This Blog is Moving!

Hello, friends!

The Serial Innovation blog is moving. I've created a new, more personal home for myself on the web.  I hope you'll join me there.  

Why?  Because in the last few months I've found my interests expanding beyond innovation to include so many other interesting topics.  Some small.  Some large.  Some nonfiction.  Some fiction.  So I started to build a site that could feature all of my interests and personal projects.  I've written stories.  I'm working on a podcast.  I wrote a children's book.  None of those fit into the goals of Serial Innovation.  So I'm transitioning my focus a bit—and I hope you'll join me.  

The Serial Innovation site will remain online indefinitely, but my focus will shift towards the new site.  Thanks for following this blog.  And for caring about all of the ways we can change the world for the better.  I'll see you "after the jump" as they say in broadcasting. Here: 

Cutting the Front Row

The front row seat is a problem.  You avoid it at school because it’s too close to the teacher.  You avoid it on the bus because it’s too close to the door.  You avoid it at the dolphin show because it’s in the splash-zone.  And you avoid the first row at the movie theater because it’s the last place you’d go to enjoy the movie.

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The front row makes you crick your neck to see the scene, it stretches the characters onscreen straight up into infinity.  It’s the bane of every moviegoer, especially those whose clocks are always running slow, who are always running—because they’re running ten minutes late.  The front row seat turns a perfectly fine evening into a perfectly horrible night’s sleep.  Yes, the front row seat is—we might say—a menace to society.  Let’s get rid of it.      

And the row behind it.  And the row behind that.  Let’s shave off every seat in the theater that could ever disappoint.  That whole first 10 or 15 rows.  You don’t want to sit there.  I don’t want to sit there.  Even the kids who sneak in for a double-showing seek penance for their sins.  Without the front row, theater-owners would have fewer complaints, fewer refunds, and a more healthy conscience.  

No more lies, no more deceit to cover up the deficiencies and deficits of an insufficient seating arrangement.  But now that it’s gone, what are we going to do with all of this extra space?

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Well, if you’re in a flat-footed theater, lacking stadium seating, there’s not much to do, because anything grand would obscure the view of everybody else.  

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But these two-dimensional theaters are thankfully on their way out.  In their place, stadium seating has grown as steeply as its own stairways.  With them have come brilliant innovations like comfortable chairs, cup-holders, and head-rests.  And the wonderful effect of sinking the rest of the theater—and its inhabitants—into your peripheral view.  Little kids no longer have to sit on their parents’ shoulders.  And tall people no longer have to wear hats to obscure their identities.   

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With stadium seating, we can put something—perhaps something grand, perhaps something useful—in this dead space.  We could put a slip-and-slide there.  We could put a veterinarian there.  We could host a symposium on the effects of syncopated symphonies on sink installations.  Or, we could do something useful and rearrange the movie theater itself.  

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It doesn’t look like it, but the movie theater is a factory of sorts: you buy tickets outside, popcorn inside, tear your ticket down the hall, slink into a theater and scan the rows for a seat.  It’s a factory—a factory of fun on some occasions, a factor of sorrow on others, depending on the film and the format—but a factory nonetheless.  And a faster, more efficient factory is a factory with fewer steps between its steps.  There’s no point in wasting time or space.  So what if we moved one of these steps from outside the theater, to inside the theater.  What if we put concessions right where the front row used to be?  

This would be instantly more convenient when slipping away to get popcorn during the movie.  Then again, it might be distracting to those satiating their hunger for entertainment, rather than their hunger for buttery treats.  Naturally, you’d have to close it off, dim the lights, install a door—maybe in the adjoining hallway.  

Now, this would be ideal.  No waiting in line as your friends saved your seats.  No fighting your thirst in the middle of the film, forced to choose between continuity of story and continuity of sustenance.  You could simply tip-toe down the stairs at one of those interminable boring points between the car-chase and the hero’s sacrifice, ring up your purchase, and take in the movie through a thoughtfully-cut skylight above the concessions stand.  What could be better?   We’ve increased access to refreshments, eliminated bad seats, and have maximized our use of space.  In fact, maybe we can now build an extra theater at the front of the building where the old concessions once stood.  Or a slip-and-slide.  Or host a square-dance.

But there’s a problem in this refreshing paradise of refreshments and eye-level entertainment: staffing.  We can’t afford to have a staffer sitting around in those first few rows, waiting for two or three hours just hoping for someone to come down the stairs and ask for a box of Junior Mints.  There’s a definite curve to a theater’s purchasing habits:   

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Making concessions more accessible might slightly bend this curve, but it’s not going to reverse the flow of time—or hunger.  People generally buy popcorn before the movie, not in the middle of it.  So to save staffing we could close concessions after the first half hour—but we’d miss some sales, and probably disappoint our audience.

Yes, it would be a mistake to close concessions at any time during the film.  But dedicating a whole staffer to each theater wouldn’t be worth it, either.  Instead, we need to somehow create a single concessions stand that’s accessible from any theater.  The easy solution—perhaps the natural one—would be to connect these spaces across the theaters, turning this new front-row-space into one long multi-theater hallway.  

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But now we’re right back to square one.  If you remember back to the time before this proposal, finding popcorn during the movie meant exiting the theater to roam a hallway and stand in line.  If we turn the front row space into a hallway, we’ve merely moved the hallway—not improved the experience.  You’d get out of your seat, open the door to the front row hallway, and begin your search for whichever concession station was currently open—waiting in line as usual.  

Now, you could say that this is still a slight improvement, because we do have these convenient skylights cut in above the hallway, so you can keep an eye on the film.  The problem is, if you’re roaming the hallway, it’s probably not your film.  It’s another movie in an adjacent theater.  A movie you haven’t paid for.  One that—perhaps—you’re not old enough for.  Yes, the connected hallway makes a mess of the elegant skylight idea, because there’s only a very small chance that the skylight will be showing your movie, and it breaks barriers between theaters and MPAA ratings that the theater, and many parents, don’t want broken.  So one long hallway fails the convenience test and the elegance test. 

We can do better. 

Let’s look a little closer at this space—this “hallway” as we’ve been calling it; this connection spanning multiple theaters:  

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If we draw a line in the middle, we’ll see that it’s actually two spaces: the place where employees serve the food, and the place where patrons buy it, divided in the middle by a countertop. 

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Employees need to be able to move from theater to theater, serving the areas where there is the most demand.  Patrons—the viewers—they need to stay where they are, and shouldn’t be wandering at all.  So let’s do this—let’s put some walls up on the patron side.  So they’re not wandering from theater to theater.  

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Now we can have our skylight back.  And let’s add wheels to the popcorn machine and refreshment tray so employees can slowly move these from theater to theater as demand requires.  

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We’ll add electronic ordering machines for the customers, so they can browse and pay for their order without needing anyone present.  

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This set-up isn’t on the cutting edge anymore: every airline uses similar machines to check passengers in, and the Wa-Wa gas-station uses it to sell sandwiches.  Maybe we’ll also have an app for people to order on their personal mobile device (still on silent).   

After you’ve paid, you wait with your receipt.  While you wait, you can keep an eye on the movie through the skylight—and because there’s no noisy line around you, you can hear it, too.  After a minute or so, a “runner” on the employee side of the counter delivers your food and it’s just a few steps up the stairs back to your seat.  You haven’t missed anything.  You haven’t said a word.  And nobody’s neck is bent out of shape.   

Now, a few questions and considerations:  


Would eliminating the front rows mean fewer seats per theater, or would we just extend the upper rows to have more seats further away?  Two perspectives:  

  1. Fewer seats may not necessarily mean fewer sales.  If people are certain that there is no bad “front row” seat, they may be more likely to purchase tickets for already packed theaters.  
  2. There may be a limit to how far you can extend upper rows: the ceiling height of your theater.  One way to get around this would be to change the slope of the stadium seating—but at some point stadium seating lies down and dies.  

Smart Showtimes

With roving concession sales (a popcorn machine on wheels), theaters may want to optimize the time their shows begin to minimize the distance that the concession stand needs to be moving between each show.  For example, you might want to have theater one start fifteen minutes before theater two, and two start fifteen minutes before three.  This way, employees aren’t dragging their popcorn machines up and down that hallway so much.    

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Moving concessions closer—literally inside—the theater may ironically have the effect of hiding it from patrons.  After all, it will have to be closed off so as not to be disruptive—but without the disruptive clatter of a concession line greeting you before the movie, will you remember to buy popcorn at all?  Obviously, signage as you move through the lobby could help.  But another solution might be to make the concession area out of electrically-charged glass.  Before the movie, it could be clear, like a brightly-lit greenhouse beneath the screen—a humming center of activity.  During the movie, the glass could turn opaque, the lights would dim, and the whole concession area would essentially dissolve into the darkness beneath the screen.  

Not Unreasonable

For ten or fifteen dollars, it’s not unreasonable to want to see the movie you pay for.  It’s also not unreasonable to want to have easy access to a drink or a taste of popcorn.  But theater design has been unreasonable for too long.  There’s simply no reason why we are still building seats right up against the screen—even though nobody wants to buy them.  And there’s no reason why we should continue to sell tickets to them—even though we frequently must refund them. For too long we’ve accepted the idea that bad seats are a necessary evil—something that can’t be beaten, but only avoided.  And at all costs!  

Maybe theaters have had their reasons for keeping these seats around.  The fear of having to sit in them is a bit like the fear of musical chairs—putting you on edge, afraid of being the odd one out.  That’s a potent weapon—one that motivates plenty of early arrivals, I’m sure.  But every weapon is unpredictable—and there’s often collateral damage.  Each time a viewer must sit in the front row, the theater loses credibility—and the movie, the entire film industry, suffers for it.  Here’s one more customer who won’t spread the story of a great film—even if it is great—or a fun experience—even if it is fun.  Here’s one more customer who won’t be lining up for the sequel, or purchasing the limited edition BluRay.  Here’s one more person who will sit down with an iPad and think: this is just as good.  Or worse: this is clearer, crisper, and more comprehensible. If the savior of movie theaters is the return of 3D and a more immersive experience than you can get at home, front row seats are the corrosive forces undermining the industry.  Because though sitting too close to the screen may not ruin your eyes, it certainly ruins the experience.  We deserve better.

Special thanks to Lori Ertel and Jamie Steidle for listening to and challenging some of these ideas.

The Easy Answer

The easy answer, the acceptable answer, the answer everyone knows and agrees upon—is wrong.

It’s almost always wrong.  It’s almost guaranteed to be wrong.  Because if the answer to the problem is so well known, so easily grasped, why does it still persist?  Most intractable problems, the ones that we blame on politics or differences of opinion, are problems only because most of us are so sure of the answer.  

This particularly hit home a few years ago, when I was sitting in a lecture-style conference room listening to a presentation on technology and money.  The speaker was a high-ranking government official who was speaking with some passion about the issue of fraud—$60 billion of it.

At least, we had been told it was fraud.  Like everyone else in that room, I had heard politicians on both sides of the aisle beat the drum decrying the $60 billion of Medicare funds that—every single year, without fail—seem to be tossed away without much care: given to those bent on defrauding the government, or mailed out in checks to people who had already died, or were already sitting behind bars.

The easy answer to the problem was technology.  If we just shared our information better, between hospitals and prisons, between Medicare and law enforcement—if we digitized our records and used big data analytics, we could stop fraud in its tracks.  We could return that $60 billion to those who needed it most.  It was as simple as flipping a switch.  Except, if it was that simple, why hadn’t it been done already?  $60 billion mailed out to dead people?  I don’t think enough people in the U.S. die every year to even scratch the surface of that number.  The speaker I was listening to was skeptical, too—so he set out to investigate.  

It turned out that dead people, prison, and fraud were just a small portion of that $60 billion.  So what was it?  How were there $60 billion in improper payments?  To help us understand, he walked us through a typical scenario:  

Imagine a man is at home, taking some boxes off a shelf when he falls to the floor in pain.  His family rush him to the hospital.  Everyone suspects it’s a heart attack, but the doctor’s not so sure.  He runs a number of tests, but the tests aren’t conclusive.  The doctor and family make a determination on the spot: the man will stay overnight, just to make sure that everything’s okay.  The stay is billed to Medicare and the man recovers.      

Now, flash forward a week.  An examiner at the Medicare office is reviewing the payment from an objective standpoint.  It turns out that the symptoms and circumstances didn’t quite warrant an overnight stay according to Health and Human Services (HHS) regulations.  The doctor’s choice was in error, and so the examiner adds the payment to the stack of other improper payments—$60 billion tall.  

Well.  That’s not an error you can fix with faster computers.  It’s a subjective judgement from a doctor.  To fix it, you might have to actually step in between doctor and patient before they decide on the overnight stay.  It wouldn’t be the first time, because that’s exactly what many private insurance companies do.  They pre-certify, sending the auditor in before the decision is made.  While the family is gathered in the waiting room, behind the scenes, someone is validating whether a procedure or hospital stay is necessary.  The result: private insurance companies have far fewer errors and improper payments.  

This was all news to me, but the speaker didn’t leave it there.  Going the way of the insurance companies might not solve the issue, either—that was the easy answer.  Instead, the speaker called for a kind of analytics that could lead us in the right direction, one that linked policy changes to error reduction.  It was strikingly simple: just assemble a list of policy proposals to deal with the situation, and then determine how each idea might drive down the error rate.  This model would present options for policymakers, a kind of equation for them to balance.  For example, if you could drive down costs five percent, would it be worth delaying medical coverage?  Was it worth complicating logistics?  Was it worth adding paperwork to save $3 billion?  “What’s the right equilibrium in terms of pain points we’re willing to live with and the error rate we’re willing to live with as a trade-off?”  He asked.  “That’s the kind of analytics that we need to elevate the debate.”  

Debates in Washington could use a little elevating.  Not because everyone seems to be talking past each other, but because everyone seems to agree on their own version of the same easy answer.  And easy answers are rarely the right ones.  Yesterday, we awoke to the news that President Obama had fired the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.  Pundits across the spectrum praised the decision, since firing someone is an easy answer to any crisis.  But no crisis is so easy to overcome.  Nobody knows that better than Danny Werfel, the speaker I heard discuss Medicare’s $60 billion problem back in 2011.  He understood the problem with easy answers back then and he probably understands the problem now.  Which is why it was so fine to see the newspaper headlines this morning announcing Danny Werfel as the new Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.  Let the solving begin.


Into a Hurricane

Hurricanes are a ready metaphor for every crisis, but some people face them everyday and survive.  Here's one story, told by hurricane pilot Barry Choy.

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Captain Barry Choy operates out of Tampa, Florida, piloting WP3D “Hurricane Hunter” airplanes, which are nothing more than modified versions of the Lockheed Electra.  He’s flown hundreds of missions, including days of flights into Hurricane Katrina that improved forecasts of its landfall by more than 150 miles.  I caught him last winter at NOAA headquarters, where he joined in a discussion on the future of forecasting.  He provided a glimpse of this truly unique profession,  underscoring the importance of innovation not only in forecasting, but public motivation.  These are his words:


The Aircraft

"Having 4 engines is kind of a nice thing.  The P3 flies pretty well on three engines; two engines if you’re really light—you know, if you don’t have a lot of fuel.  We fly at 210 knots.  That’s basically the book speed for turbulence penetration.  It’s between 190 and 220 depending on the level of turbulence.

It’s very noisy as you go through the eye wall.  It’s very hard to hear because of the intense rainfall.  The raindrops themselves act as almost a sandpaper.  It’s loud and it also starts eating the paint off the wing...

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People ask - ‘well, you guys fly above the hurricane and then you drop down in the middle and you climb back out and you get out of it.’  That’s not what happens in this WP3D, we just go right through.  If we fly too high we start experiencing ice or graupel; and it can even further erode the leading edges of the wing and the tail to the point where it will actually eat right into the metal itself.  We also get struck by lightning more often at around the freezing level.

It’s a misnomer that we’re flying these aircraft that are beefed up or anything; this is a production aircraft—just came off the line brand new, and we took it into a hurricane.  And to be honest with you the G-loads that we take under normal circumstances aren’t really much greater than you would find when you go into turbulence with an airliner."

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The Pilot

"What does it take to train for something like this?  Well, the way NOAA does it is all of our pilots—or most of our pilots—we start out flying these light aircraft.  So I flew snow survey for five years in the upper midwest.  And we build up a lot of experience in flying—just general flying experience.  

Then for us they send us to the U.S. Navy.  I flew with the Navy for a little over two years.  And we get P3 experience; they train us how to fly P3s.  And we fly U.S. Navy P3s doing whatever operations they are doing and this gives us time in the P3 itself.  Then you come back into NOAA—or you always were in NOAA but you come back to NOAA—and you fly hurricanes.  

Now, to become an aircraft commander you have to gain so many hours in the P3.  And then to become a hurricane-qualified aircraft commander you have to do so many hurricane penetrations—actually go out there and fly storms: it’s 50.  You have to do 50 before you can be a hurricane-qualified aircraft commander.  And then you can be in the left seat.  

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So, do we do that in a simulator?  Well, in a simulator we can simulate certain things—turbulence and all that—but there’s nothing like flying a real hurricane for training.  And we use 50 because after about 50 you’ve seen just about everything you’re gonna see.  To be honest with you, about 90 percent of the time—pretty easy.  Pretty easy flights.  You get bounced around and all of that but...pretty standard.  It’s that like 10 percent of the time where you just...something unexpected happens and you have to be ready for it.  

And the most dangerous thing would be to have an aircraft malfunction while you’re in the eye of the hurricane.  So, let’s say an engine flamed out---or you have a fire, you know, onboard or something like that—and have to deal with that while in that environment is very difficult.  We train for it.  We’ve had some things happen.  And we like to think we’re ready for anything but I don’t think you ever are."

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The Job

"All we hear is negative: 'oh, you know, you guys missed it.'  We never hear when we get it right.  Why is that?  

Katrina...we were flying this thing day after day.  You know.  The forecast was perfect.  You saw.  It doesn’t get any better than that.  The warnings, watches—absolutely fantastic.  Fifteen hundred people died.  You know?  Joplin tornadoes—these tornadic events.  

  • Five days in advance: ‘This is coming, folks.  Be prepared.’  
  • Three, four, five days: ‘It’s still coming.  We still think it’s coming—not think it’s coming—we know it’s coming.  Be prepared.’  
  • Hours in advance: ‘Here are the storms.  They’re here now.  They’re gonna produce tornadoes and it’s gonna be very dangerous.’  
  • Twenty, thirty minutes in advance: ‘There’s a tornado on the ground—it’s coming to your town.’  

Five hundred people lost their lives.  Or maybe more; I don’t know what the final count was.  Why?  Didn’t have to be, I think.  In fact, after Katrina I did a talk and I said: Why do we even do this?  Why did I go out and fly that storm and risk my life?  

What I should have done is fill the whole plane up with pamphlets, flew along the Gulf Coast, and dropped ‘em.  And say: Get out of the way.  People would go: ‘Wow, they’ve never done that before.  We better get out of the way.’  Probably would’ve been more productive.  I would’ve saved probably hundreds of hours in flight time, and I wouldn’t have to risk my life.  I could do it on a clear weather day before the storm even got there."


Quotes are directly from Choy's presentation at NOAA's Heritage Week Guest Speaker Series, February 4, 2012.

The Future of Political Reporting

This past weekend, President Obama joked about his own communications team replacing the White House press corps.  He wasn’t far from the truth...

"President Barack Obama is a master at limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House...One authentically new technique pioneered by the Obama White House is extensive government creation of content (photos of the president, videos of White House officials, blog posts written by Obama aides), which can then be instantly released to the masses through social media..." - Jim VandeHei & Mike Allen, POLITICO 
"Recently, though, I found a new favorite source for political news -- these guys are great. I think everybody here should check it out, they tell it like it is. It's called (Laughter.) I cannot get enough of it." -Barack Obama, White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner

Why is there a White House press corps?  The last time the New York Times was granted an interview with Obama was in 2010.  But it’s not just the New York Times.  The president hasn’t sat down with reporters from The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, or POLITICO in years.  If people can get their White House news from, what’s the point of having political reporters at all?  

The common answer is that political reporters are there to ask hard questions of people in power.  To speak truth to power.  But asking hard questions doesn’t get you very far if you don’t get any answers.  Speaking truth to power is difficult to do when you’re not even granted an interview.  Politicians have always been afraid of being asked difficult questions.  That fear, however, was always counterbalanced by the politician’s need to reach an audience, first through newspaper, then radio and finally TV.  With each technological leap, the media seemed to grow in power.  

On television, skipping over or dodging a difficult question could become the headline of the day, no matter how well the other questions were answered.  Reporters had their own reputations and personalities, and were often more adept on camera.  They had large audiences and were trusted and respected.  Increasingly, their reputation wasn’t merely built on having a politician as a guest, but on having the gall to go after that politician, to attack with the most difficult questions they could find.  To trap the politician in a mis-statement or half-truth, to prove their own mettle as independent lions of the press, that proud and defiant fourth branch of government.  

The internet and social media has finally swung the pendulum in the other direction.  Politicians can now reach citizens directly—there’s no need of a mediator of any kind.  No need to sit down and submit to the scrutiny of the camera or the intense interrogation of the press.  With one tweet or Pinterest post, one well-crafted blog or video, a politician can say exactly what needs to be said and nothing more.  So who needs the reporters?  

Even today, it’s all too easy for reporters to be painted as mere mediators—copyists who copy down the events of the day and deliver headlines to citizens.  Like the U.S. Postal Service, they were carriers of information.  And, just as email and Facebook means that we don’t need our mailmen as much anymore, the White House might assume that we don’t need our political press anymore.

For a lot of functions, we don’t need press at all.  With technology, we can have more direct access to the information in our world.  An app that tracks flight information will provide better minute-by-minute data than a lone reporter stationed at the airport.  A direct feed into Google Maps will provide live traffic data for the exact route ahead of us better than any traffic reporter could.  So shouldn’t we assume that with government releasing direct information to citizens, there’s no need for the political reporter?  After all, when I can see a map of how the stimulus dollars are being spent in my neighborhood, why should I wait for a reporter to highlight two or three projects taking place halfway across the country?  

These are all good questions, and some of them may be answered better by or Google than the New York Times—but political reporters are unique from other reporters.  Because government isn’t just some random event or arcane data point that needs reporting-on, like a hurricane or a volcano erupting—even though it can sometimes feel that way.  No, government—at least our democratic government—is a dialogue.  It’s an active conversation between we the people and our elected representatives.  How do we communicate our interests to public officials?  How do we know if they’re representing those interests?  How do we keep them focused on what matters?  The answer is: the press.  

The press is not just there to relay information from the government, it’s there to represent the interests of the people to the government, to serve as our proxies, our watchdogs—to stand face to face with power and ask: “WTF?  Please explain.”  It's easy to forget that the press represents we the people just as much as those we elect.  

Does the White House think that it can have this direct conversation with the public on Twitter?  That those on Facebook will serve that vital role in the dialogue?  Maybe the White House genuinely believes this, and that's why Obama has answered questions on Reddit and through Google+.  Maybe in some utopian world this works, but I'm not sure it does in this one.  And the reason why is the same reason that we elect representatives in the first place: because we’re busy.  

A true democracy wouldn't work because we’re busy.  There are just too many issues to understand and vote on; that’s why we’re not just a democracy, we’re a republic.  We elect representatives to mind these issues for us, to understand their complications and make choices based on our best interest.  

For this very same reason, a true dialogue between government and citizens won't work, especially in a government—and a world—as complicated as ours.  There are simply too many issues and moving pieces to follow; that's why we need a true and substantive press.  That’s the “job to be done” that we hire our press for—a whole staff dedicated to getting to the bottom of government, to keeping their eye on it 24/7.  We trust our reporters to understand the process, to find the relevant information, to frame the right questions, and to demand true answers—not sound-bites or polished photos.  Not 1,200 page PDF documents, but 1,200 word summaries that get to the heart of the issue.  That's what a real 4th branch is all about.

But today, we're in a transition period.  That old idea and purpose of media—acting as a medium—has fallen away; it's no longer relevant.  The press is understandably uneasy with this truth.  But rather than try to fight the march of time, the political press should embrace it.  They should recognize that their true purpose was never to relay information, but to serve the interests of readers and citizens by asking the right questions and understanding the complicated workings of our government.  

Embracing this means discarding a lot of what they think their job is: forget about printing photos of skeet-shooting and golf outings, or asking questions about the First Lady's dress or taking the opportunity for a photo-opp.  Let the President's handlers handle those questions, let them feature the photos of Pete Souza on  We'll see that stuff anyway, whether it's on CNN or Twitter.  Forget that mess, and instead, dig into the meaty issues and serve us by getting the story at all costs.  If the press did this, if it suddenly declined trips to golf outings and instead stayed behind in DC, to coordinate coverage and corroborate hand-fed information, they would go a long way in demonstrating that though the world has changed—their importance hasn't.

It won't be easy; the press will have to adjust its tactics.  Hard-hitting questions don't work if you can't get the interview in the first place.  Reporters may have to tone down their adversarial mindset, recognizing that the power of broadcast as a medium is waning.  Instead, they must lure politicians with only one thing: a sincere interest in understanding the situation and engaging in a meaningful dialogue.  Reporters and politicians are in fact two sides of the same coin—they are both representatives of we the people, so rather than competing for our affections, how about collaborating in our interest?  

Politicians must feel comfortable enough to speak freely without fear that their honest answers are taken out of context and played as gaffes.  There's a reason why they are weary of speaking freely.  In this new world, the press will need to cap its manic glee at every flub, or it risks securing a scripted, access-free future for us all.  At the same time, politicians will need to recognize that any true and substantive exchange with citizens—any actual trust—must be won by an open dialogue, not an orchestrated communications campaign.

The first step, though, is to recognize the reality.  This is an existential crisis for the political press.  Obama's team isn't to blame for these developments; they may have accelerated the arrival of this new paradigm, but it was bound to happen at some point.  In the end, this could be a healthy opportunity to refocus political reporting on substance, or it could be the first stirrings of a superficial, more cloistered political era.

No matter what happens, the occupants of this White House—and the one after it, and the one after that—are going to keep using whatever tools they have to reach citizens directly.  That's a given.  But what isn't a given is how the press reacts.  The future is in their hands.  It's up to them whether they want to hold fast to an outworn access strategy that is no longer relevant, or whether they are prepared to change the way they view their role and to truly embrace their responsibility to the citizens they serve. 

I'm hopeful someone will get it right.


Why Google's 'Failed' Services are a Success

When Google announced last month that it was killing its RSS subscription service Google Reader, there was a feeling of inevitability about it. 

Google Reader has now joined that illustrious and growing graveyard of past Google properties, including Google Wave and Google Buzz.  Short-lived services aren't unique to Google—look at Ping and MobileMe by Apple—but an interview with Marissa Mayer back in 2007 when she served as Google’s VP of Search hints at why Google has a flair for cultivating the ad hoc: 

You may have heard about our [directory assistance] 1-800-GOOG-411 service. Whether or not free-411 is a profitable business unto itself is yet to be seen. I myself am somewhat skeptical. The reason we really did it is because we need to build a great speech-to-text model ... that we can use for all kinds of different things, including video search.  The speech recognition experts that we have say: If you want us to build a really robust speech model, we need a lot of phonemes, which is a syllable as spoken by a particular voice with a particular intonation. So we need a lot of people talking, saying things so that we can ultimately train off of that. ... So 1-800-GOOG-411 is about that: Getting a bunch of different speech samples so that when you call up or we're trying to get the voice out of video, we can do it with high accuracy.  - Marissa Mayer, 2007

Once Google had all the phonemes it needed, 1-800-GOOG-411 was history.  At the time of the interview, Mayer's words were clearly aimed at wowing the audience with Google's cleverness in gathering phonemes.  But the brazen, almost giddy way that Google talks about using its users for some ulterior purpose is a window into how the company thinks about its relationship with customers. 

Few who enjoyed 1-800-GOOG-411 knew the true purpose of the service, or why Google was offering something for free that everyone else was charging money for.  They just thought it was another instance of Google fulfilling its promise and mission to make the world's information accessible to everyone.  And why wouldn't it be?  Google seemed like a new kind of company, a benevolent and friendly company—like that helpful friend who was always volunteering, even when you didn't ask.  Oh, you're moving this weekend?  Need my truck?  I'd be happy to help!  

Who could want a better friend than that?  Except, what Google didn't tell you was that after you'd loaded all of your belongings into the back of its truck, Google was planning to slither out of the commitment—halfway there.  Why?  Because Google got what it wanted.  What was that?  Who knows—an inventory of your stuff, a measure of the respective weights of various kitchen chairs, a record of the relative frequency of smiles and frowns during a moving experience—it could be anything.  These are all perfectly interesting topics to explore in themselves, but not when the exploring leaves you on the side of the road—with or without your stuff—trying to hail a taxi.  Which is harder than it used to be because—yes—Google's free taxi service just put all of the taxi companies out of business. 

The company seems to think that the only way it can get what it needs is to trick users.  And 1-800-GOOG-411 is no special case.  How many Android users do you think realize that their own phones are being used to track live traffic conditions in Google Maps? 

It's interesting to contrast the failure of Google services with others, like Apple's failed Ping social network, or its MobileMe cloud service that Steve Jobs himself said sucked.  These failures are more familiar to us because they seem to be sincere.  Ping was created to help users share their music interests.  Ping failed because it didn't catch on.  But 1-800-GOOG-411 was created to help Google amass phonemes.  It failed to continue to serve users because it had succeeded for Google.  Consider that: a product that when successful, fails to serve users.  In this light, Google seems less like the helpful friend, and more like the friend who only calls you when they need something. 

Ultimately, the problem with Google's shuttering of Reader isn't that it closed a popular service, it's that it follows a familiar pattern of promising to help and then leaving its customers in the lurch.  There's a term for this, when a friendly person helps someone in need and then slinks out of the commitment after getting what they want: it's called taking advantage.  It's called exploitation.  And so we have to wonder, now, the next time an over-eager friend offers to solve a problem without our asking—we owe it to ourselves to demand: "what's in it for them?"  After all, when you're standing on the side of the road with what's left of your valuables, you can't help but reflect that a bad friend can sometimes be far worse than a determined enemy.


The Enemy in the Stairwell

Why do we spend more time on threats from malice than threats from accident?

There is a plot against America.  It’s been happening for years.  It started with a plan to increase the popularity of multi-level homes.  New York is the perfect example.  The city began as an island of short, stumpy, one-story structures, but limited real-estate and booming growth forced us to stack room on top of room, and so our buildings began to climb—and we had to climb with them.  But how?  Step by step, one step at a time: Stairs.  Our stairwells look innocuous enough, but their spread has spelled death for thousands of Americans.  One deceitfully-misaligned step after the next, stairs have been tripping us up—and throwing us down—for years, and the danger is rising.  With the body-toll climbing in jagged, stair-shaped graphs, the question lingers: Why are stairs so hellbent on killing us?  As one sociologist chillingly put it: ‘it’s simply in their nature to kill.’ 

Okay, so maybe stairs aren't actively plotting against us, but accidents happen and it's not uncommon to want to find a plot or purpose behind our misfortune. The spectacular explosion at a Texas chemical plant that claimed at least 15 lives is likely the result of an accident, with no plot or purpose. News today arrives that the plant was last inspected for safety in 1985, when Barack Obama was only 24 years old. This—and the 1,000+ deaths by stairs every year—raises an interesting question: why aren't we better at preventing major risks to our health and well being?  The timing of the explosion provides a grim contrast with that other deadly explosion making headlines last week, the one in Boston that claimed three lives and injured far more at the hands of terrorists.  Both blasts have shocked us into awareness of the threats around us, but one more than the other, it seems.  Far greater attention was given to the rise of this new terrorist threat, even though the threat from accidents is just as real. This is not without precedent. We seem to spend more time and energy on threats of malice from people like the terrorists in Boston, rather than threats of accident or mistake.  

And yet, malice is not our greatest threat.  Far more die of car accidents than from guns.  Far more die of falling down the stairs than of terrorism in this country.  Our tendency to want to find a malicious motive behind every threat extends even to those areas where threats aren't malicious at all.  The environmental degradation we have in this country is not the result of malice, it’s a mistake—an unexpected consequence of productive enterprise.  Cancer deaths from smoking are not the result of malice—they're merely a consequence of smoking, not anybody’s goal.  It’s the same for drunk-driving, and oil production, and explosions at chemical plants.  And it’s easy—all too easy—to equate these things with malice, to demonize them for the convenience of mobilizing ourselves against them, but doing so blinds us to the reality at the root of these situations. Our greatest threat isn’t malice, it’s ineffectiveness, inefficiency, poor choices, mistakes, lack of knowledge, foresight, and carefulness—a failure to think big, to think forward, and sideways, and in every direction that our actions disperse.  

Fixing these issues, then, of drunk-driving and oil production and explosions at chemical plants—fixing them requires us to recognize that there is no “bad guy” at the center, plotting our demise, no solution so simple as locking someone up—but something far more personal: taking care with the power we have and responsibility for the actions we take.  The solution is not combating those with power, the oil executives and mining companies, the 190 million Americans behind the wheel, but helping them to use that power more effectively, more efficiently, to make better choices, to succeed, to avoid mistakes, to arm them with the best information and knowledge so that they can see into the future and think beyond their own experience.  These people are not our enemies—our only enemy is the idea of enemies, of evil-doers around every corner.  Yes, there are those who want to hurt us, but we are far more capable of hurting ourselves.  Malice is the exception, not the rule, so let’s not be ruled by it—or let it color our reactions to every misfortune.  It’s to blame for the minority of our pain, so why do we let it take up the majority of our time?  

Looking at every problem through the lens of malice may make for a better story, but story is a sorry reason to ignore the greatest threats to our health and well-being.  We have to look at these threats dispassionately, identifying what hurts us---no matter what it is or why it was, and attack the causes at the root with great passion and intensity.  Our time would be far better spent if we devoted more time to debating how to make stairs safer for children and the elderly, rather than how to make prosecution of criminals more prosecutorial. 

Stairs may not be plotting to kill us, but they kill us all the same—or rather, we kill ourselves with the help of stairs.  And the help of cigarettes.  And the help of automobiles.  And the help of the idea of malice.  Yes, we must deal swiftly with direct enemies, but we must deal just as swiftly with the direct threats that claim far more lives and ultimately—do far more damage.  But how much more hopeful is this realization—because while we can't control the mind of a madman, we can control our own actions and the consequences they bring, we can make a difference and save lives—we can tame the stairwell, one step at a time.


The Responsibility to be Bold

What can we learn about decision-making from the Supreme Court?

Discovery is expensive.  To gather a team and procure a boat and set sail across the seas.  To hack through the jungles of the Amazon, swatting flies and taking samples of plant leaves.  To return and synthesize the enzymes of those leaves, testing them against a host of maladies and hoping—just hoping—that one out of a hundred, one out of a thousand, even—is effective at treating a disease.  It’s an expensive and time-consuming proposition, so it makes sense that once you actually do discover something—a plant that treats breast cancer, for example—you’d want to protect your right to turn all of that work into some measure of success and profit.  Surely you can patent the drug, maybe even the method of treatment and delivery, but can you patent the plant leaf itself?  

That’s the question justices at the Supreme Court have been mulling over this month in a trial on gene patents that’s expected to define the future of the medical industry.  Are genes “a product of nature” or a “human-made invention”?  According to current law, companies can and do patent genes, meaning that any researcher who wants to explore this aspect of the human condition must first pay a price to the discoverer of that gene.  This makes basic research expensive for general scientists, retarding other discoveries—but as one Justice asked: “Why would a company incur massive investment if it cannot patent?”  

It’s a complex issue, with broad-reaching effects on the future of science, medicine, business, and basic health—just the kind of issue that the Supreme Court was designed to decide.  The problem, though, is that it doesn’t seem to want to decide.  The New York Times headline says it all: “Justices Seem Wary of Bold Action in Gene Patent Case.”  As a result, the court could very well make a narrow ruling, one that applies to this specific case, rather than to the industry as a whole.  It’s not an uncommon tactic for the court to take.  Just a few weeks ago, similar headlines swirled around the court’s gay marriage cases, with some observers noting that the court looked like it might lean towards a narrow ruling that applied only to California.  What can we make of this wariness for bold decisions?  

If they have this unprecedented power to affect change, to shape the future, to actually be heard in the debate—why would they shudder from boldness?  After all, isn’t boldness not only the special privilege, but the special responsibility of the court?  To get to the answer, it’s worth looking at how the court comes to its decisions:  

Courts represent some of the oldest decision-making bodies in society, and the way that they operate is very distinctive: researching issues, gathering multiple perspectives, listening to competing arguments, debating amongst themselves, and then finally voting and explaining their particular reasoning.  It’s a process of discovery—just like the scientific method; only instead of discovering scientific truths, it’s aimed at discovering legal truths, moral truths and ultimately, personal truths.  A process for discovering what they think about an issue.  In a recent interview, Justice O’Connor noted just how unique the court was as a government branch—not because of the wisdom of its decisions, but because of the honesty: every decision it makes has an explanation that says ‘here’s what we were thinking on this.”  The President isn’t required to explain the step-by-step reasoning of every decision, nor is Congress.  Nor, for that matter, are most executives, or journalists, or individuals.  

It makes you wonder what the world would look like if everyone did.  Show me your thirty page ruling on why you decided to go to college.  Or why you decided to buy a new car.  Or why you decided to go out on your bike this Saturday instead of meeting up with friends.  Show me your ruling on getting married.  So many decisions don’t lend themselves to 30 pages of meticulous reasoning, or 30 hours of reading briefing books and months of discussion and debate.  But that doesn’t mean that many decisions wouldn’t benefit from this level of scrutiny.  How much better might our choices be, and how much more comfortable would we be with them?  

It’s easy to scoff at the thought: who would want to look at life through such cold, calculating eyes, reducing matters of passion and preference—matters often of the heart—to this academic exercise?  Except a quick look at any courtroom will show that the process is anything but cold and passionless.  Though rulings strive for fairness, they are far from the ideal of objectivity we call for in “fair-and-balanced” reporting.  A judgement by its very nature is unbalanced, it’s a decision, a choice—and often a binary one: guilty or not guilty, plaintiff or defendant, right or wrong.  Just because you write down the factors that influenced your decision doesn’t mean those factors are cold and passionless—or even that they would make sense to someone else.  What matters is that they make sense to you.  

It’s not an easy process.  If you applied it to every decision, you might be frozen in indecision.  Burdened by the complications of competing arguments, you’d have trouble even getting out the door in the morning.  Last month, when Sandra Day O’Connor said that all of the justices have lunch together, Jon Stewart joked about what it must be like trying to get everyone to decide on take-out: Italian or Chinese food, pizza or egg rolls?  It’s clear that the court’s decision-making process isn’t designed for these kinds of everyday choices—instead, it’s built for the bold decisions, like gene patents and gay marriage.  But there’s an inherent problem here, too:  

The process is too good.  It’s so thorough, so adept at uncovering complications and competing interests and factors, that it brings to attention the fact that every issue is unique.  Every question is its own equation.  And few—if any—should be decided by broadly-defined, boldly-declared blanket principles.  This is the fundamental paradox of the Supreme Court.  Their job is to make bold decisions.  But their process for discovering issues is so good it calls into question the wisdom of bold decisions.  This sucks for the court, but it’s a useful revelation for the rest of us.  

It suggests that every decision has so many complicating factors that we should—at the least—list them out, understand where they came from, engage competing perspectives and try to build a working model for how they interact.  It also suggests that broad principles like: “I never like to wake up early on Sundays” or “I’m never going to purchase a foreign car” or “I will always vote Democrat” probably won’t serve every occasion well.  In fact, they may actually blind us to more meaningful choices.  

Broad principles are useful in organizing our values, but we shouldn’t confuse them with the values themselves: they’re really just shortcuts that take the place of actual thinking.  Oh, which color car do I want?  Well, red is my favorite color so I’ll buy a red car on principle.  Should we get married?  Well, I always liked blondes, so yes, let’s tie the knot.  Should I go out on the boat today?  Well, I enjoy thunderstorms, so why not?  Broad principles poorly applied have led to plenty of poor choices, from used cars to divorces to Coast Guard rescues—and the more broad principles you have, the more likely you are to apply them in the making of poor choices.  But having too few broad principles isn’t good either.  It can paralyze you, leading you down a road of endless research and discovery, unable to take decisive action.  

So what’s the proper balance?  Something in between the Court’s 30 page decisions and our 30 second ones—between carefully considering every choice and following the familiar path of precedence.  After all, discovery is expensive and time-consuming, whether you’re hacking through the jungles of the Amazon or  How, then, should the court rule?  Like the rest of us, it has to be bold and considered...but not all the time.  Yes or no, plaintiff or defendant, guilty or not guilty—these decisions are secondary.  Ultimately, the most important question is: is this one of those times?


Advertising Ordinary Things

Advertising is an art, attracting some of the greatest minds in design, writing, film, and music—pooling their talents to send a message: this product is worth your time, attention, and money.

At its best, advertising shows us some new innovation, or reinforces the values we already care about, rhapsodizing on the joy of living here, today, among these products and services.  As a result, we are constantly buying new things because we believe they are cool and exciting and beautifully designed and outstandingly functional and useful for our lives.  Great advertising copy and videos tell us this everyday.  But, with so much energy and talent poured into new things, it’s often hard to appreciate what we already have.  

I’ve found that the best and most interesting commercials are the ones for products I already have.  For example: I’m a big listener of podcasts, and the ads on the 5by5 podcast network are incredibly effective.  But the ones I enjoy the most are those for SquareSpace.  It was just such an ad that introduced me to the company that now hosts this website.  As a paying customer, it’s now incredibly fulfilling to hear SquareSpace advertisements: I not only learn new uses for it, I am continually reminded of the enduring value of what I already have.  

Advertisements are about value, and we are constantly searching for value.  But when today’s creative minds talk about value in advertising, they only direct our attention to what’s new—rather than what’s here.  This affects our purchasing decisions, and it also affects our happiness.  There’s nothing wrong, of course, with buying something because of an advertisement—but it’s so much nicer to enjoy something you already have because of advertisement.  First of all, you don’t have to go through the extra step of getting it, so your enjoyment can be instant.  More importantly, you can save your money for things that will lead to more lasting happiness like a trip to a new place, or an investment in learning a new skill, or a holiday with friends.  Buying—not things, but experiences.  

So how about this: Why don’t we create a website called “Advertising Ordinary Things.”  It would literally be composed of great advertising copy, great design and music and imagery combined to rhapsodize on the enduring value of things you already have.  What kind of objects?  An ordinary pencil.  A pen.  Paper.  Shoelace.  Cup.  Staple.  Keys.  Carpet.  Color.  Birds.  Frizzy hair.  Tissues.  Crosswalks.  Overcast skies.  Anything and everything that makes life worth living in some small way.  The site could take submissions from the most creative minds, showcasing their work and celebrating—reinvigorating—the lives we already live.  It might begin with marketing copy and graphic ads, but grow to include flashy commercials—even some produced by great directors—all aimed at returning that spark of magic to the extraordinary objects that already surround us.