Archive for January, 2009

A Loss to The Literary Old Guard

Saturday, January 31st, 2009


Earlier this week, on January 27th, John Updike passed away. He was 76. While not an ardent follower and reader of Updike’s work, throughout my life I have enjoyed several of his books, essays, and short stories. While prolific in volume, over the course of his career publishing more than a book per year, he also delivered great quality and was respected and revered by a great many, including an entire generation of literary critics who shaped their own approach to the work from the role model he presented over several decades. Perhaps I fall more into the David Foster Wallace school of thought, who respected Updike but referred to him as “The Great Male Narcissist”.

A favorite quote of mine by John Updike:

America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy”

John Updike 1932-2009

Culture, Authenticity, and

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Via the excellent project , comes this great interview with Tony Hsieh, CEO of Tony and his company are something of a legend, and for all the right reasons. This has been accentuated by how visible, transparent, genuine, and communicative they are with a growing audience of advocates, adherants, and devoted customers. Call it “marketing 2.0″, or whatever you want, but totally gets it. Additionally, Tony and his team have demonstrated an incredible ability to take the challenges faced by all organizations and address them in ways that may look easy to the rest of us, but they most definitely are not. In particular is Hsieh’s focus on the creation of a dynamic and incredibly successful company culture, and how this has helped focus his organization on truly excellent customer service. A few great quote from Hsieh in the video above:

“If we get the culture right, then the other stuff like building a brand or great customer service will happen naturally on its own.”

“Culture is our number one priority.”

“We hire for attitude and culture fit. We believe the skills are something we can teach.”

Tony Hsieh, CEO at Zappos

For anybody tasked with building and leading a team or running an organization this is incredibly valuable perspective. In many, many cases the art of hiring for attitude and fit can far surpass the value of focusing recruitment around expertise, and result in a company culture that is strong and unified in the face of challenges presented to the company.

The Future of Social Networks

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

View more from . (tags: )

This is something that I touched on in a post a few months ago, but takes this evolution of social networks even further and points us to a very probably future for these networks. Of particular note from her presentation is how she anticipates ways in which businesses might make money from this evolution and openness in the technologies and connectivity that support social networks, this being a current point of confusion and frustration for businesses. The reality is that social networks are still very new, and though several companies have smartly figured out how to leverage them to advantage the fact is they are evolving so quickly and efficiently that today’s social network strategy can easily be rendered obsolete by this time next week.

Large Impact Simulation

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

The animation above simulates the impact of a 500km asteroid in the vicinity of the Pacific Ocean on Earth. Obviously, the results spell certain doom for life on our planet, at least as we know it. The animation manages to make this total destruction beautiful, though, and in that way we can appreciate it for its massiveness and totality. Here’s something to ponder, though…

This has happened at least six times in Earth’s history.

Some of the details of such an impact:

  • In this case, 10km of the Earth’s crust is peeled back
  • Impact creates a hypersonic shock wave
  • Ejecta from the impact is propelled into low Earth orbit
  • The entire planet is ultimately engulfed in a fire storm
  • The time from lush, life-sustaining planet to uninhabitable rock takes minutes

Honestly, I welcome reminders of just how tenuous our hold here on Earth actually is. We take much for granted.

A Step Closer to The Space Elevator

Sunday, January 25th, 2009


Almost exactly a year ago I wrote about the concept of a space elevator, and provided some background and motivation for NASA’s pursuit of this very cost effective access to Earth orbit. Quite realistically, if we truly want to create a substantive human presence beyond the surface of our planet it will take something akin to the space elevator to make it happen. Launching rockets into orbit is expensive, time consuming, dangerous, and wasteful. The space elevator will probably be expensive at first, but once it is built and ostensibly powered by solar energy the cost and danger of accessing Earth orbit are enormously reduced, and with the added benefit of much greater frequency. So, the space elevator is potentially a perfect solution for orbital access. It seems we have taken an important step closer with the development of light, long, and stretchy by scientists at Cambridge University. This is an important development, as the tether for the space elevator would require upwards of 144,000 miles of these nanotubes. At present, the scientists at Cambridge are able to develop about 1 gram of these carbon nanotubes per day, which can be stretched to 18 miles, but it will require work on creating the industrial production of carbon nanotubes to make the 144,000 mile space elevator tether viable.

It is interesting that something that existed essentially only in the realm of science fiction for many decades may now be actualized in the next ten years or so, this being another testament to the power of science fiction in shaping the direction of our technology.

More on long, stretchy carbon nanotubes at

On The Origins of Technology

Sunday, January 25th, 2009


There is no way that I could improve on this beyond just pointing you to Kevin Kelly’s . In this piece Kelly writes what is essentially a beautiful overview of the origins of the universe, and adds in some incredibly interesting perspective on these origins, our reality, and how they continue to influence and control all manner of existence, including his theory on the appearance of technology. It is absolutely worth reading the entire article as it is smart, concise, and really well written. Here’s a favorite excerpt:

“While the appearance of any particular form of technology or life is against all odds, the appearance of technology and life as a whole were ordained as soon as the universe began to expand, unpacking room for difference. Technology is the latest in a long line of structures that manifest the expanding potential of difference in the universe with actual differences. The expansion of space/time opened up the universe to the dissipation of entropy, and thus to the appearance of entropy-accelerating forms like life, mind, and mind-life (technology). The mammoth supercollider in CERN and the tiny Intel 8080 computer chip – the big and little of the technium — owe their ultimate origins not to the minds of human engineers, but to the fundamental laws of this existence. The genesis of technology began at the Big Bang. as Weakly syntropic but persistent structures like galaxies and stars exploited entropy to sustain order. In their orbits the first bacteria and later humans extended the ruse. Now the technium delivers differences that life – in all its amazing power – cannot manage. ”


Change For Good

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States

We, and many, many people that we know, have been cheering all day. Seeing Barack Obama inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States of America has been an immensely memorable moment. He seems determined, and ready to get to work. As should the rest of us. I am very happy that I changed my schedule today so as to watch the swearing in and hear Obama’s first address to the nation as our President. It was emotionally charged. It was an excellent speech.

Things already seem a bit different. We’ve seen engagement occur in politics in ways that probably defy any comparison, anywhere. People have been calling this “Politics 2.0″. I get that, having followed our new President on Twitter and via the blog at (now ) for some time. There seems to be an earnestness and honesty in this engagement of ALL of us, and it feels genuine, real, and purposeful. This matters, and it will be this authenticity that makes the hard work ahead seem all the more meaningful. We’ve also seen a President-Elect and his team mobilize like never before, and seem to grab the enormous challenges before them with a seriousness and coordinated effort that is inspiring.

I send my most sincere congratulations and support to our new President. I am incredibly optimistic, and feel motivated in ways that have shaken away the cynicism and jadedness that have restrained my political involvement for far, far too long. I believe that Barack Obama has rallied our nation around a good cause, and that really good work can be done here.

Now, let’s ALL focus, get to work, and help our new President out. We’ve got a nation to fix, and fixing it needs badly.

David Armano On Thinking Visually

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

View SlideShare or your own. (tags: )

An excellent presentation put together by David Armano , whom I have really enjoyed following both via his blog and on Twitter. Armano has tremendous insight into a whole range of subject matter, but is especially adept at offering valuable thinking at the intersection of design, technology, and marketing.

Armano’s advocacy for thinking visually, and his seemingly tireless work in putting new ideas around this out to his community, is a great thing. As he puts it:

“Effective communication is everyone’s job—whether you are trying to sell in a concept or convince a client. Visual Thinking can help us take in complex information and synthesize it into something meaningful. In an increasingly fragmented and cluttered world, simple imagery, metaphors and mindmaps can get people to understand the abstract and make your ideas tangible. Find out why why thinking visually may be one of the most sought after abilities of the 21st century.”

David Armano

It is also very interesting to have come across this presentation about an hour after reading the wonderful article in fast company about .

The Power of Team

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

Ferrari F1 Pit Crew

I’m one to flog motorsports analogies to help make a point. The image above is one I’ve used often in presentations to help businesses understand how a team comes together in support of their goals, and that success is determined by the ability of this team to work together and not by the talent inherit in any one individual. This is as true for designing buildings as it is for designing websites. The team is much, much bigger than the sum of it’s parts. When talking about this, I’ll often say something to the effect of:

“If our client is the driver, the car is their business, and the track is the competitive marketplace, we want to create, lead and support the best team to help our client win.”

I know, it’s a bit excessive. But it works. There’s something about a Formula 1 pit crew, as pictured above, that makes this clear and that everybody gets. First, races are often won or lost based on how well the pit crew can execute the pit strategy, and the pressure to perform is intense as they typically have between 4-8 seconds to change tires, refuel, and make important adjustments. Each member of the crew is very highly accomplished not just at their specific task, but in their ability to seamlessly integrate into the larger event of a pit stop. Each crew member must intuitively understand where they fit into this precision drill, and understand their physical relationship to the other crew members, the vehicle, and the crew leader. It’s exciting to watch a team in action, and with Formula 1 racing the best spectating is often just watching the different teams execute their pit strategies.

And so it is in business, design, architecture, marketing, advertising, and anything else that depends on people working together for success. Henry Ford was right, putting effort to team building and understanding, to learning how to work well together, is success itself.

Update: A friend sent on the image below to further beat the pit crew analogy to death. It’s a great image, and adds some clarity to the six second chaos we spectators witness when the racing cars enter the pits.


OMA Will Harness The Wind, And The Sea

Friday, January 16th, 2009


I was really impressed to read this week that OMA, the architecture office of Rem Koolhaas, unveiled plans for a comprehensive array of that could potentially yield as much clean energy as the fossil fuels produced in the entire Persian Gulf region. The masterplan, named (Dutch for “sea power”),  is essentially an enormous band of wind farms emanating from the Netherlands and spanning out to adjacent countries. The announcement of this plan is a significant step in ensuring European energy independence by 2025. It is also exactly the type of thinking around scale that will make wind power a truly viable option as an alternative to fossil fuels, and in that way not so different than what has been proposed by T. Boone Pickens with his Pickens Plan.


Honda, (Em)Powered By Failure…

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

I have written about the Honda culture of innovation twice before in the last year. That’s because the history of innovation at this company, and how they have maintained a consistent focus on innovation for several decades, is a pretty incredible story that is totally worthy of investigation.

Also incredible, though, is Honda’s passion for failure. This would be something they share with another innovation icon, Burt Rutan, who also very clearly understands the relationship between innovation and failure. They are inextricably linked, and without failure there can be no innovation.

A favorite line from the video above:

“You can fail 100 times as long as you succeed once. We can only make fantastic advances in technology through many failures.”

Takeo Fukui, President and CEO Honda Motor Company, LTD.

Despite the video above being a gratuitous advertisement, of sorts, I appreciate how earnestly it addresses the role of failure in success at Honda, and the honesty in how these failures may be humiliating at the time but ultimately lead to determined success. There’s a couple complimentary videos which are also quite good at .

Tiny Architecture

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

If you cannot identify the two buildings above you’ve been living under a rock. Both have graced the covers of just about every mainstream magazine and newpaper in the last year, not to mention my own obsession not just with the bird’s nest and watercube pictured above, but also with the CCTV Tower. Architecture in Beijing has been very, very hot with not only a rolodex of high profile architects present, but some incredibly innovative design and use of materials.

Over the last year a favorite blogger, , has captured stunning images of this new Beijing architecture as it was completed prior to the olympics being hosted in Beijing last summer. You can see more of her work on her page. The image above was taken by toomanytribbles from the Ling Long Pagoda, and for it she employed the very cool effect called . I love it.

“Working Together is Success”

Sunday, January 11th, 2009


That’s Henry Ford taking a breather on some steps in the image above. Though the company that bears his name is now engulfed in all manner of difficulties, in his day Ford had tremendous success. Mr. Ford was a recognized innovator, leader, and marketer. He reinvented enterprise for the 20th century, and fundamentally changed manufacturing in ways that are still acknowledged best practices. Oh yeah, and he essentially created the automobile business. I came across this quote by Henry Ford and it seemed especially relevant today:

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”

Henry Ford (1863-1947)

Organizations expend great resources assembling the team that is going to give them the best advantage in their business. The interconnectedness, trust, and unified effort of an effective team will not only overcome many of the challenges before the organization, but it can also offset major deficiencies. Today, in addition to cash reserves, few things are as priority in ensuring success as a team that works well together.

Death Star

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

supernova remnant Cassiopeia A

It’s a bit blurry, but the image above is no less incredible. It depicts the shock waves and ejected material from a star going supernova. Recently, compositing images from a range of orbiting and terrestrial telescopes, MIT researchers created the reconstruction of what remained of this star after the explosive, cataclysmic supernova. These remains, referred to as a “supernova remnant”, are now called , and they are comprised of a set of intertwined bubble-like shells of debris that were spewed in the midst of the star’s destruction about 330 years ago (the expansion estimated to have begun in 1667).

Shown in the video below is the evolution of Cassiopeia A made using techniques from medical imaging. This animation combines X-ray images from Chandra, NASA’s infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, and ground-based, visible-light telescopes to create the first three-dimensional animation of a supernova remnant. In this composite, note that:

  • lowest energy X-rays are shown in red
  • intermediate energies in green and the highest X-ray energies in blue
  • that the explosion’s outer blast wave, moving slower than expected at 18 million kph, is also shown in blue

from on .

Looking more closely at the aftermath of this massive event, the animation below depicts Cassiopeia A based on data also from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope. As you watch this, note that:

  • green indicates mostly X-ray emissions from iron
  • yellow reveals mostly X-ray, infrared and visible-light emissions from argon and silicon
  • red is the coolest debris, seen in infrared
  • blue depicts X-rays from the outer blast wave

from on .

Flag As Lost Opportunity

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

Koolhas' proposed European flag 2002

Flags are important visual symbols of nation, culture, history, and identity. And yet, flag design does not seem to evolve much outside of the odd revolution, break up, or nation building exercise, and even those results tend to be somewhat derivative. Apparently, I missed this story of innovation in flag design the first time around and having just thought it worth capturing here. Above is the design for a new flag for the European Union created by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhas and his design firm OMA. This design was a response to a commission by the European Union in 2002 to design a new flag for the EU to rebrand the Union representing Europe’s “diversity and unity”. The design from OMA came to be known as the “barcode” for incredibly obvious reasons, but was especially unique in how it represents the colors of each member nation. An interesting feature of this design is that it would change to incorporate the addition of future nations to the EU, thus being a visual representation of how the EU would change and grow, in that way perhaps not so unlike the flag of the United States and how it evolved by adding a star to represent the incorporation of new states into the union. Supporters of this design felt it strongly and appropriately reflected both the individuality and collectiveness of the nations comprising the European Union.

Despite being a beautiful, meaningfull and dynamic design, decidely more so than the as yet unchanged EU flag with the twelve stars of the original founding nations over a blue field, the design from OMA provoked an outcry of critisism. Sadly, it was never adopted beyond being used by the Austrian presidency of the EU in 2006.

Denial Is a Bitch

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

Abort. Abort. Abort.

I read a great post by , himself building on a post by , that neatly ties together many things that I’ve been thinking and writing about. Together they talk about how the crisis we are experiencing is a catalyst for a fundamental restructuring in a number of industries. More specifically, and to my own perspective going back more than a year, this crisis is forcing tremendous change by shaking out irrelevant business models and challenging the depth of relevance in others. We are quickly learning what matters, and what does not. The obvious markers of this struggle are the American automobile industry, airlines, and the newspaper publishing business, these being shaken to their very core and with the very distinct possibility that they could go away altogether as we know them.  They probably will, and as much as that hurts it might be necessary. At some level, though, all businesses are being challenged, and there are countless other companies, as well as entire industries, that are coursing the abyss. It’s scary, and for those that stand to lose their jobs it is indeed sad, but this is happening because events have changed the realities that these businesses operate in faster than they have been able to manage, anticipate, or address. In many cases, this is the result of avoidance on the part of leadership in the hopes that things would improve, that they would be relevant again. It ain’t gonna happen. Denial’s a bitch.

This is not all bad, though. Yes, companies without connections to customers, without a compelling message and value to their audience, and with antique business models are realizing that their days are actually coming to an end. This is the cost of stasis, of the inability to change, or to innovate. But to Bruce Nussbaum’s point, we all face a call to transform business, industry, and our very activities. Fortunately for all of us there are many companies who are, and have been, doing just that. They’ve been transforming and changing how business is being done. They’ve been changing what matters. As Jeff Jarvis states, out of the economic downturn will come a focus on companies that can build “networks atop platforms”. Presently, many people are the victims of circumstance, and that is definitely an awful place to be, but there are countless others who are hard at work in spite of events, and very determined to be successful. This gets me pretty excited as I know that the result is going to be some astounding innovation and opportunity. That’s motivating. The challenges of this crisis have changed the things that get our attention, focused organizations on reinvention, and created an alignment that has thrust new business models and ways to think about business out into the open to serve as positive indicators for the future, and the very real reality that we’re going to make it through this and be all the stronger for doing so. Stronger companies, stronger business models, and stronger industries.

You can substitute relevant for stronger.

Wait, Nussbaum Said What?

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

He said that :

“Innovation” died in 2008, killed off by overuse, misuse, narrowness, incrementalism and failure to evolve. It was done in by CEOs, consultants, marketeers, advertisers and business journalists who degraded and devalued the idea by conflating it with change, technology, design, globalization, trendiness, and anything “new.” It was done in by an obsession with measurement, metrics and math and a demand for predictability in an unpredictable world. The concept was also done in, strangely enough, by a male-dominated economic leadership that rejected the extraordinary progress in “uncertainty planning and strategy” being done at key schools of design that could have given new life to “innovation. To them, “design” is something their wives do with curtains, not a methodology or philosophy to deal with life in constant beta—life in 2009.”

Bruce Nussbaum from “Innovation” is Dead. Herald The Birth of “Transformation” as a Key Concept in 2009

References to Nussbaum’s innovation obit and quotes from the article began shooting around immediately after it was published on December 31st. Unfortunately, most chose to focus on only part of what he is saying, the part that definitely stood to stir people up, that innovation is dead. Here’s the deal, though. Saying something is “dead”, especially after building your career, reputation, and personal brand on being an expert in it, is definitely theatrical, and certain to raise a great many eyebrows as we all thought that saying something is “dead” was itself finally dead. But he’s right. While innovation is still, and always will be, a hugely valued quality/culture/mindset in individuals and organizations, it is not enough. Innovation isn’t dead, of course it isn’t, but as a lone driver for tactics and strategy it just hasn’t been enough. Nussbaum quickly qualifies his statement by saying the challenges we now face, the uncertainty, and the reality of change mandates something broader to help us navigate these difficulties and come out the better for it. It’s “transformation” that we need to put our collective sights on, and innovation is a significant component of this transformation, though it is just a component. He makes the very good point that focusing on innovation simply was not enough to get us through the insanity of 2008, and in many cases it was actually a myopic focus on innovation that got us into this mess of our own making.

I was very excited to see that, for Nussbaum, an important element missing from our focus on innovation has been the concept of “value creation”, something that I’ve written about many times before. He wraps it up very succinctly:

“Most importantly, “Transformation” accepts the notion that we are in a post-consumer society, defined by two groups of economic players: manufacturers and consumers. “Transformation” deals with a new Creativity Society, in which we are all both producers and consumers of value. Look around and you can see Gen Y in particular creating practically from birth, mashing music, designing Facebook or MySpace pages, doing videos and podcasts—creating value.”

Innovation is dead. Long live innovation.