Saturday, November 22, 2014

How will you measure your life? By Clay Christensen et'al

How will you measure your life? Finding fulfillment using lessons from some of the world's greatest businesses By Clayton M Christensen, James Allworth & Karen Dillion

This book is an eclectic one– a dose of management, bit of philosophy and a theory driven prediction all thrown in for a good measure. Main author, Harvard Business School Prof Clayton M Christensen had a brush with mortality [1]and hence his life lessons are firsthand experience which makes it really compelling. Also, as a writer he is a very accomplished author. His books Innovator dilemma and Innovator’s solution are well known classics. His Harvard Business Review articles have won McKinsey award many times.

Prof Clay advocates to develop “theory” which in turn can predict, so much so, he distills that thought “I don’t have an opinion but my theory has”. In the chapter which is attractively titled as “Just because you have feathers”, he observes that, there is a strong correlation between able to fly and having feathers and wings – what the would-be believed that allowed the birds to soar. But, the would-be aviators didn't understand the causal mechanisms – what actually causes something to fly? They could have seen some warning signs: Ostriches have wings and feathers but they can’t fly: Bats have wings but no feathers but they are great fliers and flying squirrels have neither wings nor feather but they get by. The real breakthrough came later when the concept of lift was explained by the Dutch mathematician David Bernoulli. So author claims, from then on we moved from correlation to causation thereby making giant strides in aviation. Fair enough. But, I have a trouble in subscribing to it fully. We are in an era where correlation would often over power the causation. For very complex systems, the causation factors are so many it is nearly impossible to develop a theory or formula to make a robust prediction. Surprisingly, correlation proves good enough in most cases in this ephemeral world.

Saint Augustine articulated long back that, total abstinence is easier than perfect moderation. Clay echoes similar approach when it comes to adhering to one’s beliefs/values – don’t give an excuse “only for this time”. I would totally agree since every time could be unique and therefore demand an exception. He gives his own example. He does not play on Sundays which is Sabbath day as a matter of principle. When the finals basketball tournament came on Sunday he told his coach he will not play. Coach was incredulous. Thankfully his team won. He also strongly advocates that principle of sacrifice deepens the commitment – be it job, marriage or friendships.

I liked his distinction between bad capital and good capital. He refers to Prof Amid Bhide, whose research suggests that 93% of the companies had to abandon the original idea before they became successful. In other words, winners became so because after the original idea failed they had some cash left to try another one. When winning strategy is not clear, we should be patient for growth and impatient for profits. Once clear we should be impatient for growth and patient for profits. Capital which is in that order is good capital and the other way is bad capital.

Clay’s caution on outsourcing is poignant. He talks about the Greek tragedy of outsourcing by DELL computers. Initially, the business model was disruptive  as they pioneered made to order model rather than standardized builds.   It was also very modular. Each sub system can be picked by the buyer based on needs.This transition was nicely aided by Taiwanese company called AZUS. First they did a very small manufacturing services to DELL.Then,
slowly moved on to make mother boards and later everything for DELL except the branding part. It eventually robbed DELL of some critical capabilities that would be required in future. He suggests a framework (Resources-Process-Priorities) to avoid the danger of outsourcing ones way to mediocrity. It is like Theseus ship where every part of the ship got replaced over time leaving one to wonder can it still be considered as Theseus’s ship?

It is a small book but worth the read many times.
Thanks for reading this far.



Thursday, July 31, 2014

What Money can’t buy by Michael Sandel

Economist E.F. Schumacher talks about two types of problems from a conceptual level. One is “convergent” problem where more one iterates, chances of arriving at an appropriate solution increases and the other “divergent” problem where more effort only increases the options and differences. He cites bicycle wheel design as an example of convergent and how to teach children as an example of divergent which has been in debate for the last 100 years if not more.

Clearly, this book's author has embarked on a pesky divergent problem. He discusses the moral limits of the markets. We all intuitively know that there are limits to what money can buy. But when you read this kind of work, you worry that the number of such things may be minuscule. I am tempted to agree briefly with Malcolm Forbes, who famously said, “those who say, money can’t buy happiness are shopping in the wrong places”.

The strength of this book comes from the examples. They are well thought out and convincing for me. However, in the end, author does not provide a final verdict and leaves it all to us. He leaves a philosophical framework for us to ponder. Let us look at some examples.

Black Rhinos and Walrus Hunting: Black Rhinos were on the brink of extinction. From 20,000 it fell to 600. Then market solution appears in the form of eco-tourism with a twist – Pay $150K for hunting one Rhino. Good news is that, the money brought back Rhinos from the brink. Still to me, it appeared like a Faustian bargain because it is depressing to kill them for a payment. Author concurs saying, it is like saving the ancient redwood forests by allowing the wealthy donors the right to carve their names/initials in the same trees. Even more sober story for Atlantic Walrus. They are valued for meat, skin, and oil. They are completely defenseless as well as harmless. In 1928, Canadian government banned Walrus hunting with an exception for aborigines Inuit group which has been depending on it for the last few thousand years. By 1990, they approached Canadian government with proposal to sell their rights to wealthy hunters and was given the go-ahead. Inuit people now guide the killing for a fee of $6-$7K.  Walrus move so slowly, hunters come very near and shoot. Since Walrus hunting is banned hunters can’t even carry back anything as memento. In terms of actual challenge it is next to nothing. As NY times puts it “a long boat ride to shoot a large bean bag chair”. Author discusses nuanced points about fine and fee. I thought, I knew the difference but I am not so sure now.

There are something people don’t do for money and when that aspect is brought in, things take a different twist as in case of nuclear dump in Switzerland. 51% of citizens in a Swiss village said they would OK the nuclear dump site because their sense of civic duty outweighed safety concerns. Subsequently, when a sweetener was added declaring that government would offer some financial compensation, acceptance dropped to 25%. Then quantum of compensation was increased only to learn that acceptance dropped even further. Remember the advertisement “There are something money can’t buy. For everything else, there is a Master Card”. Looks like nuclear dump permission is not Master card friendly!

Author explains that there are two kinds of goods. The things like friends, Nobel prizes that money can’t buy. Things like kidneys, Children which money can buy but arguably shouldn’t. He confesses the distinction is less clear than it appears. His main point is that, we have seamlessly digressed from market economy to market society where almost everything is up for sale. Good grief for Credit cards of the world. In the introduction he gives some stunning examples. He also discusses the scary case of viaticals. His observation is when fully driven by market, it breeds inequality, and hence market reasoning is incomplete without moral reasoning.

Author talks about insurance as one of the moot areas. His profound remarks are thus: “Life insurance has always been two things in one. A pooling of risk for mutual security and grim wager, a hedge against death. The two aspects always co-existed as an uneasy combo. In the absence of moral and legal restraints, the wagering aspect threatens to swamp the social purpose that justifies the insurance in the first place. When the social purpose is lost or obscured, fragile lines separating insurance, investments and gambling come undone”. To get the full import of this one has to understand viaticals deeply.

He talks about advertisement in police cars and other public utilities which are worth a serious thought. I liked his view points on advertisements in schools / educational institutions. I am also weary of such marketing spins inside such locations. To quote him “Advertising encourages people to want things to satisfy desires. Education encourages people to critically examine their desires and restrain or elevate them. The purpose of advertisement is to recruit customers and purpose of education is to cultivate citizens”. It reminds us of the paradox “liberty and equality”. As we all know, when the liberty (freedom) goes unhindered, albeit it appears to be a virtue, breeds inequality in the long run. Similarly, if we focus too much on equality (again a virtue by itself), it will result in too much of restriction or lack of freedom over the long run. Hence, the slogan Liberty-Equality-Fraternity, the 3rd higher force which hopefully regulates the first two virtues for a healthy balance.

I closed this book saying to myself, toughest non-technical problems in this world are not solved - they are merely grappled with. It is not without reason data base guru Jim Gary said “May all your problems be technical”.

Thanks for reading this far.



Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Biomimicry by Janine M Benyus

This book was with me for too long and I must confess I took a while to complete. It is a dense book with solid examples.

Biomimicry is all about how to see Nature as model, mentor as well as measure. Author’s gripe is that, we have gone too far in linear extract-and-dump model – we should move from “brown” to “green”. Even in places where we have done a good job of emulating nature as in the case of airplane, we have started misusing it. To quote her, “We flew like a bird in 1903 and by 1914 we were dropping bombs from the sky.”

It is written with an unmitigated awe about nature and her creations. I see many wrinkles when you write a science book or scientific sounding book with such a disposition. May be awe would suit for other genres like novel etc. Some of the comparisons seems unfair when nature had eternity (4 billion years is eternity for humans) to improvise her designs and we have barely started by that standard. Author has met many accomplished people and their introductions makes for interesting reading like a good novel. Her information harvest and analogies from each expert are impressive.

I will summarize some of the points that grabbed my attention as well as taking one chapter and examining it in a bit more detail.

1.       Don’t use non-renewable faster than you can develop substitutes
2.       Don’t use renewable faster than nature can re-generate
3.       Technologies that produces by-products that society cannot use are essentially failed technologies
4.       In natural systems “cooperation” is as vital as “competition”
5.       Moderation of usage in materials and energy is the key in production
6.       Manufacture only when you need and only the quantity you require so that you don’t worry about storage or leakage – “Snake Venom law” (Poisonous snakes does this all the time)
7.       Nature does not commute to work.

About Nature: (each point made has poignant examples)

1.       It runs on sunlight and uses the energy it needs and no more
2.       It fits form to function, recycles everything, rewards cooperation
3.       It banks on diversity and demands local expertise
4.       It curbs the excesses from within and taps the power of limits

I am picking Chapter-6, “How will we store what we learn?” where she talks about molecular computing like the way cells compute. It start with famous “The library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges. It is such a library of all possible books with every combination of letters, punctuation marks and spaces. Most of the books then, would be a trash. But, in the near infinite library of books, there would be actual books that are readable. I assume, if a new word is added or invented (like in Shakespeare days) accordingly library strength will swell. I would love to visit such a library because, I will know if ever I will write a book. 
She makes eight points comparing the way we compute using computers and our brain as well as the way our cells compute. At this point, it seems correct mainly because computing is 4000 years old (you can double it if you want) compared to nature’s 4 Billion years. For instance, she complains about computers not doing stuff in parallel. But, such computers are well on their way. What one learns after observing computers is that, if one can do some stuff with near 100% precision for almost all the time, eventually that can overcome the well known challenges and comprehensively beat that. Chess Programs are classic examples. It is very likely 50 years from now, even world champions cannot win the computer programs and computer programs would win most of the times. Never mind, the eight points are written with awe!

Brain is made of carbon – not silicon. And that is one of her key points. Carbon is more versatile both from computing and memory standpoint. Perhaps, it is like switching from carbon filament to Tungsten in electric bulb. It would evolve and we need not be so defensive. She makes a good case for molecular computing.

Reading this book in some ways was a unique experience for me. I enjoyed it for its sheer number of anecdotes. But as I weighed more, there was less I could agree.

I am reminded of Sir Francis Bacon's observation: “Reading not to contradict or confute nor to take it for granted, but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, some to be chewed and digested, some books to be read in parts and some few to be read wholly with diligence and attention”. All right, in the end, it appears to be “part read” for me, but then, until I finished it fully, I did not know which parts. 

Thanks for reading this far.