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.

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.

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.


What will it take to make us safe?

The Fifth Annual Texas National Security Forum called for closer cooperation between government and the technology community. Is a public-private partnership in our future?

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.

The Outing of Climate Change: How About a Policy?

On the heels of bad news from Poland, three brilliant scientists call for a shared vision that embraces both energy and climate.

This week saw the follow-on meeting to the Paris Climate Accord. The news is not good; or, as the Washington Post put it, “We are in trouble.” But at least the facts are clear. The Global Carbon Project reported that carbon emission levels are not only growing (this year, 1.6 percent), they’re expected to jump another 2.7 percent, to 37.1 billion tons in 2019.

Washington Post_emissions
Carbon emissions, the chief culprit in climate change, have hit a record high, and are climbing. It’s fair to say as this chart climbs, the quality of our (increasingly close) future goes down.

Building a shared vision

Which brings me to a conversation among three brilliant scientists. Held during the Texas Tribune’s always-fascinating TribFest and sponsored by BP, an early champion of carbon reduction. The panel included:

  • Jason Bordoff, formerly the senior director for energy and  climate change at the NSA (yes, climate change impacts national security in a big way), now at Columbia
  • Katharine Hayhoe, the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech.
  • Michael Webber, the Webber Energy Group, soon to be scientific and technical director at the French energy powerhouse ENGIE, on leave from the University of Texas at Austin

Embracing both energy and climate

The consensus: Effective climate change policy has to grounded in a shared vision in terms of food, jobs and opportunity. It must embrace both climate and energy. As Hayhoe pointed out, it starts with a simple question: What do you care about?

“The only reason we care about climate is because it affects things we already care about. It’s not an environmental issue; it’s a human issue. This is why I care about a changing climate, because it exacerbates our greatest humanitarian challenges: poverty, hunger, inequality, and more.”  @KHayhoe

Epic droughts punctuated by Biblical Floods

Texas is among the fastest-growing states in the country and number one in terms of climate vulnerability. Thanks to the EPA’s rolling back restrictive guidelines, drilling is booming along the Gulf Coast, one of the nation’s most environmentally vulnerable regions. Houston, at the epicenter of drilling activity is still recovering from the most expensive ($125 billion and counting) hurricanes in history.

The world’s 505 remaining whooping cranes winter on the environmentally-sensitive and oil-rich Texas Gulf Coast

The most frightening trait of climate change is its pace: 50 percent faster than the rate of at which its been historically measured. Are we too late?

Leadership matters

Final note: I attended the session thanks to an invitation from Paula Barnett-Bulcao, BP’s senior director of government relations and public affairs. I’ve admired BP for years for their vision and willingness to wear a white hat in an industry known for climate degradation. Barnett, who’s been with BP for 16 years, told me that when she was starting out in the industry, BP was the company she knew she wanted to work for.  High praise.