A Question of Community

There’s a continuum (and a conundrum) between the social distancing mandated by the coronavirus pandemic and the vitality of our communities. Ancient Athens and a Nazi concentration camp remind us how much we need each other.

Surrounded by my four walls, I’ve been thinking about ancient Athens, which for a single generation, from 454 to 430 B.C., erupted in pure genius. In a perfect storm of creative class-like action, its citizens founded the Western world. Our systems of government, science, philosophy, law, the arts and education are outgrowths of those 24 years.

Athenians valued civic life above all else. Rich and poor lived in similar kinds of housing and ate the same plain fare. People congregated: the rich mixed with the poor, foreigners were welcomed, eccentrics praised, and differences tolerated. The author Eric Weiner writes the condemned Socrates chose death over exile from his beloved Athens.

In time, what Weiner describes as a “creeping vanity” set in. The global city grew insular. The rich built big, showy houses. The streets became wider, the differences between the haves and the have nots, more glaring. Foreigners were shunned. Political divisions erupted. Athens went to war with Sparta. Farmland was destroyed. Tolerance dwindled.

https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/eric-weiner-genius-book-interview/
Ancient Athens was a place of genius where life was lived in the public eye. Photo/Wharton School of Business / The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner

In 430 B.C., a plague killed nearly two-thirds of this dense city’s population. One of its victims was the great Pericles, who had been censured in the city’s political upheaval. A series of despots and tyrants rose to power. After a brief period of peace, war resumed, and Athens was absorbed into Sparta. Some historians have postulated the plague was caused by the Ebola virus, a coronavirus.

The density conundrum

https://www.worcesterart.org/exhibitions/past/hope-and-healing/sweerts_plague_detail.htm
Plague in Ancient City by Michael Sweerts. Photo / Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Years ago I visited the concentration camp Terezin outside of Prague. More than 150,000 Jews were sent to the camp; some 17,000 survived. I remember a guide commenting that the very act of crowding the Jews together so densely gave them the power of community. Artists, philosophers, musicians and scientists suffered alongside their fellows. There were no differences among them.

In 1944, the composer and conductor Rafael Schächter conducted a chorus of 150 prisoners singing Verdi’s massive “Requiem.” The performance was part of a Nazi propaganda initiative for a Red Cross inspection, and as chilling as the story is, I can’t help but wonder how much strength that beautiful project gave Schächter, his singers and their imprisoned audience.

The Czech composer Rafael Schächter conducting a chorus of Jewish prisoners at Terezin in their performance of Verdi’s “Requim.” Schächter was sent to the gas chambers soon afterwards.

The other thing I remember about visiting Terezin was a compulsion to leave as quickly as possible and never return, so vivid is the stamp imprinted by the place.

The need for foundations centered around people

We are not victims. We’ve ignored the Cassandras and their warning signals. We’ve pushed the natural world to a state of dry tinder and its inhabitants to homelessness, starvation and flea markets. There is a natural cycle to things, a cause and effect.

Will technology to save us? It will certainly help those who have the time and tools to use it, hopefully including both children and adults in need of a good education. It will continue to enrich those who create and dominate it. But, without guard rails, it will also drive us down the same path we’ve been on.

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, a former surgeon general of the United States, has championed the role of happiness in health, including maintaining a vital social safety net. Quoted in a recent column on social distancing, he says:

“If we want to be a stronger, more resilient society, we have to focus on rebuilding foundations centered around people.”

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, author and former surgeon general of the United States

If we learn anything from history, it’s that nothing lasts forever, and everything has its price. Oh, and leadership matters.

Observations Made During a Search for Provisions, Day 7 of the Covid-19 Pandemic

Is insatiable hunger a symptom of Covid-19?

Everyone is talking about how things will be. How will they be? I have no idea. What I do know is that people are afraid, which makes them very hungry. Some also feel the need to explain why they’re not following the usual courtesies. Some observations made today, Day 7 of the pandemic:

A man scanning the empty aisles of our largest neighborhood grocery store, “I guess I better come early in the morning. They clear the shelves by afternoon.” Indeed, all the raisins are gone. Ditto the Goya beans, my favorite. Ah! I snag a box of golden raisins, pushed to the back of the bottom shelf. Who are “they,” I wonder, and where are “they” putting all of this food?

Is insatiable hunger a symptom of Covid-19? (Lauren Canterberry/Community Impact Newspaper)

Pet food, fully stocked. Should I worry about the cats and dogs? My staple Earl Grey tea, all brands. Gone. And I thought I was surrounded by coffee drinkers.

The checker at the same grocery store. He’s about 18. I try to make him laugh by asking where all the groceries were going. I get a smile as he shakes his head. “I don’t know. Don’t they know things go bad?” Together we wonder when we’ll all settle down, perhaps to a very large shared meal with lots of beans and raisins.

A woman opening the door of the UPS Store with her elbow as I approach sheltered behind a 36-in by 36-in box (the lamp my sister has rejected which I couldn’t return to the store which had closed overnight from the day I called to see if they were open): “I’d open the door for you except for this coronavirus thing.” The door closes just as I reach it. I’m impressed that she explains her actions to me.

Is it time to shop online? Should I worry about the environmental implications of paying Amazon Prime $13/month to bring me tea and raisins instantaneously? What about all those young delivery people who have no health insurance? Perhaps a victory garden in the flower pots on my balcony would work.

Like Scarlet O’Hara, I vow to think about it, not tomorrow, but next week when I run out of greens.

Take care. Be safe, and yes, if at all possible, stay home.

Communicating During a Crisis

Six takeaways from the U.S. response to the Covid-19 pandemic

In a crisis, nothing is more important — aside from saving lives — than clear, consistent communication. Our present crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic — offers some vivid lessons in Crisis Communications 101.

(1) Take responsibility. Have a plan. Trust is everything.

Leadership, leadership, leadership. At the helm of crisis management is a trusted, credible leader supported by a project team with a designated spokesperson and a group of experts germane to addressing situation, each with a clearly-defined role. This team is the source — through multiple channels — of clear, consistent messaging and regular updates.

(2) Deliver the facts clearly, accurately, and on a regular schedule. (Do not lie, obfuscate or bluster.)

A crisis is not the time to wing it. Don’t lie or offer false reassurance. I understand the pressure to deny the reality of a bad situation. But in the end all is revealed, and it’s just not worth it.

We’ve been blessed in Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Health Institute’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has the credentials (2008 Presidential of Freedom for his work with HIV/AIDS) and credibility to steer a rational response and call a spade a spade.

Brene Brown reminds us that we are at our worst when we’re in fear. Address the why/who/what/when to lessen isolation. Help communities figure out how to care for those who don’t have the money, mobility or transportation to prepare. Consider how to give people opportunities to help, despite social distancing. Despite an uptick in first-time gun sales, you probably don’t need an AR-15.

A dedicated website. If Google is developing it, that’s great, because a central repository of accurate information is pivotal.

Microscopic view of Coronavirus, a pathogen that attacks the respiratory tract. Analysis and test, experimentation. Sars. 3d render (Getty Images 1200706447)

(3) Stay out of the forecasting business.

Fact: No one knows the future. Set realistic expectations based on the information on hand and leave prognostication to soothsayers. They have disclaimers.

No vaccine or treatment exists for Covid-19. It takes 18-24 months to develop a vaccine for an unknown virus such as the one that causes the disease. The timeline is mandated by federal law which regulates the licensing of vaccines which require a series of clinical trials, animal and human. Here’s an interesting take from Dr. Jason McLellan, a scientist at the University of Texas who has been studying coronaviruses for years, and is working on a Covid-19 vaccine.

Given our proven lack of forecasting abilities, setting a deadline for the end of a crisis, particularly as it unfolds, opens the door to panic and blame.

(4) Use clearly-defined terms.

Hats off to Wired for a clear explanation of the pandemic’s terminology. Coronavirus refers to a family of viruses; SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the germ that causes the disease, and Covid-19 is the disease itself. Coronaviruses are so-called because the germs that cause the disease latch onto cells in a circular formation, like a crown or corona (see the image, above).

(5) Set clear guidelines and explain why.

At heart, we’re all children. We need rules. So give us clear guidelines, tell us why, and enforce them. That way, we know how to respond. The guardrails are in place.

Covid-19 differs from other coronaviruses in that its more contagious. With no vaccine in place, curtailing the virus’ spread is step one. If this means curfews, tell us and make it a national rule. We’ll adapt. Voluntary compliance is rarely effective. If you doubt this, check your neighbor’s (or maybe your) recycling bin. You’ll find the definition of “clean glass, paper and a very limited range of plastics” is far broader than you could have imagined.

(6) Remind people what’s most important.

Our culture is built on community. That’s how we earn a living, worship and create family and community bonds. And therein lies the biggest hurdle (and lesson) of Covid-19. I have no doubt that how we respond will define us for the foreseeable future. There are some really interesting things happening virtually which I’m exploring and will write about in a future blog.

Let’s learn our lessons well. My take: Give us accurate information. Deliver it consistently, through sources that we can trust. That way, we can follow the rules, take care of our neighbors and the vulnerable. And remember to take care of the environment because ultimately, that’s what we depend on.

Trading the Eagle for a $ Sign

The eagle is America’s canary in a coal mine: As global warming accelerates, the agencies in charge of managing its impacts on our health will no longer issue clear-cut guidelines to protect Americans from life-threatening pollution and habitat loss. Rather, the government has decided to take a case-by-case approach to protecting us, our land and the animals we share it with.

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

“Send them back” is an echo from the first Americans, the Native Americans , whose Ghost Dances were the inspiration for Jeffrey Gibson’s stunning “This Is the Day” exhibit which challenges us to rethink our culture and traditions for a new time.

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

Austin, Texas, the site of the June 2019 CULCON Symposium on U.S.-Japan Collaboration was also the site of SEMATECH, a public-private partnership that modeled how to manage an international competitive crisis.

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

The March 29 deadline for a Brexit go now/go later/no go (unlikely) is around the corner. Despite some defections, especially in fintech, many U.S. companies are opting to stay. The tragedy has spotlighted two leadership flaws: the hubris in calling for a referendum and the inflexibility in dealing with it.

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.