Tej Dhawan

tej dhawan's random musings

Eliot Peper’s latest – Reap3r

“…unlike fiction, reality needn’t be plausible”

Reap3r, chapter 37

I received an advance review copy of Eliot‘s tenth novel in February and, as prior books, began to read it nearly instantly. As I read through the first few chapters, however, I found myself needing to know the characters more. So, I began again, and again, and again. Each read exposed a strength or flaw in the human characters and I chose to slow down my reading pace to get to know them better.

There is no doubt this work is a work of fiction. The quote above reminded me what I was reading may be fiction yet is very likely to be real. In the near future likely to occur within our lifetimes. And that simultaneously makes this story frighteningly believable.

Eliot’s characters often carry a social conscience, and this book is no different. It isn’t hard to distinguish right from wrong, or to empathize with their struggle. The classic struggle of power over community, money over integrity, and self over sentient collectiveness are threaded throughout.

The tale spun deftly through this extremely fast-moving book is composed of numerous complex characters, who revealed themselves to the author in a different intimacy that the reader discovers in layers. I found the memory remembered by one of the characters in the quote below quite apt for the relationship between the characters, Eliot and the reader:

You face one way – towards the source-when you are learning what you want to say, he’d advised, and the other way-towards the reader-when you are saying it

Reap3r, chapter 35

I’d looked forward to the story Eliot would tell during and after his trek he and his wife began in 2019. He credits the experiences, the journey, and the stories that unraveled through this journey in the epilogue, and reading them at the end of the book jumped me back to Twitter where he chronicled parts of the journey

Reading his #CaminoThoughts thread at the end of the book gave me a new insight into the book I’d just finished. Incredible. I have read and bought all of Eliot’s ten books, and this one is, by far, the deepest exploration of characters.

His travels influence the book. Food, clothing, jewelry, locations, and names all allude to a character’s face behind the mask. You can choose to look at the mask and discover what happens as Eliot reveals what’s within. Or you can learn more about the attributes and find the pleasant surprises as you self-discover the character early. (I knew you, O’ petite woman at the end of chapter 58).

Grab the book if you haven’t already. I couldn’t wait to buy my signed copy despite the author’s review copy.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite opening sentiments from the book

Movies used music to build tension before major twists, but real life didn’t have a soundtrack to clue you in to the fact that everything was about to change

reap3r, prologue

Beyond Obsolete

I was reminded recently of technology obsolescence when jumping behind the wheel of a maximalist (is that the opposite of minimalist?) dash on a rental car. I spent a good part of 15 minutes clearing previous settings and saved items, re-learning the basic navigation (and built-in GPS) settings, audio, seat controls and more before putting the car in gear and driving away.

Although I gave up on and decided not to use many of the car’s controls within a dozen or so miles, I remain amazed how the built-in GPS has become utterly useless. My mobile phone’s apps and maps were eminently usable and current. The recent model year car’s built-in GPS couldn’t locate my hotel built-in 2019 in a major urban city!

The space the screen consumed on the dashboard, the car’s numerous buttons on the touchscreen, dashboard AND by the gearshift were an exercise in ridiculously poor customer experience and wasted opportunity. The center console, stuffed with buttons, some duplicated on the steering with others labeled in confusing and non-standard ways confounded me further.

The sad part is that this late model year crossover from a ‘luxury’ carmaker was as much (or more) confusing than our 2015 Acura MDX, itself a victim of poor dash design, TWO 6-inch monitors, and a GPS UI that’s reminiscent of the early 2000s.


The following have outlived their useful life on car dashboards and are beyond need of retirement. They just need euthanized:

1. Built-in GPS (and the $149 fee for the dealership to ‘load’ the map updates!
2. Dare I say, car dealership cartels!
3. Custom voice interfaces – Siri, Alexa, and Google won.
4. Radio station presets. The rental’s largest and most prominent buttons were the six radio presets.
5. Steering control for anything but voice command, volume, and possibly cruise control.
6. OBD port. Why not show the output directly to the screen(s)?
7. Single device Bluetooth. We know cars frequently have two or more passengers. Do we really need to be connected to only a single device?
8. Low wattage USB ports. Drivers and passengers routinely carry multiple devices with larger, hungrier batteries that demand charge. Why, then are built-in chargers still delivering barely 0.5-1 amps?

Legacy carmakers – Are you innovating or sleeping at the wheel?

Failure: an unfulfilled expectation?

We celebrate failure in modern life and use it as a means of self-improvement. My introduction to this conversation comes from the field of startups and entrepreneurship where this badge of honor is well-known as a path toward and predictor of eventual success.

My memory of recognizing failure is rooted in elementary school where incorrect answers to math problems led to a low score. Being the son of a math-loving mother, the failure at school invariably led to additional punishments at home, thereby cementing the memory. The high school punishment of 12 canes on the behind for scoring 36/100 on a math exam further created an expectation to score at least high enough to not be caned again. An expectation that stayed with me long past high school, the teacher, and even into environments that no longer permitted corporal punishment.

A recent discourse between a middle school student and a film artist recently shook that memory loose. During a Q&A hosted by Ballet Des Moines at the Des Moines Art Center, a young man asked a Beau Kenyon, a composer, DaYoung Jung, a ballerina, and Oyoram, a movie maker how they manage failure. Oyoram responded that to him failure isn’t criticism by a client, a critic, an audience or a viewer. Failure instead is when his work fails to live up to his own vision.

Oyoram had earlier shared his process of scripting, modeling, creating, and installing his immersive experiences. He explained how the experiences came alive at scale.

Mental Banquet: Painting with Lights, 2018 Des Moines, Iowa

But if he couldn’t feel what he had imagined and documented during the visioning process, he had experienced failure!

I’ll have to try this technique. Rather than await validation or criticism, I’ll try to be the golfer who knows almost immediately upon hitting the ball or the composer who can hear discordance even when the listener cannot.

So , why not evaluate failure as an unfulfilled expectation. After all, isn’t the expectation tied to the original vision? And if we decouple the two, aren’t we lying in a way that renders success elusive forever?

Bias encumbers learning opportunities

150000 lbs each.

I’d gotten bumped and rebooked twice for flights yet was going to miraculously end up flying cross country AND make it to my destination 5 hours earlier than scheduled. The gate agents had still put me in advanced boarding so I boarded with wheelchair bound fellow passengers. Two ladies above 70s settled in next to me for the short puddle jump. And I began to wonder how I’d get out of my window seat at the destination ahead of them.

As the mother and daughter talked, I stared out the window, marveling at how close the Vegas strip was to the runway. It was then the daughter pointed out one of the tugs to the mother.

“Ma, it’s been 20 years since I made one of those “

Made?? I eavesdropped further; my eyes no longer focused on the strip.

Yes, the last one was for the 777s and boy those are heavy. The trailer bringing the weights for the first one twisted and broke apart when taking its first turn.

Now, I was really listening. I’m a sucker for all things airplane.

Yes, the tugs ordered for the 777s are 5 times heavier than those pushing our “little” 737. Each weigh about 150,000lbs to push the plane.

Without thinking first principles, why? I wondered aloud, betraying my silent eavesdropping.

She knew.

The nose of the aircraft carries nearly a sixth of the plane’s weight being pulled down by gravity. To counter those forces, the tug has to apply at least that much force. At a 90-degree angle to gravity, even more.

By now, I’d forgotten my reason to rush out of the aircraft upon landing. I’d even stopped wondering when our tug would arrive at the plane to push it back from the jetbridge. I was now simply mesmerized by the stories told by this retiree, my seatmate, who loved driving from Ogden UT to Las Vegas to see her sister regularly. On a plane this time because car rental and fuel were more expensive than the plane ticket.

Luckily for me, I was seated next to her due to my own set of circumstances and learned something new about airplanes, airports, and even the tugs.

What was the hurry to deplane again?

A decade of collaboration

November 17, 2010.

How to be a successful startup
https://www.dsmpartnership.com/news-media/blog/episode-30-tej-dhawan-talks-growth-of-the-dsm-startup-community

I had no idea a chance meeting with Mike on the Mercy Hospital skywalk would lead to a decade of collaboration and friendship. I mentioned that I wanted to help tech companies get started in Des Moines. He, in turn, asked if I had time to go to lunch with another colleague who wanted the same. Mike and I ended up at Proof and talked until Christian arrived. Of the many serendipitous moments in Des Moines startup community’s history, I know and am glad I got to be part of this one.

As Mike transitions to a retirement from *this* job as the entrepreneur-whisperer in Des Moines, his friends know he can’t really retire. Have you ever not seen him working? He’s retired more than once before, and this retirement will prove to be but a transition again.

I am grateful for having been a part of Mike’s circle of friends, where we were able to conjure up, make real, or grow ideas such as StartupCity Des Moines, Plains Angels, Global Insurance Accelerator, Accelerate, Iowa Agtech Accelerator and so much more. So, when I first learned of a new love affair with Colorado, I knew his time in Des Moines was limited. With his imminent departure from Des Moines, I know he’ll be missed by this circle of friends and colleagues, fellow angel investors, entrepreneurs, corporate partners and his colleagues at the Partnership.

I’ll miss our regular (vegetarian – his style) lunches at Centro – made rare by the pandemic, and sadly rarer now in the future by the distance.

Bon voyage, Mike and Beth. You are wonderful friends and I am glad we had lunch at Proof on November 17, 2010.

Downstairs steals the show

There are no spoilers below

The world has changed since the first scene of the first episode!

I finally made it to the Downton Abbey movie and found better closure through the movie than at the end of the final televised episode of 2016. Though the entire cast did an excellent job throughout the movie, the downstairs part of the household clearly stole the show for me. They were experts at balancing the positive and negative, the crazy and mundane, and the believable vs the unbelievable parts of the story.

My initial exposure to this awesome series was a few episodes into the first season when a bitter head cold had me watching TV late in the night and the opening episode caught my eye. Not one for period dramas, I am not quite sure why I picked it up but, moments in, knew I would finish the episode and like it. So began the six-ish year love affair with the expertly crafted story. Though I lost a few of my favorite characters through the years, the story remained compelling through the end.

The movie could be set a year after the TV series’ end or a decade yet the story seemed continuous. Hairstyles and costumes are different but not much else seems to have changed. The melodramatic responses to seemingly meaningless events remain omnipresent as do the wide panoramic shots to take in Downtown one last (?) time, now complete with a few beautiful drone images of the estate.

There are a few interesting moments, especially linked to Branson, Barrow, Edith, and Daisy. It took Daisy the entire journey through the series but she finally has grown up and can be seen proudly standing on her own two feet. Edith continues to push the envelope but seeing any of the ladies of Downton in the state of undress is strange. Yet, leave it to Edith to push. Branson continues to show the dual life he’s had to live since his introduction to the story to the very end. Barrow shines brightest for me. I’ll probably remember this line as he’s walking toward Downton late at night (not verbatim)

will they ever see our way?

(no Tom, still not in 2019)

Violet’s quips remained amazing:

sarcasm is the lowest form of wit

Thanks, Violet, for all the laughs. The theater seemed to giggle, laugh and endear to you throughout.

She who feeds controls the conversation!

Downton Abbey, I’ve missed you for the last 3ish years and will miss you more after this movie. But as in the parting dialogue, Downton will be present 100 years hence (today?!) and the extravagance is here for all to see. Maybe the next trip to England will include a stopover at Highclere Castle

The metadata on higher education

It takes 18-years (d0h!)

The news is filled with stories predicting higher education’s demise. Whether derived from falling enrollments around the country, high cost of tuition to attend college, the irrelevance(!?) of a college degree to a lifetime of employment, or simply political rhetoric, higher-ed is under persistent criticism. Rhetoric aside, what does data say about the state of higher ed? I was introduced to the book, Demographics and the demand for higher education, in April and read it then as a reference. Something new compelled me to read it with a data perspective and it revealed a few interesting thoughts.

Whatever faces a college today isn’t simply a function of the college admissions office or the school guidance counselors. The student who matriculates into a freshman class is a product of at least 18-years of interactions. The author takes us through a bit of history and (quite) a bit of data. Here are the highlights.

The demographic headwinds

The US faces a trifecta of demographic headwinds, the first of which defines the country itself – immigration. Hispanic and Asian immigrants comprise a majority of the 2.3 to 4.4 new legal immigrants per 1000 existing citizens and settle in enclaves around the country. The second is migration within the US with a measurable move from the northeast and Pacific areas toward the south. The remaining move is generally a zero-sum. Fertility, the third factor, is dropping below the threshold of 2.05/female. Texas is the only populous state among the growing states to reach this threshold.

High school graduation

This was a startling statistic for me. The projected number of high school graduates shifts from 3.45M in 2012 to 3.375M in 2007 to an expected peak of nearly 3.5M in 2025 before cratering to 3.25M by 2032. What’s more startling is the drop by ethnicity where white graduates increase only in MT, SD, ND, KS, TX and OK! A majority of the states’ graduates through 2032 will be of Hispanic, Black and Asian descent. The author’s graphic below displays this shift:

Forecasted growth in 18-year-olds by race/ethnicity, 2012 to 2029

Ethnicity is important because the four segments show a distinct difference in where students typically go to college. Whether one or both parents went to college influences if their children will attend college. The midwest, northeast and Pacific regions, typical destinations for non-Hispanic white students will most certainly suffer or have to redefine themselves!

Higher Education Demand

The author studies the factors impacting demand for higher education. Parents’ education levels directly correlate with what their children pursue in college – a 2-year, a 4-year or no-degree. Migration patterns and parent ethnicity seem to impact the elasticity of demand in certain regions, but, the migration at a macro level seems like a constant.

Diversity

The data projects what is likely to happen to diversity on campuses. With non-Hispanic white students falling in numbers with a corresponding increase in Asian students, non-Hispanic black students, however, will experience a significant decline. Campuses will look different, won’t they?

A concurrent shift in parents of the enrolled students will show that a significant number of them have one or both parents with at least a Bachelors degree. Think about this – if parents with BAs present children to four-year colleges, does it predict a drop in two-year college enrollments? Yep. Data can accurately predict an uptick in the mid-2020s followed by a precipitous decline at two-year colleges. Remember the ‘it takes 18-years’ rule? Yet, four-year colleges’ gain still results in fewer overall students due to demographics showing fewer numbers of prospective 18-year olds available to go to even these colleges.

So, who will feel this demand most? Another important statistic highlights the impact on schools that attract students regionally or nationally vs the elite institutions. Regional schools attract students from within a few dozen miles, National schools from nearly 200 miles, and Elite institutions who attract students universally. The Elite institutions, despite the lowering population, may still fare well because of their ability to stand above the rest whereas the regional institutions in many parts of the US will need to redefine themselves.

Final takeaways

The latter third of the book shifts toward attitudes toward paying for college, how individual institutions will redefine themselves, and the effects of policy on higher ed. These latter variables could upend the entire demographic impact and shift the face of higher education across America.

I will try to remember

  1. You must begin with the demographics of the markets first to study why higher-ed is undergoing a seismic shift, and
  2. There is no homogeneous solution to the shift. Each institution will have to redefine itself within its shifting market.

Change is constant, even in the glacial movement of academia!

If you want to study this in further detail, start by grabbing the book from the link in the first paragraph. Source data are available at the author’s page at https://people.carleton.edu/~ngrawe/HEDI.htm.

Erasing a smudge

UPDATE: The class mentioned below is spread around the world yet active on Whatsapp. Of course, my classmate would share a photograph so the post is updated with that memory below. Thanks, Manish!

Mechanical Drawing was an elective (to Biology) to science-track students at Mt. St. Mary’s School in Delhi Cantt, India. Given its proximity to the newly established computer lab, I picked it without a second thought. Mr. Singh, aging, angry, and opinionated led the class at stark contrast to Mrs. Suri’s empathetic biology.

Students, in Catholic school-standard, pressed attire and look arrived at Mr. Singh’s afternoon class with sleeves rolled up, hair unkempt, shirts un-tucked and with abandon representative of many high school boys. We’d roll out our drafting paper (36×24 inches of bleached white) onto the drafting tables, unpack the perfectly sharpened pencils, the washed erasers (later), and spotless T-squares, compasses and more.

The guy holding the T-square on the left had a class photograph. Go figure!

Mr. Singh’s challenge of the day – a gear, a machine, a part or an object lay in front on a table. The routine task – draw a top, side and front view of the part to scale, minimize erasure, view the object in three dimensions of your mind, rotate without touching, imagine with eyes closed. He wanted us to feel the object before letting lead touch paper. And commit the design to paper with the professionalism he attributed to ‘real’ engineers and architects.

A complex example of varying views of an object (src: Pinterest)

Each touch of the eraser docked points – as we obviously hadn’t planned the baby step toward the final goal. And if the eraser left a tell-tale smudge, more points vanished into the ether. We tried to avoid the smudges by washing the erasers with soap religiously before class and often succeeded. And the products, as they improved over time, showed why imagining, planning and visualizing mattered.

He was verbally abusive. Curses and language inappropriate for an Irish-Catholic school were often lobbed in Hindi and Punjabi. Our inability to ever score about 70/100 was his common refrain. Yet, he taught patience and professional conduct through this process. He’s been long gone (I am sure – that class was 34 years ago and he was no spring chicken then), and I’d largely forgotten about him until a friend’s post contrasting drafting of the past with CAD today presented this photograph. And it all came rushing back.

Life before CAD: courtesy Todd Stein

Mr. Singh shared the floor (an attic space above the auditorium really) with the computer lab filled with a few Commodore 64 and Sinclair ZX Spectrum computers. My current vocation clearly demonstrates where I spent my mind and body – sneaking away from his gaze into the lab to learn BASIC or mess with the machine. He could’ve never imagined those toys next door to his classroom would soon challenge his very admonishments. That cut/paste would render exact placement on the single sheet of paper irrelevant. Clone/heal would replace the messy erasers. Vast blocks of work as in the image above would instead be replaced by virtual desktops, tabs, and hyperlinked sheets.

I think about the above world in contrast to the agile approach to various forms of engineering. The visualization, imagination and perfect execution may not be visible in their recent form anymore but are we drawing the gears, the rivets, the angles, and connectors at such a detailed granularity now that we can make them turn individually before the entire part is set to motion.

Is erasing a smudge really all that bad on the way to perfection? Or can you hone your skill toward perfection by persistently working to avoid the smudges and erasures?

Humans of Social Media

Books have a way of transporting you to places and experiences through an author’s words. Reading an author’s review copy of wise guy by Guy Kawasaki reminded me of the wildly popular photo-essay series ‘Humans of New York’. Thought the books is organized like others – chapters and paragraphs – reading it doesn’t feel like the book filled with chapters and paragraphs, a story or plot. Instead, it feels like  Guy sitting down across the table from me, a glass of his favorite beverage in his hand and a dram of Whisky in mine.  And chatting!

The book took me through a journey through Guy’s childhood, teenage obsessions at college, the ‘tours of duty’ at Apple and his flirtatious yet committed interactions with the startup communities. Guy shares some of his aphorisms and opinions frequently on social media where millions read, some interact, some follow or retweet and many converse. He isn’t afraid of taking sides or sharing his opinion and seems to have adopted the ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ very well.  He admits his career limiting mistakes and wealth reducing missteps that still turned out to his advantage. I suppose when you are doing right by others, your karm do come back to reward you.
Though the book is peppered with hundreds of pieces of guidance, I highlighted a few and do intend to return to them often. I’m nearly certain to revisit

Don’t let people get to you, whether they are insulting you or not
Learn to like yourself, or change yourself until you can like yourself
The day after you start a job, nobody cares about your connections, history, and credentials—or lack thereof. You either deliver results, or you don’t
Changing your mind is a sign of intelligence
Learn to tell a story — Stories are better than adjectives because they are more comprehensible, memorable, and emotive
Do the right thing….. A formal contract with a dishonorable person is worth less than an informal contract with an honorable one

Imagine a book filled with stories about why the above sentences made a difference in creating Guy Kawasaki.
Needless to stay, like Guy’s other books like “Art of the Start” or “APE”, this book is a great first-read cover to cover and then a well-bookmarked reference. I have resisted loaning my “Guy” books because I am more afraid of losing my bookmarks than the physical book.
 

The Venture Educationalist

Why do capitalists create scholarships?
I sat at my alma mater’s annual Scholarship dinner the other night. Hundreds of diners consisting of professors, students, parents, and donors enjoyed performances, listened to speeches, and conversed around their tables. Statements from the keynote triggered a thought and I drafted this post by typing in the title and the lede right at the dinner table.
Pi515 is a non-profit based in Des Moines, Iowa and run passionately by Nancy Mwirotsi. It seeks to deliver computer science education to children whose families sought refuge in our community. A remarkable lift for a vulnerable population in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness through education. The startup community in Des Moines recently connected to this non-profit through the leadership of Brad Dwyer and Ben Milne – technologists, investors, and community leaders who found reason to support Pi515’s mission and put their money and networks behind it. WHY?
Next Level Ventures, is a Des Moines-based venture capital firm that invests solely in Iowa-based companies. Its managing partner, Craig Ibsen is seeking to build a non-profit that would democratize computer-science education across the state while our academic infrastructure moves at its velocity to create the discipline. A state like Iowa increasingly depends on a shrinking workforce as it seeks to retain its role in feeding the nation through ideas and food and cannot wait for the academic deliberation cycle to find and deploy solutions.
Brad Feld, managing partner of globally respected Foundry Group and its many ventures, routinely invests in education through his personal and professional networks, including a personal match he and his wife Amy provided to Pi515 during a conferecne in Des Moines. His leadership in NCWIT (National Center for Women in Technology), Defy Ventures (inmate education), and more are representative of support for education at diverse intersections.
Fred Wilson of and Union Square Ventures routinely speaks about, invests in companies focused on, and invests directly in education focused on the sciences.
Back to Central College, the keynote speaker and outgoing chair of our Board of Trustees, Lanny Little, spoke of being able to attend college, create a remarkable banking and finance career spanning decades, endow his own scholarships for future generations of students. He was able to attend purely due to a scholarship funded by the family behind Rolscreen Corporation (now Pella Corporation of Pella windows). Why did a family focused on growing a global business in a tiny midwestern town choose to invest in a kid from Phoenix, AZ?
Lanny spoke about venture capitalists who invest in a different type of growth outcomes. Their outcomes aren’t as focused on a capital return directly to themselves; rather they focus on the outcomes to society through enabling education and viable careers for those who couldn’t otherwise afford a chance toward upward mobility. This mobility is clearly visible in the city of Pella where family philanthropy from Pella Corporation, Vermeer Manufacturing and other corporate partners has allowed several generations to educate those who often remain within the community thus ensuring its economic stability.
Similar investments are visible in the angel investor communities. Though created for capitalistic intent, many angel investments seek to grow businesses through a form of ‘for-profit philanthropy”, one referred to in this Brad Feld’s post circa 2006.
I am glad there remain altruistic and capitalistic reasons for investment in education, especially for those who are increasingly distant from it due to cost and social friction. I am grateful to the person(s) who chose to endow a scholarship that enabled me to attend college. And I am honored to know this breed of Venture Educationalists – capitalistic investors like Brad Dwyer, Ben Milne, Craig Ibsen, Brad Feld and others enabling K-12, college, vocational and non-traditional education.

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