Carrier and mega cities

In 1902, Willis Carrier was hired to remove humidity from a printer. He noticed that his invention not just removed humidity but also cooled the air. Everyone seemed to want to eat near his machine! Thus, Carrier air conditioners was born.

He debuted his air conditioner in a Manhattan theatre during Memorial Day weekend – an oppressive place in the heat. But, as the AC effect began to take over, all the furious hands waving fans dropped and everyone enjoyed the movie. Thanks to Carrier, the concept of a “summer blockbuster” was born.

It took until the 1940s before air conditioner sizes became miniature enough to fit in a window (original machines were larger than that of a truck). This impacted human settlement like no other invention – hot places like Florida now became bearable. Similarly, new mega cities – previously exclusively in temperate climates (New York, London, Paris) – came from tropical climates. Singapore, for example, is new age mega city made possible by the AC.

Artificial cold also led to developments in technology around artificial insemination and eggs storage. Cold, thus, changed human reproduction patterns along with settlement patterns.

Ice seems at first glance like a trivial advance: a luxury item, not a necessity. Yet over the past two centuries its impact has been staggering, when you look at it from the long zoom perspective: from the
transformed landscape of the Great Plains; to the new lives and lifestyles brought into being via frozen embryos; all the way to vast cities blooming in the desert. – Steven Johnson


Source and thanks to: How we got to now by Steven Johnson (This story of “Cold” is continued from parts 1 and 2)


This story and quote is part of “The 200 words project.” I aim to synthesize a story from a book (and, occasionally a blog or article) I’ve read within 200 words consecutive Sundays for around 45 weeks of the year.

Inflows and Outflows

Finance, both in business and our personal lives, can both be complex. Debt, equity, valuations, EBITDA, are just a small sample of the kinds of terms involved. However, things become much simpler when we think of finance in inflows and outflows.

In personal finance, if our earning (inflows) is greater than our spending (outflows), all is well. The bigger the difference between inflows and outflows, the better things are. The same applies with revenues and costs in business.

This extends to other contexts as well. For example, businesses succeed when customers acquisition is greater than customer churn. And, sports like soccer have goals scored (inflows) and goals conceded (outflows). However, soccer coaches can spend all their time optimizing for average distance run and average number of passes. Managing by complexity and proxy metrics is an easy trap to fall into.

So, every once a while, it is worth taking a few minutes to look at the big picture. For our finances, it could just be a few minutes every week to understand how we’re spending relative to how much we earn. As long as that difference is positive, things are good. Of course, we should then ask ourselves about how we can save and invest more.

But, the main thing in business and life is to keep focus on inflows and outflows. And, our job is to keep the main thing the main thing.

Hiring for intercept versus hiring for slope

When we’re hiring for a role, we could choose to hire for slope or intercept.

Hiring for slope means foregoing a bit of goodness in the short term for someone who you believe will learn quickly and deliver good long term results. Intercept, on the other hand, is looking for someone to solve the current problem well.

Most organizations experience this conflict when hiring for new roles. Often, they ignore internal transfers because they believe the candidate with the perfect experience is out there somewhere. However, in the long run, a high potential internal candidate may be a much better choice as they’ll ramp up quickly while also deliver great performance within the context of the organization’s culture.

There isn’t a right answer here. I think the right mix is likely going to be somewhere in the middle. However, many organizations like to believe that they’re always on the look out for potential. But, more often than not, hiring managers are encouraged to look for intercept over slope.

A question for every hiring manager and organization then – how often do you hire for slope versus intercept? And, is it the mix you desire?

Fearless leader, Courageous leader

We often use the term “fearless” leader to describe folks we’re leading us. I wonder if we can replace the “fearless leader” idea with “courageous leader.”

Fearless points to the absence of fear. But, fear is useful in parts as it helps alert us to risk. And, being oblivious of risks is a recipe for bad decision making.

Courage, on the other hand, is about realizing that there are things more important than fear. To be courageous, we must first acknowledge our risks and fears – and then choose to push forward because we care.

We don’t need more fearlessness. Courage, on the other hand, is always in short supply.

Hans Rosling

I still remember the first Hans Rosling TED talk I watched – “The best stats you’ve ever seen.” It was mindblowing.

Hans Rosling passed away last week. Luckily for us, he’ll still live with us through his talks and incredible work at Gapminder. I haven’t watched nearly as much of his work as I’d like to. While I’m sure I’ll do so in time, I did ask myself – why did his passing away strike such a chord?

I think it is because he is an amazing example of someone who elevated something commonplace, boring even, with intensity and passion. Hans was a statistician who drew insights from data. But, he did so like an artist.

Martin Luther King Jr  once said – “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Hans took this idea to a whole new level. It is amazing how good our presentations can be if we put the same amount of thought to them as Hans did. And, his work will be a reminder that we will live in perennial ignorance if we’re not making the effort to understand the data in front of us. It is the data that enables us to see what is possible and be, in his words, “possibilists.”

It is a reminder we need now more than ever.

Respect.

Builder Feedback and Armchair Critic Feedback

I’ve been both an armchair critic and builder over the years. I started out squarely as the former. However, I’ve come to appreciate how hard it is to actually build and ship something that adds value. So, I’ve attempted, over time, to be as constructive as possible in sharing my feedback on something someone else has built. And, a principle I’ve attempted to live by has been to only be very tough on something if I intend to spend my time and energy to help fix it.

The benefit of having been on all four sides of the table (both as a giver and receiver of both styles of criticism) is that I recognize the difference between builder feedback and armchair critic feedback. And, the one crucial difference is tone.

The armchair critic feedback takes refuge in sarcasm and typically adds some version of personal attack. So, if I had to take a swipe at myself this morning as an armchair critic, I’d say – “Seriously? Is this piece of drivel the best you can do as an employee of ____/graduate of ___?” It is hardly every constructive. And, even if you take the time to respond constructively, it is never going to be good enough.

Today’s post isn’t about how to deal with this type of feedback as that depends on the context.

But, it took me a long while to recognize this difference. And, recognizing it has been helpful in tailoring my response to it.

A step closer

Today is an opportunity to move a step closer to our aspirational self.

Somewhere, deep within, we probably have an ideal self we all aspire to be like. This ideal self is either wiser, more engaged, healthier, more focused or whatever we imagine it to be.

Today, we reset our scoreboard, ignore our past and start anew.

So, let’s pick one thing, just one thing, and live today as our ideal self would. It could be exercising like our ideal self would. Or, maybe we’d just engage with people with a patience we don’t usually exhibit.

If it goes well, we’ll be one step closer and will try to keep the streak until it becomes part of who we are now.

And, if we slip, let’s try again tomorrow anyway. After all, there is no failure in this endeavor. Only learning.

PS: It helps if one of our aspirational self’s attributes is continuous learning. No matter what happens in our endeavors today, learning is guaranteed.

Dr Gorrie and Flash Freezing

Dr John Gorrie in Florida began using ice in his hospital to treat his fever patients. But, when a shipment of ice from New England was delayed due to hurricanes, he was forced to figure out ways to create artificial ice.

Around this time, breakthroughs in thermodynamics meant that scientists and experimenters had discovered that a vacuum had a lower temperature. And, changes in air pressure could result in cooling. Thus, Dr Gorrie created his cooling machine. However, he died penniless because the Tudor Company (the incumbent) attacked him with a smear campaign that implicated that the new refrigeration method resulted in bacteria.

Despite this setback, the time was ripe for innovation and innovators around the world began creating refrigeration systems. A French innovator, Ferdinand Carre, then created a boxed refrigerator which was used extensively in the southern US states. Soon, innovators kept improving these refrigerators till they became commonplace.

A big breakthrough followed – experimentalist Clarence Birdseye learnt an ice fishing technique from an Inuit in Canada and noticed that fish that froze really quick retained their flavor. This “flash freezing” technique became the basis of his innovations at the New York fisheries and created today’s frozen foods industry.

 

Inventions and scientific discoveries tend to come in clusters, where a handful of geographically dispersed investigators stumble independently onto the very same discovery. The isolated genius coming up with an idea that no one else could even dream of is actually the exception, not the rule. Most discoveries become imaginable at a very specific moment in history, after which point multiple people start to imagine them.  – Steven Johnson, on refrigeration


Source and thanks to: How we got to now by Steven Johnson

(This story and quote is part of “The 200 words project.” I aim to synthesize a story from a book (and, occasionally a blog or article) I’ve read within 200 words consecutive Sundays for around 45 weeks of the year.)

The global caste system

India has had the caste system woven into the social fabric for more than a thousand years now. I grew up exposed to it and I sometimes wondered what the world might look like without it. Maybe other nations had the answer?

I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities to live in multiple places since I left home for university ten odd years ago. And, guess what – every place has a caste system of its own. Sure, they don’t call it the caste system. But, the caste system is not about castes. It is a vehicle for discrimination. As I’ve been reading in Yuval Harari’s incredible book – Sapiens, discrimination is a necessary part of social order. Human beings have used concepts like pollution and purity for thousands of years to preserve this order. Some people just receive much better treatment at any given time than most of the rest.

We don’t think much of this. If you have a passport from a developed nation, you are treated wonderfully well at any airport around the world. However, everyone else isn’t really all that welcome. Add a non-white skin color and you have a recipe for shitty treatment everywhere you go. Global travel, thus, is a classic example of a global caste system. And, folks from developing countries are the untouchables.

We grow up with these social structures and they’re woven into the fabric of our daily lives. So, it is easy as hell not to question it since it seems like the natural order. Ask some men why there are fewer women in executive positions and you might find them give you pseudo scientific answers about why it is natural, pre-ordained even. Substitute men with other “higher castes” in various contexts. And, the results are similar. Every white supremacist will tell you there’s something impure about the darker person’s gene that doesn’t make them worthy of leadership.

I’d like to believe that these things will get solved over time. We’ve certainly made a ton of progress on various issues over the decades. But, in the current climate, it certainly does seem like things are getting worse.

Then again, maybe it gets worse before it gets better?

TV2 in Denmark has a lovely 3 minute video speaking to just this. It is easy to put people in boxes. We all do, all the time. It is part of being human. But, every once a while, it is perhaps skipping what divides us and looking instead at what we all share.

Consciousness and mistakes

I made a couple of small, avoidable mistakes recently. As with such errors in judgment, I felt my ears burn a bit as I felt the minor embarrassment that accompanies them. I try to avoid wasting time beating myself up. So, I didn’t.

But, I asked myself (both times) – was I disengaged / unconscious at that moment?

It wasn’t. I made these errors of judgment despite the engagement.

It occurred to me that I was missing the point of consciousness. The point of consciousness isn’t to avoid mistakes – it isn’t possible to avoid them as long as you’re attempting to do things. If anything, you become more conscious of them – even the small ones that you might have ignored previously.

Instead, consciousness provides us an opportunity to work on a creative, constructive and corrective response. And, what a wonderful opportunity that is.

So, a note to self – the mistakes and bad judgment aren’t going away. It is up to me to learn, make different mistakes tomorrow and develop better judgment.

Good judgment comes from experience. And, experience comes from bad judgment.