Wednesday, December 26, 2012
My wife wandered in and told me we were out of eggs. My flow state disappeared and I forgot what I was thinking about. The house of cards collapsed. I got annoyed at the trivial interruption and snipped at her. Offended, she snipped back and then left me alone.
I got back to work and wrapped stuff up in a few hours. I still felt bad for snipping at her. I was ashamed of acting like that. So I went to apologize. She was already asleep but I woke her up anyway. There were lots of excuses for me to act like I did and all of them wanted to jump out of my mouth and justify my behavior. Work stress, long days, cranky baby, tired, the list went on. I paused and fought back against my excuses. I'm not ashamed to say that it wasn't easy, some part of me wanted to justify what I did. But I didn't; I said I was sorry and there was no excuse for acting like I did. I asked for her forgiveness. I was able to go to bed with my conscience clear but I still couldn't sleep. A question was still bothering me so I got on here to try and write it down.
Why do people make excuses for our behavior?
I can understand the desire to make excuses. I felt the pull myself tonight. The justification feels like instant absolving of the wrong and being absolved feels better than guilt. But in reality, excuses only serve to justify poor decisions. By justifying them we are, in a way, claiming they were the right thing to do. Excuses allow us to hide a "wrong" behind a facade of "right" and lie to ourselves. Justifying things helps us pretend that they are out of our control. We don't try and fix our behavior and do better next time. Justifying poor decisions means that in the same situation in the future you're going to make the same poor choice and do it again. The only way to really escape the shame and guilt of mistakes is to take a lesson from them. If not, you've wasted an opportunity.
It's alright to make mistakes. Don't make excuses or you run the risk of poor decisions following you around.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
How many sentences, words, and sounds can be spoken in five minutes? In any number of languages. Is there an infinite possible number of languages and combination of languages itself?
Intuitively I do think of all the possibilities as infinite.
Some more thinking proves my intuition wrong. Let's look at the problem from a different angle. How much data is stored in that five minutes?
60 * 5 = 300 = length of recording (in seconds)
128 = bitrate (in kilobits per second)
z = file size (in kilobytes)
(300 * 128) / 8 = z
38,400 kilobits / 8 = 4,800 kb = 4.8mb
4.8mb of information is nowhere near infinite. It's actually pretty damn small. My intuition was dead wrong... or was it?
Maybe my intuitive perception of infinite languages is due to same sounds being perceived differently in context. That's the infinite; it's in there somewhere but it's completely based on the infinite context of the same sounds.
Sunday, December 9, 2012
Rule 1: When things are going well: give all the credit to others. This includes members of your team and others external but involved with the team (sometimes even competitors).
Rule 2: When things aren't going well: take all the blame. Then take action to fix it.
Too often I see scenarios where the giving and taking of credit for good ideas or jobs well done is carefully bartered and feelings get hurt easily. The idea of a manager taking credit for the work of those he manages is so often cited it's now cliché. It's jut a given in some places. We should strive to not be like that. Doing so creates resentment, undermines work performance, and damages your credibility.
If you find yourself in a scenario where somebody else has taken credit for your work, I've found it's always best to forgive unconditionally. Yes, I said always. Harbouring your own resentment will undermine your own work performance and create barriers to your ability to communicate; never good. If it's unjust enough that you get actually angry about it, just relax. Take some time off or go work on something else until you cool down. Then get over it and get back to work as if it never happened. This is how to handle something with grace.
I've used the word grace in a few blog posts. I looked up the definition today. A funny thing about it, I think that when you give a pardon with grace you're acknowledging that the forgiveness isn't deserved. They did something wrong and you're consciously making the decision to forget about it. This is grace.
As I read modern thinking about scenarios like this, the universal advice seems to be to confront the offender. I think this is a terrible idea and here's why: they know they did it and they already feel guilty about it. If they don't know they did it, then they were acting without malicious intent so it doesn't matter anyway. Why people do something is more important than what they do. The universal sense of what's right and wrong is written into the heart of every person. It's why we want to seek justice in the first place, because we want to make the other person suffer more in their guilt. I don't think that's ever the right thing to do. Better to drop it, move on, and keep trying to live and work as a better example. Folks will see that. With enough exposure to it, they will eventually want to emulate it.
Monday, November 26, 2012
Monday, November 12, 2012
Six years ago I read the book "Life of Pi" on the recommendation of my wife's cousin. It turned out to be a pretty good read. With the movie coming out on the 21st, I'd recommend picking it up. I can't say that I'm eager to see the movie, but it's always good to read the book before too many of the advertisements hit or people start talking about it.
The book got me on a "stranded at sea" or "survival in extreme circumstances" reading kick. If you're into that kind of thing here's a list of titles I'd recommend.
If you haven't heard of the story of Shackleton and crossing the south pole, this book will keep you on edge the whole way through. There is another book on the topic called "South" that is not as well written (in my opinion) as "Endurance" is. This is an epic story that makes the little daily trials of life seem silly in comparison.
"In the Heart of the Sea"
I read this book just after I read "Endurance" by Alfred Lansig. Shackleton and his crew were so competent that it made me feel sorry for this crew which seemed to have poor leadership. The book has good reviews and it deserves them. The discussions of their plights while adrift were engrossing.
The book isn't as much about the survival topic as the other books. The details of whale hunting were fun to read. It's a literary classic and if you had to read it while in school I'd still pick it up again if you have the time. Expect to take a few weeks to get through it, and get the digital version because the paper version is heavy. The sea adventure ends on a chapter that is more written as poetry than action which I thought was disappointing.
"Into the Wild"
I originally read this back in 2003, but I re-read it during this kick. There was a movie which came out in 2007. The book is still worth reading even if you did see the movie because of how well it documents other "lost in the wild" tales while telling McCandless's story.
Just last year I read "Unbroken" which after reading I'd put into this group of books as well.
Another Amazing WW2 story. Follow Zamperini as he competes in the Olympics in Germany before WW2 breaks out and he undergoes flight training in the southern pacific. The real meat of the book is when his plane malfunctions and he ends up as a Japanese POW for the remainder of the war.
Speaking of WW2 survival books... "With the Old Breed"
I'm glad I read this book way after I got done with my combat tours. I thought we had it rough, but WW2 Marines in the Pacific had it way tougher. War was hell in the truest sense of the word in this book. Follow Eugene Sledge who turned the scribbles he wrote in the margin's of his bible during the pacific campaign into an amazing book. I later found out that "The Pacific" miniseries used this as one of their reference memoirs so I watched it. It wasn't nearly as emotionally stirring as the book.
Thursday, November 8, 2012
Distributed processing and the promise of cloud based computation (buzz words aside) bring even more capability and variety to computational proofs. Being involved in this advancing field, I haven't seen anybody really engaging with this. We are barely scratching the surface of what's possible with making computers work together. The next few years promise to be an exciting time.
Sunday, November 4, 2012
9 Nov 2012 Update: Finished the book. Great read. Annoyed at the ending. There's going to be more books to the series. Card is probably typing away at his keyboard on the next one as I'm writing this.
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Neal Stephenson has an interesting talk about his book "Anathem" on youtube. The talk surrounds his involvement with the Long Now clock. The Long Now clock is designed to have a period of ten thousand years. His book Anathem builds a story around a similar clock in a fictional universe that is used to limit interactions of scholars for long periods of time with the outside world and each other. I ended up buying and reading the book. I'll avoid spoilers and just recommend it as a great read. In it he ends up describing a Many Worlds interpretation of time travel.
At some point during the few weeks it took me to read it, I was drinking beer with a friend and ended up talking about how great Anathem was. During our conversation he recommended an Orson Scott Card book: "Pathfinder". A few days later he brought me his copy of the book and it sat on my shelf until I finished Anathem. When I did finally get around to it, I was excited as the plot developed into a causal interpretation of time travel. What an awesome transition of thought. All the rules in Anathem were different in Pathfinder.
Reading these two books back to back ended up being interesting and useful. It was neat to see two of my favorite authors try their hand at the notoriously difficult thematic concept of time travel. If you have the chance to pick either one of these books up, I'd recommend the experience of reading the other one immediately afterward.
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
The only time I ever use this button is when I want to send an email to a lot of people who may not want to share their email addresses with the others or future recipients of the chain.
If you want to "keep somebody in the loop" go to your outbox and forward the sent letter with an additional note. This method does not imply deceit, since you're not hiding anything.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Monday, October 1, 2012
During the visit one of them ended up mentioning her cousin who was having trouble affording formula for her baby. Immediately one of our friends got out some cash and handed it over. It wasn't a huge amount, it was all they had with them. The offer was sincere and was followed by an apology they couldn't give more right then. Others, including us, plan to donate some clothes, toys, and other baby stuff. That made an impression on me. Not so much just giving away stuff to a stranger, we do that all the time dropping stuff off at good will or elsewhere. What made an impression was the immediate bias for action and generosity. I'm not certain that sitting there and listening to that story about a person in another state having hard times that I'd have immediately reached into my pocket. But... I think that's what we should do and how we should live. The generosity was contagious and more giving followed. Awesome people with big hearts.
When you hear of someone in need, don't hesitate, take action. Live generously.
Update 2013-12-06: Two years of blogging and over 100 posts mostly about technology and this is the most popular post to date. I think that says something good about the people reading my blog and maybe people in general.
The article describes the challenges of a group trying to print the first functional gun from a 3D printer. The road blocks have ranged from the 3D printer company cancelling the lease on his printer to interviews by the ATF. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your views, neither the printer company or the ATF has awareness of the Streisand effect.
That aside, I think that additive manufacturing is one of the most significant things to be happening in our world right now. The open source hardware movement, which has focused on hobbyist electronics for now, demonstrates interesting precedents for what is going to happen. As Linux, Apache, and other massive open source projects have demonstrated: community collaboration on large engineering is not only possible, it's powerful. What happens when we see that type of collaboration applied to engineering efforts that result in physical objects. We still can't comprehend the long term implications for economies in an age of abundant and mostly free material goods developed with no labor. We are on the edge of a true age of abundance. What happens when we community projects organize the information required to print more complex objects. Cell phones, clothing (of course in the latest styles), motorcycles, cars, computers, televisions, and... yes weapons. I think the ability to have insight into the implications of this remains rare in our society. We look at these events with minds from cultures rooted in the ideas of slower times, when both science and technology lacked their current strength and speed. I've cited it before on this blog and I'll cite it again. The Law of Accelerating Returns is something you must read and understand if you care to follow technological progress. A quote from Kurzweil's writing applicable here: "it is not the case that we will experience a hundred years of progress in the twenty-first century; rather we will witness on the order of twenty thousand years of progress".
Back to the whole gun thing. The idea is a neat one. It reminds me of Neal Stephenson's concept of a h.e.a.p. gun from one of my favorite books: Cryptonomicon. US Marines fighting in WW2, Math, Cryptography, Entrepreneurship, and Programming; a better book will never exist. But in general, guns have been pretty easy to make at home for as long as they've existed. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Improvised_firearm I don't think guns are a bad thing to have generally available. It's estimated that in the US alone there are 90 guns for every 100 citizens. Strangely the only areas subject to routine gun violence are the areas where legal ownership of firearms is banned. If you want to lose sleep at night; ANFO scares me ...guns not so much. The real story here is how asinine the regulation is. I'm loving watching the same arguments we had about bits a few years ago apply to real world objects. Remember cryptography export laws and the discussions about making computer viruses illegal? They all seem silly now. Objects can now be just a stream of bits. You can obfuscate them perfectly through cryptography, archive them essentially forever, and they are as tough to destroy as any idea ever was. As for how that whole restricting the export of cryptography thing went, here's a full implementation of RSA encryption in three lines of perl:
It became trendy to included it in email signatures, t-shirts, and bumper stickers. It's like closing the barn doors after all the animals are out. Except the animals travel at the speed of electromagnetic radiation and are infinitely duplicated using almost no energy for duplication and storage. In the near future we'll see the Streisand effect's influence on physical objects. It will make for interesting times.
This post is already too long. If you're really interested in the topic, check out "Engines of Creation". It was published in 1986 but remains the best book I've ever read on the topic.
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Want to inspire people and be a better leader?
I think that we laugh because we know we don't have to be afraid. It takes the stress out of situations, it resolves confrontations, and it helps build and strengthen teams which improves communication (and project performance). Oh... and it shortens long days and makes work a fun place to be.
Here is my advice for using humor in leadership:
- Be self-effacing, but never in a way that would give others doubt in your competence. Humility does not imply incompetence.
- Never make a joke at the expense of somebody else. Do the opposite.
- Situational humor almost always works. It's ok to laugh at having to work on weekends.
- When making a joke about a bad situation, never use humor to complain. As a matter of fact, never complain. Ever. Handle everything with grace and strength.
- Be clever, but not in a way that makes other people feel dumb.
- It's ok to be a little controversial. Do so with integrity and never say anything so controversial that you might have to back down from it later (i.e. it shows up in an article or on the news).
- If just saying something to be funny or brighten somebody's day, avoid using the reply-all button. It doesn't work if it's not personal.
- If circumstances have somebody else in the leadership position and you as a follower, don't use humor to outshine them.
- Avoid sarcasm
- If the joke falls flat, ignore it and drive on. You messed up the timing or misread their mood, it's nobody's fault. Keep the conversation and dialog moving.
- If you don't think you're funny, no problem. Experiment and learn from the results of your experiments. We all do it. The most experienced and excellent leaders I know can be hilarious to be around and listen to. This is the result of a lifetime of iterative improvement. Start now.
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Friday, September 14, 2012
My own experience with this occurred several years after transitioning out of the military. I was asked to take over as program manager on a large contract (88 employees). Being young, a technologist, and my basis of leadership and management being in the military; I admittedly did not know as much about business as I should. Some people I respected had confidence in me. To my surprise, immediately several people attempted to intimidate me and asked me to back down and not take the job. Ultimately it was unsuccessful because my self-confidence had been forged in much tougher circumstances. I took it more as a lesson in human behavior than wasting time worrying about it. The overt aggression came primarily from those who’s entire career was “managing”. They were also the same folks who I feel derived their self validation from having authority over other people and they routinely used terms like “work for me”. That term has since become a red flag in my mind. In my opinion, nobody works for anybody. People contribute to your project because you are compensating them. In some circumstances, such as volunteer work or compelling projects, people show up because they enjoy doing it (key word "enjoy" as in self-serving). With very few exceptions, your only true authority is derived from your employees desire to serve themselves and their ambitions. The other type of authority is derived from threat of violence, such as when you have to obey the police (or they will put you in jail against your will). I might write more on that on a future post, I'll try and keep this one to project management.
I feel that anyone who seeks out management roles as a way to make themselves feel exceptional in any way should probably not be entrusted with the responsibilities that come with it. A perfectly executed role of a manager is to recognize the environmental factors that are influencing the project and take actions on the decisions that are practically being made for you. An environmental factor might be employees leaving, so we increase their compensation or provide opportunities that reduce the risk. If the risk is running out of money, the opposite action might need to happen. It wasn’t some virtue of the manager that inspired them to do that. They were just able to see what the right thing to do was and took action on it. The right thing to do is always to empower those around you and maintain a level of transparency with your actions. When making decisions regarding the outcome of a project we are the humble stewards of resources: human, financial, and physical.
In contrast to management, leadership is the empowering of the spirits and confidence of those around you. Study after study has indicated that employee ownership and motivation are the most influential factor in performance by a large margin. If you’re not a servant leader that highlights employee accomplishments and motivates them, you are negatively affecting the outcome of the projects which you have responsibility for. I even hesitate to engage in these dialogs because it is a self-correcting behavior. With very rare exception, those managers with self serving ego will spend their entire careers only being moderately successful. The biblical verse of Mathew 5:5 was the one that said something along the lines of “the meek shall inherit the earth”. This, I believe unfortunately, has been the translation of the verse that has been popularized. Other translations word it like this "God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth." Meekness implies things that humility does not. A person can, and should, be both humble and energetic; aggressively pursue good endeavors, but receive and hold the accomplishments with humility and grace. If you're not inclined to dive into the Bible right now, here are some other quotes from important people throughout history. Humble leaders are more successful. h/t to Businessinsider for this compilation of quotes (http://articles.businessinsider.com/2011-04-01/strategy/30054050_1_humility-leader-ego)
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Don't start off a project by spending 4 months writing classes, libraries, or other abstract stuff. Doing so is an insidious form of procrastination.
Write the interfaces first. Human or otherwise. Mess with them. Get trusted opinions. Some of the time you'll discover that your approach was wrong. Better to discover that sooner than later.
Optimize and abstract later. Premature optimization is the root of all evil.
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
This essay has probably influenced my thinking about technology more than any other: http://www.kurzweilai.net/the-law-of-accelerating-returns Ray Kurzweil starts it off by promising that you will get $40 trillion by just reading it. In it he compares the intuitive linear view of how we expect technology to progress with the historical exponential trend that is has demonstrated. The reason we intuitively think of technological progress as linear is because exponential trends appear to be linear when viewed (and experienced) for a brief period of time. In general, I think being optimistic about technological progress is the right attitude. But ten years later, I’ve embraced a more cautious optimism regarding the concept of the singularity. Kurzweil goes way off the charts near the end of the essay, following his singularity to a logical conclusion of an ever expanding existence merely comprised of self-organizing knowledge. Intuitively I’ve always felt that to be a little off, but since he posits very well early on in the essay that intuition can sometimes be wrong, I kind of just shrugged and decided to take the latter part of the essay on authority. It’s not like it likely matters to us anyway, if it happens we can adjust and if it doesn’t… well then it doesn’t matter.
Lately I’ve been exploring a more logical and objective counterpoint to the “knowledge blob assimilation theory” (my name for it… not his). The limits of technological advancement might be similar in concept to the limits of functional abstraction in programming. Think for example about writing software libraries. As we write functionality we can reference, as long as we can understand how we implemented it and remember how to reference it, it empowers us to write new software much faster. There’s a point of diminishing returns as we lose familiarity with the libraries we have built or work with and it takes some time to catch up again and be as productive. But in general abstraction makes things happen faster. The technological singularity might end up giving us what we would now consider extreme capabilities. For example being able to tell our car where to take us and then relaxing, having perfect digital memories thanks to implants, and being fully immersed in virtual worlds whenever we choose; but the limits of abstraction hit in at some point. And the heart of man never changes. Tying technology abstractions to the intents of the heart of man (who we are and what we want to be or do) will be the upper limit of the advancement. I think a different way to articulate the concept will be to say that what we will be able to do post singularity will be limited by our imaginations. But since our imaginations are limited and imperfect (even when augmented), there will be a limit. Mike Minter, an intellectual that I respect highly and routinely get to hear speak, made plain an example of technological advancement vs the heart of man in this short video. The title of the three part series (each part is two minutes) is “The Ultimate Contradiction”. It’s worth watching. http://vimeo.com/21296651 The first part is the story I’m referring to. The second part describes why this happens: “The insatiable desire for a man to be satisfied will always be thwarted by his inability to be satisfied.” Regardless of your perspective and opinions, it’s certainly an interesting time to be alive.
Monday, August 27, 2012
One of my favorite paintings, Clairvoyance, is a self portrait of the artist René Magritte sitting at an easel, looking at an egg while painting a picture of a bird with its wings extended. The title translates to "Perspicacity" which means: Acuteness of perception, discernment, or understanding or keen vision. The meaning of the painting is indicated by the title. The egg will become a bird. The artists see what it will become. In the eye of the artist, he already sees the bird. Through understanding of the laws of the Universe, the artist knows that the egg will become a bird; that it is already a bird. There's something to be said for having that clairvoyance about what things can be. In the case of building things, the egg needs our help to hatch. So we roll up our sleeves to do battle in the war of art and overcome the resistance holding us back.
Monday, August 13, 2012
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Tuesday, August 7, 2012
I was reviewing it recently because it had been mentioned in another book I'm reading, Coders at Work. The main point of the paper being that Computer Science has been misnamed. This is funny because Fred Brooks was partly responsible for having named it. Given the context the paper is written in, I agree. The larger concepts in the paper are still applicable today, as much of his writing is. Most individuals working with computers are not scientists building things in order to study; we are engineers studying in order to build. The true metric of our success is how well the tools we create enable our users. We are more like tool smiths than scientists, but the semantic discussion need not settle starkly on one description of the other. It only serves to remind us of where our responsibilities are.
Toward the end of the paper he makes a departure from computer science and into discussing the virtues of how we spend our time in general. The main question being how much time we spend creating and producing versus wasting time. This being 1996, the TV serves as the time wasting villain. Today we have even more effective ways to destroy productivity. The following paragraphs resonated with me.
"TV fails the beauty test. Although the cinematography is frequently very skillful, the overall effect is
ugliness — bleak slumscapes, ugly violence, and endless car chases.
TV is only occasionally good. The voracious appetite for material means mediocre dramas. The characters are rarely people we should like to have as friends, quite unlike, for example, the people in Neville Shute’s novels. Only rarely would we want our children to take TV characters as their role models.
On a late-life occasion honoring the inventor of the vacuum tube, Lee DeForest, he remarked on how the tube had made radio possible, and he sadly commented, “This is DeForest’s prime evil.” Today he would have a new candidate. “What did people do before TV?” How did we recreate ourselves?"
Just a few years after 1996 the world wide web came along and there was a new candidate for DeForest’s scorn. The voracious appetite for material continues to drive the creation of ugliness. Beauty still seems to be the exception online as it was/is on TV. But that wasn’t what gave me the most pause. It was his point about how we raise our children. As I look down and watch my ten month old crawl around the living room, I see alongside his wandering path the various electronic windows to the world now available: laptops, tablets, tvs, and smartphones. In his lifetime we will become vastly more connected with new devices: glasses, contact lenses, perhaps even implants. He will have an appetite for and consume much of that ugly time wasting material, as will I. Material will be set before us and we will seek it out even when we know it's wrong. The only question left is if we will have the courage to police ourselves and attempt to only seek out only those things that enrich us. Will we have the awareness to hold things of beauty in higher regard than the rest of it.
Reflecting on the movie’s I’ve watched, the video games I play, the blogs I read, and the content streaming into my social media networks, Fred was right. Very rarely is there a character (real or imagined) in those electronic windows that I would want my child to hold as a role model. Rarely are they people we should even like to have as friends. I know I have the courage and thankfully I still have a few years to figure out the details of how to raise my children right. In a hyper-connected world, we won’t have the option to shelter them. But we can certainly prepare them. I need to work hard at managing the material that I let myself consume and also what I let my children watch. I hope other parents do the same.
Friday, August 3, 2012
Foreign perceptions of things are often drastically different than what we’d expect from listening to our own news. An Arabic interpreter that once worked for me tipped me off to this little nugget of fun: If you go to the Wikipedia Arabic version of the Marshall plan (http://ar.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D9%85%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B9_%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%B4%D8%A7%D9%84) and run it through Google Translate, you’ll find out that the Marshall plan was actually a United States plot to take over Europe. “Washington succeeds in achieving its control through investments and the purchase of existing projects in these countries, in exchange for a promise of payment in dollars, and for giving creditors certificates to those promises”.
Thursday, August 2, 2012
Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Neal Stephenson penned a great article after giving an amazing presentation about innovation.
The part of of the article that resounded strongly enough with me to make me want to share:
"Most people who work in corporations or academia have witnessed something like the following: A number of engineers are sitting together in a room, bouncing ideas off each other. Out of the discussion emerges a new concept that seems promising. Then some laptop-wielding person in the corner, having performed a quick Google search, announces that this “new” idea is, in fact, an old one—or at least vaguely similar—and has already been tried. Either it failed, or it succeeded. If it failed, then no manager who wants to keep his or her job will approve spending money trying to revive it. If it succeeded, then it’s patented and entry to the market is presumed to be unattainable, since the first people who thought of it will have “first-mover advantage” and will have created “barriers to entry.” The number of seemingly promising ideas that have been crushed in this way must number in the millions.
What if that person in the corner hadn’t been able to do a Google search? It might have required weeks of library research to uncover evidence that the idea wasn’t entirely new—and after a long and toilsome slog through many books, tracking down many references, some relevant, some not. When the precedent was finally unearthed, it might not have seemed like such a direct precedent after all. There might be reasons why it would be worth taking a second crack at the idea, perhaps hybridizing it with innovations from other fields. Hence the virtues of Galapagan isolation.
The counterpart to Galapagan isolation is the struggle for survival on a large continent, where firmly established ecosystems tend to blur and swamp new adaptations. Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author of the recent book You are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, has some insights about the unintended consequences of the Internet—the informational equivalent of a large continent—on our ability to take risks. In the pre-net era, managers were forced to make decisions based on what they knew to be limited information. Today, by contrast, data flows to managers in real time from countless sources that could not even be imagined a couple of generations ago, and powerful computers process, organize, and display the data in ways that are as far beyond the hand-drawn graph-paper plots of my youth as modern video games are to tic-tac-toe. In a world where decision-makers are so close to being omniscient, it’s easy to see risk as a quaint artifact of a primitive and dangerous past.
The illusion of eliminating uncertainty from corporate decision-making is not merely a question of management style or personal preference. In the legal environment that has developed around publicly traded corporations, managers are strongly discouraged from shouldering any risks that they know about—or, in the opinion of some future jury, should have known about—even if they have a hunch that the gamble might pay off in the long run. There is no such thing as “long run” in industries driven by the next quarterly report. The possibility of some innovation making money is just that—a mere possibility that will not have time to materialize before the subpoenas from minority shareholder lawsuits begin to roll in.
Today’s belief in ineluctable certainty is the true innovation-killer of our age. In this environment, the best an audacious manager can do is to develop small improvements to existing systems—climbing the hill, as it were, toward a local maximum, trimming fat, eking out the occasional tiny innovation—like city planners painting bicycle lanes on the streets as a gesture toward solving our energy problems. Any strategy that involves crossing a valley—accepting short-term losses to reach a higher hill in the distance—will soon be brought to a halt by the demands of a system that celebrates short-term gains and tolerates stagnation, but condemns anything else as failure. In short, a world where big stuff can never get done."