Animals aren’t humans. But humans are animals

It’s self-evident that humans evolved from other creatures. We are not that genetically different from many other creatures, big and small. Consider chimps and bonobos. They possess DNA that matches ours to an extraordinary extent — 98.7 percent by one estimate.

So it stands to reason we can learn much from our animal peers. As long as the lessons aren’t mediated by really bad nature documentaries. I was reminded of this when I sampled a recent series on Netflix, Night On Earth.

We clearly have differences in motivation than, say, an ant. Or even a bonobo. But so often in these types of documentaries, the editing and narration urge the audience to think of these creatures as just different looking people. People with, you know, pincers. Or female sexual swellings.

I suspect this is why My Octopus Teacher — also on Netflix — is such a popular phenomenon. It dwells on the differences between the two creatures in the story (human, octopus — always in that order). You recognize curiosity and caution in both of the protagonists. But you never forget these species are different in extraordinary ways.

The ending helps to drive this home. No spoilers here, but it emphasizes that animals aren’t people. But people are animals.

Why I support Helen Zaltzman

You may know her as the host and founder of The Allusionist podcast, or the brother of Andy, John Oliver’s old partner in crime. I love language, and have truly relished her podcast episodes. On her latest, she surprised me with her announcement that she was leaving Radiotopia, and why.

It’s easy for us to turn our backs on the struggle of Blacks in the U.S. I applaud and admire her decision to join others who are calling out discrimination where it exists. I also just supported her and her show by becoming a Patreon contributor.

On the eve of the U.S. Presidential election, it’s a fitting reminder that after we’ve cast our ballots, there are other even more consequential ways we can seek justice and equality. I for one have been given tremendous opportunities that I know have for too long been denied others.

Let’s keep the fight for remedying injustices and systemic racism alive by questioning the status quo and making thoughtful, peaceful sacrifices for positive change.

The business power of a Pecha Kucha

I was originally attracted to Pecha Kucha because I’d read about it in WIRED, and it sounded fun. I’ve learned a lot since my first foray into it, a dozen years ago in Milwaukee. Here’s what I’ve discovered: It has become a varsity-level training technique to polish one of the four keys to succeeding in your career, today and into the future. Below I’ll list my five steps to preparing one, and I’ll share a video of an early draft of the Pecha Kucha I ultimately presented in Chicago’s last Pecha Kucha Night before the pandemic triggered shutdowns, in early March.

As you may have read from my previous post, Pecha Kucha is a highly constrained way to tell a story.

It’s been called, in the excellent business book Weekend Language, the lovechild of Powerpoint and Twitter, but may more accurately be called “public speaking meets speed-dating.” Each presenter has exactly six minutes and 40 seconds to tell their story. Pecha Kucha Nights, held in over 300 cities worldwide, typically pack ten-to-twelve speakers into the program. Folks new to the format tend to stumble out of their first event giddy with the muchness of it all.

Pecha Kucha Strength Training for Business

The reason putting together a Pecha Kucha (PK) is so useful for storytelling is the constraints it demands, and thus the need for thorough planning and rehearsal. Typically, when a novice at storytelling is asked to assemble and present some slides, they create way too many and meander through them. In the words of Weekend Language‘s authors, these newbies “bore the snot” out of their audiences.

At an Accenture Storytelling Club meeting (yes, my employer’s Chicago Digital Hub really has such a thing), the club members decided, after watching one of my PKs, that they’d take a shot at their own ersatz Pecha Kucha “night” to hone their presentation skills. So everyone who was willing to try one committed to crafting their own, and was added to the club meeting lineup.

The pressure was on.

The group asked me for suggestions on how to do their very best PK. As I listed the steps I recommended they take, reproduced below, notice how those steps also describe the process you’d follow for any professionally presented talk.

Or for that matter, any elevator pitch to your boss or client.

Five Steps to Storytelling Excellence

  1. Begin with the end in mind. Your audience won’t remember much from the very best presentations. So think hard about the key points you want you audience to retain, and especially: The key feelings you wish to impart. “Feelings” you say? In business? Yes. Do you want to inspire your audience? Persuade them? Prepare them for something on the horizon? You’ll only effectively deliver your key points if they are transmitted on a “signal” of human emotion.
  2. Consider the amount of detail that’s needed. With a PK, you only have 20 slides, and 20 seconds per slide. But what if you were given 20 minutes? Or 50 minutes, like this talk I co-presented with a client colleague in Las Vegas two years ago? You cannot over-pack the presentation or your audience will retain little of it, even if they’re taking furious notes. Less common is the situation where you have too little information to convey given the time necessary. In a case like this, you may want to consider adding an interactive quiz (I’m a personal fan of Kahoot for cell phone enabled quizzes) or some other way to use that extra time to emphasize one or more of your points — while keeping your audience smiling and nodding in agreement.
  3. Focus on the words over your visuals. Have you noticed how tightly scripted your favorite TED Talks are? How there isn’t a wasted word? That’s not an accident. If you enjoy listening to podcasts, I strongly recommend this Slate Money episode, where Weapons of Math Destruction author Cathy O’Neil discusses the insane amount of work she and her director went through to polish her TED Talk to perfection.
  4. Practice in front of volunteer audiences. Here I can imagine an objection from you, along the lines of “But my talk is too technical. My friends and family would never understand it.” I’ve got news for you. If you don’t write your presentation with enough breadcrumbs to help those not familiar with certain jargon or concepts, you’re not done yet. Without “talking down” to your audience, you should define — or ideally, eliminate — all jargon. I’ve presented to my share of CEOs, usually in one-on-one or small settings, and every one of them has made it clear that they expect a simple, crisp story. If you hear, “I didn’t understand XYZ,” find a way to make XYZ something they can grasp. Make it understandable to anyone. Which leads to the last step …
  5. Iterate. Every time you present to a new audience, you’ll see other cues to what you could improve. Or you’ll receive valuable notes. I certainly did, in the presentation draft shown below. In fact, a far earlier version of this was presented in front of two dear friends, and afterwards they had this tip: “You talk about you and your wife at the time of this story, but we never see you two. Include a photo, early on, to help us better identify with you both.” That was outstanding advice I could have never gotten if I rushed my presentation to the stage!

Embedded below is the version just before it was ready for PK Night. I presented the content you see in embedded video below (live — this recording was made as a rehearsal mechanism). It was presented to an audience of one. She really understands clear communication. She’s co-founder of a Chicago puppetry production company. Her note: Early on, give the audience permission not to understand some of the one-panel cartoons that are shown. Great advice when the audience is both listening and reading, in 20-second bursts! You can see the final version, presented at Martyr’s in early March of this year, here.

But here’s the near-final draft:

The key lesson for business-minded speakers? If you want a story to be easy to understand, put in the work. And consider a Pecha Kucha!

After the tears, inspiration from Stan Rogers

Those who know me well are aware I’ve been through some difficult times. To be clear: I’ve never for a moment forgotten the undeniable advantages I’ve had, by the era of my birth (Boomer here), the color of my skin and yes, my very maleness. But I’ve had tests in my life. And I’m writing to you now as a bearer of consolement. I bring you hope in these dark times. Maybe even joy.

You be the judge.

As I write this my friends are reeling from the news of the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s the latest calamity this year and it comes when we all know more are on their way. Like a prize fighter on the ropes, with no referee in sight to stop the pummeling, that ruthless brute “2020” has landed some horrible blows and shows no sign of relenting.

  • We’ve just surpassed 200,000 deaths from Covid, before even the arrival of the flu season
  • The U.S. West is only in the middle of its fire season and already the devastation has sprawled beyond a combined area the size of Connecticut
  • Hurricanes drown other parts of our country

But of course there is more.

I fear, as I’m sure you do, for the very integrity of our democracy, while a vocal minority of our country nods approvingly toward fascism and insists Black Lives Matter has no place in our social discourse because, Why? Fake news? False equivalencies? I can still hear the booing from many in the audience for the opening NFL game when players and coaches linked arms or took a knee in a moment of silence and solidarity.

It’s as if our country has lost its mind, and one wing of the asylum is burning while another is flooding.

To quote a song from King Leer, “The rain, it raineth every day.”

The healing power of The Mary Ellen Carter

At around the time of his death in the mid-80s, my wife (at the time) and I became familiar with Stan Rogers. His folk music endures. At that time, when we first heard his song The Mary Ellen Carter, my wife was extremely sick with a debilitating chronic illness and I was barely making due with freelance consulting work. Times were bleak. (This was just before we scraped up enough money to move to Milwaukee. What came next was discussed in this speech to a Chicago audience, at the most recent Pecha Kucha Night.)

We loved this song, and eventually recorded it onto a cassette tape off of public radio. That tape got a lot of use. It was a source of healing, and inspiration.

When I stopped my marathon work sessions, and our low moods seemed to find no bottom, we would play this song, over and over if necessary, until we moved from holding each other and crying to loudly singing the refrain.

Maybe you will too.

So here is my advice to you: Play this song during or just after your tears, when what you need is a tonic to help you get ready to fight anew. There were other rallying cries for us back then (I’m thinking of Kenneth Branagh’s St. Crispin’s Day speech in the film Henry V), but none as reliable as this.

Here it is, played live as part of a documentary, prefaced by a brief explanation of the power of the song’s refrain. As one man recounts, it may have saved his life, as he faced a death by drowning or hypothermia in a swamped lifeboat.

Photo credit from this post. I hope the author(s) don’t mind.

Pandemics are a leading cause of conspiracy theories

Update: The tweet that seemed to trigger the disinformation being shared (graphic of it shown above) was ultimately pulled down by Twitter. But not before it was shared with millions of Twitter accounts.

This morning a friend sent me an email with an attached video. In that clip, it showed a press conference where a health official defined a death by Covid-19 as, “at the time of death, the person has tested positive for Covid.” The video voice-over then said that this means if the infected person got in a car wreck or fell off of a cliff, that person was considered a Covid death.

This is a friend who should know better.

The temptation is to hit delete — to say nothing in order to preserve the friendship. But this has been a tough weekend for me. It seems much of the country is facing bleak news by trying conspiracy theories on for size. I’m not that sort, and instead (I guess) am coping … by being a scold. I hit Reply and wrote a response.

And guess what? I didn’t feel better afterward, but maybe me sharing facts with my friend will stop him from spreading toxic videos. If you’d like to join me in my role of scold, here are the facts I shared, in this excerpted email response.

Spread these facts and their underlying logic freely, because other people are spreading distortions at a far greater rate!


I’m sorry, but this is propaganda, not humor.

It talks about how if you die in a car accident while diagnosed as having Covid, it’s considered a Covid death. Hospital emergency rooms are not over-run with people who’ve been in car crashes or falling from cliffs. They’re full of people who would have been co-existing with — successfully managing — chronic conditions like heart disease or diabetes, but now are gasping for their lives and dying alone.

Remember Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare Queen,” Linda Taylor? He used it as an example of the rampant abuse of the welfare system, and it worked. Yes, she did abuse the system. But she was a statistical outlier, used by Reagon’s campaign to prove some outrageous trend. Here’s the truth:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/05/21/she-was-stereotyped-welfare-queen-truth-was-more-disturbing-new-book-says/

This morning I’m seeing Twitter blowing up with “plandemic truthers” using CDC statistics to somehow minimize the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans … A number that’s currently three times the number of Americans killed in action during the entire Vietnam War.

People spreading these “what-about-isms” are unknowingly carrying water for those who would prefer to wish this pandemic away — or worse, those who are trying to pit people against each other. It’s a tactic refined by the KGB, which is Putin’s old training ground:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whataboutism

The cause of slowing Covid deaths wasn’t helped by speakers at this week’s Republican National Convention. They intentionally referred to Covid in the past tense. That’s while 1,000 Americans every day were dying of having Covid while getting into auto accidents, or falling off cliffs. Or being old, or having heart disease or diabetes.

As I mentioned on the phone when you and I we were last chatting, pandemics produce a byproduct: Conspiracy theories.

The information bubble that some Americans talk themselves into is alarming, and is likely responsible for the fact that the U.S. has 4% of the world’s population but 25% of Covid cases.

Who knew the U.S. had so many car accidents compared to the rest of the world? Or cliffs?

If you’re socializing today, and talk to people about how Covid patients are dying of underlying conditions and not Covid, you might want to throw in one more underlying condition that has nothing to do with the virus — except it has everything to do with it. That’s the spike in suicides among emergency workers:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7331553/

Yes. None of these nurses caught the disease. They just inconveniently took their lives at a time when they were working double shifts in extremely dangerous conditions with patients who were thoughtlessly dying — unable to say goodbye to their families except over a cell phone — at unprecedented rates.

(And somehow these dead healthcare workers aren’t being tallied as yet another subset of Covid deaths — certainly they should also be counted, right? As well as the people who are postponing cancer screenings while cancer was growing inside them, or those with heart attack symptoms who aren’t seeking help because they’re afraid they’ll catch the virus in a hospital? Their deaths aren’t included in our Covid statistics. Maybe that’s why experts say our current 180,000 deaths is actually an underestimate, not some willful exaggeration.)

So, I guess you shared this video with the wrong person, huh? 🙂

Stay safe.

Is lab-grown meat still meat?

I first wrote here about lab-grown meat a decade ago. With so many ethical and environmental benefits of the process, I’m saddened that there has not been more discussion about it in the years since. But that is beginning to change, first with this story of lab-grown “McNuggets,” and especially this piece on the semantics of meat. If the origin of your burger is a cluster of stem cells instead of a living animal, is that still meat?

In that New York Times article, Andy Lamey writes that the timing of this semantic question is far from coincidence. “Lawmakers know that plant-based meat substitutes have become big business: In 2019, plant-based meat sales totaled $939 million, an 18 percent increase over the year before, while sales for all plant-based foods reached $5 billion. The real reason for the meat industry’s interest in grocery labels is that it is threatened by this surge in popularity.”

When those interested in maintaining the status quo start firing up the lobbying machines, you know they are perceiving a real threat. The story of lab-grown meat is starting to get more than just academic. In that press release on lab-grown “McNuggets,” put out by KFC, they remind us of what’s at stake:

Biomeat has exactly the same microelements as the original product, while excluding various additives that are used in traditional farming and animal husbandry, creating a cleaner final product. Cell-based meat products are also more ethical – the production process does not cause any harm to animals. …

According to a study by the American Environmental Science & Technology Journal, the technology of growing meat from cells has minimal negative impact on the environment, allowing energy consumption to be cut by more than half, greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced 25 fold and 100 times less land to be used than traditional farm-based meat production.

The coming few years will be interesting to watch.

Photo via Creative Commons by my_amii

Zhuzh the Police

Words matter. I’m a student of politics and political movements. Words there can be the difference between a movement living on to bring about real change or fading into obscurity. Remember the sweeping reforms to protect our 401Ks and home values, in the aftermath of poorly regulated collateralized loan obligations, driven by the battle cry Occupy Wall Street?

No, of course you don’t, because no real reforms happened! Judging from changes they initiated, the words Occupy Wall Street weren’t worth the poster board they were printed on.

That’s why I listened with interest to this episode of The Gist podcast. In it, the host Mike Pesca echoed my concern about today’s battle cry, “Defund the Police”:

“I will admit defund the police gives me pause as a phrase, because I’m so silly as to conjure the actual definition of the word defund, which is to take funding away. This leads to a debate with people who say, No, no, no, no! Defund means decrease funding. To which I say, ‘No. Decrease means decrease. Defund means defund.’ Luckily, I have here John McWhorter, who I shall now ask: Who has the better side of this argument?”

Words are hard

You should know that McWhorter is also the host of a podcast (who isn’t these days?). It’s called Lexicon Valley. But more pertinent here, his day job is teaching linguistics and American studies (among other subjects) at Columbia University. Here’s an excerpt of his answer to Mike:

“It’s tough. … Of course, defund is supposed to mean what it means. But then, on the other hand, as a linguist, my mantra is always that the meaning of words always changes.”

“And [you could say] Defund the Police is pragmatic in that there’s drama in it.”

“Defund the police pricks up people’s ears. But then, of course, most of us weren’t aware that you could say defund to mean give less money.

“The problem is simply that to say ‘Decrease the amount of money given to the police’ doesn’t fit on a sign. It doesn’t sound as good. It doesn’t stick in the mind.”

He later employs this apt simile: “[Defund] sounds like you’re taking a silverware drawer and throwing it down the steps and you listen to all that noise and you see all that mess … That’s part of it, I think.”

Then McWhorter gets to the part that concerns me … and the host:

“Defund is challenging in that people are going to hear it as meaning ‘Don’t give the police any money and just start again,’ which is what [only a few] people mean.

“But the problem is figuring out whether a person means that or something more moderate will always take up space that could have been taken up with more substantial discussions. And it kind of throws red meat to the hard right who will enjoy trying to make everybody who is left of them, including the center, seem like they’re idiots.”

Polari to the rescue

Polari is a “mongrel language” you probably haven’t heard of, but you’ve used some of its words and phrases in conversation. Have you called something camp? Polari. Rough trade? Butch? Also Polari.

If you were to triangulate from the themes of those words, you’d conclude this is some sort of gay slang. And you’d be right. And although it came primarily from Italian, it was used in the gay and criminal underworld of England in the last century and earlier, when being gay was criminal.

I first heard one particular Polari word in the early 2000s, as a straight clueless guy who was the exact target audience for the make-overs on the then-new series, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I will say, by the way, that I still use some of their fashion and grooming tips today. They showed me the right way to shave my face with a safety razor. Thank you, Carson!

And it was Carson who introduced me to the Polari word zhuzh. If you’re new to it, it’s pronounced zzoosh, and means “tart up,” as in a hair style. And for the following reasons, I recently proposed Zhuzh the Police as a better replacement for the original:

Now hear me out, because I’m dead serious.

If I’m a typical police officer, or even a centrist voter or legislator, “Defund the Police” is worse than inaccurate — it’s naive and incendiary.

As @badfragments pointed out:

When people say “Defund Planned Parenthood” they mean destroy it. So you can bet on “Defund the Police” being taken the wrong way by many. Even though I embrace the significance of the phrase I feel it can be used to hurt the ideals of the cause.

Add new meaning to a word that’s new to most

Here are three ways that Zhuzh The Police is an improvement, and should be adopted today in support of this important political movement:

  1. As I mentioned in my tweet, it comes from a language that was created in opposition to unfair policing. Gay men in England at the time of its use were singled out by police there in a way similar to the way Black people are oppressed today. So why not use one of their words to call for reform?
  2. It’s funny to those in the know. And laughter opens the mind and encourages discussion. Of course we don’t want to give police a new hair style! But we do want to improve them in the eyes of most Americans. I can hear the movement leaders now, on the Sunday morning political talk shows: Let’s not defund police, let’s give them a thorough makeover!
  3. Since zhuzh is a new word to most people, it’s far more malleable. It is free of any negatives because it’s a blank slate. Even McWhorter predicts that defund will never find its way into common dictionaries. (Well, what he said is it will fizzle the way occupy did). But zhuzh could make it there, with a new meaning about a growing, thriving political movement!

What do you think? I’ve turned off my comments here, but would welcome them on social media.

Police photo courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons

Covid-19 and my late CPA father on Tax Day

In my family, this day of the year was more important than any holiday. My dad had been working intense nights and weekends since late January and was now wrapping up his clients’ taxes (or filing their extensions!).

The next evening, April 16, would be his firm’s Tax Party, where he and his fellow Certified Public Accountants (CPAs), figuratively drunk with pride, would gather to get literally so.

My dad died a few years ago, so is spared the isolation and fear of this pandemic. Not to mention witnessing the disruption of his firm — which is still going strong in my hometown — coping with the postponement of both Tax Day and the annual debauchery that followed.

I was reminded of all of this when I found this video of the brilliant improv duo, Nichols and May. Possibly the funniest sketch is the second of the batch, as they enact a psychiatrist scene.

Enjoy.

Pecha Kucha is fun to watch

Pecha Kucha is Japanese for “chit-chat.” It’s a presentation technique that has been described as “the love child of PowerPoint and Twitter.” It’s also a lot of fun to watch!

In a Pecha Kucha, the speaker is restricted to just 20 slides, and only 20 seconds per slide. It’s a 6 minute, 40 second burst of information.

There are “PK Nights” held around the world. I had the honor of being one of a dozen presenters Tuesday night, at Martyrs’ in Chicago. The Chicago chapter has been around for years. I was part of the 53rd edition.

Click to watch the pecha kucha video of Jeff Larche

Here’s the presentation.

Just beyond the Overton window: lab-grown meat

A version of this post originally appeared in my workplace blog, behind a firewall.


Last week the lunch crowd at Accenture’s Digital Hub cafe in Chicago was buzzing with speculation. Actually, it was buzzing about speculation. An engrossing exercise in a Lunch and Learn presentation called Then & Now: The Evolution of Trends, presented by Fjord, had us reviewing some antique predictions of the future.

I and the rest of the audience was given a reprinted magazine article that our great, great grandmothers might have read and we were asked to summarize its themes. The piece was full of predictions about the last century, written just at the turn of it, in 1900, by The Ladies’ Home Journal.

We found some predictions spot on. Others not so much …

The free university education prediction is of course just depressing. But delivery of products via pneumatic tubes? That’s not far off. Just imagine bolting wings on those tubes, and jet engines on those wings.

Fjord’s predictions — well, actually, more like themes packaged up as trends — were quite good, albeit more conservative. That’s to be expected, since they weren’t boldly looking at a 100-year horizon. Or even one 10 years out. That’s what the excellent Chief Digital Evangelist at Salesforce, Vala Afshar, did in this recent tweet:

Roughly a decade ago I made a prediction. It’s not in the above list, which frankly surprised and saddened me. You see, it will be a game-changer for our planet.

Once the challenge of this innovation’s scalability is tackled, the only major hurdle will be mass acceptance.

Today at least, most people find it kind of icky.

Test Tube T-bones

If you’d like to tuck into the details of lab-grown meat, I urge you to do so. I wrote the post nine years ago, but the facts in it are still correct … and if anything more relevant today than in 2011.

Lab-grown meat can and will someday feed the planet, while simultaneously helping to heal it.

Fun aside: Many before me have made this prediction, but just this year I learned that none other than Winston Churchill predicted lab-grown meat, in the 1930s!

A changed perspective

I’m sharing all of this because, well, as I write this the polar ice caps are melting and Australia is on fire. I find that disgusting.

And although I’m an eager omnivore — I enjoy a real hamburger when I can’t get my hands on an Impossible one — the conditions of the domesticated animals that we slaughter, and the conditions of the underclass forced to do the killing, are also disgusting.

So while scalability is being solved, let’s all think about the tendency toward disgust … the ick factor. I urge you to talk to your friends and family about whether they would eat a hamburger or McNugget made in-vitro. Yes, they’ll say yuck initially. But that’s how societies change — by exposure. It’s called shifting the Overton window.

And if you don’t believe attitudes change, consider that 120 years after that Ladies’ Home Journal prediction, we’ve got legitimate presidential candidates talking about that previously unthinkable free college idea.

Yuck indeed.