The Epic Story of Container Shipping

If you read only one book about globalization, make it The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, by Marc Levinson (2006). If your expectations in this space have been set to “low” by the mostly obvious, lightweight and mildly entertaining stuff from the likes of Tom Friedman, be prepared to be blown away.  Levinson is a heavyweight (former finance and economics editor at the Economist), and the book has won a bagful of prizes. And with good reason: the story of an unsung star of globalization, the shipping container, is an extraordinarily gripping one, and it is practically a crime that it wasn’t properly told till 2006.

(From Wikimedia Commons, GFDL license)

40 foot container (from Wikimedia Commons, GFDL license)

There are no strained metaphors (like Friedman’s “Flat”) or attempts to dazzle with overworked, right-brained high concepts (Gladwell’s books come to mind). This is an  important story of the modern world, painstakingly researched, and masterfully narrated with the sort of balanced and detached passion one would expect from an Economist writer.  It isn’t a narrow tale though. Even though the Internet revolution, spaceflight, GPS and biotechnology don’t feature in this book, the story teases out the DNA of globalization in a way grand sweeping syntheses never could. Think of the container story as the radioactive tracer in the body politic of globalization.

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The Rhetoric of the Hyperlink

The hyperlink is the most elemental of the bundle of ideas that we call the Web. If the  bit is the quark of information, the hyperlink is the hydrogen molecule. It shapes the microstructure of information today.  Surprisingly though, it is nearly as mysterious now as it was back in July 1945, when Vannevar Bush first proposed the idea in his Atlantic Monthly article, As We May Think. July 4th will mark the second anniversary of Ribbonfarm (I started on July 4th, 2007), and to celebrate, I am going to tell you everything I’ve learned so far about the hyperlink. That is the lens through which I tend to look at more traditional macro-level blog-introspection topics, such as “how to make money blogging,” and “will blogs replace newspapers?” So with a “Happy Second Birthday, Ribbonfarm!” and a “Happy 64th Birthday, Hyperlink,” let’s go explore the hyperlink.

Image from Wikipedia, free license

Image from Wikipedia, free license

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Neurotic Leaders, Paternalistic Managers and Self-Absorbed Workers

Pondering the A. G. Lafley HBR piece that’s been doing the rounds lately, I think I’ve finally really figured out the difference between managers, leaders and workers. The title, and this cartoon I made up, capture the essence of my argument: all three archetypes within the world of business are defined by how they self-destruct. This has been unclear for millenia because it is only in the last two years, thanks to technology, that the last of the trinity: the individual worker bee, has become fully defined. So let’s reconstruct the whole picture from the ground up. mgmtvslead

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Marketing, Innovation and the Creation of Customers

Recently, one of my projects went through a rapid, but nearly imperceptible phase change. It went from being an “innovation-first” project to being a “marketing-first” project. The marketing hat feels at once comfortable and uncomfortable, familiar and unfamiliar. It feels like listening to unfamiliar lyrics set to a familiar tunes. This disconcerting feeling of being caught up in the dance of a yin-yang pair has had me pondering the best-known Drucker quote (from The Essential Drucker) for weeks now:

“Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two—and only two—basic functions: marketing and innovation.”

Marketing and innovation define each other in yin-yang ways. Thinking about the fundamentals of this dual pair of concepts led me to a curious definition  of the most important word in business: customer.


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Zen and the Art of Google Wave Mechanics

Much of the discussion around Google Wave so far has been down-in-the-weeds prosaic and business-like. So I decided to seek out physicist turned Zen Master, Roshi Tsu Nami, and historian of technology, Prof. Sophius Trie, in order to get to some deeper insights. Here is the transcript of our conversation. Warning: all three of us are ridiculously enamored of tech-geek-mysticism references, but I hope you can follow our thinking.

Me: What is Google Wave?

Roshi Tsu Nami: 47.

Me: 47? Ha ha! Don’t you mean 42?

Roshi Tsu Nami: Yes, I was referring to the Hitchhiker’s Guide, but I do mean 47, not 42. Google Wave is the ultimate answer, to life-streaming, universal communications and everything. But it is about 10% wrong.

Me: Clever. I don’t suppose I get to look smart in this dialogue. I expect I should ask next: what is the actual question?

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The Hunter-Gatherer Theory of Markets and Shopping

The idea that men hate shopping while women love it is probably the most defensible among all gender stereotypes. Economics would be very different if Adam Smith had been Eve Smith. Male-driven economics is largely about the stuff the seller wants, money. This is by definition as featureless and abstract as possible. On the buying side though, there is a great deal of complexity, variety, and delight in leisurely and nuanced selection. Let me offer a speculative evolutionary origin myth: all economic activity derives from the original two: hunting and gathering. Men did most of the former, women did most of the latter.  That gives us the starting point for telling the tale of this evolution of real, physical markets. The ones where we actually shop.

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Bay’s Conjecture

A few years ago, I was part of a two-day DARPA workshop on the theme of “Embedded Humans.” These things tend to be brain-numbing, so you know an idea is a good one if it manages to stick in your head. One idea really stayed with me, and we’ll call it Bay’s conjecture (John Bay, who proposed it, has held several senior military research positions, and is the author of a well-known technical textbook). It concerns the effect of intelligent automation on work. What happens when the matrix of technology around you gets smarter and smarter, and is able to make decisions on your behalf, for itself and “the overall system?” Bay’s conjecture is the antithesis of the Singularity idea (machines will get smarter and rule us, a la Skynet – I admit I am itching to see Terminator Salvation). In some ways its implications are scarier. [Read more…]

The Discovery of Money

Money  shares with  things like time and space the sort of obvious-mysterious quality that can utterly puzzle us.  Do we need a philosophy of money? I think we do.  Today’s financial crisis reminds me of the case of Bill #240 introduced in the Indiana legislature in 1897, which attempted to define Π (pi) as having the value 3.2, a kind of deep silliness that arises from understanding mathematics technically without understanding it philosophically. Imagine if we’d lacked an intuitive visual understanding of the idea of a circle, and the wheel had evolved like money in a universe where the Indiana episode was not a historical joke:wheelmoney

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Ribbonfarm at the Crossroads

Talk about a recession. Ribbonfarm is off to a very slow start in 2009, going by posting frequency. Between January 1 and May 5, I wrote a total of just 15 posts. Or less than a post a week. In 2008, I was posting twice as frequently, with 80 posts, or about 1.5 posts a week. The last couple of weeks were the slowest. Thanks to a hectic and messy apartment move, I posted nothing for 2 weeks, the longest break I’ve taken since I started in July 2007. There’s a mystery behind this slowdown that I’ll share, which I solved by looking at some numbers. The answer revealed some uncomfortable truths about my blogging. This led me to realize that a change has gradually been creeping up on this blog and that I have to make some key decisions soon, most of them rather unpleasant for me to even consider. I have an idea of where I want to go next, and I expect a few of you might have some thoughts to add. More on the ‘whither ribbonfarm?’ questions later. First, an overdue roundup.

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How to Draw and Judge Quadrant Diagrams

The quadrant diagram has achieved  the status of an intellectual farce. If you, as a presenter, do not make an  ironic joke when you throw one on the screen, you will automatically lose a lot of credibility. For some very good reasons though, the diagram is an indispensable one for the presenter’s toolkit. As a listener, if you have a default dismissive attitude towards the thing, you will have to sit out far too many important conversations with a cynical, superior smile. So here’s a quick tutorial on quadrant diagrams. I’ll tell you both how to make them, and how to evaluate them. Here’s a made-up one to get the basics clear. You basically take two spectra (or watersheds) relevant to a complex issue, simplify each down to a black/white dichotomy, and label the four quadrants you produce, like so:


This particular one is nonsense, and falls apart at the slightest poking (we’ll poke later in the article), and I made it up for fun. Let us discuss three real examples from business books before we develop a critical theory and design principles. The three I will use are from The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, Making It All Work by David Allen, and Listening to the Future by Dan Rasmus and Rob Salkowitz.

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