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Feeding The Masses On Unicorn Ribs

Posted by John on August 22, 2011

I’d like to nominate Walter Russell Mead for headline of the century.




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Peak Potash

Posted by John on July 27, 2011

“Peak Oil” doesn’t seem like a fashionable concern anymore for resource doom-mongers.  Even though I’m a “cornucopian,” I’m persuaded by Jeremy Grantham’s letter that potassium and phosphorous could be the new resource limitations that should cause angst and existential dread in our panicked society.

Jeremy Grantham’s letter here


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4422 Warwick Dr

Posted by John on July 18, 2011




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The Darden GreenPod

Posted by John on January 19, 2009

 Photo by Flickr user phault used under a Creative Commons license

Some of my Facebook friends stumbled upon on a Podcast interview that I gave in October, thus giving me a flimsy pretext to promote myself and post a link to it.

The Darden Greenpod was my first very foray into the business of spouting off as a “subject matter expert.”  During the interview I demonstrate that my favorite words are “scope“, “umm“, and “ahhhh.

Follow this link to find other Podcasts produced by my favorite Graduate School of Business Administration.  Those Podcasts will be the only venue that I’ll share with Xerox CEO, Anne Mulcahy, for the forseeable future.

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Robert Noyce and His Congregation

Posted by John on May 15, 2008


I stumbled upon an archived version of this fantastic Tom Wolfe essay published in Forbes back in 1997.  (The internetz never forget)  In the essay Wolfe traces a continuous line connecting the old dissenting protestant tradition to the corporate culture of Silicon Valley today.  I distinctly remember reading a expanded version of this essay circa 2000 when it ran in the old Forbes ASAP magazine.  The article completely engrossed me at the time because Wolfe is a supremely talented writer, but also because at that point I had never considered the origins of all the social norms that governed my professional life.  (e.g.   loose dress codes, contempt for hierarchy, long hours, etc.)

ROBERT NOYCE, INVENTOR OF THE silicon microchip and co-founder of Intel, grew up in Grinnell, Iowa, one of countless small towns in the Midwest that had been founded in the 19th century as religious communities by so-called Dissenting Protestants: Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and many others. What Dissenting Protestants dissented from was the Church of England and its elaborate ties to British upper-class life. The founder of the town of Grinnell (1854) was a young New England Congregational minister, Josiah Grinnell, who was weary of the decadence of the East Coast and wanted to establish a City of Light out on the virgin plains.[…]

[…]But when it came time to set up the two famous Silicon Valley corporations he headed, Fairchild Semiconductor and, subsequently, Intel, he discovered that Grinnell had come west with him, as if sewn into the very linings of his clothes. Without even knowing it was happening, he had become the Josiah Grinnell of the Silicon Valley’s corporate culture.

Having never worked in Silicon Valley, I can’t say whether Noyce’s ethos still pervades the Valley or not.  I choose to believe that it does though because I’m enamored with the idea of wide-eyed Web 2.0 programmers build new social networking platforms while they “repeat Noycisms with conviction and with relish […] without a clue as to where they came from.”

Go out and get it, because A.) It’s a rollickin’ good read and B.) you should read everything that Tom Wolfe writes.

The extended version included in Wolfe’s collection “Hooking Up” is certainly worth checking out as well.  It adds a quick historical sketch of the integrated circuit and great background on tiny Grinnell College, the Iowa school that was once at the world’s forefront of solid state electronics and is now famous chiefly for its enormous financial endowment that it amassed thanks to getting in early on the companies started by Noyce and another Midwestern boy named Warren Buffett.  I should note that the Grinnell basketball squad aslo gets a fair bit of pub for its ludicrously up-tempo offense and unorthodox substitutions policy.

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They Endeavor to Amuse Me with Robot Dinosaurs

Posted by John on April 5, 2008

Although circumstances prevented us from going, I had planned to take my oldest son to see Walking with Dinosaurs: the Live Experience, the arena show where giant, animatronic reptiles march about. It’s all very high concept, with high-falutin’ BBC credentials.

As I went through the promotional materials on their website and Youtube clips, it became clear to me that the producers had sunk eleventy zillion dollars into this thing. I shouldn’t have been surprised. It often seems to me that the cornucopia of riches in our society is so lavish that it can trickle all the way down to reach our middlebrow entertainment. As a result, I can take in a show at my local stadium that exhibits the kind of coordination and care that in generations past would have been reserved for royal command performances. But I can buy a ticket for less than the cost of a steak dinner.

James Lileks had a similar reaction a few years back after catching the Cirque du Soleil show at the Bellagio:

A stunning achievement. I sat there thinking of the weekend’s diversions, the dinners, the spectacles, the fountain display, and I thought: these things were available once only to kings and princes and consorts and queens. This must have been what it was like to be a member of the royals in the days before the French Revolution – except that I would have known everyone in this theater, and would have suspected a third of them of plotting against me.


Lileks was right. Robot dinosaurs and pretentious Canadian acrobats are both examples of now routine diversion on a scale and scope that heretofore was only available to Bourbon aristocrats. But we’re both ultimately echoing Tom Wolfe, the master social observer, who provided the definitive words on the subject in the first paragraph of his collection of essays, “Hooking Up”:

By the year 2000, the term “working class” had fallen into disuse in the United States, and “proletariat” was so obsolete it was known only to a few bitter old Marxist academics with wire hair sprouting out of their ears. The average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink.

And indeed, I imagine that every courtier at Versailles would have been reduced to blinking and stammering at the sight of robot dinosaurs paraded about for their amusement. But your humble correspondent can treat his family to the same spectacle five days a week and twice on Sundays.

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I Want a Treat Because I Want a Treat

Posted by John on April 2, 2008

My two-year-old son has intuitively mastered an important element of rhetoric: the structure of an argument can sometimes be as important as its content.   Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed that when he asks his mother or me for something he forms his request as, “I want X, because I want X.”  This could be an example of a child mimicking his parents, but I prefer to believe that he’s figured out that asking for things in this way actually works pretty well.

My main evidence on this subject is a few long dormant memories from grad school, where I read Robert Cialdini’s book Influence

Eric Vieth,at the blog Dangerous Intersection, provides a great summary of the relevant passages where Cialdini discusses the “magic” power of the word because: 

In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini describes an experiment that illustrated the power of the word “because.”  

The experiment was conducted by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer, who found that people are highly motivated by the form of others’ reasons, even reasons lack persuasive content.  In her experiment, confederates approached people waiting in line to use a copy machine in a busy library. The confederates asked the people waiting in line to jump ahead in line.  They used several types of excuses.  Here are the results:

Some of the confederates asked this:

“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I am in a rush?” 

They were allowed to jump ahead in line 94% of the time. Alternatively, other confederates asked this:

“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” 

Only 60% of these confederates were allowed to jump ahead in line. Based on these first two versions, you might presume that the confederates weren’t allowed to jump ahead because they didn’t have an excuse for doing so.  That proved incorrect, based upon a third group of confederates, who asked this:

“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” 

As you can see, this “excuse” was not really an excuse at all.  Incredibly, though, 93% of these confederates were allowed to jump ahead in line.  In this third condition, no excuse was actually given, although the form of an excuse was used.  Langer focused on the power of the word “because,” which triggered the same content as would a real excuse.  The form of an argument or excuse was itself persuasive in the absence of any persuasive content.  This experiement puts the spotlight on the human vulnerability to be persuaded by things that only look like arguments.

“Because” is thus a magic word that can trigger the presumption of causation and legitimacy in many people.  This experiment is an illustration that humans are vulnerable to argument forms, even where the arguments lack validity.

Check out the original post here:  http://dangerousintersection.org/2006/07/09/just-because/ 

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Not By Energy Efficiency Alone

Posted by John on March 19, 2008

I found this story from the Energy Tribune by author Robert Bryce via the Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital blog.  Bryce uses a book review as a platform to expound upon Jevon’s Paradox, or the observation made by William Stanley Jevons, that as technological improvements increase the efficiency with which a resource is used, total consumption of that resource may increase, rather than decrease.  Bryce illustrates the concept thusly:

For years, promoters like Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute have been claiming that efficiency will lower carbon dioxide emissions, save money, save energy, and provide all comers, according to Lovins, with a “lunch you get paid to eat.” But few of the faithful have acquainted themselves with William Stanley Jevons. In 1865, the British economist published a book called The Coal Question, which contains what is now known as the Jevons Paradox: “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuels is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”

Those two sentences contain what may be the most important yet least understood concept in the energy business: energy efficiency increases energy consumption. It’s counterintuitive, and precious few energy analysts have bothered to investigate it. That’s why a new book, The Jevons Paradox and the Myth of Resource Efficiency Improvements, by John M. Polimeni, Kozo Mayumi, Mario Giampetro, and Blake Alcott, deserves wide attention. The authors waste little time in explaining their goal. On page 3 they state, “We aim to show that increased energy efficiency leads to increased demand and consumption of energy.”

I hope to post more in this space regarding Jevon’s Paradox and I’m also eager to check out Bryce’s book, “Gusher of Lies” as well as Polimeni, et al’s book “Jevons Paradox and the Myth of Resource Efficiency Improvements.”

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Dan Yergin has the chance to go all Julian Simon

Posted by John on March 19, 2008

I was excited to see this story in the WSJ’s “Environmental Capital” blog.  It’s a great mechanism for both the bullish oil supply types at CERA as well as the peak oilers at ASPO to register the intensity of their convictions in the form of a wager.  From the WSJ report:

If CERA proves correct in its prediction that global oil production will rise by 20 million barrels per day by 2017, then the challengers, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas, will hand CERA a check for $100,000 nine years hence. If oil production falls short of CERA’s projection, as the group known as ASPO projects, ASPO will get the bragging rights and the check – and donate the money to charity.

My biased expectations is that the results of this bet will ultimately resemble what you can find in Julian Simon’s wikipedia entry under the heading “Paul R. Ehrlich – 1st wager.”

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A mash note to Houston

Posted by John on March 18, 2008

Via Tory Gattis’s Houston Strategies blog, I found this article by Joel Kotkin making the case that Houston might be the best placed municipality to “emerge on the world stage” as the next great global city.  As a resident of the Greater Houston MSA, your correspondent is always interested to see some national-type, intranetz hype on H-town, particularly the kind of hype that reinforces my own opinions and biases.  Here’s one of the stronger excerpts:

The Next Great World City?

Given these trends, it seems likely that the next great American city will emerge from the ranks of the opportunity cities. The ultimate winner will come from those that keep up with the infrastructure needed to accommodate their growth. They also will have to deal with issues of education, crime, and creating a skilled workforce— issues that are important anywhere, of course, but can be particularly challenging in a rapidly growing metropolis. 

Perhaps the key factor that will influence the rise of the next great American city is the ability to fit into the global economy. An opportunity city with only modest links overseas can certainly grow rapidly, but only an urban center with powerful ties to global commerce is likely to achieve greatness. 

This may be where the case for Houston’s emergence is strongest. From its inception, Houston has been oriented to markets outside the country, first through its exports of timber and cotton and later as a major oil port. Trade and the global connections of the energy industry have also paced the development of internationally minded banks, business-service firms, hotels, and specialized shopping areas. An indicator of Houston’s international reach: it now ranks third among U.S. cities, behind Los Angeles and New York, in the number of consulates located there. 

I also enjoyed this quote about H-Town weather:

And in those days, long before air conditioning, there was the Houston weather, which often combined scalding temperatures with soupy humidity. “Heat is so severe during the middle of the day that most of us lie in the shade and pant,” wrote a doctor, Ashbel Smith, in 1838. Yet the Allen brothers had not really chosen so badly.

Kotkin also included a nifty graphic showing net domestic migration and job growth for various metro areas.  The huge job growth numbers in Houston and DC weren’t surprising, but I didn’t expect to see that much growth in Miami.  I’m curious what the Miami population growth would look like if they included domestic migration plus immigration.

Opportunity Cities

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