Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Dragons I’ve Eaten: Speculations on the Existence of Human Intelligence

Carl Sagan conjectured that early diurnal mammals feasted on the eggs of nocturnal dinosaurs. He remarked whimsically that a modern breakfast of chicken eggs is among the few relics of our immemorial joust against the dragons. So I think he wouldn’t mind that I spoof his book’s title* for this nonsense column.

When you carve that other relic, the Christmas goose, be sure to ask your physicist guests whether they want light matter or dark matter. Gaah, can you get over the fact that they’ve lost more than 90% of the universe’s mass? (I'll need to lose some mass after holiday eating; maybe they can give me some tips.) “Oh no,” they say, “we’ve just misplaced it.” You reply, simply and politely, “Gravy or cranberry sauce?” (Your subtext being, “Or bullshit?”)

Speaking of cosmology (were we?), the just-out second book by the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife is, according to reviewers, not as good as the first. I wondered what the big deal was anyway. I travel into the future at the rate of about one day per day, and so do you. Some people don’t keep up, of course; the glaze in some of my students’ eyes is a giveaway. Then there are people who don’t twitter. Obviously “behind the times,” time-traveling at maybe 0.9 days per day.

Ah, you say, but what about going back in time? I can do that too, and my wife can verify it. Yesterday I left our house in the morning, headed for the university, but, because she insisted, I went back in time for dinner!

* Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. Random House, 1977,

Thursday, October 22, 2009

On cold calling, and asking a girl to dance

Question posted on a social network: “I need to make cold calls in order to find a new job. I can’t make myself do it. How can I get over my fear of rejection?”

I had similar fears. (A long time ago!) A teacher asked me bluntly, “What the hell are you protecting?” I was OK after that.

Let me tell you what the teacher meant.

You can treat your ego like a new Porsche. So fearful of dings, bumps and scratches that you never drive it anywhere. If you do drive, you park at the edge of the lot, far away from your Porsche’s fellow automobiles. Or straddle two parking slots.

So. You never get any errands done, you never get the pleasure of driving the open road, you annoy people instead of constructively engaging with them, and you wonder why you spent all that money.

The first scratch on that Porsche is such a treasure! You don’t have to worry any more about getting that first scratch. Now you can enjoy your car.

OK, enough with the car analogy. Now we’re talking about your ego. What aspect of your self-regard is so precious that not bumping it is more important than getting a job? What part of it is so fragile that knocking it around will shatter it and prevent you from functioning? What part of it is so valuable that you’re tempted to spend a lonely life cherishing it, foregoing the pleasures of social interaction?

For 99% of us who are past high school age, the answer is “no part of it.” In no way is ego maintenance more precious than reaching out to other people.

It may take considerable introspection before you can fully realize this truth, within your own personality and life situation. But once you have realized it, everything becomes easier. Job hunting, meeting girls, meeting guys, asking the boss for a raise, making sales calls.

See my book The Conscious Manager: Zen for Decision Makers for more details.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I have started blogging also at ScientificBlogging.com.

Most management-related items will continue to appear here. If you're interested in the more scientific stuff, please check out the link above. Thanks.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Apollo 11: What a difference an A makes

It’s 40 years this week since the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon. Analysis of the tapes shows that Neil Armstrong did say “small step for a man” – and not “small step for man” – though he said the “a” quickly and radio static obscured it.

As my small contribution to the space program, I’ll confirm that this can happen.

Evidence comes from a ski trip in Utah. After a day on the slopes, my sister’s family and mine repaired to a barbecue joint in downtown Park City. A waiter pushed three tables together to accommodate our group of nine.

As we enjoyed our meal, my niece Lara, then 18 years old, decided she wanted something. (What she wanted is lost to history; you’ll see why in a moment.) She walked over to her father’s place at the table and commenced to wheedle him. Playing the little girl, she sat in my brother-in-law’s lap and whispered in his ear.

At that moment, the maitre d’, not knowing they were father and daughter, passed by and remarked, “Do y’all need a room?” He said the “a” quickly, and general restaurant noise obscured it.

Hearing “Do y’all need room?,” brother-in-law replied, “No thanks, we’ve pushed some tables together.”

My sister was aghast. The other children were gagging themselves.

This has become a “family story,” recounted every Thanksgiving when we get together.

So there. It can happen.

Monday, July 13, 2009

An Exercise in Hidden Symbols

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford tricked his wife with the phrase “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” She, and we, now know it meant “shagging the Argentinian lover.”

The (apparently) many who are still astonished by the common hypocrisy of family-values Republican officials didn’t (apparently) read my blog on why, from a primatological point of view, it’s not astonishing at all.

But ours is a nation, and theirs is a party, where denial of human evolution is also common. Maybe that’s why we are loath to learn from primatology.

I’m curious. Where and who is the third woman? That is to say, Sanford’s complex love life includes Mrs. Sanford, the Argentinian cutie, and who?

The hidden symbol: Make an acronym of Hiking the Appalachian Trail, and you get HAT. If you don’t know what a hat trick is, Google it. There’s a third woman somewhere.

Now let’s think about Sarah Palin’s unexplained (at least, unexplained to anyone’s satisfaction) resignation as Governor of Alaska. No, I don’t think Sanford and Sarah were getting it on together. Yet Sanford’s affair finished him as governor, and Letterman had just lampooned the mating practices of the Palin family. Did Sarah resign to pre-empt discovery of, or fallout from, hanky-panky of her own?

People who won’t believe they are related to monkeys seem uncommonly eager to make monkeys of themselves.

eReleases.com Press Release Distribution Services and Press Release Writing

Web 2.0 Online Press Release Distribution

Thursday, July 9, 2009


Last night's commencement address at PUCP-Lima:

Queridos profesores, graduandos, padres de familia, amigos y huéspedes distinguidos.

Me place tener la oportunidad de felicitar a los graduandos y sus familias. Deseo decir que admiro las características de esta generación de graduandos. Ustedes jóvenes van a cambiar el mundo. Sus padres han trabajado duro para construir una vida cómoda para ellos mismos y para ustedes. Asi que también yo deseo que mis queridos graduandos tengan una vida cómoda. Pero ustedes van a abandonar el materialismo comprensible de sus padres, para servir el planeta y construir un futuro sostenible. Quiero ahora decir unas palabras sobre el tema de sostenibilidad.

Sostenibilidad. No hay una definición exacta. Probablemente no la reconocería si la viera. Debe ser una buena cosa, sin embargo. Pero algunos puntos de vista sobre la sostenibilidad son preocupantes, como se ve en estos tres ejemplos:

El decano eminente de una escuela de la ciencia ambiental hizo un sonido vulgar cuando le preguntaron sobre la sostenibilidad. Él contestó que la noción de sustentabilidad parece ir en contra de la segunda ley de la termodinámica. En otro extremo están los que desean reducir al mínimo el impacto de la gente en el planeta. Su subtexto implica la reducción al mínimo del número de gente en el planeta. Y en aún otro extremo están los economistas como Robert Solow, que creen que todo es sostenible, porque el mecanismo del precio modera substituciones de los insumos.

Sospecho que el decano tiene una vision demasiado literal, y también sospecho que los abogados de la tierra odian a la gente. Los teóricos económicos continúan ignorando los efectos externos que crean los problemas ambientales en el primer lugar.

También tengo que decir a Profesór Solow que no hay sustituto para el agua, por ejemplo, ni habrá en el futuro próximo; el agua no es como otros insumos económicos. (Incidente­mente, mis estudiantes creen que la cerveza es un sustituto para el agua. Es una lástima que esta idea tan atractiva no es práctica.)

¿Hay un punto medio entre estos extremos, que sea constructivo y científicamente factible?

Nada de lo que hacemos es sostenible en el largo plazo. Dependemos de la energía solar (como el decano, sin duda, estaba pensando). El sol durará por millones de años. Mientras tanto, sin embargo, cada proceso social degrada la energía.

• “Sostenible” no puede significar simplemente “estático,” lo que significa el fin de la innovación, y el comienzo de la reglamentación excesiva en todos los ámbitos de la vida. El cambio climático (la parte que no es antropogénica) continuará en cualquier caso, y la sociedad y la ecología tendrían que cambiar y adaptarse.

• ¿Puede el termino "sostenible" significar "capaz de evolucionar de una manera constante y manejable?" No. Siempre hay Cisnes Negros, los imprevistos. El calentamiento global es sólo un ejemplo, y es uno que es más previsible que la mayoría.

• Los pensadores y los activistas impulsan a las compañias asistir no sólo a sus impactos financieros, pero también a sus impactos en la gente y en el ambiente. La “triple línea de base” - las personas, los beneficios, y el planeta – puede ser ésta sostenible? Pues, todos nosotros podemos adorarnos uno al otro, y vivir con poco impacto en el planeta, y aún ser golpeadas por un asteroide delincuente. Sólo a través de la tecnología podemos aspirar a reducir la probabilidad o las consecuencias de una colisión con un asteroide. Mejor tecnología facilitará este efecto. Una sociedad que no crea ninguna tecnología nueva, no es sostenible a largo plazo.

• A pesar de que muchas de las economías de subsistencia han durado cientos de años, y han sido interpretados por los escritores como nobles y felices, no podemos equiparar los regímenes de subsistencia con la sostenibilidad. Sin excedentes y "back-up," por ejemplo, tales economías son vulnerables a los cambios ambientales.

Sí que algunas de estas consideraciones pueden sugerir un futuro oscuro e incierto. Sin embargo, si traemos a ellos el optimismo, el aprendizaje y la habilidad de gestión simbolizado por esta feliz noche de graduación, haremos un futuro brillante.

¿En qué escala de tiempo es realista hablar de sostenibilidad? ¿Cuales son los límites de cambio, en los que estamos dispuestos a decir que un sistema ha sido "sostenido"? Un número impresionante de fuentes coinciden que el tiempo realista son unas pocas generaciones. El Club de la Ciudad de Portland, el Consejo Presidental Sobre el Desarrollo Sostenible, Seattle Sostenible y otros dicen "para las generaciones venideras," "las generaciones presentes y futuras," "nuestros hijos y nietos." Esta opinión deja un margen razonable para modificar el plan cuando cambian las condiciones tecnológicas o ambientales.

Naturalmente, las investigaciones forenses revelarán algunos de los culpables en el cambio climático antropogénico. Pero el excoriado oficial de los Estados Unidos que dije que el clima va a cambiar con nosotros o sin nosotros, y que nuestro gran reto es la adaptación, estaba acertado. Debemos preocuparnos menos sobre identificar a los culpables, y más sobre mejorar e inventar estrategias de adaptación.

No creo que estas estrategias de adaptación pueden basarse totalmente en la medición y la valoración de los efectos externos. (Los intercambios de los derechos de carbono han sido escándalosos.) La privatización del servicio municipal del agua es contencioso. Si usted la encuentra preocupante, considere esta posibilidad más extrema: Usted exhala dióxido de carbono al respirar ... En un futuro desafortunado, ¿Vamos a tener que "pagar por respirar"? Tendremos que ser muy cuidadosos en el diseño de los regímenes sostenibles que no están basadas en los precios. Pero tendremos que diseñarlos.

De todos modos, la sostenibilidad es más viable como concepto cuando se define vagamente. En cualquier caso, no podemos predecir con certeza el impacto de un accion empresarial sobre las personas o sobre el planeta mejor que podemos prever el impacto de una actividad empresarial sobre las utilidades financieras. (Piense sobre una llamada de ventas a un cliente potencial, que puede o no comprar su producto.) En primer lugar, no sabemos suficiente la ciencia aplicable. En segundo lugar, la complejidad de las cuestiones ambientales, médicas, psicológicas y de predicción de fenómenos lo hace propenso a errores. En tercer lugar, los impactos sobre las personas, sobre los beneficios, y sobre el planeta van a interactuar el uno contra el otro!

Muy complejo, de hecho. Pero sus padres superaron los desafíos complejos y peligrosos también – la depresión económica, el nazismo, la amenaza de la guerra nuclear - y ustedes superarán el desafío de la sostenibilidad.

Como ustedes han deducido de mis observaciones, la superación de este desafío requerirá la innovación y la claridad del pensamiento - que ustedes aprendieron en sus estudios de MBA - y la resolución fuerte, que se debe hallar dentro de ustedes mismos. Ustedes están bien preparados. Expreso confianza en ustedes, y enhorabuena. Muchas gracias.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Odd Bits: Republicans and Credit Cards

Chronicle of Higher Education headline: “NEW TOP REPUBLICAN ON HOUSE PANEL: WASHINGTON DOESN'T ALWAYS KNOW BEST. In his position on the education committee, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota says he will be guided by skepticism of government's role in higher education.”

In what other industry could you be paid – not fired – for publicly dissing your own job? Mr. Kline, you were sent to Washington to govern, so do your best at governing and quit whining.

In related news… Sarah Palin has stepped down as Alaska’s Governor. She has advanced the Republican goal of smaller government by taking herself off the payroll. Gotta admire that integrity.

How about those companies that want to renew your account in future years by automatically charging your credit card? Just try to cancel that arrangement. “No, sir, we can’t do that by phone, you’ll have to send a registered letter.” “Sorry, we can’t do that on this customer service line, you’ll have to call this special number” (which of course is not answered). Or you’re sent to a phone menu hell in which you can’t cancel without listening to 20 minutes of pitch for other products.

No, that’s not for me. I was happy with Mozy’s free file backup for my home computer, until I filled up the free storage limit. The paid version is cheap enough, offers megabytes galore, but is only available by automatic credit card renewal. No way. So I subscribed to IDrive, which backs me up every night and it’s pay as you go and so far so good.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Regulating the card lenders

Received this letter dated May 2, 2009:

Dear Fred Phillips:

As your credit card company, we value your business and appreciate the opportunity to service your financial needs.

In a recent review of your account, we noticed that you have only used a limited amount of your credit line with us. We believe this may indicate that the line may be higher than required to meet your monthly spending needs and, as a result, your credit line has been changed to $**,***.00.

Chase is committed to maintaining the highest levels of customer satisfaction and we are always looking for ways to improve our products and services. If this change does not meet your current needs or you have questions about this change, please call us at 1-800-346-5538 and one of our advisors can assist you further.

Cardmember Services

...to which I reply via this blog:

Dear Chase,

Due to your unexplained and seemingly random - but ever increasing - fees, and your abrupt reductions in service, I do not consider you a trusted lender. That is why I do not borrow money from you. And won't, if I can avoid it.

Incidentally, I opened this account with a bank that you later acquired. I never asked to borrow money from you, so don't you dare condescend to me.

Best wishes,
Fred Phillips

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Crossing Over

In 2007, for the first time, the majority of human beings lived in cities.

In 2008, the U.S. overtook France as the world's leading wine-drinking nation.  

In 2009, for the first time, more people worldwide used the Internet for social networking than for email. 

I’ve amassed a big collection of such “crossovers” here, with the sources for each. Why? Well, it has always been thought that these points are rather uninteresting; Modis and others showed that chaos can manifest at the beginning and end of an s-shaped growth curve, but that the middle – where these crossovers occur – are as steady and predictable as the day is long.

Hwang, Limprayoon and I will soon submit a paper showing that in many cases, these bland crossover points mask a true tipping point. It is the point where resistance to change – and the people who are influenced by the resistance – become a minority phenomenon. Innovation diffusion really is “touch and go” all the way to the midpoint.

Don’t care about that? Visit the collection anyway. The crossovers are fun to read, and the sheer number of them says volumes about our changing society.

Use the blog’s Comment area to let me know of other interesting crossovers you might be aware of.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A billion out of poverty

Not to beat the dead horse of unfettered free markets (wow, did I mangle a metaphor, or what), but Joe Rightwing is still looking on Constitution Avenue, not on Wall Street, for the crooks who caused the global financial crisis. In the years since Reagan and Thatcher, Joe brays, a billion people have been lifted from poverty. A triumph of free-market capitalism! Let’s overlook the little matter of a worldwide banking crisis!

The purpose of today’s blog is just to point to one fact: Most of the billion who recently waved bye-bye to poverty are Chinese.

That’s right. Not citizens of a market democracy, not denizens of the sub-Saharan developing world, not even Russians enduring the Al Capone style pre-capitalism we Americans got through eighty years ago. Chinese. Chinese who live in the most regulated, government-owns-everything nation on Earth.

Not that I’d want to live there. And I don't begrudge. Just making a point. What do you say to that, Joe?

And oh, by the way, the number of U.S. residents living in poverty rose from about 23 million in 1973 to 36.5 million in 2006. The percent of Americans in poverty has remained constant at 12.3 percent over the same interval. Write to me if you’re curious about source for these data.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Stimulus package and the “American” automobile industry

Will the stimulus package save the “American” automobile industry? Professors Jay Heizer and Barry Render write that the cost of a Pontiac LeMans breaks down this way:

“About $6,000 heads to South Korea for the auto’s assembly; $3,500 goes to Japan for engines, axles, and electronics; $1,500 goes to Germany for design; $800 goes to Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan for smaller parts; $500 heads to England for marketing; $100 goes to Ireland for information technology; and the rest, about $7,600, goes to GM and its US bankers, insurance agents, and attorneys.”

In other words, the LeMans is barely American at all.

So why are GM and Chysler coming to our US government with hat in hand? Why don’t they demand handouts from the governments of Korea or Ireland? For that matter, why aren’t Ireland and Taiwan stepping up to hand billions to GM?

Actually, the German government is opening talks with GM’s local subsidiary, Opel, and the talks might lead to a bailout. So I can’t in fairness go all righteously indignant about that.

But I can reasonably be snarky about this: GM wanted all this globalization that led to the bleeding away of American jobs. If they’re in trouble now, why don’t they whine gimme-gimme to their precious World Trade Organization? A fine thing, to use WTO to marginalize the Congress and sovereignty of the United States - and then tell Congress they might or might not pay on Tuesday for a hamburger today.

In 1971, I worked for General Motors as a Junior Mathematician. (Yes, you read that right.) Never have I met people so out of touch with ordinary Americans. They had plans to build a car with windows that couldn’t be opened – only a slot to pay tolls through. They put our orientation group on buses to move us to another building 40 yards away; we trainees looked at each other in disbelief. It astonishes me that it took them another thirty years to go bankrupt.

When Toyota and Nissan became the quality leaders, GM said what me worry, Americans will buy American cars just because they’re American cars, doesn’t matter if they’re not very good cars. And GM was right – for a while. You can draw many messages from this story, but one of them is: Americans have already given GM their bailout, and GM blew it. Time to pack it in, General Motors.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Alan Watts was a hard act to follow, but I did alright.

Each year I’m invited to lecture to our Organizational Psychology students on material from The Conscious Manager: Zen for Decision Makers. The lectures are well-received and I have fun with them.

Psychology has always big at our university; Carl Rogers, Victor Frankl, and Abraham Maslow have been faculty members here.

After my last lecture, a faculty old-timer remarked to me, “You know, long ago Alan Watts argued pretty much the same point you just did, and in this very room.”

Wow. What a rush to be a part of that tradition.

Just wanted to share the feeling with you.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Infrastructure 2.0: What will it look like?

“Web 2.0” means more interactivity, user-generated content, optimized search and cross-connections, free software, and fees for service. The term emphasizes the contrast with the first wave of web activity, called “content-push” or Web 1.0, really just an electronic form of old-style publishing, with some hyperlinks thrown in.

Tom Friedman uses “Car 2.0” to describe Better Place’s electric car cum business model in which consumers buy miles on swappable batteries recharged using clean energy.

Sustainability 1.0 was "It costs money to be green." Sustainability 2.0 is "We can make money being green."

President Obama is about to launch massive infrastructure projects for economic recovery. Governors of every state have lists of “shovel-ready” projects that will absorb billions of federal money, no problem.  But you can bet these projects are “Infrastructure 1.0.”

What will “Infrastructure 2.0” look like?

Like Car 2.0, Infra 2.0 will blend high technology with innovative business models, some involving public-private cooperation. Smart technology will be central to transforming the delivery of water, sewage, energy, telecomm, transportation, garbage disposal…

Look sharp, now, because if Obama doesn't spend the money in 2009, it won’t kick-start the economy.  If we spend it on more Infra 1.0, the economy will end up even farther behind the 8-ball, in the long run. We don’t yet know what Infra 2.0 is, but we’d better figure it out quick.

Hit the ‘comment’ button and tell me your vision of Infrastructure 2.0.