Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Hey, Was I Actually Right About HP and Oracle?

HP's outlook won't be all that bad only because analysts are expecting Armageddon. – Larry Dignan, CNET, Nov. 21, 2011
Oracle Corp. /quotes/zigman/76584/quotes/nls/orcl ORCL +3.54% will likely beat analysts' estimates when it reports its fourth-quarter on Thursday. But investors will probably take their cue from what's expected to be a strong outlook … Big companies are investing heavily in Oracle's new generation of database software, as well as hardware it introduced since acquiring Sun Microsystems last year. – Steven Jones, MarketWatch, June 21, 2011.

I will stick out my neck and predict that HP will not implode over the next 3 years, and it will not fall behind IBM in revenues either, barring a truly epochal acquisition by IBM. – Wayne Kernochan, Infostructure Associates, blog post, May 17, 2011
.Sun’s UltraSPARC architecture has already shown signs of falling behind, and it appears that Oracle is not committing the necessary resources or expertise to play catch-up with IBM and Intel. … Exadata  … unless it is acquired by a leading-edge top-three-in-technology processor technology vendor such as Intel or IBM, … will start falling behind in scalability … It seems likely that within the next 3 years, Oracle will either load additional pricing on its locked-in customers to support another acquired platform, or deliver less and less relative price/performance … It may make sense for Oracle’s customers to move to a vendor such as IBM even if it will be painful in the short term. If my outlook for Oracle’s pricing and technology over the next 3 years is correct, the cost inefficiencies compared to others won’t get better, they’ll get worse; and the degree of database lock-in will stay the same or worsen, too, as additional Oracle implementations occur. – Wayne Kernochan, Pund-IT Review, Sept. 2011

Oracle’s hardware business will continue to look troubled while the Sun portion continues to shrink – Erik Hessedahl, All Things D, June 18, 2012
Oracle hardware revenues decrease by 10% in constant currency over 9 months, total revenues up about 3% for fiscal 2012 and 1% for 4Q12 - Oracle earnings press releases Mar/Jun 2012

Desktop units were up 5%, revenue down 3% yty for 2Q12, revenue run rate for fiscal 2012 about $121B – HP earnings press release 5/23/12
Revenue flat for 1Q12 yty, revenue run rate for fiscal 2012 about $99B – IBM earnings press release, 4/17/12

Monday, June 18, 2012

Agile Marketing: The 40,000-Foot View

After learning about some of the fascinating efforts that the “agile marketing group” are making to have a process corresponding to “product development agility” over the last month, I find it’s a good time to set down some possibly useful thoughts on the subject. These are thoughts from the point of view of a computer industry analyst reasonably well versed in software development and agile concepts in that area, and with a reasonable theoretical and consulting acquaintance with marketing to businesses.

I call this a 40,000-foot view because I think that the success of agility in product development should challenge marketers to rethink their jobs fundamentally, not incrementally. However, it is all too easy to take a 20,000-foot view as from an airplane, seeing the broad outlines of marketing as it is today and picking and choosing those parts of product development agility (like the notion of “simplicity”) that comfort rather than challenge the marketer. With a 40,000-foot view, only the largest of mountains breaks up the monotony of land or sea, and we avoid getting bogged down in details or transitory marketing practices.

The aim of this view, therefore, is to think:
·         Long-term;

·         In terms of customer lifecycles;

·         Focusing on customer change rather than a succession of static preferences.
I hope to end up asking how the agile marketer can steer company products and services for the most effective “customer dance” with a broad range of customers, and what kinds of agile practices drawn from development can best serve them in this effort. But first, alas, definitions.

A Different Marketing Model

First, I would suggest that, as I noted in a previous piece, all “customer dances” (ongoing interactions with a customer) can be thought of as offering the company’s “worldview” to the customer to adopt or not, in competition with other companies’ worldviews.  For example, a buyer of insurance is offered several alternative ways of entering into a world of protection from nasty things that can happen to the customer. Or, a buyer of video games is offered many ways of living in alternate worlds where certain types of skills are trained for. If one thinks of a typical adult customer’s day, it starts with products and worldviews associated with home, then with worldviews that aid one at a particular type of job, then worldviews associated either with entertainment or more home tasks.

I suggest that customers’ needs for worldviews can be vaguely sorted into three categories:
1.       Learn. There are psychic as well as physical rewards for people who learn. Moreover, it is an open-ended process, one that need never end. Examples might be education, hobbies, training, passions, and fantasies.

2.       Do. This has been the traditional realm of much marketing, and has traditionally been thought of as mostly involving survival, job, or family support needs, ranging from buying food to mowing the lawn.  This is often true; but often there are psychic rewards for just accomplishing something “well”.

3.       Interact.  Pure Learn and Do are solitary activities; pure Interact has no purpose other than connecting to other people. This recognizes both the need for and psychic rewards for these connections. Things like phones, email, meeting halls, and dates are, by and large, mostly for Interaction.
It should be obvious that much of what is sold is a mixture of all three; but it is frequently useful to ask which of the three predominates.  For example, a PC today is typically used in the consumer market predominantly to Learn (the blogosphere is an example) and secondarily to Interact, while in the business market it is primarily used to Do.

The marketer therefore has two fundamental choices:
1.       Which worldview – which mix of learn, do, and interact – should I associate my company (brand, products, services) with? In other words, the choice is not merely one of industry – if “marketing myopia” didn’t make that clear – but also of the way the company would like the customer to think about the world (obviously, one that will sell lots of stuff) – bearing in mind that the customer has things to do and lots of alternatives, and so the time the customer spends in any one company’s worldview is very limited.

2.       Where in the customer’s life should I begin my relationship with the customer, and where should I end it?  Let’s face it, babies don’t buy products by themselves, and neither do the elderly in assisted living.  The relationship with the customer must have a beginning and an endpoint. Call this the relationship lifecycle.

Coming to Different Agile Answers

Before we launch into suggested “best” choices, let’s pause and think of ways that agile marketing might be said to be different from other marketing approaches.  If I had to give a short answer, it would go something like this:

·         Agile marketing emphasizes frequent, two-way conversations with the customer. In other words, the company does not decide a worldview and relationship lifecycle in isolation:  It constantly evolves both in partnership with its customers.

·         Agile marketing increases the company’s own emphasis on learning, especially compared to doing.  That change does not force the company to adopt a worldview that emphasizes learning more than before; but it does give the company additional ability to implement a worldview oriented more strongly towards customers’ “learn” needs. Thus, for example, Amazon.com can learn customers’ book preferences and trade that for increased sales by giving customers advance notice of publication of books they are fond of.

·         Counterintuitively, an emphasis on iterative, incremental new marketing and customer interactions leads agile marketers to a more long-run view of the customer relationship. Tighter bonds with customers lead naturally to greater efforts to extend the relationship.  That, in turn, gives the company new capabilities for longer relationship lifecycles.

·         Finally, compared to previous marketing approaches, agile marketing emphasizes more the idea that change is good. Mostly, this refers to changes in company marketing practices, company attitudes towards customers, and changes made during marketing projects.
Now let’s think selfishly about what a company wants, in order to maximize revenues/profits in the long term.  The company wants:
·         The most possible (profitable) customers;

·         Over the longest possible relationship lifecycle;

·         With the greatest customer loyalty (here I mean not just continuing to buy the same products, but also following the company into new products/services).
Let me pause for just a moment and put that in terms of worldviews and lifecycles. Here’s a grossly generalized Table:

                 Worldview                              Relationship Lifecycle
Learn       Values trading info                Very long
Do             Values quick solutions         Short
Interact     Values lots of interacters    Medium-term
And so, agile marketing appears to improve a company’s revenues/profit maximization in three ways:
1.       It lengthens the company’s typical relationship lifecycle by emphasizing Learn customers more.

2.       It increases customer loyalty by both involving the customer more and providing follow-on or related products/services more rapidly.

3.       It increases the number of customers both by speeding company movement into related markets and by decreasing customer disloyalty.

4.       It makes the company itself more able to change its target customers and therefore itself as the environment changes in future – by helping to make the company culture comfortable with change.

Two Personal Views: Addicts and Learning

I believe that agile marketing should also consider two other long-term aspects of customer “needs,” because, in the long run, I see traditional company strategies as sometimes harmful to companies’ long-term success.

The first aspect is the company-strategy tendency to sell to what I call the “addict” – someone who is or becomes psychologically addicted to a type of product or service.  Obviously, there are food addicts and drink/drug addicts; but there are also shopping addicts, home-repair addicts, conversation addicts, and even flying addicts. The characteristic of the addict is that he or she is impelled to spend more on a particular product/service type than is good for him/her – but that’s the type of customer that a company reflexively wants.  You want to buy?  Buy more!

I would argue two things about the addict.  First, in the long run, feeding addicts shortens relationship lifecycles (the addict’s life goes down the tubes), decreases other-customer loyalty (all I hear from you is buy, buy), and decreases revenues from the customer (I’m in hock up to my eyeballs). Second, the Learn customer is least likely to be an addict – both because the customer himself/herself is most adaptable to the changing needs of the workplace, and therefore more likely to have cash to spend, and because the customer may be more “realistic”, and therefore more likely to recognize and avoid addiction.
Therefore, I conclude that marketing in general, and agile marketing in particular, should consider the company’s present mix of addict and non-addict, and shift towards fewer addicts, possibly by moving towards a greater mix of Learn in its customers.
The second aspect of customer needs I think agile marketing should consider, irrespective of addiction, is which of the three “types” of customer would be best for the company, say, 10 years from now. We can point to plenty of companies that emphasize Learn, like video-game companies, and plenty that emphasize Interact, like the cell-phone and social-media companies, and definitely plenty that continue to emphasize the Do customer.
I would argue that most consumer companies, at the least, would benefit by increasing their proportion of Learn customers. They appear to be least likely to be addicts; they are least likely to get tired of or get a surfeit of the stuff provided; they have the potential to offer very long relationship lifecycles; they can provide a surprising amount of valuable information to the company along with their money; and the newness of what you provide is generally more exciting, while being “safe”. And since most B2B companies wind up providing value-add to products and services that wind up in the hands of consumers, they, too, should consider whether to improve their Learn customer value-add as passed on by the intermediate business.

The Agile Marketer’s Job

Implicit in the above analysis is a fairly simple statement of what should be the agile marketer’s general strategy:
Stretch all dimensions of the customer’s worldview/lifecycle.
This means, specifically:
·         Try to make the customer see you as a larger part of their life, by seeing you as in sync with their life and offering an interesting way to approach more and more of that life.

·         Try to stretch the length of the customer lifecycle backward and/or forward, by making the “cool stuff to learn about” accessible at earlier ages and applicable at later ages. Is it home repair you’re selling, or new cool solar ways to slice and dice your dwelling flexibly and in line with your own unique fashion sense – even in doll houses or Sims?

·         Increase customer loyalty to existing products/services by “crowd-customer-sourcing” their frequent upgrade, like bees building a hive under your (the queen’s) direction.

·         Increase customer pull to follow-on products by involving them early, focusing on Learn-type products/services/messages (build a better Lego Star Wars game!), and measuring/interacting two-way with customers rather than relying on the CEO’s “opinion.”

·         Make the brand a “learning” one (we’re in this together with the customer, and we’re going to do something insanely great), and drive comfort with “agile marketing” through the rest of the company by incorporating the idea of being agile in the company brand and culture.
I would also, myself, add three other elements of that strategy:
·         Both in product and promotional marketing, act as an integrator and not just as a coordinator of the rest of the company.  Coordinators make sure the functions don’t stumble over each other; integrators put “all the wood behind one arrow”, as Scott McNeally of Sun used to say, everything behind one overall strategy and consistent with one overall brand.

·         Stretch towards transparency to your customers and sacrifice some of that secrecy from your competitors as a tradeoff. Amazon wins because it always knows more about the evolution of its customers’ book needs, not because it hides its new software from its competitors. Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, coopetition plus agility is a better long-run strategy than cutthroat competition.

·         Emphasize agile marketing software infrastructure. That is, pick a set “tools that believe”, tools that aim to foster marketing process agility or “get out of the way”, to support the marketing process and customer communications. Collaborative new-product development tools that link in the company’s Web customer “community” are one example of this.

Nasty Problems

Changing company culture rarely occurs without serious resistance (is that enough of an understatement for you?). And that is where the problems with applying this 40,000-foot view of agile marketing strategy to a ground-level business will typically lie. A frequent theme of the recent agile marketing manifesto “sprint” was seemingly unavoidable resistance from the rest of the company – or even other marketers.
Obviously, without enough experience in those situations, I can’t supply a definitive answer.  I can, however, suggest a couple of strategies:
·         In any in-business confrontation, greater knowledge of the customer is frequently a trump card. Specifically, if you say “surveys show that this is the way we are coming across to the customer”, that is a very good long-run argument when you either “kick the argument upstairs” or face an inevitable “shoot-out at high noon.”

·         Most people in business always have a yearning for “safe change”; why else would higher-ups enjoy golf, which always involves getting yourself to learn more and more about how to get better and better, without any real risk to the rest of your life? However, that has typically been ground under by the so-called realities of making a profit by getting a fixed thing done on time and on budget.  See if the resister in question can get the idea that agile is “safe”, that he or she will get it done faster and better by going agile, and that there is really less risk involved in continually trying something new, the “agile” way.  As many have testified in the past, once people get that idea, their enthusiasm and their agile performance is better than before.

Present-Day Agile Marketing Approaches to Build On

For a hotbed of agile marketing ideas, I’d suggest going to the Agile Marketing Facebook Group first. Here’s a snapshot of some of their “values” … :
  1. Validated learning over opinions and conventions.
  2. Customer-focused collaboration over silos and hierarchy.
  3. Adaptive and iterative campaigns over big-bang campaigns.
  4. Process of customer discovery over static prediction.
  5. Flexible planning vs. rigid planning.
  6. Responding to change over following a plan.
  7. Many small experiments over a few large bets.
And “principles”:
  • Simplicity is essential.
  • Learning via a build, measure, learn feedback loop is the primary measure of success.
  • Sustainable marketing requires you to keep a constant pace and pipeline.
  • Don't be afraid to fail; just don't fail the same way twice.
  • Continuous attention to marketing fundamentals and good design enhances agility.
  • Deliver marketing programs frequently, from every couple of weeks to every couple of months, with a preference for a shorter time frame.
  • Great marketing resources requires close alignment with the business people, sales, and development.
  • Build marketing programs around motivated individuals, give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

Conclusion:  Movements, Agile Lemonade, and Pay for Fun

Let me close this 40,000-foot view by giving two additional thoughts possibly useful for agile marketers.  First is that the agile marketing effort bears every stamp of what in the computer industry is sometimes called a “movement.”  What’s a movement?
I define a movement as a new kind of market, or way to grow a market, characterized by:
·         Enormous, even quasi-religious, enthusiasm.

·         Participants who act as both initial vendors and initial consumers.

·         Ability to judge offerings not just by cost and features, but also “more [agile]” or “less [agile]”.

·         “Tools that believe” – software infrastructure that embodies the principles (in this case, of agile marketing).
Past examples of movements in the computer industry include Unix, open source, Linux, the Web – and agile software development.
To foster the success of a movement, I think, is a matter of:
·         Encouraging rather than “taming” the enthusiasm.

·         Publicizing the eventual, inevitable large-scale success (P&G?) when it occurs.

·         Moving rapidly to “tools that believe” and small-scale consultants so that new users see it as “safe” to try agile marketing.
And so, I think that agile marketers should join, contribute to, and use the resources and proof points of the agile marketing movement.
My second thought is that I find, in specific situations, “thinking agile” as a strategist involves taking things presented as problems and thinking of them as opportunities: “Getting lemons and making agile lemonade.”  Worried about hacker attacks? Why not design security software to place potential customers in a “sandbox”, and then trade knowledge of them for knowledge of you as a means of determining their bona fides? The hacker will betray himself/herself by his/her desire to access valuable company information without offering equivalent personal information in return – like location.  The valued customer will readily trade appropriate new information about himself/herself, enriching your ability to serve him/her in future. Problem? Opportunity!
And now, I’d like to close by reminding agile marketers of a key reason why the game is worth the candle:  Users report that agile makes you feel good because you are constantly learning and then doing better.  Here’s a story from the late 1990s, in the glory days of computer industry analysts:  I was sitting around with a fellow analyst at Aberdeen Group and we were talking about what was the real reason we didn’t chuck it all and go join some cool new Web startup like Webvan.  “You know,” he said to me in a tone of amazed happiness, “They’re paying us for learning!”
So there’s at least one good reason for agile marketers’ enthusiasm. Taking a 40,000-foot view, learning is where marketing should be headed – and it’s not just going to be good, it’s going to be fun.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Arctic, Global Warming, and World Politics: And the Band Played On

Over the last two years, I have sometimes been afflicted by the feeling that most of the world around me is functionally insane – and then I tell myself that I’m being paranoid. It seems to me that there is a steady drumbeat of scientific research that says that our carbon emissions as evidenced in the world around us are leading to unprecedented (and I don’t use that term lightly) catastrophe – for the descendants of every single one of us. And I note almost no comparable sense of urgency from almost anyone in a position of public or business responsibility. And then I say to myself, well, the same information is available to them. Maybe I’m misperceiving.

The test case, for me, is sea ice in the Arctic. Over the last few years, “extent” and “area” data have apparently said one thing: less than 5 % ice cover at minimum (early Sept.) sometime between 2030 and 2100. The volume data have apparently said another thing: less than 5% ice cover between 2013 and 2015 (actually, for arcane reasons to do with variance around the mean, it’s more like between 2016 and 2020). Volume data is fuzzier than extent and area data, so conservative scientists have tended to project the 2030-2100 number. However, it has seemed to me (again, for arcane reasons) that the volume number is far more realistic. And we’ll know for sure in, at maximum, 3 ¼ years.

Think, just for a brief second, about what it would mean if I was right. In September 2018, a little over 5 years from now, it will be clear sailing, with no ice, except probably just north of Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago. Shipping need not go anywhere except straight across the top of the world. The sun will shine down on a massive new “heat bank”, warming the surface waters instead of reflecting the heat back to space, and delaying refreezing – and fueling ongoing processes that will result in much more methane and carbon dioxide being released from Arctic waters and nearby Canadian and Russian permafrost. The process will feed on itself, every year delaying the onset of refreezing even more and causing the melting to occur earlier in the year, until somewhere between 2040 and 2060, probably, the Arctic will stay unfrozen almost all year around.

That, in turn, will speed the melting of Greenland ice into the ocean – which at its end would add perhaps 30-60 feet to the world’s oceans. The additional warmth from Arctic unfreezing – added to “business as usual” warming to yield global warming estimated, too conservatively and without good regard to the effects of permafrost unfreezing, at 11 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 – will speed south to Antarctic ocean currents and atmosphere, speeding the melting of another 150-odd feet of ocean rise.

All of this will play out over 200-1000 years, say the scientists, but, again, it seems to me that the most likely figure is closer to 200. And if you then examine the rest of the effects of my “most likely” temperature and ocean rise, as predicted by scientists and then modified by my knowledge of politics and economics, it’s very hard for me not to panic.

And for some reason, I keep looking at the news, at political comments on the subject, and the rest of how people are spending their lives, and hearing no remotely comparable sense of urgency. They just keep on doing the same things, as if walking around with invisible headphones, listening to some music that drowns out what I hear and say. And I start hearing in my head for some reason an old song with an endless refrain, “something the girl with the strawberry curls/And the band played on.”

The Trigger

Over the last couple of years I’ve been lurking at a superb web site mediating between scientific findings and amateur assessors of the research such as myself: neven1.typepad.com. Do not pass Go, go directly to their daily graphs page, and look at the ones that show the yearly trend of volume and area. Sometime in the next 3 ½ years, if I am correct, we will see massive jumps downwards in area and extent during the melt period to correspond to the massive loss of volume at all times of the year we have seen between 1979 and now. And based on the last few days of area and extent data, I am wondering if it is beginning. Certainly, the predictors, scientific and otherwise, seem to sense a major downward movement (cf the SEARCH 2012 Sea Ice Outlook: June report blog post in the same location). Note the key sentence: “The 2012 June Outlook differs from all previous Outlooks in that there are no projections of extent [during September’s “minimum month] greater than 5.0.”

Now here’s what I see in politics: Canada’s Stephen Harper says it’ll be a boon to Canada because of the tolls for using the Northwest Passage. Excuse me? If in 10 years I’m going to be able to simply barrel past Alaska to the Pole and then pivot south around Greenland to get to both Western Europe and the Eastern US for August through September, why would I give two cents to Canada? Maybe I’d give a little to Russia for the Northeast Passage, but not much, considering my alternatives.

Then there’s all sorts of debate about “the mineral wealth of the Arctic” – mainly oil, isn’t it? Gee, what a good idea, let’s speed up global warming even faster! And let’s kill even more ocean life in the process – even though a scientific report to the UN says we may kill off just about everything important in the ocean but jellyfish by 2100 unless we mend our ways.

Meanwhile, back in the US, half of the population is pledged to a party committed to denying there’s any problem at all – instead, they want to get more oil, drill, my poor baby, drill. Over in China, as was predicted 3 years ago, attempts to get into solar while satisfying the populace with coal have been the primary cause of a record global rise in carbon emissions last year. And those are just the most important villains; the same in lesser degree could be said for most nations. I am not in the slightest minimizing what those like Australia’s Prime Minister are doing; it’s just that nobody seems to be talking about the fact that their efforts are having minimal impact compared to the scale of what it takes to avoid or even minimize the disaster.

And our beloved businesses, whose free-market prowess will lead us out of this mess: gee, it’s 35 years and counting, maybe 5 years since you noticed that there might possibly be an effect on your brand, and the US is just about the most “free-market” country around, and have we reduced our emissions via your superb technological innovations driven into the market by sheer entrepreneurial force? Or have we seen only a flattening over the last 3 years of deep recession and slow recovery, while the Koch brothers fund political denial after media denial, and your “just us business rich” attitude towards this type of blatant free-market distortion is to enable with your boards of directors and to excuse with your Chambers of Commerce and your Heartland Institutes?

And the band played on.

Imagining Horror

So let’s take a map of the world in 2060 (it may be 30-60 years later than that) showing the likely areas of epic drought or far too much rain – drought which, by the way, includes just about all of the US except the Northeast. Subtract areas in the tropics, as they will eventually be mostly too hot to support meaningful crops (think: Qatar). Now subtract maybe 100 miles inland from higher oceans, and maybe more than that if the continental shelves periodically produce bursts of acid, sulfuric air (Ward’s Medusa hypothesis). Where do you have left to grow food?

Well, there’s a long strip in Siberia where there’s permafrost now. There’s a shorter strip in upper Canada where there’s permafrost now. There’s a pretty short strip in north Argentina. Notice anything about these? No one’s growing food there now. All our present growing areas – 10 times or more the area we’re talking about – will be extraordinarily hard or impossible (perhaps a third of the world’s growing areas are around river deltas) to grow food on. And, by the way, all that permafrost is probably going to turn into peat bogs, complete with swamps and mosquitoes. Lovely places to live.

How much of the world’s present population can we support via farming there? There is no likely way now to support more than 20% of the present population (around 7 billion), at reasonable minimum daily calories, afaik; maybe only 10%. Let’s say, at a wild guess, 1 billion. So who are those 1 billion going to be?

Well, gee, do you really think Canada or Russia will welcome 1 billion people with open arms? Ah, but we’re rich (or some of us are); we can buy our way in. Except that who protects us from the 6 billion (or maybe 8 billion, by 2050) others? Not the government; that would require that the government take most of your money for your defense, and you wouldn’t like that, would you? Much better to hire mercenaries. Except that those mercenaries will, as mercenaries have always done, given the opportunity, turn around and demand they get the bulk of the loot. And they won’t have much use for more than the minimum number of rich after that. Yeah, you’ll buy survival – but probably not of over half your descendants. But who cares even about your own great-great-grandchildren, if you can live it up?

And I haven’t even touched on the litany of natural disasters, and very possibly wars, that will increasingly decrease our ability to either avoid (geoengineering on the cheap, anyone?) or adapt to this brave new world. And I haven’t touched on the impoverished ecosystems supporting this new farmland, or the fact we’ll have to move twice to get there, since it won’t even be fully melted 50-60 years from now when the stresses may really hit.

And it’s also, it appears to me, that there’s a rapidly shrinking window of opportunity. 45 years ago, when Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House, minimal efforts over the last 45 years would have avoided it all. Now, some effects seem impossible to avoid and imminent – like the Arctic melting and a follow-on 15-foot-by-2100 Greenland sea rise and global warming up to 2 degrees Celsius. Major disruptions to our great-great-grandchildrens’ lives appear impossible to avoid unless we reduce emissions to about 10-20% of our present level within about 20-30 years.

That’s doable by a supreme effort. Is anyone talking about it? And it gets far harder to avoid the ultimate horror after that.

Or is it the ultimate horror? No, even I won’t go there today – although the way we’ve been handling things, it’s no longer effectively impossible.

And the band played on.


So, as I understand Rachel Maddow says, talk me down. Although, over the last few years, I haven’t seen much talking-down going on. Maybe I’m over-reacting to the Arctic data. Maybe my understanding is flawed. I’d love it to be so. I would really like to just sit here and listen, as the horrible, wonderful human band plays on.

And by 2050, I fully anticipate being in my grave. Dreaming, I hope, of my own girl with the strawberry hair. Viewing that “Tomorrow,” as the old folk song says, “When the sun is at rise/No more sorrow, shall be found in mine eyes.” Even if I am right, I will never see the full consequences. Silly me, to worry about my great-great-grandchildren. Or anyone else’s.

But I do have one request, should it turn out, by some amazing chance, that I’m close to right. If some great-great-grandchild of someone survives and remembers, I’d like them to do one thing for me. No need to do it. It would just be nice.

If, in that strange future world, my gravestone survives, I’d like them to come back and carve a simple message on it. Five words.

And the band played on.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Art of the Defender

I was playing tennis the other day, and suddenly it called to mind the days when I was the little kid in my family, and I and my elders were gathered ‘round the ping-pong table. That was the big activity in summer between us kids and Dad, and so periodically we would adjourn to the table, outdoors on the porch, and we would take turns on either side of the table, remaining if we won, relegated to the sideline if we lost. And that was where I first learned how to be a Defender.

You see, I was smaller. I was younger, and therefore less skilled. I was nervous. The only way I was going to win a game against my elders and betters at attack was to return. And return. And return. Learn how to get it back consistently, and then how to get it back, not to attack, but to cause the attacker to misfire. Vary the pace. Vary the angle. Make the shot difficult to return. Slice. Over-spin. Anything. Just keep returning.

And then, one day, browsing the Sports Illustrated subscription that I had been gifted one birthday, I ran across a very rare article on table tennis. It was actually a story. A story about two incredibly skilled Defenders. Uniquely, they had been matched together. And so it developed that the first point went on … and on … and on … each side refusing to attack, each side perfect in defense, until one of the two started up a conversation on the side as he was returning, and then turned it into a chess game. And that unnerved his opponent so much that he actually attempted an attacking slam, and when that was returned an even wilder slam, and when that was returned he hit the ball wildly into the air and ran screaming from the room. And when I read this I realized what I was doing. I realized the Art of the Defender.

At this point I must distinguish the Art of the Defender from the Art of the Counterpuncher. The counterpuncher’s fundamental state of mind is to attack; it’s just that he is leaning forward, looking for the perfect opportunity to do so, rather than attacking immediately. The Defender’s fundamental state of mind is to defend.

The Art of the Defender, as that article told me, is not to beat the opponent by skill. It is to break down the opponent’s game by breaking down the opponent’s psychological state. In a typical match between attackers, each side’s game steadily improves as the game goes on, because each is responding to a challenge of the other. In a match of attacker against defender, a successful Defender makes the opponent’s game steadily worse, by psychological means, by causing increasing frustration at missed shots, followed either by restriction to “safe” shots that will still cause him to miss more often than the Defender, or by more and more wild hitting that gives the Defender the game.

And that, in turn, means that above a certain level of player – one who is not stressed by slices or lobs, and knows how to avoid frustration – the Defender’s game is ultimately a losing one. Eventually, the Defender’s workable bag of tricks runs out, and then the game turns into a rout. Because, as those who have tried to train Defenders to rush the net have found, the Defender is just not as comfortable on the attack as the Attacker.

And so, at summer music camp, that first year I won the ping-pong tournament, iirc. The second year I lost in the finals. The third, I lost in the semi-finals.

There’s an interesting parallel, by the way, with the March on Atlanta in the Civil War, and the aftermath. Sherman was the Attacker, Joe Johnston the Defender. Back and back Johnston marched, always in a perfect defensive position, somehow never attacking. Finally, Sherman got so frustrated that at Kenesaw Mountain, he got 5,000 men killed pretty quickly marching straight up a hill into withering fire. But, in the end, he drove Johnston all the way back to Atlanta, and began to encircle the city.

At this point, Jefferson Davis stepped in and replaced Johnston by Hood, an Attacker – understandable, since simply by being at Atlanta, Sherman was squeezing the economic life out of the Confederacy, so crucial was this railroad crossroads. And Hood proceeded to Attack immediately, and lose a good proportion of his army. In fact, so frustrated was he at his army’s lack of skill at Attack, that he sent them straight up a hill in Franklin, Tennessee against withering fire, apparently in the belief that they needed to be forced to learn to Attack. After those two decimations, a third on Lookout Mountain effectively put the entire Army out of commission – the only time that happened in the Civil War. Defending may not be a winning game in the long run; but sometimes psychological frustration during the alternative, Attack, loses the game quicker.

But, more than that, playing a Defender’s game is not good for the skills and the improvement of those skills of either side. In fact, in the long run, the Defender’s game is good for one purpose only: winning the immediate match. The next match, and the next, the Attacker will gain on you, until eventually you will be losing all the time.

But at this stage in my life, it’s about long-term improvement for me, and I know that the wins will eventually, consistently follow. Because I am no longer a Defender. Fundamentally, I am leaning forward rather than either leaning back or planting myself in the ground and refusing to move in either direction. I like this better.

And so, when I meet an erstwhile fellow Defender across the net in a doubles match, I turn to my now-fellow Attacker partner and comfort him that this is normal when he mishits. I advise him to relax and just wait until well after the bounce. Never, ever do I suggest that he slice in return or Attack harder. I know that as long as he does not become frustrated, the rest will inevitably follow. And in my mind, I reminisce about the days when I did a perfect defensive lob, or a perfect drop shot, or a perfect passing shot when the opponent was at the net; but I never want to go back. I’ve had my fun; now, I want to learn the Art of the Attacker.