Thursday, January 30, 2014

Why Drones Were Invented

High above a mountainous desert pass, a predator drone silently stalks its prey from the safety of the clouds, waiting for the signal to unleash its payload

Somewhere in Texas, a Ranger launches a drone from the local high-school football field. It whirrs upwards, heading for preset coordinates to keep an eye on nefarious activity in the bad part of town.

It's 3pm on a Tuesday. Jimmy dumps his backpack in a corner near the door and heads for his room. He reaches under the bed and pulls out the quadracopter he got for his birthday. He sets it flying out the window and mercilessly buzzes his sister while she tries to play dolls on the porch with her friend .

In a nondescript building at the edge of a prestigious university campus is an electronics lab. The supervising professor carefully monitors an array of screens while his PhD student, wired to a powerful laptop by an assortment of colorful cables, controls a drone with his thoughts.

In a meeting room in the headquarters of a major online retail/technology company a programmer, logistics expert and a business mogul cover a whiteboard with crooked arrows, badly drawn squares, and semi-legible writing. They are close to perfecting a system for automatic drone deliveries.

At exactly midday on a frozen lake in Wisconsin, Dave reaches into a container. To his horror, he discovers that he and his buddy, Jake, have already finished the six-pack of beer. Jake is unconcerned as he uses his smart-phone to log-in to Lakemaid. He sends his GPS coordinates and waits for an octacopter to make its way over the ice with six fresh bottles of his favorite beer...At least, that's what would have happened had the FAA not nixed the only real reason for ever having invented the drone.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Writer's Dilemma

I have great respect for anyone who publishes a novel. Dedicating the massive amount of time and energy required to bringing an original work to completion is almost enough to win my envy.

Or scorn. It's true that writing a book is an impressive accomplishment, but don't waste my time. Novels built on the weak foundations of overused, formulaic writing serve no purpose. A book like that adds no more to the knowledge of the universe,  or the entertainment of humankind,  than does an instruction manual for a chocolate kettle. (Actually, that might be a fun read.)

The problem, though, is that novels and stories have been around since, approximately,  the beginning of time. It's difficult to come up with something new. The human race has heard it all before. We are savvy story-listeners. And we are clever.

Whether we realize it or not, people are excellent at predicting outcomes. Some of us are better at it than others, but we can often spot a punchline a mile away.

Herein lies the writer's dilemma: the writer has to be smarter than the readers. It's like a magic trick; pulling a rabbit out of your hat is no longer enough. To impress, the tricks need to constantly get bigger and better.

Why am I in awe of excellent writing? An author who has overcome the writer's dilemma has staved off a future devoid of original content, for one more day.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

3 Ways to Avoid Being the Prey

Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines - the one true motivator to get work done. The problem with deadlines is that even if the promised delivery date falls within the deadline, the Requestor still sweats until the job is done by the person actually doing the work. This leads to the inevitable visits to the worker's office for constant (and unnecessary) progress updates.

Last week I was asked to edit a PowerPoint presentation. The requested deadline was "by the end of the week". I agreed to the deadline, but I had a full schedule, so I only planned to deliver it by lunch on Thursday (the last day of my work-week). I knew it was a one or two-hour task, so I wasn't worried about delivering it on time. I suffered through the constant visits and reminders from the Requestor, but I stood my ground and stuck to my schedule – after all, he wasn't the only one to whom I had promised work.

I am reading a fascinating book by Nir Eyal called "Hooked", about how companies build habit-forming products. While on the way to work that Thursday morning, I read a section of the book about "rewards". When I sent the Requestor the edited PowerPoint that morning, I added a little note, which I based on a part of that chapter:
There is a tribe in Africa called San – one of the last tribes that still uses a hunting method that pre-dates spears. The San hunt kudu (it’s like a large deer) by separating one from its pack and then chasing it. The kudu is very fast, but it is also hairy. After about eight hours under the hot African sun, the kudu grows too hot and weary to keep running. The San hunter, who has been chasing the kudu all this time, catches up with it. Exhausted, the kudu collapses in surrender. The 100-pound San hunter pulls out a simple knife and kills the 500-pound beast with little resistance. This is called “persistence hunting”.
There is no need to ask me every day about my progress with this PPT. I promised you that I would deliver the PPT by the end of the week, and I did. Please don’t use the “persistence hunting” method with me :-)
The Requestor, amused by my anecdote – and impressed with (or frightened by) my knowledge of hunting methods – reacted positively. And herein lies the message - you can avoid being the prey if you have:
  1. Integrity: if you commit to a deadline, make sure to always deliver on time (emergencies notwithstanding).
  2. Strength: don't let Requestors push you around – just because they ask for work to be done, it doesn't give them the right to lord over your every waking hour.
  3. Humor: sometimes you can admonish someone and yet maintain good relations by injecting a little (but not too much) lightheartedness into your message.

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