterprise risk management.  Qualitative by nature, they tend to be caused by changes to organisation or behaviour, and are managed though process management.
  3. Security risks are aggressive actions. They are intentional in nature, as opposed to other categories which are consequential in nature. They are premeditated attacks which are managed proactively through surveillance and defensively though multi‐layered safeguards commonly refer to as “defence‐in‐depth”.
  4. Black Swan events are events in human history that were unprecedented and
    unexpected at the time they occurred. These once‐in‐a‐lifetime events are
    unpredictable, occur abruptly and catastrophic in nature.  Being unpredictable and occurring abruptly, the risk itself cannot be managed in a traditional sense, so we have to manage its effects using such methods as disaster planning and relief strategies.

Carroll acknowledges that the four presented are not meant to be exhaustive.  Nevertheless, this is a much better starting point than an exhaustive ‘type of risk’ listing.  The challenge I have seen with such lists is that very quickly organizations get bogged down into definitional quagmires.  The above list can be thought of as having multiple dimensions, for example internal or external to the organization.  

Risk Management is Really Opportunity Optimization

ISO 31000 focuses not on risks but on uncertainty which may be positive or negative to an organization.  Carroll’s book is generally upbeat about both although most of his examples end up being of negative variety versus positive.

This upbeat note extends into systems implementations.  Obviously his frame of references is for implementing an ERM system but his words of wisdom could be as easily applied to an ERP or other corporate system.  Nothing new here but still a good refresher:

  • People: The employees, managers, customers and other stakeholders.  In particular, what motivates your employees and how can you align a project to these motivations to be most successful.
  • Change Management: A project is not about the technology it is about how people will work once the project team has long gone.
  • The System and the Project: Lastly, how the project and system will be implemented and then used to support the above.

Ten Rules for a Successful IT Project

  1. Don’t outsource requirement planning.
  2. With software vendors, big is not necessarily best (Note, I think there is some bias here on the part of Carroll toward his software and away from the larger systems; this bias may be entirely justified but full disclosure nevertheless).
  3. Choose a ‘people’ project manager.
  4. Have a living risk management protocol.
  5. Ensure all stakeholders have “skin” in the game.
  6. Use an agile implementation technique.
  7. A quick game is a good game.
  8. Plan your testing.
  9. Training – Sell the benefits.
  10. Treat as a change-management issue not an IT project.

Smarter Than you Think

In my ongoing effort to remember what I have read, some notes on: Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson. The Penguin Press, 2013.

By blogging about this book I am doing exactly what Thompson says we will do ever more of, extending human abilities through the use of technology. This is nothing new, the first killer app(lication) was the invention of writing.

Writing – The First Killer App

This six thousand-year old technology was created to aid in business and government administration and it had its detractors including Socrates. He feared that the written word would ‘kill off debate and dialectics’. Other detractors pointed to the loss of memory and enshrining errors. In the end Socrates was both right and wrong. While people lost the deep understanding of a few topics (often committing their few books to memory) they gained a more varied, complex and extensive knowledge of many topics. [pp. 116-120]

Singularity or Centaur?

More recent examples of technology besting humans has been in the realms of chess and Jeapordy. In, Garry Kasparov was defeated by IBM’s Big Blue in a tournament of six games. This is not entirely surprising, chess is a game that lends itself to brute force computing. While Kasparov was able to delay the inevitable by introducing some creative moves, in the end the weight of Big Blue crushed him.

But that is not the end of the story, Kasparov and amateurs came back and defeated other computers and chess masters – by working in concert with the machine. This blended the brute force of the machine (e.g. looking ahead a dozen moves) and the imagination of the human. Thompson calls this machine-man combination a centaur (a mythological creature. Its head, arms, and chest are those of a human and the rest of its body, including four legs, hindquarters, and a tail is like that of a horse, deer or dog).

In Thompson’s view we are all becoming centaurs. Every time we fact check something on our smart phone while watching TV or in conversation, we are blending technology with the human. Even ten years ago this was either not possible or not very convenient (at least without leaving the dinner table to run up to the computer and Google that fact in dispute.  In the 1970’s my family kept a dictionary and encyclopedia at arm’s length to fact check dinner conversation).

To Thompson’s credit, he does not mention or go down the rabbit hole of the singularity. That is the point when humans and machines blend and we leave our corporeal existence for that of a machine. This is a good thing as I suspect that the singularity discussion is a red herring fraught with technological, practical and metaphysical challenges (would it be heaven or an eternal hell for your consciousness).

Ambient Awareness

Perhaps the one area where we are becoming singularity’esque is the awareness for family, friends and colleagues through social media.  Ambient awareness is defined as “awareness created through regular and constant reception, and/ or exchange of information fragments through social media”.  Thus we have a sense of what someone is doing because of changes to their social media postings. For example, a break from posting breakfast updates may indicate they are unwell or a change in tone that their new relationship is doing well.

Although considered a new idea in the context of social media, I would argue that it is a re-packaging of perhaps one of the oldest attributes of the humans, tribal awareness. Although technology no longer requires us to be in the same village or hunting party, the ambient awareness is an extension of living and relying on those in close proximity to you.

Building on the tribal theme, Thompson identifies one risk of Ambient Awareness, homophilia, or seeking out those with the same opinions and points of view as your own. Social media makes homophilia worse because tools such as Facebook analyzes the contacts you pay attention to and highlights them. There is a self-reinforcing loop in which those who share your views are brought to the fore and those that don’t are dropped. [pp.230-231]

Remembering to Remember

Thompson does a great job describing how human memory works and does not work. A relevant point to this book is the importance of having memory jogs to help the brain recall information.This is because memory is constantly regenerating itself. We start with a gist of a recollection and then fill in the rest The filling in part may be factually accurate or we may change a detail that is then stored as part of the memory.  Diaries, photographs Facebook postings and blogs (such as this one) are all part of the externalization of memory. We are moving from a time in which most of our lives were forgotten to when we must activity delete/forget a recording that we don’t want to keep.  [pp. 26-28]

Thompson describes another class of individuals who purposely record every minute of their existence, lifeloggers. Wearing body cams, audio recorders – every minute of their life is recorded. The biggest challenge these individuals have is not in the recording (although there is some resistance to this) or storage, it is in retrieving on demand from the store. The solution seems to be another centaur. That is letting the machine record the details and then have it play back snippets which keep the grey matter in shape through retrieval.

Surveillance, SousVeillance and the Three C’s

One of the impacts of all of this recording is that governments have better tabs on what you are doing and you can keep tabs on what governments are doing. Police states are nothing new but they got a boost with the invention of the microphone and tape recorder.  As political candidates have learned, drunken photos from a college party ten years ago may come back and haunt a candidacy for political office (or even job interview).

The opposite side of Surveillance is Sousveillance or watching from below. A CCTV may be used to record a riot but a hundreds of phone cameras can be used to record police excess. Beyond photos, Twitter, blogs and other tools have allowed for the tracking of human need and to organize protest and responses.

What has happened is a drastic cut to the cost of Coordination and  Communication so as to exercise Control.  Where as before a top down command and control model was needed, now a website and an integration to texts can do much of the same (for example

The Future Including New Literacy

While most of Thompson book is uplifting and reduces the worry about the impact of technology, he does have some cautions – in particularly when it comes to digital literacy. For example, the importance of teaching children critical thinking when it comes to digital information. This literacy is not only understanding information provided but also understanding how the tools are best used.

Smart-phones and externalization of knowledge will not make us dolts – but it is also not without risks.  Thus, just like writing, the printing press and photography, we will need to figure the best ways to use the technologies. Thompson has written an excellent book that can prepare us for this future.  Now 3 years old, hopefully it is a book he plans to update periodically so as to keep current with the technologies of the day.

All quotes are from: Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson. The Penguin Press, 2013.

Antifragility – What Does not Bankrupt Us Makes Us Stronger

Nicholas Taleb is back with a new book, ‘Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder‘.  Okay the book has been on the market for a few years but I am behind in my reading.

Think of Taleb as that brilliant curmudgeon neighbour/uncle/airplane seat mate who holds views that both connect with you and which make you uncomfortable.  He challenges most of our preconceived notions but also provides an underlying (albeit difficult to implement) life philosophy.

A Table of Taleb Tenants

Taleb is a bit of an enigma.  He made gazillions [1] off of the fiscal crisis of 2008 and is a strong capitalist.  At the same time he has little time for corporate suits and less time for those who would game their way to wealth.  Thus in the very simple Facebook’esque Right versus Left, here are some of his positions and why he is a contradiction – and why this makes him much more of a real person.

Taleb Tenant Score (Left/Right)
Entrepreneurs should be accorded near hero status in our society.  “… Modern society should be treating ruined entrepreneurs in the same way we honor dead soldiers…” (p. 79) Right: Yeah, capitalists finally get their due!
Governments (as well as individuals and corporations) must avoid debt at all costs.  “I have an obsessive stance against government indebtedness… people lend the most to those who need it the least” (p. 53) Right: fiscal conservatism rocks!
The best form of government is small and local.  Nation states and Big Government creates fragile political systems.  As well, the benefits (in addition to the friction, petty fights and local compromises) are not scalable… “(or what is called invariant under scale transformation)… The difference is qualitative: the increase in the number of persons in a given community alters the quality of the relationships between the parties” (p. 88). Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark are all examples of governments with most of the power and decision making local levels. Right: This is consistent with the Libertarian philosophy of avoiding large governments.
The Iraq War was perpetrated by individuals such as Thomas Friedman or George W. Bush who had only upside and no downside to the decision.  “I got nauseous in Davos making eye contact with the fragilista journalist Thomas Friedman who … help cause the Iraq War.  He paid no price for the mistake. … He promoted the “earth is flat” idea of globalization without realizing that globalization brings fragilities, causes more extreme events as a side effect, and requires a great deal of redundancies to operate properly”. (p. 384). Left: the Iraq War was instigated by War Criminals and ultra-conservative lackeys.
Large corporations are in the business of making us either sick (e.g. tobacco, soft drinks)  or are in the business of making us well as result of getting sick (e.g. pharmaceutical companies).  “… small companies and artisans tend to sell us healthy products  … larger ones … are likely to be in the business of producing wholesale iatrogenics [editor’s note, treatment in which the harm exceeds to benefits]” (p. 402).

Bail outs of corporations reward corporate mismanagement and transfer wealth from the taxpayer to a privileged few who were likely directly or indirectly authors of their own misfortune. Taleb’s suggestion to prevent gaming a bailout of a corporation at risk of needing a bailout is to pay everyone according to a civil servant’s salary scale (p. 391).

Left: all large corporations are evil and are out to get our money and ruin our health.

Left: corporate bailouts are part of a conspiracy of the 1%’ers.

Mother nature is our best expert and absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence.  Thus before a new drug, process or product is introduced – the manufacturer must demonstrate that it will not harm the planet.  “So when the (present) inhabitants of Mother Earth want to do something counter to nature, they are the ones that need to produce the evidence, if they can” (p. 349). Left: Eat vegan, wear raw wool, live in an unheated cave and drink unpasteurized beverages.

Anti-Fragility Defined (with Examples from your Grandmothers China Collection)

The above slightly tongue in cheek Taleb-tenant-table demonstrates that he does not conform to standard left-right narratives (actually he hates that word, narratives).  This makes him considerably more interesting as an author or potential influencer than one who does neatly fit into such categories.  His underlying philosophy can be described as such: ‘arrange your personal, family, community and national activities to be at least robust if not anti-fragile’.  Anti-fragile means that whatever we are talking about (our personal lives, economic systems, organizations, etc.) likes and improves because of small changes or stressors.

Two examples from his book are instructive.  A porcelain tea-cup is a highly fragile entity.  It does very well for the environment it was created to exist in: your grandmother’s china cabinet.  However, it does not weather change particularly well beyond these narrow environmental parameters.  For example it does not survive the four-year grandchildren visiting or even a minor earthquake (both of which can be considered stressors and perhaps even a black swan event – depending on the upbringing of the four year old).

Teacup and saucer (Detail) Designer: Designed by Karl L. H. Müller (ca. 1820–1887). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 69.194.9, .10

Teacup and saucer (Detail) Designer: Designed by Karl L. H. Müller (ca. 1820–1887). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 69.194.9, .10

Compare this with a living entity.  Small changes and stressors benefit living entities.  This is the reason we go to the gym to work out – so as to stress muscles so they respond to change and new ones are created.  Small financial systems work in a similar way.  The middle-eastern souk can more readily absorb small changes in the economy than large corporations.  A souk is closer to a living entity than Wall or Bay Street.  Taleb provides the example of Switzerland in which there is a very limited national government and much of the governing work goes on at the municipal level.  While this makes for many petty squabbles it also makes for an inherently stable form of government in which small disputes are resolved locally and are not allowed to fester or escalate to the national level.

Lessons Learned and Becoming More Taleb

Anti-fragility is an intellectual workout.  Taleb takes us down the roads of classic history (complete with a character called Fat Tony besting Socrates in an intellectual brawl), modern medicine, economics (the charlatan art) and modern science.  Although Taleb asks the reader to consider the book as a complete work he also is a strong proponent of the use of heuristics (rules of thumb) as the basis for knowledge.  So here are the key tenets from anti-fragility that I already/plan-to follow:

  • To a Point: the following are all limited by both external factors and common sense.  Thus none of the following can be taken to an extreme – they can only be taken to the commons-sense grey zone of ‘to a point’.
  • Optionality: in making a decision, attempt to provide yourself with the greatest number of choices possible so that no matter the outcome of an event, you can be a beneficiary (or at least not a loser).
  • Bar-Bell Options: a bar bell option (technically, a bi-modal strategy, p. 161) avoids middle-of-the-road options and hedges the potential downside of one option with the upside of another option.  A currency exchange hedge is one example in which a company may hedge a change in exchange rates.
  • Procrastinate: the longer you not make a decision the greater your optionality – to a point.
  • Avoid Debt: owing money to others reduces your options and gives them to those who have lent you the money.  Freedom from debt (financial and other varieties) gives you the greatest optionality.
  • Tinker and Fail Fast: make your makes mistakes small, early and with the least possible costs.
  • Seek Redundancy: develop fail safes and redundancies so when a minor stressor or a Black Swan event occurs, there are multiple levels you can fall back on.
  • If it is Not Broken – Break It! [2]: Okay, Taleb did not actually use these words (in fact he probably would scorn any business book with such a catchy title) but effectively he subscribes to this concept.  Small stressors make the living entity stronger so it can survive larger unpredictable future stressors.
  • Organic or fractal Survives the Best: Humans tend to build in straight lines whereas nature tends to be fractal or messy.  Thus neat rows and columns that look appeasing to the human eye are also the less robust, resilient or anti-fragile than say the intertwined seeming mess of an ant hill or bird’s nest.  This is an important consideration when designing such mundane things as office layout, organizational structure or dinner party seating arrangements.  Once again, to a point rules the day as the applicability to architecture or bridges may require an engineering degree to fully apply and appreciate.

The Limitations of the Tales of Taleb

There are many things that I agree with Taleb on.  The underlying conservatism (small c variety) and the recognition that nature probably has already figured out the best way of doing things (heck that is the basis of the website that you are reading this blog on).  Nevertheless, there are some holes that the reader should be aware of before adopting Taleb as your current patron Saint or prophet:

What About the Rest of Us?  A number of times, Taleb mentions the benefits of being independently wealthy primarily because of one or two inspired and optionality-based opportunities.  A few million is the minimum and seven to eight digits is preferred.  While we would all like to be men and women of leisure, only 1% of the 1%’ers fall into Taleb’s suggested lifestyle.  This is not particularly useful advice for us poor working stiffs.

Cartoonish Characterizations.  Soccer moms ruin our society by over planning their children’s lives (creating school attuned nerds who cannot survive in the real world, p. 242).  Every corporate employee is an empty suit not even worthy of his scorn and every government bureaucrat pines for private sector exploitation of their experience in the civil service (so much for optionality I guess).  Most of the rich he meets at conferences are globetrotting plastic shells of people – and worse, not even as rich as he.  Okay, perhaps some slight exaggeration both in my portrayals of his portrayals and his need to exaggerate to make his point.  Nevertheless, his caustic contempt is a bit tiresome and sometimes (not always) misplaced.

Let’s Do the Time Warp Now.  Taleb returns again and again to the past for inspiration.  The Greeks, Romans and other pre-modern Mediterranean cultures.  His reason is that they have survived the greatest number of stressors and thus can provide us with antifragile lessons.  Certainly his take on lessons from classical Greco-Roman history is interesting but I am not sure he should be wanting to go back to fast.  To start, these periods were brutal and violent.  Many of the civilizing things that perhaps make us somewhat fragile also have reduced the likelihood we will die a horrible and early death.  Next, these civilizations never developed many of the mental models that Taleb himself admires, such as the scientific process.  Finally, we have an incomplete reading on these cultures because of the massive destruction of writings and knowledge.  His faith may be misplaced on too few surviving artefacts.

Stop Develop… of any Sort… Now! Taleb correctly points out the impact of the law of unintended consequences.  Antibiotics create super bugs when they are over used.  Thalidomide caused birth defects and burning fossil fuels is creating global anthropogenic changes in our climate.  These examples are valid ones and our hurtling towards genetic engineering, nanotechnologies and transferring our consciousness into computers (the singularity) may have their own (greater?) unintended consequences.  The reality is though that a certain amount of risk taking is necessary to if we want to improve our lot.  To take an example to an extreme scenario (well beyond, ‘to a point’), had our ancestors listened to Taleb, we would still be debating the merits of the use of fire or invention of the wheel and their impact on the planet (both good and bad as it turns out).

A Little too Enamoured with the Mafia. Taleb often references the mafia as role models for behaviour and organizational design.  Typically this is because of their loyalty to the organization and personal honour ‘It was said that “a handshake from the famous mobster Meyer Lansky was worth more than the strongest contracts that a battery of lawyers could put together.”‘

While the honour of the Mafia maybe laudable I suspect Taleb’s understanding of it is a bit rose-tinted and ignores the violence and depravity criminal organizations inflict on communities.

Little Regard for Theories or Education. Although Taleb holds an advance degree, he has very little respect for academics in general and finance/economics in particular.  While I would agree with him that there is a lot of fluff in today’s post-secondary curriculum, a point that Taleb misses is the apprenticeship of teaching how to think in post-secondary institutions.  He might see this as weakness but the academic model relies (in theory) on evidence and peer review rather than perpetuating oral traditions and old-wives tales.

The use of theories is similarly held in contempt by Taleb.  For him, the practical day-to-day knowledge and actions are more important than a theoretical framework as to why something works.  While I am a fan of pracademics, I think Taleb is missing the greater value of a theory – providing a mental model that allows the mind to be prepared to incorporate future knowledge.  This is what Louis Pasteur called, ‘chance favours the prepared mind’.

Economies of Scale are Both Fragile and Leviathans

A key theme in this book that size, complexity, growth, etc. create inherently anti-fragile results.  His go to example is the current financial system which had to be rescued with the debt of taxpayers across many different economies.  He is of course correct, over the long-term, size and complexity become increasingly likely to fail.  The flotsam of failed empires, corporations or other human endeavours are all examples.

However these systems worked until they failed.  They provided homes, jobs and other human benefits.  As well, larger complex systems are highly effective and accomplish amazing results.  The relative wealth we have now is a result of fragile systems.  An example closer to Taleb home is his home of Northern Levant, a region roughly corresponding to northern part of Syria and Lebanon (p 94).  This area included a large Christian en clave and has been ruled by various empires (Roman, Byzantine & Ottoman) as well as the French and then the nation of Syria.

The local municipalities of this area largely flourished under each of these rulers – if left alone (assuming taxes were paid).  The point being though is that the area was subject to the economies of scale of larger empires and did not have the ability to dictate their own destiny.  Thus the city states of Levant proved to be anti-fragile but the region as a whole was subject to invasion (and taxation) by larger, albeit fragile, empires that benefit from large economies of scale.

The other side of this localization is of course balkanization of a region in which the inward looking small municipal view trumps larger human concerns.  History in general and the recent history in the Balkans in particular suggests that an anti-fragile provincial view can create enormous human tragedy.

Take Away Taleb To-Dos

Nicholas Taleb has the personal and intellectual horse power to pull off this book.  I believe that he is spot on with the concept of fragile/antifragile systems.  I also think that ultimately, he is only half right.  By dismissing the fragile systems that have contributed to the betterment of the human condition, he is missing the value fragile systems contribute.  In effect, he is downplaying or dismissing the role of Yin while suggesting that Yang is paramount.

Nevertheless, Taleb has described his view of Yang extremely well and as a result, it is possible to apply the concepts to Yin like structures – such as corporations, governments or even – God forbid! – economists.


All page references are from the 2014 Random House Paperback Edition.

  • [1] Gazillions is a bit imprecise but likely his net worth is more than one hundred million and less than a billion dollars based on various (dubious) internet sources.
  • [2] If It Ain’t Broke…break It!: And Other Unconventional Wisdom for a Changing Business World; Robert J. Kriegel, Louis Palter, Grand Central Publishing, March 1, 1992.






Principles of Legitimacy

In Malcom Gladwell’s book, ‘David and Goliath’, he refers to the ‘principle of legitimacy’.  These principles are the basis (or lack thereof) for why one group will allow themselves to be subject to another. The principles stress that it is the behaviour of the leaders that determines whether or not the followers will follow (or at least whether the followers see the leaders as being legitimate; see note [1] below).

The three principles of legitimacy

  1. those being ruled need to feel that they have a voice in the arrangement (e.g. no taxation without representation)
  2. the rules must be predictable and consistent (e.g. rule of law and due process)
  3. the rules must be consistently applied and appear to be fair to all being asked to follow the rules (e.g. equality before the law)

Kindergartens, Northern Ireland and the Jim Crow Laws

The writing brilliance of Gladwell is that he introduces this concept first in a kindergarten and then applies it to broader contexts such as Northern Ireland or the segregation laws of American South pre-1960.  In these examples, Gladwell extends the theme of his book in which an advantage may in fact be a disadvantage.  For example, the British Army in Northern Ireland had the men and material to temporarily impose control over the local population but not to sustain it because they failed to establish legitimacy amongst both the protestant and catholic populations.  As a result, strong armed tactics doomed the British Army to decades of occupation and directly or indirectly resulted in the death of hundreds if not thousands of combatants and civilians.  The principles of legitimacy are not without their consequences.

Too much or too little legitimacy?

An interesting speculation that Gladwell does not discuss is how much or how little of each are needed based on varying circumstances. After all there are circumstances where one of the three is reduced to nearly zero (for example, try asking for a voice in the arrangement during the first week of army boot camp or from the prison warden).  Alternatively, is there such a thing as too much of these principles?  Do they break down when taken to the extreme?  Have you ever been ‘surveyed’ to death by an employer asking about your degree of motivation or engagement with the company?  Or how about rules being applied too consistently such that the application actually erodes the legitimacy of the organization (think of a ten-year child old being expelled from schools for making imaginary guns out of their fingers; a zero tolerance policy gone horribly wrong; see note [2] for one example).

The take away from this aspect of Gladwell’s book is that these three principles of legitimacy are just that – principles.  They are not hard and fast rules and leadership is in their application rather than their memorization.  Here are some of my thoughts on considerations before over-applying one of the three principles of legitimacy:

  1. A voice in the arrangement:
    1. Ultimate accountability cannot be delegated away however.  For trekkies, Captain Picard solicited his crew’s opinion but he still made the decision.  Alternatively, calling for a vote and a study group when the pilot orders everyone into the airplane’s life rafts is ill-advised.
    2. Coercion can compensate for a voice in the arrangement, but only within short time periods or overwhelming force.  Thus the soldier in the boot camp knows that his time is short and the ultimate value outweighs the immediate discomfort.  Conversely, segregation worked not only because of the power of the whites in the South but also a lack of an united front amongst the blacks (see note 2 below for a bit of a back story behind a famous civil rights photo).
    3. A voice does not equal gaming the system.  Thus wheel the squeaky wheel gets the grease but it also violates the other two rules of fairness and consistency.
  2. Predictable and consistent and 3. Consistently applied and appear to be fair to all being asked to follow the rules
    1. To be predictable and consistent, a system needs to quickly and fairly establish two things: 1) how to change the rules and 2) how to allow for exceptions while disallowing unfair advantage.
    2. Principles 1 and these two are inter-twined as having a voice in the exceptions is critical. Think about a handicap parking spot.  We allow society (the leaders) to dictate that we give up the best parking spot because as a society we have had a voice (directly or indirectly) that this is a legitimate use of power.  At the same time though if choice spots were given out based on political affiliation or personal relations, the majority of the voices would be against the privilege.
    3. The sense of fairness is culturally biased.  For example, in traditional Islamic families, the opinion of the father or grandfather is nearly law.  Thus it may seen fair to deny a girl a right to an education or marry a non-muslim in this context.  In the secular West, these would seem patently unfair and sexist.

Lessons for the business reader

For business leaders, is there anything new here?  Yes and No.  Societies with the greatest longevity have tended to adhere to these principles.  At the same time though, these principles are also the hallmark of good leadership and good governance.  The take away is this, if you want to build an enduring organization that will outlast you remember that those being led:

  1. Seek both a voice in the decision but also expect leadership when leadership is needed.
  2. Expect rules to be fair, predictable and consistent but not at the expense of common sense.
  3. Know that part of leadership is in recognizing and explaining the exceptions without the system falling victim to being gamed or exploited.

In other words, leadership is still hard.  Nevertheless, authors such as Malcom Gladwell help us to challenge our assumptions and become better, and more legitimate, leaders.

Notes and some addition comments


[1]. p. 207: “When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters – first and foremost – how they behave.

[2]. Milford 5th-grader suspended for pointing imaginary gun, as reported Nov 19, 2014,

[3]. Gladwell devotes nearly a full chapter to the back story behind the following picture which was a turning point for the American Civil Rights movement in 1963.  However, there more in the photo than meets the eye: p. 192: “The boy in Bill Hudson’s famous photograph is Walter Gadsden.  He was a sophomore at Parker High in Birmingham, six foot tall and fifteen years old.  He wasn’t a marcher.  He was a spectator.  He came from a conservative black family that owned tow newspapers in Birmingham and Atlanta that had been sharply critical of (Martin Luther) King.”

Walter Gadsden, 17, was attacked by police dogs on May 3, 1963, during civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala. (Bill Hudson/Associated Press) , courtesy of

Walter Gadsden, 17, was attacked by police dogs on May 3, 1963, during civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala. (Bill Hudson/Associated Press) , courtesy of

Dead Men Make Good Reads

Dr. William Maples passed away nearly 30 years ago (February 1997) at the young age of 59.  Never heard of him you say?  How about these names: Quincy, CSI (Vegas, New York, Portage la Prairie) or Bones – have you heard of them?

Maples was the inspiration or at least haunts these popular television shows.  In his book, Dead Men Do Tell Tales, he provides a glimpse into the life of what was then a unique animal – a forensic anthropologist.

Working in Florida, he pioneered or studied under the first scientist who combined these disciplines.  I recall seeing this book when it first came out in the early 1990’s and wanted to read it – now 30 years later I can check it off the list.  Its age is both a detraction and an appeal for reading the book now.  On the detraction side, Maples is describing state of the art that has long since been made obsolete.  On the appeal side, he shines a light into his science just before it went mainstream with television shows such as CSI or Bones.

This book is more than a historical curiosity though, it is also a good read.  Maples had the opportunity to examine some world-famous bones include the elephant man, Spanish conquistadors, US president Taylor and the remains of the family of the last Russian Czar.  He tells of these exploits in a direct and slightly casual way, sort of how you would imagine him delivering a lecture on the subject to interested laymen.

The book includes photos and some descriptions that I passed over in places.  Nevertheless, if you like CSI, science or history – keep a look out for Dead Men Who Still Tell Good Tales.

Leo Tolstoy Grave - 1910.  Scherzo di Follia; Accession Number: 2010.423.5 (detail)

Leo Tolstoy Grave – 1910. Scherzo di Follia; Accession Number: 2010.423.5 (detail)


The Secret to a Secret Life

Pssst, wanna hear a secret?  Dr. Gail Saltz writes about people who have kept secrets from spouses, family members, friends and themselves.  That is not all though, she is an okay writer and the book was a solid read but it left me ever so wanting for a few more secrets.  Pass it on!

Scherzo di Follia; Accession Number: 2005.100.198 (detail)

Scherzo di Follia; Accession Number: 2005.100.198 (detail)

By way of a full disclosure, I have written about secret lives before in my blog: How to Disappear – When you Really Need to Go!  That read was more of a how to book to disappear when you don’t want others to find you (e.g. after winning the lottery and avoiding your dead-beat relatives).  Saltz’s book provides an alternative perspective of living a secret life, the psychological impact.  Her biography lists her accomplishments as “Psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, columnist, bestselling author“.  This book is based on her experiences with the first two: Dr. Saltz, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.

From these experiences she provides a series of pseudo-case histories from her own practice including a matronly shop lifter, a happy married sex-addict and an upper-middle class tax cheat.  She also introduces some of the famous people who have lived secret lives such as:

  • T.E. Lawrence or Lawrence of Arabia; military hero and sexual pervert.
  • Charles Lindbergh: american hero and polygamist.
  • An assortment of rogues-galley such as Ted Bundy.

Not every secret of course is as pathological, immoral or criminal.  In fact secrets are part of childhood.  According to Saltz, keeping secrets establishes an identity outside that of your parent’s.  The secrets start with playing peek-a-boo, evolves to secrets about possessions (including secret friends) in mid-childhood and then secrets of shame in adolescents.  Secrets are part of an adult world ranging from passwords, PIN numbers, sexual tastes of your spouse, non-disclosure agreements or even your own self-talk about whether or not to kill your SOB-boss.

These secrets, through our life-journey, are necessary or largely harmless.  There is a tipping point when a secret goes from a protected password to gnawing at one’s psychological health.  Saltz lists the cost of keeping these types of secrets both in the book and in two appendices (there are two Cosmopolitan Magazine like check lists for determining if someone you know has a secret or whether you have one); symptoms include:

  • Moody, nervous, temper, beleaguered, preoccupied
  • Acts suspicious such as unaccounted for time away from friends, family or work
  • Missing money or unexplained bills
  • Depression, physical ailments or exhaustion

In other words, it may be the flu, a bad weekend in Las Vegas, over spending for a surprise birthday party or there may be a dark secret.  This is hardly a convincing list and this is where I find Saltz’s book a bit disappointing.  Saltz’s remedy for most secrets in the book is to go and see a shrink for absolution.  As well, although she introduces some historical secret keepers, she missed some real whoppers.  Folks like high-ranking Nazi officials living in Argentina, Alan Turing living with both a war and a homosexual secret life or even ex-CIA or secret agents living with the actions demanded of them by their country.

In other words, Saltz’s book is good, but not great.  The psychology she introduces seems a bit to pop-psychology like and a little too good to be true.  I would have liked a bit more meat to go with the secret-sauce Saltz was serving up in the book, ‘Anatomy of a Secret Life’.




Mathematics can be used and presented in a manner that distorts the underlying truth or at least the underlying likelihood of a truth.

A mathematician seated at a table, working on mathematical equations

A mathematician seated at a table, working on mathematical equations

YAWWWNNNNN, who cares – Charles Seife does and tells us why you should care too in this book, “Proofiness: How You’re Being Fooled By The Numbers“.

Seife’s position is that bad math is more than being hoodwinked into buying oatmeal (see Quaker Oatmeal cholesterol numbers); bad numbers disenfranchise voters and erodes the democratic rights of Americans.

A Bad Math Field Guide

Be warned, this is a heavily American-focused book in which about half is dedicated to the challenges of the US voting systems.  If you can get past this bias, some interesting terminology and underhanded methods are exposed.  Here are a few:

  • Truthful numbers: come from good measurement that is reproducible and objective
  • Potemkin* numbers: derived from nonsensical or a non-genuine measurement
  • Disestimation: taking a number too literally without considering the uncertainties in its measurement
  • Fruit packing: Presentation of accurate numbers in a manner that deceives through the wrong context.  Techniques include cherry-picking, apples to oranges and apple polishing.
  • Cherry picking: Selection of data that supports an argument while underplaying or ignoring data that does not.
  • Comparing apples to oranges: ensuring the underlying unit of measurement is consistent when comparing two or more populations.
  • Apple-polishing: data is touched up so they appear more favourable (this was the Quaker Oatmeal trick).
  • Randumbness: because humans are exceptional at discerning patterns we also suffer from randumbness, insisting there is order where there is only chaos.
  • Prosecutors Fallacy**: Presenting a probability incompletely and leading to a false data assumption.

* Named for Prince Potemkin who convinced the empress of Russia that the Crimea was populated by constructing villages that were only convincing when viewed from a distance – such as a passing royal carriage.  An example of a Potemkin number was Joe McCarthy’s famous claim of 205 communists in the State Department.

** This one is worth a blog on its own so for more, read:’s_fallacy.

Take Your Field Guide With You to Work

These are important concepts for not only a citizen to consider when looking at dubious polling information but in the business or public policy world as well.  If there is a shortcoming in Seife’s book, this is it.  In my opinion he over focuses on the bad use of numbers in the public arena without touching on how CEO’s, CFOs, Boards and government-Ministers may also be hoodwinked.

Individuals being asked to make decisions based on numbers need to be able to cut through the packaging techniques discussed above.  This is becoming more important as our society moves to a 144 character Twitter attention span and public policy needs to be distilled down to a simple infographic.  As well, while developing a dashboard for a business is valuable, be sure that it is not filled with polished, cherry picked, Potemkin numbers based on a disestimation

Disenfranchising a few Million

Returning to the book, Seife has some advise for the US when it comes to the United States census.  Written into the constitution, once-every-decade process of counting all American citizens costs about $6.5 Billion dollars.  For this expenditure, it is estimate that the census misses about 2% of the United States population and double counts about 1%.  While these numbers would in theory cancel each other out (more or less), the impact is that there about 10 million US voters not accounted for in the census.

This error rate can be mitigated through techniques known as statistical sampling which will smooth out the distortions.  The result would be generally more people counted in poorer, racial minority areas who don’t like to fill in census forms or talk to government officials.  The ‘result of the result’ would be these people would then have more politicians to vote for (larger representation) and to send to Washington.

So far sounds good except that poor, non-white folks tend to vote for the Democrats which is why there is another perspective: only a count – counts. This being America, the counting challenge has generated a lot of legal attention and two population numbers.  One used by everyone who needs precise data to estimate everyday population trends and another used to reapportion the House of Representative seats.  After numerous legal battles, millions of Americans are disenfranchised because only a more error prone enumeration technique is permitted (see pages 185-198 for a more thorough explanation and also some very impressive legal gymnastics by the Supreme Court).

A Math Journey with a Curmudgeon

Seife sees himself as unbiased journalist although his leftiness tends to negate this somewhat.  He distrusts political polls, NASA, fluffy articles in scientific journals and the social sciences.  In other words, reading Proofiness is like visiting with a self-indulgent, opinionated curmudgeon – who is also brilliant and often right.  If you use numbers to make decisions in your day to day life, I would encourage you to take your ‘Proofiness-Field Guide’ with you.

Triumph of the City

How can you not love a book that combines economics, civil engineering and history!  Edward Glaeser combines these elements into a generally good read that traces the impact of the city from its earliest times to its modern incarnations.  His thesis is that building-up is good and environmentally responsible; sprawl is understandable but not sustainable.

Origin of a City

Cities started and thrive on technology.  The invention of agriculture and the domestication of beasts of burdens was the genesis for our urban journey.  As a result, cities became gateways along trade routes for the spread of culture, innovation and disease.  Since these earliest times, ongoing technological changes have allowed cities to flourish.  The creation of a better transportation (the wheel, canals, steam, street car, automobile, etc.) have allowed for cities to take advantage of the exchange of goods and services.

More recently (e.g. the last 150 or so years) social changes and technologies have allowed cities to move from places of pestilence to locations where you are more likely to be healthier, happier and live longer than your rural cousins.  These technologies are of course the lowly toilet, sewer system, asphalt (to reduce dust), internal combustion engine (to reduce things like horse dung) and clean water.  Parallel political structures needed to be created to provide these externalities* such as effective police forces, water works, street maintenance and an (ideally) non-corrupt overall administration to manage these services.

The Conquest of Pestilence in New York City; Stirling Behavioural Science Blog

The Conquest of Pestilence in New York City; Stirling Behavioural Science Blog

Slums as a Success Story

At this point, many people would point to the slums of Mumbai or Rio and suggest that the conditions there make cities a failure.  While Glaeser does not minimize the human suffering that does occur in quasi-legal no man’s land of slums, he also suggests that those living there are (on average) better off than their rural kin who they left behind.  Cities encourage innovation, reward hard work and there is a better chance to have access to medical care, clean water and schools for your children in a slum than in a rural province.

Once again, it is important to differentiate anecdotal, statistical and absolutes at this point.  For the young man who left a rural village in Brazil and died the next day in gang warfare in a Rio slum – cities would seem to be a bad deal.  But his tragedy has to be matched against the many others who became middle class through hard work, innovation or access to education.

Political Impact on Cities

Cities and political processes go hand in hand.  For example, the more democratic a country is, the more distributed its cities are likely to be; conversely, the more autocratic, the more likely that a single city will lord over other cities (the largest cities in dictatorships, … contain, on average 35 percent of the countries’ urban population versus 23 percent in stable democracies, p. 235).  Over the past 100+ years perhaps the greatest political influence on a city was the favouring of the automobile through the creation of highways and mortgage deductions for private ownership.

In the United States, the creation of the inter-state highway system (which was partially completed to support improved military transportation) has allowed for the creation of suburbs compounded by three other factors: road economics, tax policy and school funding.  The fundamental law of road congestion states that as roads are built, they are filled at nearly the same rate as their construction.  Thus more roads mean more traffic with only congestion pricing (a political hot potato if there ever was one) mitigating this effect.  Returning to the United States, a generous mortgage interest deduction further encouraged the purchase of the best available home a family could afford.  The localization of school boards and their funding meant that parents would also select a home where the good schools were.  The impact since the end of the WWII was the creation of a suburban sprawl and the gutting of inner-city communities.

The urban riots the United States has experienced can be partially traced to the flight of educated and leadership enabled citizens (white and black) away from the urban centers.  This was more than a lack of policing or social policy, this was as much the destruction of the social fabrics of the communities.  Akin this effect in the United States, Glaeser comments on how much safer the Mumbai slums are than the Rio equivalents despite the former being poorer.  Mumbai slums are better functioning social spaces and thus they provide their own safety nets and controls that are less likely to be found in the more transient Rio slums.

Creating Great Cities

Glaeser offers some direction on how to keep cities healthy, happy, lower environmental footprint and safe.  Firstly, allow cities to grow up.  This increases the density per square metre meaning that the same public-service is being optimized.  Green spaces are important to allow parents to raise their families and community safety must occur concurrently.  Community-based and adequate policing is part of the safety equation in addition to creating functioning social-spaces and communities.  Further to this, a community needs to have a say in the make-up of its local environment (bars, night clubs, daycares, etc.) but must not have a complete veto otherwise cities become balkanized into enclaves of Not in My BackYard.

Glaeser also strongly supports the consumption pricing of public goods.  Thus those driving in from the suburbs should be paying for this right or the developer constructing a high-rise tower should pay a sufficiently high enough fee to compensate the local community for this vertical-intrusion.  These are excellent economic principles that often falter in harsh light of political reality.  Nevertheless, at least they should be part of the discourse on what type of city we want to live in and have available to us.

Triumph of the City is a good read for anyone interested in the practical application economics and civil engineering to the messy realities of human communities.  The book is strongly skewed toward the United States context but Glaeser should be commended in bringing in numerous global examples to balance this bias out.  There are lots of juicy footnotes for those who want a deeper dive into the details.  Triumph of the City is a good book for any History/Economics/Civil Engineering-wonks out there.

(*) In economics, an externality is the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit [WIKIPEDIA].

Openheimer, Los Alamos and Summer Camp for Physicists

The Manhattan Project is well-known to even the most history illiterate.  The general story is that $2 Billion (1940’s) dollars were spent on secret facilities (including one in New Mexico, Los Alamos) to beat the Nazis to building the bomb.  A German surrender meant that the bomb was dropped on Japan ending the hostilities of the Second World War.

Traditional history is that the two bombs saved about 500,000 allied soldiers from death and dismemberment and many fold more Japanese military and civilians.  Revisionist history suggests that Japan was on the state of surrender anyway and the bombings (in particular the second one on Nagasaki) were unnecessary.

Los Alamos National Laboratory; “Jumbo”, a 200 ton container, was originally intended to be a part of the Trinity test, but was eliminated in final planning. Credit: Digital Photo Archive, Department of Energy (DOE), courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Before the bombs, there was the effort to create the bombs.  In perfect hindsight, it is generally acknowledged that the Germans had no hope of ever developing a similar device. They had neither the treasure, time or talent to do so (on the talent front, their policies encouraged many of the central players such as Teller, a refuge from Hungary, to be available for the British and American efforts).  Nevertheless, in the dark days of the early 1940’s such knowledge was not available and the assumption was that London or New York could become a smoking pile of radioactive waste.  And thus the most American effort to the build the bomb.

Jennet Conant explores this effort in her book, “109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos”.  Conant is an excellent story-teller and this is a great read for the history or leadership buff.  There are two central figures in the book.  The first, well-known to history, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer and the second largely unknown, Mrs. Dorothy McKibbin.  Dorothy was Los Alamos’ first employee and she manned the Santa Fe address that was the front for the laboratory many miles away.  More than simply a functionary, she was the sole contact for hundreds and then thousands of scientists, engineers, contractors and their families while they were in virtual lock down for nearly two years.  She located hard to find and rationed supplies, was a confidant, tireless worker and supplied her home for a number of marriages amongst the inhabitants Los Alamos (due to war-time secrecy only their first names appeared on the marriage license).  Down to earth, practical and a friend to all she was the perfect foil for Oppenheimer who was brilliant and could be arrogant and oblivious to social niceties.

The book rounds out an understanding of Oppenheimer.  For example, he was an avid outdoors man who would spent days trail riding or hiking in the desert.  This was an aspect of his personality that I would have not have guessed.  As the Director of Los Alamos, Oppenheimer had every reason to fail as a leader of the Los Alamos project because of his temperament and political past.  In the end, he commanded respect and loyalty amongst those who stayed and toiled – or hatred and loathing amongst those who left.  The leadership lessons focus on the establishment of a clear objective (building the bomb) and learning how to reach out to those who look to you for your leadership.

109 East Palace is a great companion read about the history of the project.  Ms. Conant brings a female perspective to the book telling the stories of wives, secretaries and families locked behind the secure gates and fences.  Conant does this without losing site of the technical and scientific achievement of the two years in Los Alamos.

In the end, a highly recommended book for those interest in history and leadership from a military, scientific, and female perspective.

Xeno Chronicles: How to become a Pig and live to Tell About It

The Xeno Chronicles: Dr. David H. Sachs and His Fantastic Plans for the Future of Medical Science by G. Wayne Miller

Xenotransplantation is the use of non-human organs in humans.  Follow this link if you want a good summary of the concept:

Still with me, then consider reading this book if you want a slightly more complete understanding of one researcher in Xenotransplantation, Dr. David Sachs.  Dr. Sachs is a very sympathetic character who has a dream of saving people through the use of animal organs.  In 2005, the publication of the book, Dr. Sachs has had some success with a genetically bred pig.  Unfortunately concurrent with this success is the loss of his major funding source.

The author does a good job of both portraying Dr. Sachs as a highly capable research, boss and a nice person in general.  Glimpses into Dr. Sachs early life are provided including a bout of polio.  On the other side, Wayne Miller presents a reasonably balanced portrayal of the pros, cons and moral minefield of using ‘Babe’ for our human replacement parts.

Babe the pig – not the same variety used for xenotransplantation but possibly just as cute (and tasty!). (image courtesy of virgin media)

Personally, I don’t have a problem with the concept of breeding animals for replacement human parts.  As long as the animals are treated well and have their life ended humanly, breeding (and the eating) Babe so that a person can life a fuller and longer life is okay with me.  Unfortunately (or fortunately for Babe), Xenotransplantation seems to be a long way off.

Although Baboons have survived a few months on pig hearts, every hurdle cleared seems to expose another challenge.  Thus, my larger problem with pursuing xenotransplantation is the diversion of resources away from other organ sources.

For example, an Opt-Out rather than an Opt-In system can increase the supply of donations.  In an Opt-Out system, everyone is assumed to be a donor unless they have expressly requested that they take their organs to the grave (Monty Python movie sketches notwithstanding).  A better registration of the intent to donate can mean that organs don’t go to waste when there was an intent to donate (e.g. Alberta’s new Donor Registry).

The challenge with a better human (or allotransplantation) is still rejection by the recipient.  Although this has improved over the decades with better matching and drugs, rejections is a threat looming over everyone saved with a new organ.  Xenotransplantation has a better supply of organs but the reasons for rejection.

Which leads me to my conclusions of xenotransplantation, this book and a lifetime of research conducted by Dr. Sachs.  I suspect that it may be time to give up on the idea of Babe as an organ donor.  It was a good idea and a good try but the effort remaining and the risk of cross species disease transmission does not make a good investment for society.  Instead, lets continue improving the supply of organs but also put our efforts into either machines that duplicate an organs function or growing  organs through cloning.

A machine that duplicates an organ function can be ever more precisely engineered.  Thus the clumsy artificial heart of the 1990’s can quickly become the science fiction of tomorrow.  Even better, lets grow or clone replacement organs and thus eliminate rejection and disease cross contamination.

So my thoughts on the idea of Xenotransplantation, Dr. Sachs and Miller’s book?  A good idea whose investigation was worthwhile and an okay book for those who can find it cheap or free.

Buying In – BzzAgents and Volunteer Marketers

Just finished the book, “Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are” by Rob Walker who writes a column for the New York Times Magazine: “Consumed“.  Being a cheap consumer, I purchased the book second hand from the excellent local used book store (SHAVA) that we have here in St. Albert.  As a result, the book is a bit stale published in 2008; well before the financial melt down and the resulting impact on consumption.

Nevertheless, Walker is an engaging writer who walks the reader through the world of consumption, brands and fashion.  For example, who knew that the Hello Kitty mouth was too hard to express in a cute way – so it was cut from the final design in 1974 (pp. 15-16).

Hello Kitty - sans cute mouth

Hello Kitty – sans cute mouth

Or that the Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) beer was purchased in 1985 by a Texas ‘beer-baron’ whose business plan was to slash costs and let the brand “decline profitably”. PBR used to be the blue-collar beer of the working man.  Now it is the markedted blue-collar beer made en masse.

While Hello Kitty and PBR are cute and taste okay (in that order), the interesting section in his book is on volunteer product evangelists or word of mouth marketers (p. 166).  These are volunteers who work for companies like BzzAgent who employ ‘volunteers’ to talk up products.  The volunteers button-hole friends, neighbours and unsuspecting would-be consumers with encouragements to buy sausages, perfume or read particular books.  They are encouraged to post positive reviews and write glowing praise of the particular product that is being promoted.

Some of the volunteers spend as much as 10 hours a week doing the promotion, writing reports and networking with other volunteers.  This is a part-time job working for a marketing company, promoting products – all done pro bono.  Walker provides an example of one word of mouth marketer:

Gabriella and the rest of the [BzzAgent] sausage agents are not paid flunkies trying to maniplate Main Street Americans; they are Main Street Americans…. … and she gets no remuneration.  She and her many fellow agents had essentially volunteered to create “buzz” about …. dozens of … products, from books to shoes to beer to perfume.  By 2006, BzzAgent claimed to have more than 125,000 volunteer agents in its network.” (p. 168)

While these volunteers earn points for prizes – many do not cash in the points.  So what motivates them?  One BzzAgent agent Ginger explained her willingness to volunteer for the following reasons:

  • It was a chance to get products before their release (and be an insider)
  • BzzAgent gives her something to talk and opinion about with other people
  • She believes she is helping people – by promoting a specific product.

To be fair BzzAgent’s code of conduct includes an expectation that:

BzzAgents always tell others they are part of a word-of-mouth program.  Be proud to be a BzzAgent. When Bzzing others, you must let them know that you’re involved with BzzAgent and tell them what you received as part of the campaign. If you genuinely like something (or even if you don’t), it’s your open, honest opinion that counts.

Code of conduct notwithstanding, somehow it feels like BzzAgents are on the wrong side of an invisible line.  Certainly they are not boiler-room fraudsters trying to hustle little old ladies out of their life savings – but still there is a part of me that is a bit queasy about the whole word-of-mouth marketing model.

Perhaps it is because I am a ‘free-lance’ word of mouth marketer.  I promote businesses that have given me good services or products and I do so because I believe that I am being helpful.   However, I do so on products and services of my own choosing and without having to report back to the business (or an intermediary such as BzzAgent) of my efforts to date.  As well, when in the course of a normal conversation, how exactly do you interject that you are now been sponsored by the ACME corporation?  I envision a conversation like:

  • Frank’s Friend: Boy it sure hot today!
  • Frank: Sure is… oh, by the way, this part of conversation is brought to you byBzzAgent and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer or PBR.
    • Boy this PBR is sure refreshing, goes down smooth and is cheap too.  The beer of hipsters and rappers, PBR is the only beer for me. 
  • Frank: We now return to our regular conversation already in progress.
  • Frank’s Friend: Huh?  Are you okay?  I think you need to get out of the sun and stop drinking so much of the PBR swill.

Myself, I am happy to stay on this side of that invisible line and continue to promote/malign in an objective manner good/bad products and services.  Nevertheless, I would love to hear your comments – perhaps over an ice-cold and refreshing PBR, the official beer of word of mouth marketers….

The Origin of the Origin – Charles Darwin

Evolutionary theory is a key underpinning of our understanding of our natural world.  It, and its sister theories (e.g. the theory of gravity, germ theory, planetary motion, thermodynamics… well you get the idea) have given us a profound understanding of our planet and the universe.

I suspect that I am like most people in that had a fuzzy notion of who Charles Darwin was.  He took a trip on the Beagle, visit eco-tourist spots (Galapagos) and wrote a book, On the Origin of Species.  Oh, and he had a cool beard (as it turns out primarily because he had trouble shaving himself).

Charles Darwin - in old age

Charles Darwin – in old age

It turns out that Darwin was a well-respected Zoologist in his own right long before his evolutionary explosion.  Detailed in a very accessible book, Charles Darwin, Cyril Aydon, follows his life from his wealthy beginnings to, well, his wealthy end.

A key theme of Aydon’s was that Darwin was very privileged and fortunate.  He was born into a solid upper-middle class family and he had a (for the time) relatively supportive and indulgent father.  On the latter point, Darwin’s success on the Beagle was due in part to his father’s willingness to fund expeditions and the trip itself.

Upon his return, his family wealth and his need to organize the fruits of the expedition allowed him time and resources to become a well-respected zoologist and authority in his own right.  Thus his fear of being a dilettante was allayed by the quality of his earlier works.  This also gave him the necessary credibility for his work on evolution.

Two other things that I had not appreciated about Darwin were his family focus and his very poor health.  He married well into both a good dowry but also an understanding and loving companion in Emma.  They dotted on their children and it sounds like the Darwin’s was the place to go for lunch and sleep-overs if you were friends with their kids.  Darwin was a homebody partly because of very poor health (and was exacerbated by stress).

Aydon does not shy away from Darwin’s warts.  The author paints Darwin for what he was, an eccentric scientist boiling pots of animal remains to examine the creature’s skeletal structure.  His marriage to Emma was fortunate because she was self-effacing, put her husband’s needs ahead of her own and was not an intellectual force in her own right.  Also Darwin was fortunate to have boosters who promoted and defended his ideas (e.g. Thomas Huxley) when his poor health would have prevented him from doing so.

In the end, Darwin lived a good life and was productive well into his later years.  He was survived by his beloved Emma and most of his children.  Darwin contributed scientific understanding that would have made him a well-respected zoologist – and of course he started us down a path that forms much of our modern-biological understanding.

Aydon’s book, Charles Darwin, is a good and very accessible read and biography for those who want to understand the origin of the origin.

The Disappearing Spoon – Good Chemistry

As part of my ongoing attempt to remember what the heck I read, a quick blog on a recommended read:

Title: the Disappearing Spoon, And Other True Tales Of Madness, Love, And The History Of The World From The Periodic Table Of The Periodic Table of the Elements.
Author: Sam Kean
Recommended Read (out of 5, 5 being highest): 4.5
My thoughts: In general I am a student of history and in particular I enjoy reading about the history of science.  To me science is one of the greatest human achievements.  It allowed ourselves to move to a rationale state away from the tyranny of myth and legend.  This book is about one of the greatest of all human achievements, the creation of the periodic table.

YAWWNNN you may think but the history is full of humanity at its best and worst.  At its best is the sharing of knowledge that allowed for an obscure Russian, Dmitri Mendeleev, to effectively lift the study of matter out of an understanding that really had not changed since the Greeks.  It is about the sharing of that knowledge so that one person’s breakthrough is done by standing the shoulders of giants.

Of course goody-goody-two-shoes scientists are great when it comes to inventing silicon chips for smart phones or sulfa drugs to treat diseases; but flawed scientists and skull drudgery are much more interesting and this book is full of them.  And, they are all linked back to the periodic table.  Two great examples

  • During World War I the Germans managed to claim jump and generally harass the owner of one of the very few Molybdenum mines in the world.  Added to steel, this alloy can withstand the excessive heat in artillery guns because it melts at 4,750F.  It was not until 1918 that the US federal government realized that the mine was stolen from one of its own citizens – and that the metal – critical to the war effort, had been sent to Germany.
  • When I think of Marie Currie I imagine her as a saintly woman scientist suffering the indignities of a sexist period in our history.  It turns out that she was also a bit of femme fatale.  Thus she would pull fellow scientists into dark closets – see her glowing vial of Radium. Curious from concerned wives of the scientists would ensure the observations did not last too long!

The Disappearing Spoon should be required reading for high school or perhaps first year college chemistry course.  Not only is full of interesting characters – which were also brilliant – it is also a book that allows one to understand the current configuration of the periodic table from the ground up.

The individual who discovered or the image of the element

The individual who discovered or the image of the element

From Chapters: Why did Gandhi hate iodine (I, 53)? How did radium (Ra, 88) nearly ruin Marie Curie’s reputation? And why is gallium (Ga, 31) the go-to element for laboratory pranksters?*

The Periodic Table is a crowning scientific achievement, but it’s also a treasure trove of adventure, betrayal, and obsession. These fascinating tales follow every element on the table as they play out their parts in human history, and in the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them. THE DISAPPEARING SPOON masterfully fuses science with the classic lore of invention, investigation, and discovery–from the Big Bang through the end of time.

*Though solid at room temperature, gallium is a moldable metal that melts at 84 degrees Fahrenheit. A classic science prank is to mold gallium spoons, serve them with tea, and watch guests recoil as their utensils disappear.

Command, Control & the Smiles of Good Fortune

Being in my ’50s, I remember the Cold War.  In the early 1980’s, I had earnest discussions with friends about the merits of nuclear deterrence, the policies of Ronald Reagan and the threat of the Soviet Union.  While now seemingly a distant memory, the 1980’s were also the last full decade when us humans faced mass extinction via nuclear war on a global scale.  In this new century, we can now look forward to only localized extinction.

Nuclear Explosion – Courtesy of the Guardian

The 1980’s is the context for Eric Schlosser’s book, “Command And Control: Nuclear Weapons, The Damascus Accident, And The Illusion Of Safety”.  (Some of Schlossers other books include: Fast Food Nation, Chew On This, and Reefer Madness).  Schlosser paints both a sympathetic and frightening picture of nuclear weapons, their record of safety (sort of 100%) and how close we all came to extinction in the Cold War – but did not because of divine intervention or dumb luck.  Schlosser has written the near-perfect non-fiction history.  He blends a central story and the large tapestry of the nuclear weapon ‘industry’ from the late 1930’s to present day.  The story is about a tragic accident at a Titan II missile facility near Damascus Arkansas in 1980.  One airman dropped one socket which resulted in the destruction of the facility and risk of a nuclear explosion.  On that day, confusion, bravery and a system unable to cope with the unexpected reigned – and this formed the central story of Command and Control.

Missile Silo – Post Explosion

Most of the book, however, deals with the context and the events leading up to the dropped socket and its effects afterwards.  Schlosser has written an extremely balanced book.  Too often in current popular culture, the US Military, Ronald Reagan or nuclear weapons are painted in dogmatic caricatures.  Instead Schlosser provides excellent context to these people and events – without pulling punches for incompetence.  A good example of this balance is his discussion of the anti-nuclear movement in Europe against the NATO deployment of Pershing II missiles in Europe.  His wry observation is that the protestors of the 1980’s were demanding missiles, not yet installed, be removed while blissfully ignoring the Soviet and Eastern Bloc missiles already deployed and pointed at their homes.

In the end, Command and Control is about fallibility of people, systems and technology – and the role that bravery, systems, good technology – and a lot of luck – played in avoiding any serious accident in the American or NATO nuclear arsenal.  While inspiring from the perspective of good people doggedly working to make the system better, Schlosser leaves the reader with a few warnings.  First, there are still tens of thousands of weapons of various designs and states of repair in the world.  The relative peace we have had since the 1990’s has made nuclear Armageddon less likely but has also increased the chance of an accident as these weapons age, experience personnel retire, less reliable countries develop weapons and organizational culture changes while weapon custody does not.

The second lesson Schlosser imparts is that complex systems (with multiple points of contact and connection) increase the chance of an accident.  At the very least, a complex system may experience a catastrophic run away response to an otherwise small error.  Complex systems, such as the command and control of a nuclear arsenal, have inter-dependent parts that can act unpredictably when under stress or when exposed to unexpected influences.

Schlosser has written an excellent book that is very accessible.  My only critique would be the cast of thousands introduced and the difficulty keeping the individuals straight (particularly when listening to the audio version of the book).  Otherwise, a great read and highly recommended for all military and history buffs out there.

PS.  Apparently you can buy decommissioned missile bases.  For only a million dollar (ish) you can own the worlds greatest paint ball facility/deep scuba-diving tank.

View of a Titan II Complex



Bennett – Boyko’s Book on RB

We Canadians are uncomfortable idolizing our leaders.  This is too bad as we have had some good ones.  We have had a drunk Sir John A. MacDonald who created a country, Wilfred Laurier who overcame French-Catholic prejudice to lead the country, Mackenzie-King who was a master of political tactics (and has the long-service award in office to prove it) and of course Trudeau who (for better or worse) remade Canada in someone’s image – and nearly destroyed it in the process (but that is another blog).

What about Richard Bedford Bennett (or RB)?  Do you vaguely remember him from Grade 8 social, perhaps you remember the ‘Bennett-buggy’, the horse drawn Model-T used on the prairies because no one could afford the gas anymore?  In his book, Bennett: The Rebel Who Challenged and Changed a Nation, John Boyko explores perhaps one of the most and least lucky of Canada’s Prime Ministers.


A Bennett Buggy, in the United States they were called Hoover Wagons.

His luck started out iffy though as he was born into a home that had known wealth but the family fortunes were in decline during his childhood.  The decline was partly due to his father who worked hard but also liked a strong drink.  Nevertheless, RB was able to obtain his teaching certificate and was soon a principle in a school over-seeing children not much younger than him.  It was during this time that he met a life-long friend, Max Aitken who you may know better (at least for those living in Calgary) as Lord Beaverbrook.  Max would prove a strong ally and provided political practicality to the relationship.  Within a few years Bennett grew bored and left the teaching profession to study law at Dalhousie University.  Soon after graduation, the Maritimes were also left behind when RB took up Senator James Lougheed’s (grandfather of Peter, premier of Alberta) offer to work in his Calgary law office.

From there, RB was soon to amass a fortune through hard work, skill, honesty and shrewd business judgement.  Also during this time he was shown to have innate abilities any politician would kill for.  These included a strong work ethic, an excellent memory and the ability to speak ad lib as if he was reading the best of the prepared speeches.

RB had dreamed of being Prime Minister since his youth in Eastern Canada; in 1930 he realized it.  In retrospect – this could be described as a mixed blessing.  In 1930 Canada did not have a central bank; its economic measurements were crude and would need to wait until the Second World War before such basic measures as unemployment or gross domestic product could be measured accurately.  So while RB attempted to rectify Canada’s fortunes, he was essentially flying economically blind.  In addition, his economic fire power was limited as it would be three years until Keynesian inspired economic measures of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ would show nations the way out of recessions and depressions.

As a result, RB was blamed for much of the country’s economic turmoil – despite the limited tools, measurement or resources he had to fight the Depression.  True, he did not help himself.  He was a workaholic-bachelor who was surprised that others did not share his enthusiasm for long hours in the office.  His brilliant mind meant that he would alienate those who could not keep up.  He was facing a formidable political adversary in Mackenzie-King who was wily and willing to capitalize on RB’s weaknesses.  Finally, he served during a time when communists and fascists were both offering and agitating for alternatives to capitalism and democracy.

Nevertheless RB was generous and gave away much of his considerable fortune during his lifetime.  He supported, often anonymously schools, libraries and university students.  For Canada he founded the Bank of Canada, inspired the St. Lawrence Seaway and commissioned the Canadian Broadcast Corporation – all icons of a modern Canada.  At a time when increasing tariffs were pulling the global economy down into an abyss, he championed free trade and economic liberalization with both the Commonwealth and the United States.  Finally he recognized the growing storm clouds in Europe.  In 1937, Mackenzie-King called Hitler a simple peasant and not a danger to anyone.  RB by contrast was publicly warning of the rise of fascism in 1935 – two years after Hitler had ceased power.

In the end, Bennett should be remembered for more than his Depression-era buggy.  He was a brilliant Canadian who despite being flawed had helped to shape and direct the country we now live in.  Boyko’s book is mostly a good and accessible read – albeit a bit long on details for the more casual historian.  A good addition to all Canadian-history buffs out there.

Being Digital – ~20 Years Later

Have you ever heard of Nicholas Negroponte?  Perhaps you have heard the expression ‘born-digital’ meaning that information started in a digital state and remained that way throughout its life?  It was Negroponte who first popularized and promoted the idea.

Now in his 70’s, Negroponte was an early futurist for the impact of technology and the internet on our lives.  In addition to writing for Wired Magazine, he also wrote the internet-future-handbook: Being Digital.  Published in 1995, the book predicted things such as the pervasiveness of email, the death of faxes, the growth of bandwidth and indirectly the pings of Candy Crush, Facebook or LinkedIn.

Some examples include the co-mingling (e.g. mashups) of formerly distinct streams of information.  Thus television meets audio which meets magazines which meets demographic marketing.  An example: Netflix which streams television shows and collects information which may then be used to promote things like sound tracks to those who are a fan of breaking bad.

YAWWN, boring, this is old-hat and why are you telling us about a nearly twenty-year old book?  The reason is not for the specific technologies but for the principles Negroponte identified in the early 1990’s.  Some he got dead-one, some are coming and some he missed completely (e.g. he did not discuss issues such as the terrorist/activist (you pick) group Anonymous hacking government websites, the NSA snooping every email or Nigerian princes offering their fortunes to you).

The ones that are still out there are things like the role computers can play as personal agents (e.g. Refrigerator to Toaster, let the human know we are out of Milk) or the ability of information to be pushed to us rather than pulled to us (milk carton, hmmm – half empty, better let human know…).

Being Digital has been on my reading list since the late 1990’s.  Some parts are a trip down memory lane and some sections (use email, it will solve everything…. Err, until you get 300 – A DAY!) are a bit dated.  Nevertheless, worth at least a skim if not an addition to your digital library.

How to Disappear – When you Really Need to Go!

Full disclosure: I am not planning on disappearing and in fact I kinda like my little life just as it is.  Nevertheless, Frank M. Ahearn has written a very accessible book on how to (and not to) disappear if you want/need to.  Of course the criminal or terrorist comes to mind when you think about those needing to disappear.  Ahearn however discusses numerous other legitimate folks who have wanted to disappear for mundane to very sad reasons (mundane: avoiding greedy family members; sad: avoiding ex-spouses who want you dead).

Ahearn got into the disappearing business by finding people.  He was the guy who found you living in a trailer park outside of Vegas (or Balzac for us Canadians).  He was able to find you through a bit of subterfuge and was able to get your current address from websites, utility companies or nice companies who have sold you goods or services in the past.  Thus, while you were living under a pseudonym in Balzac, you transferred your warrant registration for your Harley Davidson motorcycle and you kept up your subscription to Pot-Pori-Monthly.

Ahearn got out of the finding people business because the tools of his trade were becoming increasingly illegal.  Thus, he got into the other side of the business – how to fall off the radar.  For us Canadians, it appears that many of the tools Ahearn mentions are specific to the United States.  However, that is probably more of a temporary state of affairs rather than a bit of permanent protection.  Some of the tools he (continues to use)/used include:

Even if you do not want to disappear, Ahearn suggests that you make yourself less visible on the web and perhaps in general.  He stresses to keep this above board (e.g. nothing illegal and keep on paying your taxes; however he does have a great speculative section on Pseudocide – how to fake your own death).  If you need no other reason, it is to avoid identity theft.

Some of his recommendations (fleshed out a bit from some web-searches) include:

  • Remove your real birthdate from all social media, in particular facebook
  • Do not use your full name in email addresses associated with your personal life, e.g. FPotter rather than frank.potter@….
  • Only accept social media friends from people you know and who you speak with periodically.
  • Use different email addresses for different sites so they cannot be mashed up together.  Don’t use a variation on an email either (e.g. Fpotter1, fpotter2, etc.).

I don’t need to disappear, but I do have enough of a spy novel fascination with it to enjoy the read.  I also value my privacy enough to want to ensure I am not dangly more than I need to on the web.  Now go and remove your real birthdate from Facebook – RIGHT NOW!

For more on Ahearn book:  How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, and Vanish without a Trace

Language and How We Think

In an essay found in ‘What’s Next?; Dispatches on the Future of Science‘, Lera Boroditsky discusses the evidence that how we speak influences how we think.  Being a virtual uni-lingual anglophone (who at bests butchers rather than speaks french), this has always being an area of interest to me.

Some of the research mentioned in the essay is familiar.  For example those whose mother tongue involves a gender (German, romance languages) tend to describe a noun differently depending upon their gender disposition.  For example Germans describe a key (masculine in German) in male terms where as Spaniards describe the same object in feminine terms – although in both cases they were using English to make the descriptions.

Further to this essay, Mandarin speakers think of time in an up-down spatial orientation whereas English speakers think of it in a horizontal orientation.  Boroditsky notes that  “English speakers tend to talk about time using horizontal spatial metaphors … where as Mandarin speakers have a vertical metaphor for time.”  She uses a simple experiment in which you stand next to an English and then Mandarin speaker.  In both cases you point to a spot in front of you and say ‘this is now’.  Then you ask each speaker in turn to describe, relative to that spot in space, to point to the future and past.  ” … English speakers nearly always point horizontally.  But Mandarin speakers often point vertically, about seven or times more often than do English speakers.” (p. 123, ibid).

An interesting party trick, but So What? one might ask.  There are a couple of considerations.  Firstly, this different perception in how we think is a good reason to learn a second language.  Doing so creates a different linguistic-mental-model that actually changes how you think about the world around you.  Beyond being good insurance against dementia, it is also a good way to expand one’s perception of the world around us.

The next reason is to expand one’s understanding of language as a driver of culture.  Being aware of the influence of language on perceptions may help organizations (and those who run them) reduce conflict and cross-cultural mis-understanding.

I do have a more subtle question though beyond the relatively macro-scopic linguistic level.  Do organizations also have a difference in perception because of their different use of technical-language?  For example, I have noticed cultural differences coming from a numbers and empirical world of the Ministry of Finance to a more humanistic politically orientated world of the Ministry of Health.  What is driving what?  Does the use of a local Ministry specific lingo drive the Ministry’s culture or does the culture drive the lingo?  My guess is a bit of both but what degree affects the other is the interesting question.

Alas, this last point is probably impossible to test empirically – but is nevertheless an interesting consideration as one studies organizations.

Contra-Free Loading

Why Do People Want to Do Good Work?

Reading the book, the The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely, I was struck by Chapter 2, The Meaning of Labor.  This chapter discusses what motivates people to do good work.  He references three examples of people or animals motivated or de-motivated to do perform good work based on the perceived use of the work once it was completed.  For example, he describes one experiment he performs using a simple paper puzzle and a cash reward.

Test subjects were paid a reducing-sliding-scale rate for each puzzle page they completed.  The work was a bit tedious (finding in a page covered with letters, two letter ‘S’ adjacent to each other).  The first page successfully completed was paid $0.55, the next $0.50, until the twelfth page when any further pages completed would be done for free.  Divided into three groups, one group’s pages were acknowledged, another had their pages barely acknowledged and the third had their pages immediately shredded (the author’s video blog is available here for those interested in the details).

The conclusion of the experiment?  People are motivated by meaning in their work.  This has also been found in the animal kingdom.  Ariely references the work of psychologist Glen Jensen who coined the term ‘contrafreeloading‘ which basically means that ‘many animals prefer to earn food rather than simply eating identical but freely accessible food’ (p. 60, The Upside of Irrationality).

Not really an earth-shattering conclusion but interesting that there is some empirical evidence to prove it.  This is of interest because of the underlying philosophical debate of whether people are inherently lazy and seek to maximize their own economic well being or whether they are inherently good and therefore will contribute to the well being of the community in which they live.

This experiment must also be considered in the larger context of the human condition.  For example what would be the behaviour of an individual in the experiment if he or she felt that she was entitled to a reward and it was withheld because of poor performance?  Or how is behavior changed when it is monitored in an anonymous crowd rather than in an individual setting?  Finally, are their cultural or social-demographic variables that may change the experiment?  For example, would a hungry and desperate person be more willing to see their work shredded if it meant not going hungry?

Setting these further experimentation ideas aside, what does this result mean for organizations?  I would suggest that it once again identifies the importance of linking vision to strategy and strategy to an individual’s work.  People are motivated by the larger good the organization can provide to the community.  Work matters and is important and it is incumbent on organizations to help workers, volunteers and stakeholders make the link.

These are ideas I hope to explore in future posts and pages.


Moby DuckMoby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author,Who Went in Search of Them

by Donovan Hohn

I love books that integrate more than genre in its book jacket.  As a result, I enjoyed listening to Donovan Hohn’s book on the adventure of bath toys on my commute to work.  A story of obsession, travel, globalism, environmentalism, American literature and a story of home, hearth and fatherhood.  The author takes us along for the ride of what happened to a lost shipment of bath toys.  Starting in the Pacific Ocean, the ride journeys backwards to their point of creation in China and forward through where the washed up on Alaskan shores and finally through the Artic and the Altantic Ocean where they would meet their final demise. 

 In particular, I enjoyed the self-effacing style of the author who provides a humble and sympathetic narration.  Nevertheless, the book is full of fun facts and historical asides.  For example, I find it interesting that the container ship industry was invented by an American in the early 1950’s.  To some extent, I see it as a metaphor of the transfer of power and economic wealth from the American century to the future Asian century. 

A good read and well recommended book for those interested in any of the genres discussed above.