The observable examined

Archive for April 2012

We are Oh! so predictable

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Imagine a banyan tree full of monkeys. There are some monkeys at the top, some at the bottom, and many more at varying heights. The monkeys from the top look down at smiling faces…but  all the ones below can look up and only see a**holes!!

– Adapted from The Jokecenter

Actually, this is an old joke that pokes fun at management  in organizations. But as someone noted long time ago , the truth is often said in jest.  Matt Ridley’s piece – Now You Know Why Your Boss Is Such An Ape – is a nice review of a new book out called “Games Primates Play” by Dario Maestripieri. There are interesting analogies of how dominance hierarchies amongst humans parallels what we see in the ape world. Only we have a huge repertoire of dominance behaviors ranging from the subtle (corporations) to the not so subtle (school bullying, extortion, threats etc.,). In fact, many of our dominance behaviors are culturally sanctioned. When I visited Paris, I learned that, for a powerful person, it was ok to arrive late to an appointment. In fact, how late you arrive is an index of your power. Business school professors also study power in organizations. I attended a brilliant lecture on this topic and wrote about it here.

I have always held the belief that we are fundamentally animals. We are fooled into thinking otherwise because societal norms impose a veneer of sophistication on our behaviors. Probably the best example is territorial fights (homes to nations – only group size differs). I will explore this topic in greater detail in a future blog.


Written by asterix98

April 24, 2012 at 6:54 am

An eye opener – that’s garbage!

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For those of us who mindlessly engage in consumption binges, have you considered what happens to all the material waste you produce (if you have not caught on, I am not talking about the stuff drained down the toilet)? I think I know the answer.  There was a very interesting piece in the WSJ – Grappling With a Garbage Glut – which gives us enormous cause for pause and some soul searching. Among industrialized nations, the USA is the worst offender, no surprise here, dumping on average about 7 lbs per person per day which translates to about 102 tons per year! Staggering. Some other facts, 19 billion pounds of polystyrene peanuts make their way to the landfills. Disposable cutlery (knives, forks and spoons) waste is about 40 billion! There is enough steel in the garbage dumps to reconstruct the whole of Manhattan!! And get this, Texas can be shrink wrapped with the plastic film at the landfills.  Ridiculous.

I grew up in India in a middle class family. There were no big box retail chains. I helped my parents shop vegetables every week. I carried a bag to the store. Groceries were packed in old newspapers. Biodegradable jute fiber was used to bind the newspaper packing. My parents still use containers which are now probably 40+ yrs old (mind you, they are made of plastic and are almost in pristine condition). Table cleanup in hotels used the stems of banana leaves. Food in restaurants were served on banana leaves (not everywhere though). The used leaves served as food for the cows. There are many other examples. There was much efficiency. Recycling was a natural outcome of the economics of daily life.

I have despaired on the last few visits. Surely, the standard of living has improved enormously because of globalization. But it comes at a huge hidden cost. Rampant consumerism (a sad side effect of the world is flat paradigm) is a Western cultural export that has taken a firm foothold in India now. The problem is compounded because the disposal and recovery mechanisms, and infrastructure, for waste management are not as advanced as in the West.  Well, you get the idea.

Here in the US, in the name of saving the environment and weaning shoppers away from plastic bags, a whole cottage industry has sprung up, making millions of reusable bags adding more junk to the mix. I am sure there are designer labels versions available to the wealthy.

Talking of designer labels, in a different section of this weekend’s WSJ, there was another piece on how designers/labels are now eyeing plastic clothing. The title – Plastic is Fantastic.  Go figure!

I wonder if all the garbage we generate will do us in before the oft talked about nuclear winter. But I am hopeful because we will come up with some innovation (nanotechnology, garbage death ray – mentioned in the article…..). In fact, we must.

If you are interested in the topic, you should also check out this fantastic thought experiment – A World Without Us.

Written by asterix98

April 15, 2012 at 1:42 am

trends in data visualization

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No matter how much data you collect, it has zero value unless it is converted to useful information. Visualization then is a very important component of this transformation, especially for complex data. To see what I mean checkout these three beautiful examples:

The first is a wind map. It collates wind data, from the National Weather service, for every state in the continental United States, and presents them as a dynamic flow patterns. Awesome!

The second is the History of the World in 100 secs.

The third is from GapMinder . Hans Rosling is the mastermind behind this stuff.

Written by asterix98

April 8, 2012 at 4:22 am

Of Gulags and Heavens

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I couldn’t help notice the irony in a couple of stories circulating in the media.

The first  is a book review – Escape from Camp 14 – which is the story of a man who escaped from one of the North Korean gulags.  A couple of weeks ago,  I had read the excerpt of his actual escape – Escape from a North Korean Prison. This account already gives us a glimpse of the dehumanizing conditions Shin Dong-hyuk endured and how he made good his escape over the freshly dead body of his friend (he was electrocuted on the fence when trying to escape). I thought this was cruel. Till I read the book review. Shin actually witnessed the beating death of a 6-yr old classmate, the reason: she had stolen a few kernels of corn. In his teen years, he witnessed the execution of his mother and brother. He was also punished for the misdeeds of his parents (North Korea believes in punishing the whole family for an individual’s violations).  I urge you to read both of these pieces to understand just how messed up North Korea is. To witness a completely brainwashed people whose self-image, actually never mind, one doesn’t exist, please watch this full length video from National Geographic. It is so tragic as to almost make you incredulous. Control over the individual’s mind is absolute. This is a nation of a little over 24 million people!!

The cover story in the latest issue of Time Magazine is entitled – Rethinking Heaven! In time for the Easter weekend, the article is a nice tour of how the notion of Heaven has evolved over the years in Christian thinking. Essentially, our conception of heaven has mirrored the dominant cultural sensibilities prevalent at any given period of time. Today, some in the church are advocating that Heaven is not a place up there in the clouds guarded by pearly gates. Rather, it  is to be achieved by being eco-friendly, and making a difference through active participation in improving the lot of the underprivileged. In other words, Heaven is a place that can be built on Terra Firma. This to me is a very promising trend.

But, surely what constitutes Heaven must be relative. To Shin, escaping from the Gulag and having the chance to be human for the first time must have been Heaven!

Written by asterix98

April 7, 2012 at 6:10 am

auto analytics in the workplace

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I read an article titled – Employees, Measure Yourselves -in the Wall Street Journal. The article discusses, auto-analytics, a new set of technologies, that can monitor your activities and provide feedback. One class of auto-analytics software allows tracking of screen time. That is, how many windows you have open, how much time you spend on each one and so on. Supposedly the intent is to enable you to be more productive at the workplace. In other words, it is a slack-o-meter. It has a lot of creep factor built in. But as I was reading this article, I was thinking about Jonah Lehrer’s interview on Fresh Air. The topic was creativity.  The bottom line is: for innovation and creativity to do its magic, you have to allow yourself slack time, even daydream. So there is a bit of schizophrenia out there on this topic. More importantly, auto-analytics of this type is probably useful only to certain types of jobs where productivity is directly quantifiable.

The second type of auto-analytic technology uses cognitive mapping techniques. The idea is to facilitate the organization of your ideas over time so that you can potentially make associations that you may not have otherwise made, and have an “aha” moment. I can readily see the benefits of this technology (beacuse you could search for keywords and such which a paper based catalog would not allow). Your personal Watson?

To me, auto-analytics applied to health is the most interesting. Wellness programs are gaining in popularity among employers. After salaries, one of the biggest overheads for employers is health insurance. Employees in poor health, also cost them, in terms of lost productivity. So HR departments are going for Team Wellness Challenges, gym reimbursements, and the like to promote employee wellness. This is a great start. But I am very excited because we are working on some monitoring technologies and analytics that could change the way medicine is practiced today. Our first stop is women’s health in general and mothers to be, in particular. More on this when the time is appropriate.

Written by asterix98

April 5, 2012 at 4:16 am

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