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Intervention by Denise Caruso Read Intervention by Denise Caruso, Executive Director of the Hybrid Vigor Silver Award Winner, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Best Business Books 2007, Strategy+Business Magazine

archive for December, 2008


by ~ December 31, 2008

Kudos to the synthetic biology community and MIT’s public relations department for getting the iGEM competition on the Lehrer News Hour. You can listen to the podcast here.

I was happy to hear that amidst all the enthusiasm, some rational voices were also given air time. One of them was Roger Brent, director of the Molecular Sciences Institute (on whose board of trustees I serve), who said,

Reluctantly, no I don’t trust them [amateur bioengineers] to regulate themselves.  I don’t see it as plausible that a person, perhaps even a teenager, would be allowed to build and release an animal virus that could be transmitted human-to-human. The kind of regulation I’m talking about can only happen at a national level and it only makes sense if its done in concert with harmonized regulation in other countries. This is exactly the model of drivers’ licenses, pilots’ licenses, radio operators licenses.

Another was Jason Bobe, the “director of community” for the Personal Genome Project, who said,

By having an organization that wants to promote on the one hand, innovation, education, and learning, its also a great opportunity for us [DIYbio.org] to help be innovators in regulatory policy and safety too.

Couldn’t agree more. If we are smart enough to start engineering organisms, we are also  smart enough by now to stop being black-and-white about regulating innovation. There are lots of ways to fashion policy that support innovation and protect the public at the same time — we just need to start talking openly and honestly about them. The sooner the better.


by ~ December 30, 2008

Going through old files the other day, I came across a MacArthur Foundation Occasional Paper that had a profound effect on my thinking about interdisciplinary research and collaboration.

Now 15 years old, An Experiment in Scientific Organization by Robert L. Kahn, is finally available online. It details the history and practices of the MacArthur Foundation’s long-running Research Networks — “a sustained experiment in the organization of scientific research,” as Kahn states in the paper’s introduction.

His observations are just as fresh and important as when An Experiment was published in 1993.

Anyone who has had difficulty making an interdisciplinary or cross-sector collaborative project work should prepare to have their mind blown by this paper. While there’s a lot of talk about the importance of collaboration across disciplines, there’s very little research activity that delivers on the promise. Interdisciplinary research is difficult, messy, and operates on an entirely different set of cultural rules than traditional research.

But through years of trial and error, the MacArthur Foundation finally hit on a network design that reliably produced significant results. Kahn’s paper details the process by which the Foundation came up with the right elements for a successful collaboration.

He also lists the developmental stages that a collaborative network goes through in order to hit its stride and start producing useful results, as well as the elements of a collaboration that have proven to be critical success factors.

No one really argues against Kahn’s point that “collaboration, within disciplines and between them, can enlarge scientific understanding, accelerate scientific achievement, and increase the contributions of science to well being.”

But while others pay lip service to the concept, his paper provides the guideposts for  designing a successful collaborative endeavor. It’s a tremendously useful document for anyone who is serious about making an interdisciplinary collaboration yield fruit.


by ~ December 15, 2008

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been horrified by the violence by drug cartels in Mexico. The violence has been unsparingly brutal toward innocent children, the elderly, and humble working folk. Even US citizens have been caught in the crossfire. Such a complete breakdown in civility so close to home is hard to countenance.

By most accounts, about ninety percent of all the cocaine consumed in the US is believed to reach the country via Mexico. Because US customers pay well for the drug, the cartels can arm themselves with high-quality US-made weapons.

Coke has reemerged as a drug of choice for leisure-class partiers, many of whom may not realize they’re part of this axis of violence. But like the “conflict diamonds” of Sierra Leone, it comes to us at too great a price.

So I’m asking everyone please spread the word that, so long as the violence continues, it’s cooler to boycott “blood cocaine” than to consume it.


by ~ December 13, 2008

In the media coverage of how Bernard L. Madoff pulled off a massive Ponzi scheme, the references “trust” and “loyalty” border on the gratuitous:

“For Investors, Trust Lost, and Money Too”

“Thirty-six years of loyalty, through two generations, and this is what we get”

“People came to trust him so much that, eventually, they trusted him with everything.”

“Madoff’s betrayal imperils a generation of trust”

Unfortunately, this yet another $50 billion wake-up call that our instinctual ability to trust is completely overwhelmed by modern institutions. Not even the smartest people in the room caught on to Madoff. I think Charles Green summed up the problem as well as anyone:

How? How could some of the world’s supposedly smartest investors … have been hoodwinked by something that, in the rear view mirror, was a blatant scam?

The answer reveals a common myth about trust in business. The myth is that good businesspeople make rational decisions about trust.

But let’s look at the problem from a different angle: who better to defraud wealthy, intelligent people than a $50 billion confidence man? Only trusted individuals get that kind of privilege! It usually takes an entire industry of lesser fraudsters to come up with that kind of cash.

Madoff as Archetype

It’s obvious now that Madoff is a particularly evil and odious man. But that doesn’t explain how he was able to pull off such an enormous fraud or whether such tragedies can be averted. Clearly there were others who helped him stage this Royal Nonesuch, many of whom were unwitting participants.

As a society, our understanding of Madoff is a categorical imperative, because Madoff isn’t an aberrant freak of nature. Madoff is a representation of what’s wrong in society. Madoff the man is irrelevant; Madoff the archetype is terribly frightening. Consider Milan Kundera’s analysis of “eternal returns” in the first chapter of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”:

If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories, and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening no one. There is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and a Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.

Will there be another Ponzi? Another Madoff? Of course! In fact, there are already many more of them in existence than we realize. Forget Madoff the man. How do we take down the Achetypal Madoff?

The “How” is in the Structure of the Relationship

The Laws of Relation are my attempt to analyze these breach-of-trust phenomena and how hopefully to improve the structure of relations. I think they provide a lot of clues in outing the world’s Madoffs.

Clue # 1: Asymmetric relationships inexorably lead to exploitation

Asymmetrical relations are exploitive relations by their very constitution. This is true even when the participants have a high degree of good will toward each other. The structure of the relationship is an environmental factor that necessitates exploitation. In short, absolute trust corrupts absolutely.

This is even more true when people interact with organizations, institutions, business, and governments. In the book “The Asymmetric Society,” James Coleman distinguishes between natural persons and organizations, and then discusses how rules of interpersonal trust don’t apply to organizations. For example, you can be loyal to your employer, your union, and your brokerage. But these institutions aren’t human, so are incapable of loyalty, love, and caring. Of course, organizations really want your loyalty and trust, because it’s great for business. But organizations don’t have the “empathy gene” that makes them want to protect you in a crisis.

Imagine this: What if Madoff was an honest man early in his career and never thought he’d become the world’s biggest Ponzi? But slowly Madoff comes to see real-estate boom, credit default swaps, and the Nasdaq itself as enormous Ponzi schemes. Almost serendipitously he finds himself inextricably linked to a system of Ponzism, with himself holding all the strings. He holds all the money; he sets all the rules; he runs the circus… and people all trust him with their money. He also realizes that creating asymmetric relationships with his clients provides him unprecedented leverage. He allows people to believe that multi-generational loyalty matters in their relationship, when in fact in their loyalty only plays into Madoff’s master plan.

Clue #2: Disproportionate Risk

The Law of Relational Risk says that “contribution to the relationship that is not met proportionally by the other participants is a loss to the contributor.”

It’s telling that Madoff made the $10 million bail. He even talked about distributing the $200 million or so left in the fund to close friends and relatives. Didn’t he “lose everything?” Well, Madoff lost his reputation and his ability to do “business.” He’ll probably spend some time in jail. But he’s no Dr. Faustus. After all wouldn’t most people line up to spend a few years in jail and suffer a public humiliation if they could spend 30 years as a billionaire? Just look to reality TV to see what people are willing to suffer in hopes of winning a few bucks!

Here’s the point: If you contribute something to a relationship and the other party doesn’t reciprocate with a proportional degree of risk, you’re doomed. Think of your contribution as a charitable contribution.

Clue #3: High security

If good fences make good neighbors, then what do high security fences make? There are lots of people that would like you to believe that strong security is the pathway to confidence, safety, and trust. In my previous post, I commented briefly on how the CSIS panel’s focus on security was well meaning, but off base. A security apparatus is more effectively used as tool of exploitation than as a pathway to trust. Institutions that thrive on secrecy, high security, and controls are most likely unworthy of trust.

Clue #4: Shallow signals

How impressed should you be that someone has a lot of money? Or that they have a position of power? Or that they’re a Harvard grad? Does it follow that people with diplomas, position, and wealth are trustworthy? History proves otherwise.

Give me the most selfless billionaire on the planet and I’ll give you Gandhi. It’s much more difficult to live the life of Gandhi than the life of Madoff. Too bad Gandhi wouldn’t take a Wall Street job. He might have a few things to say about the way Wall Street ought to be run.

In conclusion, I’ll reiterate something from my October 12 post, “Money Can’t Buy You Trust: What We Won’t be Getting for $1 Trillion“:

Yes, good bankers do know how to manage risk—their own risk. Which is why the best investment bankers view a recession more like a sabbatical, while the rest of us have to figure out how to keep food on the table.


by ~ December 11, 2008

A few days ago, the CSIS Commission on Cybersecurity released a report urging the Obama administration to take immediate corrective action in securing online systems. It’s a bold move and I’m thankful that the committee members, some of whom I know, have been able to raise awareness and the level of discussion on this important issue.

Major media covered the release of the report, including a New York Times report that began “License plates may be coming to cyberspace.” Although the CSIS report didn’t call for “surfer licenses,” the Times analogy is apt (more on the analogy in a moment).

I agree with a lot of what’s in the report, but I’d like to call out a few things.

  • Must we call it “Cyberspace”? That’s so 80’s!
  • If we abolish the word “Cyberspace,” then we don’t have to refer to the new “National Office of Cyberspace” as the “NOC.” This is important because anyone in the tech industry already thinks NOC means “Network Operations Center.” It’s also the stock symbol for Northrop Grumman.
  • There’s a good list of contributors on this work, but they’re missing the people who really kept us safe during the cold war. Where are the Robert Axelrods in this group?
  • The suggestions on “regulating cyberspace” and authenticating digital identities are well meaning, but off-base. Consider the following text from the very first post I wrote for Hybrid Vigor:
Government regulators are bullish on the “war on fraud” approach-a crackdown on critical systems. The Bush administration has already budgeted $6 billion for hardening online systems against terrorist attacks. And a war on fraud might actually be effective, if we could identify the fraudsters.
But unfortunately, fraudsters by definition use false identities, so to engage that battle, we’d need to beef up the security infrastructure of the Internet by orders of magnitude. We’d have to do background checks on users, issue “surfer licenses” to all the Internet users, lock down points of access, and hire a bunch of cyber-cops. We’d need to hire another set of people to regulate the cyber-cops, and another set of people to govern the regulators.

That’s why ultimately, the “war on fraud” approach is untenable, because it require levels of sophistication and precision well beyond our abilities — and it demands that well-doers willingly capitulate to a painfully asocial system.

I’m hoping also to hear from my friends at Burton Group and from the Identity Gang on this report.


by ~ December 9, 2008

I’m racing off to Stanford University for a conference honoring the 40th anniversary of Douglas Engelbart’s ‘Mother of All Demos.”

Called Program for the Future, the conference aims to explore ways to “enhance our capacity for problem solving, decision making knowledge organization and planning in every field of human endeavor.”

When I interviewed Engelbart on The Site (in 1996 I think it was, and also probably was my favorite interview of all time, he is such a tremendously humble and lovely man), this is how I introduced him:

The very act you are engaged in at this moment-reading and clicking through information on a computer screen-would not be possible if not for Douglas Engelbart. While working at Stanford Research Institute in the late 1960s, Engelbart invented or envisioned almost everything that makes personal computing possible today:  the computer mouse, hypertext links, groupware, on-screen editing and much more. But almost 30 years ago, few if any of his peers shared his vision.

That vision (which I also explored in an NYT column back then) was about the power of technology to enable what Engelbart calls “collaborative intelligence.” And while we are kind of banging our way toward it, his ideas for how technology could serve as the connective tissue between people and information was more methodical and directed than our haphazard efforts today.

I spoke at the 30th anniversary celebration, so it was nice to get a call on Friday from Etan Ayalon (CEO, GlobalTech Research) to join a last-minute panel he was asked to put together and moderate for the conference. We’ll be discussing collective intelligence in the context of one of my favorite subjects:  how to be innovative about innovating.

I’ll be joining Phil McKinney (VP and CTO of the Personal Systems Group at Hewlett-Packard and Dr. Larry Leifer (founder and director of the Stanford Center for Design Research, and founding director of the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning).

I thought I’d post the questions that Etan sent us to riff off during the panel, and my brief thoughts in response.

How do we best realize Doug Engelbart’s vision of combining people and technology to nurture innovation and better humanity, by addressing major challenges as well as creating new industries, products and jobs?

1. One problem at a time, using the right processes.
2. Need to improve the improvement/innovation process — the C-work, in Doug’s parlance.

•    Today we have pursuit of innovation without considering context. Often ‘solutions in search of a problem,’ instead of the other way around.
•    Pursuit of innovation in a solo inventor (or product development department, whatever) model leads to applying collective intelligence post facto; i.e., marketing department and customers aren’t part of the process
•    Context is also provided post facto, and selectively — usually by people with a specific and often narrow point of view
•    Context can only be accurately provided by others.

Is innovation a gift or a skill?

1. Both, and neither. Depends. Some people are natural outside-the-box thinkers. But the organization has to be designed to encourage exploration. And organizational design is a skill.
2. Why do you ask? The thoughts behind the question are as interesting as the question itself.

Is innovation an outcome or a process?

Personally I think it’s an outcome, but if it’s being done in an organization it’s more likely to happen if there are processes to support it. Again, what’s the motive behind the question?

Sharing the Benefits of Innovation for All, Not Just Lucky Digital Few - With an ever widening digital divide, how do we ensure that innovation benefits all segments of society in both developing and developed countries?

Process innovations can benefit everyone, I think. But with products, it’s more than a digital divide. Biotechnologies have this issue as well — expensive drugs, expensive seeds, etc. And we can’t ensure this without government intervention, at least not at first. I don’t think that’s how it works. But we can be thoughtful about how to stage innovations so they eventually get there.

Balancing Innovation Risks and Rewards – How? Who Should Participate in the Dialogue?

Who? All the relevant experts and stakeholders

How? By having the risk-reward conversation very early in the product development cycle. And by having a process that respects the question, which requires changing the R&D culture.

Also, we need to acknowledge that product innovation today in particular is more about driving profit than solving problems. This may need to be rethought if we are serious about creating a sustainable economy that isn’t wholly based on getting people to endlessly buy more stuff. It’s a very different risk-reward conversation when it’s framed that way.

Does innovation emerge from/require ambiguity and uncertainty?

Life is ambiguous and uncertain, which causes problems that need to be solved. So, yes. Also it emerges from the drive to improve, which some people have innately.


by ~ December 7, 2008

A few posts ago, I made a plea for the Obama administration to include social scientists in the mix as it moves to return science to its rightful position of inclusion and respect in the public policy sphere. If you want just one real-life example of what’s at stake by not doing so, read this letter about the “updated” Technical Assistance Document on anthrax contamination, proposed by EPA and several federal agencies after the 2001 and 2002 attacks.

It’s written to EPA administrator Stephen Johnson, from my colleague Baruch Fischhoff, the Carnegie Mellon risk expert and professor who’s chair of the Homeland Security Advisory Committee for the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board.

Fischhoff wrote:

[S]everal Committee Members, myself included, were distressed at the lack of systematic, scientific attention to communicating with the public.  … It is not unique to this anthrax project, but reflects a general problem in our national emergency planning … As we saw in 2001, a b. anthracis (“anthrax”) attack has enormous potential for achieving our enemies’ goals, even when causing relatively few casualties … Much of that damage came from our own inability to communicate credibly, causing needless concern and distrust that persists to this day.

With its rigorous methodologies and an impressive body of academic literature supporting it, risk communication represents the bounty of wisdom that can be found in the applied social sciences, from fields including psychology, communications, decision analysis, rhetoric, sociology, political science, law, ethics, linguistics and anthropology.

But the scientific aspects of risk communication are often entirely overlooked or dismissed by technical experts and authorities in both emergency preparation and response. Instead, they assume that  their knowledge of technical details, their intuition about what to say to the public, or their charisma (this being the politicians) will give people enough information to respond to emergencies.

Call it ignorance, arrogance or denial, but that attitude is a big mistake, and it has real consequences.

Look back at Hurricane Katrina for some horrific examples. Not only did authorities fail to get the frail and the poor out of New Orleans, it utterly failed to persuade tens of thousands of them who could evacuate the city to do so.

And recall the disaster that one risk expert called the “Duct Tape Risk Communication” emergency preparation strategy, proposed by the White House in 2003, which immediately was turned into a lampoon to skewer the U.S. government, rather than inspiring citizens to take useful action.

People need to trust their leaders and technical experts to tell them the truth in emergencies, in ways that actually answer their questions — questions which will be different for business leaders than for schoolteachers — and address their fears. Without that trust, the public isn’t going to follow instructions.

As Fischhoff said in his letter to EPA, the only way to prepare for emergencies is to have an inventory of scientifically sound risk communications on hand — pre-scripted press releases, print and electronic explanatory materials, guides to self-testing, FAQs and the like — ready to be adapted to specific circumstances. And,

Communications research planning is not expensive.  However, it requires a skill set that is not represented in the anthrax [Techical Assistance Document] task force.  Nor is it present in most other parts of our national response effort [including the Emergency Consequence Assessment Tool and the WaterSentinel Program (PDF)].  As a result, much of what passes for risk communication advice has no scientific foundation.

Thankfully, compared to some of the other problems facing the Obama administration, this is an easy one to fix. And given the nature of some of those problems, they may want to fix this one now.


by ~ December 6, 2008

The New York Times ran a story today on a truly recession-proof industry: computer hacking. The article cites a study by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that claims the underground industry grossed more than $100 Billion last year—enough to bail out the U.S. auto industry and Citigroup with money left over for alternative energy initiatives.

Sadly, the best our computer security experts can offer is an honest attempt to keep up. The first sentence of the Times article makes this chilling assertion: “Internet security is broken, and nobody seems to know quite how to fix it.”

But the article goes on to shift the discussion from security to trust:

Beyond the billions of dollars lost in theft of money and data is another, deeper impact. Many Internet executives fear that basic trust in what has become the foundation of 21st century commerce is rapidly eroding.

This is precisely the point! Our security online depends greatly on our ability to trust online. But today’s Internet security experts have shamefully little understanding of social trust, so today there simply is no model for social trust on the Internet. I’ll say that again: there is no model for social trust on the Internet today.

Here’s a case in point:

Recently, Microsoft antimalware researchers disassembled an infecting program and were stunned to discover that it was programmed to turn on the Windows Update feature after it took over the user’s computer. The infection was ensuring that it was protected from other criminal attackers.

Why were the Microsoft researchers stunned at this development? Perhaps because they thought they had written unhackable code? Or that a wolf would never don a wool coat? If these guys are experts, shouldn’t they anticipate what hackers will do? Apparently, Microsoft could use a few social scientists, evolutionary biologists, and game theorists on the security staff.

The Laws of Relation predict this kind of behavior, because the relationship between Microsoft, the PC, and the user is asymmetrical and therefore exploitive. Because the relationship is structured without regard for principles of social trust (reciprocity, awareness, consent, etc.) the relationship becomes easy prey for hackers.

But are businesses motivated to really fix the problem? Here’s the rub:

  • To fix the security problem, you have to fix the trust problem.
  • To fix the trust problem, you have to restructure the relationship.
  • To structure the relationship for resilience against invaders, you have to adjust the business model and empower consumers.

And businesses are unlikely to relinquish their exploitive relationships with consumers.


by ~ December 4, 2008

Maybe my imagination is getting the best of me, but I laughed out loud when I read last Thursday’s New York Times article about the minimal impact of a big hypertension study published in 2000 that compared various blood pressure drugs.

The study was called the Antihypertensive and Lipid-Lowering Treatment to Prevent Heart Attack Trial, or ALLHAT. And while I’m sure the authors would never admit it, I desperately want to believe someone built that big ol’ clunky name around the classic cowboy insult “all hat, no cattle,” describing someone that’s all talk and no substance (in this case, the blockbuster drugs).

I do hope that’s what they had in mind, anyhow. It’s not just hilarious; it also makes sense, given what the Times article revealed about why the ALLHAT study had so little impact.

Its findings showed that cheap diuretics were at least as effective at treating high blood pressure as the expensive and heavily promoted drugs like beta blockers and calcium blockers — but that doctors were still prescribing the pricey stuff at a much higher rate.

One reason, according to Curt D. Furberg, a public health sciences professor who was the first chairman of the steering committee for the study, was that “The pharmaceutical industry ganged up and attacked, discredited the findings.”

The Times piece notes that Furberg eventually resigned “in frustration” from the steering committee, while another committee member went on to receive more than $200,000 from Pfizer, largely in speaking fees, the year after the Allhat results were released.

“There’s a lot of magical thinking that it will all be science and [there] won’t be politics,” Sean Tunis, a former chief medical officer for Medicare and an advocate for these kinds of comparative-effectiveness studies, told NYT.

I suspect there’s a lot more hat than cattle for a lot of the expensive drugs doctors are prescribing today to treat chronic conditions. And while of course drug companies are free to sell anything they’d like, I don’t really want to have to pay for the most expensive drug just because my doctor got seduced by the sales rep. Continue reading »