Getting Lucky

Weaving down from New York to Austin, Tex., in a minivan will cost the Prettiots about $1,000 in gas, plus $3,000 to rent the van with insurance. Hiring someone to manage the tour will be $1,500. Cheap hotels along the way: $500. And once the band members arrive at the music marathon on Tuesday, they will stay at an Airbnb accommodation, which will run them another $2,500 for four nights — the going rate, as the city is overrun by thousands of visitors. – Joe Coscarelli

Paying a Price to Play at South by Southwest is the account of a pair of bands enduring the gauntlet that is the yearly music/tech/film festival. With the ultimate goal of being embraced and discovered by festivalgoers, tastemakers and label heads, it’s unsurprising that thousands of bands line up in Austin to sacrifice to the festival gods an extortionary amount of money for the opportunity. But what choice do they have?

To rebut the idea of inevitable band abuse by corporate overlords, Ed Rodriguez of DeerhoofTalks Teaching the NYT how bands do SXSW, DIY style. He counters by providing the example of his own experience: each band member takes on additional administrative roles (booking flights, scheduling gigs, mastering their own music) so they don’t have to split the small paychecks more than necessary. The result is their own SXSW story: 21 shows over 20 days in an extended tour throughout Texas. By comparison, the Prettiots had four shows in three days in an Austin-only effort to take part in what Rodriguez calls the ‘lottery of success.’ In some senses, we are all Prettiots, looking for ways to increase the number of ping pong balls in our own lotteries.

For a band, it stands to reason that the more shows you play, the more likely you are to spread your music. But what about for those of us who have to spread a more ephemeral thing, like our “brand” or a “company”? Marc Andreesen, famed entrepreneur and co-founder of Netscape, writes in Age and the Entrepreneur about “taking more swings at the bat” because “maximizing quantity… [has a] much higher payoff than trying to improve one’s batting average.” For a musician, that means getting out there and playing. For a baker, that means baking more pies. Doing more is more important than perfecting less.

At a certain point, though, we must push ourselves beyond pure motion. Andreesen’s Luck and the Entrepreneur (which is essentially a SparkNotes version of James Austin’s more worthwhile book Chase, Chance, Creativity) implores us forward with Austin’s anecdote:

“Years ago, when I was rushing around in the laboratory [conducting medical research], someone admonished me by asking, “Why all the busyness? One must distinguish between motion and progress”. Yes, at some point this distinction must be made. But it cannot always be made first. And it is not always made consciously. True, waste motion should be avoided. But, if the researcher did not move until he was certain of progress he would accomplish very little…”

So motion is necessary, and motion can lead us to good things. That motion is what Austin calls Chance II, which “[favors] those with a persistent curiosity.” We can push our luck even further by fostering “sound knowledge and special abilities in observing, remembering, recalling, and quickly forming significant new associations” – call it Chance III – and, finally, by being those “with distinctive, if not eccentric hobbies, personal lifestyles, and motor behaviors”, we can expose ourselves to Chance IV, which results in the (some would say) luckiest returns.

This type of thinking about the various kinds of Chance is lofty, so it’s helpful to have actionable steps to take. Stef Lewandowski puts forward the following methods in Accelerating Serendipity: “Just turn up. Put yourself in the right place. Avoid zemblanity (translation: “try not to lock yourself away for periods that are too long”). Keep your eyes open for opportunity. Don’t be too precious about your ideas. Get good at introductions.”

The last one is difficult if you are quiet, shy, or prone to locking yourself in your room for long periods of time. Keith Ferrazzi’s book Never Eat Alone prescribes ways to break free of this way of thinking to become a super connector, and the powerful results that happen from generous networking. By thinking of ways to help other people, you invite help from others. By staying in contact, you strengthen relationships, allowing yourself to leverage them at times when it’s important. For me, though, staying in contact should not just be pinging someone on a semi-regular basis to find out what costumes their kids wore to the most recent Holiday Party. It should be providing something of value, from relevant articles to innovative ideas.

To come up with ideas, we must, as James Altucher repeats in Choose Yourself, become idea machines. His own prescription: ten ideas a day. On anything. Repeat for six months. Don’t worry about bad ideas, because most of them will be, and for a long time, too. But once you get to the point that you are coming up with strong, thoughtful ideas, then share them with other people. Build connections. Add value to your relationships. Be generous to others. What you know determines who you know.

By having access to these ideas, you allow yourself to escape the inevitable, the dull, the routine. Skirt the well-worn, expensive path by forging ahead on your own. Don’t lock yourself away. Remember, observe, recall (and connect thoughts). Embrace persistent curiosity, eccentric hobbies, and get good at introductions. Take a great deal more at-bats, and open yourself to opportunity.


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Goals, Huh? What Are They Good For?

“Moses brought ten commandments down from Mount Sinai. If only the UN’s proposed list of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were as concise.” – The Economist

At this point, the proposed list of Sustainable Development Goals – a set of targets relating to future international development – spans 17 top-level goals and 169 total targets. That is a massive leap from the comparatively sparse Millennium Development Goals (eight goals and 21 targets), which will expire this year. While each goal does come with a series of measurable health and economic indicators to make sure their ambitions are indeed actionable, the cost of all that action could total somewhere between $2 trillion and $3 trillion a year. Or, in other words, more than six times the amount that governments around the world actually promise to aid currently. In ways that struggling writers the world over have come to understand as their hopes for daily page counts go unmet, just setting goals is no way to actually achieve them.

The UN could take a page from Warren Buffett’s two-list system to cut out the non-essentials in their list (though when your list includes hunger and sustainable energy and poverty, it’s an admittedly harder list to cut the fat from). First, you list your top 25 ideas (or top 169 ideas, as the case may be), then pick your top 5, and then abandon all the rest. The rest, as compelling as they are, as worthy as they may one day be, distract you from what you need to accomplish. For the UN, their number one goal is eradicating poverty in every form. Perhaps goal 17 and its “[revitalization of] the global partnership for sustainable development” interferes. By refusing to flesh out every potential outcome of every idea, you begin to create a clear system of action. That is much easier said than done, and I know I’m guilty of considering a thousand ideas at a a time (Guitar? I could pick that up again! Drawing? It’s creative! Investing? Double-down! Reading? Who needs sleep! Sleep? Who needs running!).

So how many goals, then, are the right number of goals? If not 17, then how many? Eight? Five? One? Is it even important to set them at all? Everyone on Medium agrees that goals are good and not good, and will tell you about the ‘importance of setting goals’, ‘why you should stop setting goals’, or (curve ball here!) how to go about ‘setting habits, not goals.’ Clearly we are a culture that wants to Get Something Done, but we’re not sure how to go about getting anything done.

Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is an antidote for those feeling “stretched too thin”, “busy but not productive” and “overworked and underutilized.” While the key word in the book is the title, and how we define what is essential to us, the most significant idea in the book is the discipline it takes to pursue less. You must make active choices, and commit to them, in order to change your life. In McKeown’s words, ““Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done… It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.” Acknowledge that you do a disservice to yourself by entertaining too many options, and that by entertaining those options, your ability to make quality decisions suffers.

How we make these types of decisions in our personal lives can take us from leading a relatively shallow life, says David Brooks, to leading a life with a “generosity of spirit” and “depth of character.” In his essay The Moral Bucket List, he describes what sort of “experiences one should have on the way toward the richest possible inner life.” Can we truly get the most of these experiences if they are mere goals on a list, or does it become more of a guiding set of principles? The principles, as Brooks lays them out, include humility, self-defeat, and energizing love, and are such big ideas (and humbling ones to embrace) that they lead us to actions that define our lives, and potentially stretch out after. “People on this road see life as a process of commitment making. Character is defined by how deeply rooted you are,” Brooks says. “In the realm of action, she is committed to tasks that can’t be completed in a single lifetime.”

While the tasks and process he describes are more intimate, there is a group working on a physical task that is intended to last more than a lifetime, in order to reframe our understanding of our place in time. The project, The 10,000 Year Clock, by the Long Now Foundation (of which I am a card-carrying member), aims to “creatively foster long-term thinking in the context of the next 10,000 years.” The accompanying book Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility: The Ideas Behind the World’s Slowest Computer is about how we can make this type of thinking as commonplace as short-term thinking (even when short-term is defined as our lifespan). Stewart Brand, the book’s author, talks about “the realm of immediate responsibility, one in which we feel we have volition” and why the construction of future-oriented mechanisms like the 10,000 year clock help break us of that view. While there are surely practical advantages of thinking beyond election cycles, there are also some very moving purposes. “The ultimate reason for initiating something ambitious is not to fulfill certain notions but to find out what surprises might emerge. The most remarkable results certainly cannot be anticipated.”

Before we can project ourselves so far into the future, let’s consider first the recent past, as presented in long zoom form by Steven Johnson’s How We Got To Now, a must read about six innovations that shaped the course of humanity, with connections between clocks (the Clock of the Long Now is referenced), refrigerators, cleanliness, and others. More impactful than the evolution of any of these physical concepts is the idea of the “adjacent possible”, a concept Steven Johnson explains in a WSJ article about the Origins of Good Ideas as a “kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.” That can be as small as our own morning experience of how making a new recipe for breakfast allows us to flirt with the shadow future of a slightly different breakfast, and it can be as huge as making eight massive goals to improve the world, and noticing the adjacent future there, which begets even more goals and targets and possibilities 15 years later. As Brand said, you can’t anticipate the remarkable results, but you can put yourself in a place to appreciate them.

By embracing discipline, we can take our understanding of how we collectively got to this point, and make decisions on how to push ourselves forward. Whether those decisions are sets of goals or whether they are guiding principles for how to live a life, they help us to navigate a world rich with possibilities and opportunities of our own making.

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Artificial Intelligence vs. American Ingenuity

“’Made in America’ will never work as a slogan if you’re asking the consumer to pay more for a product made just as well, but more cheaply elsewhere. If you can’t make the product cheaper, you just have to make it better.” – Jake Bronstein

This bold pronouncement about one of the defining statements of American Industry is from the founder of Flint & Tinder, the makers of “luxuriously rugged yet refined premium men’s underwear.” Jake Bronstein is one of the more vocal advocates for American manufacturing, and his company is charting a different course forward. In an interview with FastCo, he argues that “you can’t make products in America that rely on pure labor. It has to be labor mixed with great design or excellent craftsmanship—labor mixed with something.” By starting with the advantages of cornering a quality niche, then expanding (the company now makes hoodies, jeans and other items), the company has built a following (thanks to a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign) and found a way to compete in the massive textile industry.

Another American company fighting for a slice of a massive pie is Warby Parker. Their pie? The $65 billion eyewear industry. Their edge in the fight? Shipping pairs of glasses to consumer at home, Zappos-level customer service (kudos for transparency), and affordable prices. Max Chafkin talks about how Warby Parker Sees the Future of Retail, and why a company that built its brand on being invited into customers’ homes is now venturing into retail. Their newest innovation is as old as retail itself, but it’s the path they started on that is having far-reaching consequences on our lives.

Warby Parker is one of a fleet of companies dominating our lives with same-day deliveries, shipments of snacks and monthly subscription services. The sum effect of all this convenience? What Lauren Smiley calls The Shut-in Economy, where convenience becomes synonymous with something more sinister. By having our every need dropped off at our doorstep, and not being bothered with such old-fashioned ideas as “cooking food” or “washing clothes” or doing things “ourselves”, those of us who are professionals are freed up to do more work, and those of us looking for work are put into jobs serving others. Smiley’s realization: “Huge income disparities allow upper-middle-class citizens to turn the rest of the workforce into their personal delivery network.” While these companies can create more jobs, they are employing people as grunts (orrabbits, if you prefer). In some instances, like deliveries, those jobs could soon be automated, and then a portion of the population is pushed out of even menial labor.

The coming wave of automation is already beginning to transform the way products are transported and delivered. Rather than viewing a trend toward automation as a benign threat, or one that we could coexist with, Scott Santens believes that Self-Driving Trucks Are Going to Hit Us like a Human Driven Truck. Why such a big impact? It gets complicated when we consider the effect of the lives of 3.5 million professional truckers alongside the small town economies that those truckers nourish. Then factor in self-driving cars (companies currently developing models: Apple, Uber, Google and Tesla), and how they might affect every business related to car ownership, and you get a sense of the potential shift’s magnitude. Santens argues that we need to implement a guaranteed minimum income now to offset the rampant job loss that could happen as we move toward automation.

Another writer tooting the basic income horn is Ben Schiller, who says Yes, Robots Really Are Going to Take Your Job and End the American Dream. That American Dream that Flint & Tinder are trying to keep alive with premium underwear?! Yes, the very same. Not only can machines already diagnose cancer, trade stocks on the market, flip burgers and write sports articles, they can create music. The issue is that with all of the tasks we’re asking machines to do, they don’t have to be perfect. They just need to be slightly better than us deeply flawed beings. In the case of truckers, their very human flaw is needing to sleep.

It’s no wonder Stephen Hawking (“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”) and Elon Musk (“With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon”) have tried to get us to pump our brakes on this acceleration towards AI and automation. The Economist looks at the capabilities of AI and machine’s ability to learn in Clever Computers: The Dawn of Artificial Intelligence, with a measured stance toward optimism, saying that as long as engineers include an off-switch, it’ll be all good. Their argument for said optimism is that AI “can already enhance human endeavour by complementing what people can do” and by continuing down that route, we stand to benefit.

So, naturally, the writers at How We Get to Next Let IBMs Robot Chef Tell Us What to Cook for a Week. You may remember IBM’s Watson from his starring roles on Jeopardy or you may have heard about his recent jaunt through healthcare, where he uses “his natural language, hypothesis generation, and evidence-based learning capabilities allow it to function as a clinical decision support system for use by medical professionals.” So it makes perfect sense that he would turn next to perfecting casseroles. It took Julia Child a few career moves before she found her calling, too.

Spend time with IBM Chef Watson, and you’ll find an inspired use for any ingredient that’s lingering around your house. “As part of its quest to develop cognitive systems, IBM explored whether a computer could enhance human creativity by designing a system that can create surprising yet flavorful recipe ideas no cookbook has ever seen. The project, known as cognitive cooking, demonstrated Watson’s ability to amplify human intelligence, generating ideas the world has never been imagined before.” Granted, there’s been some joy engineered into that description, and to Watson’s function as a whole, but you see how the skills and know-how you have in the culinary world, no matter how basic or advanced, could benefit from this perspective.

Embracing something more sizeable with the same endearing attitude, like, say, the potential loss of  millions of jobs, is more difficult than looking up Russian Celery Sandwich recipes. It becomes our challenge to stay alert as the world changes. To embrace the technologies available and take advantage of the systems those technologies enable. Make premium underwear. Become a superhuman computer-aide chef. It is up to our ingenuity to determine just how we can exist with artificial intelligence into the future.

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The 10-Week Mark

10 weeks ago, I started a newsletter called Connect The Thoughts. It was to be a digest of interconnected reading, drawing lines of discovery between books, magazine articles and the news, and it was to be weekly. Because I didn’t know exactly the commitment it would take to do the ongoing research for a project like this, and to whittle down the mass of materials into a coherent work, I set a goal of doing 10 newsletters.

Now, here we are, 10 weeks later. 11,000 words later. Given that a newsletter references 2-3 books on average, and 5 articles, that’s about 20 hours of research per piece, and then a few more writing it. So it’s not just culling through the day’s news, parsing out headlines, and sending them along.

Fitting that into a new full-time work schedule hasn’t always been easy. It meant waking up at 4:30am on the morning of a 12-hour day to get a concentrated block of writing time. It’s meant staying up till 2am in the middle of the week to get it finished. But just as as runners never regret a run, I never regret having written. Connecting ideas about coffee and writing and North Korea and Mars and earthquakes and food makes me aware of how unfathomably big our world is, but also how fucking interesting it is. It’s been a blast.

I want Connect The Thoughts to be an “[engine] of serendipity that generate a background hum of opportunity” for myself, and for others. It will continue to be released Fridays by e-mail, and now it’ll come out Mondays on Medium, too. Coming up are letters on Beanie Babies, morality, the future of American retail, artificial intelligence, and, of course, mermaids.

So, as Howard Schulz would say in signing off…


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From Tiny Houses to Tech Giants

“Most important, I stumbled into a new sort of “happiness,” one that didn’t hinge on always getting what I want, but rather, on wanting what I have. It’s the kind of happiness that isn’t tied so tightly to being comfortable (or having money and property), but instead is linked to a deeper sense of satisfaction—to a sense of humility and gratitude, and a better understanding of who I am in my heart.” – Dee Williams, The Big Tiny: A Built It Myself Memoir

The Big Tiny is as much a tale about the struggle and reward of building a house as it is finding oneself and living in an intentional and purposeful way. In that, it epitomizes the Tiny House movement and the people, that remarkable tribe, who downsize their lives and whittling down their Stuff, giving themselves greater freedom to live a life of their choosing. The path to that leaner life is in the construction of a home, the space in which we live.

Tracy Kidder’s House is the opposite, an account of building a grand house from the perspective of every participant: the contractor and the workers, some more handy man than craftsman; the husband and wife, concerned as much about money as final product; and the architect, advocating always for his vision. There are concerns that the house is not big enough, and then that it’s too big, and as it ended up with 5 bedrooms and is on AirBnB, you can be the judge. There are heated emotions, money squabbles, and disagreements. But above all else, there is teamwork. The team building the house. The team of the married couple, envisioning their new life. The one-man architect mercenary, learning to navigate within the larger team of the house.

Teamwork is represented in a different industry in another of Tracy Kidder’s books, The Soul of a New Machine. Here it is a team of engineers, and we are introduced to the personalities of a new breed: the kind willing to binge code for hours, weeks, and months on end, led by a man who uses techniques both novel and arcane to whip his team into a productive frenzy. It is a famous book, the first of its kind (called “the original nerd epic” by Wired), and it has had a far-reaching impact in leadership and tech circles (and the 20 year follow-up is refreshing because it focuses on tech’s middle-aged worker bees instead of its buzzy young hot shots). Mostly, The Soul of a New Machine highlights how a team of men became the standard for these emerging technology companies, and for what Silicon Valley has become: a land of billionaire brogrammers and night owl nerds and mighty men of all stripes. The only thing missing? Women.

The oft-ridiculed, socially ill-at-ease male, he who spent his life socializing with 1s and 0s now has money in spades (also known as a 1 followed by 0s), which is where Sexism in Silicon Valley: Tinder, the “Dave Rule”, and Tech’s Glass Ceiling comes into play. The power enables boys to be boys, the kinds of boys who tease girls, and by teasing I mean a disgusting industry-wide trend of underemployment of women in engineering roles, criminal underpayment, and hazing. But how else would girls know the boys liked them if they didn’t get teased?

Last year, nine women took a stand against that overt sexism and wrote a manifesto calledAbout Feminism. In it, they talk about how their love for tech and for problem-solving that put them on the path toward engineering. To get to do the work they love so much, however, they suffer through a waking nightmare of porn pranks, meetings-turned dates, and underpay. As women are usually underrepresented in the workforce, finding an equal voice has proved difficult. Though it’s certainly fine to ask why we need women in tech, the benefits from a diverse, collaborative, productive team far outweigh the alternatives.

The story of Othermachine is the story How One Hardware Startup Solved Silicon Valley’s “Woman Problem” – currently “11 out of 21 employees are women.” While one company hardly constitutes a solution, it’s remarkable given the damning industry statistics – women are 12% of engineers, and many top companies such as Apple and Microsoft havewidely skewed demographics. Othermachine didn’t arrive at their balance by accident, either. The team actively seeks out qualified women, then works to ensure a harmonious workplace.

While seeking out the best possible candidates for open jobs may be effective in creating equality, it’s not efficient. Efficiency comes from a wider pool of applicants who can present themselves, so it’s important to figure out How to Attract Female Engineers. One of the findings is that “women seem to be drawn to engineering projects that attempt to achieve societal good.” Though broad strokes like that can be difficult to support, it’s hard to argue with class enrollments at MIT, Arizona State University, University of Minnesota, Penn State, and Santa Clara University, all of which found that comparable “humanitarian engineering courses and study options have twice as many women as its traditional engineering classes”.

As promising as it is to see these changes on the university level, corporations also need to embrace diversity for the potential of these changes to be fully realized, which is why Intel’s new $300 million diversity initiative is a good start. Headed by Renée James, Intel’s President, the program’s goal is to employ a workforce that is more representative of actual demographics by 2020.

Beyond massive changes to education, and even more massively funded diversity initiatives, what else do we do? For Debbie Sterling and her company GoldieBlox (as famous for its Beastie Boys lawsuit as its actual products), that means proving they can get girls interested in engineering through a combination of storytelling and problem-solving., Is higher education’s goal of positioning their engineering programs as ‘achieving societal good’  anything more than telling a story about saving the world?

For change happening not with hundreds of millions of dollars, but just hundreds of eager girls, look no further than DIY Girls, run by Luz Rivas. For the group, a few thousand dollars means providing an expanded summer school program which allow middle-school girls to solder, program and build on their way to being our future tech innovators, to complement their already impressive year long offerings. The importance of starting small can’t be overstated. Who knows what one girl with a soldering iron will do? Maybe she’ll grow up knowing full well she can build her own house. Or maybe she’ll lead the team that transforms the tech industry. But she’ll certainly live a life confident in her own abilities, freely able to choose a future entirely her own.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Smells

These probably smell good.

“Smells coat us, swirl around us, enter our bodies, emanate from us. We live in a constant wash of them. Still, when we try to describe a smell, words fail us like the fabrications they are. Words are small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world. But they are shapes, they bring the world into focus, they corral ideas, they hone thoughts, they paint watercolors of perception.” – Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

Diane Ackerman, poet, natural historian, and writer extraordinaire, writes in the Smell section of her evocative, entrancing book that “smell is the mute sense, the one without words. Lacking a vocabulary, we are left tongue-tied, groping for words in a sea of inarticulate pleasure and exaltation.” Why is describing smells so difficult? Scents can be so powerful, so stinky, so pungent, so expressive, so dank. Several weeks ago I went for a wine-tasting weekend, and over the course of a dozen wineries, I must have smelled and sipped 40 wines, but struggled then as I do now to find words that begin to describe what I experienced. “Fruity. Somewhat earthy. Very… red. More wine please. Ah! Somewhat fruity. Very earthy!”

Our ability to describe comes from the language we use. Without the proper words at our disposal, we’ll just dance around, unable to describe in detail our senses. If we only had a smell-based lexicon like the Maniq tribe from Thailand, who can describe smells up to five times as fast as us naive nostril’d speakers of English. The Maniq use “abstract words to describe smells in the same way as we use blue, red and yellow to describe colours” while we “rely upon the source of the smell as a description – using words like fruity or lemon.” English is perfectly equipped to deal with such other abstract ideas as thought, art, jazz and Adam Sandler’s continued comedy success. What about our culture’s development muted our sense-describing skills?

My parents recently moved away from Austin, rendering me once again a breakfast taco-less stranger to the bountiful brisketed lands of central Texas. Gone are my dry-rubbed meat sweats, and the smoke that soaked me to a molecular level. I’ll always have the memories. But, as the New York Times asks, would you want to smell barbecue all the time? The smelly protest to scrub the air clean of that flavorful, rich oaky smoke that is synonymous with Texas goes to show that “one person’s putrid is another person’s pleasant, and local governments around the country are having a hard time regulating what’s in the olfaction of the beholder.”

The legality of enforcing smell standards results in subjective enforcement – the efforts of odor inspectors – as well as allegedly objective ones – meet the Nasal Ranger Field Olfactometer – which measures “ambient odor dilution-to-threshold.” Still, when the smell of marijuana drying and curing is numerically equivalent to the scent of freshly baked cinnamon rolls wafting from the neighborhood bakery, there is still work to be done. On another note, if you’re in a neighborhood that smells deeply of marijuana drying and curing, consider opening a bakery that makes freshly baked cinnamon rolls.

Part of the issue is that our developed world reeks less than it once did. Modern life smells so good it’s killing the perfume industry – sales of mass fragrances have dropped by half since 2000 (though pricier perfumes, often fronted by celebrities, are reaching record highs). Everything is scented, and “fragrances have lost their mystique.”  Companies like Verizon Wireless and United Airlines are trademarking scents that they spray around their businesses and lounges. This is not dissimilar to animals spraying their musk, in case you wanted to be weirded out by walking in for a cell phone upgrade.

Smell technology has been the next frontier for scent entrepreneurs (scentrepreneurs, as they should be known) for decades. Not content to let sleeping Smell-O-Vision’s lie, a new app called oNotes wants to be the iTunes of smells. It relies on “the oPhone, a piece of hardware that transmits olfactory information like our phones send texts.” The hope is that the “gentle blasts of air” which “pass over the cartridges” that “dispense discreet but potent puffs of smell out of the top of the tube” will add another level of immersion to our lives, and could find uses in books, health care, music, virtual reality, automobiles, and yes, films.

If there is one smell that is sacred to me, above even freshly baked pie and Saturday morning wet soccer grass, it is the smell of rain. Nothing fires up my must-run tendencies like the potential for extra nosefuls of rain-soaked air. So you can imagine why I’m planning an international trip to smell firsthand How One Indian Village Turns Rain Into Perfume. The article describes not only the people who have figured out how to capture that fresh rain smell, but just how that fresh rain smell works: “Rain picks up odors from the molecules it meets. So its essence can come off as differently as all the flowers on all the continents—rose-obvious, barely there like a carnation, fleeting as a whiff of orange blossom as your car speeds past the grove. It depends on the type of storm, the part of the world where it falls, and the subjective memory of the nose behind the sniff.”

For those looking for an America-specific translation: “City rain smells of steaming asphalt, in contrast to the grassy sweetness of rain in the countryside. Ocean rain smells briny like Maine clam flats on a falling tide. In the desert of the southwestern United States, rare storms punch the atmosphere with creosote and sage. In the southeast, frequent squalls leave the damp freshness of a wet pine forest.”

If, for me, the strongest sense memories come from baking, wet grass, and running, it is because each of these smells occurred during a formative part of my life. In a world whose smell noise has been dramatically turned down over the past centuries, how do we continue our smelly education? The Institute for Art and Olfaction opened recently in Los Angeles with a focus on providing perfume for the people through weekly open sessions and monthly sit downs (for the members of the so-called Smelly Vials Perfume Club), “in addition to hosting smell-o-rific events like an annual awards ceremony, a Valentine’s Day mixer where singles were paired up by scent preferences, and a concert in which audience members were blindfolded for an olfactory journey, the organization collaborates with artists who use scent in creative ways.“ What’s more, they are about to create a mural entirely comprised of air fresheners, which “may be the biggest public art piece made of car air fresheners, ever?” and will give bloggers everywhere license to use the title “Smelly arts.”

So, as I struggle along, unable to describe in great detail the world of smell, content with amassing smell-centric experiences for my mind to revel in, I will leave you with a final thought from Diane Ackerman:

“If there are words for all the pastels in a hue — the lavenders, mauves, fuchsias, plums, and lilacs — who will name the tones and tints of a smell? It’s as if we were hypnotized en masse and told to selectively forget. It may be, too, that smells move us so profoundly, in part, because we cannot utter their names. In a world sayable and lush, where marvels offer themselves up readily for verbal dissection, smells are often right on the tip of our tongues — but no closer — and it gives them a kind of magical distance, a mystery, a power without a name, a sacredness.”

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Unpredictable Predictables

“It was impressive to see an enormous mushroom cloud, with the immense force of the volcano, and to see the ashes. At that point, there was a lot of panic, lots of chaos, traffic jams, people going to supermarkets, everyone looking for water, trying to take out money from the ATMs.” – Ensenada resident, witnessing Calbuco eruption

On Wednesday, more than 4,400 people were evacuated after the Calbuco volcano erupted in Chile for the first time in over 40 years. And then it erupted again, blanketing the surrounding area in nearly 2 feet of ash, as red-hot rocks were hurled into the night and volcanic lightning lit up the sky. Though Calbuco was considered one of the most dangerous of Chile’s 90 active volcanoes, how should those who live in its shadow heed a warning four decades old?

Not that there’s much we can really do about volcanoes, since volcanoes have the power to change the world as we know it, as the Economist writes in How Volcanoes Change the Climate. The sulphur dioxide the volcano releases at eruption gets into the atmosphere and starts running amuck, combining with other particles to warm the stratosphere and cool the surface of the earth. Two hundred years ago, when the Indonesian volcano Tambora erupted, the subsequent cooling caused the “hiatus of the Indian monsoon, drought in southern Africa and widespread crop failures in Europe, where it was known as the year without a summer.”

Granted, these are all massive, macro trends that we can’t predict. And, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, it doesn’t necessarily matter that we can’t predict it, because we humans are terrible at predicting in the first place, often relying too heavily on our belief in evidence. We fail to predict the ‘Black Swan’, an “event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences.”

Take, for example, the disaster that resulted in Fukushima, or Japan’s Black Swan: “an earthquake larger than seismologists thought could happen in that part of the country, leading to a tsunami too big for the seawalls, and now a nuclear crisis that wasn’t supposed to be possible.”

David Wolman argues in The Aftershocks that our inability to understand these types of odds is because if you “stretch that low probability over time — which is how earthquake risk is estimated — and confusion with low probabilities morphs into complete incomprehension. If you live in an earthquake-prone place for 10,000 days, the cumulative probability gets higher and higher, approaching 1 in 1. Our minds, unfortunately, have a hard time keeping up.” In other words, “where a career scientist hears the word improbable and knows that rare events do occur, a non-scientist hears improbable as shorthand for ain’t gonna happen.

In order to prepare ourselves for these kinds of events, Richard Aster writes that “we will have to increasingly expect the unexpected, not just in the context of the familiar randomness of seismicity itself but also in seismicity’s increasingly unpredictable social effects.” Translation: it’s not just the size of the quake we have to consider, it’s the power plants we’re building that can’t fail behind seawalls that can’t be breached. Or, as 1914 realized, even unsinkable ships can be sunk.
The “potential for future disasters is compounded by the inexorable concentration and buildup of populations and infrastructure in cities, which puts vastly increased numbers of people at peril and can exacerbate all of the aforementioned factors.” Translation: oof.

Compounding interest on a 10-year index fund is one thing. Compounding the likelihood and scale of the sort of disaster with global impact is entirely different. So if you didn’t feel bad enough about your ability to make those predictions before, then you may not want to read how Animals Can Predict Earthquakes. The article has this terrific solution to our earthquake sensing problem: “Since animals are already in place in various parts of the world, they would make great complements to existing monitoring systems.”

For those of us living in Los Angeles, there is a perennial fear of The Big One hitting, so hearing that the Big One could trigger a series of large earthquakes called a “super cycle” is pure terror. Before you decide to flee for the more stable coast (and remember – Black Swans – increasingly expect the unexpected!), know that just a few hundred smartphones could catch earthquakes early – so there’s hope! If all of those smartphones are busy posting status updates about “FELT THE EARTHQUAKE!!!” then all bets are off.

All this technology – from hordes of cell phones to hordes of beasts – is in an attempt to predict the earthquakes that the earth is throwing at us in unpredictable waves. What if we had the ability to prevent those earthquakes entirely? The New Yorker’s Weather Underground details the arrival and discovery of man-made earthquakes in Oklahoma as a result of hydraulic fracking.

In 2008, “Oklahoma experienced an average of one to two earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or greater each year.

In “2014 [when] there were five hundred and eighty-five, nearly triple the rate of California.”

And now, in 2015, after years of ignoring the connection, this: Oklahoma admits that the oil and gas industry is responsible for the dramatic rise in earthquakes. Even though the state’s government recognizes the role of drilling in earthquakes they aren’t issuing a moratorium.

As Donald Rumsfeld once said, “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult one.”

What you don’t know, can’t hurt you. What you don’t do anything about, can.

So. Oklahoma acknowledges that fracking turns the unknown known – the effects of blasting water into the earth, for example – into a known known – that it causes earthquakes.

With so many known unknowns – volcanoes! the Big Ones! tidal waves! – beyond our control, why not take a minute, or a month, or a year, to figure out what kinds of impacts these things we’re doing might have decades down the line? Of course, if we did that, and allow ourselves to expect the unexpected, we’d be acting like, in Rumsfeldian terms, a real bunch of unpredictable predictables.

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Cherry Picking Coffee Beans

“Coffee is to Ethiopia what hops are to Bohemia or grapes to Bordeaux. That is, coffee is almost everything, from the cornerstone of the community’s economic fortunes to the lifeblood of its social relations. Java drinking is so deeply rooted here that Azeb was dumbstruck that I could have lived 40 years on the planet never having seen what coffee looks like before it’s plucked, peeled, dried, roasted, and ground.” – David Farley, Coffeeland

If one is going to trace the journey of a coffee bean from farm to cafe counter, exploring the precious crop being grown in Ethiopia (truly the Seattle of coffee-growing countries) is a great place to begin. Farley’s trip to Ethiopia as written about in Coffeeland shows that, like the best cup of coffee,the relationship between coffee growers and buyers starts with the bean. For the farmers who work closely with producers (like Intelligentsia) in a practice called direct trade, the math is simple: the better the bean, the more the farmers get paid. This is different than Fair Trade (note the capital letters), who wants to “guarantee organized farming groups a minimum floor price for their products.” By contrast, direct trade “aims to build a sustainable model based on individual relationships between roaster and farmer, and the assurance that farmers will always get better-than-market price for their coffee.” Minimum prices, sustainable models – they both sound great! Can I have my coffee now?

But just like the highly contentious debate between whether Chemex or Aeropress makes the best single cup of coffee (highly contentious meaning I’ve taken to staging elaborate debates between myself and the cat since I’m home alone by myself all week), the debate between direct and fair trade has supporters and producers taking sides. In The Problem with Fair Trade Coffee, Colleen Haight explains that a standardized minimum cost means farmers have less incentive to strive for truly great coffee, whereas direct trade, though not offering the safety net of a price floor, does serve to motivate coffee growers accordingly.

To be able to find flaws in Fair Trade (‘fair trade’ lower case is undeniably good: “trade in which fair prices are paid to producers in developing countries”) shows that the organization has been successful in raising the profile of coffee growers worldwide, thereby allowing other methods to flourish. “We generate awareness to create demand in the market,” explains Stacy Wagner, public relations manager at Fair Trade USA, who goes on to say that 50 percent of American households are now aware of Fair Trade coffee, up from only 9 percent in 2005. Now while awareness doesn’t always equal quality (Exhibit A: Kim Kardashian has the most Instagram followers in the world), we are talking about awareness as it pertains to supporting and empowering those who grow the most amazing bean from which stem’s the world’s most wonderful drink, so it is worth mentioning.

(Which brings us to today’s philosophical interlude: Does great coffee come as a result of natural processes, or careful nurturing? The answer may surprise you!)

The simplest explanation of the two, as Kirby Watson points out in Fair trade versus direct trade: the sociological breakdown, is that Fair Trade emphasizes the community and the cooperative, while direct trade works with individuals, emphasizing the quality of the product. Could their be a happy medium? For Watson, this is the ideal situation: “Direct Trade empowers producers by helping them improve the quality of their product so that they can earn more money on the global market, while Fair Trade empowers producers by strengthening community bonds and emphasizing collective improvement.” Some companies, like Allegro (of the Whole Foods family), do embody the best of both. It’s harder for the farmers to dance those steps.

This dream scenario faces difficult realities in countries like Haiti, the former home of half the world’s coffee production. Because of severe deforestation, aging coffee trees, and farms far removed from their national highways, the remaining farmers are facing a tough situation in which forming cooperatives is a challenge and the physical logistics make scaling up production nearly impossible. Despite this, and through the efforts of the Clinton Foundation, La Colombe, and Technoserve (an international nonprofit that supports business solutions to poverty), work is being done to make “coffee an engine of development in Haiti.” There are 100,000 who still farm coffee – now it’s a matter of getting their product back into mugs the world over.

For a blueprint of success, Haiti should look to Rwanda. Tate Watkins writes in Selling Haitian Coffee to American Hipsters about the history of Haiti’s decline from coffee dominance, and how it compares to Rwanda’s rapid ascent over the past decade, suggesting a possible “return to international prominence” for Haiti in as little as 12 years. At this point, Haiti’s “yields and production are too meager to consistently supply such a large distributor, which is why [they] wants to focus on niche markets for now.”  The hoped-for rise in quality would allow Haitian coffee to be sold at premium restaurants and coffee shops.

That path is easier said than done, as Evan Hansen details in Jesus Saves. Can Coffee? The gatekeepers of specialty coffee are exacting judges, and the audition process by the powers-that-be at Blue Bottle Coffee is as Portlandia-esque as you imagine it to be (to do the cupping properly, you’ll want to work on your inhaling, breaking and violent slurping techniques).

In the lineup of beans from Haiti, Ethiopia, Ecuador, and Indonesia, Ethiopia comes out on top. Haiti fails to make the cut, with the following review: “There is no compelling reason why we have to have this coffee.” While at first taste this seems quite bitter, the lingering notes are sweet for all you Haitian coffee aficionados: “They’re absolutely ready to compete. These are all high-end specialty coffees. None of them has any defects. The second Haitian is very high quality, very interesting. People would buy that.”

So, while Haiti leaves the Blue Bottle Coffee cupping empty-handed, their reunion tour is just kicking into gear. One of its core members, the Haitian coffee company Kafe Na Pou, espouses their belief in direct trade and having “roasters work directly with the farmer to increase the quality and value of the coffee. This model guarantees the social sustainability of the farmer, the economic growth of the farm, and encourages environmental sustainability and community development” (followed by throwing shade at Fair Trade – but that’s okay because shade grown coffee is popular in Haiti).

What is most valuable about this trade distinction is captured by Sarah Stuteville in her article Ensuring coffee growing communities get a fair shot, because while certifications like Fair Trade won’t solve everything, they will be part of the solution. The point is made that “successfully connecting farmers with markets is a crucial way to ensure that it’s not only big plantations that benefit from the coffee boom,” but “it’s just as important to connect consumers with the communities that produced their morning latte.”

So now, when you’re in line at Intelligentsia, or Blue Bottle, or Stumptown, or Grumpytown, and the barista asks you how you like your coffee, just say:

“I like my coffee like I like my trading partnerships: Fairly hot, and put directly in my mouth.”

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The Coming Grumbles of 9 Billion Tummy Rumbles

“How do you slaughter a goat in Humla? Apparently, you strangle it. It was decidedly unceremonious — actually pretty quiet and painless. I think I was expecting, or had at least envisioned, more of a spectacle: the chanting of some Tibetan incantation, the piercing and fearful cries of the goat, and finally the spraying of pints of blood. Maybe part of me (I’m ashamed to admit) wanted to see some brutality — to shatter my sanitized view of the food chain, and to shock myself with the harshness of eating meat.” – Jeremy Berke, How to Eat in Other Places

In Berke’s How to Eat in Other Places, he details a trip to Humla, Nepal, where he watches the slaughtering and butchering of a goat. The traditional act involves “killing in order to sustain” and nourish people, free of the baggage of ideals we celebrate here in America, those like “farm-to-table, nose-to-tail dining — buzzwords in the contemporary foodie scene of many developed cities.” Ideas that on one hand demonstrate our desire to know our food’s origin story but on the other keep us at arm’s length from actual experience. Without that experience, how do we connect what we eat with how we get our food?

That connection is clear in the dehesa, an area in western Spain with centuries-old practices in sustainable farming for both plants and animals, including the growth of the trees that produce 80% of the world’s cork and the pigs that get fat from those trees’ acorns and are slaughtered to make jamón ibérico, a type of cured ham. This Spanish Pig-Slaughtering Tradition is Rooted in Sustainability because, says chef Dan Barber, the “age-old practices carry with them a very complicated ecological understanding, and an intimate engagement with the environment.” But does it take the immediacy of slaughter for us to become thoroughly familiar with how we get our food?

The dehesa and its “multifunctional agro-sylvo-pastoral system” are explored in-depth in Dan Barber’s Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food as an example of how farmland can simultaneously support a variety of crops and animals. What grows best and in concert should then make it onto the menus at our restaurants, and into our grocery stores. Barber’s restaurant Blue Hill institutes these practices now in New York. The Spanish farmers of the dehesa have proved for centuries that it can work for small, rural communities. What is currently debated, is how we’ll adapt our food chain to the future demands of a population racing toward nine billion.

When you’re faced with feeding that many people, how do you scale up sustainability? In Fishing for Billions: How a small group of visionaries are trying to feed China and save the world’s oceans (paywall) Erik Vance describes a process happening that could be called the aquatic version of the dehesa. Fishermen, scientists and businesspeople are working to revamp thousands of freshwater farms in China by introducing multiple species of fish and molluscs into the same environment (it helps that they can recycle each other’s waste). Since 70% of the fish consumed in China comes from these farms, it’s important to find a workable solution soon. An intimate awareness of the balance required by these systems is critical, because coming technologies will allow us to scale our efforts at never-before-seen rates.

Though there is something noble-sounding about living like the farmers of the dehesa, it remains to be seen if that can provide for the demands of our population. What if farmers embraced emerging technologies, like the use of drones to help maintain and gain greater data about their crops? As we see in 5 actual uses for drones in precision agriculture today, there are ways to mitigate our use of pesticides by using drones to help target crops more effectively.

The founders behind BioCarbon Engineering want to take drone-aided farming to another level by using drones to plant a billion trees a year. Their logic? “We believe that industrial scale deforestation, can only be countered with industrial scale reforestation,” says biomedical engineer and team member Susan Graham. Given the 26 billion trees a year we currently cut down, it’s a start.

To address the seemingly impossible problems of the near future, the strategies outlined in Peter Diamandis’ Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World can provide a framework for thinking on an exponential scale. Diamandis concedes that humans aren’t natural exponential thinkers, but citing cross-industrial successes like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, Diamandis argues we must learn to adjust our thinking if we want to create change and impact the world.

To incentivize these kinds of world-changing endeavors, Diamandis founded XPRIZE, an organization “whose mission is to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefits of humanity.” Perhaps the most famous example, the Ansari X Prize was won in 2004 by SpaceshipOne. The categories for other prizes include energy & environment, exploration, global development, learning and life scienes. Two of them in particular, No-Soil Agriculture and Urban Farming, encourage entrepreneurs to focus their thinking on the big scale problems of food.

But as much as tech competitions can dangle carrots of funding and fame to motivate entrepreneurs, the way to feed the coming billions may be as simple as taking it one person at a time. Timothy Wise, in an interview about The Best Way to Feed Billions, strays from blaming large-scale agriculture and commodity crops (we do use more corn for fuel than food at this point), and instead focuses on making good land available to local farmers to grow their own food, as there are many added benefits. “Small-scale farming is labor intensive,” Wise says, “so it could create more jobs in those countries as well as more food.”

That focus on – and involvement in – the creation of food helps us gain a responsibility for our own futures. Knowing that disruptive innovations and big companies will play a huge role in securing the future for billions can’t be our only plan – we need to be active in maintaining a connection to the food chain – whether it’s by the simple act of growing our own food, understanding how our food choices affect others, or empowering those who grow food around the world.

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Down and Drought in California

“As our “wet” season draws to a close, it is clear that the paltry rain and snowfall have done almost nothing to alleviate epic drought conditions. January was the driest in California since recordkeeping began in 1895. Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too.” – Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

I’m speaking in generalities here, but the scientists at NASA are pretty smart. They put robots on Mars, they make pens that writes in zero gravity, and now they’re telling us that California has one year of water left (in our reservoirs). The headline is alarming, but not, for those of us living in California now, all that new. The drought – and its accompanying pictures – have been in and out of the front pages for the last several years, and attention-grabbing headlines are failing to turn us to action.

Hoping to spur us to change, Governor Jerry Brown announced this week that California is imposing its first mandatory restrictions to deal with the drought. Given that our rainy season (read: that weekend it was overcast and we didn’t dare venture outside) has given way to record heatwaves (the Los Angeles Marathon had cooling buses along the route in March) and a record-low snowpack in the mountains, we are now set up a long dry season.

While water restrictions and cutbacks will affect governments and private companies alike, not everyone is despairing. Lemor Abrams writes that whitewater rafting companies expect business to boom even in California’s drought because of a “new federal license where utility companies are allowed to open up the dams at the top,” creating more “raftable” rapids. If that doesn’t slake your entrepreneurial thirst, perhaps consider that this barber-turned-entrepreneur is cashing in on the California drought by painting dead grass green.

It’s not just individuals who are taking the drought into their own hands: small cities and local governments like Santa Monica and Long Beach are seeking water independence, and hoping to achieve it by 2020. Their efforts include cleaning up their groundwater supply and rewarding individual homes for collecting and conserving rainwater.

That communal effort can be scaled up as we design new buildings – and retrofit old ones – so that our cities can soak up and store water for future use. Adele Peters describes that and four other actionable plans in 5 Things California Can Do to Survive a Mega-Drought. The silver lining to a mega-drought (one lasting two decades or longer) is that we will still get regular rain – we just have to be smarter about capturing it. We can also take the water readily available to us as seawater and desalinate it, but that is a traditionally energy-intensive process.

Michael Webber writes about the interconnectedness of energy, water and food in A Puzzle for the Planet (paywall). As he says it, “about 80 percent of the water we consume is for agriculture – our food. Nearly 13 percent of energy production is used to fetch, clean, deliver, heat, chill and dispose of our water” and we “compound the problems with policy, oversight and funding decisions made by separate agencies.” Rather than treating the drought as a problem merely about a lack of water, and thinking of a solution that solves just that problem, we must treat it in the context of our energy and food needs. Given California’s status as one of the produce capitals of the world, that mindset is especially valuable.

Fortunately, there are companies working now to address multiple points in that triangle. A new project off the coast of Australia may soon make wave power a reality, with the tantalizing byproduct of desalinated water to boot. Carnegie Wave Energy has created a series of buoys that generate energy just under the surface of the ocean, which is especially interesting considering that unlike most sources of renewable energy, there aren’t marked lulls in production (like solar and wind power), and these buoys wouldn’t be affected by storms.

Though the practicality of renewable energy is debatable, there is proof in the pudding: Costa Rica is now running completely on renewable energy. Their oil-independence is due in part to heavy rainfalls, but they aren’t resting on their well-deserved laurels. With the understanding that a drought of any length would force them back to relying on more finite sources of energy, the Costa Rican government, along with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and European Investment Bank, has committed nearly $1 billion to a geothermal project near the Rincón de la Vieja volcano. The country continues to be proactive in seeking out solutions to a future where energy is in question.

In California, we have been slow to react to the drought. After all, the only thing better than long showers are great lawns and fresh almonds, right? With Governor Brown’s announcement, and the move from the lackadaisical language of past years to a mandatory reduction of water use, we are taking steps in a new direction. Let us treat the drought not as a temporary problem to be lawn-painted over but as a substantial obstacle to our future that must be overcome by action and ingenuity.

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