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October 19, 2007

POPTech: Carl Honore on the Slow Movement

Carl Honore is taking the stage about the Speed of Human Culture. I’m a great fan of Carl, and I highly recommend his book, “In Praise of Slowness” which is taking the Fast World by storm.


He starts by talking about how people told him he’d love Maine because it’s so slow. I am noting that Carl is a very fast talker for a guy who espouses slowing down. He begins making his point about the perils of constantly being “plugged into” technology, by telling a a true story about a couple where the man realized things were very wrong when his fiance checked email on her Blackberry during lovemaking. (Did you know that 1 in 5 people surveyed stop sex and take the call when their cellphone rings?)

Carl describes speed walking, speed dating, and even speed yoga at a gym near his home, for time-starved professionals in this Road-Runner culture.

We are so caught up in the dash of daily life. We lose sight of the damage that it does to our health, work, relationships, to our environment. A wake up call is often in the shape of an illness. Or a relationship ending. Carl’s wake up call was around bedtime stories with his young son, where he found himself speed-reading Snow White. His son often arguing about dad reading too fast. “Why are there only 3 dwarfs?,” he would ask. He realized he had gone off the deep-end when he found that a book entitled “The One Minute Bedtime Story” had some appeal.

That was his moment of epiphany. He started looking, traveling, and finding people everywhere slowing down. However, rather than discover that things would fall apart when people slowed down, they found the opposite to be true – things got better. Hence the Slow-Movement.

Example – Food: The virus of hurry has infected everything in our food chain. How we grow it, how we make it, how we eat it. We lose the nutrition, the pleasure, the social connection of food. Slow Food actually started in Italy. Carl says that we get more pleasure health and meaning when we change our relationship with food.

The Slow City movement is also happening, reconfiguring the urban landscape. Park benches, roads closed to traffic. Both are Italian, but broader than just that.

Yoga, Tai Chi, is now prevalent. They foster not only physique, but an inner calm. Being “in the zone.” Time slows down. He talks about slow medicine: alternative therapies, acupuncture, massage. These things work.

And fast sex? Carl’s not just referring to the tidal wave of porn on the net. He gives us a sad statistic – 20% of those surveyed are willing to interrupt lovemaking to take a cell-phone call. In the current culture of Men’s Health magazine, he made reference to an article byline that read “Bring Her to Orgasm in 30 Seconds.” How ridiculous, as though that’s what any woman might want. On the other hand, there is a significant movement around slow lovemaking, including more awareness of Tantric lovemaking techniques. If it’s good for Sting, why not the rest of us?

Children need slowness even more than adults do, as those more sublime experiences provide children opportunities fo develop and understand relationships. Some schools are telling parents that children need more down time – away from homework and scheduled activities. Even Harvard University sends out recommendations that their incoming freshmen encouraging them to find ways to slow down.


All this is fine for personal life, but what about the workplace?

In the 21st century, in many ways it’s a given that companies and organizations have to be fast, but you can’t be fast ALL THE TIME. In the world of work, there are 3 strands of discussion that Carl makes about this:

1) Working less is happening in the Nordic countries. Yet they rank consistently high at the top of the corporate world. Example: Nokia
2) Working more slowly. The brain needs moments of slowness to drop into nuance and moments of creative thought. Sometimes you can’t rush creativity.
3) Renegotiating our relationship with gadgets. Use the OFF button. According to an internal communication at HP, they’ve informed employees that the constant barrage of tech stimulation can drive IQ down about 10 points in a day. That’s double the drop from smoking marijuana.

Wherever you look, we are finding that less is more. Slower can be better. In the early days of our speed culture, the pace of acceleration may have been good, but speed now is doing more harm than good. This message to rethink speed is spreading everywhere. It’s not extremist. It’s about relearning the lost art of shifting gears. Learn how to be fast AND to be slow.

Does it work in practice?

Yes. Carl cites his own life as an example. Yes, he still loves hockey and living in fast-paced London. But he is also making peace with his “inner tortoise.” He has more energy. He finds himself more productive, and having more time to grapple with the big questions like, “Who am I? What am I doing here?” And his bedtime ritual with his son? It’s far better, and he now reads to his son at his son’s speed. Conversations happen that he didn’t have before.

One final personal Carl Honore story – after the book came out, his son came downstairs to give a homemade card to his daddy just as he was leaving for the airport on a trip to the U.S. It wasn’t a farewell card, but one that thanked him for being the best story-reading dad in the world.

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POPTech: Not Just Mars and Venus

Louann Brizendine, M.D., a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, is the founder of the Women’s and Teen Girls’ Mood and Hormone Clinic. Her message to us is that there is no such thing as the unisex brain, and that because of this there are new understandings about how men and women think,feel, and act as a result of our physiology.

While all brains in the womb start out as female, after about 8 weeks males testes releases surges of testosterone that bathe the brain and dramatically alter its development. Similarly, female brains are awashed in progesterone and estrogen, shifting their direction in powerful ways. Many of these shifts start in the womb, but continue long after birth, and especially during puberty when girls and boys experience dramatic physical changes.



Brizendine put up a slide describing the age window of 10-15, and I found myself noting that my daughter Tara is fifteen, and my son David is eleven – right in that window. I was struck that the hormonal factors Brizendine was describing dramatic affect growth of different areas of the brain and the wiring of its synapses. For example, in boys, the amygdula — a pear-shaped clump of tissue above the brain stem — is significantly larger in boys. It reacts quickly to perceived threats as though tigers are indeed in our midst, setting off the fight-or-flight response that triggers the release of adrenaline and other hormones into the bloodstream. (That helps us also understand the men who rushed in to save those in the burning towers during 9/11 – even though they were not related.)

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Females on the other hand, have high amounts of oxytocin, “the pair-bonding molecule.” Females experience this starting from menses. Women’s brains as a result are generally better at emotional detail and non-verbal communication. (But these are not absolute. My son seems to have high emotional richness in his communication, and a high degree of empathy – traits that can easily be present in males. He’ll be a real catch for a lucky girl someday… At the same time, many females have positive traits frequently attributed to males. Both my daughter and her mom are simply amazing at math.)

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But these kinds of conversations are always risky – witness the end of Lawrence Summers tenure as president of Harvard when he attributed women’s lesser involvement in math and science fields as being related to gender differences. Louann also takes chances here by using satirical slides where SEX on the brain is spelled out in huge letters, referring to the notion that testosterone makes the area that processes sexual desire twice as large in males. She also teased women showing areas of the female brain having large sections devoted to shopping and jealousy. Maybe it’s all in the spirit of levity and fun. But I think the important thing is to be mindful of potential reductionism by this theory. It’s easy to fall into a rabbit hole where gender differences can be expressed as either/or or better than/less than, illustrating a tension between man and women.

But Louann closes on a very inspirational and positive note. She explains that in 1900, women averaged 14-15 pregnancies and 10 childbirths. The average lifespan was 39 or 40 years old. Today, 50% of the smartest people in the world are women, and lifespans are 30-40 years beyond childbearing years, and that they have control over their fertility [in many parts of the world]. Louann says that both men and women can combine their collective intellectual capital to solve the problems that humanity faces, end war, foster kindness, and make the world a better place.

October 21, 2005

On the POPTech stage is Yochai Benkler of Yale talking about knowledge and the collaborative effort of groups, and that through a participatory process, creates an end result that can be the equivalent of a full-time PhD.

What this brings to mind for me if the book, “The Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki.” (a book given to me by my 7th/8th Grade students who I recently trained in the “difficult conversations” of peer mediation).

I can see this model in a self-organizing system of open source computing, where the collective meta-mind sets its own tone and pace of sharing knowledge which results in an application created for the collective good. (Or when a group of people guess the number of beans in a jar, and collectively estimate the number of those beans more accurately than any single person.)

But I wonder about whether that same end result is possible when the “ecosystem” of the distributed knowledge is – forced to produce a product under the constraint of real world deadlines and “baskets” of pre-determined, yet undefined, components of functionality.

What I’m positing is whether an open-source development paradigm is possible when a group of say, customers or marketing folks (the customer’s proxy) say “We want this amount of stuff, in this short amount of time.”

Clearly, this is a difficult challenge for even a centrally located group of knowledge workers, managed as a single team (often stressed with multiple tasks or multiple projects). It seems like it is incredibly challenging when a time constraint in the form of a deadline, and a demand for a certain amount of capability – simultaneously exist from a specific customer, or a proxy for that customer.

But then again, I could be wrong… I would hope to see real-life examples someday.


China and Technology

Oded Shankar, author of “The Chinese Century – The Rising Chinese Economy and its Impact on the Global Economy”, now has the stage at the POPTech Conference.

Thus far Oded is discussing the massive trade deficit with China and the exports of manufactured goods to the U.S. Oded is also the Chair of Global Busisess Management at Ford Motor, which yesterday posted a quarterly loss of over $280 million. 50% of the content of Ford’s new Rover Maverick truck is from China.

We think of China and manufactured goods, but I’ve been in recent talks with a company that is interested in having my team benchmark the development productivity of its software operations in the U.S., Europe, and – not India, but China.

What comes to mind for me is the blurring of offshoring and outsourcing in both maufacturing with knowledge work (which includes sofware design and development). The unifying economic force with regards to outsourcing of manufacturing and IT is the lower cost of labor. But what most technology companies fail to recognize is the difficulty of outsourcing or offshoring R&D, which poses difficulties that do not exist on work that is basically a ramp-up of low-cost, repetitive activities like production.

In manufacturing, we automate what we know. In design work, most of the efficiency comes from maximizing the flow of thought between people to uncover that which we do not know, to discover a way to solve a problem before a team. Invention is not as easy to speed up, or lower its cost, by sending it overseas. Invention is difficult to streamline by splitting a team across two continents. Friction ensues when what is designed isn’t what the customer wanted because of miscommnication.

That being said, I think the difficulties that companies experience on outsourcing technology projects to India (as opposed to manufacturing) could have similar challenges for projects done in China, which may not have as strong a mastery of the English language to boot.

Shenkar is describing a scenario where India does software design, China does manufacturing, and the U.S. takes out more mortgages to buy more stuff (by borrowing from India or China).

Lots of questions here, few simple answers.

Side note, that’s not exactly trivial: The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects demand rising from the current 84 million barrels a day to 103 million barrels by 2015. If China and India — where cars and factories are proliferating madly — start consuming oil at just one-half of current U.S. per-capita levels, global demand would jump 96%.

Doomsday situation – Many see another, potential ultimate conflict coming: China in a clash with the U.S. over the oil… sitting under Middle East soil.

October 20, 2005

Space Travel as Inspiration and Vision at POPTech

Peter Diamandis is the Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation which recently awarded a $10,000,000 prize for private spaceflight. Peter’s speech reminds me of how the Apollo space program inspired a generation of young people to pursue careers in science and engineering. (I remember my own starry-eyed wonder watching Apollo launches and how it set a course for my own pursuit of science.)

What I find remarkable about the energy of people like Peter is the passion behind the vision that he espouses. And when I think back on then President Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon, I am struck by the alignment of energy that our entire country experienced in that period. With an entire nation of people working in such mass collaboration, amazing feats were possible. Seeing Peter’s photos reminds me of that spirit.

That’s the kind of passion that surely is possible on several dimensions of scale when we find a way to create alignments in our work communities. Innovation thrives, and teams achieve things at warp speed, which is impossible when a community is fighting itself.

Peter closes with, “The most critical tool for solving humanity’s most grand challenges, is a committed and passionate mind.” Bravo!

Post script: Just when I thought I heard my dose of inspiration for the day, along came Marcia McNutt on deep ocean research using marine geophysical data to study the physical properties of the Earth beneath the oceans. Then came Dr. Carolyn Porco, who is the leader of the Cassini Science Imaging Team and a lead imaging scientist on the New Horizons Pluto/Kuiper Belt mission.

In her closing remarks, Carolyn talked about the positively spiritual experience invoked from bearing witness to the marvels of space, and her warm and inspirational message brought the entire opera house to its feet in thunderous applause. It was truly a highlight of the conference, as it brought out the soul of the POPTech community.

My oh my…


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Here in beautiful Camden Maine at the POPTech Conference. I was fascinated with the first two speakers, Graham Flint, a physicist, and Robert Hammer, a biologist. Graham is describing super-high resolution digital imaging – gigapixels. Robert is describing the taxonomy of cataloging species through barcoding.

The purpose? To preserve through high-resolution information, visual images of say, places around the world that are disappearing (e.g. areas of Rome, due to acid rain}, and species, which are losing their habitats.

I noted on the online chat that both are endeavoring to save information about that which is vanishing. An ironic and sad twist to “progress” in modern society.

And indeed, during the break I had a fascinating conversation with Robert, where his ultimate goal is to spark preservation and ecology. He was frustrated that, as a biologist, he can solve the cataloging of DNA problem, but the message about preservation and ecology is the one he really is trying to convey.

Any contributors out there would be greatly appreciated…