Thursday, December 26, 2013

Recapping 2013, Resolving 2014

2013 was my sixth year of blogging, and it's still nigh impossible for me to predict which of my posts will do well and which will land with a thud.  Even writing about X-rated topics, which I tried back in 2008 (with Camouflage Marketing), didn't seem to have the je ne sais quoi to go viral.  Meanwhile, other posts, some of which were written just because the blog was looking lonely--a particularly poor reason for writing--took off.

The three best-read new posts in 2013 were The Cult of the Entrepreneur The Founding Fathers as Innovators and Surviving Little Entrepreneurism.  All three made me feel like a curmudgeon when I wrote them, but apparently there's room for a little ballast in the top-heavy hysteria of American entrepreneurism.

In the next tier down, Purchasing Worker Loyalty was very popular, and that was also one of my favorite posts to write because it dovetailed nicely with the book I'm researching.  It also got me back to my old hometown of North Dighton.  Likewise, Want Innovation?: Think Shovels!, about the Ames shovel collection at Stonehill College, was fun to research, and in a roundabout way (thanks to Greg Galer) got me to the Yankee Steam-Upwhere I got to see my first Corliss steam engine.  Very cool.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Answer YOUR Email? Ha!

One new form of digital power is
having your head explode.
When I was a CEO I could send an email to anyone in the organization and have it answered quickly, sometimes instantaneously.
I mistakenly came to believe that’s how email worked.  Worse yet, that everyone liked me.

When we were acquired and I suddenly found myself dealing with a huge organization, most of it above me, the pace of response to my emails slowed.  Substantially.  From the "speed of text" to the "speed of snail mail."  From minutes to days.  Later, when I became a consultant, my email slowed further still.  In fact, some of my consulting emails have never been answered.

It turns out that the “speed of email response” is a phenomenon so consistent and predictable that we can draw accurate organizational charts simply by measuring it.  

Where the email chart is at odds with the org chart, we have found someone whose real status (good or bad) differs from his or her title.  In other words, that’s the way the organization really works.

Sadly, instead of being liked, the arc of my email trajectory simply demonstrated a modern fact of business life:  If I have Power, you’re answering my email, and pronto.  But I'll answer yours more slowly and curtly, cut the email string whenever I choose, and will occasionally ignore you completely.

Such is the language of digital power.  I still know how important you are by your corner office, and your black turtleneck and jeans--but now I can smell you coming a hundred servers away.  Or not, as the case may be.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Pumpkin-Headed Christmas Creep

Over on the Historical Society Blog you'll find a repost of last year's "Christmas Creep" article.

I notice this morning that many retailers are reporting brisk Thanksgiving Day sales.  It seems pretty obvious that the old holidays are merely cover for the new Selling Season: Christmas now begins at Halloween, a holiday designed to teach children how to ask for gifts, and then migrates to Thanksgiving, where families check to see if they can dine together peacefully, and exchange gift lists.

That makes Halloween "PreMas" and Thanksgiving "PracticeMas," both of which lead up to Christmas.

After that, of course, comes the Fourth Sunday Before Super Bowl--and the new year begins!

Modern America really has two big seasons: Football and Christmas, broken up by March Madness.

Oh, and the 4th of July.  We don't want to forget that.  When else would be buy our new cars?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Few Pictures from the 150th Dedication of the Gettysburg Address

The dedication ceremony this week honoring the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address featured keynote speeches from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, and a Naturalization Ceremony conducted for 16 new citizens by Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.  Lauren Pyfer, a junior from Upper Dublin High School near Philadelphia and winner of the "In Lincoln's Footsteps" essay contest, delivered her modern interpretation of the Gettysburg Address to appreciative applause.

Of course, President Lincoln delivered 270 words, give or take.  Edward Everett was nowhere to be found--not a bad thing given the cold morning breezes.

Kudos to the National Park Service, the Gettysburg Foundation,  the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, and Gettysburg College for supporting such a moving event.

We walked in the footsteps of Lincoln the day before the dedication ceremony, from the Lincoln Train Depot to the Wills House to the Gettysburg National Cemetery.  This is the Soldiers National Memorial, not far from where Lincoln spoke, framed against a perfect fall sky.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Another Look at the Industrial Revolution: Visiting Lowell

A thread spool sculpture marks the entrance to the Boott Cotton
Mills Museum in Lowell.
One of the great things about researching the Industrial Revolution from a home in the Boston area is that it's hard not to simply drive smack into the Revolution on a regular basis.  My posts to this blog have included local sites like the Ames Shovel collection at Stonehill College in Easton, the Yankee Steam-Up in East Greenwich, Rhode Island (at the New England Wireless and Steam Museum, located not far from historic Slater Mill), the steampunk exhibit at the old Waltham Watch Company (now the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation), the Mount Hope Company in North Dighton, and Haverhill's very cool mural and painted boot markers.  The other day, too, I finally drove all 22 miles to the City of Lowell, in some ways the most important site of all.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Cult of the Entrepreneur: Maybe It's Too Easy to Start a Company? (2013)

In October, Disrupt Europe 2013 was held in Berlin to highlight what was described as the “burgeoning European tech startup ecosystem.”  2,000 delegates attended, “the cream of Europe’s entrepreneurs and investors.”  Fifteen semifinalists had been honed to four finalists.

What would the best of Europe’s high-tech brains be offering?  Would the finalists address clean water, climate change, food waste, urbanization, acidic oceans, tools for an aging society, or maybe pandemic control?  Perhaps they would tackle something way-out, like defenses against rogue asteroids or slowing species extinction.  Was someone finally curing cancer?  There are so many big, seemingly intractable problems. I could not wait to learn what the best and brightest was working on.
Alas.  One of the four finalists had created an app “that helps you find clothes that you like around you in the physical world.”  Another allowed its users to turn any web page into an API with just a few clicks, making “it easy for developers to pull data from the web.”  Another had developed a platform for voice-enabling consumer and enterprise apps. 

And the eventual winner?   A smart lock for bicycles.  That was the winning idea coming out of the tech ecosystem in Europe.

Meanwhile, back in the States, last month’s winner of TechCruch Disrupt San Francisco had raised $6 million to fund a “communications platform that can be added to any mobile app by adding fewer than 10 lines of code into the mix.”  This will allow users to send text, voice, and video messages across different applications.


Does it seem sometimes like we’ve made it just too easy to start a company? 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Guest Posts: Pivots and Ngrams

I have a couple of guest posts this morning, one about "pivots" co-authored with Ascent Ventures' Matt Fates on the "Investing Edge"  blog here, and the other applying (or misapplying) my newest videogame, Google's Ngram Viewer, on the "Historical" Society blog here.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Google Ngram Puzzler I: American Innovators

I've been fiddling with the Google Ngram Viewer for the last few months, trying to understand what it means and how it might help with the historical research I'm doing.  While still under construction, the Ngram's database of 5.2 million digitized books (through 2008) is an endlessly fascinating tool.  I've provided below a search I did on America's heavyweight innovators, picking a few from each of the last three centuries.  (In so doing, I reviewed the Atlantic's recent and equally fascinating list of "The Top 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel," making sure I didn't miss an important name.)

I'd be interested in hearing your take on this.  My unscientific conclusions include the following:

1. Henry Ford is the dominant presence among American innovators, and has been for the last century.  He died in 1947, which may explain the spike in interest in the 1950s as the press and historians tried to evaluate his contributions.  Even with the ascension of GM after 1930, however, and the rise of Japanese automakers in the 1970s, Henry's star continues to shine.  Only Bill Gates made a serious run at Ford around 2000, but since then has been in decline as his interests have shifted from Microsoft to philanthropy.  Were the graph to extend to 2013, I presume Steve Jobs might be in the top 5, but as you can see, Edison, Carnegie and Rockefeller are true, long-term heavyweights.  Needless to say, America is very much a culture defined by the automobile and computer.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Since When Did My Birthday Become a Marketing Event?

I celebrated a birthday this week.  I know, because, the morning of, when I fired up Google Search, there was a birthday cake and celebratory frou-frou decorating my screen.  I thought: "Hmmm, what semi-obscure personage is Google celebrating today?  Willa Cather?  George Selden?"  I clicked and--what do you know--it said "Happy Birthday, Eric."  I was the obscure personage.

Around 10 a.m. I heard a ring on our house landline, the phone we learned long ago could only be Mitt Romney or the NRA asking for money.  It turned out to be our local car dealership singing happy birthday into the answering machine.  Another birthday greeting from our mortgage originator arrived around lunch in my email followed by one from the local sports radio station.  That afternoon in regular mail I received a birthday card from my dentist, neatly signed by all of his dental hygienists.

I know I should be flattered.  After all, they did remember.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Missing The "Innovation Thing" (Redux)

In 1883, Henry Ford was tinkering with a neighbor’s watch and claimed later to realize that it could be manufactured for as little as thirty cents.  He never bothered to pursue his idea, however, because he concluded that “watches were not universal necessities, and therefore people would generally not buy them.”

Ford was a brilliant entrepreneur but missed “the watch thing.”

IBM was the second most profitable company in the world and probably the smartest technology company when it missed “the desktop thing.”  DEC and Wang were brilliant upstarts that missed the “the personal computer thing.”

Microsoft completely whiffed on "the search thing, “the cloud thing," and, as Steve Ballmer most recently disclosed, the "phone thing."

Eric Schmidt admitted that he and Google had missed on “the friend thing.”

Really smart people and organizations miss really big opportunities, even when those organizations have their eyes wide open and antenna fully extended.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Few Pictures From the Yankee Steam-Up

If you read about the Industrial Revolution, you can't avoid steam.  Newcomen.  Watt.  Corliss.  The good old external combustion engine.

However, if you live in the modern world and just happen to be enrolled in that esteemed class of proletariat known as the "Knowledge Worker," the only steam that you're apt to encounter is that which fogs up the mirror in the bathroom of the hotel on your last business trip.

It's nice, then, when the modern world gets a glimpse of steam in its classic, 19th-century state.  That's what happened this weekend in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, at the New England Wireless and Steam Museum.  It's called the Yankee Steam-Up and it's an annual gathering of engineers, hobbyists, historians, know-nothings and steam engines, large and small.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Founding Fathers as Innovators: Republic 1.0

The Founding Fathers play a critically important, sometimes even bizarre role in modern America.  “We want to know what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action,” Gordon Wood writes in his superb Revolutionary Characters, “or George Washington of the invasion of Iraq.”

In many ways this obsession with seeking the blessings of our founders is unique.  We don’t worry, for example, if Henry Ford would endorse our newest manufacturing processes, what Babe Ruth thinks of the designated hitter rule or if Louis Armstrong cares for rap.  Likewise, the French don’t wonder what Charlemagne would say about their current immigration policy just as the British, Wood points out, feel no need to check in periodically with either of the two William Pitts.

WWTJD? Exactly.

So, it’s interesting to reflect on the fact that the Founding Fathers’ greatest accomplishment—beyond their individual achievements with electricity, writing declarations, and winning wars—was constructing their grand experiment in self-government: Republic 1.0.  As political entrepreneurs, Washington and company launched a radical innovation in the global market, ran it for a while, and then handed it over to the next generation of management.

What did they think of the nation they had created?   Were they pleased?  Did Republic 1.0 measure up to their expectations?  Did each die content in his achievement, or, like Victor Frankenstein, aghast at the unintended consequences of the monster they had fashioned?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Did The Last Singularity Confuse Us Completely About American History?

Are you ready for the coming Singularity?
Defined by Vernor Vinge in 1993, the next Singularity will be the “moment” when technology will become capable of creating machines with intelligence greater than human beings.  The result will likely be superhuman intelligence, either in human-computer interfaces, or perhaps in superhuman networks—a massive evolutionary leap forward.  Ray Kurzweil, the most visible exponent of the Singularity, predicts it for around 2045 and believes it will allow humans to control their fates and become immortal.
It’s pretty heady stuff and has its share of fans and critics.  There is now even a Singularity University in Silicon Valley, underwritten in part by Google.
One thing most proponents agree on is that the coming Singularity will be “capable of rupturing the fabric of human history” and, therefore, so profound that human beings standing on either side will barely recognize one another.
Like all forecasts, History informs the timing and shape of the coming Singularity.  Advocates predict its arrival by pointing to at least three Singularities thus far on earth: when human brains evolved, when farming communities appeared, and the Industrial Revolution.   (Some lists include fire, language, reading, and mathematics.  Some might include the Big Bang.  Taken together—and you need your logarithmic graph paper for this--the consensus forecast for the next Singularity is 2075.) 
The rise of farming communities and the Industrial Revolution are especially interesting because they are recent, and subject to some degree of measurement.  In two million years, for example, the human population grew glacially from about 10,000 proto-humans to four million modern humans.  When some of these humans decided to live as farmers about 10,000 years ago—a consensus Singularity—the world’s population began to double at the spectacular rate of every 900 years or so.
Likewise, before 1750 (the start of the “first” Industrial Revolution of steam and telegraph), it took 350 years for a family in England to double its standard of living.  By the 1950s (after the second Industrial Revolution of electricity and the internal combustion engine), an American family could expect to double its standard of living in a single generation
All of which leads—if you buy the logic--to the fascinating observation that the entire history of the United States has been lockstep with one of the great, singular events in human history.  
Never has the accumulation of wealth been so easy, or growth in the standard of living so steep, as during the great "American experiment.”  For the first time in the history of humankind, economic conditions supported and even accelerated the sort of culture that, according to Hezekiah Niles’ famous observation, featured “the almost universal ambition to get forward.” 

Monday, September 2, 2013

How 'Bout a Little Whine With That Innovation?

Technology may be neutral, but innovation comes with a freightload of human nature.  It's enough to cause more than a little whining now and then.

Just ask Uber, the app that lets people order a taxi or car service from their smartphone.  "Cutting-edge start-up companies are crying foul," says CNNMoney, "claiming they're being blocked from entering local markets by established businesses."

In Uber's case the locals have resorted to all kinds of malevolent tactics to protect their established businesses.  In Miami, for example, there's a regulation that calls for a minimum hour wait between ordering a black car service and climbing in, as well as a $70 minimum charge.  In San Francisco, airport officials have been making citizen's arrests of ride-share drivers, claiming they don't have the paperwork necessary to transport riders.

Unfair competition?  Insider dealings?  Regulatory favoritism?  Thuggery?

The truth is, they're not called "entrenched competitors" for nothing.  

Few incumbents are likely to roll over to a new technology, and fewer still are likely to follow Marquess of Queensbury Rules when they respond to the threat of lost customers and profit.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Dating and Leading: Does Height Matter?

(This post is backhauled from July 2007 but still dedicated to the late, great Dave Rossi.)

Many years ago I was sitting with my friend, Dave, in a bar in Cambridge when he looked across the room at a pretty young lady and said, “I’d like to ask her out, but it’s no use.”

“What makes you say that?” I asked.  This was a guy with a 150 IQ who had spent the summer before business school being a cowboy on a Texas ranch.

“Well, she’s a 7 and I’m only a 5.”

“Come again?” I asked.

“It’s dating by the numbers,” Dave said.

“Tell me more.”

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

History, Food and Screaming Goats in San Francisco (A Few Notes From Vacation)

There’s a huge difference between visiting a city for business, where the sprint to the next meeting consumes all available time and energy, and visiting on vacation.  We were able to spend a few days in San Francisco recently catching up with family and actually enjoying the life and times.  I made a few notes along the way, in between bites.

1. This was the first year a living survivor of the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake was unable to attend the annual memorial ceremony on April 18.  The city knows of at least three living quake survivors.  One, 107-year-old Winnie Hook of San Jose, was slated to appear but decided the trek would be too much.  Meanwhile, the ceremonial spraying of gold paint on “the fire hydrant that saved the Mission District” at 20th and Church streets went off with only slight delay. 

It's proof that we're now watching the first decade of the 20th century transform from current event to history book.

2. And while we're watching, all hail the Munchery!  Download the app and then purchase excellent, affordable meals from great San Francisco chefs (but do it by 10 a.m. or you're apt to be shut out).  The delivery fee is a pittance.  Wow.  We need this in Boston.  North Shore Boston, to be precise.

3. Like the Neanderthal, wireless only seems like progress.  It's destined to replace the battery as the new technical laggard.  Please, Mr. Innkeeper, give us back our dependable wires.  I am nostalgic for the little clicking sound of the cable nestling into the wall.  I am tired of endlessly spinning WiFi.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

What Makes For Success? (Hint: It's Not the Bathrooms)

If I’ve seen it once I’ve seen it a dozen times—the article about the genius stroke Steve Jobs had in locating the bathrooms at Pixar.  He “insisted there be only two bathrooms in the entire Pixar studios, and that these would be in the central space. And of course this is very inconvenient. No one wants to have to walk 15 minutes to go to the bathroom. And yet Steve insisted that this is the one place everyone has to go every day.”

The moral of the story is that Jobs “wanted there to be mixing. He knew that the human friction makes the sparks, and that when you're talking about a creative endeavor that requires people from different cultures to come together, you have to force them to mix. . . And so his design was to force people to come together even if it was just going to be in the bathroom."

Now I ask you, does this really make sense?  

Do you really believe, had there been four or six or eight bathrooms spread throughout Pixar, that somehow Toy Story would have suffered?  

Do you really believe that a healthy company needs to force its employees to attend mixers near the toilet bowls?  (For that matter, do you really think, except for maybe the Pentagon and a NASA facility here or there, anyone actually has to walk 15 minutes in any office to find a bathroom?  That would certainly limit my Diet Cokes.)

By this theory, incidentally, the smokers in a company should all be wildly creative because they gather together in a little smelly place about a dozen times a day.

I would propose to you that this story is a function of 1) Steve Jobs’ halo effect, and 2) the fact that when a company is successful we back-attribute everything they did to that success.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Not for the Squeamish: Eli Whitney’s Greatest Innovation

Whitney's Cotton Gin
(just in case one lands in your driveway)
There are few entrepreneurs in American history more controversial than Eli Whitney.

We all know he invented the cotton gin, even if we wouldn’t recognize a cotton gin were one to land in the middle of our driveway.  Whitney, we are told, made Cotton “King,” extended the institution of slavery and started the Civil War. 

Or not.  There’s that nagging story about his friend, Catharine Green, really inventing the gin.  And there are all those “saw gins” manufactured by other mechanics that worked better than Whitney's original gin, and all those patent cases he lost in court.

Even if all that seems controversial, at least we can be sure that Whitney was the Father of Mass Production for his use of interchangeable parts in the musket locks he made for the US government.  In fact, in one of the great product demos of all time--presented to President Adams and future President Jefferson--Eli Whitney allowed the founding fathers to miss and match parts, building must locks in any combination they liked.

It was a tour de force.  One biographer concluded, “For the initiation of the mass production that has given the United States the highest material standard of living of any country in the world, the nation is indebted to the genius of Eli Whitney.”

Or not.  Around 1960 a clever technology historian disassembled a batch of Whitney’s musket locks and discovered them to be hand-filed, irregular, and marked for specific guns—in other words, not interchangeable at all.  His product demo was a scam.  And even Jefferson fell for it.  

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Paradigms and Serial Entrepreneurs: The Language of Business

There are certain words and phrases that creep into the business lexicon.  At first they’re clear, useful, and appropriate, but, squeezed beyond their means, become burdensome and hackneyed.

Paradigm is a word like that, and more especially, paradigm shift.  When I first heard it in 1980 or so it was like hearing “weltanschauung” for the first time in high school:  It was so cool we tried to fit it into every conversation (as in "that new Three Dog Night song upended my weltanschauung").  So, too, with paradigm shift.  Pretty soon, every time someone launched a new product, reorganized a department, or entered a new market, they were shifting paradigms.  It got to be silly.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Gettysburg: July 4th, 150 Years Ago

Two kinds of monuments were on display a Gettysburg battlefield this week.
I had an opportunity to visit Gettysburg this week to again walk the battlefield, as I did five years ago, and to admire the extraordinary work being done by the National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation to rehabilitate, preserve, protect and interpret this sacred ground.

The three-day battle (Wed-/July 1 to Fri/July 3) ended 150 years ago yesterday with Pickett's Charge, and as Lee's defeated army withdrew, the scene on July 4 was horrific.  We know a great deal about events today (for current reports see here and here and for a great new film by Jake Boritt, see here), but the July 4, 1863 New York Times was still trying to make sense of the battle by presenting news and telegrams (in a kind of Twitter stream) received from various locations.  The headline read like this:
THE GREAT BATTLES.; Our Special Telegrams from the Battle Field to 10 A.M. Yesterday. Full Details of the Battle of Wednesday. No Fighting on Thursday Until Four and a Half, P.M. A Terrible Battle Then Commenced, Lasting Until Dark. The Enemy Repulsed at All Points. The Third Battle Commenced. Yesterday Morning at Daylight. THE REBELS THE ATTACKING PARTY. No Impression Made on Our Lines. The Death of Longstreet,and Barksdale of Mississippi. Other Prominent Rebel Officers Killed or Wounded. A LARGE NUMBER OF PRISONERS. Gen. Sickles' Right Leg Shot Off. OTHER GENERAL OFFICERS WOUNDED. OFFICIAL DISPATCHES FROM GEN. MEADE. THE BATTLE OF WEDNESDAY. REPORTS FROM PHILADELPHIA. THE BATTIE OF THURSDAY. YESTERDAY'S BATTLE. Our Special Telegrams from the Battle Field. NEWS RECEIVED IN WASHINGTON. NEWS RECEIVED IN PHILADELPHIA. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS DISPATCHES. REPORTS FROM HARRISBURGH. REPORTS FROM COLUMBIA, PENN. REPORTS FROM BALTIMORE. THE GREAT BATTLE. COL. CROSS, OF NEW-HAMPSHIRE, KILLED.
There are so many people who have told the story of the battle so well, I thought I'd simply share a few pictures of this week's commemorative activities, all of which serve as a kind of opening bookend to November's commemoration of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.  If there was ever a time to visit the battlefield, it's 2013!

A special exhibit at the Museum and Visitors Center is called "Treasures of the Civil War,"
and begins with a kind of "Facebook" treatment of the 13 individuals who shaped the battle
and the nation.  This was so interesting I almost didn't leave time to see the artifacts (a lock of
Lincoln's hair and Clara Barton's "mission soldier" journal, for example) themselves.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Like Sugar, Cotton and Oil, Software Solves Everything

In 1965, the world’s best-selling science fiction novel, Dune, introduced us to a future interstellar world at war over a “spice” called melange.  Found only on the desert planet of Arrakis, melange was the most sought-after substance in the universe, capable of providing human beings a better and longer life, and unlocking “prescience,” which made interstellar travel possible.

Melange, you might say, was a product advantaged beyond all others for its time and place.

Occasionally, there are commodities here on earth that have more than a passing similarity to Frank Herbert’s melange.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Want Innovation?--Think (Ames) Shovels

Nicole has choreographed the angle on this
particular shot, though has not yet placed
a "Kodak moment" sign at the location.
My thanks to friends and associates Greg Galer, Henry Ames, Bill Ames and Nicole Tourangeau Casper, Director of Archives and Historical Collections at Stonehill College, for their combined efforts in aiding me in today's visit to the Arnold B. Tofias Industrial Archives--the Ames Shovel Collection.

It's a gem located on the Stonehill campus in Easton, Massachusetts, not far from Oliver Ames's (1779-1863) famed Shovel Works, and tells the story of one of America's oldest enterprises--and the Industrial Revolution's great successes.

Were you to walk across America in first half of the 19th century, you would have found Ames shovels at work on every farm, foundation, country road, turnpike, canal and railroad in the early Republic.  Cumberland Road?  Ames shovels.  Erie Canal? Ames shovels.  Union Pacific Railroad? Ames shovels.  Transportation Revolution?  Ames shovels.  By 1879, the firm launched by Oliver Ames produced 3/5's of the world's shovels.  (For comparison, Android tablets hit 60% market share this quarter, and 60% of your body is water.)

I'm saving "the rest of the Oliver Ames story" for my Nation of Entrepreneurs book, but wanted to share just a few pictures from today's visit.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Getting Things Done, Old Style

Joseph Paxton's famous "Emperor
Fountain" at Chatsworth
We live in the worlds of Big Business, Big Labor, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Data and, in the last decade or two, Big Productivity.

There’s an entire industry that’s taken shape around productivity in the form of Getting Things Done (“stress-free” productivity!), First Things First, Franklin Covey, 7 Habits, the 4-Hour Work Week, a hundred apps, a thousand courses, and a steady barrage of articles all instructing us on how to use our time more wisely.

I am certain, this year alone, to stumble upon a dozen articles with advice on how to clear my email inbox.

We are challenged with “contexts” in our daily tasks, selective ignorance, interruption prevention and avoiding open loops.  Special red files store our life goals, which must not be mixed with the light blue files containing this Friday’s tasks.  Even our trusty GPS reminds us to pick up toothpaste when we pass the CVS so as not to have to make a second trip.

So, it comes as something of a surprise when we discover anyone before modern times who could get anything at all done.  But get it done they did, and many (whom we rarely hear about) lived extraordinary lives filled with an endless series of accomplishments.  I've had chance meetings with some of these folks in my research over the last few weeks and, for no other reason than I like their stories, share them with you here.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Memorial Day Post: Some Memes of American History

I took this picture of hand rock in 1991.  It is the perfect
likeness of a human hand, somehow inscribed in the rock.
There are some stories in America that just have legs.

Take, for example, the tale of the Thompson Long Gun.

At the time of Middleborough’s incorporation in 1669 by English from nearby Plymouth, the local Nemasket and their ancestors had been living in the area for perhaps 12,000 years.  When conflict broke out between the colonists and Native Americans in the summer of 1675, Middleboro’s 75 English retreated to a fort built on the Nemasket River.

In early June 1675 a group of Nemasket appeared near a rock on a hillside on the opposite shore of the river.  For several days, the story goes, the Natives flung insults at the fort until Isaac Howland, famous for his marksmanship, was selected to fire an especially long gun brought by the commander of the fort, John Thompson.  As the distance between the fort and rock was about a half mile, requiring a trajectory more like artillery than a gun, nobody expected anything more than a startled reaction from the Nemasket and perhaps some peace and quiet.  

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Greatest Migration of All

Over on the Historical Society Blog, I've proposed another kind of "Great Migration" to the ones historians usually count.  But this one, it turns out, was just as important to George Washington as it is to today's technology executives.  It begins like this:

Ask an American historian to define the Great Migration and you’ll hear one of several answers. Most will describe the movement of 6 million African Americans from the rural South who headed north and west, from
Jack Delano photo of migrants
heading north from Florida, 1940.
 World War I through 1970, seeking economic opportunity and relief from Jim Crow laws.

See here for more.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

I Gotta Get Me Some New Weekend Reading

Honestly.  I used to love catching up on my stacks and posts of reading on the weekend.  Not so much lately, though. I feel like I’m seeing the same articles and hearing the same opinions over and over again. For example. . .

1. Peggy Noonan writes beautiful prose, and seems to hang out with some pretty interesting people. Why, then, does everything sound like this to me these days:

I went to the grocery store, like many Americans, to shop for mangoes.  Barack Obama hates mangoes.  We saw it in his polling numbers.  I had lunch this week with several conservative Senators who confirmed it.  I think we can all agree that the President is failing at mangoes.  
You know what?  We’re tired of Barack Obama hating mangoes.  It’s old.  It doesn’t play in middle America.  It gives our enemies in South America a reason to hate us.  In Washington we call it Obama-Mangoe fatigue.
You’ll find mangoes exhibited brilliantly at the new Bush library.  George W. Bush was one leader who knew how to deal with fruit.
Let’s be clear: Real Americans love mangoes.  I love mangoes.  The editors at the Wall Street Journal love mangoes. Many of us remember that Ronald Reagan loved mangoes, too, and sometimes had them for breakfast.
(For more of the same, see the latest here.)

2. Likewise, there’s a nightmare going on over at LinkedIn “Updates,” a series of posts apparently
solicited by the website from entrepreneurs in which they are asked to write about My Worst Mistake.  Think: "Tell me about your weaknesses" asked of people who honestly don't believe they have any weaknesses. The humblebrags have reached dizzying heights.  Here’s what the typical post sounds like:

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Just Fade Away: A Memorial to the Boston Marathon Victims

I was in Boston on Saturday morning to attend a meeting just a block away from one of two "makeshift" memorials to the Marathon bombing victims.  This one had sprung up from the ground at Berkeley and Boylson streets.  I took a walk over to see it.

Boylston was still cordoned off and deserted except for a half dozen lab technicians hard at work a quarter mile away, small white-coated shapes across an eerie urban landscape.

Historians have watched the rise of these stunning, organic, "makeshift" memorials over the past few decades.  (Michael J. Lewis of Williams College has a particularly good essay on the topic here.)  They make powerful if fleeting statements, not unlike the memorials that arise on Facebook or other social media sites.  This particular one at Boylston was very sad and very moving.  Lots of people visited--fittingly, many runners who apparently stopped by as part of their Saturday morning workouts--and everyone to a person was quiet and most respectful.

What's particularly healing for me about this sort of makeshift memorial is that, while it will disappear soon enough, I will never cross Boylston Street again without seeing it in my mind's eye.  I don't know if it can ever crowd out the other awful images, but it's not a bad start.

Ironically, the most lasting monuments of all are sometimes those that just fade away.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Living in Fear of Google Glasses

I’m a gadget guy.  I loved my first Palm Pilot so much I bought it four times: once new, and each of the three times I accidentally left it in the seat pocket of my last flight. Those of you who go back a few years with this blog know of my adoration for the HP-12C, and the Tassimo.  I also had a fleeting affair with the Kindle, which I left for a younger iPad.  And I sleep with my smart phone on my bedside table, despite dire warnings to resist.

But I say all this as preamble to my profound fear and loathing of Google Glass.

My fear comes from the sure knowledge that once placed on the bridge of my nose they will never come off.  In other words, after I've experienced augmented-reality then I'm afraid reality will seem lacking.  That is a terribly depressing thought, since I have gotten to mostly understand and kind of like reality.  I am able, after all, to find a head of lettuce in a grocery store without little red arrows and coupons appearing before my eyes--just like I could once find my way with a paper map.   Yet I know, if the GPS isn’t on (even between home and work) it feels like a black hole in the middle of my dashboard.  Google glasses will place that black hole in the middle of my reality.

The nice thing about Google glasses is
they also make us beautiful.  No extra charge.

My loathing comes from the price of Google glasses.  Not that price--I’m sure they’ll be affordable, probably even free.  It’s the price of having my brain and emotions placed in the feeding trough of global advertisers.  Did I look at the Colgate and then the Crest?  For how long?  Which did I choose?  They can fix that.  

Just imagine Google and P&G and the Chinese military crawling around inside your head all day.  Just imagine your life last May 28th from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. being subpoenaed for a court case. All I can picture is Malcolm McDowell with toothpicks propping his eyes open and being made to feel nauseous whenever Beethoven plays.  I do not want that happening to me or my droogs.  

I have never, ever understood people who go without TVs, computers, or smart phones.  I have never had much sympathy for Luddites.  But that may change.  As long as technology was rummaging around in my bookshelves, music collection and kitchen cabinets, I was ok; once it gets into my frontal lobe, it might be time to resist.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why History Students Should Love Big Data

My latest post over at the Historical Society Blog begins like this:

Spring 1976. Wilson Hall, Brown University. The late, great Professor William McLoughlin has just informed his 85 students in “American Social and Intellectual History” that they are to write their first paper. All he has given us is the title: “The Age of Jefferson and Adams.” We groan. Then he adds: “Keep it to three pages or less. Double-spaced.” We smile. Three pages? How hard can that be?

That was, for me anyway, the beginning of Big Data.  See here for more.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Today I Broke the Four-Minute Mile

This morning I ran four miles, part of my training for a June half-marathon.  It was very cold and very windy, typical March weather for my town, which used to be in New England but apparently has been relocated this winter to 150 miles east-northeast of Juneau, Alaska.

Anyway,  I pushed the “start” button on my trusty Runkeeper app and discovered it could not find the GPS satellite.  This is not uncommon, especially this close to the Arctic Circle; my car GPS often shows me driving through my neighbor’s bedroom and across the pond near our house.  Usually if I wait a minute or two I’m ok and my app is happy.

For those of you who don’t use a running app, I can highly recommend Runkeeper.  It does a fantastic job keeping time and distance, except for the mean lady who keeps whispering in my ear telling me how slow I’m running.  

This morning, though, I fell in love with that lady.  Here’s why.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Big Data and School Closings

We are suffering yet another dump of snow in the Boston area this morning, just as we were beginning to see the first signs of lawn and patio.  Schools are cancelled up and down the eastern part of the state.  Last night, as I watched our youngest daughter work the Web, I was reminded again just how much things have changed in the last generation.

When I was in high school (always a bad way to begin a paragraph, I admit, but. . .) When I was in high school and a winter storm approached, the radio was our best and sometimes only source for no-school news.  We would stay glued to WBZ where an announcer started with the "As" and worked his way to the "Zs."  If we were listening for, say, Dighton-Rehoboth, and happened to tune in at "Eastham" or "Easton," we were done for 20 or 30 minutes until the list recycled.  Some schools might call in at 5 a.m., some at 5:30 a.m. and yours at 6 a.m., which meant real vigilance in being present for each recycle of the "D" schools.  TV would sometimes help but it seems like there was less local news competition and less chance of a local affiliate bumping a network show for "big storm" ratings.  Today, big storms are apparently the best advertising and ratings-boost a local station can have.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

White if By Land, Black if By Sea?

I pity all of those reporters at the Vatican, having to wait in the rain with nothing to report for interminable periods of time.  The newspeople connected to stations here in Boston have resorted to describing in magnificent detail the color of the smoke rising from the temporary chimney, the smoke designed to signal whether a new pope has been elected (white) or not (black). 
“Let me tell you what happened with Pope John Paul II,” one said this morning on the radio.  “Grey to dark to darker to slightly grey. 15 minutes!  It had us all fooled!”  (It reminds me of my last post about telecommuting at Yahoo!; even if the world is dull, we still demand that our news and our newsmakers be lively.)
In 2012's Weathermakers to the World, we describe another environmental phenomenon associated with the Sistine Chapel, one put in place almost exactly 20 years ago.  It was a good reminder for me as I researched the book that, while “air conditioning” is almost always discussed in terms of human comfort, the modern art of “conditioning air” plays a critical role in historic preservation.  In fact, if the technology had not been invented and perfected in the 20th century, it’s more likely than not that only cardinals would ever see the inside of the Sistine Chapel in the 21st century.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Just When Did Silicon Valley Go Hollywood?

Wow.  If Justin Bieber hadn't had a lousy 19th birthday in London, the only thing I would have read from my LinkedIn “Influencers” last week was about Marissa Mayer and Yahoo!.  You may have heard: she stopped all telecommuting at the company, at least for now.  Like Buddy Bolden, she called her children home.  He to dance.  She for a little tap-dancing, one might guess.

Innocently enough, I thought it was just a policy change at Yahoo!, probably temporary or to be redefined later.  I was not even sure why it made the news, much less buried me in articles.  These kinds of decisions happen everywhere, all the time.  But mercy, was I ever wrong.   It turned out not to be a policy change at all, but an event.  A Silicon Valley event. The blogosphere erupted.  My Influencers influenced mightily.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Stressed Much? You're in Good Company

If you're feeling stressed you're in good company--all the way back to the American Revolution.  My latest guest post for the Historical Society blog is here.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Purchasing Worker Loyalty: Mount Hope Finishing, North Dighton, MA

The Mount Hope Finishing Company and village
of North Dighton, Massachusetts, in 1924.  Some
believed it was just one big, integrated factory.  
This is a story about employee benefits, lots of benefits.  More benefits than Google’s free transportation and gourmet lunches, Evernote’s housecleaning services, or Genentech’s last-minute babysitters.  But it’s also a story about what an employer might expect in return for all those benefits.

It starts in the little Massachusetts village of North Dighton in 1901 when 26-year-old Joseph Knowles Milliken, “J.K.” to his associates, examined an old abandoned mill beside the flowing waters of the Three Mile River, 15 miles upstream from Mount Hope Bay.  The village surrounding the mill seemed as sad and dilapidated as the rundown facility itself.  Seizing opportunity, however, J.K. established within six short months a cloth finishing mill to support the booming textile trade in nearby Fall River, New Bedford and Rhode Island.  Mount Hope Finishing was profitable from day one and its estimated initial need for 175 employees would eventually balloon to 1,400.

To remain successful, J.K. Milliken required copious and sure amounts of two essential raw materials, water and skilled labor.  At capacity, the mill required ten million gallons of clean water every day, and the young entrepreneur was successful in securing water rights for some 25 miles upstream.  It was in the securing of labor, however, that J.K. Milliken would leave his mark.

Extending along Summer Street, the Three Mile River flowing behind it, the Mount Hope
Finishing Company would become the largest cloth bleachery under one roof in America.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

After This, Nothing Will Be the Same

Remember Dick Fosbury?  In 1967 he was ranked the 61st best high-jumper in the world.  At the Olympics in Mexico City the following year he cleared the bar at 7 feet 4.25 inches and won the gold medal.  He did it with a style so different from the traditional “western straddle” that it came to be called the Fosbury Flop.  People laughed.  Even some of his coaches watched in disbelief.  One newspaper described it as going over the bar “like a guy being pushed out of a 30-story window.”

Today, you cannot find a world-class high jumper who doesn’t do the Fosbury Flop.  One moment it was one thing; the next, it would never be the same.

I was pondering these kinds of events as I wrote my post on Henry Leland (The Prophet of Quality)--how suppliers and competitors could not believe what he was able to do with quality and interchangeable parts in 1908 on that British test track, but afterwards, if they did not do it as well, they could not compete.

Here’s a small one with big implications:  In 1970 or 80 or 90, if someone stood up on an airplane and started causing trouble, most of us put our head down in our books and let the flight attendants handle things.  Now, after 9/11—one of the silver linings, I suppose—if someone stands up on a plane and starts causing trouble, the entire plane stands up and duct tapes him or her to a seat.   There’s no hesitation.  We’ve learned the hard way that there’s no protection like self-protection.  One day changed everything.