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GP 22 October 2008: Experts Who Matter

Out of Date.  Last week we parleyed with two of America’s largest companies—one in transportation and one in insurance.  We were hard pressed to give them any useful advice on the problems they brought up with us, because we quickly learned that companies and their staffs were Rip Van Winkles, long asleep at the clutch, whose thought processes and souls were a half century out of date, with little instinct for the present.  Any patches they applied to their management practices as a result of our conversation would not really get at their very deep problems.  They are charmingly ponderous amidst a photonic world that is moving at the speed of light.

We’re having a lot of déjà vu all over again, confronting at every turn people whose mindsets are archaic.  Neither Treasury Secretary Paulson nor any of our financial leaders have a clue as to how to put our financial Humpty Dumpty together again, and so, like Alan Greenspan, they hope that they can bluff their way out of crisis by flooding our financial markets with liquidity (which is how we got in this mess in the first place). 

Outdated Thinking.  Paulson is no Sidney Weinberg, the rags-to-riches entrepreneur who saved a floundering Goldman Sachs so many years ago.

Likewise, Republican candidate McCain, thinking he is a Teddy Roosevelt, offers policy prescriptions suitable for the first half of the 20th century.  Senator Obama picks all his moves out of the Democratic playbook invented by Lyndon Johnson for the last half of the 20th.  Nobody has caught up to the 21st century where intelligence is in the network.  That is, we live in a time where the answers to our problems are widely dispersed throughout our global systems, a state of affairs that befuddles autocrats who think they can dream up solutions at the breakfast table.  Discovering answers requires patience, an ability to reach around the world for bright ideas, and a nose that discriminates between real beef and bovine elimination.

Expert Systems.  Years ago we frequently would break bread with Dr. Howard Austin, an awfully smart guy who labored in the more stimulating intellectual circles at the fringes of MIT.  He fiddled with artificial intelligence, expert systems, and all that stuff.   He made clear to us as we sipped our Burgundy that expert systems are not very expert.  They’re supposed to be sophisticated software creations that emulate smart human beings.  But they’re not.  What they do is replicate average or even mediocre human behaviors.

This realization sent Howard down a most interesting alley.  He tried to get to know many of the world’s true experts—to learn how they think and to learn how they perform their miracles.  He figured that if he could capture them—or say capture 75% of their modus operandi—he would have a good start on putting together some software that could truly contribute to the advancement of the human estate.

A Dying Breed.  Experts, however, are probably on the endangered species lists.  We are hard put to find people who have real depth of knowledge that is applicable to the present moment in a very practical way.  Oft as not, the ‘experts’ we hear about have knitted together reams of data that pertain to the distant past but have no earthly application in the present.  Experts who are worth a tinker’s damn (or tinker’s dam) are certainly as rare as the ivory-billed woodpecker, which may or may not have recently been rediscovered in Arkansas.

At any rate, true experts rarely make headlines.  We are often at a loss as to who they are, where they hang out, and what arcane, important discoveries they have made.  It’s fun to mention a few here just to remind ourselves that they exist and that we should be on the look out for them as an antidote to the many know-nothings who seem to drive everyday events.  The shadowy experts are doing their stuff under the radar—and just don’t make it on to cable news or into the news columns of our scribblers.  Since they lie low, we tend to worship other false gods, the publicity seekers who pose as gurus but generally do not know much at all.

Gene SharpGene Sharp hangs out in the Boston area, heading up his own think tank, which is wittily named the Albert Einstein Institute.  He is a very prolific oldster, his most widely read tract probably being From Dictatorship to Democracy.  What we learn from the Wall Street Journal is that he is an expert on revolution whose writings are read around the world.  He inspires fear and loathing in many dictators, and they go to great lengths to suppress his writings, which have been translated into many languages.  Someday David McCullough will write about him instead of the Adams family, since the power of Sharp’s thought has been felt in so many places.  His shots are constantly heard around the world.  He makes all the change agents and transformation experts who have come out of the Harvard Business School and Boston’s consulting firms look rather silly.  For he has truly changed things and is one sharp fellow.

Pekka Puska. Pekka is a Finnish doctor who dramatically improved the health of the Finns.  First in North Karelia and then in the whole of Finland, he dramatically brought down coronary incidents and cancer rates through commonsense propagation of public health measures which, by the way, he learned from Ancel Keys, a bright researcher at the University of Minnesota.  Oddly enough, it was the Finns, not the Americans, who put the definitive conclusions of Keys to work.  Puska is immensely interesting because his work has worked, unlike all the suggestions of the legions of health policy experts in the United States who have given vent to very narrow, impractical ideas.  Healthcare now consumes over 15% of our national wealth, and yet we are a little worse off every year, in spite of it, or maybe because of it. 

Darrell Corti.  A Sacramento grocer, Darrell Corti knows what you need to know about olive oil, salt, and a whole bunch of foodstuffs so you can accumulate the knowledge about the best and find the quality ingredients that go into fine eating.  His interest is consuming, such that he is close to the fine olive oil producers in Spain and Italy, can help you avoid the huge amount of fraudulent product that reaches the marketplace, and understands how modern technology, at its best, has actually improved the quality of the better oils.  We admire him greatly for banning ultra-high alcohol wines from his store, not because of any temperance tendencies, but because such high-test potions make for bad wine.  Manufactured wines that have proliferated in California and Australia don’t cut the mustard, their vines picked too early, the processes confused in order to create a one taste wine, their instantaneous vinting stifling quality, etc.

Corti is a help to California cuisine.  San Francisco is in love with its food, which has become quite good, but certainly not great, despite all the self-congratulations bruited by   a whole clutch of new, very promotional young chefs in the region.  There’s a need for ever better ingredients in the Bay Area, and only someone of Corti’s devotion, knowledge, and standards will look deeply enough into the supply chain to ensure that the right stuff gets on the table.  He has not only improved our selection of olive oils, but stepped up our understanding of vermouths.  To enjoy a quantum leap in the quality of our cuisine, we would have to get on to what he knows about–how to nurture and secure good ingredients.

Swarm Intelligence v. Lemming Behavior.  When you work with the Wall Street community, you learn that it is a gossip mill where thousands very quickly cotton on to what the next guy is doing and march in lockstep with him over a cliff.  That has a great deal to do with the present persistent financial crisis wherein the know-it-alls keep doing the very things espoused by the charlatans in their midst.  This behavior has not ceased, even with the bursting of several bubbles.  Ray DeVoe, author of the DeVoe Report and the best writer in the financial community, has essayed at length—year after year—about the tragic flaws in Wall Street products and even in the numbers about the economy that are churned out by the federal government.

Yet groupthink sometimes does work, not leading to herd behavior, but to smart actions.  We call it swarm intelligence when things go right.  In order for the swarms to act smartly, they have to be in touch with nerve centers—bright guys most of us don’t know about—who may point the group in the right direction.  That is our challenge.  To tap into the wisdom of crowds, but to steer clear of the impulses of herds.

Can our leaders—and can each of us—turn to the soft-spoken, somewhat modest, hardworking experts who labor at the margins of the society?  Can we make use of expertise rather than expostulation?

P.S.  Marty DeRosa, once a grocer on Potrero Hill in San Francisco, said the tomatoes and melons grown on farms for the San Francisco market were infinitely better before World War II.  After the War, everything was bigger and beautiful but tasteless.  He did not know the cause, but thought the careful cultivation and tender care afforded by Japanese farmers before the big war came was never replaced once corporate agriculture, new strains of fruits and vegetables, and mechanical processes became to dominate California agriculture.  This is one of the reasons why San Francisco cooking has traditionally been a little tasteless.

P.P.S.  Who would have thought that the Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays (once better known as the Devil Rays) would be the World Series contestants this year?  The best-coached teams, of a sudden, are not in our renowned metropolises, but the offbeat places we like to ignore.

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