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.
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:
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:
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:
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? 🙂
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.
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.”
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:
Defund the Police is inaccurate and unhelpful. We must replace it immediately. I humbly propose one that uses a Polari word. Those who spoke this slang were no friends of the police, so there is context. I propose Zhuzh the Police. #Carson#QueerEyehttps://t.co/LEsaIWQkLc
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:
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Do you want to excel in your career, today and in our uncertain future? Below are the four not-so-simple areas of focus.
But first a cliché warning: Smarter people than I have tread this terrain and stepped in a few. I’m thinking specifically about this from David Foster Wallace, from his famous commencement speech This is Water, where he began by talking about how higher learning should be about “teaching you how to think” …
If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted … The fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think … [but this] cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.
Not that long ago you could graduate with many types of degrees, having absorbed facts and their interrelation, and expect to build a nice career. Naturally you would continue learning after graduation, but in that pre-digital era, when access to knowledge was constrained, learning was primarily absorbing new facts. Here I’m imagining my dad’s career …
Adopting Learning Skills For Today’s Work Environment
My late father was co-founder of a small-town accounting firm. As a CPA, he and his partners would turn to an imposing set of heavy, beige tax law books that filled to bursting the bookshelves his firm had built for them. To me, as a child, they reached so wide and high they appeared to hold the whole business up.
I wasn’t that far off. In that analog world, the folks closest to the facts got the job done. And got the raises. And the promotions.
What’s changed? For one, digitization – a democratization of knowledge. With sites like Google, Wikipedia, plus more specialized sites like The Markup, the world of information is in all of our pockets. What else has changed is complexity, and mass disruption. Our world is many factors more complex than my father’s, or yours.
It’s also clear that the pace of change will continue to accelerate.
How to cope? Here’s a comprehensive list. It’s the “Four Cs.” I discovered them in Yaval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (originally sourced from this NEA white paper). They are 1.) Critical Thinking, 2.) Creativity, 3.) Collaboration and 4.) Communication.
1. Critical Thinking
Consider Accenture’s Problem-Solution Mapping (PSM). It’s a hybrid of several mental models, including the thinking processes of Eliyahu Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints. Here’s a video introduction:
It’s no accident that the first part of PSM is about stepping back and looking objectively at what we want to accomplish and why. It’s also about looking deeply into the problems identified to find root causes. Only once this is done do we construct hypotheses to test in pursuit of solutions.
Or consider the advice of Charlie Munger, someone best known as the behind-the-scenes member, with Warren Buffett, of the duad that built Berkshire Hathaway. In a speech Munger put it this way:
You can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.
You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience — both vicarious and direct — on this latticework of models.
Or finally, consider the words of my friend from a conversation I had with him this weekend. He’s a leader in a multi-billion-dollar e-retailer. He told me, “I’m advising my daughter to learn Python as a way to put her data science degree to work. In fact, we’re going to learn it together. But I’m also stressing the importance of learning how to define the right problems to solve, and finding a framework for their solution.” She’s got a smart father.
Once you’ve identified the best problems to solve, it often takes creativity to solve them. In their new book Pivot to the Future, Accenture colleagues Larry Downes, Omar Abbosh, and Paul Nunes remind us that automation will place greater intellectual demands on all of us (emphasis below is mine):
We are not among those who think AI [artificial intelligence] will displace knowledge workers to a significant extent. We do, however, believe they will substantially alter the nature of work and in a positive way. Today, too many jobs are boring and repetitive leaving workers unmotivated or Worse. AI Technologies offer an opportunity to redesign work away from the mundane and toward tasks that require human reasoning, empathy, and creativity.
Arguably, the highest on her list is collaboration. She reminds us how these games are rehearsals for the modern work world, where delegating, co-creating and supporting each other are crucial keys to team success.
Of the four, this may be the easiest to practice – but the hardest to get right! In their excellent book on business communication, Weekend Language, authors Andy Craig and Dave Yewma describe what happens to our storytelling abilities when the weekend is over and we’re back at the office:
We’re full of feature lists and ten-point plans, ‘high level’ terms and nonsense. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we beat the snot out of our audiences with 118-slide PowerPoint presentations chock-full of text.
Audience members typically don’t remember anything.
Their book trains readers to tell stories instead, and to tell them effectively to achieve business goals. If you’ve read their book, you may have noticed some of their recommendations here. I’ve peppered this with anecdotes, metaphors, and other ways to (hopeful) bring my content to life for you.
How important is storytelling to Accenture careers? Consider this:
I work out of the Digital Hub in Chicago’s Accenture offices. And every month our Storytelling Club meets to isolate and strengthen these communication “muscles” in front of a live audience. It’s an invaluable resource.
Focus Your Thinking On the Four Cs
Now that you’ve learned “what to learn,” know that Accenture can help you. Consider joining us, learning from and working with some of the industry’s best and brightest. Find your fit with Accenture.
Does that look like a tree to you? Of course not. But a pan of multi-colored brownies? You bet. And Yes please.
I explained to my audience that calling it a brownie chart adds it to the small but growing pantheon of carb-based area charts.
When you want to express areas as parts of a whole, before the tree map you had two choices: the pie chart and doughnut chart. Each has a problem, and I’m not alone in pointing this out. Neither is good at efficiently comparing many different areas. So now, instead, I give you the brownie chart:
And by efficiently, I’m specifically referring to the fact that the circular office break-room staples force readers to repeatedly leap back-and-forth from the chart and the legend. Or, for instances where the “slices” are labeled, just making sense of all of them!
The brownie chart fills a rectangular space, which gives far more information — literal real estate — in rectangular computer monitors, cell phones, and most rarely today, printed pages. The brownie chart also gives readers another dimension of information. In the example above, I was able to express conversion levels using a heat map.
So when your colleagues suggest a pie chart or doughnut chart, present to them an oven-fresh brownie chart!
An unexpected benefit of my lengthy career is I can remember reading things that to my younger peers would overlook as mere footnotes — dusty artifacts from before they were born. I was listening to a recent episode of the outstanding podcast 99% Invisible, and an account of a battle in the mid-90s between the author Nicholson Baker and public libraries. I distinctly recall reading his essay in the New Yorker Magazine cited on the podcast. It was so persuasive at the time that I debated its contents with a neighbor of mine at the time, who was a Milwaukee librarian.
The thesis of the piece was that the digitization of library card catalogs was leading to the degradation and destruction of the single most important document a library holds … Namely the reverently annotated and cross-referenced cards in the physical catalog.
You should really listen to 99% Invisible in general, but especially this episode.
TL;DL [too long; didn’t listen]
Baker admits he wasn’t taking into account the internet, and the ability of library systems to use other means to track and curate their collections — including the use of AI.
But I do hope you give it a listen. It includes an account of a clash of cultures within the San Francisco Library System, including a band of rogue librarians returning to their workplace in the dead of night to rescue books they felt were too precious to cull from the shelves, and an education in the acronym libraries use for the protocol of weeding out books, called MUSTY:
M — for Misleading, or factually inaccurate
U — for Ugly
S — for Superseded by a new edition or a much better book
T — for Trivial
Y — for Your-collection-has-no-use-for-this-book
That last letter is of course irrelevant, but any library habitue will understand why the opportunity of using MUSTY for getting rid of old books is too delicious to resist.