Monday, November 26, 2007

Absolutely Brilliant : Learn and feed the poor simultaneously

I just stumbled on a fantastic site called Freerice ( in which you try to guess the meaning of different words. For each word you get right, a donation of 10 grains of rice is given to the United Nations World Food Program.

This allows you to improve your vocabulary and give to the poor at the same time. The neat thing about it is that it figures out your level of vocabulary and works with you (it can even remember your last level). There is a maximum level of 50 (my best for the few times I played was 40 - beat it and brag to me about it!).

10 grains of rice is not a lot by itself, but it adds up pretty quickly. On November 25th (the site has been up only since October), 140,583,040 grains of rice were donated. If we assume that a kilogram of rice is 43,000 grains of rice (from
Solving Math Problems Kids Care About), then 3,250 kilos of rice were donated. This is the equivalent of (+-) 65 polypropylene bags of 50 kilograms each. Given than a 20 foot container could have between 18 to 23 Metric Tonnes of rice then yesterday's players donated approximately 15% of a container... In other words, within a week, a full container could be loaded and shipped to feed the needy.

This is just incredible and shows the power of numbers especially when put to the common good.

To reap the full benefit of the learning experience, visit the sites behind the site (such as and the Unite Nation's World Food Programme)...

I'm going to head back right now to see if I could go higher than level 40 and give my first 1,000 rice grains to the poor...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

From Thanksgiving to Peacegiving

Thanksgiving is a very special holiday celebrated in Canada and the USA. One of my favorite stories on its origin is written by Art Buchwald (R.I.P.) with the title of Meanwhile: Chacun à son goût on Thanksgiving (thanks JF for forwarding it). The essence of the day was summarized by a classmate (FH) in a correspondence from London by stating that Thanksgiving "is very inclusive (not religious, not ethnic, not political, ...). Just family and friends. "

I ended up reading many e-mails and articles today on Thanksgiving and ended up sent a few myself. Friends have shared their fond memories of the day, best techniques for preparing the turkey (chestnuts Ari?), the advantages of grain fed vs. farmed turkeys and how the poor turkeys are treated in the slaughterhouse. Suffice to say, it seems that Turkey Saves the Brain as there are Antioxidants abound in holiday meals...

Reflecting on Thanksgiving and how it brings diverse people together in North America, I thought we should dream together about a new holiday called Peacegiving in which nations get together to celebrate our humanity and our potential for good. What would be a good day to have our first Peacegiving? Would a day in June do the job? Should we start at a more grassroot level and make peace with our neighbours? Let's start the dialogue on this... I would love to hear from you!

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Perspective Vortex: Are we just a statistic?

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series; Douglas Adam defined the Total Perspective Vortex as the ultimate form of torture. It is a device that shows the entirety of the universe with a tiny arrow with the caption "you are here". Discovering one's true insignificance causes the victim to be lobotomized...

Recently, I had a chance to suddenly look into a "perspective vortex" and seem to have survived the encounter... This "impactfull" tool by Peter Russel (which is reproduced partially below) focuses only on the world we live in and, as such, is a bit more mundane giving the viewer a chance to escape the vortex while hopefully giving them a chance to think about our world and how we can work together to make it better.

Looking at the number of births and deaths roll by while reflecting on the enormity of each event for the family affected and realizing that every year more than twice the population of Canada is added to the world may make us feel insignificant. Worst is reflecting on each illness and how it affects the individual inflected and his/her entourage may make one consider the amount of (unnecessary) suffering we have in the world.

A quotation I heard from Wayne Dyer (maybe paraphrased a bit) helps to give a bit of perspective:

"Wisdom is to know I am nothing. Love is to know I am everything. Life is to move in between them..."

Looking at the causes of death while thinking that so much suffering is unnecessary makes one wonder. A "killer" fact is the amount of military expenditures... I wish that could be contrasted to the amount of medical research or the amount spent on education on a similar basis.

We all have choices to make. As individuals, communities and nations, we need to define our priorities and where we want our money spent. Right now, the emphasis seems to be away from what really matters. At the same time, we should not be scared of the enormity of the task(s) ahead of us as each little bit helps. Momentum is created by many little synchronized acts.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Getting caught...

On friday, I got the following picture joke which I thought would be a good introduction to the topic of creative thinking and simplicity... (the pencil says Microsoft Word for Blondes 1.0).

I had forwarded to some of my friends an e-mail on the difference between focusing on solutions instead of on problems. One of the two cases in the e-mail was about the Space Pen used by NASA. I quote:

When NASA began the launch of astronauts into space, they found out that the pens wouldn't work at zero gravity (ink won't flow down to the writing surface). To solve this problem, it took them one decade and $12 million. They developed a pen that worked at zero gravity, upside down, underwater, in practically any surface including crystal and in a temperature range from below freezing to over 300 degrees C. And what did the Russians do...?? They used a pencil.

The above sounded very plausible until I decided to do some more research into the pen so that I could buy one to use as a prop. That's when I came across the fact that the above is a hoax and is simply not true. Both Scientific American and NASA's own web site had more information on the pen and the manufacturer (Fisher Pen Co.) who spent $1M of their own funds to develop and patent the technology.

I normally pride myself on doing cross checks to detect hoaxes and incorrectly attributed quotes/statistics. This time, I fell into the trap and forwarded the e-mail on. The real question is why? is it because we have been conditioned to accept that NASA (and other large organizations) are bureaucratic? or are there other causes at play?

In any case - to those I have sent the 2 cases - I'm sorry.

PS: Actually, NASA did good when it came to procuring the product having paid $2.39 for 400 pens (according to SCIAM). If you want to buy one today, you would have to pay around $50. This is pretty impressive given a new introduction of technology (even if one takes into consideration inflation from the late 60s to now).

Sunday, June 03, 2007

“A serving of ethics for them… please”

Meeting an old friend of mine on the train ride home, discussions turned from our common friends into what new we were doing. He informed me that he is now writing a column in a local newspaper and asked me if there are ethics in corporations as he will be writing on the topic.

My quick reply was a qualified “yes and no – ethics do exist in some corporations but in many cases they are used by upper management against employees”. We discussed shortly how leadership teams treats ethics as an enforcement tool but the train ride was too short to elaborate further.

As life would have it, the next day, I was catching up with another friend who has survived several downsizing activities in his company and had a new leadership team at the helm of the company for a short while. My friend told me about one of their Vice Presidents (Mr. Joel Hackney) who was accused of throttling a young lady after a basketball match (see Nortel exec admits assault).

During our discussion, we went over what was given in the ethics training they received for insight. In one of the videos they viewed, a man making a lurid suggestion to a woman colleague was considered grounds for firing since it was unethical. The comment made by my friend was: “I guess the physical assault and threatening of a young woman in front of his family is ethical… Mike Z (the CEO) messed up by doing nothing…”.

An interesting development which happened at the same time was the quitting of NT's Chief Ethics Officer (Susan Shepard). Ms. Shepard quit “for no really obvious reason” on Nov 6th 2006 (Mr. Hackney’s episode took place on Oct 13th 2006). One would hope that Ms. Shepard had some objections to the way the incident was handled internally by the leadership team. It is worth pointing out that the company had forced all of its employees to follow an ethics training course and sign off on it. Employees were told directly "if you do not sign the papers you should consider other employment". This is a strong message to all employees with a built in expectation that all in the company fall under it.

What came out of our discussion was the perception that there are two sets of rules which are applied to people inside the company: One for the executive team and another for the employees. This is manifested in many areas including compensation and how many executives earn their money. The forced ethics approach coupled with its flouting at a moment of truth negated even further all the messages from the top.

This mirrors what is happening in the political arena where most people perceive the ethical disconnect to have always existed and to be even bigger. Adversaries are held to different ethical standards (“Gingrich had affair during Clinton's probe”), promises are made and not held, statistics are manipulated to special means and laws are followed only when they suit the specific group in power. This is exemplified well in Henry Kissenger’s quote “The illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer”.

For many, work was viewed as an area in which they could live their values. However, employees are having more and more difficulty building trust in corporations and their “hired” executives. This at a time when corporations face incredible challenges and need all the resources and creativity it has to survive in a competitive world.

The creation of Ethics Officer positions in corporations is welcome as long as ethics training and development is not used as a mind control tool for employees and is only used selectively when looking for an excuse to pressure or eliminate a person. Leaders are expected to live the principles they want their followers to espouse.

PS: after I wrote this posting, I went online to search for further information on the topic and found an e-mail from the CEO to his employees on the topic. It is for the reader to read it and see if it changes their opinion on the topic.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Outsourcing death?

While reading the following article on how a trial on an anti-HIV gel was stopped (Trial On Anti-HIV Gel For Women Stopped) because the group of women using the active gel were being infected with HIV at a higher rate than the placebo group. I noted the following paragraph:
"The trial was being conducted on over 1,300 women in Benin, India, South Africa and Uganda. Another trial in Nigeria, sponsored by Family Health International, using the same product has also been stopped as a precautionary measure, although there is no news as to whether this trial was giving similar results."

I am intrigued to know how the choices of the selected women were done and the ethics behind the decision to use control groups in Africa and India to test North American created products. Have we outsourced our riskier clinical trials to poorer nations with weaker laws and controls to avoid the costs of having to do the tests in North America and the long term follow-up issues in case of product failure? What consent mechanisms are in place? Are the participants fully aware of the implications of their choice to be part of the trials?

This approach of farming out product testing does not look right at first read. If anyone has further information on this, please send it to my e-mail. Thank you.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Structure overkill - taking the hammer approach

I'm all for methodologies and tools. By applying rigor to a systematic approach to solving problems, the outcomes in general are of much higher quality.

Last week, I was participating as a judge to the John Molson MBA International Case competition . The different teams are given the same case and three hours to read through the case, discuss it and prepare the presentation for the judges.

Given the time pressure, most of the teams have similar approaches to the presentation. SWOT analysis is prevalent for North American teams for example. What I noted after listening to many presentations is that some of the teams apply a structured approach to presenting their response. They have an outline to the presentation they will be making and then they fill in the blanks with the analysis they generate.

Applying this structured approach works well for standard cases in which there is both a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data to be analysed. However, certain cases are different and require a different approach and this is where the cookie cutter approach was laid bare. The team's presentation came across lacking and not suited for the case in question.

This made me reflect on my practice and how we have to understand our client and their company's culture and needs in order to be able to match the approach and methodologies proposed. A master mason selects the appropriate tool (from a range of tools) to use depending on the type of the stone and the results he/she wants to get. An amateur stone carver can only use a few ( I experimented with stone carving - I reflect my experience here)...

Expertise is built by doing an applying in a practical setting and the young MBA students will one day (hopefully) have the practical experience to see the nuances in order to select the right approach.

"when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail..." Anon

Monday, January 08, 2007

A prelude to "Animal Farm"??

This article caught my attention:

Farm worker attacked by herd of pigs"

It reminded me of the takeover by the animals in Orwell's book called Animal Farm.

For some reason, the book was fresh in my mind.

How come? I read the book over 20 years ago and I do not profess to having an encyclopedic memory... However, a couple of weeks ago, I was reading a recent Chomsky interview that was forwarded to me (Iraq: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. Noam Chomsky interviewed by Michael Albert, December 27, 2006 - thanks SD) and there was a comment that I found interesting:

"In our society, intellectual elites are deeply indoctrinated, a point that Orwell noted in his (unpublished) introduction to Animal Farm on how self-censorship works in free societies. A large part of the reason, he plausibly concluded, is a good education, which instills the understanding that there are certain things "it wouldn't do to say" -- or more accurately, even to think."

Part of my interest was in the fact that we (as humans) seem to keep on repeating similar actions over and over within a lifetime and between generations (that's why The Prince by Machiavelli is still a classic on power). The other part was the note that there was an unpublished introduction. That seemed odd given that the book was published and its message was reasonably clear at the time of the writing.

As such, I looked up the unpublished preface called The Freedom of the Press. I enclose what I found even though I cannot vouch for its authenticity (the site was cross referenced twice - but that does not make it right). If anyone can find a better reference let me know.

Reading quickly through the unpublished introduction - I am reminded that many things have not really changed when it comes to group norms...

PS: I also enclose for you a bonus - a summary of the Animal Farm book by Penguin Press as a reminder of the big themes of the book. It is a quick refresher of the big themes of Animal Farm.

seeing with new eyes

Over the weekend, while reading the news; I noticed an ad for an international online newspaper that made me think. The ad was simple - yet it used a word I have seen countless times without seeing what they showed with it.

The word was NEWS...

What's so special about the word? We must have heard it (and seen it) 1/2 a million times during our lifetime.

In the advertisement, the letters were decomposed and put around the logo of the newspaper in the form of a compass.




How about that for a new way of looking at this word?

It brought back memories of discussions I have had with a customer a couple of years ago on consumer sales and what "the next great thing" is all about. "It's about repackaging the familiar into new forms" (my recollection) as he talked about the candle market specifically and the changes it has went through from adding scents, to materials and the look and feel. At the end of the day it is a "candle"...

It also brought back a discussion with a dear friend who suggested to me to look deeper into what I have. This was after she saw a crumbled paper I did. Somehow, she concluded that there is much more that could be done with what's already on the table.

To conclude:
- Innovation in many cases is based on changing the familiar
- One could always extract / create value with what they already have

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new lands, but in having New Eyes." Marcel Proust.