Thursday, May 5, 2016

Bleeping Beeping

It's counterintuitive but true
That trucks in construction near you
     Back up all day and beep
     Enough to make you weep
Don't they have forward gear too?
Jackhammer Heaven next door

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan

The story is about three generations of Rafia Zakaria's family with Pakistan's history as the backdrop. Or maybe the story is about Pakistan with the family's story as the backdrop? Either way, this book is a good read.

The 'upstairs wife' Zakaria's Aunt Amina is forced to live with the ignominy of her husband taking a second wife, moving his first wife upstairs and proceeding to spend alternate weeks with the two wives. Meanwhile, outside the family home, wars, assassinations, massacres, coups, and sectarian violence roils Pakistan's history.

Pakistani women live a cloistered, constrained, demeaning life. Aunt Amina's misery is mirrored in the struggle for women's rights in Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto strides onto the stage holding the great hopes of women, but ultimately slinks off - symbolizing the extreme corruption and venality of Pakistan's political life. High expectations unfulfilled.

Zakaria's family emigrates to Pakistan from India after Partition, also full of high hopes of a better life. But life is not better than it was in India, and in many ways it is worse, certainly economically and socially. Immigrants are disadvantaged compared to the native born; for instance educational opportunities favour those whose fathers and grandfathers both have Pakistani residency.

This book is not plot driven but proceeds in a series of vignettes describing external events and family events, as the title clearly describes. I wasn't particularly fond of this approach, but it was interesting nevertheless. I would recommend this book - particularly if you are unfamiliar with Pakistan's history, as I was. It certainly helped me put into perspective modern events.

Link to other book reviews: click here.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Year of Yes

Shonda Rhimes at TED
Shonda Rhimes is a story teller. She writes for TV. She owns Thursday night: all three ABC prime time slots are hers.  She's a powerful and influential Hollywood figure, all the more outstanding as a double minority - both female and black. Not surprisingly, she's much in demand as a speaker or guest at many big events. But, as her sister once muttered, she always said no.

After acknowledging the truth of that statement, Rhimes commits to spend a year saying yes. Being a writer, of course she wrote about it in The Year of Yes. The book describes how this introverted, insecure writer, who retreats obsessively into writing for three - yes, count 'em three - simultaneous hit TV shows, makes a resolution to start saying yes and emerging from her shell. She accepts invitations, she gives speeches, she's a headliner at the opening session of TED 2016 (live-streamed for the first time this year at cinemas - you can see it here). The book was a quick and breezy read. Although I found the tone a bit tedious, nevertheless I quite enjoyed the book. Her TED talk was engaging and fast-paced, but I thought she failed to land a single strong key message. 

I was particularly fascinated because I once sat next to Rhimes at TED. When I asked her what she did, she diffidently responded she was a writer. Pressed for details, she said she wrote for TV and for movies. When I asked which she liked better, she cracked me up with her response: "TV. In movies, the director can fire the writer; in TV, the writer can fire the director." I went on to ask her about the dynamics of writing as part of a team and she dipped her head and explained that since she created the show and did most of the writing, she wasn't really involved in that team dynamic.  As you can tell, I still hadn't figured out who she was. She was just a self-effacing unassuming fellow TEDster. So I don't think her description of her introvert period is at all exaggerated.

For a list of more book reviews in my blog, click here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The X Factor

"One of the top ten jobs in the world"  - that's how TED's Chris Anderson described Astro Teller's job as leader of X, Google's moonshot factory. Moonshot because the projects are high-risk and high-opportunity, and factory because of the intent to operationalize.  The talk fit beautifully into TED's theme for this year's conference, Dream.

Teller laid out the rules at X:

  • Dream Big: Look for huge problems that affect millions of people, then propose a radical solution based on a breakthrough technology. Google's driverless cars fit that frame. And Project Loon to use balloons to deliver highspeed Internet to remote locations looks very promising.

  • Expect Failure: If you're going to dream, or innovate, you have to prepare for failure and ruthlessly kill failed projects. Otherwise you end up with what my friend Scott Anthony calls 'zombie projects', walking dead projects that suck resources and morale. X is said to have killed 100 projects over the last year. They killed vertical farming because of the inability to grow staple crops like rice and grains. 
  • Fail Early: Innovation projects involve knocking down obstacles one by one, gaining information each time about how to proceed. Teller emphasized the importance of tackling the toughest constraint first so you can kill quickly before spending too much money. The moonshot to build a buoyant cargo ship was abandoned because building a prototype would have been too expensive. "You don't want to spend $200 million on your first data point"
  • Celebrate Failure: Since acknowledging failure goes against human nature, X explicitly encourages such behaviour. When a project leader declares a project a failure, there's a big celebration - high fives, cheers, clapping and shouting. And, most importantly, a promotion.

These are all lessons I try to get across in my own innovation lectures. I'll certainly be using Teller's talk to help bring those lessons to life.

Teller was speaking at the opening session of 2016, which was live-streamed to a number of cinemas around the world. Our theatre in Toronto was sold out, perhaps a harbinger of more such events in the future.