Category Archives: book review

My LRC Review of "When the Gods Changed" and other recommended weekend readings

This week, the Literary Review of Canada published my and Taylor Owen’s review of When the Gods Changed: The Death of Liberal Canada by Peter C. Newman. For non-Canadians Peter Newman is pretty much a legend when it comes to covering Canadian history and politics, he was editor of the country’s largest newspaper and main news magazine and has published over 35 books. I also think the review will be of interest to non-Canadians since I think the topic of the decline of Liberal Canada are also true for a number of other countries experiencing more polarized politics.

Some other articles I’ve been digesting that I recommend for some Friday or weekend reading:

Why China’s Political Model Is Superior

This one is a couple of months old, but it doesn’t matter. Fascinating read. For one it shows the type of timelines that the Chinese look at the world with. Hint. It is waaayyyy longer than ours. Take a whiff:

In Athens, ever-increasing popular participation in politics led to rule by demagogy. And in today’s America, money is now the great enabler of demagogy. As the Nobel-winning economist A. Michael Spence has put it, America has gone from “one propertied man, one vote; to one man, one vote; to one person, one vote; trending to one dollar, one vote.” By any measure, the United States is a constitutional republic in name only.

Unattractive Real Estate Agents Achieve Quicker Sales

Before getting serious on you again, here’s a lighter more interesting note. I often comment in talks I give that real estate agents rarely use data to attract clients – mostly just pictures of themselves. Turns out… there might be more data in that then I thought! Apparently less attractive agents sell homes faster and work harder. More attractive agents take longer, but get more money. Food for thought here.

Andrew Coyne: Question isn’t where conservatism is going, but where has it gone

Another oldie but a goody. Liberal Canada may be dead, but it appears that Conservative Canada isn’t in much better shape. I’ve always enjoyed Coyne and feel like he’s been sharper than usual of late (since moving back to the National Post). For Americans, there may be some interesting lessons in here for the Tea Party movement. Canada experienced a much, much lighter form of conservative rebellion with creation of the Reform Party in the late 80s/early 90s which split off from establishment conservatives. Today, that group is now in power (rebranded) but Coyne assesses that much of what they do has been watered down. But not everything… to the next two articles!

Environmental charities ‘laundering’ foreign funds, Kent says

Sadly, Canada’s “Environment” Minister is spending most of his time attacking environmental groups. The charge is that they use US money to engage in advocacy against a pipeline to be built in Canada. Of course “Laundering” is a serious charge (in infers illegal activity) and given how quick the Conservatives have been in suing opponents for libel Kent had better be careful the stakeholders will adopt this tactic. Of course, this is probably why he doesn’t name any groups in particular (clever!). My advice, is that all the groups named by the Senate committee should sue him, then, to avoid the lawsuit he’d have to either a) back down from the claim altogether, or b) be specific about which group he is referring to to have the other suits thrown out. Next headline… to the double standard!

Fraser Institute co-founder confirms ‘years and years’ of U.S. oil billionaires’ funding

Some nifty investigative work here by a local Vancouver reporter finds that while the Canadian government believes it is bad for environmental groups to receive US funds for advocacy, it is apparently, completely okay for Conservative groups to receive sums of up to $1.7M from US oil billionaires. Ethical Oil – another astro-turf pro-pipeline group does something similar. It receives money from Canadian law firms that represent benefiting American and Chinese oil interests. But that money is labelled “Canadian” because it is washed through Canadian law firms. Confused? You should be.

What retail is hired to do: Apple vs. IKEA

I love that Clay Christiansen is on twitter. The Innovator’s Dilemma is a top 5 book of all time for me. Here is a great break down of how IKEA and Apple stores work. Most intriguing is the unique value proposition/framing their stores make to consumers which explains their phenomenal success as why they are often not imitated.

Not Brain Candy: A Review of The Information Diet by Clay Johnson

My body no longer kills me when I come back from the gym. However, I had a moment of total humiliation today: theoretically my ideal body weight is 172 pounds and I weigh 153 Ibs. The woman at the gym calibrated my fat/water/meat/bone ratios, made an inward gasp and I asked her what was wrong. She said (after a tentative, you-have-cancer pause), “You’re what’s technically known as a ‘thin fat person.’ ”

– Douglas Copeland, Microserfs

We know that healthy eating – having a good, balanced diet – is the most important thing we can do for our physical health. What if the same is true of our brains?  This is the simple but powerful premise that lies at the heart of Clay Johnson’s excellent book The Information Diet.

It’s also a timely thesis.

Everyone seems worried about how we consume information, about what it is doing to our brains and how it impacts society. Pessimists believe Google and social media are creating a generation of distracted idiots unable or unwilling to steep themselves in any deep knowledge. From the snide ramblings of Andrew Keen in The Cult of the Amateur to alarmed New York Times executive editor Bill Keller – who equates letting his daughter join Facebook to passing her a crystal meth pipe – the internet and the type of information it creates are apparently destroying our minds, our society and, of course, our children.

While I disagree with the likes of Keen and Keller, your humble author admits he’s an information addict. I love reading the newspaper or my favourite columnists/bloggers; I’m regularly distracted by both interesting and meaningless articles via Twitter and Facebook; and I constantly struggle to stay on top of my email inbox. I’m a knowledge worker in an information society. If anyone should be good at managing information, it should be me. Reading The Information Diet forces me to engage with my ability in a way I’ve not done before.

What makes The Information Diet compelling is that Johnson embraces the concerns we have about the world of information overload – from those raised by New York Magazine authors and celebrated pundits to the challenges we all feel on a day to day basis – and offers the best analysis to date of its causes, and what we can do about it. Indeed, rather than being a single book, The Information Diet is really three. It’s an analysis of what is happening to the media world; it’s a self-help book for information-age workers, consumers and citizens; and it’s a discussion about the implications of the media environment on our politics.

InfoDietIt is in its first section that the book shines the brightest. Johnson is utterly persuasive in arguing that the forces at play in the food industry are a powerful mirror for our media environment. Today the main threat to Americans (and most others living in the developed world) is not starvation; it’s obesity. Our factory farms are so completely effective at pumping out produce that it isn’t a lack of food the kills us, it’s an overabundance of it. And more specifically, it’s the over-consumption of food that we choose to eat, but that isn’t good for us in anything greater than small quantities.

With information, our problem isn’t that we consume too much – Johnson correctly points out that physically, this isn’t possible. What’s dangerous is consuming an overabundance of junk information – information that is bad for us. Today, one can choose to live strictly on a diet of ramen noodles and Mars bars. Similarly, it’s never been easier to restrict one’s information consumption to that which confirms our biases. In an effort to better serve us, everywhere we go, we can chomp on a steady diet of information that affirms and comforts rather than challenges – information devoid of knowledge or even accuracy; cheaply developed stories by “big info” content farms like Demand Media or cheaply created opinion hawked by affirmation factories like MSNBC or FOX News; even emails and tweets that provide dopamine bursts but little value. In small quantities, these information sources can be good and even enjoyable. In large quantities, they deplete our efficiency, stress us out, and can put us in reality bubbles.

And this is why I found The Information Diet simultaneously challenging, helpful and worrying.

Challenging, because reading The Information Diet caused me to think of my own diet. I like to believe I’m a healthy consumer, but reflecting on what I read, where I get my information and who I engage with, in parts of my life, I may be that dreaded thin-fat person. I look okay, but probe a little deeper and frankly, there are a few too many confirmation biases, too many common sources, leaving my brain insufficiently challenged and becoming a shade flabby. I certainly spend too much time on email, which frankly is a type of information fix that really does sap my productivity.

Helpful, because in part The Information Diet is a 21st-century guide to developing and honing critical thinking and reasoning skills. At its most basic, it’s a self-help book that provides some solid frameworks and tools for keeping these skills sharp in a world where the opportunities for distraction and confirmation bias remain real and the noise-to-signal ratio can be hard to navigate.  To be clear, none of this advice is overly refined, but Johnson doesn’t pretend it is. You can’t download critical thinking skills – no matter what Fox News’s slogan implies. In this regard, the book is more than helpful – it’s empowering. Johnson, correctly I believe, argues that much like the fast food industry – which seeks to exploit our body’s love of salty, fatty food – many media companies are simply indulging our desire for affirming news and opinion. It’s not large companies that are to blame. It’s the “secret compact” (as Johnson calls it) that we make with them that makes them possible. We are what we consume. In this regard, for someone that those on the right might consider (wrongly) to be a big government liberal, The Information Diet has an strong emphasis on personal responsibility.

There is, of course, a depressing flip side to this point: one that has me thinking about the broader implications of his metaphor. In a world of abundant food, we have to develop better discipline around dieting and consumption.

But the sad fact is, many of us haven’t. Indeed, almost a majority has not.

As someone who believes in democratic discourse, I’ve always accepted that as messy as our democratic systems may be, over time good ideas – those backed by evidence and effective track records – will rise to the top. I don’t think Johnson is suggesting this is no longer true. But he is implying that in a world of abundant information, the basic ante of effective participation is going up. The skills are evolving and the discipline required is increasing. If true, where does that leave us? Are we up for the challenge? Even many of those who look informed may simply be thin fat people. Perhaps those young enough to grow up in the new media environment will automatically develop the skills Clay says we need to explicitly foster. But does this mean there is a vulnerable generation? One unable to engage critically and so particularly susceptible to the siren song of their biases?

Indeed, I wish this topic were tackled more, and initially it felt like it would be. The book starts off as a powerful polemic on how we engage in information; it is then a self-help book, and towards the end, an analysis of American politics. It all makes for fascinating reading. Clay has plenty of humour, southern charm and self-deprecating stories that the pages flow smoothly past one another. Moreover, his experience serves him well. This is man who worked at Ask Jeeves in its early days, helped create the online phenomenon of the Howard Dean campaign, and co-founded Blue State Digital – which then went on to create the software that powered Obama’s online campaign.

But while his background and personality make for compelling reading, the last section sometimes feels more disconnected from the overall thesis. There is much that is interesting and I think Clay’s concerns about the limits of transparency are sound (it is a prerequisite to success, but not a solution). Much like most people know Oreos are bad for them, they know congressmen accept huge bundles of money. Food labels haven’t made America thinner, and getting better stats on this isn’t going to magically alter Washington. Labels and transparency are important tools for those seeking to diet. Here the conversation is valuable. However, some of the arguments, such as around scalability problems of representation, feel less about information and more about why politics doesn’t work. And the chapter closes with more individual advice. This is interesting, but his first three chapters create a sense of crisis around America’s information diet. I loved his suggestions for individuals, but I’d love to hear some more structural solutions, or if he thinks the crisis is going to get worse, and how it might affect our future.

None of this detracts from the book. Quite the opposite – it left me hungry for more.

And I suspect it will do the same for anyone interested in participating as a citizen or worker in the knowledge economy. Making The Information Diet part of your information diet won’t just help you rethink how you consume information, live and work. It will make you think. As a guy who knows he should eat more broccoli but doesn’t really like the taste, it’s nice to know that broccoli for your brain can be both good for you and tasty to read. I wish I had more of it in my daily diet.

For those interested you can find The Information Diet Blog here – this has replaced his older well known blog – InfoVegan.com.

Full disclosure: I should also share that I know Clay Johnson. I’ve been involved in Code for America and he sits on the Advisory Board. With that in mind, I’ve done my best to look at his book with a critical eye, but you the reader, should be aware.

The Review I want to Read of "What Technology Wants"

A few weeks ago I finished “What Technology Wants” by Kevin Kelly. For those unfamiliar with Kelly (as I was) he was one of the co-founders of Wired magazine and sits on the board of the Long Now Foundation.

What Technology Wants is a fascinating read – both attracting and repulsing me on several occasions. Often I find book reading to be a fairly binary experience – either I already (explicitly or intuitively) broadly agree with the thesis and the book is an exercise in validation and greater evidence, or I disagree, and the book pushes me to re-evaluate assumptions I have. More rare is a book which does both at the same time.

For example, Kelly’s breakdown of the universe as a series of systems for moving around information so completely resonated with me. From DNA, to language, to written word, our world keeps getting filled with systems the transmit, share and remix more information faster. The way Kelly paints this universe is fascinating and thought provoking. In contrast, his determinist view of technology, that we are pre-ordained to make the next discovery and that, from a technological point of view, our history is already written and is just waiting to unwind, ran counter to so many of my values (a strong believer in free-will). It was as if the tech-tree from a game like Civilization actually got it all right – that technology had to be discovered in a preset order and that if we rewound the clock of history, it would (more or less) this aspect of it would play out the same.

The tech tree is civilization always bothered me on a basic level – it challenged the notion that someone smart enough, with enough vision and imagination could have in a parallel universe, created a completely different technology tree in our history. I mean, Leonardo De Vinci drafted plans for helicopters, guns and tanks (among other things) in the 14th century? And yet, Kelly’s case is so compelling and with the simplest of arguments: No inventor ever sits around unworried that someone else is going to make the same discovery – quite the opposite, inventors know that a parallel discovery is inevitable, just a matter of time, and usually not that much time.

Indeed, Kelly convinces me that the era of the unique idea, or the singular discovery may be over, in fact the whole thing was just an illusion created by the limits of time, space and capacity. Previously, it took time for ideas to spread, so they could appear to come from a single source, but in a world of instant communication, we increasingly see that ideas spring up simultaneously everywhere – an interest point given the arguments over patents and copyright.

But what I’d really like to read is a feminist critique of What Technology Wants (if someone knows of one, please post it or send it to me). It’s not that I think that Kelly is sexist (there is nothing that suggests this is the case) it is just that the book reads like much of what comes out of the technology space – which sadly – tends to be dominated by men. Indeed, looking at the end of the book, Kelly thanks 49 thinkers and authors who took time to help him enhance his thesis, and the list is impressive including names such as Richard Dawkins, Chris Anderson, David Brin, and Paul Hawken. But I couldn’t help but notice only 2 of the 49 were obviously women (there may be, tops 4 women, who made the list). What Technology Wants is a great read, and I think, for me, the experience will be richer once I see how some other perspectives wrap their heads around its ideas.

Clay Shirky, Connected and Yellow Pages

Yellow-pages-comicTwo weeks ago, after seeing Yellow Pages stacked, unused and unwanted in both my own and several friends apartment buildings, I started a Facebook Group entitled 100,000 Canadians who’ve opted out of yellow pages! In two weeks, with friends telling a friend here and there, we’ve grown to 1000 people. So where did this come from and where is it going?

Well, for a number of years there have been petitions against Yellow Pages but obviously they have had little impact and, frankly, I suspect they actually garner few sign-ups. In Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do Christakis and Fowler show how people are more likely to vote when their friends, and friends’, friends voted. This suggests there is a strong social component to behaviour. Given that many people I talk to want to opt-out, I thought maybe people will be more likely to opt-out if they knew their friends and their friends, friends opt out. And maybe we could help create that cycle. Facebook, because it allows us to connect with our friends and share some online actions we take, felt like a great platform to do this. Indeed, it seemed to me exactly the ingredient that many online petitions (Which don’t allow you to socialize your activity) seemed to be missing. Also, surprisingly, there wasn’t already a Facebook group dedicated to this.

yellow-pages-banIndeed, looking at Yellow Pages own research reaffirmed my belief that such a group could be successful. They claim 61% of Canadians aged 18+ use their directories at least once a month to look up a business. (Interestingly you can’t read the report on which the claim is made). But (a) this felt unlikely and (b) once a month? So people use the yellow pages 12 times a year…? That’s not delivering value, indeed the number is so unimpressive and underwhelming that if that is the best they can offer, I’m sure we can find lots of Canadians who’d prefer to just say no.

So how I have I structured this (admittedly) off the side of my computer and amateur-driven campaign? I’m trying to follow Clay Shirky’s three pieces of advice at the end of Here Comes Everybody. Make clear the promise, the tool and the bargain.

The Promise: the thing that convinces a potential user to become an actual user.

The promise of this Facebook group is: by taking a simple action and sharing it with our friends, we can save a lot of waste and not receive a large (and annoying) piece of spam in our mailbox. The goal here is to keep everything simple. Participating requires very little time, the impact is immediate (you stop receiving the yellow pages) but also can scale significantly (lots of yellow pages may never get printed). Indeed, an extreme possible outcome – should enough people join the group – is breaking the printed yellow pages business model. If a sufficient number of Canadians actually opted out of the yellow pages, it would be hard for advertisers to believe Yellow Pages marketing materials as probably several more million aren’t on facebook, haven’t joined the group, but also find it useless. But, I’m not holding my breath – for now, I’m happy even getting a few thousand people to opt out.

The Tool: what will enable people to do what they actually want to do.

In our case, it is opt out of receiving the yellow pages. So there are two key tools. The first, is Yellow Pages opt-out form. Indeed, this group exists because there’s failure in information distribution. In some ways the group is about socializing this tool that people find helpful. Most people I talk to think the Yellow Pages are a waste and wish they didn’t have to get them. The truth is, you can opt out of receiving them – it was just that nobody knows how. We are fixing that information gap.

The second tool is a way to share the good news with others. Here, thanks to facebook, we leverage their tools, such as invites, status updates, people even upload photos of Yellow Pages siting unwanted in their apartment lobbies, share videos or – as in the case of Rob above – draw cartoons!

An unanticipated tool has been people helping each other out with filling out the form, or giving feedback to Yellow Pages about their service.

The Bargain: Helps clarify what you expect of others and what they can expect of you.

The bargain for this group is possible most interesting. Since I believe the Yellow Pages is spam and that, frankly, no one likes getting unwanted emails here is the bargain I’ve crafted. Users will opt out of the yellow pages and, hopefully, tell a few friends about the group. As group owner, I promise to only reach out to the group 5 times. Once when the group size hits 1000, 5,000, 10,000, 25,000, and (if we are so lucky) 100,000! I don’t want people to feel burdened by this group – I want them to feel liberated, happy and rewarded. Moreover, people’s time is valuable… so not communicating with them is probably the best thing I can do – hence, the self-imposed limits that reflects milestones we can collectively feel proud of achieving.

Going forward

So without spamming our own networks we’ve gotten to 1000 people in two weeks. Fairly good growth. Will we hit 100,000? I don’t know. It is an ambitious goal. Will we break the Yellow Pages business model? Probably less likely. But can we save some trees and save ourselves the hassle of receiving some very bulky and unwanted mail. Yes. And maybe we can show that Canadians don’t use the Yellow Pages. Ultimately, though we can tell a company that the very people it claims to serve just think it is appalling that they spam an entire country with a 400 page book particularly in an era where, as far as I can tell, so few people actually use it.

Oh, and I hope you’ll consider joining the group and telling a few friends.

How bad design led to a lost decade

First, I’m away on vacation (hence the scarce number of posts) and am consumed writing a few chapters for a couple of books that I’m contributing to – more on those in the near future I hope.

In the interim, I became profoundly depressed this morning after reading the passage below. I’m certain that history will look back at the Bush presidency as a “lost decade” when not only did the economy go off the rails and America’s standing in the world plummeted, but hundreds of thousands of lives were lost and billions were wasted in Iraq, human rights were hurled decades backwards and the benefits and progress of work in the humanities and sciences were put on hold (and in many cases, simply wasted).

Thinking these thoughts can itself be depressing. But this excerpt made it worse:

If you’re still unconvinced that design can have consequences beyond the carport and cutting board, point your memory back to the 2000 U.S. presidential elections and the thirty-six-day snarl over whether Al Gore or George W. Bush won the most votes in Florida. That election and its aftermath may seem like a bad dream today. But buried in that brouhaha was an important, and mostly ignored, lesson…

…According to an exhaustive examination of all of Florida’s ballots that several newspapers and academics conducted a year after the election-and whose findings were largely lost amid the coverage of the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks and utterly forgotten after Bush’s 2004 reelection-what determined who won the U.S. presidency was the infamous butterfly ballot that voters in Palm Beach county used to mark their choice for President. In Palm Beach County – a heavily Democratic enclave populated by tens of thousands of elderly Jewish voters – ultraconservative fringe candidate Pat Buchanan recieved 3,407 votes, three times as many votes as he did in any other county in the state. (According to one statistical analysis, if the voting pattern of the state’s other sixty-six counties had held in Palm Beach, Buchanan would have won only 603 votes.) What’s more, 5,237 Palm Beach County voters marked ballots for both Al Gore and Pat Buchanan, and therefore had their ballots invalidated. Bush carried the entire state by 537 votes.

Less well known is the ballot in Duval County in which the presidential ballot showed five candidates on one page and another five candidates on the next page, along with instructions to “vote every page.” In that county, 7,162 Gore ballots were tossed out because voters selected two candidates for President. Had the instructions been clearer, Duval County, too, would have provided Gore the margin of victory.

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel H. Pink

Design does matter. In this case, poor design costs America (and much of the world) a decade of progress and, possibly, countless billions (if not trillions).

How the Mighty Fall vs. The Black Swan

blackswanI’ve almost finished listening to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, a book about how large-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare event beyond the realm of normal expectations. At the same time, Tim O’Reilly caused me to stumble upon this article previewing Jim Collins‘ (author of Good to Great and Built to Last) new book “How the Mighty Fall.”

In some way the two authors’ could not be more different. Taleb writes in a harsh, sarcastic, cutting tone that heaps scorn on many of the worlds finest minds as well as, one senses, the books readers. His harshest barbs are reserved for academics, who if often sees as being to interested in theory to help with real world problems. I’ve never seen Taleb in person or on video, but after listening to The Black Swan I can’t help but see him as an lethal and angry intellectual street fighter, mad at a world that didn’t notice his brilliance earlier.

How the Might FallCollins, in contrast, reads like a classic business academic writer who has gone mainstream. He never offends, and his tone is never harsh – he seems like the archtype westcoast Business school Professor – smart, driven and direct, but slightly geeky in that friendly way and not overly intense (hence westcoast).

But while their styles (and I hypothesize, personalities) are dramatically different, they overlap in some curious and interesting ways. Both are concerned with business issues and both are writing about outliers. Taleb is concerned with the outlying events that can completely alter one’s world. Collins in concerned with outlier companies – those that experience impressive and continuous success. And while I’m sure there are lots of areas where the two will disagree, it is interesting to focus on where the two almost completely overlap.

The first appears where Collins talks about the first symptom of a company going into decline: Hubris Born of Success:

“The best leaders we’ve studied never presume they’ve reached ultimate understanding of all the factors that brought them success. For one thing, they retain a somewhat irrational fear that perhaps their success stems in large part from fortuitous circumstance. Suppose you discount your own success (“We might have been just really lucky/were in the right place at the right time/have been living off momentum/have been operating without serious competition”) and thereby worry incessantly about how to make yourself stronger and better-positioned for the day your good luck runs out. What’s the downside if you’re wrong? Minimal: If you’re wrong, you’ll just be that much stronger by virtue of your disciplined approach. But suppose instead you succumb to hubris and attribute success to your own superior qualities (“We deserve success because we’re so good/so smart/so innovative/so amazing”). What’s the downside if you’re wrong? Significant. You just might find yourself surprised and unprepared when you wake up to discover your vulnerabilities too late.”

This whole paragraph sounds like a friendly version of Taleb. Praising leaders who don’t claim to understand the full complexity of their world, their business or even their own success? Classic Taleb.

More interesting however, is the emphasis on luck. Taleb regularly argues that luck is (at a minimum) underestimated and more often ignored outright, as a factor in a businesses success. No CEO wants to stand up and say, yes, we become $10B dollar company not just because we were good, but because we were lucky – it doesn’t exactly send a positive message to share holders (or does it justify their enormous bonus). But Collins not only agrees that luck is a factor, he argues that good companies admit to themselves that luck was a factor.

In hockey you hear people say you’ve got to be good to be lucky and lucky to be good. The point is, if you work hard, bounces will eventually come your way and you’ve got to be good enough to pounce on them and make those opportunities count. Begin to think you don’t need luck, you stop seeing the opportunities and also begin to believe you are inherently better than anyone. Fact is, you’re not. You’ve got to work. Hard. And hope for some luck. Even then, you probably never become Google.

The second interesting place of overlap is in Collins discussion about how companies begin to deny that they are at risk or in peril.

“Bill Gore, founder of W.L. Gore & Associates, articulated a helpful concept for decision-making and risk-taking, what he called the “waterline” principle. Think of being on a ship, and imagine that any decision gone bad will blow a hole in the side of the ship. If you blow a hole above the waterline (where the ship won’t take on water and possibly sink), you can patch the hole, learn from the experience, and sail on. But if you blow a hole below the waterline, you can find yourself facing gushers of water pouring in, pulling you toward the ocean floor. And if it’s a big enough hole, you might go down really fast, just like some of the financial firm catastrophes of 2008. To be clear, great enterprises do make big bets, but they avoid big bets that could blow holes below the waterline.”

In The Black Swan, Taleb has an entire piece on assessing risk which parallels this quote. He notes that too often business people and – in particular – financial types, focus on predicting the likelihood of an event – even when a prediction model is deeply flawed or essentially meaningless. Since often assessing the likelihood of an event is often impossible Taleb argues it becomes much more important to ascertain the likely magnitude of it’s impact. So avoid doing things or exposing yourself to risks that, if they go wrong, will blow out your hull. Indeed, the Black Swan is essentially a 250 page book on this paragraph.

Why Canada’s public services need faith

As I mentioned the otherday, I recently finished Thomas S. Kuhn’s classic 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” For those unfamiliar with the text, it is the book that gave us the important and oft over-used term, “paradigm shift.”

Here, in this book about how progress is made in the sciences I was completely floored by this paragraph in penultimate chapter: The Resolution of Revolutions.

…the issue is which paradigm should in the future guide research on problems many of which neither competitor can yet claim to resolve completely. A decision between alternate ways of practicing science is called for, and in the circumstances that decision must be based less on past achievement than on future promise. The man who embraces a new paradigm at an early stage must often do so in defiance of the evidence provided by problem-solving. He must, that is, have faith that the new paradigm will succeed with the many large problems that confront it, knowing only that the old paradigm has failed with a few. A decision of that kind can only be made on faith. (pages 157-158/3rd edition)

This describes precisely how I feel about Public Service Sector Renewal (reforming the public service). When I talk and write about an open and networked government I understand it raises questions around accountability, ministerial responsibility and human resource management. I’m aware that these are “large problems” for which our present structure has some – albeit highly imperfect and I’d argue, quickly eroding – answers.

Moreover it is true, that if we decided on how and if to reform government based solely on the performance of past models then we would always choose the status quo. The corporate hierarchy has served us well. Any new model will appear, relatively speaking, untested. But a growing number of us know that the status quo is unsustainable.

I know that any new system, however slight the change, will bring with it new challenges and questions, but the paralyzing and untenable problems with the current system will ultimately outweigh these unknowns – even in an organization as conservative as the public service. Ultimately, I am saying that a new system can succeed with many large problems confronting it even as the old system has failed only with a few.

So, as odd as it is to admit, I am, in part, acting on faith. Not only that, I believe the public service is going to learn to have faith as well. Why? Because in the end we won’t have a choice – the old problems this system cannot solve will demand it. We will have to change, and that will mean, someone, somewhere in the public service have put their foot forward into the unknown.

Indeed, many already have.