Friday, May 09, 2014

The Irony of Our New Century

"Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink."

A lot can happen in 100 years so it's hard to predict the defining moments in the first 14. But I think one of the defining issues (after global warming) will be the struggle for clean water on a planet where three quarters of its surface is covered by water. Of course this struggle is already here for many regions of the Earth. For most of human existence access to water has not been a limiting factor. But global warming, privatization of sources and pollution from industrial uses all seem to be heading in a direction that impacts the developed world as much as the undeveloped parts.

100 years is a long time so perhaps this will all prove to be a blip because the immense crisis we are facing is solved by a technical innovation equally large. If the energy requirements are solved, desalination of sea water would turn the oceans from a desert of drinking water into a fountain of abundance. But until then, the irony will be that we have made ourselves desperately thirsty while surrounded by water.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Fail Amnesia

As our ability to engineer the world has increased exponentially, catastrophic failure has become increasingly rare. This is undoubtedly a positive trend resulting in countless saved lives. It also creates a tendency to be shocked to the point of denial when catastrophe eventually does strike. Unless you’re highly trained to deal with stress and danger, the normal reaction to a catastrophic event is probably shock, disbelief and delayed reactions. We would expect people to react this way. But when those in charge are in denial, the outcome is usually far worse. 

On 9/11, some floors of the World Trade Center failed to evacuate when they could or waited too long to start. Taking down even one tower, let alone both was an unthinkable act before 9/11. The shock of the situation was other-worldly for everyone watching the event. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be in the building… to be both part of the event and unable to get perspective on what was unfolding.

The passengers and crew of the Costa Concordia faced a similar situation. Ships of this size don’t sink these days. At least they very rarely sink. When it happened, it was probably clear to the crew fairly quickly that the boat was going to sink. There are sensors and alerts and It comes down to a simple matter of how many compartments are taking on water. But I suspect that the fact that it was the captain’s fault combined with a general state of denial made him reluctant to accept the inevitable and get everyone off the ship as fast as possible. A lack of leadership by the captain creates confusion for the crew which translates into lack of action and fatal delays for all on board. It seems like a similar story is unfolding with the Sewol, the ferry that sunk off the coast of South Korea this week. 

In both cases, the captain and his immediate crew were able to get off the ship safely. They are high above the water line, always near a door to an outside deck, and have the most knowledge of the situation… the "commanding heights" in military terms. However it seems that the unlikelihood of the outcome combined with the deep responsibility it entails seems to defer leadership and promote a sense of self-preservation. It is almost a romantic notion that the captain would "go down with the ship" when he can so easily save himself.

The Tsunami in Indonesia is somewhat similar but more from a generational perspective. It was a natural disaster not one caused by human error. But the elders of the villages recognized what was happening when the water rushed outwards and told people to flee. Foreigners and younger locals wondered what was unfolding before their eyes. By the time the danger became clear, it was often too late to act. 

In all of these situations, there was a reluctance or at the least a critical delay in acting. The performance of our man-made world is now so good that failure, particularly of the catastrophic kind, is so rare that most of us are never asked to train for any possible outcome other than success. In my safe world of web development failure is still quite common. We expect it to happen and have processes in place to deal with it when it does. Failure at the scale of the Costa Concordia or Twin Towers is rare but still possible. When it happens, it is worth remembering that our leaders might not be leading from the top. They might have already left the ship.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Map of the California-Nevada Border as it passes through the pool at the Cal Neva Lodge

The Cal-Neva lodge has several notable distinctions beyond the fact that the property, lodge and building all straddle the border between California and Nevada. The lodge was once partially owned by Frank Sinatra. Judy Garland was discovered there after singing in the fabled Celebrity Showroom. It has played host to many a celebrity including members of Sinatra's Rat Pack, and President Kennedy. Marilyn Monroe reportedly stayed there just a week before she died. There are tunnels underneath the hotel that assisted in the smuggling of alcohol during Prohibition. All that plus the fact that the lodge sits on the shores of Lake Tahoe, one of the World's most beautiful and clear alpine lakes.

As is the case with other places I've documented, sitting astride a border has its advantages. The lodge has always combined the rustic charm of the California side with the more sinful exploits of the Nevada side. Although gambling only became legal in Nevada in 1930, there are stories of illegal gambling before then. If the lodge was raided by Nevada police, the guests would simply move to the California side and vice-versa. There are also tales that the lodge's unique location enabled visiting Californian's to take advantage of Nevada's speedy marriage and divorce proceedings.

Celebrating the lodge's split personality is the Cal-Neva swimming pool, half in Nevada, half in California. The pool's mid-century modern kidney shape gives it an ironic, hipster charm today. The border is painted onto the bottom of the pool with the California and Nevada sides labelled appropriately. The pool is also a microcosm of nearby Lake Tahoe which is itself divided between California and Nevada. I've always been partial to the California side but a drive through the Nevada-side can be a fun celebration of motel signage kitsch.

Cal Neva Resort website:
"The Tunnels of History" an article in the Tahoe Daily Tribune about the tunnels under the hotel:

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


I believe that in 20 years, people will look back on yesterday's tornados in Moore Oklahoma (and their predicted connection to global warming) and wonder how anyone could have advocated for more coal or "drill baby drill" when we knew these environmental problems were unfolding. "

I also think people will look back on Sandy Hook and wonder how anyone could have thought that the answer to the problem of gun violence was more guns." 

That's my forecast. I only wish we could all have the benefit of hindsight today. All we have to go on now is scientific facts!

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Corporate Innovation & Particle Collisions

Particle colliders have been described as being like smashing two watches together to figure out how clocks work. It is at times a crude tool but one that has, none the less, led to real discovery. I've always been fascinated by the images created by particle colliders. The image of spiraling particles recently made me think of the process of corporate innovation.

Most big companies are like the pre-collision atoms, electrons and protons that feed the process. They are bigger, tightly bound, and have huge momentum in a specific direction. They are on a track and hard to turn even when the market is telling them otherwise.

Innovation teams follow a path that is more like sub-atomic particles colliding. The particles themselves are smaller and more nimble than the atoms from which they came and the collision patterns have distinct characteristics. Instead of staying "on track", they seem to arc away from the original path in different directions. This, to me, is a core requirement for innovators. New ideas come from explorations in new domains, away from the mother ship. Many ideas must typically be explored before viable ones are found. This is like the traces you see of particles spiraling off in multiple directions. As promising ideas are identified, explorations spiral inward on specific solutions, just like the paths of the sub-atomic particles.

Lastly, to be successful, the ideas developed by innovation teams must return to the company's core businesses. This is like the final stage in collisions where outward forces are overcome by attraction and bonding forces. The smallest particles that had existed for brief periods of time rejoin other particles and start to form the stronger bonds that held them together in the first place. In companies, smaller, nimble teams join product teams or perhaps, like an atom, move on to their next set of interactions with the rest of the world.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Why I am a Designer

I'm an introvert. I am reluctant to speak up in groups but I have always felt like I have something to say. Design, and visual design in particular, is a way of speaking or communicating. This was true in my early days as an exhibit designer and it is true in my work as an interaction designer. It is also the case for the presentations I've assembled over the years to visualize issues for clients and co-workers. I have always been as fascinated by the effort to communicate the idea as I am in the idea itself.

Maps are another example of my interest in design and communication. They are deeply immersive. They hover between the visual and verbal. They are words that we read and images that we view. As visual and language-using animals inhabiting a world we seek to understand, maps represent the pinnacle of media.  This is why I love creating maps.

Design for me is the opportunity to "speak" to people and to do it in a way that engages our visual and verbal nature. It is my attempt to find my voice.

Monday, November 05, 2012

"For many Americans, Sandy has highlighted the relationship between a warming planet and intensifying extreme weather. For others, it’s provided more fodder for jokes mocking the problem."
-- Stephan Lacey writing about Republicans joking about climate change before and after Hurricane Sandy