Monday, February 28, 2011

MTA, thanks for the art!

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority deserves credit for going beyond the functional to add just a bit more design and art in our lives. In addition to the more obvious art on the walls of many subway station, they've done some nice touches with the more utilitarian elements.

Such as these overlight lights (on the 4/5 express platform at Grand Central):

From Innovation Bootcamp

and this screen at the Manhattan-bound N/Q platform at Queensboro Plaza:

From Innovation Bootcamp

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Cheese display

In case any of the conventioneers were confused by the platter of brie, blue cheese, swiss cheese, crackers, and grapes, the sign ought to have reassured them that they were in fact looking at cheese.

Who at the Marriott events team decided that it was necessary to have an explanatory card?

And what curious language. Not "cheese plate," but "cheese display." Implying that the cheese is meant to be seen and not necessarily eaten.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Assignment for a design class

Here is an assignment in search of a design class:

Many icons throughout the airport as well as other transit systems work great for an international audience. You don't need to know English to recognize that this sign leads you to buses and taxis:

From Innovation Bootcamp

while this one leads you to baggage claim:

From Innovation Bootcamp

Assignment: Create an icon for "This way to the parking area" that doesn't use a "P":

From Innovation Bootcamp

Friday, February 25, 2011

Fingerprint scanner for your boarding pass

The boarding pass kiosks at the Delta terminal at La Guardia have fingerprint scanners, but at least right now they don't seem to have been activated.

From Innovation Bootcamp

A quick Google search turns up a variety of mentions of fingerprint scanners being used in airport security.

There are Kaba Physical Access Systems and Global Systems, for example.

I can imagine a whole variety of problems with fingerprint scanning: what happens if I've cut my finger and I'm wearing a band-aid? What if I've been doing some carpentry and my fingerprints have been worn down?

A blog post from December 2006 discusses airport security using biometrics, and it seems that Delta has purchased fingerprint scanners with that capability. Wonder when we'll start scanning our iris or fingerprint to get on a plane.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Could we add fast food to the TSA list of prohibited items?

Ideas of what is socially acceptable change over time. I'd welcome any thoughts on how public opinion could be shifted so that bringing a bag of fast food onto an airplane could be discouraged.

Sure, bring your cup of coffee. But I'd rather not share the smell of McDonalds or Subway in the enclosed space of our trip together.

Maybe the airlines could add an announcement prior to boarding.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Handwritten signs

Handwritten signs in an official, corporate-designed environment capture the attention because they represent an actual human who is responding to a communication failure.

In this drink dispenser in the Delta terminal at La Guardia Airport, the engineers have gotten fancy and added a scrolling banner of text that encourages us to "Encourage a refreshing drink..." The message then lets us know that the temperature of the drinks is currently "32F" and finally flashes the information we actually want to know, that is, the price.

The loop takes 9.4 seconds, and the price is flashed up for just 0.9 seconds. But 9.4 seconds is too long for many thirsty travelers to wait, and they must have wandered off to ask someone how much the drinks actually cost. Finally, an exasperated, anonymous employee added the handwritten sign.

Enjoy a refreshing drink and guess at the price from Will Bachman on Vimeo.

Here is the full soda machine:

From Innovation Bootcamp

A still photo of the handwritten message:

From Innovation Bootcamp

And the Snapple drink dispenser next to the soda dispenser had the same problem:

From Innovation Bootcamp

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What purchasing officers want to know

1. What are you selling? What are the specs? Describe the product

2. How are you going to reduce my total cost of ownership?

3. How are you going to reduce my business risk?
(Reputational risk, financial risk, delivery risk)

4. Show me that you are credible. Why should I believe you?

5. Logistics: Where are your operations? Where do you deliver?

6. How do you help me meet non-financial goals?
Diversity: Are you a minority-owned business, woman-owned business, etc?
Environmental sustainable: Tell me how you are greener than your competitors

Monday, February 21, 2011

A low-cost, multi-use whiteboard

A whiteboard helps make innovation happen. Any discussion is improved when someone gets up and draws a picture.

If you don't have whiteboards in your office, here is a cheap solution. $35 for a 3x6 foot version. Compares to several hundred dollars for the equivalent size at Staples.

I saw WhiteyBoard profiled in the New York Times several months ago.

Peel off the back, stick on your wall. When you want to move it: peel off and stick on somewhere else.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Who decides that everyone would like the TV turned to CNN?

We passengers are making phone calls. We are listening to our music and our podcasts. We are perhaps even trying to talk to each other.

So why did the airport authorities decide that we'd all really like to have CNN turned on and the audio piped at us, inescapably?

Does CNN pay the airport?

How about taking a vote, periodically: who wants the TV on?

From Innovation Bootcamp

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Keurig is not selling coffee

Keurig is not selling coffee. It is selling a clean countertop.

In the office setting, it might make sense to pay more for coffee so employees aren't spending their time mopping up spills.

That change of perspective allows them (or Green Mountain) to sell ten cents of coffee for eighty cents.

What are you selling?

From Innovation Bootcamp

Friday, February 18, 2011

The airline safety briefing

The airline safety briefing we sit through before every flight is an extreme example of managing for process compliance rather than managing for outcomes.

The FAA requires airlines to repeat the same boilerplate speech before every flight, and so that's what they do. Frequent fliers tune it out, even though they might not actually be able to find that exit in the unlikely event of an emergency. Even those who listen intently have a hard time knowing what they are supposed to do.

How might the system work differently if instead the FAA required that actual passengers be randomly tested on their knowledge of what to do in case of an emegency? Not just pass a paper test, but actually be able to do what is required in an emergency?

One thing is sure - we wouldn't have to sit through a canned speech before every flight.

Instead, we'd recognize that most of the passengers on any given flight are frequent fliers. While frequent fliers make up a small percentage of fliers, they make up a larger percentage of passengers on any given flight since they fly more often, logically. So we would focus the training on them. In an emergency, you are better off having a few people who know exactly what to do rather than everyone knowing vaguely what to do.

How to do this training?

Get people to actually go through the motions. That "muscle memory" is the only way to know that you'll respond during a casualty. When I was a submarine officer, we would practice our response to fire, flooding, or engineering casualties with drills nearly every day, until each immediate action became an instinct.

To prepare for airline emergencies, we could install a mockup of an airline seat in the terminal so you could actually practice putting that mask over your mouth that is supposed to drop "in the unlikely event of a sudden drop in cabin pressure." We could have an exit door installed in the terminal so you could actually practice opening it. Every kid would want to do it, so at least the parents would have seen it done. A seat where you can practice taking out the seat cushion to use as a flotation device. An inflatable vest that you can actually practice inflating with the little tube.

We'd have written as well as oral exams. We still might have some training before each flight, but we'd mix it up so it wouldn't get stale. "OK, look around and raise your hand when you've identified the exit closest to you. Last hand up doesn't get any peanuts this flight - just kidding!"

If we think it is truly important to make sure passengers are ready for an emergency, then we ought to use some common sense to design the training to be effective. If it isn't worth making that effort, then we should just eliminate the charade.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

I don't want to play the lottery with my checking account

I have to assume that Chase has done the market research to check consumer attitudes, so I must be just out of step. But at least for me, my checking account is the last place I want to play the lottery.

Didn't we just go through some kind of financial crisis where the big banks essentially acted as casinos?

From Innovation Bootcamp

Where's my napkin?

During a three-month project in Detroit, I ate at the same lunch place every day.

Towards the end of my stay, the older woman who worked the cash register retired, and the owner filled in for several weeks while they looked for a replacement.

Under the first day of the new cash register regime, I got back to my desk with my lunch and discovered: no napkins in my bag. The woman always put in three napkins, but the owner didn't know this.

Now, there is a pile of napkins sitting on the counter, so it isn't obvious who ought to be putting them in the bag. It would be perfectly reasonable to expect the customers to take napkins themselves.

No one ever told the woman to put napkins in the bags with the lunch - clearly, since the owner didn't know she had been doing it.

And when she left, there was no written procedure for her replacement to follow, so this small courtesy got lost. (Until a customer gently told the owner on three separate occasions.)

A trivial example, perhaps, of tacit knowledge. It is hard for a boss to capture this knowledge. One way to get started is to rotate employees around to work other jobs under instruction.

What are the napkin-equivalents in your organization?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Don't use two spaces after a period. Just one!

Somewhere along the way, I was taught to use two spaces after the period. But apparently all professional typographers strongly insist on using just one. I had no idea.

Even though I just read this article in Slate which explains that using just one space is proper, after each period in this post I automatically typed two spaces. Working to cure myself of this apparently bad habit.

An excerpt from the article:

Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule. It's one of the canonical rules of the profession, in the same way that waiters know that the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork and fashion designers know to put men's shirt buttons on the right and women's on the left. Every major style guide—including the Modern Language Association Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style—prescribes a single space after a period. (The Publications Manual of the American Psychological Association, used widely in the social sciences, allows for two spaces in draft manuscripts but recommends one space in published work.) Most ordinary people would know the one-space rule, too, if it weren't for a quirk of history. In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine's shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. And even though we no longer use typewriters, we all still type like we do. (Also see the persistence of the dreaded Caps Lock key.)

The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M). Monospaced type gives you text that looks "loose" and uneven; there's a lot of white space between characters and words, so it's more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here's the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s. First electric typewriters and then computers began to offer people ways to create text using proportional fonts. Today nearly every font on your PC is proportional. (Courier is the one major exception.) Because we've all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Wanted: a wiki for visual art

Wikipedia has demonstrated the amazing power of crowdsourcing to become the world's most frequently referenced encyclopedia.

In my opinion, one gap in the coverage of Wikipedia is art, in particular, visual art.

Certainly, there are plenty of articles in Wikipedia on the subject of art, and on individual paintings. But the structure of Wikipedia itself isn't ideally suited to covering visual art in the way I think would be most helpful.

Here is my vision of what I wish existed:

Let's say you want to start with a particular painting. Let's pick Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" as an example to work with. Enter the name of the painting in the search bar and a page comes up devoted to that painting.

If you like, you can click Full Screen and you switch to Slideshow mode in which the high-resolution image fills your entire screen, and you can zoom if you want: getting closer and seeing more detail that you could even in a museum.

Or, you can select from a number of layers of information about the painting. You have a choice of viewing modes. The default mode would have the full painting on your screen while the information layer of interest shows to the sides or below the image, depending on whether the image is a portrait or landscape orientation. Here are a few potential layers:

  • The basics:
    • When the painting was painted
    • Name of the painter
    • Where the painting hangs today
    • Materials used
    • Dimensions
  • Materials used: if you are more interested in the technical details of the materials used, you can see a detailed technical layer. This could have:
    • Fabric: exactly what type of material was the painting painted on? What is this fabric made out of? Where would the fabric have been made?
    • Dyes: for each of the colors in the painting, what is the most likely source of the dye that was used? What plant was used for each green, red, and blue?
    • Frame: What type of wood is the frame made out of? Where would that wood have come from? Who carved the frame? Is the frame original?
  • Story: On this layer you read the story of what is going on, in this case, of course, the last supper of Jesus with his disciples.  Here you would get the basic story as well as a comparison of how each of the Gospels treats the Last Supper, and which of the Gospels da Vinci has followed.  Also we'd read about which elements da Vinci added based on his own invention or based on traditions.  For a painting about Greek myths, you would get a link to the story of the Greek myth.  For any historical painting, say a portrait of a king, you would get a brief biographical sketch of the person.
  • Symbolism: This layer of information would focus on the symbols present in the painting.  
    • Hands: you might check a box and see an optional layer that just addresses the symbolism of all the different hand gestures.  When this layer is present, you would see a faint box around each of the hand gestures where a comment has been written.  Hover your mouse over this set of hands and you can see the description of that particular gesture in the write-up
    • Objects: same as above, but for objects. 
  • Artist: If you are interested in the artist, you can see a layer of information about da Vinci.
  • History of the ownership of the painting: this layer gives you the history of the chain of possession as far as is known
    • History of the physical object: this sub-layer would detail any restorations
    • Details on owners: All of the owners in the chain of possession would by hyperlinked so you could see details on what other paintings they owned, and how they got their money
    • Past locations: In this layer you could see a map of all the places the painting has hung over the years.  Click on a location on the map and you can see an image of the building, or if available, and image of the hall where the painting hung.
  • Current location: understand the context in which the painting is currently displayed.  
    • Ideally, you could see a virtual view of the room in which the painting hangs today, assuming that it is in a museum; if a photo of the room isn't available, then you could see images of the other paintings in the same room to understand what the curator has placed this painting with.  This would all be hyperlinked, so you could click on any of those paintings
  • Style: a layer to talk about the style of the painting; general characteristics of the painting's genre
  • Historical context: What was going on in history at the time this painting was created?
  • Scholarship: Links to any scholarship about the work of art
For paintings you could zoom to a very high-resolution detailed view to see the brushstrokes.  For sculptures or other 3D works like jewelry and furniture, you could get a rotating view to see from all angles.

The above describes the various layers of information that you could see while looking at one work of art.  There would also be a feature that would allow you to see a virtual gallery of paintings to allow comparisons.  These various galleries would mostly correspond to the layers described above.  For examples, the galleries could include: 
  • Story or theme: Show a gallery of all the other artistic treatments of the Last Supper (in this case)
  • Artist: Show all the other paintings by the same artist
  • Contemporaneous works: Show other paintings created in the same geographic location within the same time period
  • Style: See other paintings of the same style
  • Materials: See other paintings made with the same green dye from the same plant
  • Ownership: See other paintings collected by the same collector
  • Current location: See other paintings at the same museum as where the painting currently hangs
  • Symbolism: See other paintings with the same hand gesture; or that feature a dove or whatever symbol is picked
What I'm describing is certainly far too vast of an undertaking for any single institution to pay to create.  The only way to create such a site would be crowdsourcing in the manner of Wikipedia.

Some museums have already started internal efforts that take steps in the direction of what I'm describing.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, has an online Collection Database.  
MOMA also has an online collection.

Sample of the information that MOMA gives about a sample painting:

The Fallen Butler

George Condo (American, born 1957)

December 2009. Oil and pastel on linen, 78 x 76" (198.1 x 193 cm). Gift of Adam Kimmel. © 2011 George Condo / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
This is a nice first step, but is limited to the amount of information you would normally see on a placard within the museum.  Space online is nearly free, so why not make it possible to read deeply about the piece of work?

There are other efforts out there, like this one at  The link is to their page on Greek Mythology, which includes a whole list of links to particular gods and goddesses where you can see multiple images of the same mythological figure.  

There are two main problems with efforts that are sponsored by a specific museum:
  • The paintings are limited to those in the collection of that museum
  • The write-ups are done by experts - so are expensive and therefore limited
I've checked out a number of other online sites for art like the one, and the problem with them is that they also don't allow wiki-style community editing, and they are not professionally designed.

Funding/organizing: It would probably take an institution like the Wikimedia Foundation or a company like Google to create the structure of the site and have enough word-of-mouth marketing to encourage people to start contributing.  The art wiki would be very consistent with Google's mission to organize the world's information, but people might be less likely to contribute if a for-profit company is organizing it.  Philanthropic foundations might be interested in providing the funding the design and build the infrastructure and provide funds for administrative staffing, IT hosting, legal, etc.

Why museums should participate: While museums might be reluctant to share their content and participate in such an endeavor, there would be strong reasons to do so.  First, a wiki for all the world's visual art would be consistent with the educational mission of most museums.  Second, including their works in such an effort can help build awareness of their museum - useful for less-well known museums.  Third, sharing their content would support the curatorial mission of advancing research and knowledge of art.

One concern will probably be about maintaining the accuracy of information.  Two responses to this: Wikipedia has demonstrated that a user-generated encyclopedia can attain levels of accuracy comparable to a professionally written one.  Second: it could be possible in the design of the wiki for art that the academic credentials of the editors are indicated in some way.  So it would be possible for viewers to see what are the official contributions of curators from the museum that owns the piece, and what are from regular people with no academic credentials like myself.

What are the benefits:
  • A really capable online wiki of all the world's visual art would be a huge boon for students and scholars
  • Scholarship would benefit as it would become far easier to make comparisons between works
  • Scholarship would benefit as amateurs with a very particular passion can make their own contributions
  • Scholars and museums could learn more about what interests the public
  • Museums could share on a broader platform their collection not currently on display
  • Making it easier to learn about the visual arts and compare paintings from around the world ought to make it much easier for the general public to get interested in the topic, so the art wiki could generate increased interest in visiting art museums and contribute to economic growth.
  • Private collectors would have a chance to share works in their collection (which might be attractive to some but not all collectors)
Ideal for a tablet app
  • This wiki would make an ideal application for a tablet device.  When you walk through a museum with your iPad, the iPad could sense what room you are in and show on the screen all the paintings that you see around you.  Click on one of them and you could get all the layers of information indicated above.
    • Museums could generate revenue by renting these tablet devices, and they would no longer need to invest in creating their own recorded content
How can we make this happen?  I'd welcome ideas on how this vision could become a reality.  If you have connections at the Wikimedia foundation, at major foundations that might be interested in funding this project, with tech executives who would like to lead the effort, or with museums that could be an anchor member, or with effortst that might already be underway, please let me know.  

Examing NYT Op-ed "Wall Street's Dead End"

An op-ed by Felix Salmon in the February 13, 2011 New York Times seemed worth examining closely.

THE stock market has been big news in recent days. Last week’s report that Deutsche Börse, a giant German exchange, intends to buy the New York Stock Exchange, creating a company worth some $24 billion, arrived shortly after the Dow broke the 12,000-point barrier for the first time since before the financial crisis.

These developments drew headlines because they seemed to exemplify significant trends in the American economy.

Salmon doesn't explain what "significant trends" these two news items supposedly exemplify. I suppose the trends could be "consolidation of financial exchanges" and "the stock market is going up." But I don't think these news items got attention because they exemplify significant trends.

The NYSE / Deutsche Borse story got attention because it was an obvious and easy story. A potential merger gets announced, a press release goes out, and the story basically writes itself. The story got attention because many Americans, and all of those who read the financial news, have heard of the NYSE.

The Dow breaking the 12,000 barrier gets attention also because it is an obvious and easy story. It is a completely arbitrary milestone, but any reporter, even if he knows nothing of finance, can say, look, we crossed a threshhold.

In truth, the stock market is becoming increasingly irrelevant — a trend that threatens the core principles of American capitalism.

Wow - that sounds bad. Let's read on.

These days a healthy stock market doesn’t mean a healthy economy, as a glance at the high unemployment rate or the low labor-market participation rate will show.

The "these days" that opens the sentence suggests that at some point a healthy stock market did mean a "healthy economy." Is that true? First I'd like to understand a little bit more specifically what Salmon means by both a "healthy stock market" and a "healthy economy."

What I recall from business school is that the stock market is supposed to be a leading indicator of the economy. If you think things are going to improve in a year, you go buy stocks now that you think are relatively low-priced. If a lot of people believe that and follow your example, prices go up. But the economy doesn't pick up until later.

My recall is a bit simplistic, but is Salmon suggesting an even more simplistic interpretation: that stock prices should rise at the same time unemployment falls?

What if businesses are getting more productive - getting more work out of fewer employees? I'd want to invest in businesses that manage to do that. It is unfortunate that people are out of work, but it doesn't necessarily imply that businesses are doing poorly.

But the glory days of publicly traded companies dominating the American business landscape may be over. The number of companies listed on the major domestic exchanges peaked in 1997 at more than 7,000, and it has been falling ever since. It’s now down to about 4,000 companies, and given its steep downward trend will surely continue to shrink.

Simply listing the number of listed companies is playing with statistics. What about the relative size of those 4000 companies vs the 7000 from 1997? Is this necessarily a bad thing? Why is it a bad thing that companies are finding alternate sources of capital outside public markets?

Nor are the remaining stocks an obvious proxy for the health of the American economy. Innovative American companies like Apple and Google may be worth hundreds of billions of dollars, but most of them don’t pay dividends or employ many Americans, and their shares are essentially speculative investments for people making a bet on how we’re going to live in the future.

This is such nonsense it is hard to know where to begin.

Not sure why Salmon believes that not paying dividends makes innovative companies less than fully authentic investments. As an investor, I ought to care about my total return. If I buy a stock at 100, a year later I ought to be indifferent whether the stock price is 110 (I can sell it for a 10% return) or the stock price is 100 and I get a dividend of 10 (10% return). I have a 10% return either way.

Apple employs 38,600 as of September 2009. I'm not sure how many of them are U.S. Citizens, or what Salmon would consider "many Americans."

And I'd love to understand what stocks, according to Salmon, don't constitute a "bet on how we're going to live in the future." If you buy Pfizer, you're betting that we'll be taking pharmaceuticals in the future that are marketed by Pfizer. If you buy GM, you're betting that we'll be driving cars made by GM in the future.

Put another way, as the number of initial public offerings steadily declines, the stock market is becoming little more than a place for speculators and algorithms to compete over who can trade his way to the most money.

"Little more"? The stock market is also a place where many investors make a long-term investments. Speculators may affect prices of individual stocks in the short term, but over the long term the underlying assets will drive the returns.

If there isn't a long-term liquid market for securities after an IPO, then people won't want to invest.

What the market is not doing so well is its core public function: allocating capital efficiently. Apple, for instance, is hugely profitable and sits on an enormous pile of cash; it is thus very unlikely to use its highly rated stock to pay for any acquisitions. It hasn’t used the stock market to raise money since 1981, and there’s a good bet it never will again.

It takes some thought to unbundle the non-sequiturs in this last statement. Investors put money into Apple; Apple made profits; Apple now has cash to invest. How does that serve as evidence that in general the market is not allocating capital efficiently?

At the level of specific allocations, my sense is that managers historically as well as now make the decisions on how to allocate capital. Exceptions would be bonds that fund a very specific investment.

Meanwhile, the companies in which people most want to invest, technology stars like Facebook and Twitter, are managing to avoid the public markets entirely by raising hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars privately. You and I can’t buy into these companies; only very select institutions and well-connected individuals can. And companies prefer it that way.

While it might be true that Facebook and Twitter are the companies in which people "most want to invest," I haven't seen any proof of that. Is that Salmon's personal opinion or the results of some poll?

A private company’s stock isn’t affected by the unpredictable waves of the stock market as a whole. Its chief executive can concentrate on running the company rather than answering endless questions from investors, analysts and the press.

It would be interesting to ask the CEO of a portfolio company owned by one of the big private equity companies if he or she doesn't need to answer endless questions from investors.

Only the biggest and oldest companies are happy being listed on public markets today. As a result, the stock market as a whole increasingly fails to reflect the vibrancy and heterogeneity of the broader economy. To invest in younger, smaller companies, you increasingly need to be a member of the ultra-rich elite.

It may well be true that you need to be well-connected in order to invest in young, small companies, but there is no evidence presented here to support the "increasingly." Is the situation today really different from the situation decades ago? My hypothesis would be that small investors today have fewer opportunities than ultra-wealthy investors, but that the information gap and opportunity gap has gotten smaller over time.

And it is worth mentioning that many of these "ultra wealthy" investors are actually pension funds that pool the money of ordinary folks.

That burden comes largely from the Securities and Exchange Commission, which was created in the wake of the 1929 stock-market crash to protect small investors. But if the move to private markets continues, small investors aren’t going to need much protection any more: they’ll be able to invest in only a relative handful of companies anyway

So what is Salmon suggesting? Reduce the safeguards that protect small investors?

Civilians, rather than plutocrats, controlled corporate America, and that relationship improved standards of living and usually kept the worst of corporate abuses in check.

Really? Where is the evidence? I've seen statistics that show that a greater percentage of Americans own stocks today than decades ago.

And where is the evidence that ownership by small investors kept corporate abuses in check? I think laws like the Clean Air Act and the creation of the FDA had a lot more impact on corporate behavior than activism by small investors.

I'd actually posit the reverse: that large shareholders are much more likely to be in a position to affect corporate behavior.

Today, however, stock markets, once the bedrock of American capitalism, are slowly becoming a noisy sideshow that churns out increasingly meager returns. The show still gets lots of attention, but the real business of the global economy is inexorably leaving the stock market — and the vast majority of us — behind.

Salmon does make a good point that the stock market gets lots of attention - too much. The press report on the stock market because it is easy to do. Any financial news show including NPR feels the need to report how the Dow Jones average closed each day, despite the fact that the daily fluctuations are just noise. And it is also true, and interesting, that the serious trading volume is in bonds and derivatives, not equities.

But the argument that America once basked in a golden age of citizen shareholder capitalism that is now on the decline isn't supported by any evidence in this piece.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Few things are more romantic to discuss than economics. So for Valentine's Day, here is a link to Spousanomics, a blog that discusses economics within the context of marriage. The authors of the blog also have a book by the same name.

Here is a recent post:

I came up with this list as an early valentine for my husband:

1. Help with garbage night.
2. Join you in the 30-day meditation challenge.
3. Not remind you when you have to make up a work shift at the food coop.
4. Use my Petzl head lamp when I’m reading in bed and you’re already asleep.
5. Work on my tone of voice when I’m frustrated.
6. Pick my battles.
7. Entertain notion that my way isn’t the only way.
8. Try again to make braised pork shoulder.
9. Give Sonny & the Sunsets another chance.
10. Let things go.

*Pareto efficiency means there’s no simple change that would make either person happier, or just as happy. So if there are things you can do to make your partner happier–and it doesn’t actually make you any worse off (and really, what makes you THAT worse off?)–then your marriage isn’t yet Pareto efficient.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Business oppty: Site for members of a group to share recommendations

I subscribe to multiple email lists that are restricted to alums of Columbia Business School. The New York list is particularly active and I've used it myself to get recommendations on a primary care physician, accountant, and health insurance broker.

Alums frequently post looking for a lawyer who can handle XYZ type of case, a good web designer, a company expert in importing fabric from Taiwan, a capable nanny - all things that are tough to research online.

There seems to be a business opportunity here - at least there is a felt need that is not being suitably satisfied.

I know there is Angie's List, which allows users to post reviews of doctors and contractors and so forth, but I want a review site where I can see reviews by people I trust. Either reviews by my friends or reviews by members of an affinity group - such as alums of my college or business school or McKinsey.

This seems like a feature that could be incorporated into LinkedIn or Facebook - perhaps sold to them once developed.

I know that LinkedIn has recommendations, but that is for folks that you are connected to, and it requires too much work having to do a write-up.

It would be good if I could put it my recommendations on, say, LinkedIn for all the professionals I recommend (doctors, accountants, web people, etc.), and then people in any of the groups that I belong to would be able to see those recommendations.

Maybe this website already exists somewhere. Often when I come up with an idea like this I'm pleased to find that someone has already created it. If you find it, please let me know in a comment.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Bad stovetop design

Yesterday I wrote about the front burners of the stove, so while we're on the topic, wanted to share this example of terrible design.

Here are the controls for the oven of my stove (which I didn't buy):

From Innovation Bootcamp

If you happen to be cooking anything on the back left burner, the steam off of your pot heats the surface of these controls to about 212F. So if you have the oven on and want to then turn it off, you burn your finger.

The controls are flush with the surface (which does allow you to wipe it off easily granted.) The downside of that is that they require you to actually touch them with your finger. If you try to wrap your finger with a towel to touch the button, nothing happens.

Did anyone try to cook with this stove before they started selling it?

Friday, February 11, 2011

New to the universe or just new to me

There are two types of new:
1) New to the universe - no one has ever figured this out before
2) New to me - I figured it out but plenty of other people know it already

#1 has the potential to be much more financially rewarding than #2.

But the both provide about the same level of thrill of discovery.


The two front burners on our gas stove mysteriously stopped working. The back two burners worked fine. On the front, you could turn on the gas, but the flame wouldn't start. So it could not have been a lack of gas.

Taking the top pieces off, I found a puddle of water in the ring where the gas comes through. A pot must have boiled over. Dried up the water and the front burner worked just fine.

Not too exciting for anyone else, perhaps, but it was satisfying to solve the puzzle.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Step 3.2.c Aplogize to customers using the following script

After my flight was delayed recently, Delta sent me a questionaire.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Question 4b ("Did the gate agent apologize for the inconvenience caused by the flight delay") is not encouraging. The question suggests that the gate agent apology is being managed as part of a standard checklist. In which case it is no longer an apology, conveying genuine human emotion, but a corporate announcement.

I expect an analyst by now has downloaded the results of the survey and incorporate the results into a chart. I expect it would be a column chart, month by month, showing the percent of respondents who agreed that there had been an apology. A breakdown by airport would also be available in the appendix.

The title of the cart might be "12-month trend in apology completion rates" if the chart-maker has not been taught to put a "so-what" in the title. If the chart-maker is more advanced, the title of the chart might read, "Apology Education Initiative in Sept 2010 Improved Completion Rates 25%"

A truly sophisticated analysis would then look for root causes and drivers of variation, and look at variation by airport, by shift supervisor, by gate agent, by time of day, and by cause of the delay.

Once the root cause has been identified, (let's say the shift supervisor is the determining factor), a good document would have an action plan to improve apology compliance.

Then, to measure impact, the apology completion rate would be correlated to the overall satisfaction score, and the overall satisfaction score would be tied to likelihood to fly again within the quarter.

Finally, the impact would be sized: Improving apology compliance rates could be worth up to $__MM in FY 2011 revenues at a cost of $__K

Note to Delta: Don't bother apologizing. Focus your efforts on getting the planes off on time. If it is snowing and not your fault, I'm not going to blame you.

Second note to Delta: By the way, my overall experience with Delta on that flight wasn't "Poor" like I put on your survey. It was actually fine - I got a fair bit of work done while we were sitting on the tarmac for 2 hours. I just put "Poor" to see if you would follow up to see what you could have done better.

Separately, it is perhaps worth noting that my original flight on this day, a 6 a.m. flight on a Tuesday, was cancelled on Monday morning. They did indeed email me and had the computer call my phone to alert me, which was certainly helpful. Delta tried to rebook me on a 12:30 p.m. flight on Monday, the day before I wanted to fly, instead of the 7 a.m. Tuesday flight, which seems like the more obvious default.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Give your computer a tune-up for $30

I make sure my Norton Anti-virus is up-to-date, and I install the new Windows updates as they arrive, but still, a few pieces of grit get in works and it is time to give it a cleanup. I'll notice the computer starting to act sluggish, or it will shut down for no reason. Back in a corporate environment, I had the professional IT guys to take care of this. But now running my own small business, I don't have that internal support.

Which is why I was so pleased to get referred to iMedia Solutions by another consultant who runs her own firm.

They work remotely, and can log in to my computer over the Internet and fix the random registry errors and remove the malware that slips by Norton Antivirus.

If there isn't major problems, they do this scan and fix everything for $30. If there is more of a major overhaul required, their rates are still quite reasonable.

Could I do this myself? Perhaps - but given the very reasonable rates that they offer, I'm happy to have them to the job.

Anyone who doesn't have the backing of a corporate IT department ought to find a computer guru like this. Ask around for recommendations: I certainly have had great experience with iMedia Solutions. Here is their contact info:

iMedia Solutions

(617) 299-9694

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Innovation Bootcamp tip featured on

The cookie cutter + pancake tip first published here on Innovation Bootcamp has been featured on

Trick to save money on flights

If you are going to be flying to the same city on a repeat basis for short business trips during the week, and you know your schedule in advance, here is a trick to save substantially on airfare.

Let's say you are going to travel from New York to Detroit for two weeks in a row. Both weeks you will fly out Monday and return on Thursday.

When I checked the prices on flights a couple months ago, the round trip Monday-Thursday flight cost about $500.

But if you flew out LGA-DTW on Monday week one and returned on Thursday of week two, the flight was $250. Similarly, if bought a round trip ticket from DTW-LGA on Thursday of week one and then LGA-DTW on Monday of week two, it was $250.

In both cases, you added a Saturday night stay, and so the airline assumes that you are a leisure traveler instead of a business traveler.

I've used this trick almost a dozen times and there doesn't seem to be any policy against it. I was a little worried that the airline would recognize I had an open ticket and invalidate the second one, but that hasn't happened - yet.

Monday, February 7, 2011

eBoarding passes will be great - but not there yet

eBoarding passes are a 2-D barcode that you download to your mobile device.

Instead of printing out a boarding pass at home or at a kiosk, you can then walk right up to security and show your mobile phone. You get access to your eBoarding pass either by downloading an app from your airline or by getting a text message or email with a link to the barcode online. They have a scanner that reads your barcode at security and at the gate.

Ad advantage of the eBoarding pass barcode from a security perspective is that the system can detect that you have a legitimate ticket - it reads your name and presumably also checks with the airline to see if you are booked on the flight. This is a big step up from boarding passes that you print out at home, which anyone with a modicum of Photoshop skills could fabricate.

I've tried the system out when departing from both La Guardia and Detroit airport. I expect the system will eventually become standard, but it still has some kinks.

First, the TSA hasn't standardized their procedures for the eBoarding pass. At La Guardia, they hand you a laminated card to show to the officer that checks your boarding pass after you walk through the scanner. At Detroit, they don't check your boarding pass twice, so there is no laminated card needed. This is a minor point.

A bigger problem is that at least with Delta iPhone app, you need a live connection to the Internet to display the eBoarding pass. The Delta app doesn't download the 2-D barcode and then store it. So once I went through security with my eBoarding pass, but at the gate I had no data connection so couldn't call up the barcode. This was a hassle since I didn't have a paper ticket. (The gate agent was able to look me up by my driver's license and print out a boarding pass.)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Daniel Goleman talk at Google on Social Intelligence

Leading authors, politicians, and musicians get invited to speak at Google, and Google makes these talks available on Youtube on the Talks@Google channel. It is pretty fantastic to be able to watch at my leisure a talk that I'd be willing to pay $25 for and spend an hour traveling back and forth to.

Just listened to this talk by Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, speaking about his new book, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships.

Notes on the talk:

At Google, and other organizations that screen for high cognitive intelligence (traditional IQ), everyone is above a certain bar. But that means that there isn't that much variation between the smartest and the least smart person in the organization. So just being smart won't help you get ahead, since it isn't a distinguishing factor.

But cognitive intelligence and emotional intelligence have a very low correlation, so that means that within Google, or other tech firms, or similar places, you have a lot of very smart people who don't differ much in cognitive intelligence but who have a wide range of emotional intelligence. So emotional intelligence becomes the distinguishing competence that determines who will be successful.

Studies have looked at what the distinguishing competencies are most important in helping a person be successful, particularly in the tech world:

1. Most important: The drive to achieve. The desire to improve one's one performance. People who hold themselves to very high internal standards of success. These people like metrics, like to keep score, and set challenging goals.

2. The ability to influence, to make arguments, to hold one's own in a debate, to tailor one's argument to the audience.

3. Pattern recognition - the ability to see what matters, to make connections. (Goleman admits this is really a cognitive ability, not so much an emotional one. But is was third on his list.)

4. Analytical ability - the ability to anticipate obstacles, to draw logical conclusions. (Again, more of a cognitive ability)

5. Self confidence. The habit of taking on challenges without being told what to do. The desire to operate independently, with autonomy.

Goleman gives a brief digression on the pre-frontal cortex (the "executive center of the brain") and the amygdala - the quick-response lizard brain. Then Goleman talks about various domains of emotional intelligence:

1. Self-awareness. The ability to tune in to subtle feelings. Very important for decision making. Cognitive intelligence allows you to identify all the pros and cons of a decision, but it is the emotional intelligence that allows you to weight them. Self-awareness is important for ethics and integrity.
It is our basal ganglia where our life's wisdom accumulates. This is a very ancient part of the brain that can not communicate verbally. But it is what watches our actions and then looks at what happens and takes the lesson - that worked, or that didn't - and stores it. The basal ganglia sends non-verbal signals when we are going to take an action - and we need to be sensitive enough to pay attention to them.

2. Managing negative emotions. The ability to hold in mind how good it will feel when we finish, during the difficult middle when we feel like quitting. The ability to quiet negative emotions so they don't interfere with our thinking.

3. Ability to self-inhibit. Goleman mentions the famous study of 4-year olds who were offered a cookie by the researcher, who then left the room. The 4-year old is told that he or she can eat the cookie, but if they wait until the researcher returns, they can have two cookies. About one-third of the 4-year olds had the self-discipline to wait it out. Interesting.
But what really put this study on the map was when they followed up 14 years later. The one third who waited had average SAT scores 200 points higher than the ones who gobbled up the first cookie. That ability to delay gratification served the kids pretty well during their education.
Goleman mentions what has been learned about working memory: that we can hold about 7 bits of information in our heads, plus or minus two. So if 6 of those bits are consumed with a negative emotion that is bugging us, it doesn't leave much RAM to focus on the problem.

Goleman skips the fourth point and moves on to a discussion of mirror neurons, recently discovered. These are neurons in our head that fire sympathetically when another person takes an action. They were discovered when researchers were studying a monkey that was wired up so they could see a neuron fire whenever the monkey raised its arm. Then they saw the neuron firing with the monkey not raising its arm. Turned out one of the lab workers was raising his arms to drink.

The most effective leaders found to laugh three times more than average leaders. Turns out we have mirror neurons that respond just to another person smiling or laughing and make us want to smile or laugh.

You can tell when two people have established good rapport:
a) they are paying full attention to each other
b) the non-verbal choreography dance is in sync
c) it feels good

When you observe this rapport, it turns out the mirror neurons are firing in sync.

We are biological allies. A study took women and told them they were about to get an electric shock. Their stress level went up, measured by the HPA levels. When someone held their hand, the stress level went down a little. When their husband held their hand, their stress level went down back to the original level.

The good news is that are circuitry is malleable. Goleman mentions the work being done by Davidson at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at Wisconsin. You don't need to be a Tibetan monk meditating your life to see the benefits. They have observed measurable changes in the human brain after subjects meditated for just 8 weeks.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Why don't advertisements for books and movies have any content?

I've been wondering for years why print advertisements for movies usually have no content. You get a still image from the movie, the list of the stars, and a few quotes from reviews.

I always discount the quotes from reviews by exactly 100%. The quotes are taken out of context and always positive and thus just noise: "Thrilling!", "An exceptional performance!"

Why not instead use that space (sometimes a whole page of The New York Times) to convey some information about the movie - enough so I can judge if the movie might be interesting?

Give a plot synopsis. Give the first few pages of the press pack that describe the making of the movie.

Even better, include a mobile phone bar code that will take me to a trailer of the movie or the full text of the movie review.

Same thing for books. Take out the blurbs, and put in the text from the jacket cover - or even better, a copy of the first few pages of chapter one.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Is there an art supply store nearby?

How should you respond if someone asks, "Is there an art supply store nearby?"

A couple options are:

1. Sure - there is a Pearl Arts on 57th St.

2. What are you looking for?

Option 2 recognizes that there are a lot of potential reasons one might want to go to an art store, and so the answer depends.

Does the person just want some paper or a simple ballpoint pen? Then the CVS on the corner will serve.

Does the person need office supplies? Then the Staples two blocks away will do the trick.

Maybe they want craft supplies. There's a Michael's on Northern Blvd.

If only a true art supplies store will do, then you can give recommendations - what part of the city do they want to go to?

Option 2 isn't necessarily better than Option 1. Sometimes it is worse - asking to many questions in the attempt to be helpful can be annoying.

When you are asked the "art supply store" question, the trick is knowing if the person wants an Option 1 or an Option 2 answer.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The missing names of rivers and mountains on Google Maps

Google Maps has the names of the most obscure lanes and alleys, but the names are missing once you leave land and try to get wet.

They do seem to have the names of the biggest lakes and man-made reservoirs, but the names of most rivers and other natural features are simply missing.

Even New York City: try to find the names of the Hudson, the Harlem River, or the East River - hard to find.

Perhaps this is a temporary blip, and that Google is working on creating an overlay of nomenclature from topographic maps. I hope so.

Or else, as Google Maps becomes the most common map reference, we'll be losing important knowledge about the land.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Taxi tip: always get a receipt (even if you don't need one for expenses)

Taxi tip: get in the habit of always asking the taxi driver for the receipt, even if you don't need one for expenses.


If you leave something in the taxi, then the receipt will tell you the taxi number and you'll have at least a chance of getting in touch with the driver to get your stuff back.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Register your own domain on the Internet - it costs less than $12

Whether you have a blog, or a product, or an idea for a company, or a small business, or would like to have your own website at some point, it makes sense to register your own domain name.

It is surprisingly simple.

There are plenty of domain registrars out there. I've only used GoDaddy and one other, so I can't speak to the whole crowd. But I can say that GoDaddy has the best customer service of any Internet company I've ever interacted with.

To register a domain, just go to GoDaddy and set up an account, same as with any other site. Then you enter the domain that you have in mind on their search bar, and it tells you if the domain is available or not. If the exact domain you want isn't available, it tells you if the .org or .info or .us or some other combination is available. Find what you want, add to your cart, and pay. Voila - you own a domain.

You can create your actual website with GoDaddy, but I haven't tried that. Once you create your website or blog with whatever service, you follow some technical instructions to point that domain to your website.

Another option is to purchase your domain through the blogging site or website service that you use, but I've had a bad experience with that. I once registered a domain through Microsoft Live for Small Business, and it was incredibly cumbersome to interact with and there was no way to point the domain somewhere else other than Microsoft. For that reason, I suggest using a dedicated registrar and manage all your domains from the same place.

As I mentioned, GoDaddy customer reps are always easy to get on the phone, and they have the knowledge to help you solve your problems. They are unfailingly friendly and once spent an hour on the phone with me helping me transfer a domain from another registrar.

They provide helpful reminders when one of my domains is about to expire, but don't spam me.

Here is an example of their smart customer service. They provide their phone number, and tell you on the web page what the wait time will be. I've interacted with other companies that tell you the wait time on the automated phone tree once you call in, but this is the first time I've seen this information presented live on the web.

From Career Bootcamp

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