Saturday, June 28, 2014

Culture to Die For

One hundred years ago today Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo.  Nobody much cared for the arrogant Archduke, whose funeral was small and poorly attended.  Assassination was a gruesome if regular part of political life in the Balkans: Empress Elizabeth had been stabbed to death in 1898, the governor of Galicia shot in 1908, the governor of Croatia killed in 1912, and the vicar-general of Transylvania also assassinated in 1914.  Americans themselves had suffered the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901.  British magazine Punch published a cartoon with one anarchist asking another, “What time is it by your bomb?” 
Hungry for territory, the old, rotted Hapsburg Empire fiddled for a month and then declared war on Serbia.  Five days later Germany made its declaration of war on France.  The guns of August had erupted. 
We still scratch our heads over the start of WWI: A very small number of very small men, disconnected from their people and out to prove their machismo by territorial expansion, plunged the world into catastrophe.  The aggressors believed they could win a swift war but, as George Orwell wrote, the only way to have a swift war in the 20th century was to lose it.
Culture in Battle
One acknowledged chestnut from WWI is that the technology of firepower had outstripped communications and mobility.  Wireless was available but undependable, railroads inadequate, and countless broken-down automobiles were abandoned on the sides of impassable roads.  Generals were left wielding million-man armies by dispatching riders on horseback.  By the end of 1914, this mismatch of fierce 20th-century firepower with Dark Age communications and mobility resulted in a return to that most basic of all technologies, the shovel, and the rise of trench warfare.
The other powerful lesson learned in the first year of WWI is that new ways of killing demanded that the very culture of battle needed to change, swiftly and radically. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

I See Dead Entrepreneurs: A Visit to the Mount Auburn Cemetery

I had the opportunity this past weekend to visit the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge/ Watertown, about a mile and a half outside Harvard Square.  Authorized on this day in 1831 by the Massachusetts legislature, Mount Auburn was America's first landscaped cemetery and the first large-scale green space open to the public in North America.  For nearly two centuries, visitors from all over the world have come to experience one of the finest examples of what is known today as America's rural cemetery movement.

Other famous rural cemeteries include Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor (Maine), Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands (New York), Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit and Holly-Wood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

Mount Auburn Cemetery covers 175 acres, 98,000 burials, 60,000 monuments, and 9,400 trees and shrubs representing over 1,250 taxa--part living memorial (with 600 burials a year), part history and part renowned arboretum and botanical garden.  "Rather than depicting the horror of death," Mount Auburn's literature says, the cemetery's "picturesque landscape. . .was designed to provide solace and comfort to the bereaved and public alike."

The horror of death (and source of an unhealthy local water supply) could be found aplenty in the typical 17th/18th-century urban churchyard cemetery, full of carved skulls and graves dug nearly on top of one another.  Here are a few pictures I took in 2009 on a pass-through the King's Chapel Burying Ground on Tremont Street in Boston--precisely the ghoulish congestion Mount Auburn hoped to improve upon.

By comparison, this is what Mount Auburn looked like in its opening decades.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 7: Hit With the Rich Stick

Big Pig was tweeting again, and it had the entire barnyard talking.

Nobody doubted that Big Pig Ventures was a success.  It sprayed start-up money in every direction like a giant pinwheel.

And nobody doubted Big Pig was famous, especially among the impressionable pullets.  He had recently backed the Duck's ethanol plant, which was the talk of the barnyard.

But on Twitter, Big Pig seemed to have an opinion about everything.

"RATS SHOULD HAVE UNFETTERED ACCESS TO FERMENTED CORN FEED CRUMBLE" Pig had tweeted that morning.  Brown Hen was incensed.  "What does Pig know about fermented corn feed crumble?" she demanded of Rooster.  "Or rats?"

"He did fund the ethanol plant," Rooster responded, trying to soothe her.  "That uses corn."

"And I stepped in my water dish this morning," Hen answered.  "I'm not tweeting about synchronized swimming, am I?"

Red Hen strutted over.  "But Big Pig has a degree in Computer Science.  And he is really rich," she said.  "Really rich people who can write software are really smart about everything."

"Until Twitter," Speckled Hen added, "we just didn't know it!"

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 6: Failure is Success

Rooster was surfing the Web when he stumbled upon a picture of Black Rat.  Rooster clicked, clicked again, and suddenly froze.  "Black Rat is an entry in Wikipedia?!"  

Brown Hen walked over to peer at the screen.  "Well, he did found two start-ups," Hen suggested.

"But neither was ever funded," said Rooster.  "They both failed."

"He was an Evangelist for Nosehole, too."  Hen grimaced.  That wasn't going so well, either.

Rooster responded, "That's it?  Is that enough accomplishment to be listed in the world's online encyclopedia?"  He read on.  It turns out Rat had also done a famous TED Talk.  "Once You're Unlucky, Twice You're Serial: The Immutable Laws of Failure," he read aloud.  "He gave a lecture about failure?" Rooster asked.

"Failure is good," Hen smiled.  "Fail fast, fail often," added Speckled Hen.  "I read that all the time on LinkedIn."  White Hen perked up.  "I think of my failures as a gift!  That was in the Harvard Business Review so it must be right!" she added.

"Failure is practically a cottage industry at TED," Speckled Hen pointed out.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 5: A Lesson in Business History

Rooster glanced at his phone. 10 a.m.  He looked up from the pit. 80 pullets were sitting expectantly in the classroom.  This was nerve-wracking.  He should never have agreed to guest-teach at his old business school.

Rooster took a deep breath.  At least he'd prepared an icebreaker.

"I want to take a little poll." This got the pullets' immediate attention.  Thanks to social media, they were good at taking polls. "Who do you think was the greatest business leader of all time?" Rooster asked.

A speckled pullet in the front row announced without hesitation, "That's easy.  Mark Zuckerberg."  Affirmation rippled through the class.  Three pullets in the back began chanting "Zuck, Zuck, Zuck."

A wing shot up to the right.  "Yes?"  Rooster acknowledged.  "If you mean all time ever," another pullet announced, "that has to be Steve Jobs."  She smiled.  "He was the God of Leaders."  The three pullets in back who had been chanting "Zuck" suddenly stopped and began chirping "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs."

Rooster looked around.  He could see mental gears turning.  Zuck or Jobs?  Jobs or Zuck?  It was obviously a profound question for this class.  "Anyone else have an opinion?"  Silence.

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 4: The Chief Evangelist

Rooster looked across the barnyard and saw Black Rat standing by the chicken coop.  He had a small audience, never a good sign.  Rooster strutted over to see what was going on.

"I'm an evangelist," he heard Rat saying.  As Rooster drew closer, he could see that Rat had a strange plastic cone over his nose held in place by an elastic band stretched behind his ears.  He looked a little bit like a clown, but the disquieting kind that make balloon animals at children's birthday parties.

"What's that?" asked Brown Hen.  "What's an evangelist?"

Rat smiled.  "That's someone with passion."  Then he pointed to the strange cone on his nose.  "And I'm passionate about this!"

The hens fluttered.  Brown Hen was unmoved.  She scratched the dirt.  "Are you marketing something?"  Rooster drew in closer.  He wasn't sure he liked where this was going.

Rat was appalled.  "Marketing is so 20th century," he exclaimed.  "Old rats did marketing.  Dead rats did marketing.  I am a Chief Evangelist!"

Rooster chuckled.  A few months ago Rat had been a Serial Entrepreneur.  It was hard sometimes to keep up with titles.  He stuck his head up.  "What are you evangelizing, Rat?"