driving with empathy

Earlier this week, on the drive to work, I almost got run off the road by an aggressive driver. I see many of these people every day and it doesn’t depend on what route I take or what time I go.

As a nation we seem to be immensely capable of empathy, till we’re put into our automotive bubbles. Then all hell breaks loose. All that most of us seem to care about is that we get to wherever we’re going, as fast as possible. And while we’re at it, let’s make sure we use that time productively by talking constantly over the phone.

Defensive driving is good. But it seems to me that it’s missing the point somewhat. It’s still self-directed. And that’s just not good enough.

What is needed is education that teaches us to drive with empathy. Let’s use the time we spend on the road to make sure we’re thinking of everyone else who’s sharing that little space around us. If not already, they could be our friends and family in the future. At the very least, they’re someone just like us – just another fallible human.

Value of creativity

January 4, 2010 1 comment

In an op-ed in the New York Times, U2 singer Bono writes about music piracy and how young fledgling songwriters who can’t make money off of ticket and T-shirt sales are affected by it.

My first reaction when I read this was to think how eerily similar Metallica’s argument was a decade ago. In the summer of 2000, their drummer appeared at a congressional hearing, flanked by executives in the music industry, and effectively shut down Napster and the nascent file-sharing industry.

I found it appalling then that the RIAA and an aging musician could choke our new-found “internet freedom” because they were latching on to a outdated model of how the world should operate. I, along with many others my age, were sure that it was only a matter of time before free music became the norm and the RIAA and the rest of the music industry cowed to that reality.

Almost 10 years later, reading Bono’s article, I think I may have been wrong. While I like the idea that I can download the song I want without having to pay for a whole CD of other songs I may not want, my belief in the sustainability of “free” has faded.

For one, someone needs to pay to keep that creativity alive. Not everyone has an inheritance.

Two, the idea of getting something for free, whether it’s music, ebooks, software, or any other creation, without the express permission of the author, is just plain stealing, regardless of what spin we put on it. Now if the author gives it away for free, great. Maybe they’re hoping we’ll listen to the songs (or play that game) and if we like it, will buy it. Maybe they’re hoping we’ll pay to go to their concert or buy their training course for the software they open-sourced.

A happy medium could be a limitation on the length of copyright protection. I’ll pay for your music for a few years. If you want more money, create something else new. I don’t get paid for a project that I worked on last year. My company pays me for what I’m working on now. Many other professions work that way as well.

In the end, we have to accept that some things in the world are constantly changing. Business ideas shackled in a previous era may not apply today. And we all have to adapt to these changes. But some things stay the same. Innovation and creativity will always have value.

Edward Scissorhands

Edward Scissorhands is a wonderfully made movie. Watching it earlier today after a long time, it occurred to me that there were layers to the movie that I didn’t know about 19 years ago.

At the literal level, it makes sense in a fairy-tale kind of way. Charming, romantic, sad.

At a deeper level, it’s the story of someone who is longing for social interaction but is socially awkward and ill-equipped to handle the norms of society, as evidenced by his sculpting the Boggs family, and of Kim dancing, yet being unable to hold a conversation or express his feelings. The knives take on a new meaning as a metaphor for this lack of social skills.

Combined with Edward’s longing for human contact is the tragedy that he ends up hurting anyone he cares for. When his inventor dies, Edward tries to touch his face and ends up cutting him.

The same happens with Kim, and her brother Kevin.

Apparently, there’s an even deeper level that this movie can be understood at. It never occurred to me till I read this wonderful article by Cory Sampson. He analyzes the movie and Edward’s behavior as an allegory of a man afflicted with Asperger Syndrome.

It’s a classic Tim Burton film, and almost 20 years later, it hasn’t lost any of its charm.

Categories: culture Tags: ,

Mass Transit of the future?

November 11, 2009 24 comments

When simple ideas are put together we create an elegant solution.

This article on the BBC talks about an EU-funded project that allows cars on the highway to join a “road train”, letting the driver concentrate on other productive tasks during a commute. Or even relax. What a concept!

Sartre (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) is basically a GPS-based system that shows the driver the location of a “road train”. The driver can then join the train with permission from the driver. Using a system of sensors and controls, the car is joined virtually to the train, and is pulled along, till the driver wishes to leave.

In addition to creating a virtual, on-the-spot mass transit system, the road train would also increase fuel efficiency by allowing the smaller vehicles behind the truck to “draft”. I’m wondering if by having a stream of smaller cars behind the truck, the fuel efficiency of the truck itself would improve too due to Coanda effect.

If successful, this could be a huge step towards  creating customized mass transit systems, combining the efficiencies of mass transits without the rigidity and costs associated with them.

Edit: 8/25/2012

The SARTRE project has indeed been launched. Trials are in progress.

Can’t catch a break

A story this morning in the NYT about coal powered plants brought to the forefront a question I’ve asked myself and of others – if the law of conservation of matter says that matter is neither created nor destroyed, but only changes form, where do all the pollutants go once we’ve created them.

Father Rodney Torbic, the priest at the St. George Serbian Orthodox Church, lives across the road from Hatfield’s Ferry and sees people suffering. Source: NYT

Evidently, nowhere. When you clean the air of pollution, you just end up dumping them either in the water, or in landfill.

In Economics, we call this “external cost”. While a company may do things to reduce this cost to consumers and society as whole, it is not completely eliminated.

According to the story, the Clean Water Act passed by the EPA doesn’t control all the contaminants dumped into the water. The contaminant solids that are removed by the scrubber are dumped into a landfill. Even the most advanced synthetic liner has been shown to leak in field tests, which means at some point, many of the solids are also going to find their way into the water.

The only viable solution to this is to move away from coal-powered plants – from digging up the coal (or variants) from the ground and burning them. Incidentally, that would also reduce the other huge pollution problem – mining, especially Mountain Top Removal.

Considering all the dangers involved in nuclear fission and in transporting/storage of spent nuclear waste, we’re left with only a few alternatives.

I don’t have an answer to the question of which of these alternatives has a real long-term prospect. I only know what we’re doing right now is just not sustainable.

Ethics and business school

I keep coming back to this topic but the current state of affairs at business schools gives me no confidence that, as a society, we’re heading in the right direction.

A couple of days back, in my Ethics class, we had a hypothetical case.

My bank is trying to win the business of a Saudi oil company. The lead manager on the project is a woman. During the negotiation phase, she couldn’t travel to Saudi Arabia but her team informed the Saudis that their boss is a woman. This was obviously lost in translation. When the Saudis come to the US to sign the final contract, they balk and refuse to deal with a woman. Period. What do you do?

As we went around the class discussing what our options were, I was disturbed when I realized that no one was calling this out for what it was – discrimination, plain and simple. There were suggestions that the female executive should be compensated for her work and put on a different project, with promises of lucrative assignments in the future. There was appreciation for coming up with “creative solutions”.

The very idea that a CEO should throw his “undesirable employee” under the bus in order to appease a customer’s prejudice (call it “cultural values”) and money seems unpalatable, and frankly, disgusting. What was even more shocking was the fact that most of the students didn’t see it as a huge problem.

Earlier in the class, several students admitted that they wouldn’t hire a balding, bulging marketing manager with impeccable credentials because “looks are important” in marketing.

There’s a crop of tomorrow’s business leaders.

We’re all screwed.

Categories: culture

Is greed still good?

If you close one door, another one opens. A recent article in the NYTimes on credit card companies and credit unions going to desperate lows to make money, was appalling and gut-wrenching.

Several of these banks were bailed-out by the federal government’s TARP program. For many of them, it was greed and an unapologetic willingness to rip-off the customer at any cost that brought them to that stage. You’d think they learned something from that. You’d be wrong.

Not only are they charging exhorbitant fees (3250% in one case), they do other things that any reasonable individual would consider unethical – re-arranging transactions so the highest charge is paid first, leaving the customer with no balance, and therefore triggering an overdraft fee.

From an “economic thinking” perspective, regulating this would be bad. Supply-side economists would say that by regulating this industry, consumers who have a need for this overdraft with ridiculous fees would not be able to get them. But are the customers really asking for this? Or are they simply opted-in by default?

Which brings me to a bigger point – why are default opt-ins even allowed? In you look at any industry – travel, credit cards, phone companies, advertising – an optional opt-out is always a ploy used to sucker somebody into giving up something that they may not be willing to do so if asked. It’s just as bad as those other scourges of commerce – mail-in rebates and “new & improved” products that hold less but cost the same. If you really want to give me a discount, just give it.

When this topic came up for discussion recently in class, it was interesting to watch how most students reacted. The general feeling was that it was the consumer’s responsibility to watch out. Companies had absolutely no responsibility to be transparent about unit costs.

Made me wonder – if the MBA students from Gecko’s generation brought us to this recession, where will this generation take us?