Conscription in the name of science

February 28, 2016

How would the landscape of hard problems change if everyone had to spend at least 2 years of their lives working on them?

Think about that, while I tell you a story about a hero named Eff.

Eff isn’t an academic, in fact he didn’t finish high school. He left home at 16 to pursue a career as a chef. After doing that for 12 years, he opened a drug store. He sold that business and decided to get his pilot’s license while working in federal politics. Four years later he opened and sold a bar, and finally at age 48, settled into real estate where he would spend the rest of his working life.

Eff holds no degrees in mathematics or engineering but can build pretty much anything (he loves making furniture). He can also fix or repair pretty much anything, and other than a near miss he had a month ago with a tree in his backyard, he can think through complex problems and invent novel solutions. If you explain a problem and give him a set of contraints, he will come up with a solution. Sometimes it’s optimal, sometimes it has already been tried, sometimes it doesn’t work, but he will develop a solution that can be tested.

Really smart people think humans have some hard problems to solve. Hard problems that need to be solved in our lifetime. And in a time when some of our best and brightest are being pulled away from these hard problems.

What can we do? We need to get to Mars.

Eff isn’t going to help us get to Mars. SpaceX won’t hire him, but maybe they should. Granted I am biased, Eff is my Dad, and he’s one of the smartest people I know.

Every year, Eff and I share a chilly 6 hour drive up to our cottage. At some point we always end up talking about hard problems. Last year it was robots, this year, we talked about energy. Eff had an idea. What if the road had millions of little springs embedded into the pavement, such that when cars rolled over them, they pushed down and created a little bit of kenetic energy. Could you harness that energy into something useful or powerful? I have no idea, and neither does he, but I think it might be worth asking the question.

I am not saying that little springs are the answer to all our problems, but he is always coming up with ideas like this. Eff’s problem is that he doesn’t know what the really hard problems are. Or if he does, he doesn’t have the context or the constraints to try and solve them. What he needs is the scene from Apollo 13 (if you are an engineer you are nodding your head right now. You don’t even need to click the link because you know exactly what scene I am taking about). A team of people are tasked with fitting a square peg into a round hole, and guess what… they do it.

What if, at some point in his entrepreneurial career Eff had been forced into a similar situation. What if someone gave him a really hard problem, something completely over his head: Solar energy efficiency, the traveling salesman problem, getting to Mars, growing plants in the dessert, efficient hydroponics, harnessing the casimir effect, protein folding, supersymmetry, cold fusion… you get the idea. I think he could help solve it.

Let’s re-invent conscription in the name of science.

Every able minded human being would be legally bound to work on a hard problem that has the potential to dramatically aide human beings, alleviate suffering en masse, or ensure the survival of our species for two years of their life. One year right after coming of age: 18–25 and another closer to the average age of retirement, 55–65. This would make sure that we always had new minds and older, wiser minds working on hard problems.

Similar to parental leave, employers would cover a certain amount, and the government would cover the rest. If you don’t have a job or your employer cannot afford it, then you would have a longer, less focused contract but you would still have to work on / think about a very hard problem for a given amount of time.

One of the hardest problems would be defining / scoping the hard problems in such a way that everyone can contribute. Obviously Eff isn’t going to solve any loop-quantum gravity equations. But I believe there is something else he could help with. I don’t know what that is, but I know we can all be useful. That is why I chose the word conscription. During the Great Wars, some men and women were physically or mentally stronger. This made them more “useful” for certain tasks, but everyone contributed something.

Relying on volunteers or the current system isn’t enough because a terrible math teacher in the 4th grade can make or a break a scientist. There are many would be engineers who had their curiosity extinguished by people, or circumstance. If everyone was legally bound to lend their minds to science, more progress would be made. I do not have a good idea or system for how we would organize or manage this, but we could make it one of the first hard problems to solve.

Call it blind optimism, but I feel that everyone can add value in solving these hard problems. Eff won’t work at SpaceX, but he can help us get to Mars. He just need to know what the hard problems are, and be given time to try and solve them.

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. -Einstein

To Minds!

Buddha was a deadbeat dad

February 15, 2016

Siddhartha went quietly to see his newborn son for the first time. His wife was sleeping with the baby beside her, her hand resting on the baby’s head. The prince said to himself, “If I try to move her hand so I can take the child for one last cuddle I fear I will wake her and she will prevent me from going. No! I must go, but when I have found what I am looking for, I shall come back and see him and his mother again.

Is it right to leave your children for your own selfish ambitions? I wouldn’t.

I always wanted to be a father, and knew I would be in my life. Even with this desire and a feeling of readiness when my wife got pregnant, I am ashamed to admit that I struggled in the first few months after he was born. Resentment and depression consumed much of my thoughts.

What about me and my life? All the things I wanted to do, businesses I wanted to start, languages I wanted to learn, books I wanted to read, knowledge I wanted to consume… when would I find the time? What have I done?

Having just finished watching Slingshot, where Dean Kamen openly speaks about how he would be a terrible father, full of resentment for taking him away from his life’s purpose I couldn’t help but feel guilty. Those were some of the feelings that I had in those early days. I work a lot, and love it. I don’t compare my contribution to Dean’s but I try my best. My son’s birth was a flame that ignited the embers of my ego that I thought I had put out. The fire ragged and was consuming. Luckily, with friends and family to help I was able to starve the fire of thought, and it died as quickly as it started but it did burn us.

Buddha gave me a framework for dealing with those thoughts and feelings. The joy and love I feel today are beyond anything I could have imagined then. As a father every moment becomes a chance to play. Seeing the world through a child’s eyes is a profound perspective altering experience. It makes life pretty clear and simple. You are either living in illusion or living in love, ego or truth, where and when or here and now. Ambition hasn’t become less important, just less serious. I know more than ever that life is a game I am lucky to be playing with my wife and son. Even though I know they are illusions and ultimately impermanent, they are the most beautiful parts of life I have seen and I will enjoy them to the fullest while I can. What better way to spend your time then playing the game of life with the people you love the most.

Buddha didn’t feel these gifts, he chose to pursue ambition and a calling much like Dean. I am not judging his decision as it was his to make, but I can’t help but see the irony and wonder what would have happened if he had seen those desires to escape and self-actualize for what they were. Would Siddhārtha have still found what he was looking for? Would he still have discovered the sword that helped me cut through the illusion? I don’t know.

I do know that in less than 6 hours my son will wake us up in one of three ways: a kick, a laugh, or a fart. Fingers crossed for a laugh but I will take whatever he choses to give.

You don’t have to start with the why

February 11, 2016

Start with the Why is a marketing cargo cult, and you don’t have to worship it if you don’t want to. In fact, focusing on it too early might be a really bad thing to do.

If you sell the why, and people don’t like it, or weren’t expecting it, and don’t know who you are and leave before reading the how and what you are screwed. You only have a few chances to win someone over, and unless you go Black Swan and become of the top 50 products in the world, you might miss your opportunity to reach that person again.

Starting with the why is a useful tool to have at your disposal but it is not the be all and end all, and you really need to decide if your company is ready to use it.

When you should start with the why

  1. When most people know what the heck you do
  2. Your product’s word of mouth, or organic growth is so high that you can afford to start experimenting with your messaging.

Apple didn’t start with the why.

Harley didn’t either.

Patagonia didn’t either.

They are three examples of companies that reach escape velocity and created a sustainable business that gained name recognition.

“Harley Davidson… they make headphones right?” — Said no one ever!

Once there was a substantial amount of word of mouth, then leading with the why becomes a non-obvious and powerful choice. That’s the secret and power of Starting with the Why but the sequencing presented is all wrong.

If you are a startup and no one knows who you are or what you do and you aim for a lofty why headline or home page, then there is a good chance you will confuse the hell out of most people and miss good growth opportunities.

Starting with the why is fantastic branding strategy once you have established strong word of mouth and organic growth. Until then, you better make sure people know what the hell your product does and why it’s better than Sally’s.

Brush your teeth and wash your brain

February 2, 2016

Over the past 10 years I have experimented with super caffeination, polyphasic sleep, the DaVinci method (slightly different than PS), meditation, affirmations, and visualization as ways to prolong wakeful productive time.

I am an idiot.

Seriously, re-read that line above. It’s true.

In my hubris, I, the mighty Kent Fenwick from Toronto, Canada decided that I would be the one to reach a new level of consciousness and kill this disease called sleep. I would use my super mental powers to will myself awake, to drug myself, to fight nature and evolution itself! A God among men and women…

I was an idiot.

Seriously, re-read that line above. It’s true.

If you are a positive optimist as I am, then you will read this and get a renewed sense of energy.

“No bro, there are these pills you can buy from Amazon that…”

“You clearly never snorted adderall.”

“You gave up! You should have kept experimenting! Did you try…”

All that jazz ^^

So why wait 10 years for the rant? Because I am starting to see explorers that look a lot like I did. The lack of sleep is being worn as a badge of honor. Let me set the record straight, consistent lack of sleep is a failure of prioritization and focus, not a badge of honour.

We might discover a way to wash our brain (yes our brain is a dishwasher) artificially, and could reduce our dependance on sleep but that day is not today. So go to sleep.

Let’s not celebrate things are scientifically known to be toxic and bad. I will never brag about how little sleep I get anymore and frankly, I should hope for a swift kick to the nuts if I do.

The only way to know you are on, is by turning off.