All posts by Jeff Larche

Wolves, Trains and Automobiles: The Domestication of A.I.

I’ve thought and read a lot about artificial intelligence (AI). Particularly, its potential threat to us, its human creators. I’m not much for doomsday theories, but I admit I was inclined to fear the worst. To put things at their most melodramatic, I worried we might be unwittingly creating our own eventual slave masters. But after further reading and thinking, I’ve reconsidered. Yes. A.I. will be everywhere in our future. But not as sinister job-killers and overlords. No, they will be extensions of us in a way I can only compare with that most beloved of domesticated creatures: The dog.

For you to follow my logic, you’ll need to remember two facts:

  1. Our advancement as a species from hunter-gatherers to complex civilizations would not be possible without domesticated plants and animals
  2. Our collective fear of technology is often wildly unfounded

Bear with me, but you’ll also probably need to recall these definitions:

  • Domestication: Taking existing plants or animals and breeding them to serve us. Two examples are the selection of the most helpful plants and turning them into crops. Michael Pollan’s early book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, will bring you a long way to seeing this process in action. As for animals, you may think of dogs as being mere pets, but early in our evolution as humans we bred the wolf to help us hunt for meat, and to protect us from predators. Before domestication, we pre-humans hunted in packs, and so did the wolves … never the twain shall meet. After this domestication, we ensured the more docile canines a better life, under the protection of our species and its burgeoning technologies (see definition below), and they delivered the goods for us by helping us thrive in hostile conditions. It was a symbiosis that turned our two packs into a single unit. No wonder the domesticated dog adores us so, and that we consider them man(kind)’s best friend.
  • Technology: Did you know the pencil was once considered technology? So was the alphabet. You may think of them merely as tools, but technology is any tool that is new. And our attitudes toward anything new always starts with fear. Douglas Adams put it this way: “I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies: 1.) Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2.) Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3.) Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.” Fear of technology not surprisingly spawned the first science fiction: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, a literal fever dream about a scientist’s hubris and the destruction it wrought upon himself and the world. This fear has a name: Moral panic. And it has created some pretty far-fetched urban myths.

In a Wall Street Journal piece, Women And Children First: Technology And Moral Panic, Genevieve Bell listed a few of these vintage myths. The first is about the advent of the electric light: “If you electrify homes you will make women and children … vulnerable. Predators will be able to tell if they are home because the light will be on, and you will be able to see them. So electricity is going to make women vulnerable … and children will be visible too and it will be predators, who seem to be lurking everywhere, who will attack.” And consider this even bigger hoot: “There was some wonderful stuff about [railway trains] too in the U.S., that women’s bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour. Our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as they were accelerated to that speed.”

Sounds messy.

I don’t have to tell you about our modern moral panic surrounding A.I. Except there is a bit of reverse sexism going on, because this time it is male workers who are more the victims. Their work — whether purely intellectual or journeyman labor — will be eliminated. We’ll all be out on the street, presumably to be mowed down by self-driving cars and trucks.

The Chicken Littles had me for a while

So what changed? In the same week I read two thought-provoking articles. One was in The New Yorker, The Mind-Expanding Ideas of Andy Clark. Its subtitle says it all: The tools we use to help us think — from language to smartphones — may be part of thought itself. This long piece describes Clark’s attempt to better understand what consciousness is, and what are its boundaries. In other words, where do we as thinking humans end and the world we perceive begin?

He comes to recognize that there is a reason we perceive the world based on our five senses. Our brains are built to keep us alive and able to reproduce. Nothing more. All the bonus tracks in our brain’s Greatest Hits playlist … Making art, considering the cosmos, perceiving a future and a past … these are all artifacts of a consciousness that moves our limbs through space.

To some people, perception — the transmitting of all the sensory noise from the world — seemed the natural boundary between world and mind. Clark had already questioned this boundary with his theory of the extended mind. Then, in the early aughts, he heard about a theory of perception that seemed to him to describe how the mind, even as conventionally understood, did not stay passively distant from the world but reached out into it. It was called predictive processing.

Predictive processing starts with our bodies. For instance, we don’t move our arm when it’s at rest. We imagine it moving — predict its movement — and when our arm gets the memo it responds. Or not. If we are paralyzed, or that arm is currently in the jaws of a bear, it sends the bad news back to our brains. And so it goes.

In a similar way we project this feedback loop out into the world. But we are limited by our own sense of it.

Domestication of canines was such a game-changer because we suddenly had assistants with different senses and perceptions. Together humans and dogs became a Dynamic Duo … A prehistoric Batman and Robin. But Robin always knew who was the alpha in this relationship.

Right now there is another domestication taking place. It’s not of a plant or an animal, but of a complicated digital application. If that seems a stretch … If grouping these three together — plants, animals and applications — keep in mind that domesticating all of them means altering digital information.

All Life Is Digital

Plants and animals have DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid. They are alive because they have genetic material. And guess what? It’s all digital. DNA encoding uses 4 bases: G,C,T, and A. These are four concrete values that are expressed in the complex combinations that make us both living, and able to pass along our “usness” to new generations. We’re definitely more complicated than the “currently” binary underpinnings of A.I. But as we’ve seen, A.I. is really showing us humans up in some important ways.

They’re killing us humans at chess. And Jeopardy.

So: Will A.I. become conscious and take us over? Clark would say consciousness is beyond A.I.’s reach, because as impressive as its abilities to move through the world and perceive it are, even dogs have more of an advantage in the consciousness department. He would be backed up by none less than Nobel Prize in Economics winner Daniel Kohneman, of Thinking, Fast and Slow fame. I got to hear him speak on this subject live, at a New Yorker TechFest, and I was impressed and relieved by how sanguine he was about the future of A.I.

Here’s where I need to bring in the other article, a much briefer one, from The Economist. Robots Can Assemble IKEA Furniture sounds pretty ominous. It’s a modern trope that assembling IKEA furniture is an unmanning intellectual test. But the article spoke more about A.I.’s limitations than its looming existential threats.

First, it took the robots comparatively long time to achieve the task at hand. In the companion piece to that article we read that …

Machines excel at the sorts of abstract, cognitive tasks that, to people, signify intelligence—complex board games, say, or differential calculus. But they struggle with physical jobs, such as navigating a cluttered room, which are so simple that they hardly seem to count as intelligence at all. The IKEAbots are a case in point. It took a pair of them, pre-programmed by humans, more than 20 minutes to assemble a chair that a person could knock together in a fraction of the time.

Their struggles brought me back to how our consciousness gradually materialized to our prehistoric ancestors. It arrived not in spite of our sensory experience of the world, but specifically because of it. If you doubt that just consider my natural and clear way just now of describing the arrival of consciousness: I said it materialized. You understood this as a metaphor associated with our perception of the material world.

This word and others to describe concepts play on our ability to feel things. Need another example: This is called a goddamn web page. What’s a page? What’s a web? They’re both things we can touch and experience with our carefully evolved senses.

And without these metaphors these paragraphs would not make sense.

Yes, our ancestors needed the necessary but not sufficient help of things like cooking, which enabled us to take in enough calories to grow and maintain our complex neural network, and the domestication of animals and plants that led us to agriculture and an escape from the limitations of nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes (I strongly recommend Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies for more on this), but …

To gain consciousness, we also needed to feel things. And what do we call people who don’t feel feelings? Robots. “Soulless machines.”

Without evolving to feel, should A.I. nonetheless take over the world, it’s unlikely they will be assembling their own IKEA chairs with alacrity. They’ll make us do it for them. Because our predictive processing makes this type of task annoying but manageable. We can even do it faster over time.

It’s All About The Feels

But worry not. Our enslavement won’t happen because — and I’m feeling pretty hubristic myself as I write this — we’re the feelers, the dreamers, the artists. Not A.I.

Before we domesticated dogs, we were limited in where in the world we could roam, and the game we could hunt. After dogs, we progressed. We prospered. Dogs didn’t put us out of jobs, if you will, they took the jobs they were better at in our service. Inevitably, we found other ways to use our time, including becoming creatures who are closer to the humans we would recognize on the street today, or staring back in the mirror.

We are domesticating A.I. Never forget that.

And repeat after me: We have nothing to fear but moral panic itself.

Personal Mission Statements are dumb

That’s how I felt 25 years ago, when I was working on a system to improve my work and life focus. The concept made sense, it wasn’t that. Stephen Covey of Seven Habits fame conjectured, to paraphrase: “What good is ‘climbing the ladder’ if you reach the top and realize it’s against the wrong building?” He was trying to make the distinction between being efficient — moving as quickly as possible from rung-to-rung — and being effective. Effective people are also more resilient. For people who know they are navigating against their “True North,” setbacks don’t seem quite so hard.

No, what I hated about personal Mission Statements is the fact that those I had read — the examples I found — frankly were dumb. I know, they weren’t dumb to their authors. But to me they all sounded way too high-minded. They all sounded like the platitudinous statements made during the Q&A phase of a beauty pageant.

But I persisted. I realized that I needed to ignore the ones that I’d read. (They comprised a fairly small sample; This was pre-internet, before the world’s knowledge was at the end of a quick Google search.) Instead, I meditated and ruminated. And I assured myself that when I found the right one, others would likely find mine as dumb as I found theirs. It’s sort of like looking through someone else’s closets (“Do they really think that shirt is a good idea?!?”)

After literally a year of trying, my mission statement came to me in a flash. I was, interestingly enough, on a massage table at the time. It’s surprising what’s released along with all that lactic acid. For what it’s worth, here it is:

Lead by example
Live in acceptance and non-judgement
Help people laugh at themselves and the world
Help people succeed financially

That last one comes from my early professional life, which took place in the mid-1980s, the second most severe recession since the last one. It was a tough time to start out, and money was scarce. I vowed to be the mentor I never had and help people find work that they love.

Do you have a notable Mission Statement? I’ve turned my comments off, but you can find me. Let me know!

The Ethics of Autonomous Vehicles

This Friday my colleagues at the Accenture Digital Hub in downtown Chicago will be participating in a lunchtime consortium. It’s a debate of sorts. The topic is autonomous vehicles and ethics.

I can’t make it, so volunteered to compose a little “thought-starter.” Here it is:

Dear Fellow “Digital Hubsians,”

Since I can’t be present, I asked if I could kick off proceedings with an introduction to the topic. A wedding out of town has taken me away but I am present in spirit, (obviously) excited about this topic, and eager to learn how the discussion went.

First of all, what is ethics? I’d say it starts with the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would like done to you.

There’s an upgrade of sorts that fits even better with autonomous vehicles. It’s been called the Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would like done to them.

Obviously the Platinum Rule is trickier, because you have to be empathetic enough not to automatically project your preferences onto the other person. But it applies pretty uniformly to autonomous vehicles debates, since just about all of us do not want these things to happen:

  1. Being struck and killed by a vehicle, driverless or not
  2. Ditto being killed or injured while riding in a driverless vehicle
  3. Being put out of a job because of driverless vehicles

These are the three major risks to individuals with the advent of better GPS, car sensors and AI.

To get your brains engaged, what follows are some considerations for each.

1. Pedestrian Deaths and Injuries

How does our society deal with the loss of life when someone is struck by a car driven without a driver? We were suddenly forced to confront that when, on March 18, an Uber vehicle operating in autonomous mode struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona. Although she was not walking inside a crosswalk, and was likely not paying attention as she crossed, this is nonetheless tragic and raises ethical questions such as this one: Should we be climbing into an Uber sometime in the future that is priced below the current cost of even an Uber Pool, because this savings could be correlated with an elevated risk of taking a pedestrian life?

There are few defenders of Uber in terms of ethics, but when Uber begins its defense for killing that woman with one of their vehicles, they will undoubtedly say the pedestrian was carelessly jaywalking. When they do, it’s significant that they’ll be using a framework that is approaching its hundredth birthday. In a Vox.com piece from 2015, entitled “The forgotten history of how automakers invented the crime of ‘jaywalking’“, it was pointed out that things changed when more and more pedestrians were dying. And the change was due to an “aggressive effort in the 1920’s” led by “auto groups and manufacturers”…

“In the early days of the automobile, it was drivers’ job to avoid you, not your job to avoid them,” says Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. “But under the new model, streets became a place for cars — and as a pedestrian, it’s your fault if you get hit.”

With AI and sensors getting progressively better at sensing things like crosswalks, a new shift in perception may be fostered that carves out the safe zone as anything within those painted lines. Pedestrians may actually come to feel safer when crossing a street that’s busy with passing autonomous vehicles. Why safer? They would know that as long as they are within the lines of a crosswalk, they are shielded from harm to a degree that arguably doesn’t exist today, due to the fallibility of human operators.

A New Yorker article from 20-plus years ago (the January 22, 1996 issue), written by a much younger Malcolm Gladwell, stuck with me then so vividly that when I found it just now in the website’s archives I was able to zero in on exactly the term — and the concept — it had taught me then: Risk homeostasis.

Risk homeostasis, Gladwell explained, was first described by a Canadian psychologist Gerald Wilde, in his book Target Risk. The idea is simple: “Under certain circumstances, changes that appear to make a system or organization safer in fact don’t. Why? Because human beings have a seemingly fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another.”

And an example there of “one area” versus “another” is the very type of crosswalk the pedestrian was not using that day in Tempe. Risk homeostasis is illustrated beautifully by Gladwell inside and outside those lines in the road. He writes:

Why are more pedestrians killed crossing the street at marked crosswalks than [elsewhere]? Because they compensate for the “safe” environment of a marked crosswalk by being less [vigilant] about oncoming traffic.

It could be argued that risks will rise in some parts of the streets, but they may fall in others, causing an autonomous-vehicle-induced homeostasis.

2. The risk of riding in a driverless vehicle

Once all of the kinks are worked out, you’d think you couldn’t possibly be safer than riding in a vehicle that obeys all traffic rules and slows to safe traveling speeds when weather or reduced visibility dictates. But the AI spiriting you along would learn to make snap decisions that minimize fatalities based on values well beyond who is making the car payments. Your “passenger life” would possibly not be as valuable compared to multiple lives also at stake.

A decade ago I saw what I considered a truly cringe-worthy Will Smith movie. Some people adored it, raved about it. I found it ethically bonkers. It’s called Seven Pounds, and it’s about a jerky, Type A executive type who, while driving too fast with his wife as a passenger, reads a text message that distracts him long enough to cause a collision which kills seven people, including his wife. Over the next couple of years, while in the throes of depression, he contrives a way to redeem himself. Spoiler: He plans to donate parts of his body to seven other people.

For the sake of this discussion, I will restrain myself and not go off on the filmmaker’s willingness to portray an ultimately fatal illness – depression – as heroism and selflessness. Instead, let’s talk about the accident. What if those six passengers in the other vehicle could have been saved if the car driving him and his wife simply veered off the road and into a tree? How safe would you feel traveling in such a vehicle?

This is part of an emerging field called “machine ethics.” They go well beyond your autonomous Uber ride, as this article in The Economist,Morals and the Machine,” points out:

As they become smarter and more widespread, autonomous machines are bound to end up making life-or-death decisions in unpredictable situations, thus assuming – or at least appearing to assume – moral agency. Weapons systems currently have human operators “in the loop”, but as they grow more sophisticated, it will be possible to shift to “on the loop” operation, with machines carrying out orders autonomously.

So what is the correct answer to the “Seven Pounds accident?” It’s actually addressed in a thought experiment, created by Philippa Foot in 1967. It’s called The Trolley Dilemma. The latest version goes like this:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person tied up on the side track.

You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the most ethical choice?

When professional philosophers were polled, the results were:

  • 68% would switch (sacrifice the one individual to save five lives)
  • 8% would not switch
  • The remaining 24% had another view or could not answer

So if Will Smith’s character was being driven by an autonomous Uber and a judgement call similar to the Trolley Dilemma was presented, he and his lovely wife (played by MaShae Alderman) would be toast. Six is three times greater – and more worthy of saving by dint of simple math – than two.

3. Autonomous Vehicle Job Displacement

As though driven by an AI-powered car, our society is barreling toward what could be perceived as an abyss. Millions of professional drivers could be put out of work. True, many of these jobs are extremely difficult and can even shorten lifespans. Automation in the past has saved several generations of workers from back-breaking, life-shortening jobs.

But where will these displaced workers go? With little promise of training into better-paying jobs, there is the very real risk of a social upheaval. Innovative countries and states are looking into a solution, that itself presents ethical challenges. The solution is state-funded universal guaranteed income, also known as UBI (Universal Basic Income).

The ethical quandary is this: Assuming UBI works to quell revolt and ensure public health and modest comfort, should the relatively few “haves” fund the lives of the many more “have-nots” — even if it is for the good of the state?

Ethics questions aside, UBI is being taken seriously. It is being tried in a couple Scandinavian countries, and seriously debated by voters in Switzerland. Closer to home, it’s actually being attempted today, in Stockton, CA.

Like autonomous vehicles and AI transformations in other industries, UBI seems to be something that cannot be ignored. How will it be framed in the U.S.? And what would happen to the American standard of living if it was embraced in other parts of the world but not here? The U.S. was founded and built upon Puritan ideals of hard work and self-sufficiency (reliance on legalized slavery for part of that “hard work” notwithstanding). Can we as a society agree to revise our thoughts about work in time to save our rapidly transforming economy?

Talk amongst yourselves.

This year’s NPR Austin 100 includes impeccable break-up advice

NPR’s Austin 100 is a curated collection of new music from SXSW. I’ve never been to this Austin-based music festival, but I look forward to the annual playlist as eagerly as many await March Madness. And contrary to what’s supposed to happen with age, my tastes aren’t narrowing. I’m actually finding more to love in the collections every year. In 2015, the first year I started downloading the 100 songs, I kept only 27 — An hour and 42 minutes of listening.

This year, the hit-rate for me is up to 85 percent: A little over five hours of diverse new music. I’m sure there will be other songs from the 2018 collection that will go into heavy rotation, but here’s my initial song crush: Lucy Dacus delivering a small masterpiece on coping with a broken heart.

Arresting Lyrics In An Addictive Melodic Package

Two things will strike you about Night Shift. First, the lyrics. There isn’t an unnecessary word or phrase, and not a single cliche. Instead, you feel the hurt, as she recounts a meeting with a recently lost love in a coffee shop. You imagine this meeting was suggested by her ex to assuage guilt over cheating that led to the break-up. Or maybe it was just love that faded. When you’re still in its throes, even just the other person falling out of love can feel like an unthinkable betrayal.

Don’t hold your breath, forget you ever saw me at my best
You don’t deserve what you don’t respect
Don’t deserve what you say you love and then neglect

Regarding the second striking aspect of the song, I can be far less articulate. I’m a word guy, not a trained musicologist. But the structure is stunningly crafted, and makes the impact of her lyrics all the greater.

Yes, it builds, as a lot of modern pop songs do. Dacus starts with a simple, quiet folk melody and proceeds to a crashing, crunchy guitar crescendo. That’s nothing new. But this song does things differently. Since it caught my attention I’ve listened to it perhaps two dozen times — first for pure enjoyment, but then to try to grasp its magic. I needed to crack the code!

Which brings me to today. During a long, chilly walk, I was determined to listen to as much of my edited playlist as I could. But that damn song. I kept hitting replay on it. I finally surrendered and just tapped the Repeat Single button.

What followed was perhaps a dozen more listens. And possibly some hearing loss.

The melody appears to my untrained ear to change at three points, not counting a bridge just before what I guess you’d call the refrain. But this stunning refrain caps the end of the song instead of connecting separate verses. Dacus’ booming finale is a top-of-her-lungs declaration of Screw it! I’ll get over this — and you. Eventually.

You may disagree, but I find it to be a perfect song.

This isn’t the first time I’ve admired Lucy Dacus’ music. She was featured in the 2016 Austin 100. Here is that song. I’d like to believe it’s a new genre of anthem, dedicated to chubby girls or bookish girls, who are clever, smart … yet always overlooked:

My Own 2018 Austin 100 Curation

If you’re interested in what else is turning my crank from SXSW this year, here is my 79-song playlist in no particular order. It’s six songs short of my full list because, I’m guessing, a handful of artists did not agree to be on Spotify.

Enjoy.

Photo credit: Style Weekly piece on her. You should read the article.

A Business Communication Reading List

A month ago to the day, I provided a crowd-sourced list of recommended readings for the career-minded. I didn’t have room in that post to talk about all the excellent suggestions from one extraordinary friend. Jill Stewart is a professional lecturer at DePaul University’s College of Communication. I’ve never told her this, but hand’s down my favorite business class in college was Business Communication. I thought I’d ace it without breaking a sweat. Boy, did I have a rude awakening!

My professor, lo those many years ago, showed me that communicating in business is hard. It’s also vital to career success.

I was reminded of all of this when I read Jill’s reading list, provided here verbatim. If you can find a smart, dedicated professor like Ms. Stewart, take her class and heed her words. Next best thing: Dip into this list. You can let her know what you think here.

Books on how to improve your writing

Clark, How to Write Short (2014) and Writing Tools (2008)
Danziger, Get to the Point (2001)
Gray-Grant, 8 ½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better (2008)
Fiske, The Dictionary of Concise Writing, (2006)
Fogarty, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (2008)
Kallan, Renovating Your Writing, (2013)
King, On Writing, (2000)
Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences about Writing (2012)
McCormack, Brief (2014)
Norris, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (2016)
O’Connor, Woe is I (2012)
O’Connor, Words Fail Me (1999)
Rubin, Hey Wait How Do I Write This Email? (2015)
Strunk & White, Elements of Style, (1999)*
Watt & Bradford, An E.B. White Reader (1996)
Yagoda, How to Not Write Bad, (2013)
Zinsser, On Writing Well (1998)

Online resources, tips

American Copyeditors Association
AP Style Guide
AP Style Quizzes
Flesch Readability
Grammar Girl
Grammarly
Harvard’s Shorenstein Center’s Journalist’s Resource (for PR practitioners, too!)
The Publication Coach
Owl Purdue Online Writing Lab
Ragan’s PR Daily
The Writer’s Almanac, American Public Media
Writer’s Circle

Articles on writing tips

BrainPickings Blog (link is to a sample post)
Writer’s Digest (link is to a sample post)

* I do have to add that if you are new to Strunk and White’s legendary The Elements of Style, be aware that much has changed in language since E.B. White updated the work of his beloved teacher, William Strunk, Jr. Mind you, I used to consider this my bible, carrying a ragged, coffee-stained copy with me from apartment to apartment. But I now realize most of the rules have become quaint. This was a recent shock to me. I recommended the book last year to a dear friend, and then revisited it with her. It was sort of like visiting the house you grew up in, realizing it wasn’t an extravagant, magical palace as you remembered it. I still adore White’s short fiction and essays, his The Second Tree from the Corner — both the short story and the collection named after it — will blow the top of your head off. His mastery of language is that impressive. Likewise the book Jill listed as well, An E.B. White Reader. But if you buy The Elements of Style, listen to this podcast by the delightful John McWhorter for a strong dose of context.

For more career advice, these are two posts I reprinted on my blog from an Accenture Career site:

Tips for career-building reading in 2018

Note: This blog post originally appeared in an Accenture Careers blog.

Building your career in 2018? Or perhaps you’re looking to make a change in your current situation. Either way, you may be surprised to learn how educational and inspirational your reading list can be.

Here’s a recommended reading list to get you started. The list is curated by me and a few of my friends and colleagues.

Let’s get started

To begin, I’ve put together tips on how to get the most value from your reading time. Let’s call it a Reading List User’s Guide.

  1. Choose books as wisely as you choose friends. Author and entrepreneur Jim Rohn once wrote, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” The same can be said for the authors you welcome onto your bookshelf or into your Kindle. In many ways, I consider authors I respect actual friends. For instance, early in my career, when I had my own direct-response consultancy, I would silently thank Peter Senge for what he had taught me. I would walk into a potential client’s business for the first time and apply the knowledge I gleaned from reading his book The Fifth Discipline, which focuses on how organizations “learn to learn.” I would look around at office dynamics and know with surprising accuracy just how much of a “learning organization” I was observing. No company is perfect, but Senge had trained me to see the extent of each organization’s “learning disabilities”—and by extension, whether they would be good customers for what I was selling. Now, that’s a valuable friend!
  2. Ask if popular books have truly earned their status. Good business books, like good speeches, should provide a strong mix of inspiration and education. Ask friends who have read a particular book what specifically they learned, or how they were moved. Listen closely to their answers. Much of the business world is ruled by groupthink, “FOMO” (fear of missing out) and trying to impress. Those impulses aren’t good enough reasons to read a book, even if it’s the one “everyone is reading.” It’s a surprisingly rare business book that deserves its popularity. I’m thinking of books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which rode best-seller lists for literally years, and remains one of the best-selling non-fiction books of all time.Don’t be put off if your friends talk more to inspiration than education. The same year I first read (and learned a ton from) “7 Habits,” I was also deeply inspired by a different book, called The One-to-One Future. It was in the very early days of CRM (customer relationship management). And boy, did it inspire! It literally caused me to change my career path, a decision that is one of the best of my life. Last year, I derived similar inspiration from another book, The Business Blockchain. I haven’t changed my career yet, but you never know! (And thanks to Accenture’s deep involvement in blockchain, a lateral move within our organization isn’t out of the question for me.)
  3. Vary your reading diet widely. Non-fiction books don’t have to be formally about business to help you with your career. When I read Dr. Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, I realized that I wasn’t communicating clearly with roughly half the professional workforce (i.e., women!). By an embarrassing coincidence—and as though the world had a painful lesson to teach me—just as I was about to start the book, I nearly lost a client because she gave her instructions in something Tannen calls “rapport speak,” while I was hearing her through the filter of “report speak.” I screwed up an assignment and only realized how it happened after reading and internalizing the book. How’s that for valuable career advice!
  4. Read the way you learn. Educational research teaches us that humans have preferred ways of learning. You may not take to the written word. Today, that shouldn’t hinder you. Don’t pay attention to those who stigmatize “hearing” a book instead of reading it. If audiobooks work for your style and your schedule, go for it. I’m currently “reading” a book in three different formats at once. I have a hardback copy of Ron Chernow’s dense Alexander Hamilton for the tactile pleasure of its pages, and its many illustrations, paintings and drawings. I also have an e-book copy to read when I’m traveling, since the hardcover takes up a lot of luggage space. And finally, I have an audible copy, for when I’m working out or taking long walks. I did something similar, and for similar reasons, when reading the outstanding Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize in Economics winner Daniel Kahnemann. Remember what I said about authors being like friends? Just like real friends, sometimes, once you deem them worthy, you invest the time and money needed to spend time with them. Good books, like good friends, are worth it.
  5. Use books to focus your thinking. To paraphrase the late David Foster Wallace in his famous “This Is Water” college commencement address (Google it; you’ll thank me), the worst cliché of such speeches is, “An education isn’t about filling us with knowledge but about teaching us how to think.” It’s easy to find that insulting. It’s not. He points out that “how to think” is not so much about the capacity to think, but the choice of what to think about (getting us back to point 1, above). Books that help us build our careers direct our thinking in important directions. This is crucial, because there is a lot of other stuff that really doesn’t matter. They’re distractions preventing us from doing great things.

More Reading Recommendations

So, in crowdsourcing my network, I’ve compiled a list of reading material that will both educate and inspire. Mine are sprinkled throughout the five points above. Happy reading.

    • Ben Kaczmarski, Accenture Federal Services, offers a book “very much in the realm of design thinking, written by two brothers from IDEO and Stanford’s d.school.”

 

“Call Me By Your Name, Tonya”: A movie review mashup

Everyone knows about mashups: Two unlikely songs or other media, seemingly unrelated, are shuffled together. On their surface, you couldn’t find two less similar films than Call Me By Your Name and I, Tanya. I saw them both last week, loved them and wanted to share my thoughts. When I recognized some surprising parallels, the world’s first Movie Review Mashup was born. And here you are reading it, and helping me make history. To discern which film is which, Call Me By Your Name aspects are in blue text, and I, Tanya in red. Here we go! …

When you walk out of the theater, having seen this [coming of age drama / mockumentary based on real events] [Call Me By Your Name / I, Tanya], you’ll realize that at its core it’s about [supportive / abusive] parenting. A key character is the chain smoking mother, played by [Amira Casar / Allison Janney]. Without giving anything away (this entire post is spoiler-free), you’ll wince more than once at the mother’s serious [boundary / hitting] issues. Of course these are in relation to her talented [musician son / skating prodigy], [Elio ([Timothée Chalamet) / Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie)].

Let me say right now, if [Chalamet / Robbie] doesn’t receive an Oscar nomination for this performance there is no justice in the world. I was blown away by [his / her] extremely convincing embodiment of a [17-year-old boy grappling with an attraction to an older man / young woman attempting to win an Olympic medal in figure skating while dealing with the baggage of an abusive mother and husband].

A backdrop for all this is the family’s [surreally beautiful summer estate somewhere in Northern Italy, near the Italian Alps / hyperreal, nicotine-tinged circa 1980s home somewhere in Oregon, in a really bad part of town].

This admittedly is a tough movie to watch. We witness many extended scenes of [emotional / physical and psychic] pain, inflicted on the protagonist by dint of being [a teenager with new and confusing feelings / considered nothing more than a meal ticket by her horrible family].

If you don’t have problems with the film’s frank, unflinching portrayal of [homosexuality / domestic abuse], you should definitely check it out. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a well-earned score of [97% / 90%].

The allure of libraries, magic and rare books

My hometown’s Carnegie Public Library saved my young life. Mid-century Escanaba, Michigan was pretty — yes — but also remote, and inhospitable to a shy kid like me. I wasn’t into hunting, fishing or sports. During my grade school years, I probably spent way too many recess periods inside, alone with a book. I couldn’t help it.

I wanted to learn stuff.

As soon as I’d exhausted the Children’s section of the library (and, I suspect, exhausted the children’s librarian, Miss Jensen), I was kicked upstairs to the adult books and media. I spent most of my time in the non-fiction section, settling into Dewey Decimal System’s home for conjuring and its history: 791.

I became one of those boys. I fell in love with doing magic tricks for friends and classmates, and soon graduated to performing shows for strangers. My first was for the Saturday morning story hour, back in the basement of — Where else? — the Carnegie Library. Thank you Miss Jensen!

I was reminded of all this when I saw this post from Chicago’s preeminent reference library:

Burnt pages of the anti-witch-burning book “Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft” gave us quite the #pagefright. This copy from 1651 may have been consigned to the flames, but it survived to call out the “lewde unchristian practices of witchmongers” while labeling witches “imaginary, erronious conceptions.” [Case B 88 .7991] #witches #witchcraft #imaginary #bookguts #librariesofinstagram

A post shared by Newberry Library (@newberrylibrary) on

I recall crouching in the stacks of Carnegie Library, reading excepts of Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft. It was written to discourage the persecution of suspected witches by revealing how easy it was to simulate their miracles. It was far from a how-to, yet it earned the title of The World’s First Magic Book.

Here’s one example from its pages. This shows how you could display an apparently beheaded man and hold a conversation with his head while it rests nearby on a platter:

Those who know me well are aware I took to magic in a big way. It taught me some wonderful lessons: Confidence in front of strangers, how to tell a story, and even how to invent my own illusions.

I love the fact that I live within a few miles of a library housing one of the remaining copies of this treasured book. And I am especially grateful that everything else I learned in my “discoveries” in libraries has made me the person I am today.

Recent tour inspires Chicago makers and leads to tips for potential Accenture new hires

Note: This blog post originally appeared in an Accenture Careers blog.

A social media profile for me says I’m a “Digital Analytics Leader at Accenture.” More specifically, I’m in our Personalization and Customer Analytics practice. That means I help clients use customer information to provide them with better digital experiences.

It’s literally a dream job.

Once, when I was a kid in a small-town library in an American backwater (the Upper Peninsula of Michigan), long before the internet, I read a biography of someone who made his career back in the 1950s. It was just as television was becoming a transformative technology. You’d think I would have been inspired, but I was devastated. I thought, ‘It’s all in the past! I’ll never live through another period where I can get in on ‘the ground floor’ of an emerging technology.” (To be clear, as a 10-year-old boy, I didn’t think in exactly those words, but you get the idea.)

How naïve of me. Now we have this innovation wave under our feet that is ascending at an accelerating pace. It began late in the last century, with the digitization of everything. I’m riding it now, and loving it, but it is nowhere near cresting.

As I discovered on my recent visit to Chicago’s mHUB, an innovation center for product development and manufacturing, it will be rising for quite a while. And everything will be changed in its path. In other words, the best is yet to be, and Accenture is going to be a major player in how this future unfolds. Perhaps you’ll want to join us.

My mHUB Adventure

My profile continues that I’m an “avid reader, a film nut and a music omnivore.” And it’s through my reading [in the Economist Magazine, about urban manufacturing in Brooklyn, NY and elsewhere] that I first learned about the manufacturing incubator that was our “field trip” for a recent Accenture Digovation (digital + innovation) Event, to Chicago’s mHUB. I had to see what it was all about, so I joined the group from our Chicago Digital Hub for their visit in mid-September.

The mHUB is a 63,000-square-foot facility that contains 10 fabrication labs. The mHUB mission is helping Chicago’s “makers” ferry their ideas across “the chasm.” Let me explain. There is a place of maximum mortality in the lifecycle of most inventions. They start with promise, with a prototype, a business plan and some investment dollars. Then the invention advances, and often hits a deadly obstacle. Let’s say a product needs to produce 3,000 units to show market viability. A commercial production source—a traditional manufacturer—usually requires a minimum order of 5,000 pieces to even begin production. So, the challenge is: How to produce the next one thousand, two thousand or four thousand units, in order to reach a critical mass of sales? Before mHUB, this might not be possible, and another potentially brilliant invention will fall into the chasm and oblivion.

mHUB helps scrappy entrepreneurs reach the critical mass necessary to begin production. They do it by providing cool, otherwise inaccessible tools that operators can master quickly. The photo below shows a device that was used by our tour guide’s preschooler to make her own version of fidget spinners.

Our tour guide’s 4 yr old used this machine to make his own Fidget Spinners. #manufacturing #preschoolers

A post shared by Jeff Larche (@jefflarche) on

Lessons Learned at mHUB

What inspired me most was meeting and talking to inventors and entrepreneurs who happened to be there when we toured the facility. They were a diverse group, but what unified them was their vision and determination. I loved their focus. And I have no doubt that many will traverse the chasm and ferry their innovations into our lives.

We’re aligning ourselves with extraordinary innovators at Accenture, always finding exciting ways to turn innovation into solutions for our clients. Interested in a career where you get hands-on with the latest innovation? Here are a few tips to prepare yourself:

  1. Become really good at learning. I’m working with technologies that literally did not exist seven years ago. There is no way that your advanced education can teach you a trade, so don’t expect it to. Whatever your degree is in, continue to learn what interests you. Prepare to follow those interests (and to see them unexpectedly change!) throughout your career.
  2. Learn in the manner that works best for you. For example, I’m a mild dyslexic. That means in addition to reading books and articles the traditional way, I learn a lot through listening. I’m a podcast omnivore, with more than 40 podcast feeds, which in turn, feed me.
  3. Embrace the weird. It’s not an accident that in the last few years, Accenture has acquired two digital agencies based in Austin, Texas, where the motto is, “Keep Austin Weird.” Unconventional thinking leads to new ways of doing things. And only new solutions will bring us to a better future. Be part of that future. Embrace diversity by getting to know people from every culture and background.

Here’s a final bonus tip: If you’re interested in joining us, find a friend who works for Accenture, and have them recommend you. That’s what I did seven years ago. A friend referred me, and I never looked back. I’m loving where that decision has taken me. And if you don’t have such a friend, contact me. I’ll help you learn more about my extraordinary employer.

Take the next step in your career with Accenture and lead clients across the globe into the new.

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Travel hack: Never lose another work transponder!

My fellow road warriors can relate: They rent a car while on a project and don’t want their client to have to pay the insanely high costs of toll surcharges that the rental services charge. They know it well. But if you’re not a frequent traveler, I’ll explain.

Car rental services are similar to hotels. They’re faced with stiff price competition, but still need to meet profitability expectations. The solution for hotels is to mark up the price of all of the extras. Most recently, that means raising their fees for in-room movies. (A $20 price tag for a first-run movie? Wowza!) For the car rental business, their latest go-to is crazy high markups for the road tolls that their in-car transponders transact.

When I first experienced this, my solution was getting a dedicated work transponder, associated with my work credit card. Problem solved!

But when dropping off my car, I have more than once left behind my transponder. What’s more, it’s difficult to get the thing to stay in place at the far end of the dashboard, wedged under the windshield glass. It invariably slides away, or completely onto the floor.

Putting A Free Selfie Stick To Work

Then I came upon this nutty but effective solution:

I took a selfie stick, which I’d gotten for free at a conference and never used, and with a stout rubber band, I affixed my transponder. Now I had a retractable wand that is small enough to fit in a pocket of my suitcase, and can be easily extended and jammed snugly into the crook of my windshield.

The bonus is it’s way too big to leave behind, even when I’m returning my rental car in a hurry.

What travel hacks have you come up with?