Fragment: Botching your death

I’ve been reading a lot of E.M. Cioran this past week. With some writers I discover and devour their work in a week or two, then they sit with me for years. Occasionally, sometimes frequently, I return to them. In Cioran’s case, he’s pessimistic, cynical and cutting to the quick, like this passage from The Heights of Despair:

Those who ask to be surrounded by friends when they die do so out of fear and inability to live their final moments alone.  They want to forget death at the moment of death.

Of people who take this tack, avoiding the ultimate challenge of living one’s death, Cioran says they “lack infinite heroism.” In his book, The New Gods, our fallen nature, which he seizes on like a Manichean heresiarch, is our defining characteristic: “Who could help concluding that existence has been vitiated at its source, existence and the elements themselves? The man who fails to envisage this hypothesis at least once a day has gone through life as a sleepwalker.”

What would it be like to botch your death, I thought? And here is what I came up with:

I asked everyone to leave and, finally, my dear wife. we sat together a moment without words, gazing into one another’s eyes for the final time. alone, the door closed and room silent though I was fiercely aware of my breathe and pulse, I came face to face with oblivion and determined to speak the truth that it was living aligned with the moment, adrift in the sense that an Olympic kayaker is adroitly adrift on the rapids, at the collision of then, now and then again that makes existence bubble and foam on the edge of oblivion, but I only blurted out “Jesus,” an exclamation, and not the faithful cry it sounded like with my last breathe. crap, blew the line and came across as repentant at the end. I regret nothing but that last word, so I’ll have to come round again on a hook of cosmic recurrence until I can get off again. off? Godel always gives us an exit to the next frame of reference.

The problem with this story is that it is improbable: The last word will not necessarily be followed by a reflection, though it certainly could be commented upon silently as your brain flickers to off. It’s our desire for closure that makes the reflection necessary to the story, for the character to know the results of its error, when, in fact, things will simply shut down and silence will reign. Our story only ends with a conclusive thought if it is lived through heroically. For Cioran, that’s dying alone, undistracted. There are, however, many forms of heroics.

Shiller’s insight is generalizable to all markets, perhaps into biology

A few years ago I had the good fortune to interview Robert Shiller of Princeton University (Listen to the audio interview.) His name will probably be familiar to you. Shiller won the Nobel Prize for Economics, along with Eugene Fama and Lars Peter Hansen of the University of Chicago this past week. Shiller is an influential economist whose housing index is a valuable leading indicator of home prices. We spoke about documenting human capital.

He’s also the man who coined the phrase “irrational exuberance” that described the behavior of investors during the dotcom and housing bubbles. The upshot of this is that there are huge variations in the price of an asset compared to its intrinsic value, but that prices will return to an average price over time. In the long run, the markets win, which was the contribution of Shiller’s co-Nobelists, Fama and Hansen.

I’ve been thinking about bubbles. They seem to occur at the outset of every market, a bubble unto itself, in essence, that will make or break a new industry. It is clear a market can be organized around anything, and within any market there is opportunity to profit by jumping aboard. Within those nascent markets, firms act like individual investors (and firms) that drive exaggerated valuations. I think this describes all fad behaviors and the market organized around them. Likewise, as a vet of the trade and financial press, I’ve seen whole industries form around, and that intense activity dissipate, a market as it grows until it reaches maturity. From inception to maturity, markets act erratically. Investors put money into the wrong places, and at the same time more investors enter the market, exacerbating the chaos of early growth. Some bubbles actually die out, like the pet rock of the gasoline automobile, but others become part of the sedimentary history of an economy.

This occurred to me because I read about the explosion of scientific papers published annually, which is resulting in very high degree of findings which cannot be reproduced. Eugene Samuel Reich, writing in Nature this week, quoted Henk Mode of scientific publisher Elsevier:

He notes that some institutional rankings, such as the Academic Ranking of World Universities, compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, give explicit weight to the number of Nature and Science papers an institution has produced — making it likely that some universities would then begin to rank prospective faculty by the same measure. “There is more and more evaluation, and a need for researchers to prove their quality,” Moed says. “Journal reputations play a role, and that role has increased.”

That is the description of what happens in the early stages of growth, too, as intermediary players pile into a new market. Publishers of key data and news fructify around the mass of investors in the market, whether for dotstocks or housing derivatives or, as I see here in Washington State with the nascent marijuana market. All the missed investments will be recaptured by the market aggregator that eventually triumphs. This is why the greatest wealth is almost always from a reorganization of the economy, not simply innovation. The Walton and Gates fortunes, for example, come from aggregating markets in the wake of early broad innovations, which are consolidated and made normal, in the sense the product becomes a commodity.

The chaos at the core of the market, where the most investment exists in the form of capital and labor working in close order, is also analogous to the hot center of a bee colony, where the queen and the genetic investment exist in a perpetual swarming, while the bee colony as a whole maintains an equilibrium. In markets, the rapid early growth will end, consolidation will occur, and prices will settle down to at or near their intrinsic value, so that the only action in the markets come as long options chains.

Shiller’s insight will be discovered to be richer by each generation for millennia to come.

Productive meetings vs. the cluster-call: New collaboration thoughts

A couple weeks ago, I asked via LinkedIn and Twitter, what makes a meeting productive. The question has led me to conclude that a new type of collaborative activity, the cluster-call, is an opportunity for greater productivity, but also can be a barrier to innovation because it is not managed differently than a meeting.

For several years, a new kind of collaboration activity has been developing on the foundation of telecommunications, the cluster-call, a continuous use of partial attention via conference call. These are virtual gatherings, typically scheduled so that all the participants can be available if — and that’s the key condition — if something comes up for which they have responsibility. Cluster-calls typically involve 30 to 60 people, all of whom are splitting their attention between the call, listening of hot button issues, and some form of work or diversion. One hears of these calls as “a meeting that is getting a lot of momentum.” I often suspect that these calls are the source of the hours of social media use, or Solitaire play, that managers fear to count on their activity reports. Cluster-calls are, however, a viable form of collaboration at the right scale.

Cluster-calls work when they are not substitutes for meetings with an agenda that requires a decision. They are excellent collaboration environments in the right size and with the right scope. Teams, rather than cross-team collaboration, are best served by the constant connectivity of a cluster-call. As people continue to work, they can tap anyone in their team, or reach out individually to bring someone from another team onto the call, to address questions, discover information and brainstorm. But try to turn a cluster-call into a daily meeting, treating it like a scrum or stand-up meeting, where people use the immediacy of the agenda to get work done, and the call will degenerate into a protracted distraction from productive work.

So, how do you have a productive meeting? Or a productive cluster-call? A meeting, whether physical or virtual, is defined by its goals. A cluster-call is a setting for outcomes, but without an agenda, it becomes primarily a regulator of change. On large cluster-calls, people tend to focus on what can stop or interrupt normal business activity. They flag concerns without being obligated to provide solutions, so these kinds of gatherings are hotbeds of change prevention.

“[It] depends on the sort of meeting, but generally, when clear goals have been defined & everyone knows what they’re supposed to do,” replied Phillip Mueller, a German entrepreneur living in The Netherlands. This describes a productive use of time, it could apply to any kind of gathering.

Robert Reddick, a Charlotte, N.C. entrepreneur, offers that a productive meeting is “a place to pre-flight and execute decisions,” also a result that could come from a meeting or a cluster-call. But without an agenda, the framework for decision-making is typically absent.

A cluster-call, which is simply a way of describing being simultaneously connected to a virtual space, works great for small groups who are dealing with a lot of uncertainty. In this age of demanding competition, where people come and go from small projects, cluster-calls let people learn quickly in small groups. A scrum meeting, for instance, can be extremely productive, because people share information as the need for sharing becomes apparent. People talk about things and when someone on the call doesn’t know about the project or subject of conversation, they can ask. Often the instructions come offline, away from the cluster-call, but the group determines when that is necessary.

Small groups constantly connected can thrive. Bring 30 or 60 people together, a common practice these days in larger companies, and the productivity becomes the explorations of limits. The limits of the group’s knowledge, the limit of the group’s tolerance for new ideas, for change and the limits of the organization’s flexibility become apparent. The outcome is that everyone is quiet unless they see the need to raise a flag. It’s easier to play along and be quiet in these large meetings.

There is a breed of participation in cluster-calls: Grand-standing. It becomes a regular occurrence that a small, consistent group dominates the calls, exercising their expertise without actually intending to share that expertise. Knowledge is a crowded cluster-call is like the knowledge that drives crowds: The noisiest people keep things moving in one direction.

Meetings should be recognized as events with agendas. If the agenda isn’t addressed, that is not a productive meeting. On the other hand, a small cluster-call can work effectively  without an agenda, though it must not become routine or it will descend into unproductive activity. A regularly scheduled call of 40 to 60 people (I’ve been on these calls with up to 90 participants on several occasions), even with an agenda, becomes an exercise that reinforces the flow of information, downward due to the likelihood that any newcomer, any controversial idea will be squelched by the people most likely to grandstand.

Leadership based on the intimidating presence of a crowd that will agree quietly destroys the organization. Which is why the road from democracy to tyranny is always paved by populists, as well.

The inverse celebrity law of news sites

I suggest that a comprehensive analysis of the history of the CNN homepage (or of many news sites) would show that there is an surprising inverse relationship between the complexity of challenges faced by our country, or our species, and the incidence of celebrity news.  Where one would expect that as challenges mounted, such as amid the U.S. government shutdown, there would be less celebrity news on the homepage and more coverage of issues, there is in fact more celebrity news in times of crisis.

The celebrity news is canned, something waiting for consumption at any time. It should fall off the homepage in favor of enterprise reporting about the actual facts, beyond simply reporting on the controversy over the facts. Celebrity news is the corn syrup of media. Like many food producers who bulk us up on sweeteners and fillers, much of the media is failing its customers. Note the much longer on-page life of the celebrity stories, as well.

With that, the communications professor tugged at his frayed left cuff and tucked his hand into his tweed jacket pocket, stalking from the room with a failed elegance.