Saturday, October 31, 2009

Saltworks Technologies Inc.

Ben Sparrow and Joshua Zoshi are the founders of Vancouver based Saltworks Technologies Inc. Sparrow and Zoshi met at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver while completing their MBAs. They see the same problems and issues that many parts of the world see and are forecasting - how to take salt out of seawater. There is a lot of water on the Plant - but 97% of it is salty and over half of the remainder is frozen at the poles or in glaciers. One answer is desalination - historically expensive mainly due to the energy needs.

Sparrow and Zoshi have a new idea and their test plant becomes operational in November. The firm estimates that they can produce 1,000 litres of drinking water with less than one kWh of electricity. Their process is fuelled by concentration gradients of salinity between different vessels of brine, These different salinities are brought about by evaporation.

By comparison, existing desalination plants work in one of two ways. Some distill seawater by heating it up to evaporate part of it. They then condense the vapor - a process that requires electricity. The other plants use reverse osmosis. This employs high-pressure pumps to force the water from brine through a membrane that is impermeable to salt. That, too, needs electricity. Even the best reverse-osmosis plants require 3.7 kWhs of energy to produce 1,000 litres of drinking water.

The Saltworks process begins by spraying seawater into a shallow, black-bottomed pond, where it absorbs heat from the atmosphere (sounds like San Diego as a U.S. test site to me). The resulting evaporation increases the concentration of salt in the water from its natural level of 3.5% to as much as 20%. Low-pressure pumps are then used to pipe this concentrated seawater, along with three other streams of untreated seawater, into a desalting unit. The process basically creates an electrical circuit. Instead of electrons carrying the current, though, it is carried by electrically charged atoms (ions).

Salt is made of two ions: positively charged sodium and negatively charged chloride. These flow in opposite directions around the circuit. Each of the four streams of water is connected to two neighbors by what are known as ion bridges. These are pathways made of polystyrene that has been treated so it will allow the passage of only one sort of ion - either sodium or chloride. Sodium and chloride ions pass out of the concentrated solution to the neighbouring weak ones by diffusion through these bridges (and chemical will diffuse from high to low concentration in this way). The trick is that as they do so, they make the low-concentration streams of water electrically charged. The one that is positive, because it has too much sodium, thus draws chloride ions from the stream that is to be purified. Meanwhile, the negative, chloride-rich stream draws in sodium ions. The result is that the fourth stream is stripped of its ions and emerges pure and fresh.

Clever engineering and a simple idea -

The Confusing Flexibility Of Words

Our language is highly complex. If each word had only one potential meaning which we all agreed, effective communication would be more likely. However, most words have more than one meaning.

Consider the multiple meanings of such words as freedom, obscenity, and happiness. These multiple meanings can create serious problems in determining the worth of an argument. for example, when someone argues that a magazine should not be published because it is obscene, you cannot evaluate the argument until you know what the writer means by "obscene." In this belief argument, it is easy to find the conclusion and the supporting reason, but the quality of the reasoning is difficult to judge because of the ambiguous use of obscene. Thus, even when you can identify the basic structure of what others are saying, you still struggle with meaning of certain words in that structure. A warning - we often misunderstand what we read or hear because we presume that the meaning of words is obvious.

Whenever you are reading or listening, force yourself to search for ambiguity; otherwise, you may simply miss the point. A term or phrase is ambiguous when its meaning is so uncertain in the context of the argument we are examining that we need further clarification before we can judge the adequacy of the reasoning.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Handwritten Thank You Note

Nothing sends a more personal message to a friend, family member or client than a handwritten thank you note. You're so connected, You check your messages from a gizmo in your pocket, a laptop on your kitchen table, and desktop in your office. You read e-mail from work while you are at home and personal e-mail on the job. You buzz your friends cell phones with telegraphic short text messages, converse in real-time cyberspace with instant messages, and add a sticky note to any piece of paper you send around.

We are trading quality for quantity. How do you put your feelings into words when someone does something extra special for you? Via e-mail? The next time you need to connect with someone and say thank you or on a subject that requires more than a snap reply, stop and ask yourself. Is there a better way to do this? Is your connection as warm and strong as it could be? Think about what it feels like to settle into a personal thank you that's been written just for you. Remember how connected it makes you feel, how valued and cared for.

Just as writing by hand on paper can raise the writer's standards for wording, typing into an e-mail frame can lower them. Many people abandon careful spelling, basic grammar, and common courtesy once they click on the button to compose a message. The tone of a person's e-mail message may also sound out of character: e-mail makes some writer's apologetic and verbose, whereas others come across as being blunt and off hand. It may be difficult for the writer to infuse the e-mail screen with the same warmth and personality that comes naturally in a handwritten message on paper.

Writing by hand acknowledges that something important, above the ordinary, exists between the two of you. Say thank you on paper with many of the same words you would use in person. Praise the readers' kindness specifically. Share your delight and acknowledge the givers' role in making something possible for you. Finally, don't stamp the letter through the postage machine!!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nuclear Plants and Banks

How lucky can you be. Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable in 2007. According to Taleb a Black Swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. One year after the publication of his book we get the Black Swan of our generation - the subprime meltdown and economic implosion.

Taleb is the Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University's Polytechnic Institute and a principal of Universa Investments, a firm in Santa Monica, California. In the October 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review, Taleb writes:

One of the myths of capitalism is that it is about incentives. It is also about disincentives. No one should have a piece of the upside with a share of the downside. However, the very nature of compensation adds to risk. If you give someone a bonus without claw back provisions, he or she will have an incentive to hide risk by engaging in transactions that have a high probability of generating small profits and a small probability of blowups [I don't necessarily agree with this portion and his language is a little confusing]. Executives can thus collect bonuses for several years. If blowups eventually take place, the managers may have to apologize but won't have to return past bonuses. This applies to corporations, too. That's why many CEOs become rich while shareholders stay poor. Society and shareholders should have the legal power to get back the bonuses of those who fail us. That would make the world a better place.

Moreover, we shouldn't offer bonuses to those who manage risky establishments such as nuclear plants and banks. The chances are they will cut corners in order to maximize profits. Society gives its greatest risk-management task to the military, but soldiers don't get bonuses.

Remember that the biggest risk lies within us: We overestimate our abilities and underestimate what can go wrong. The ancients considered hubris the greatest defect, and the gods punished it mercilessly. Look at the number of heroes who faced fatal retribution for their hubris: Achilles and Agamemnon died as a price of their arrogance; Xerxes failed because of his conceit when he attacked Greece; and many generals throughout history have died for not recognizing it Achilles' heel is fated to die because of it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Year 2030

C. Fred Bergsten is Director of the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics. He was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs from 1977 to 1981 and Assistant for International Affairs to the National Security Council from 1969 to 1971. In the November/December 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, Bergsten writes the following in an article entitled The Dollar and the Deficit: How Washington Can Prevent the Next Crisis:

Using the CBO data and assumptions of future growth, William Cline of the Peterson Institute has projected U.S. trade and current account deficits through 2030. The results are sobering: the U.S. trade deficit in goods and services will exceed $3 trillion, about four times as much as the previous record, from 2006, in dollar terms and about eight percent of GDP. Although such a percentage is only modestly higher than the six percent level of 2006, it is worth remembering that 2006 was the year in which foreign capital inflows peaked, bringing the financial bubble to a head and setting the final stage for the current crisis. According in Cline's study, the greatest projected change is the rise in annual payments to foreign dollar holders needed to service the United States' external debt. Although the United States is already the world's largest debtor country in dollar terms, it makes no net payments now because U.S. investments abroad earn much more than do foreign investments here.

Even if such favorable returns persist, Cline's projections show, the level of U.S. debt will climb from under $5 trillion now to more than $50 trillion, and the annual cost of servicing that debt will soar to $2.5 trillion. By 2030, the United States will be transferring seven percent of its entire annual output to the rest of the world. In order to pay for its previous profligacy, the United States will have to forgo $2.5 trillion - equal to the nation's current total annual spending on health care - of domestic consumption, investment, and government expenditures each year. At a minimum, this will lead to a long-term erosion of living standards in the United States.

These projections suggest that the United States' annual current account deficit will thus climb to almost $6 trillion by 2030, more than seven times its previous high. Such a sum would account for more than 15 percent of GDP, or two and half times the peak rate of 2006, and would be at least triple the accepted international norm for sustainable current deficits, which is four or, at most, five percent of GDP.

The administration has advanced specific proposals for a host of issues - from health care reform to climate change. What is needed is an agenda item that has the goal of achieving sustainable equilibrium in the international economic positions of the United States. We are facing a scenario in which the net international position, or net foreign debt, of the United States would exceed $50 trillion, or 140 percent of GDP - more than triple the accepted international norm of 40 percent. We are facing the erosion of living standards in the United States. We are facing Year 2030.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Searching For The Expert

Finding a plumber. Typically you start with your own experience, or a referral from a friend, or maybe by an online search. Type in "Plumber" and your zip code and a list appears - quantity and with refinement, the possibility of some type of quality assessment. What if you work for a large organization and you are interested in locating an in-house corrosion control engineer. You probably would follow the same trail as your search for a plumber.

The internal database might be problem. To date, most such systems are centrally managed efforts and that's a problem. The typical setup identifies and catalogs experts in a searchable directory or database that includes descriptions of the experts knowledge and experience, and sometimes links to samples of their work, such as research reports.

Two primary problems are embedded in this approach. The first is the system is not dynamic and does not capture the constant changing credentials and role of the experts. Second, users of these systems need more than a list of who knows what among employees. They also need to gauge the experts' "softer" qualities such as - trustworthiness, communication skills, willingness to help, experience, currency of knowledge, awareness of other resources, and extent of knowledge. It isn't easy for a centrally managed database to offer opinions in these areas without crossing delicate political and cultural boundaries. You basically end up with a system where workers in search of expertise within their own organization often don't know where to turn.

New systems, so called expertise-locator systems, are search systems that apply social-computing tools such as internal blogs, wikis, and social networks. A search engine that mines internal blogs, for example, where workers post updates and field queries about their work, will help searchers judge for themselves who is an expert in a given field. Blog mining can provide the extent of knowledge (from posts), trustworthiness (through communications), communication skills (written), and willingness to help (signaled through interactions via feedback via commenting mechanisms). Social network sites demonstrate trustworthiness (through shared ties) and awareness of other resources (through network structure). Wiki sites, because they involve collaborative work, suggest extent of knowledge (through contributions), trustworthiness (through collaboration), communication skills (written), and a willingness to help (signaled through collaboration). Tags and key words, which are posted by employees and serve as flags for search engines, can reveal work experience, currency of knowledge, and extent of knowledge (mostly self-reported).

Monday, October 26, 2009

Appreciating Charles

Watch Charlie Rose. For 18 years and with roughly 6,500 guests, PBS's hour long Charlie Rose has been a salon for extended, thoughtful, and civil conversation about politics, culture, business, science, medicine, technology, literature, media, law, education and any other that the host chooses to explore. This fall, Bloomberg Television is rebroadcasting it in prime time around the world.

The format is typically Rose and a guest at a conference table for discussions lasting between 30 and 60 minutes. The guests range from Bill Gates to Tim Geithner to Charles Manson. The interview process is civilized, important, thoughtful and in the age of the Becks, O'Reillys, Limbaughs, and Olbermanns - absolutely unique. Part Socratic method, part national therapy session, and part Firing Line from-the-go0d-old-days. Rose is the master of asking questions that allow guests the opportunity to explore issues and ideas in detail (30 minutes is better than 30 seconds!!). The back and forth of constructive dialogue - no yelling and no ideology - just the exploration of ideas in a historic manner dating to Murrow, Collingwood, Cronkite, and Sevareid. One hour with Rose on any particular subject or issue allows individuals the chance to begin the process of fully understanding the issues - and this may be the most important element and function of a democratic society. The process of thoughtful, open, and informed discussion and debate on our collective future.

To be effective, engineers need to be able to draw upon their broad education to analyze the impacts of historical and contemporary issues on engineering and analyze the impact of engineering on the world. Examples of contemporary issues that will impact engineering include the current economic crisis; climate change; globalization; raising the quality of life around the world and the technical, environmental, societal, political, legal, aesthetic, economic, and financial implications of engineering projects. When generating and comparing alternatives and assessing performance, engineers must also consider the impact that engineering solutions have on the economy, environment, political landscape, and society. Charlie Rose provides the engineering community with an excellent alternative for understanding and exploring our national and international contemporary issues in a constructive and thoughtful manner.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Gandhi's Moral Calculus (1920 - 1946)

The superiority of nonviolence from Young India, May 12, 1920; Harijan, March 17, 1946.
  1. It is better to die helpless and unarmed and as victims rather than as tyrants.
  2. The purer the sufferings, the greater is the progress.
  3. It may be that in the transition state we may make mistakes; there may be avoidable suffering. These things are preferable to national emasculation.
  4. We must refuse to wait for the wrong to be righted till the wrong-doer has been roused to a sense of his iniquity.
  5. One must scrupulously avoid the temptation of a desire for results.

Not Being Siloed

Career advice from Tim Brown, chief executive and president of IDEO, the design firm based in Palo Alto, California:

Always be highly inquisitive and interested in not being siloed. I've always been interested in different things and different pieces of the process, whether it's as an organization or in design or whatever it might be.

I've always liked being an interdisciplinary person, and I always give that same advice to others. Particularly in a world like today, where change is going on around us all the time, agility and resilience are two characteristics that organizations need, and individuals need.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Female Economy

"Women now drive the world economy." The September 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review reinforces this point. Women represent the largest market opportunity in the world. Globally they control about $20 trillion in annual consumer spending and that figure could climb as high as $28 trillion in the next five years. In aggregate, women represent a growth market bigger than China and India combined.

Women make the decision in the purchases of 94% of home furnishings, 92% of vacations, 91% of homes, 60% of automobiles, and 51% of consumer electronics. Doing all that in an environment where 39% work more than 40 hours per week.

The 2008/09 severe global recession also has changed the landscape for many male-dominated segments of the economy. Manufacturing and real estate development/construction - historic bastions of male dominance - have declined rapidly, and probably will never recover to their past glories as drivers of our economic engine. On the other end of the scale, education and medical services - centers of female employment will see a greater share of the national and international GDP. This points to a future of parity, power, and influence for females in "The Female Economy." When the dust from the current economic crisis settles, many experts are predicting women will occupy an even more important position in the economy and world order than they now do.

The engineering profession needs to understand the fundamental importance of this economic, societal, and cultural transformation. Approximately 8% of the engineering workforce is female. In this context, an additional 90 million or so women are expected to enter the workforce by 2013. At nearly every major consumer company, most middle managers are women. Its only a matter of time before they rise to more senior positions. Already, women own 40% of the businesses in the United States and their businesses are growing at twice the rate of U.S. firms as a whole.

The interesting issue is how do you transform organizations in which a labor force that is 92% male - designing things for customers that are 70% female? Only one side of the equation is controllable - the 92% side. This side of the equation needs to either become more balanced (in all aspects - ownership, management, engineering, etc.) or the 92% segment needs to fully understand and appreciate their customer base.

Law 11 - Learn To Keep People Dependent On You

Robert Greene points out the following in his book The 48 Laws of Power (1998):

To maintain your independence you must always be needed and wanted. The more you are relied on, the more freedom you have. Make people depend on you for their happiness and prosperity and you have nothing to fear. Never teach them enough so that they can do without you.

Necessity rules the world. People rarely act unless compelled to. If you create no need for yourself, then you will be done away with at first opportunity. The ultimate power is the power to get people to do as you wish. When you can do this without having to force people or hurt them, when they willingly grant you what you desire, then your power is untouchable. The best way to achieve this position is to create a relationship of dependence. The master requires your services; he is weak, or unable to function without you; you have enmeshed yourself in his work so deeply that doing away with you would bring him great difficulty, or at least would mean valuable time lost in training another to replace you. Once such a relationship is established you have the upper hand, the leverage to make the master do as you wish. It is the classic case of the man behind the throne, the servant of the king who actually controls the king.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Masters of Competitive Intelligence

The past masters of competitive intelligence offer the following four pieces of advice:
  1. Act on critical intelligence with speed - Nathan Rothschild.
  2. You will need less information if you build on past experience - Warren Buffett.
  3. See your competitors through the eyes of your customers - probably the clearest view of all - Sam Walton and Michael Dell.
  4. Scan the market from all dimensions including the political - Richard Branson.

Several other tools and ideas are important with respect to competitive intelligence. One is the idea of transparency. An important lesson is that transparency in the context of competitive intelligence, does not just happen and it's not the product of architecture alone. You need to direct intelligence, to give people a place to send it and to provide a purpose. You need to direct it - find places and portals - such as a network or a war room where all becomes visible.

"I can find out anything within three phone calls" and there are six points of contact from anyone else is another key idea. Competitive intelligence needs people who are builders and developers of connections. Development needs to be in their blood - the "look around and just-three-phone-calls-will-do-it" types. There is also a deeper and more substantive competent to this - day in and day out, people emit signals that reveal their intentions and deepest desires. If we do no pick them up, it is because we are not paying attention. The reason for this is simple: we are usually locked up in our own worlds, listening to our internal monologues, obsessed with ourselves and satisfying our own egos. To the extent that you can drop your self-interest and see people for who they are, divorced from your desires, you will become more sensitive to their signals. This creates stronger relationships and broader networks.

The last thought concerns ground-level data - bean counting. People who enjoy and understand the information they collect. Helping to provide reason and meaning behind the network of connections. A bean counter from an intelligence perspective is the lifeblood of management decision making. You can find bean counters in sales, finance, purchasing, customer service, and product management. It's less the function in which you find a bean counter that's important than it is how companies use the insight they bring that is critical. Competitive intelligence and information means nothing unless you are adept at interpreting human behavior and psychology. Without that skill you will see in it what you want to see, confirming your own prejudices.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Four Core Competencies

Writer and management academic Warren Bennis identifies four core competencies that gifted leaders have in abundance:
  1. Adaptive capacity - They see beyond the apparent. They know that they don't know what they don't know, so they're attuned to learning and see learning in failure. Noticing and the quest for knowledge enable them to see and seize opportunities.
  2. The ability to engage others in a shared vision - Leaders encourage dissent and questioning because they use constructive criticism to enhance their adaptive capacity.
  3. A distinctive voice - Their self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-control show in their character. They know that emotional intelligence - the understanding of feelings that enable people to succeed in life - fosters shared vision.
  4. Integrity - Three components define it: ambition, competence, and a strong moral compass.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Occupation Of Mexico

Andrew Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University and retired colonel from the U.S. Army, has written a first class book entitled The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008). The book outlines the triple crisis facing America today - the economy, in remarkable disarray, can no longer be fixed by relying on expansion abroad; the government, transformed by an imperial presidency, is a democracy in form only; the nation's involvement in endless wars, driven by a deep infatuation with military power, has been a catastrophe for the body politic.

Bacevich has provided an interesting essay in the November 2009 edition of Harper's Magazine. He flips the Afghanistan "out or in" discussion and debate rather nicely on its head with the following series of questions:

For those who, despite all this, still hanker to have a go at nation building, why start with Afghanistan? Why not first fix, say Mexico? In terms of its importance to the United States, our southern neighbor - a major supplier of oil and drugs among other commodities deemed vital to the American way of life - outranks Afghanistan by several orders of magnitude.

If one believes that moral considerations rather than self-interest should inform foreign policy, Mexico still qualifies for priority attention. Consider the theft of California. Or consider more recently how the American appetite for illicit drugs and our lax gun laws have corroded Mexican institutions and produced an epidemic of violence afflicting ordinary Mexicans. Yet any politician calling for the commitment of 60,000 U.S. troops to Mexico to secure those interests or acquit those moral obligations would be laughed out of Washington - and rightly so. Any pundit proposing that the United States assume responsibility for eliminating the corruption endemic in Mexican politics while establishing in Mexico City effective mechanisms of governance would have his license to pontificate revoked. Anyone suggesting that the United States possesses the wisdom and the wherewithal to solve the problem of Mexican drug trafficking, to endow Mexico with competent security forces, and to reform the Mexican school system (while protecting the rights of Mexican women) would be dismissed as a lunatic. Meanwhile, those who promote such programs for Afghanistan, ignoring questions of cost and ignoring as well the corruption and ineffectiveness that pervade our own institutions, are treated as sages.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Joy Of A Bad Manager

Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo and former head of Autodesk had the following thoughts on bad management:

People should understand that they learn more from a bad manager than a good manager. They tend to get into a cycle where they're so frustrated that they aren't paying attention. When you have a good manager things go so well you don't even know why it's going well because it just feels fine.

When you have a bad manager you have to look at what's irritating you and say: "Would I do that? How would I do this?" You have to deal with what you're dealt. Otherwise you're going to run from something and not to something. And you should never run from something.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What The General Reads

In the October 18, 2009 The New York Times Magazine article His Long War by Dexter Filkins, Filkins relates the following story about General Stanley McChrystal:

Yet for all his asceticism, McChrystal displays a subtlety that suggests a wider view of the world. "If you were to go into his house, he has this unreal library," Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, McChrystal's intelligence chief and longtime friend, told me this summer. "You can go over and touch a binding and ask him, "What is this about?" "And he'll just start. His bad habit is wandering around old bookstores. He's not one of these guys that just reads military books. He reads about weird things too. He's reading a book about Shakespeare right now."

Treating Voters As Adults

At the height of the British Empire, Cecil Rhodes stated, "Ask any man what nationality he would prefer to be, and ninety nine out of a hundred will tell you that they would prefer to be Englishmen." One hundred years does make a difference - in 2009 mighty Britain is probably in the lower single digits on the English preference scale. Britain, whose currency in recent months has taken a beating even worse than the dollar has, is expected to generate a deficit of 13% of GDP this year, with its government debt forecast to reach 100% of GDP by 2014, according to the International Monetary Fund. The United States is a bit behind the British on the Debt-Empire Curve. Behind - but quickly closing. By comparison, the debt burden in the United States is forecast to increase to 66%, from about 40%, over the same period according to the Congressional Budget Office. The British Empire has collapsed to the point where just this week, the European Commission termed Britain's debt "unsustainable" in a devastating report that compared public finances there to those of countries like Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. Oscar Wilde might have been correct in this observation that, "The English have a miraculous power of turning wine into water."

Last week, George Osborne, the finance minister-in-waiting for the British Conservative Party, delivered a speech at the Tory conference warning of Britain's mushrooming debt burden. The language of the speech was remarkably honest and refreshing for public political discourse. Osborne observed that, "You have to be honest with people. There is so much distrust in the system that I believe there is a premium on straight talking. The government borrowed too much, the banks borrowed too much. Let's tell the truth: We all borrowed too much. We are sinking in a sea of debt." Osborne continued with, "We have to show that we are fair to all parts of society. It would be impossible to cut taxes now while we are asking others to sacrifice so much."

Empires throughout history have had collective qualities, ideas, and attitudes that have helped them to develop their most defining characteristic - longevity. Over the many centuries - the British Empire and citizenry were defined by courage, endurance, and discipline. In the case of Britain, it is interesting to note that with the decline of fiscal discipline, the speed with which endurance and longevity were quickly cracked and fractured (the Roman Empire is even more remarkable - - courage, endurance, and discipline all collapsed together as a result of the dreaded empire virus - imperial overreach). Courage and will power have limitations on the empire longevity timeline - especially when fighting public debt at 120% of GDP.

The full text of the Osborne speech can be found at -

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ten Spiritual Lessons From U2

From the book We Get to Carry Each Other: The Gospel According to U2 by Greg Garrett:
  1. "But I still haven't found what I'm looking for" (from "I still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," The Joshua Tree) - Life is a journey, not a destination; faith is a means, not an end.
  2. "Hello, hello (Hola!)/I'm at a place called vertigo" (From "Vertigo," How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb) - Contemporary life is disconcerting, destabilizing; that is its nature. don't expect it to be otherwise.
  3. "We get to carry each other" (from "One," Achtung Baby) - Our lives are for and with each other. We need each other to be who we are called to be.
  4. "The goal is elevation" (from "Elevation," All That You Can't Leave Behind) - We are seeking transcendence for ourselves, our spirits, our world.
  5. "I can't believe the news today/I can't close my eyes and make it go away" (from "Sunday Bloody Sunday," War) - Ignoring the brokenness we see is not an option; we are called to bring healing and hope, to help healing and hope, to help transform the world.
  6. "It's a beautiful day/Don't let it slip away" (from "Beautiful Day," All that You Can't Leave Behind) - We live in a marvelous creation. Pay attention to it.
  7. "What more in the name of love?" (from "Pride in the Name of Love," The Unforgettable Fire) - Risk everything for love; there is not higher value. Love changes everything, including us.
  8. "We need love and peace" (from "Love and Peace or Else," How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb) - War and cruelty destroy lives and demean the human spirit.
  9. "Sometimes you can't make it on you own" (from "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own," How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb) - It's no shame to reply on others. We are made for companion ship - especially in tough times.
  10. "Walk on" (from "Walk On," All That You Can't Leave Behind) - You can lose everything but what matters most. Don't despair. Don't stop believing. Don't stop working on the healing of the world. You are never alone.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Comment Versus Pourquoi

From the French - How versus Why. Jean-Francois Zobrist, the former executive of a France-based manufacturing company does a wonderful job illustrating the leadership differences between "How" and "Why" companies. "How" companies spend their time telling workers how to do their job - where to place the machinery, when to come to work, when to leave, and so on. This has two fundamental consequences. The first is that you end up judging employees by everything except what counts, which is whether the job gets done and the customer is happy. The second is that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to change any of the myriad of rules about how to get things done. You want to move that cart to a different spot on the shop floor? You need clearance from your manager, who may have to ask his manager, and so on, creating a never-ending "chain of comment." The result is that it becomes impossible to get the work done without disobeying somebody in the chain of command. A pourquoi company is different. It replaces all the myriad "hows" with a single question: Why are you doing what you're going? The answer is always the same: to keep the customers happy. As long as what you do satisfies that commandment, Zobrist doesn't worry about how you do it. Freedom at his firm meant replacing the chain of comment with a single pourquoi.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thinking Outside The Box With Blondes

We as a nation probably spend tens of millions of dollars on brainstorming sessions and Shaman-like experts and gurus that attempt to enhance our ability to think creatively. As Dexter Filkins relates in his excellent book The Forever War (2008), the human spirit and imagination really has no limit or boundary to thinking about unique solutions to complex and difficult problems. In some respects, we are a nation and profession of outside-the-box thinkers. We are good at it - individually, collectively, and without the need for enhanced facilitation. One has to grin with amusement at the following story that probably came from a group of 19-year old kids setting around and talking over a box of Pop-Tarts without the aid and wisdom of a $250 per hour facilitator.

In the morning, the captain and I had walked down a road lined with craters. We'd walked slowly, checking for wires, animal carcasses, loose dirt. Bomb stuff. It was a sweltering morning in Ramadi, with the mist of the Euphrates infiltrating our lungs.

Later on, sitting in a walkway of one of Saddam's palaces, the captain started telling stories. We hadn't spent much time together but we'd walked this road and survived, so the air around us for the moment was light and full of trust. We were both from Florida.

"So we came up with this great way to search villages," the captain told me. He pushed his knife into an MRE.

"We've got this girl here in the company - blonde, she's hot," the captain said. "This is when we were up in Mosul. We had to search all these villages for guns. Those villages are awful up there. So we went into this village and put the blonde girl we had on top of one of the Bradleys. We just rolled in and put her up there and took off her helmet and let her hair spill out."

"So she's standing there on top of the Bradley, blonde hair and everything, and we called out on the loudspeaker, "This woman is for sale. Blonde woman for sale!" And I'll be damned if every Iraqi male in that village wasn't gathered around the Bradley in about two minutes. You know the Iraqis are crazy for blondes. Crazy for them. They don't have any here."

The captain started eating a strawberry Pop-Tart.

"So she's standing up there on the Bradley, and we'd have an auction. Highest bid gets the blonde! They're going crazy, the Iraqis, offering their goats, trucks, all their money. Children. Everything. I'm standing up there, saying, "Nope, not enough! Not enough!" And they're bidding more. One of the guys had his hands on the big machine gun just in case it got out of control. The Iraqis were wild. Just staring at her."

"So we're up there having the auction, and during the auction I sent our guys around back into the houses to look for guns. We're having the auction and all the Iraqis are at the auction yelling for the blonde while our guys are collecting the guns from the houses. It was totally quiet in the houses, just the women in there. We got a huge pile of guns. Searched the whole village. No problem."

What happened with the auction? I asked him.

"We just shut it down. Told them the bids weren't high enough." The captain laughed. "The Iraqis were pissed off but it was okay."

I was laughing and the captain got quiet for a second.

"We did that in three villages. Worked every time. We got reprimanded. Somebody found out about it. They didn't like it," he said, chewing on his Pop-Tart. "I thought it was brilliant myself. Smartest thing we ever did."

The Importance Of Curiosity

Engineers get compensated for providing answers - don't they? Maybe, maybe not. Engineering is about solving problems - but to forge strong relationships and find solutions, it pays to ask lots of questions. Asking questions - and lots of them - is the only way to get to a workable solution to any problem, and it's the best way to build trust and rapport. A key point - make sure that questions lead quickly into a two-way conversation and don't have the questions feel like a barrage. Engineers also need to get more comfortable deliberately engaging with people who disagree with them and have a willingness and aptitude to probe them on their point of view.

Questioners have a high inquisitive and curiosity nature and level. Orit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain & Company, shares her thoughts on the importance of curiosity outside the workplace:

Once you start asking questions, it becomes part of the fabric of who you are. I love art and theater, and I read about 100 books a year - about business, philosophy, psychology, military history, geopolitical issues, whatever. At a dinner party, I'll always ask the guests next to me about their lines of work.

Of course I do these things for my own satisfaction, I strongly believe that having access to a multitude of outside perspectives makes me a better consultant. I allows me to relate to a greater variety of people and helps me think in new ways, which is not only about being smarter but also about recognizing patterns I've seen elsewhere.

As a natural questioner, I bring value to the boards I sit on, too. The most distinguished board is useless and does a real disservice to the organization, in my view, if the people on it don't ask the right questions. If you're not asking questions, you're not doing your job.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Exit Strategy

Know how to end things. We have a cultural preoccupation with the beginning, but what often matters the most is the ending. The last two minutes in a tight football game. The ninth inning and two outs in the World Series. The closing arguments in a criminal trial. The last 30 minutes of a six hour heart transplant operation. The end game for both Iraq and Afghanistan. The beginning draws the excitement, attention, and anticipation - but the ending becomes the benchmark for success or failure of most endeavors. It is important to remember that the ending process is not as tactical as just a win or a loss. It has a strategic component where the ending can be seen as the beginning and the understanding that the only real ending is death. Everything else is a transition.

As Robert Green writes about warfare in The 33 Strategies of War (2006):

"You are judged in this world by how well you bring things to an end. A messy or incomplete conclusion can reverberate for years to come, ruining your reputation in the process. The art of ending things well is knowing when to stop, never going to far that you exhaust yourself or create bitter enemies that embroil you in conflict in the future. It also entails ending on the right note, with energy and flair. It is not a question of simply winning the war but the way you win it, the way your victory sets you up for the next round. The height of strategic wisdom is to avoid all conflicts and entanglements from which there are no realistic exists."

For most of us, the conclusion of a project (or anything for that matter) represents a kind of wall: our work is done and it is time to tally our gains and losses and move on. But you can look at the world much differently; an ending was not like a wall but more like a door, leading to the next project or phase. What matters is what opens onto the next round. Understand - in any venture, your tendency to think in terms of winning or losing, success or failure is dangerous. Your mind comes to a stop, instead of looking ahead. What you need is a more fluid and strategic outlook on life. Nothing ever really ends; how you finish something will influence and even determine what you do next. Knowing the importance and the emotional resonance of the ending of anything, people should understand that this issue is not simply finishing what they have started but finishing it well - with energy, a clear head, and an eye on the afterglow, the way the event will linger in people's minds. The "Strategic Enders" plan not just to the end but past it, to the aftermath. These are the ones who create things that last - a meaningful peace, a successful project, a memorable work of literature, an long a fruitful career.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Mas Petroleo = Mas Pobreza

The top 15 countries that provide the U.S. with crude oil imports (in barrels per day):

Canada - 1,845,000
Mexico - 1,092,000
Venezuela - 949,000
Saudi Arabia - 944,000
Nigeria - 860,000
Angola - 644,000
Iraq - 587,000
Brazil - 344,000
Columbia - 254,000
Russia - 219,000
Algeria - 215,000
Ecuador - 210,000
Kuwait - 181,000
Gabon - 108,000
Norway - 103,000

Nigeria is an interesting case of Mas Petroleo = Mas Pobroeza. Now the world's eighth-largest exporter of oil, Nigeria earned more than $400 billion from oil in recent decades, yet nine out of ten citizens live on less than $2 per day and one out of five children dies before his fifth birthday. Its per capita GDP is one-fifth of South Africa's. Even Senegal, which exports fish and nuts, has a larger per capita income. The World Bank estimates that 80 percent of Nigeria's oil wealth has gone to one percent of the population. A few years ago the national police chief was convicted of stealing $98 million, and the punch line was his sentence: six months in jail - one month for every $16 million.

More oil equals more poverty.

The CEO And Communications

James E. Rogers, C.E.O. and President of Duke Energy has three good observations regarding communications:

I want to know at the very beginning of a meeting, "What are you asking me to do?" or "What are you recommending that we to" - tell me right at the beginning so that I can listen to the presentation in the context of that.

I believe there is such a thing as "death by PowerPoint." I believe, and this is the storyteller in me, that I'd much rather have someone write a two-page summary of what they're thinking. When you're forced to sit and write it, not only are you getting the subject, verb, predicates right, but you're tying the sentences together and ideas together. PowerPoints are just bullets, bullets, bullets, and when you actually have to write something, you start to develop a more cohesive logic.

People really need to think in a broader way about the relationships and connections between the different functional areas of business. The second thing I would really teach is how to write, and how to speak and make presentations to tell a story, so that people feel it, sense it, and want to so something because of it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Engineering And The TCU Horned Frogs

Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas has a football program that is a fixture in the Top 25. Coach Gary Patterson accomplishes this with a private school with a male student body of 3,700. TCU has been able to win 11 games in four of the last six years - in a part of the country where recruiting competition places the program equal distance between the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas.

How is this happening? Patterson is an excellent defensive coach - but more key to his schemes are the players he finds to build the program and organization around. The October 2, 2009 edition of Sports Illustrated outlines four themes that are important to Patterson and his approach. They are also relevant to engineering and management. His players tend to fit a certain mold. They are:
  • "Fast. You can be short. But if you can't fly to the ball, TCU isn't interested." What is the engineering equivalent of fast and speed? It would be fast and quick engineers - they would be quick in their thinking, productive in their time management, responsive to the demands of an ever changing world, that understand and quickly grasp the questions and answers associated with a problem. They would be comfortable with speed as a source of competitive advantage for an organization or department.

  • "From Texas - of the 21 players in TCU's 2009 recruiting class, 20 are from in-state - and acutely aware of having been overlooked by Texas - guys with a blue-collar work ethic and a chip on their shoulders." The equivalent characteristic for engineers is attitude. The "Death March" ones - will not give up on anything or on any project. They know how to fail, how to understand and deal with adversity, how to get better, how to channel their competitive energies for the benefit of a project team or organization. In a world of avalanches, negative cascades, and techonic shifts - their positive attitude , will power, and desire to show the world their abilities can transform an organization.

  • "Low maintenance. Patterson seeks self-starters, guys who watch video during their lunch periods, who don't have be lassoed into the weight room. It doesn't matter how bad I want it if they don't, he says." The new buzz word for the entire engineering community - lifetime learning. How can I get better, show me something new, the ones that have a plan that goes until they are 75-years old. They not only want to learn and learn on their on with the goal of getting better - they want to teach and make everyone around them better.

  • "Not overly attached to the position they played in high school. In 2006 five of the 11 players on the defensive line were former high school running backs." The hedgehog needs to know only one thing. The fox needs to know many. The engineering community needs to attract and encourage the foxes. These are the foxes - with their wide-ranging curiosity and willingness to embrace change. The multi-inter-disciplinary ones - the multi-taskers that help their organizations to rejigger their structures, approaches, and processes continually to grapple with ever shifting challenges and opportunities.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The EWB Dimensions Of Sustainability

Engineers Without Borders defines sustainability for their international efforts and projects within the context of the following four dimensions:
  • Ecological Sustainability - Natural resources are not depleted for short-term improvements.
  • Economic Sustainability - Improvements are not dependent on continuing infusions of outside resources.
  • Political Sustainability - Changes are consistent with distributions of power in the society.
  • Cultural Sustainability - Change must be driven primarily by the community to be consistent with its core values.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

It's Never Done

Abdullah Asieri was one of Saudi Arabia's most wanted men. In August of this year, Asieri was able to place a pound of high explosives plus a detonator into his rectum with the goal of killing the head of Saudi counterterrorism operations. Asieri had convinced Saudi officials that he and other al Qaeda figures wanted to surrender. He avoided detection by two sets of airport security systems including metal detectors in addition to palace security. He spent 30 hours in the close company of Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, head of Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism operations, own secret service agents - all without anyone suspecting a thing. The bomb was detonated via a cell phone. The blast left the prince lightly wounded - a failure as an assassination, but as an exercise in defeating security, it was nearly perfect.

As one aviation security consultant commented after the bombing, "This is the nightmare scenario."

From airports to federal facilities to shopping malls - the international engineering community is increasingly engaged in a security innovations race. Security is fundamentally about prevention. A security system is the set of things put in place, or done, to prevent adverse consequences. Like any other system, security systems can be attacked, can have flaws, and can fail. Security is an ongoing process; it's never done.

International security expert Bruce Schneier, in his book Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security In An Uncertain World (2003), outlines a five-step process to analyze and evaluate security systems technologies, and practices.
  • Step One: What assets are you trying to protect? This question might seem basic, but a surprising number of people never ask it. The question involves understanding the scope of the problem. For example, securing an airplane, an airport, commercial aviation, the transportation system, and a nation against terrorism are all different security problems, and require different solutions.
  • Step Two: What are the risks to these assets? Here we consider the need for security. Answering it involves understanding what is being defended, what the consequences are if it is successfully attacked, who wants to attack it, how they might attack it, and why.
  • Step Three: How well does the security solution mitigate those risks? Another seemingly obvious question, but one that is frequently ignored. If the security solution doesn't solve the problem, it's no good. This is not as simple as looking at the security solution and seeing how well it works. It involves looking at how the security solution interacts with everything around it, evaluating both its operation and its failures.
  • Step Four: What other risks does the security solution cause? This question addresses what might be called the problem of unintended consequences. Security solutions have ripple effects, and most cause new security problems. The trick is to understand the new problems and make sure they are smaller than the old ones.
  • Step Five: What costs and trade-offs does the security solutions impose? Every security system has costs and requires trade-offs. Most security costs money, sometimes substantial amounts; but other trade-offs may be more important, ranging from matters of convenience and comfort to issues involving basic freedoms like privacy. Understanding these trade-offs is essential.

Some of this seems obvious and the process will not lead to the answer. The point is that the process will provide a mechanism to evaluate a proposed answer. It is about the questions. The engineering community must constantly ask new and different questions. As famous foreign policy expert and author George Kennan commented in a 1949 speech to the Academy of Political Science - "The problems of this world are deeper, more involved, and more stubborn than many of us realize." For the engineering community, that means in the context of security systems, it's never done.

A Black Hole

Consumption accounts for over 70% of U.S. spending. During the 1950s, our household savings rate ran roughly 8% of our disposable income. In the decadent years from 2002 to 2007 by contrast, that rate averaged only 2.7%. Will American consumers pick up where they left off two years ago, or 50 years ago? Assume the answer is somewhere in the middle.An increase of five percentage points of savings would leave the economy with a $545 billion gap to fill.

This is just a portion of the hole. The U.S. housebuilding industry has left another hole. Residential investment in the second quarter of 2009 was 56% below its peak. The industry will not (and should not) return to its pre-financial meltdown size when it accounted for 6.1% of GDP. But if homebuilding recovers about half of the ground it has lost since then, it will be about $216 billion below its peak.

Adding the two components of the hole - our spending is about $760 billion short of the amount required to return the economy to full employment. If no other source of spending takes over to fill the hole, then sales will stagnate, employment will fail to recover, and household incomes will falter. Tax revenue and local public sector spending will also remain flat or decline.

A Black Hole.

Top 10 Media Tips

Provided below is a list of the top 10 media tips for engineers to remember:
  1. Public perception is public reality.
  2. Be upfront, even with bad news. This will build trust.
  3. Speak with control and confidence. You are the expert.
  4. Know the audience. Most members of the media have little understanding of science and engineering.
  5. Remember - the right source isn't always the most senior member of a project team or organization involved in the interview.
  6. Keep what you say simple, relevant, and memorable.
  7. Never go "off the record."
  8. Be consistent, be fair.
  9. Return media calls promptly, showing a reporter you care about the story.
  10. Never lie or mislead.

Friday, October 2, 2009

"Books Are Weapons"

In her book, Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (2007), West Point English professor Elizabeth Samet writes the following:

Champions of the liberal education cadets receive at West Point - and those champions include the general officers who lead the institution - are fond of the following quotation, sometimes attributed to Thucydides but in fact penned by the British general Sir William Francis Butler: "The nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards."

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Cameras, computers, and cellphones. They all share a common link and component. The lithium-ion battery. The lithium legacy is undoubtedly heading toward the addition of a new member. The Four C's - cameras, computers, cellphones, and the car. Lithium batteries offer better storage and longer life than the older nickel-metal hydride models, making them ideal for a space-constrained, long-running vehicle.

But where are the known reserves of lithium? Basically in one place. Three quarters of the world's known lithium reserves are concentrated in the Atacama Desert. When it comes to hostile environments, few places can match the Atacama Desert. It's one of the most arid places on the planet, moistened by just half an inch of rain a year. The Atacama is shared by two countries: Chile and Bolivia. Friendly neighbors? Hardly - the one thing these two countries have in common is a historical animosity. The troubled relationship dates to their 19th-century War of the Pacific when Chile was able to cut off Boliva's access to the sea, a maneuver that is still bitterly discussed in La Paz today.

The United States gets 61 percent of its lithium imports from Chile. The path to either competition or cooperation between Chile and Bolivia needs to be given a watchful eye by the international community. We may all be feeling the impact and force behind a new and powerful organization - the Organization of the Lithium Exporting Countries (OLEC).