Trading the Eagle for a $ Sign

When you reach the mezzanine of the LBJ Presidential Library as I did recently, turn, and you find yourself dwarfed by an immense presidential seal. At its center is the bald eagle, the symbol of both the United States of America and the office of its president. The scale and power of that symbol take your breath away.

But the eagle, tagged as the Endangered Species Act’s greatest success story, has fallen out of favor. Our government has decided to measure its value on the open market and reward the highest bidder.

Monetizing the environment

Bald eagles live in trees along waterways where they can nest and fish. Wetlands, prized by developers and vulnerable to hurricanes, droughts, floods, effluence and all manner of disruptions, are rich, bio-diverse ecosystems the EPA compares to coral reefs and rain forests noting, “More than one-third of the United States’ threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands, and nearly half use wetlands at some point in their lives.” 

Like global financial markets, habitats are finely balanced. We tip the balance when we just don’t know any better, which is why clear-cut rules are so important. Water transmutes from rain to groundwater, to wetlands, to streams, each vulnerable in itself and as part of an interdependent ecosystem. Like the DDT which decimated eagle populations 50 years ago, contaminants flow into streams, rivers and seep into wetlands, poisoning fish, animals and humans.

Declaring war against ourselves

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior, charged with protecting our air, water and eagles, have been busy. Among their tsunami of actions is the “modernization” of the 1973 Environmental Species Act. New rules replace the Act’s clear-cut guidelines with a case-by-case approach, inserting subjectivity into legal determinations of whether protection is warranted. If the agencies’ track record is any indication, the government has refused to act even when the science is clear, and its own scientists recommend protection.

Consider the pesticide chlorpyrifos, cited by the EPA as the “most used conventional insecticide” and its own staff scientists as “dangerous.” Chlorpyrifos is sprayed on 50 of the crops we eat (broccoli, anyone), animal feed. Plan to call Mosquito Sam to get rid of those mosquitos in your yard or on the golf course?  Chances are Sam will use chlorpyrifos. The ear tags used to identify cattle in feed lots are treated with it, as are wooden fences. It travels into our homes via indoor bait traps and the produce we eat. It’s been found in carpets and on children’s toys. If studies on rats are any indication, it attacks the nervous system and can cause attention-deficit disorders and hyperactivity in children. It kills birds, bees and is absorbed into the tissues of fish and whatever eats them, just as the DDT decimated our eagles decades ago.

What is an eagle worth?

The government will use a mathematical model to weigh the value of monetizing its habitat by say, calculating projected logging revenue against preserving the trees where the eagles nest. The problem?  Subjectivity. A July 2019 analysis by Jim Damicis of the economic development consultancy Camoin Assoc., predicts the logging industry will decline over the next five years “driven by a slowdown of housing construction from recent peaks and from increased foreign competition.” Where’s the money?  More environmentally sustainable alternatives.

As for wetlands, critical to flood protection as well as wildlife preservation?  How does our eagle compare with a new resort?

There will be a reckoning

Outside, the temperature tops 99 degrees. The creek outside my window has been dry for over two months. Maps of the American West are the color of dried blood from drought. Our children are suing our government for its refusal to take positive action on global warming, emboldened by a 16-year with the audacity to sail across the Atlantic and tell Congress to pay attention to the science, and act.

Stacks displaying LBJ’s presidential papers occupy one vast wall of the LBJ Presidential Library.
Photo: New York Times

Standing there on the mezzanine of the LBJ Presidential Library, turn away from the eagle and face the opposite direction. Now you face President Johnson’s papers, bound in red. It’s the reckoning of one man’s efforts to fill what’s been called the most powerful office in the world. Johnson passed the Civil Rights Bill and passed Medicare and Medicaid into law. But he forfeited his legacy fighting a war against a perceived foreign threat.

The current administration is fighting a war against the air, land and water we depend on. There will be a reckoning.

The First Americans’ “Send Them Back,” Retold

Walking through Jeffrey Gibson’s extraordinary installation, “This Is the Day,” you hear an echo: “Send them Back.”

Gibson, a gay Native American artist, draws inspiration from the Ghost Dance Movement of the 1890’s, a religious movement that united the Plains Indians in the hope their rituals would banish the white settlers and the U.S. government from their lands.

In one of America’s blackest moments, the tribes’ community terrified the U.S. Army. Fear trumped any better angels, and we are left with the massacre at Wounded Knee.

But this is not the story Gibson tells. He invites everyone to the party, mixing old trading post blankets with Biblical verses and lines from pop tunes. He moves us forward.

“Somehow the past has to situate itself within the present.”

Jeffrey Gibson

“This Is the Day” asks us to come up with a better ending to a story riddled with fear and racism.

A screenshot from Gibson’s video “I Was Here,” which follows Marcy, a trans Native American woman living on a reservation in Mississippi. Gibson follows her as she gets ready to go to work as a waitress in a casino. This still is a ties together a story of courage in the face of racism and prejudice.

Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.

Ben Okri

This Is the Day” is at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas through September, courtesy of Hamilton College’s Wellin Museum of Art. All the photographs are courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson and the Wellin Museum.

Austin, Texas: A Case Study in Managing Competitive Crises

Three things are clear about the future: technology will determine competitiveness; talent comes in all colors, nationalities and genders; and the problems are too big, too complex to solve in isolation.

The annual CULCON Symposium on U.S.-Japan Collaboration was held in Austin last week, the site where 30 years ago a rallying cry of “make America great again,” created SEMATECH, now a model of how government, industry and academic institutions can work together to manage competitive crises.

Today Japan, nestled precariously between North Korea and China, is doing something similar, boosting its competitiveness in science and technology by expanding university-industry partnerships and building a more inclusive work force.

Who owns the future? The electromagnetic spectrum and 5G

Bursts of “make Japan great again” thinking punctuated the session. In what was apparently a last minute change to his presentation, cybersecurity expert Dr. Motohiro Tsuchiya, pointed out that the United States owns Japan’s electromagnetic spectrum, the highway for next-generation 5G mobile technology, the internet of things (IoT), as well as x-rays, gamma rays and radio waves.

The electromagnetic spectrum hosts 5G technology, which will improve the reliability and reach of mobile internet communication. Illustration/ Children’s Health Defense

Thirty years ago, who would have thought something called the “electromagnetic spectrum” would become so essential to a single country’s competitiveness? But 5G technology has vast implications for not just cellphone upgrades, but but for medicine, business and national security. Case in point: Russia recently signed an agreement to allow Huawei, a lightening rod in the U.S.-China trade war, to develop the country’s next-generation wireless network, but since the Russian military owns their electromagnetic spectrum, there could be blips in its implementation.

This world and then the next

Dr. Takashi Tanaka, an expert in machine learning at the University of Texas and like the other panelists a product of international collaboration, pointed out that rocket technology can also be applied to missiles, a critical capability for an island nation with testy neighbors.

Space technology extends scientific inquiry to national security. Illustration/Nikkei-Asian Review

Proprietary rights in space? Dr. Moriba Jah, an expert on Space Domain Awareness, brought up the ever-controversial Elon Musk’s launch of 60 Starlink satellites into the crowded night sky, the first of a proposed fleet of 12,000 designated to provide global internet coverage.

Funding and talent

Innovation is all about funding and talent, which implies a partnership between the public and private sectors. The U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) provided the seed money for SEMATECH. The National Science Foundation funds emerging sectors like artificial intelligence where American leadership is increasingly challenged. Japan, a global leader in robotics, is stepping up its investment in other sectors as well.

“Last year (2018), the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, the government’s science advisory body, announced a 7% rise in spending on science and technology (to 3.84 trillion yen), after years of stagnant funding. The government is considering another 100 billion yen for the upcoming fiscal year to pay for exploratory research aimed at achieving what The Mainichi newspaper calls “moonshot” results. The government is on track to hit a goal of spending 1% of GDP on science and technology in higher education by 2020.”

David Swinbanks, Nature, Nature 567, S9-S11 (2019)

Talent is increasingly collaborative. The CULCON panelists referenced cultural barriers in Japanese universities that inhibit the collaboration, from silo-ed departments to paying research assistants. But then again, perhaps the group’s of Austin as a meeting site was significant. The city is a case history in how a single successful experiment in public-private collaboration, SEMATECH, spawned a vital tech hub that continues to attract jobs and talent.

Stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm

I shared Churchill’s quote with my seatmate, Mr. Naoyuki Agawa, who asked a bedrock question of Austin’s assistant city manager, Ray Arellano: What do you say to people who have failed? Mr. Agawa teaches American constitutional law at Doshisha University in Kyoto, following a long career practicing law in New York and Washington and a stint as Japan’s Minister for Public Affairs.

His point was well taken. Without role models, without examples, without encouragement and social and financial support, failure is a hopeless quagmire.

I said I could do it, and I did it

Mykaela Dunn, Brooke Owns Fellow, University of Texas at Austin. Photo/The Daily Texan

Eureka! Beamed into the panel discussion on space technology was a Texas success story. Mykaela Dunn, a native of tiny Stafford, Texas and a recent aerospace engineering graduate from the University of Texas, has just started her internship in the California-based Stealth Space Company, courtesy of a Brooke Owens fellowship. Dunn encouraged the audience to consider more than grade point averages (GPAs) in evaluating talent, mentioning that she had to remind herself to do the same.

Well done, Mykaela!

Brexit in the Bardo

As I made my way to the Capital Factory, that go-go hive of entrepreneurial-ism in the center of Austin, to hear what the U.K. Dept. of International Trade had to say about Brexit, I thought about a University of London marketing class I took years ago. The professor, a Scot, turned to a world map. He drew a line between Europe and the United Kingdom. Then he drew an arrow across the Atlantic pointing toward the United States and made a prediction: At some point, the British will break away from Europe and join the United States in an economic block. Prescient fellow.

Two countries with a lot in common. Map courtesy of the mls.co

Borders, walls and disagreements

It takes guts to tell your story when the facts aren’t clear, but the U.K. team did an admiral job. Representatives from the British Consulate’s Department for International Trade, law firm Taylor Wessing and accountancy Blick Rotherberg were optimistic that even the Irish border conundrum could be resolved — at the last minute (“That’s the way Europeans do things.”).

 It was one day after Parliament sent Prime Minister Theresa May once more into the breach of negotiations with the European Union, and less than a week after Congress reached an agreement to pause the longest government shutdown in U.S. history so our elected officials could settle a disagreement about a wall between neighbors.

Almost three years ago, on the heels of a political gambit by then-Prime Minister David Cameron, British voters opted to leave the European Union. The questions are when and how. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

Do we stay or do we go?

Ross Allen, the New York City-based director at the U.K. Department for International Trade led the discussion, reminding us that the United Kingdom has a special relationship with the United States. The two countries are genetically linked — in language, history, laws and culture — and those commonalities matter a great deal.

Data Privacy: Privacy continues is a hot button for the U.S. GDPR is in place in the U.K., as is Privacy Shield. Regulation is a moving target, but there is a common foundation.

Business Headquarters: “Pragmatism” is the operative word. Considerations such as degree of industry regulation, the need to move people around Europe, the size of the organization, labor laws and tax rates all factor into a decision.

Regional Differences: London will continue to be its own country, as are all great cities. But other regions, particularly the north, where businesses that rely on international supply chains will be hit hard – Leeds, Northern Ireland, Wales. I read this morning that U.K. automotive production declined 8% in 2018, as investment plummets and jobs disappear.

Trade: Separate trade agreements are in the works with Israel and talks are underway with South Korean and Japan.

Defense: NATO, an intelligence community that’s joined at the hip.

Worst case scenario? On March 29, Parliament decides not to decide. A second referendum to stay in the E.U.? Too late and too expensive. Unlikely.

“I am England”

Every muddle has its heroes, and I asked Vice Consul Haileigh Meyers and her Silicon Valley-based colleague David what they thought about Prime Minister Theresa May.

She (Mrs. May) is a true public servant, and she realizes she needs to get this done. She’s driven by a commitment to public service.

UK International Trade and Investment
British Consulate-General
After negotiation Brexit, Theresa May will not run again for prime minister. Photo courtesy of euractiv.com

Imagine taking a job that no one else wants, a job that brings you defeat and humiliation by even your closest allies. Imagine sticking with that job as other opportunities more to your liking and skill set pass you by. If you haven’t read the New Yorker piece on Mrs. May, do. Here’s hoping Queen Elizabeth, another woman who knows a great deal about sacrifice in the name of public service, can offer guidance from her own long tenure as leader of a nation that faced and dealt with dwindling political and economic power.

Y2K.2 ?

Closing the session, Allen tossed out a provocative idea: “What if it’s just like Y2K, and we wake up and nothing happens?” Some of us remember the panic that preceded the turn of the century hysteria about whether networks and data centers could tolerate the transition between “1999” and “2000.”

After the session, I rode down in the elevator with Drew Haas, who is moving to London next week to open the U.K. office of San Saba Pecan. They have a warehouse outside of York, and Drew will be growing the business in Europe, where almonds are vulnerable to some stiff Texas competition.

POSTSCRIPT: Inflexibility: The flip side of determined leadership?

UPDATE March 18, 2019: The BBC reports Mrs. May will try to get her proposal passed after two rejections, something the now-famous House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has ruled as a no-go unless there are “substantive changes” to the proposal. Will Mrs. May charge into the same brick wall once again?

UPDATE March 21, 2019: The meltdown.


What will it take to make us safe?

We expect our government to keep us safe. The Constitution cites “providing for the common defense” as part of the reason to even have a government. In the best of times, protecting a country as proudly technology-driven as ours is a tough job. And these are not the best of times.

Ranking members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence were in town recently to talk about the challenges of overseeing national security in a cyber world. Below, from left, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), Vice Chairman Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), Chairman Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) and Moderator Stephen Slick.

Photo courtesy of the Texas National Security Review

“Technology is a wonderful thing. It helps us communicate, but it can also be meddled with,” said Burr. “We need to change the entire architecture of government to recognize we’re not in the 20th century. We’re in the 21st century, and that’s not just government (alone), it’s how we integrate that into the private sector.”

We can thank the Russians and Facebook for jump starting a public conversation about technology, sharing, business models and national security. Consider the complexities. Our finance, hospitality (Airbnb), mobility (Uber and Lyft), communications (Apple, Facebook and AT&T), oil & gas (pipelines), as well as many power, water and utility networks, are privately owned, managed and vulnerable.

A broken partnership and the spectre of 9/11

Technology has historically been a collaborative effort between the public and private sectors. Nuclear technology came out of World War II. The networking technology behind the Internet came out of the Defense Dept. via DARPA and the PARC research facility. But these days, the companies with the research and development muscle to push the boundaries of technology are global, rich and fast-moving. Thanks to Edward Snowden, intellectual property concerns, employee activism and a large customer base outside of U.S. borders, they don’t necessarily trust government to lead them down the right path. Google’s withdrawal from Project Maven, the Army’s first implementation of artificial intelligence is a case in point.

“We don’t want to stop innovation,” Cornyn explained. “But we need the private sector to be responsive to the needs of government.” He made a cautionary reference to the government’s failure to predict the incomprehensible horror of the Sept. 11 attacks:

Photo courtesy of Stan Honda


“The most important failure was one of imagination. We do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat … No president can promise that a catastrophic attack like that of 9/11 will not happen again. But the American people are entitled to expect that officials will have realistic objectives, clear guidance and effective organization.”


Excerpted from The 9/11 Commission Report

There are striking similarities between Big Tech and Washington. Both profess transparency but value secrecy. Both think globally and maintain strong international allegiances. Both know results matter. Both value the rights, freedoms and security our nation represents. Best case scenario, each provides a check and balance on the other.

Guardrails for the application of new technologies

Big Tech recognizes emerging technologies like AI are potentially dangerous. In June, Google published a set of internal principles that were accompanies by a cautionary memo from its chief executive, Sundar Pichai, “We recognize that such powerful technology raises equally powerful questions about its use.”

“This is why we’ve tried hard to articulate a set of AI principles. We may not have gotten everything right, but we thought it was important to start a conversation.”

Sundar Puchai, chief executive officer, Google

But Google’s AI principles don’t work for everyone. America’s fiercest competitor, China, requires companies to give up their source code, both figuratively and literally, for government applications. It has made artificial intelligence the cornerstone of its long-term strategy for technology leadership and a way to automate social control. Witness a recent issue of Jeff Ding’s excellent China AI newsletter for a translation of a white paper by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT) for an outline of “how Beijing aims to use AI to automate censorship, control of public opinion, and improved public security.” 

“If America gives up its leadership ability to set a a framework, it’s not going to happen,” warned Senator Byrd. Vice Chairman Mark Warner, both a founder of and an investor in technology companies, was more blunt. “We need guardrails…. We constantly reach out and beg them (the private sector) to work with us in a meaningful way.”

An inflection point in American history

Senator Ben Saase (R-NE) also spoke, describing the long-term race with China as “an inflection point in 230 years of American history,” an opportunity to “organize the American people around long-term competition with China.”

Senator Burr suggested that a public-private partnership located perhaps in North Carolina or Austin could develop the “architecture of cooperation” between the government and private sector.

Certainly, the Army took a calculated risk with its newly-formed Army Futures Command. Based here in Austin, AFS is an entire brigade charged with drawing talent from the start up community to develop the weapons of the future. It’s a big cooperative initiative with a challenging scope.

Never waste a good crisis

Austin has a solid track record of public-private partnerships, most successfully with SEMATECH, formed in the late 1980’s when the semiconductor industry was fighting a losing battle with the Japanese. But P3s are no silver bullet. They are highly collaborative. Competitive issues can be a barrier. They require the participation of top talent. Crises come and go, and their goals and structures must adapt:.

  • A crisis is helpful to attract support, but there must be an overarching vision to give it the flexibility to adapt as things change. Political, social, economic, and technological conditions are fluid and a P3’s structure, mission and goals needs to reflect those changes.
  • Collaboration is key, modeled from the top and rewarded at all levels of the organization. Beware of making intellectual property a barrier in this integral process.
  • Large companies have the resources – talent and support – to collaborate. Smaller companies quickly become overextended. Set realistic expectations with leadership.
  • Define ROI in terms of the organization’s goals. Establish incremental ROI benchmarks to demonstrate early successes. People will be watching.

A closing note on intellectual property

Intellectual property is a concern in any collaboration, but restrictive IP requirements can torpedo possibilities. I found this article by Charles Duhigg a fascinating case study of the Silicon Valley mindset. It describes tech’s proprietary focus on IP and the lengths Google took to retain the knowledge inside a top engineer’s head, the intriguingly perverse Anthony Levandowski. The piece closes with this quote from Levandowski, who as of this writing is working with Chinese investors to fund his self-driving truck start up:

“The only thing that matters is the future… I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess — the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution, and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know that History to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.”

Anthony Levandowski, serial entrepreneur and former top Google engineer

For more information, here is a link to the presentations from the Fifth Annual Texas National Security Forum, “The Return of Great Power Competition” and the inspiration for this entry.

Blockchain’s Promise: Trust

Pete Harris stopped by a session of the World Spins to share his take on blockchain, the software technology generally overshadowed by its trendier spawn, bitcoin and the Bitcoin network. Harris, who bears a striking resemblance to Bilbo Baggins, has a relationship to hype similar to mine with spreadsheets. That is, he is clear and takes  sticks to the facts as he sees them. Even so, it doesn’t take long to recognize blockchain’s promise. If it’s possible to transact business based on a series of permanent (i.e. they can’t be changed), transparent interactions, then our trust-starved world may have a chance of recovering its footing.

https_blogs-images.forbes.comjamiemoyfiles201802block-chain-2852998_1920-1200x534 (1)
The blockchain network: can it build trust?  Photo courtesy by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay, courtesy of Forbes

 

“We’ll have to wait and see” 

Harris’ blockchain CV dates from his Wall Street consulting days over a decade ago. These days, having sworn off airplanes, he spends much of his time with the Austin startup community where over 70 young cryptocompanies are  tackling data integrity issues where they find them — finance, healthcare, contracts.

I watched a handful present at Harris’ Monday night meetup. They ranged from Po.et, copyright/intellectual property protection, to GovernanceChain, an accounting network and CityShare, a digital shopping/hospitality network for member cities. Among the more visible is Wanchain, a Chinese nonprofit that’s figuring out to securely connect separate smart contracts, each with its own blockchain, a pivotal step in supporting a currency-agnostic global financial network. Interestingly, Wanchain’s technology is developed in China; the company’s U.S. headquarters is in Austin.

One of the best parts of these presentations is listening to company execs say, “I don’t know,” and “We’ll have to wait and see” — something I hear very often.  But I suppose that’s the beauty of a working with a nascent technology.

Privacy is implicit in the design

Speaking of wait-and-see, someone asked about blockchain’s impact on GDPR, the  European Union’s toughened privacy requirements known as the General Data Protection Rules. With the compliance deadline looming next month, that too is a wait-and-see. But since transactions are permanent, transparent and traceable, the blockchain ledger eliminates the need for centralized control. The integrity of the information is inherent in the software design.

A peek at a mobile citizenry in a digital world 

Today, 10% of the world’s GDP is in block chain. But it’s not all business. In the public sector, tiny Estonia has fashioned itself what the New Yorker magazine labelled a digital republic. Its citizens are free to live and work wherever they please while continuing to  vote, maintain their health, pay taxes using digital IDs.

Curious? Here in Austin, check out the:

Weighing the Trans-Pacific Partnership on a Larger Scale

Two statistics alone — that 96 percent of the world’s consumers and 80 percent of the world’s purchasing power are outside the United States — should insure our attention is riveted on the first of President Obama’s signature trade deals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as it bobs before an un-receptive Congress in a lame-duck year.

 

charlesrivkin
Ambassador Charles Rivkin, the State Department’s assistant secretary of Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs

This week TPP evangelist Charles Rivkin was in town to talk about the state of the deal and its benefit to the small businesses and tech startups that make up 95% of Austin’s economy. Ambassador Rivkin is no empty suit. His blue-chip credentials in technology, entertainment and business include negotiating the $1B sale of the Jim Henson company. A self-effacing speaker, he cited a nickname, “Don Quixote,” for promoting causes he believes in (like President Obama).

 

Trade is a complex topic that quickly becomes emotional. But Ambassador Rivkin did something interesting:  he inched the discussion out of the “what” category (jobs) and into another, more properly labeled “how.” Framing TPP as a once-in-a blue-moon opportunity to “raise the standards of international trade” — climate change, endangered species, human rights — while also touting the benefits to specific sectors of the economy. In technology, for example, TPP is the first trade deal to address intellectual property.

Windmill alert:  Watchdog groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Citizen oppose the deal, which doesn’t go far enough for their respective publics. EFF in particular is worried the deal will hamper investigative journalism and openness while endangering privacy. Nobel Laureate and Columbia business professor Joseph Stiglitz, an advisor to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, is also against it, pointing out that financial industry, as always it seems, gets off lightly, as do pharmaceuticals and big business in general.

But other voices support Ambassador Rivkin’s argument. The New York Times’ Nathaniel Popper’s nonlinear look at trade deals cites  TPP supporter David Autor (“China Shock”):

global-trade_paul-windle
Courtesy of Paul Windle, the New York Timescites TPP supporter David Autor (“China Shock”): TPP:

 

“The gains to the people who benefited are so enormous — they were destitute,m and now they were brought into the global middle class…The fact that there are adverse consequences in the United States should be taken seriously, but it doesn’t tilt the balance.”

In other words, trade can be seen as a tool to offset economic aid, or as Popper concludes, the benefits of trade have to be evaluated on both sides of the transaction.

Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman is a bit pithier: “Politicians should be honest and realistic about trade, rather than taking cheap shots. Striking poses is easy; figuring out what we can and should do is a lot harder.”

Any way you cut it, I’m glad we have a savvy Don Quixote at work on TPP.