Anthropomorphism or True Empathy?

Photo: Tobias Baumgaertner

A photographer named Tobias Baumgaertner spent three nights with a little penguin colony in St. Kilda, Melbourne Australia and was able to snap this photograph. We see a slightly taller black penguin with his flipper on the back of a smaller silver penguin. Thanks to a volunteer on site, Baumgaertner was able to learn more about these penguins.

“A volunteer approached me and told me that the white one was an elderly lady who had lost her partner and apparently so did the younger male to the left,” Baumgaertner wrote. “Since then they meet regularly comforting each other and standing together for hours watching the dancing lights of the nearby city.”

He wasn’t allowed to use any lights and the penguins kept moving their flippers, but his tenacity finally paid off.  “The way that these two lovebirds were caring for one another stood out from the entire colony,” he shared. “While all the other penguins were sleeping or running around, those two seemed to just stand there and enjoy every second they had together, holding each other in their flippers and talking about penguin stuff.”

While it’s a romantic story it may not be entirely accurate. Earthcare St. Kilda, a non-profit that manages the colony, wrote that the penguins might actually be related. They identified the penguin on the right as a pre-molt adult and the penguin on the left as a juvenile that may be the offspring of the adult.

Stories like this seem to always offer us two alternatives: to see God’s handiwork or to see life as nothing more than science and random events. If you do check this out you will of course see many rightful cautions about “anthropomorphic” bias we may have. After all, our perspective is that of a human. It would be wonderful if we could somehow truly understand what these two penguins were actually thinking and saying to each other.

To me, the beauty of this is that we can’t know for sure. And, just like all other areas of faith and hope we are left with the free will of making that choice. I hope you choose to see this as heartwarming as I do.

Packaging Environmental Truth

It is encouraging to see the seeming consensus these days on environmental sustainability.  Everyone seems onboard with cleaning up the rivers, lakes and oceans, especially when it comes to recycling and reclaiming plastics.  We also seem to be on a path that might lead to a lower carbon future with the increases in solar and wind sources.  Nuclear still may have a play as well.  Things are looking up to most.

Scientific reporting tends to follow funding so what gets funded gets reported … except when it is not welcomed by the public.  All you have to do is read any of Dr. Frans de Waal’s books on primates to see clear evidence of the way the scientific community blocked his research and publications because he found human-like qualities in primates.  The idea that we could have any genetic relationship parallels to primates flew in the face of creationist points of view.  Ironically his book called Chimpanzee Politics is required reading for freshmen congress participants!  You may be wondering why I bring this into the conversation, but it will be patently obvious once I give you a few more background thoughts.

I have been trying to alert everyone to the new concept called circularity which is now in common use that tries to capture bigger ideas than energy use alone.  That seems like a logical extension of thought… no worries there.  But, what I want you to consider is what the scientific community believes is at the root of all our problems today: consumption.  They want us to use less.  They want us to live simply.  The want us to want less.  Will that sell?  I am not so sure.

Here is an article that should be a wakeup call.  It is titled: Affluence is Killing the Planet.  In this article is a summary of the research on the underlying factors. 

As you scan these writings you are forced to consider whether we are not headed into a good one at all until and unless we change attitudes about wanting.

Consider this: Isaac Singer (1902-1991) was a Jewish-American story teller who wrote “The Son from America” which tells the story of Samuel who was born in a Polish village moves to America, works hard, and does well.  Each month he sends money back to his parents in Poland and several times a year his parents would exchange them for gold coins.  Samuel grows up and after 40 years returns to visit his parents only to find they are living exactly the same way as when he left forty years earlier.  Samuel asks his father what he had done with the money and his father drags out an old boot filled with gold coins.  Samuel asks “Why hadn’t he spent it?”  His father replied, “On what?  Thank God, we have everything!”  Samuel spent the next day observing the people of the town he thought was so poverty-stricken.  He had brought a suitcase full of gifts, along with donations from others.  He father insisted they had enough and that “no one sleeps in the street.”

Do you think any politician in this country would try to peddle this kind of thinking?  Nope.

Do you remember anyone in history who said this same thing?

Tesla Redefines Emissions

We are all well aware that Tesla has redefined the automotive paradigms.  So much so in fact that an electric vehicle is no longer considered just a geeky idea.  It is fun to drive and even stylish. It comes with a placeholder license plate you exchange for the valid one in your state which says zero emissions.

Perhaps you were not aware that there is a software update that allows you to explicitly include an audible emission we all know about.  Yes, it is called Fart Mode … no, I am not making this up!  You can surprise your passengers if you set it up in advance so that it converts their seat into a whoopie cushion.  But, just like everything else in the car, it can be user specified to create a personalized audible.

Why would anyone offer such a silly and potentially offensive option?  Is this just one more illustration of the immaturity of Elon Musk?  Or is it one more stroke of his brilliance?

Time will tell, but good marketers know things like this spread virally and create awareness.  Also, just ask any Tesla owner or even those in their families how they feel about their cars.  You had better allow some time because you are going to hear a lot.  These cars create an emotional connection.  And, just like all of us, that requires some kind of “connection” we establish.  It could be because of feeling good about what the car stands for, how it performs, how safe it is, etc.

Pay close attention to this man.  He is painfully aware of the long term implications of his ideas.  Perhaps you haven’t been watching but he has built out a network of fast chargers that permit his cars to travel anywhere with very short recharge times.  I have personally driven from Atlanta to Miami several times and took my Model S to Boston once.  It was a lovely trip.  You have to plan your stops and be prepared for a lower average speed from point to point due to charging, but it is really not a problem.  Where do you think all these look alike cars being offered are going to charge?  Do you think they will build out their own networks?

Perhaps you should also study how he plans to source the batteries over time, moving away from rare earth elements.  Yes, he has a wild side … and that bothers traditional white collar execs.  But, I think he is one of the few execs with any kind of personality left in the United States and perhaps in the world.  He is not afraid of pushing the edge, even when it might not be politically correct.  Kind of fun to watch …

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but …

Go ahead and Google this phrase and you will see this idiomatic warning goes all the way back to the 1500s and Shakespeare.  I have heard it all my life as a warning that being curious carries certain obvious risks.  You could be venturing into the unknown with potentially serious consequences.  I think about what we know now about what we can and can’t eat when it comes to mushrooms and other foods, especially seeds, which are poisonous to us.  Yet, these deadly plants are often sources for healing agents when studied carefully by curious people.

Our recent challenges with COVID are just one more illustration of this irony.  A recent article in USA Today reported that way back in 1966, two curious graduate students visiting Yellowstone National Park discovered a new bacteria that thrived in waters above 160 F and named it Thermus aquaticus. The discovery of this hardy bacteria revolutionized the fields of biology and medicine.

“A lot of people thought (the research) was kind of a specialized sort of thing,” said Tom Brock, now an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who started the research project. “Working on organisms in Yellowstone in the summer sounded kind of like a ‘vacation study.'”

What no one could have known then was that inside that bacteria was the key ingredient for the gold-standard diagnostic tests that would be deployed nationwide by the tens of millions nearly 50 year later, on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19, the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR.

Perhaps what I enjoy the most about these curious people is that they are keenly observant of things others just ignore or take for granted.  They seek to better understand … they are not satisfied until they do understand.  We need to encourage this kind of critical thinking in even the mundane so that we are better prepared to solve life’s problems in seemingly unrelated areas.

As we now read the relentless criticisms about what went wrong in Texas, watch for the quest for insights out of curiosity and contrast that with what I expect most will do: assign blame.  We need to be curious about how we can correct this in the future, and perhaps not just with sweeping large answers like eliminating the DC ties that keeps ERCOT separated from the rest of the US.  Don’t we remember when we lost the Northeast grid due to that massive power outage back in 2009?  It can all be traced back to a tree growing too tall in a transmission corridor.  Yes there were other factors as well.  Tree trimming costs money … someone tried to save money.  Gee … perhaps we should fix things like that?

Abandoning Excellence

I entered the energy utility business at about the time Tom Peters wrote his book, In Search of Excellence.  It wasn’t long after Tom Collins came out with his series on business excellence, that I heard countless speakers at industry conferences challenging mediocrity. In 1990, Lexus entered the US car market with the bold tag-line “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection,” distinguishing its brand with their stated commitment to striving to be the best.  As consultants, my wife Susan and I were working with electric and gas utilities who were excited about new ideas and trying new approaches.  You could feel the mood in the offices, conference rooms, and cubicles, and it was intoxicating.  There was a spirit of adventure and exploration.

Well, it seems that’s over.  Nice memories!  This morning’s lead article in the Wall Street Journal was “Mediocrity is Now Mandatory.”  Have we lost our collective minds?  Is this going to continue the legacy of all those before us?  Or is this just the final admission that the phrase “no child left behind” has spilled over and now applies to all of life including business?

Because I didn’t have the college prep classes at my high school, I struggled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for my first four years.  I had a steep learning curve.  The Chemical Engineering curriculum was tough.  I was warned only half of us would graduate.  But, I wanted to graduate and was willing to suck it up, put in the long, tedious hours studying, and did graduate.  I eventually caught up and went on to earn a masters in chemical engineering and a masters in operations research.  So, I became an applied mathematician and spent my career first designing power plants for our Navy’s nuclear submarine fleet, then leading the Hospital Association of New York as Deputy Director setting care standards for doctors and patients in hundreds of major hospitals in New York City, and later serving the energy utility industry.  But, I would not have had those careers if mediocrity was acceptable in any of these places.

The article opens with, “Has an era of American mediocrity begun? In January the College Board announced it would eliminate the essay portion of the SAT, as well as all of the separate SAT subject tests. Their stated purpose was ‘reducing and simplifying demands on students.’ Such a burden.”

I understand that now cursive writing is not being taught and will disappear … yet I think that is wrong …

Now, according to the WSJ, testing to decide who should go to college and who should not might be on its way out too.

Pray for this to just be a passing phase in our political processes!

In any event, you have to admit: you really can’t make this kind of stuff up!