Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Nuclear Conundrum

Some time ago, I wrote a post  about Bill Gates' talk at TED 2010 -  probably the very best organized talk I've ever heard.   Gates blew me away with his clarity and coherence as he took us through his analysis of the climate change problem.  Basically, he said, 'If climate change is the question, then nuclear is the answer'.

Gates outlined the argument that to attack global poverty, you had to attack climate change, because it was the poor who would suffer the most from climate change.  And if you eliminate all the ways that cannot solve climate change, you're left with nuclear power as the only option.   Of course, this option is anathema to environmentalists, but as Sherlock Holmes put it,“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”   One could rephrase that as "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the answer."

In that talk, Gates introduced a new type of nuclear reactor which uses spent uranium (helping clean up the existing nuclear waste mess) and runs buried underground for 20 years at a time without the need to refuel or remove waste (the activities that introduce immense risk in current nuclear plants).  The technology was developed at TerraPower, a company led by Nathan Myrvold, former chief scientist at Microsoft.

Well, I recently read an article on telling of Gates' visit to China, where he had discussions about introducing this technology there.  Pretty interesting, I thought.  If there's a place that is likely to tip the planet over the climate change abyss, it's developing China.  Wouldn't it be nice if this technology delivers on its promise and China doesn't fuel its growth by building more dirty coal plants?

There's another interesting perspective on this visit in the Washington Post, lamenting that Gates had to go abroad to try to sell this revolutionary idea because the US has become a hostile environment to introducing such revolutionary technology.   As a person who follows innovation, and writings about innovation, pretty closely, that article is part of a chorus of voices disturbed over the US' loss of innovative leadership in the world.

Nixon's visit to China is considered to be pivotal in global affairs; Gates' visit could be even more significant for the planet.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Kobo Vox - worse than the Kobo

A previous blog post contrasted the Kindle and the Kobo.  Since then I have unfortunately discovered that a Kobo cannot survive getting crunched by an airline seat coming to upright position with a Kobo caught in the mechanism.  Sigh.

Still driven by the desire to access e-books from Toronto's wonderful public library, my husband and I decided to replace the Kobo.  When he was out shopping, the Kobo Vox caught his eye and he brought one home.

To make a long story short, we returned the Kobo Vox after a few days of playing with it.  I have already complained about the Kobo being slow in a previous post.  The Vox is even slower!  

I could not figure out how to download books from the library to Kobo Vox (despite previously having done this with the Kobo).  I went to to try to get some guidance on how to do that, to be told that Kobo Vox isn't supported on  As I was searching around the web for info on downloading from a library to the Vox, I read extremely negative reviews on the web features, so I didn't even bother to try that.  Besides, I have an iPad which I love (see my post on that).

My advice: don't buy the Kobo Vox.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Jobs and Jobs

In Steve Jobs, author Walter Isaacson mentions how deeply Jobs was influenced by Christensen's book The Innovator's Dilemma.  But there's another point of intersection between Jobs and Christensen. 

Clayton Christensen has popularized the notion of organizing yourself by considering Jobs to be Done.  Think of customers as people who hire your product to get a job done.  No one wants a 3/4" drill; they want a 3/4" hole.  Christensen advocates organizing your market research around understanding what jobs people need to get done, and to designing your products around getting those jobs done.

The Apple stores were designed around Christensen's idea of Jobs to be Done (although that connection is not explicitly mentioned by Isaacson).

Here's how it happened.  Jobs had decided that in order to control the entire customer experience, Apple had to have retail stores.  The board thought he was crazy.  Jobs knew the way to convince them was to build a prototype store for them to see.

He recruited Ron Johnson, who had been VP for merchandising at Target, to design the stores.  By October 2000, the prototype was just about ready to unveil: a stark minimalist style, designed with Apple flair, and organized around Apple products.  But then Johnson had an epiphany and realized the store needed to organized around the jobs that people want to do, like listening to music, or managing photos.

Apple store - Tyson's Corners
 There was an explosion as Jobs recoiled from the prospect of such a major redesign.  However, after sleeping on it, Jobs knew Johnson was right, and the launch was deferred for a few months in order to get it right. 

A new prototype was built, the board was convinced, and the first Apple store opened in May 2001 in Tyson's Corners, Virginia.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Why I Love my iPad

Two months ago, I didn't have an iPad.

Two months ago, I didn't know I couldn't live without one.

That's a picture of my iPad on the left there.  It has an orange cover because ING Direct Bank (where I'm a director) gave all their directors an iPad for receiving board information and of course ING Direct's colour is orange.  I had been planning to buy one the next day, so this was a very welcome suprise.  And the content management system we're using for board material is definitely a winner.

The stimulus for me to finally buy an iPad was an upcoming five-week trip to India: I wanted to stay in touch and I wanted to store the thousands of photos I expected to take there, but I didn't want to lug around my regular laptop.  It felt like the right time to join the iPad tribe!

The iPad delivered everything I'd hoped for and more. In fact, I'm smitten. Let me take a note from Elizabeth Barret's famous sonnet "How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways".  I'll list things that thrill me about my iPad.  It's hard to put these in order, because they are all important to me.
  1. The iPad screen is absolutely gorgeous.  The picture displays are vibrant.  After I transferred my photos to my computer for storage and manipulation, it really brought home just how great the iPad screen is.  Compared to the iPad, the photos looked washed out on my computer.  They all looked in need of a bit of Photoshop juice to spike the brightness and colour.  
  2. The touch screen is, of course, totally addictive.  In a previous post, I described how much I like the Kindle.  I find myself touching the Kindle screen these days in the futile hope that it will respond to my fingers! I heard an anecdote about a young child of three who was fiddling on his father's computer.  When he touched the screen, nothing happened.  "Daddy, this computer is broken".  This device is forming the expectations of this new generation.  It won't be many years before the mouse will look as antiquated as the old DOS command line, or a rotary dial phone.
  3. The iPad's size is marvellous.  It fits in my purse.  It's always there for doing practical things like taking notes, or indulging in games.  I might feel this way about an iPhone, but I'm too cheap to pay the data charges - it's nice to be able to do everything on WiFi.
  4. The iPad turns on instantly!  On my laptop, I turn it on when I come downstairs in the morning.  Then I go and make my breakfast while it chugs along getting started.  Halfway through my preparations, I go and click on the browser to bring it up.  When I've finished making my breakfast, everything is (finally) ready for me.  As I become accustomed (or addicted) to my iPad, this clunky behaviour makes me more and more frustrated.
  5. I love the apps.  I've always been devoted to the game Boggle, and I love playing its equivalent Word Seek app.  A couple of my grandchildren are fascinated by this game as well.  Another granddaughter loves the Oven Break game, and my sister-in-law and I are enamoured of friendly Talking Tom Cat.  There's still lots to explore here.
  6.  The cunning magnetic foldable cover/stand for the iPad makes me smile every time I use it.  What a clever innovation!
There are a couple of disappointments with my iPad.  There are places in my house where I can't get WiFi connection on the iPad; I do get WiFi on my laptop in those same places.   Cleaerly, there's room for improvement in the WiFi's reception.  And I sure wish the battery lasted longer.  The cord is too short to comfortably use the iPad while it's plugged in.  But these are minor blemishes on a wonderful new companion.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Peter Singer

There was another great talk at Rotman this week, by Peter Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada.  

With boyish enthusiasm and rapid-fire delivery, he described the scope of the global challenges in health and how we must bring rogether science, ethics, and business to address these problems.  Grand Challenges Canada is trying to do just that, innovating on all three fronts.

'Smelly socks' is a great example of on-the-ground - literally - science.   Motivated by the observation that mosquitoes were attracted to smelly socks lying on the ground after a game of soccer, researchers wondered if isolating what made the socks attractive could help in fighting malaria.  Bed nets protect you from mosquitoes inside your home; this can be complemented by placing something outside your home that draws the mosquitoes away.  The research in Tanzania by Dr. Fedros Okumu is being funded jointly by Grand Challenges Canada and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  

There were several main themes in Singer's talk:

The imperative for innovation In my MBA course, we use this defintion of innovation: fresh thinking that creates value.  A few years ago, there would be quite a debate about whether the word 'shareholder' had to precede value; lately there is no such discussion.  I believe the applicability of innovation to non-business problems is much more accepted.  Singer advocates for integrated innovation, encompassing technological, social and business innovation.
 The need for business involvement:  profitable commercialization  accelerates adoption and distribution.  A to Z Textile Mills in Tanzania is Africa's largest producer of anti-malarial bednets.  Kick-started by funding from the Acumen Fund (a social investment fund), A to Z now produces 29m bednets a year, and provides jobs for 7,000.  This kind of growth is possible because A to Z has a viable, self-supporting business.  Serum Institute in India produces half the vaccines in the world, including meningitis vaccine at 50 cents a pop.  Of course, business involvement raises huge ethical problems too.  Is it reasonable to work with Monsanto, the poster child for bad corporate citizenship, on much-maligned genetically modified crop systems when those crops could save millions from starvation? 
The importance of local involvement:   A vaginal microbicide to fight HIV in South Africa is succeeding with South African sex workers.  Other parts of the world are not seeing the same success rate.  Singer hypothesizes that this is because in South Africa the women use the microbicide just before sex, rather than once a day elsewhere.  It was the sex workers themselves who argued for this approach, because they were working with local people they were comfortable talking to about this sensitive issue. 

The benefits of mixing 'big science' and 'small science':  The Gates Foundation is a good example of an organization that first funded big top-down science and is now also funding many smaller initiatives as well. It's one thing to do the big science to develop antiretrovirals, but how do you get them to the children of HIV-positive mothers in the crucial hours right after birth?  If you can do that, you can prevent or at least vastly reduce the virus' ability to lodge in the child's body and develop into AIDS later.    How about putting in an aluminum pouch, such as we use for ketchup, and giving it to a woman any time during pregnancy with instructions to use it right after birth?  Not big science, but big impact.

The value of collaboration: - Grand Challenges Canada has worked with the Gates Foundation, the Canadian government (who channels some foreign aid money through GCC), the Norwegian government,  and the World Bank to amplify their efforts.
Singer is passionate in his search for solutions to global grand challenges.  He bubbles with a dazzling array of ideas, more than I can cover in a short post - saving lives at birth, unlocking intellectual potential through proper treatment of children, He believes is starting small, in looking at at approaches, and, most importantly, in bringing these initiatives to scale.  Not just scale on individual projects, but finding a way to bring a plethora of projects to scale, simultaneously.

Daniel Kahneman

I first heard Nobel-prize-winning Daniel Kahneman at TED a couple of years ago, when he talked about the difference between experience and the memory of experience (see my post here and watch the TED video here).  Kahneman is a great thinker, and delightful to listen to.  He introduces ideas in a very gentle, intuitive way and takes rather simple and intuitive concepts and formalizes them.  As you reflect on these ideas, their significance grows and sheds light on other things you've observed.  So I signed up quickly for his talk in the Rotman Speaker Series this week. 

In this talk, Kahneman was presenting ideas from his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  He described two modes of thinking, which he calls System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is all about fast thinking; in the blink of an eye we exploit our past experience, our intuitive reactions and our emotions to come to an answer.  We make all kinds of decisions without even knowing we're making them, using our automatic thinking processes.  It's good to have System 1 thinking, because it would be too exhausting to think through everything with System 2.  For instance, we judge a person's mood by looking at their expression unconsciously and automatically.  We handle the myriad decisions around driving a car in a sort of auto-pilot mode.  When someone says 2+2, we immediately respond 4.

System 2 is more deliberative and thoughtful.  It is more logical.  We are aware that we are thinking.  But it takes much more energy and time.  We would use System 2 to come up with an answer to 17x24. 

Kahneman points out that people are lazy, and we often use the effortless System 1 to answer a question, avoiding the thoughtful effort of thinking it through with System 2.  Take the old chestnut question about a bat and a ball:
A bat and a ball together cost $1.10.
The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?
Most people whip out the answer ten cents, without taking time to check the answer, which is patently wrong.  Ten cents is a System 1 answer, given instinctively and without thinking.  Since System 1 thinking is easy, we often don’t apply System 2 thinking when we should and we don’t even use it to check our System 1 thinking.  Kahneman pointed out that giving the wrong answer to that question is not a case of ignorance – even students at MIT get it wrong about 50% of the time, and at some universities up to 85% get it wrong.

When a question is really hard, and demands effortful System 2 thinking, we often substitute an easier question and use System 1 to answer that question.  He described an experiment where students were asked “How happy are you?”  It’s a fairly hard question to come up with an answer to how happy you are because it involves so many factors.  After answering this question, students were asked “How many dates did you have last month?”  This is a relatively easy, quantitative question with a single answer. When asked in this order, there was no correlation between the answers to the two questions.  However, if the students were asked first about the number of dates and then about how happy they were, there was a high correlation.  The students were using number of dates as a proxy for the happiness question – in other words switching to an easier question and using System 1 to answer it.

System 1 is extremely weak at dealing with statistics – it prefers to deal in stories.  And the more coherent the story, the more (unfounded) confidence we have in our System 1  conclusions.  Kahneman described an experiment where people were asked the following two questions before taking a trip, around a time when there had been significant news about terrorist activities:
How much would you pay for travel insurance that pays $100,000 in case of death for any reason?
How much would you pay for travel insurance that pays $100,000 in case of death in a terrorist incident?
People are willing to pay more for the second type of insurance.  The explanation is that System 1 thinking is involved in the second question – the words ‘terrorist incident’ arouse emotions that cause us to make an intuitive System 1 response, although paying more for the second insurance than the first insurance is not a rational decision.

Kahneman told a cute story about himself.  He ran into a colleague in a small hotel in Australia, and was greatly surprised at the coincidence.  What’s the probability, after all?  Two weeks later he met the same colleague at the theatre in London.  Clearly the second incident had even lower probability.  But Kahneman observed he was less surprised in London – he’d already laid in the experience that he tended to meet this colleague in unusual places.  His reaction was based on System 1.

People in marketing understand this dichotomy.  For better or for worse, appealing to System 1's intuition and emotion can be more compelling than appealing to System 2's logic.  The same is true for fundraising: a pure System 2 appeal is not likely to be effective for most people.

For me, Kahneman’s message was rather discouraging.  It put more scientific evidence around what we often observe when people make decisions solely on emotion, undeterred by facts, whether in response to a politician or a commercial.  When Kahneman was asked how one might train children to be more reflective and use System 2  thinking more often, his only suggestion was to lead by example.   So, get out there and use System 2 thinking as often as possible.