The Value of a Tomato

This should be simple. A commodity, with known nutritional content and availability. Well established supply and demand and therefore pricing. But it’s much more complex.

Obviously the value of any given thing rests with the holder, buyer or seller of the thing. If you don’t like tomatoes, aren’t part of the tomato value chain and don’t invest in tomato sales, you probably don’t give a flying sauce for the value of a tomato.

But this post is about how value is derived. Hater of tomatoes or not, there’s a lesson about the value proposition in this story.

As many entrepreneurial ventures do, it began as I wondered what value growing tomatoes had to me. I start seeds in March, nurture baby plants until they’re ready to go outside in May, pour water and fertilizer on them throughout the summer, and provide support until they yield fruits a compelling shade of red. It’s not deep, blood, pinkish, rosy, blushing, inflamed or sports car red. Just a simple, sunny red. 

To a friend, I lamented that critters ate my tomatoes. She suggested the local grocery store had the solution. Admittedly, they do provide tomatoes, if that’s the only goal.

Why do I grow tomatoes?

  • entertainment – the process of planting, watching for growth, discussing garden progress with fellow gardeners, watching YouTube to cure plant ills and increase yield
  • exercise – gardening provides both heavy (turning over soil) and light exercise (walking about the yard, bending, tying and weeding)
  • challenge – choosing the right varieties of seeds, dealing with varying weather conditions, generally managing the flock (the green flock)
  • thrift – growing your own seems like a more cost effective approach to obtaining tomatoes than the store; however, factoring in water, purchased soil, fertilizer and my time may render this untrue.
  • quality – tomatoes from the garden taste great. No question about superior flavour. I make my own tomato sauce, enough to last the year, which I prefer to the stuff in bottles and cans that the grocery store sells. 
  • satisfaction – there is nothing like the feeling of dashing out to the backyard and picking food you grew yourself, know is healthy, and tastes really good. To me, it feels both natural, like the natural order of the world (I have contributed to nurturing the earth1 while acting as a conscientious member of the global community) and productive – I grow my own food – I am self sufficient. 
  • spiritual – this is who I want to be – the person that is self sustaining, that protects the environment as far as I can. When I grow tomatoes, I find peace. 

I’m a fan of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs2. Fulfilling needs is a central part of the value proposition. Maslow’s theory is that humans are motived by a series of needs that they fulfill sequentially. The type of need grows more complex as the hierarchy is ascended with more complex human goals. Basic needs, required to sustain life like food and water, are at the bottom of the pyramid. Next, come the means to ensure safety and security, like shelter and means of communication. In the middle ground are social aspects, like love and companionship. Near the top are needs to be respected, recognized and free. The pinnacle is self actualization, reflected in the need to grow and achieve the best one can be. Once people have the lower order needs satisfied, they seek to achieve the next level. Have sufficient food, water and a roof over your head, then next you seek a social circle. 

Home grown tomatoes satisfy all levels of need in Maslow’s hierarchy. Here’s Ann’s hierarchy of the value of growing tomatoes:

That’s a whole lot of needs being satisfied by a packet of seeds, tools, soil conditioners, watering cans, straw hats, and other accessories used to grow tomatoes. For many customers, the buying decisions are rooted in a variety of motivations. Has this answered what the value proposition is for home grown tomatoes? It’s complex and likely a different combination of the various aspects illustrated above for every person who grows tomatoes.

Why do I grow tomatoes? 

Bruschetta. Sliced tomatoes on toast. Pasta sauce. Salad. Caponata. Chicken cacciatori. Gumbo. Curries. …ummm

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1Growing food in the backyard not only improves the local ecosystem by increasing the amount of greenery and the CO2 balance but also saves the fossil fuel that I would burn if I drove to buy tomatoes trucked into a store. I also suspect the agricultural approach I take is less invasive to the earth than industrial farming that produces the tomatoes in the canned sauce.

2Here is a general description: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs

App Apprehension

Does anyone else want to talk about something else other than [the global situation that will not be named] for a little while?

I do. I have a problem. I’m paranoid of downloading apps. If [the global situation that will not be named] has taught me anything, it’s that there are at least a million people doing the same thing as I am at any given time (giving up mascara, chatting with long lost friends, rewriting wills, etc.). Thus, I suspect there are some of you out there with app apprehension too.

For those of you who blissfully tap ‘GET’ when someone you hardly know says ‘this new app is perfect for grooming your dog’ and accept all the ensuing permissions, including signing in via Google, allowing location services, and using your camera – let me explain.

A dread fear grips me at the sight of a dialogue box which wants my information. I suspect phishing, malware or some kind of a scam. So NO, I will not put a password into the box, because passwords are to be guarded with extreme care. Ditto personal information. To me, it feels like walking down the street and having a stranger ask you where you live. Creepy.

Apps can be scary. Cambridge Analytica was a spectacular case of an app secretly collecting reams of information about Facebook users and their friends.1Ancient history? It was years ago and since then many platforms have tightened their requirements for third party apps.

Googling, I found an abundance of posts on how to tell which apps were the good ones, but couldn’t decide what to believe. If you had an app that steals peoples’ banking info, you’d write an unbiased post suggesting the app in question was a safe one. The most insidious thing I can think of is disguising a malicious app as antivirus or anti-malware software.

Common suggestions were that apps could be validated by the number of times they’d been downloaded, length of time they’d been around, where the app could be obtained, and the credibility of the app’s creator.

More than 10 million downloads equals credibility. Yup, except Facebook: number of users at the time of the Cambridge Analytic scandal – over a billion2. Tiktok – concerns have been raised about the privacy practices of TikTok.3A recent report puts its users at 800 million4.

The App and Google Play stores lend credibility because developers must obtain a license to sell in these stores and apps are scrutinized. This would deter small time bad actors but if your agenda is to derail civilization or take control of the power grid, you would jump through the hoops.

Sometimes, the app hasn’t had time to catch up to its popularity. Think Zoom, which is available in the App Store. A wonderful entrepreneurial story of a business that stepped up to keep a good deal of the world running in the past few weeks. The sudden humongous demand for this video conferencing app has revealed some security weaknesses – only natural with the level of usage and popularity.

Every business, from commercial banks, to communications conglomerates, to restaurant chains, have their own app – custom-made pieces of software optimized to deliver the company’s business. If I download multiple apps, I’m concerned about them mingling, with all those different permissions, developers, standards and policies, on my many devices.

Hard as I try, my devices are like amorous bunnies and make connections even when I think I have them segregated. A bit of information here, a bite there, and I imagine my phone could borrow a million dollars by simultaneously applying to eight banks for a mortgage to buy real estate that’s contaminated with toxic waste that I end up responsible for remediating.

I did say I’m paranoid. What is the risk of a bad app? There are the truly malicious that have criminal activity as their intent. While concerning, those won’t get through most of the checks mentioned above. The other category is the mostly ok with weaknesses that might be exploited to manipulate, rather than perform criminal acts. Cambridge Analytica purloined data from a huge number of people. Information was abused to sway voters in several national events. This is pretty abstract stuff. If I download an app, the fate of the world may shift? Shut up, I just want to find cheap frozen pizza.

Where does this lead me? I can see why people embrace apps. They deliver a lot of functionality, fun and deals. Research supports that many people are resigned to sharing their data with endless commercial concerns and accept it as a consequence of the value they derive from apps. And aside from the rare, truly malicious cases, data use is directed to direct marketing or abstract things that one person has little influence over.

Should I avoid apps? My apprehension has grown over time as various spectacular app-fails emerged. This doesn’t mean they are all bad. Just as all cars have certain risks – mechanical failure, expensive maintenance, manufacturing defects and circumstances leading to accidents – all apps share common traits. They are foreign bits of software that might invade your device with malicious intent and lead to personal or societal harm. But all cars are not the same. Some are better built, some easier to fix and some have more protective measures to lessen operational calamities. I concede. Some apps do exactly what they say they do. Some are better engineered and have a lower risk of backdoor information leakage. A very few will be malicious. Probably fewer will cause societal disasters.

When a new product type emerges into the market, the tendency is to treat all versions of the product the same way. Then, as the product grows in popularity and matures, the value of individual versions or brands becomes clear. We have passed the emergent stage with apps, so I should value each app on its own merits and risks.

How will I deal with my app apprehension? One app at a time.

———

1Here is one of many stories: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/3/23/17151916/facebook-cambridge-analytica-trump-diagram

2https://venturebeat.com/2015/04/22/facebook-passes-1-44b-monthly-active-users-1-25b-mobile-users-and-936-million-daily-users/

3For example: https://www.theverge.com/2020/2/27/21155845/reddit-ceo-steve-huffman-tiktok-privacy-concerns-spyware-fingerprinting-tracking-users

4https://www.oberlo.ca/blog/tiktok-statistics

Non-Routine Work from Home Routines

Like many people, 9 to 5, 8 to 4, or whatever, isn’t me. One of the things I loved about running my own business was that I never knew what I’d be doing next month.

Now, my schedule completely changes every four months. Each day of the week is always different. My natural rhythm, despite decades of trying to conform, has me sleeping until 9:00 am and awake till 1:00 am if at all possible. Plus, I hate sameness.

This makes the idea of maintaining my work routine at home nonsense. Below are my practices for working from home for the free-spirited. Some are the same as many guides to working from home, some directly oppose conventional wisdom.

1. Sleep till whenever1. One of the good things about COVID cloistering is that I get enough sleep. I’m definitely not setting the alarm for earlier than is natural for me to get up. Most people have a time they naturally get up. Go with – it may be your regular time anyway, either that or you weren’t getting enough sleep before. If you are get enough sleep, you will naturally go to bed at the same time each night. Awesome routine.

2. Keep doing enjoyable things in some semblance of B.C. (before Covid). I’m addicted to fitness. B.C. I did strength training classes three times a week. I still do strength training three days a week. I wrote out a routine, much like the instructor delivered, which takes 55 minutes and do it all. Otherwise, it’s tempting to wander off after 3 jumping jacks. I substitute 30 minutes of brisk rowing in the basement for 30 minutes of brisk walking.

3. Eat regularly and normally. That said, take advantage of being at home. I like oatmeal, so I have hot cereal in place of the muffin I had on the train on the way to work. Snacking is hard to avoid at home, but easier to resist if you aren’t hungry. I tell myself that after I eat salad for lunch, I can have chips later. Sometimes I don’t get around to the chips before dinner.

4. Mix work with family life. Sage advice is to get up from your desk at least once an hour. So, stir the stew and add the carrots. Or take one load of laundry out of the washer and put another one in. Enjoy being at home. I work on the couch, because I can be productive there. Ask family for their opinion on what you’re working on. They may have great ideas.

5. Shower etc. when it makes sense, not to begin the day. If I’m going to do a couple hours of work, then work out, following up with a shower makes sense. I make a conscious effort to take advantage of being at home, rather then trying to fool myself into thinking I’m ‘going’ to work.

6. Know what your work goals are. To put all this flex sleeping, exercising, and doing household chores into context, I decide the night before what work I need to get done the next day. As long as that happens, everything is good.

More conventional aspects of routine that makes sense to me:

1. Limit checking the news. I read the news and check the COVID epidemiologically data once a day, in the morning, laying in bed. B.C., I read the news and checked the weather laying in bed in the morning.

2. I reach out when there is a the need. To friends, business colleagues, medical professionals. It’s tough in here, for all of us in our own ways, but also in many common ways.

3. Wear WTF. Seriously, if the world is going to hell in hand-basket, I’m travelling in yoga pants.

4. Count blessings. Working from home relieves the stress of the commute and gives me more time. I am healthy. I have enough to eat, I have a job.

—–

1Sorry, if you have an 8am call, you gotta get up before then. 

Finding Hope in the fight against COV.

First, let me be clear what I mean when I say, I’m convinced the world will never be the same again (previous post).

I’m NOT talking apocalyptic stuff. I mean different. A little more of this, a little less of that.

It’s early days so anything specific is mere conjecture. In addition to the toll from viral infection, many of us are likely to be impacted economically and socially. Many already are.

We can see inklings of change. In our current stasis, there is big demand for fulfilling online orders, creating jobs along the path from merchandise collection from the warehouse to delivery to the customer’s door. Many small scale operations, if they provide a make-at-home product, like beer, may see demand like they’ve never experienced before. Of course, there is a huge need for medical supplies right now, gloves, face masks, ventilators and more, and manufacturers are increasing production and retooling if they can.

I suspect this will be the end of physical money. We were already on our way there, this crisis will push us faster.

Spending so much time at home, working and playing, people are likely to realize they don’t need some of the things they are used to consuming, like maybe mascara or beer in a plastic cup1. On the other hand, there may be new interests developed. I gather there is a surge in interest in home gardening, especially of vegetables2.

And then, there’s the financial markets. Some people will see a decline in their net worth due to the contraction of the stock markets. What will this do to the economy? Assuming those heavily invested are not depending on these investments to buy groceries next week, it could delay retirements, make investors cautious and slow corporate growth, decrease demand for ultra-high end goods. On the other hand, it might create an environment with investors receptive to new share issues if they perceive they are getting a discount rate. Real estate values are bound to be impacted. (Can you hear the dominos clacking into one another, creating a new configuration?)

People with stable employment will suddenly have an excess of spending money because they can’t buy basketball tickets, trips to the Bahamas, or exotic dinners out. Where will the discretionary spending go? One great idea I’ve seen is restaurant bonds. People are paying to dine in the future at restaurants whose doors are currently closed.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the potential ways the COV could change our lives. None of us know exactly where we will end up. The point is, I believe we have choices that can shape our future, and this hope is empowering.

1These suggestions are based on my personal experience. 

2To avoid potential shortages in grocery stores. 

Fighting the COV.

Having been raised by a librarian that married a fightin’ Irish man, I’m prone to turn to books in the first round of battling a new scourge. 

Here are two books I bought recently (online, off course). The titles echo where I’m coming from and where I intend to go.1

I want to fight the COVID-19, coronavirus thing. But it’s sneaky, so the fight needs to be carefully planned. General outbursts of bravado and charging into dangerous situations isn’t going to work.

Here is where I’ll begin, and in the coming days, continue with my thoughts about how to survive, prosper and flourish in our new world. Because I am convinced the world will never be the same again. And we can make that a good thing.

—–

1I haven’t read either yet so I don’t know if they are going the same place I am.

Recreated Experiences. Or how I want my vision restored.

About 50 years ago, a company recording music asked ‘It is live, or is it Memorex?’ suggesting their method of replicating sound [memorex] was so authentic, it was impossible to tell the difference between a live singer and the recording.1Now, we all know there is a difference between someone singing in front of us and listening to a mechanical device, even if it may not be audible.

Experiences are huge these days. People will pay lots of money to be treated specially, to have personalized service, to be pleasantly surprised by extra touches that suggest thoughtfulness. Set on a backdrop of automation and self-serve apps, finding value in an experience, as a differentiator, is understandable.

As we careen towards all-knowing artificial intelligence, experiences will simultaneously get easier and harder to, well, experience. Everything we want to do will require less than the blink of an eye (to our invisible sensors, ordering that the lights be turned on, a peppermint tea, or to book a vacation in Jamaica). With every whim attainable, where will we find gratification? – the feeling of accomplishment, the victory of defeating an intractable problem, or the joy of a unique experience.

This train of thought emerged as I wondered which would be better, if I had the choice:

  • having augmented reality correct my ‘vision’ to perceive everything around me in high resolution, or
  • bio-engineering to repair my eyes to perfect function. 

Augmented reality: The technology to have a sensor perceive my visual environment, to capture images of everything around me in real time, from a few centimetres away to hundreds of feet in the distance, and relay the information to my eyes in a way that my current visual acuity understands, providing my brain with a perfect picture of what’s going on around me.

Bio-engineering: The technology to biologically repair the shape, flexibility and functionality of my eyeballs to 20/20 vision without any corrective eyewear.

Based on the current status of various technologies, I project that augmented reality will be available first.

My gut says, I want my eyeballs repaired, not the tech that tells me what’s there, even if I can’t see it. Augmented reality comes from a machine, so it isn’t me. Bioengineering seems more natural, an extension of the body’s inherent repair processes.

If we become transhumans2, augmented reality has the potential to let us ‘see’ better than human perfect sight. What’s not to love?

Autonomy.

I don’t want to rely on an external prop to function if I don’t have to3. Aside from the inconvenience of having to remember to carry and hang on to glasses or some tech4, is there really any difference between augmented reality and bioengineering? Being able to see perfectly is fantastic, does it matter how you get there? 

This is where the Memorex reference comes in.

If the question is ‘is it important if it’s real or an indistinguishable reproduction?’, we could ask an art collector. Or anyone willing to pay a few hundred dollars to attend a concert when they could listen to a higher quality recording at home for $10. We know the value of an experience. Thus, the third strike against augmented reality to correct my vision, after it being an unnatural process, and non-autonomous function, is the inauthentic experience.

Using augmented reality to completely correct or get super-vision would be awesome for a while, but ultimately, not be as satisfying as it could be. The answer to the 50 year old question is: It might sound or look the same, but it isn’t.

——

1For a history of the brand :https://www.brandchannel.com/2016/01/11/memorex-011116/.

2Transhumans are humans with augmented abilities bestowed by technology, perhaps like Robocop.

3Because mechanical things fail. And software-based things fail worse, meaning more irrationally, with less warning, and are more difficult to fix when they do.

4 But then, the external technology can be made easy to wear and almost thoughtless to bring along. Who doesn’t have their phone within reach all the time, without feeling this is a burden, because it’s so important to have?

The GUIey Middle of Artificial Intelligence

The basic premise of artificial intelligence, to use enormous amounts of data to find out new things, is easy to grasp. If any one of us had the time and stamina to study a million photos or stories about a thing, I’m sure we’d come up with insights about it too. 

Business products emerging from current applications of artificial intelligence are also logical and simple to get your head around. Smart thermostats sell because they are convenient and deliver energy savings. Marketing approaches that analyze shopping patterns to suggest items people are likely to buy are winners in retail for their potential to increase sales.

How does AI get from data analysis to creating desirable products? In diagram version, this seems to me:

A few hypothetical1examples:

1. Using AI to improve diagnosis of medical images. Input: One hundred thousand pathology slides of renal cancer and one hundred thousand slides of normal kidney tissue. Outcome: Improved differentiation between normal and malignant kidney biopsies. Doctors win because the accuracy of diagnosis increases, saving healthcare costs by prescribing the right treatment for patients. Patients win because they are either can carry on their lives disease-free or have greater certainty in the treatment they need.

Mysterious GUIey2inside: What is the AI looking at to distinguish between normal and cancerous cells in pathology slides?

2. Using AI to improve traffic flow. Input: Every car in the city communicates its starting point, destination, and real time location to a central database. The goal is to send a uniform volume of traffic via every available route so that none are over-used or under-used. The outcome is a clear win – optimum travel efficiency for everyone, saving time, auto costs and impact to the environment by decreasing energy consumption.

Mysterious inside: What is AI doing to manage all the permutations and combinations to direct even traffic flow?

The two examples are different. In the first one, the criteria AI uses to distinguish between normal and malignant cells are the mystery. Pathologists could list the traits they use to make a decision when looking down a microscope, but is AI using the same ones? In the second, it’s the speed and capacity to deal with volumes of users that’s amazing. It’s not difficult to suggest the best route for your mother to take home, based on knowledge of traffic patterns at the time of day in your home town, but who could do that for 3 million occupants of a city simultaneously?

I’ve read that we are unlikely to be able to extract the GUIey middle3from AI supported processes, due to the iterative nature of the learning. When a person really understands what they are doing, they can explain it. If a chef tells you their sumptuous meal resulted from ‘a little of this, a little of that’, they likely know exactly what went into the dish, but aren’t telling to protect their trade secrets. If my mechanic tells me they are basing the diagnosis of what’s wrong with my car on some data from other cars but doesn’t know which models or what kind of data, I’m looking for another mechanic.

Is not knowing how AI works any different than not knowing the detailed working of automobiles, or any other complex object or process in modern life – elevators, mortgage documents, dental implants? The fundamentals of the car I get – the energy of exploding fossil fuel is converted into angular momentum that torques the axels and moves me, in my steel and plastic carriage, to where I want to go. The business model is also easy – the speed and convenience of reaching destinations in relative comfort with the added efficiency of carting a group of people, sheets of drywall, or my dogs with me. There is someone who can explain ABS brakes, how the muffler is connected to the engine, and all the other components that make a car function. With AI, either by design or trade secret, the explanation is hidden.

We need to know the mysterious processes that AI systems use to derive new knowledge from the volumes of data consumed. Forget proprietary algorithms. This is brave new territory we are entering and transparency is important so we can be sure we are operating safely and ethically.4

History is full of examples of embracing new things without a full understanding of the implications5. From that, a machine would learn that we need to know how things work before we can use them safely.

——

1Both of my examples are likely to be real enterprises but staying hypothetical is better for this discussion.

2This is a pun on GUI type computer interfaces, which use icons, rather than typed commands, to tell computers what to do. GUIs make programming simpler. I’m suggesting by making things simpler with AI, we are making them less transparent, dissectable or amendable to understanding how the parts work together to create the whole. Less concrete. More gooey. Gooey-er. Soft and flowing, changing shape easily.

3I do know that the process AI uses is a very large series of logic functions, of the sort: if X does Y, then A is the outcome. If X, K and J, do B, then L is likely to happen. If X does Y but K does something else, and it’s Tuesday, then Blue is the right answer. Etc. Oh, and the AI may start with a bunch of logic statements but change them on the fly as more data comes in or if in testing a hypothesis, it doesn’t deliver satisfactory answers.

4For many examples, read ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ by Cathy O’Neil

5A few examples that spring to mind – nuclear weapons, cigarettes, social media, plastic, many types of home insulation, lead paint, breeding of dogs, trans-fats, mortgage backed securities.

Destructive Creative Destruction


You know the list. The technologies, labelled creative destruction, that changed life as we humans knew it: Fire. Pasteurization. The assembly line. Washing machines. Email. Mobile Phones. 

Each of these had a dramatic impact on society, generally decreasing the effort required to do a vital human activity and allowing us to do other, more interesting things1.

Should plastic be added to the list?2 When introduced, it was a major new technology and found broad applications3. The ability to engineer polymers so they are flexible, solid, durable, the right colour and shape, mass-producible, light-weight and low cost lead to the introduction of many new products. Products like plastic bags, straws, packaging. The coating on electrical wires. Cheaper just about anything: shoes, suitcases, light fixtures, flooring, automobile components, toys, machine parts, human body part implants. The list goes on forever.

What has been disrupted by plastic?

Most things plastic are affordable, leading to increased consumption of each item. They tend to be single use, by which I mean two things: disposable or non-repairable. Disposable comes from the low cost – “I’m tossing this out because I can get another one for 3 cents”. Non-repairable because of the process used to create plastic widgets. Stuff made out of other substances known to humans can be engineered and modified. Wood, metal, cement, kryptonite4, plaster can all be fiddled with and/or repaired. Plastic, not so much. To be fair, this is what makes plastic appealing – the ability to spin or mold or extrude it into different shapes. The consequence is that it can’t be fixed because it’s all one piece.

Back to disruption. Here’s some of the ways plastic has changed in our lives:

  • Eating on the run. Plastic containers, plates and utensils made it possible to grab a meal from the takeout window or mall kiosk and eat it anywhere, rather than tethering dining to a venue that could manage ceramic plates and metal forks. 
  • Because plastic changed packaging, it facilitated transportation of goods to distant locations. Thus, more competition in many markets. Lower prices. More choice for consumers.
  • Plastics made many things affordable to more people. Furniture. Cars. Etc. A new social order of ownership emerged.
  • Not coincidentally, with the rise of plastic goods came the era of consumption. Affordable stuff enabled (and required – see above about repairing plastic items) frequent replacement of the items.

Many substitutes, such as plastic bags for paper bags, plastic bumpers on cars, plasticized paper cartons for milk rather than glass bottles, may seem disruptive, especially to the producers of paper bags, metal bumpers and glass milk bottles, but don’t actually result in a new social order.

From my list, plastic has disrupted: sit-down meals, local sourcing of goods, possessions as symbols of wealth, and the need for expertise in repairing many things. Based on fundamental values of community and social connectedness, as well as environmental stewardship, I’d say three of the four of these aren’t good. It could be argued that disrupting possessions as symbols of wealth, is social advancement. Otherwise, plastic disruption has not been good to us, even thought there are plenty of benefits to the use of plastic.

This disruptive technology (generally considered a good thing as it ushers in a new approach to old problems, makes life easier and richer) had negative consequences.

The earth has a problem with plastic. It doesn’t decay, ever. Even kryptonite decays. Plastic was celebrated for its disposableness, while ironically its permanence has clogging up the landfill, oceans, and microcirculation of the earth’s creatures. Oops, we created a monster. Vacuous consumerism snowballs the problem of overflowing landfill, making the monster multi-headed, with enormous tentacles and an awful smell.

Sometimes, what seems like a good idea at the time isn’t. Plastic isn’t the first time the true impact of a novel product wasn’t realized until time and mass consumption had gone by. Cigarette smoking. Fossil fuel emissions. Drugs with fatal side effects in one-in-a-million patients.

Fortunately, the plastic pollution crisis presents all kinds of opportunities for new creative destruction. Constructive creative destruction, please.

——-

1Fire allowed us to cook food and stay warm, increasing survival. Pasteurization was a process that made milk and other foods safer and allowed them to be transported further, increasing both the availability of food and the livelihood of producer. After the invention of the assembly line, cars became more accessible to different socio-economic groups and then expanded their horizons. Washing machines and other appliances are credited with allowing women the ability to lead a life outside the house, as it became possible to spend less than all of their time doing household chores. I don’t have to explain how email and mobile phones have changed the way we communicate, but future generations will need to be told.

2It piqued my interest when I saw it on a list of disruptive technologies in ‘Prediction Machines. The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence’ by Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans and Avi Goldfarb, so thanks to them for making me think.

3For a great summary of the history of plastic, I recommend this https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics

4Kidding, kryptonite isn’t on the list, it isn’t real.

Ask What AI Could Do for You

Embrace new technology. Change life.

Who wouldn’t want that? Me, sometimes.

AI is the next big thing in disruptive creation. Errr, creative destruction. It’s not so new. Forms of AI have been embedded in commonly used products for decades: auto-correct typing, suggested products you may like, search results. Now, it’s becoming ubiquitous. The projected capacity of AI to make life easier is celebrated in investor conference calls, with services such as arranging for transportation to the airport when the AI knows you’ve bought a plane ticket, or ordering another box of laundry detergent when the one you have is about to run out. 

This makes me ask (and you can too), what would I love AI to do for me? Would it be great if AI ordered all my household consumables? Not really. I’m proud of my system for keeping a sufficient supply of life’s necessities (food, drugs, cleaning and pet supplies) on hand. It isn’t a big deal. If it is for you, or you just hate doing it, ok, I’d invest in that AI, if there were enough of a market to justify it.

Great new business models remove the pain of a current task, solve an existing problem. What do I see as really annoying, inefficient situations I would pay handsomely to change?

Here’s a starting1list:

  • the awkwardness of software updates – stop making me have to stop and think about something I’ve learned to do intuitively, like find the weather app on my phone screen.
  • the uncertainty of hiring competent contractors, plumbers, landscapers, auto mechanics. 
  • knowing when something I do regularly is going to change and how my life should adapt. When the bus schedule changes, I want to know if I need to get out of bed earlier, not just that the schedule has changed.
  • gardening solutions. Random bugs eat my leaves and buds. Critters steal my veg. Anticipating this, as preventative measures are likely the most effective, would be awesome.
  • interpreting what my cat says, translating to english. Seriously, why don’t we really know what ‘meow’ means, after domesticating cats thousands of years ago?

I happened on an application for AI that I didn’t know I needed until I needed it in a hurry. It required getting information from a series of government and corporate entities, late on a Friday afternoon, before a long weekend. And I got it. Because it was information that each entity stored electronically. So emails were generated to use the info to answer my questions. In 10 minutes! Huzzah!

There are probably many more services I consume irregularly that AI could speed up. From what I’ve read, the sorts of process AI is expected to be used in first are industrial/business applications. This means that many of the best uses of AI won’t be noticable to us consumers except in declining prices, faster delivery or a better selection of options.

Why my cautious approach to AI? There are many AI applications that I imagine would take the fun out of life. Anything that requires creativity. Or some combination of serendipity and knowledge. Interior decorating. Discovering new restaurants, clothing lines, bands, books to read. The whole point to discovery is that it’s random. If something tells you where to find it, that’s ok if all you wanted was to get the thingy asap. Roofing shingles, a new muffler, parts for your appliances, or shoe laces for your winter boots are like that. For other items, there’s the thrill of the hunt, randomly happening on the perfect wastebasket for the downstairs bathroom, shoes to go with your suit, or a gift for your three year old.

I strive to challenging myself to achieve more, learn more, do more, in physical, intellectual, and economic realms. If AI made it all easier, I’d cease to grow, learn or improve. Proponents of AI might say the technology would allow me to stop wasting my time on parts of life that don’t challenge, so focus is on improving in important areas. AI might even lead me to the next, more enriching challenge.

What do I wish AI would do for me? Take care of the annoying things and leave me the interesting ones. Bearing in mind that what I find annoying, you may find interesting, the key is to make everything more efficient but make the high efficiency version elective. A mundane example of this is that grocery stores sell loaves of bread, but also all the ingredients to make bread from scratch.

That’s real intelligence, delivering what each customer wants.

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1I’m writing as an individual consumer. I may be in a demographic of one, which doesn’t make for a good business model, unless the product costs millions of dollars, which I don’t have, so forget that. However, more than likely I am in a demographic of significantly more than one, as most of us are.

The Entrepreneur as Customer

“I’m going to live to be 1401,” I often say. 

People laugh, which is fine. I am serious.

“But I’m going to need replacement parts,” I usually add.

Thus begins my adventure as a customer in an emerging industry: regenerative medicine. Interesting to experience entrepreneurship from the buy-side. In IT entrepreneurial circles, this happens all the time. Early adopters of new technology come from within the industry, as they are in a position to understand the need and the benefits of innovations before a broader population.

I understand first-hand (pun intended) the basic human need for tissue regeneration – it literally relieves the pain caused by degeneration. After years of wear and tear, the cartilage my CMC joint2is almost gone and won’t heal. Delicate grasping is painful – I drop things. This inability to hold a piece of paper may impede my journey to the 22ndcentury3.

I’m faced with the intractable. Modern medicine has no restorative solutions. There are pain killers. Supportive braces. Electric can openers. It’s a problem that should be remedied, not compensated for.

There is an experimental approach: Stem cells. The scientist in me understands the theory, knows it could be the ultimate answer. Soft tissue replacement parts could be made – by installing a biological factory that regenerates the lost bits. But it’s new technology with limited testing, testing that might provide surprises not covered by the theory.

I leapt at the opportunity to undergo a cell transplant procedure with a full understanding of the risks, uncertainty and cost.

The trigger event for the this new technology were findings4that fat cells, from the abdomen, are a source of stem cells – cells that have the potential to multiply and form various types of tissue. This source is appealing (competitive advantage), compared to alternatives, that are uncomfortable for the patient (bone marrow harvest), or carry risks of rejection (if the stem cells are from a third party donor, rather than the recipient) or selection of unwanted features (culturing the cells in between harvest and injection may amplify unwanted traits). Hip and knee joint replacement is common with metal, plastic or ceramic parts. While generally successful, it is major surgery, costs $10,000’s, and requires months for the patient to fully recover. Replacement joints are less common in the hands.

I am an early adopter. Perhaps a consumer of an early stage prototype or minimum viable product, provider of input to get to product/market fit. Maybe even an investor, although I want to know if this is a scalable product. Currently, it needs a surgeon for administration, and a bunch of surgical equipment. However, this is indeed what puts the technology at the stage of product/market fit. It isn’t clear that the current approach can meet mass market demand, for technical reasons as much as anything else.

There is a great opportunity here. Clear unresolved pain, competitive advantage, timeliness, and a massive market for an effective treatment of osteoarthritis. The Arthritis Foundation states that 31 million Americans have osteoarthritis, and the expectation is that this will reach 78 million by 2040.5That’s a 5% year/year growth rate sustained for 20 years in a whomping big market. 

I’m excited to see the outcome of my treatment. Will there be regeneration and healing, so I can do mundane things like open a chip bag or put on socks without pain? There are no guarantees. As an emerging technology, there is knowledge to accumulate to optimize the product, possibly making it more effective and reliable. I’ll take the risk. I’m thrilled to be part of the development of this technology, the possibility to make a difference. That’s what entrepreneurship is all about.

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1I came up with this number after reading a theoretical paper many years ago about the limits of the human life span. Current estimates range from just over 100 to no limit. 

2Where the thumb bone connects to the wrist bone.

3This may seem melodramatic but there are studies that link an inability to do minor tasks with increases in depression, obesity and other chronic illness. 

4This paper summarizes the findings of a number of studies: Miana, V. V., & González, E. (2018). Adipose tissue stem cells in regenerative medicine. Ecancermedicalscience12, 822. doi:10.3332/ecancer.2018.822

5https://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/understanding-arthritis/arthritis-statistics-facts.php