Thursday, November 28, 2013

Economies of scale and specialization in giving thanks

Today is the day that Americans give thanks for (as President Lincoln first proclaimed in 1863) “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” Over the next 150 years, 28 successive presidents issued their own proclamations marking this most American of holidays.

When we lived in Silicon Valley, five years ago we hosted a Swedish researcher and his wife visiting Stnaford through the beneficence of a Scancor post-doctoral fellowship. As a homework assignment, I assigned him to “Consumption rituals of Thanksgiving Day,” an exemplar of interpretivist consumer behavior research that I was assigned to read in my PhD marketing seminar. (One of the four students from my cohort became a scholar in this tradition, writing “Religiosity in the abandoned Apple Newton brand community” that earned more cites more quickly than the earlier paper.)

Today we are hosting the extended family’s Thanksgiving feast, with our household of four being joined by 23 others, representing a total of 11 households. Five of those households are singletons (and thus some don't cook) so we have seven households bringing side dishes, desert and other items.

I jokingly said in an email this morning that we’d crowdsourced Thanksgiving dinner. Upon further reflection, that’s not strictly true because we’re not leveraging the “wisdom” of crowds. Instead, it seems more of an example of economies of scale and specialization.

Yes, it’s more work for my better half to cook 30 lbs of turkey than 15, or to make 123 rolls instead of 30. However — from watching my mom make the whole scratch dinner for years — it is far less work if you don’t have to make the mashed potatoes, salad,and (especially) pie the same day you’re making turkey.

So here with our family pot-luck we’ve re-derived the basic principles of barter and trade that were developed by human society thousands of years ago. We will give thanks for the economic and material comforts that such exchange has made possible for us, both in our own family, and in our community, nation and the global economy as a whole.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Trading one good boss for another

Today, the Minerva Schools at KGI announced its two new latest academic appointments:

The Minerva Schools at KGI, offering a reinvented university experience for the brightest and most motivated students from around the world, today announced the appointments of Dr. Eric Bonabeau as Dean of the College of Computational Sciences, and Dr. James D. Sterling as the Director of Minerva Labs and interim Dean of the College of Natural Sciences. The two join Dr. Stephen M. Kosslyn, Founding Dean, and Dr. Daniel Levitin, Dean of the College of Arts & Humanities, as key academic leaders at the Minerva Schools at KGI.
An entrepreneur and expert on adaptive computing algorithms, Bonabeau’s book Swarm Intelligence is one of the sources cited by Michael Crichton’s novel Prey. (Ironically, my former KGI co-worker Christoph Adami is also credited).

But it’s the other announcement that’s the big news at KGI:
Dr. James D. Sterling, previously Dean of the School of Applied Life Sciences and current Vice President for Academic Affairs at Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), will serve as Director of Minerva Labs, and has also been appointed interim Dean of the College of Natural Sciences. Dr. Sterling holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from California Institute of Technology, and is an alumnus of Texas A&M University where he earned a BS degree in Mechanical Engineering. As a founding faculty member of KGI, Dr. Sterling developed the engineering coursework that prepares students to work in the development of laboratory research tools, laboratory automation, and micro-bioanalytical methods. In addition, Dr. Sterling serves as chair of the academic dean’s committee of The Claremont Colleges consortium.

“I’m thrilled to be joining Minerva and creating a new kind of university experience for undergraduate students,” said Dr. Sterling. “I’m particularly excited and intrigued by the educational innovations we are developing and look forward to leveraging Minerva’s learning platform and new methods in laboratory automation to educate students in the College of Natural Sciences."
Neither Minerva nor KGI mentions that Sterling is co-founder of one of KGI’s first spinoffs, Claremont BioSolutions.
Jim Sterling, Minerva CEO Ben Nelson
and KGI President Sheldon Schuster

Jim was my boss from when I joined KGI in July 2011 until last Thursday, when he stepped down as SALS dean. He was a great boss, one of the best in my entire career. For many bosses — including my first few years at my own company — being the boss is about the boss. Although very busy, Jim was always scrupulously fair to his employees — perhaps due to that engineering mindset that something is fair or isn’t.

We wish Jim well in his new position, and I’m confident he’ll bring great expertise and management skills to launching the labs, getting the college off the ground and helping the school prepare for its first class next fall.

My new boss (i.e. the interim dean) is KGI’s longest-tenured business faculty, Steve Casper, who taught at Cambridge’s Judge business school before joining KGI in 2003. In innovation studies, most people know Steve for his research on biotech clusters, particularly in Germany and California. Steve is the reason I’m at KGI, so I look forward to working with him on building KGI’s programs and opportunities for its students.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The war to end all wars

Today we celebrate Armistice Day (aka Veterans Day aka Remembrance Day) because 95 years ago today, the armistice was signed between Germany and the allied powers (at 11:11 CET), marking the end of The War to End All Wars.

I knew a lot about World War II since both my parents were active duty, and the history of America’s “Greatest Generation” was prominent when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. But I had only fragmentary knowledge of WW I, other than a vague understanding of the combatants and how they were similar to (and different from) those 25 years later.

That has changed since I read July 1914: Countdown to War, a marvelous new history detailing the month that led up to World War I. Its author, Prof. Sean McMeekin, trained at Stanford and Berkeley and is now a professor in Turkey. He’s drawn upon the archives of the various combatants, with citations pointing to specific memoirs, cables and other internal documents.

Americans (of my and my parents’ generation) were trained to think of Germany as evil, whether under the Führer or the Kaiser. McMeekin paints a much more nuanced picture. In short form

  • Austria sought to punish Serbia because its irregulars assassinated the emperor’s brother, but was incompetent to conduct either diplomacy or a short punitive war;
  • Russia was ready and waiting for an excuse to destroy Austria and seized upon Austria’s threats against Serbia to do so;
  • Germany felt it had to back Austria, without realizing how reckless its allies were and how perfidious its enemies were;
  • France and Russia conspired to draw Germany into war — and lied about their intentions — even though Russia was the first of the European Great Powers to mobilize for war;
  • All three powers sought to manipulate Britain to their side, but France was a better liar than Germany, and Britain was too incompetent to know what was really going on until too late.
As Scottish historian Hew Strachan put it: “most historians today believe that Germany did not deliberately plan to go to war.” The Russians and French were clearly more successful at prewar diplomacy — particularly in influencing the British (to join their side) and Italy (to not join Germany) which helped tip the odds in their favor.

It was also interesting to note that this was probably the last time in history where inherited monarchies played a significant role in the nature or timing of major decisions by European governments. The monarchs of Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Germany and Russia all figure prominently in their respective government decisions.

It’s impossible to determine whether war was inevitable, or whether a war under other circumstances would have ended differently. But by assassinating the Austrian leader, Serbia was rewarded by dismembering of the Austro-Hungarian empire and taking away Slovenia and Croatia from the Austrian territory. And Britain was drawn into a war where it had no real national interest, and lost nearly a million men for its mistake. Meanwhile, even before Lenin, Russian leaders sought influence and power through military might rather than economic growth and the well-being of its citizenry.

Overall, it appears that both Germany and Britain would have benefited — and found common ground — with more effective intelligence services that understood the intentions (and actions) of the other Great Powers. As with “weapons of mass destruction” decades later, faulty intelligence can lead to military disaster.