What does "prate" mean?

What does "prate" mean?

From http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prate:
To talk long and idly : CHATTER

Eno River Sunrise

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Science is Never Settled

During some of our current political discussions we sometime hear that "the science is settled".  I have two main issues with this assertion.

1. This statement "the science is settled" indicates that science is not being used to support a meaningful and fact based discussion, but rather to squelch opposing opinions i.e. "because, shut up!".  Even if the correctness of the science is conceded, "the science is settled" statement is intended to overcome all other arguments.  In a political discussion these other considerations include legality/jurisdiction, budget/resources and competing interests.  All must be balanced in the political arena, and science is not a trump card.

2. In itself the statement "the science is settled" is a serious non-sequitur, because by definition science is never settled.  The fact that science is never settled and is always evolving doesn't take away from its power and utility - far from it.  I make my living in the technology space, which owes its existence to science.  My point is that science is sometimes represented as unchallengeable dogma, and this is wrong.

Science is About Questioning, Experiments and Proof

The basic pursuit of science is the acquisition of knowledge through hypothesis and testing.  If an idea or principle is not testable or not subject to question or disproof, it cannot be considered scientific.  Questioning the results of science is part of the process, not "denial."

Charles Sanders outlined four methods of settling opinion.  He ordered them from least successful to most successful (in his view).  From Wikipedia:
  1. The method of tenacity (policy of sticking to initial belief) - which brings comforts and decisiveness but leads to trying to ignore contrary information and others' views as if truth were intrinsically private, not public. It goes against the social impulse and easily falters since one may well notice when another's opinion is as good as one's own initial opinion. Its successes can shine but tend to be transitory.
  2. The method of authority - which overcomes disagreements but sometimes brutally. Its successes can be majestic and long-lived, but it cannot operate thoroughly enough to suppress doubts indefinitely, especially when people learn of other societies present and past.
  3. The method of the a priori - which promotes conformity less brutally but fosters opinions as something like tastes, arising in conversation and comparisons of perspectives in terms of "what is agreeable to reason." Thereby it depends on fashion in paradigms and goes in circles over time. It is more intellectual and respectable but, like the first two methods, sustains accidental and capricious beliefs, destining some minds to doubt it.
  4. The scientific method - the method wherein inquiry regards itself as fallible and purposely tests itself and criticizes, corrects, and improves itself.
Talking about "the science is settled" falls into category 2 - the method of authority.  The "appeal to authority" is a common logical fallacy during discussion of contentious issues.  If someone refers to authority or a consensus of authorities, then the argument is not scientific in nature.  I have found that those appealing to authority by using the phrase "the science is settled" are often trying to mislead the scientifically illiterate, or have been misled themselves.  When you say "the science is settled," I hear "''Shut up,' he explained."

Note that a key aspect of the scientific method is that inquiry regards itself as fallible.  Embracing the scientific method means embracing the likelihood of being disproven at some point, or at least being shown to have only an incomplete understanding.  It means that experimental data and methods are shared openly to allow recreation of results - or identification of flaws in the hypothesis or results.

Science Evolves

As a reminder of the ephemeral nature of scientific truth, here are some examples of once "settled science" being disproved or modified based on later hypotheses and testing.
  • Aristotle formulated the idea of spontaneous generation to account for small life forms such as maggots and fleas.  This notion was "settled science" for over two millennia until disproved by the experiments of Louis Pasteur.
  • Ptolemy's model of an Earth-centered universe was able to make pretty good predictions of planetary positions.  It was "settled science" for 1400 years until Copernicus and his heliocentric model.
  • The Greek physician Galen created the model of unidirectional blood flow from the heart and liver to the rest of the body.  This was "settled science" until the Arabian physician Ibn al-Nafis described a circulatory model in 1242 and Marcello Malpighi discovered capillaries in 1661.
  • Newton's laws of motion and gravitation were "settled science" from their publication in Principia Mathematica in 1687 until Albert Einstein formulated his general and special theories of relativity in the early 20th century.
  • Einstein's theories of relativity capped what is now known as "classical" or pre-quantum mechanics.  Einstein's theories are remarkable for the accuracy of the predictions made from them. Even so, they were shown to have their own limits at the sub-atomic level.
Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen, Newton and Einstein were all scientific giants.  They were also eventually shown to be limited or wrong in various degrees.  This is the fate of all scientists.

Despite imperfection, these men made great advances in our understanding of the world around us.  Each was less wrong than his predecessors.  Their models and theories provided increasingly useful predictions about the natural world.  This is why we pursue scientific exploration.  As I said above, science puts bread on my table.

Science is a Tool, not Dogma

The work of the giants above is science, not dogma.  This notion is a great advance over the period in history when the ideas of Aristotle, Ptolemy and Galen were considered dogma and were not subject to question.  For example, in 1632 Galileo was tried for heresy for defending the heliocentric model of Copernicus.  Hopefully the days of trying "deniers" like Galileo are past us.

I will note that there are those who use the changing nature of scientific results as an argument against science in toto.  This position is absurd.  While our understanding of the physical world may change tomorrow, it's still the best that we have.  Furthermore, the changes in scientific findings are not arbitrary, but instead are based on new theories, experiments and findings.

Even so, science is disprovable.  "The science is settled" is a posture, not a meaningful argument.  If the science of the giants wasn't settled in the past, what makes you think that ours is today?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Simple, But Hard - Part 2

This is the second of a two part blog.  Click here for Part 1.

Point 5: Everyone is in Sales

In my past I did some of the usual sales activities.
  • I sold stuff to my neighbors raising money for the Boy Scouts
  • I sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door in high school
  • I participated in alumni phone-a-thons in college
I hated all of them.  I decided that I wanted no part of sales.  Of course, I also decided that I wanted no part of computers.  Neither of those decisions stuck.  More on computers later.

I am an engineer and I work with a lot of engineers.  We tend to want to focus on creating things.  As you advance in your career, selling becomes an increasingly important aspect of your life, even if you are not carrying a commission.  It is often hard to convince engineers that they need to think of selling on a daily basis.

Most of them understand that have to sell yourself to a prospective spouse.  They may then forget that they have to keep selling.

The also understand the need to sell to prospective employers.  We have all seen great people who are terrible at resumes and interviews.

What's harder to understand is the need to sell your ideas, your proposals, your vision within your company.  In a startup like Overture, this also applies to convincing prospective employees, investors and customers.

A good illustration of the importance of everybody being in sales is when you are trying to close a big deal.  In these cases there is a lot of selling from all parts of the business:

  • The door to the opportunity may be opened by an exec or biz-dev guy
  • The quota-carrying salesman may initiate and track the bid process
  • The financial team has to assemble data, both on the deal for internal analysis and for the response, as well as in presenting the bidding company as being financially sound
  • The product management team has to sell the product functionality and roadmap
  • The support team has to sell their capabilities of keeping the products running
  • The engineering team has to sell the product design and technology

A common discussion during hiring, planning and reviews is how confident we are in putting a given person in front of a customer.  This is really another way of asking: are we confident in their ability to sell?  This is usually a point of focus in certain groups and at the senior level.  What we forget about is the fact that there are also many unplanned interactions between our customers and our employees.

  • Do we prepare them with knowledge of how our customers use our product or service?  
  • Do we empower them to make things right for the customer? 
  • Do we ensure that they know how hard it is to win a customer and how easy it is to lose one?  
It's easy to say that everyone is in sales, but hard to put into practice.

Point 6: Business is About Relationships

You might think that this topic is simple and easy, rather than simple and hard.  Many folks at a senior level in business are extroverted and like working with people.  If you are such a person, you interact easily with your customers and employees every day, and hopefully things are sailing along smoothly.  But have you really built the relationships as you should?  Have you institutionalized this idea among your team?

I started to really appreciate this principle when we started Overture.
  • We were able to raise some early money based on relationships that we had with some angel investors.  
  • VCs always want you to supply references, but they also dig out their own.  Your ability to close a funding round may depend on how good or bad your relationship was with someone you worked or dealt with long ago.
  • We were able to recruit some key employees because of the relationships that we had.
  • We were able to survive some major product issues at key customers because of the relationships that we had built over time.
  •  We have been able to get our current customers to provide references for our prospective customers.

The last two points are critical.  You will have problems with your customers at some point.  What are you doing to prepare?

So, I ask you to think hard about your professional relationships:
  • Do you engage with your customers even when they aren't in a buying mode?
  • Do you support them when your product or service has issues?  
  • Do you make the situation right, even when it is very expensive for you?
  • Do you get to know your employees and support them when they have issues in their lives?
  • Do you foster their professional growth?

Building relationships is simple, but hard.

Point 7: Carpe Diem

This is one of my favorite simple but hard truths.  Another variation is "Time is the enemy".

This struck me very hard when my dad passed away.  I had the usual coulda/woulda/shoulda remorse, both for myself and for my kids.  Why didn't we spend more time with him?  Part of it was my fault, but he had his share of the blame.  He didn't put an emphasis on family and friends, nor on his favorite hobby of golf.  Too much time working and watching TV.

I tried to learn from his and my failure, and resolved to do better.  This obviously applies to our personal lives, but it is also critical in the business world:
  • Did you make those customer calls today?
  • Did you reach out to your old friends or former co-workers to maintain those relationships?
  • Did you make an effort to learn something new?
  • When was the last time you called your mom or dad (or kids, for those of not-so-young execs)
  • Did you express gratitude or recognition for a job well done?

Carpe Diem.  Simple, but hard.

Point 8: The Only Constant is Change

That's the way one of my former colleagues put it.  A current colleague says "if there were no change, that would be a change".

Here's an example of massive change in my industry.  My first engineering class as a freshman was learning the FORTRAN programming language using paper punch cards.  The cards were read by a big mechanical monstrosity that would then send the job to TUCC.  It was a horrible way to learn programming.  I decide that I wanted nothing to do with computers, and my motto was "nuke TUCC".

Soon thereafter we got the first PC labs installed.  PCs were pitiful little things with 2 drives for 256K floppy disks, a 4.77 MHz processor and 256K of RAM.  But they were under your control.  I quickly came to see the power of computers because things changed.

As a side note, recall that we started Overture in the First Flight Venture Center or FFVC, which was the former TUCC.  Things really do change.

Overture has been around almost 13 years, and we have seen a lot of change.  As an example, let's look at the executive level (the CEO and his direct reports).  Comparing the current team to that from 5 years ago, there are only two names that are the same, and only one of those people is in the same role.  The changes from 5 years ago include a new CEO, new VP of sales, new VP of operations, and a new VP of engineering.

If there was that much change in the last 5 years, what will the next 5 or 10 years look like?  Bill Gates said:
We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction.
The key is to recognize that change is going to happen, and to prepare for it.


This blog has covered some principles that you probably already knew:
  • The key to finishing is getting started
  • Be Committed
  • Be contrarian
  • Expect some failures, but manage them and learn from them
  • Everyone is in Sales
  • Business is About Relationships
  • Carpe Diem
  • The Only Constant is Change

All of these ideas are simple to state and understand, but hard to put into daily practice.  Hopefully this blog has been a useful reminder to you.

One last reminder: please remember to eat less, exercise more, and keep your eye on the target.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Simple, But Hard – Part 1

Note – This blog is adapted from a speech that I gave to the Raleigh Young Executives Club on May 13. 2013.

Overture will soon reach the 13th anniversary of its founding by Jeff Reedy and me.  Anniversaries are a time for celebration, but also for reflection.  In this blog I have captured a few stories from the history of Overture that illustrate some principles that can be characterized as simple, but hard. 

Simple but hard describes many aspects of our personal and professional lives. Want to lose weight?  Eat better, eat less, and get more exercise.  Simple, but hard.

I recently started shooting skeet, and was frustrated by my lack of progress.  I took some lessons and have learned the basics:

  • keep your eye on the bird, not the barrel
  • allow plenty of lead
  • keep your head on the stock and follow through.   

Simple, but hard.

This principle of simple but hard applies many aspects of the business world.   For example, Steven Covey’s “7 habits” falls into this category.  They include “Sharpen the saw” and “begin with the end in mind”.  Simple, but hard.

On that note, I am going to share a few stories with you, that I hope you find interesting and informative.

Point 1: The key to finishing is getting started

Or, put another way, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

You are all familiar with this simple but hard idea.  I need to start my taxes.  I need to start exercising.  Etc, Etc …

I have been fortunate to have been involved in some success with Overture.  As is the case with many startups, the early work was done as our unpaid “night job” while we still had our “day jobs”.  Jeff Reedy and I did this for about 8 months starting in January 2000.  

During this period of night and weekend work we were able to refine the business plan and make some initial contacts with potential customers, investors and employees.  However, you can make only so much progress in this fashion.  At some point, you have to decide: Are in or you are out?  Are you going to fish or cut bait?

We took the plunge, quit our day jobs, pooled some money and started Overture in September 2000.  Sounds simple, but it was hard.
  • We had to walk away from a steady job and a paycheck
  • We invested our own time and money in our idea and vision
  • We had to commit to the business in the face of rejection from potential investors, potential employees and potential customers
  • We faced the prospect of legal action from our previous employer.  There was no legitimate basis for a law suit, but we had to treat it seriously in the face of our fund-raising efforts.

So, we got Overture going.  We raised some early money and hired a few employees.  On to product development.

In the early days of Overture we were lean and nimble.  We could make decisions quickly and get started on projects.  Our first few products were not quite right for the market.  However, they had the most valuable property of any product: they existed.  We were able to take those products and make minor adaptations to make them market winners.

As we grew, it became harder to get past the analysis stage.  The desired end date was creeping closer, but we were making no progress. We were so concerned about getting the product right that we couldn’t get going.  

We are doing a lot better on this now.  I feel that we have restored a lot of our old “a bias for action”.  If you are going to drive from North Carolina to California, it’s probably not a bad idea to get on I-40 and head west while your navigator looks for any issues down the road.  In other words, get going and make corrections.  Simple, but hard.

Point 2: Be Committed 

Commitment is one of the simplest ideas around, but also one of the hardest.

As I mentioned above, an important part of getting started with Overture was investing our own time and money.  This meant writing large checks to cover the initial funding.  It also meant that Jeff and I went without pay for about 9 months, and then took “grocery money” for a period after that.  

I want to share a contrasting story.  When we started Overture we leased some space in the First Flight Venture Center or FFVC in RTP, near where Davis Drive ends at Cornwallis Road at the entrance of IBM.  The FFVC was originally the Triangle Universities Computation Center or TUCC.  After TUCC was decommissioned in 1990 the state turned the building into an incubator in 1991.  It was a good place to start a business because they provided a variety of furnished rooms on a monthly basis, along with phones and internet.  As we grew we acquired more and more rooms, including what became known as the “basement” in Overture lore.  This was the lower floor, which was also the original RTP post office.

Another firm in the building was a startup providing circuit board layout services.  Companies like Overture need to convert designs into circuit boards, but only occasionally.  This is an ideal job to farm out to a services firm.  The presence of such a company in the same building was very convenient.

The firm was formed as an LLC with two principle partners.  The president was a man who was a circuit board designer who still had a day job at a local firm.  The vice president was a woman who was handling sales and operations.

When the president lost his day job he decided to work full time at the startup and take a salary.  He informed the vice president that her services were no longer required.  His thinking was that he could do this since 1) he was the president and 2) his wife was the accountant and had the checkbook.  Of course, that’s not how a partnership works.  The wheels quickly fell off and the firm dissolved shortly thereafter.  He was not committed.

Commitment shouldn’t be blind.  At some point it may be rational to pull the plug.  However, you have to be prepared to ride through the initial storms and hardships.  The story above is a great example of why VCs say “don’t trust a founder with a day job”.

Point 3: Be Contrarian

For investing, this notion is commonly phrased in a couple of ways:
  • Buy low, sell high. 
  • When people are greedy, be afraid.  When they are afraid, be greedy.
It’s never easy to start a telco equipment company like Overture, but especially not in 2000 and in RTP:
  • It requires a lot of capital and the sales cycle is long. 
  • The big customers are notoriously difficult to deal with, and many won’t do business with a small company. 
  • Most of telco startups are focused in Silicon Valley, Boston, or maybe Texas.  There is not much of an infrastructure here in RTP, especially with respect to VCs.  They don’t want to fly over a deal to get to a deal. 
  • Finally, 2000 was the tail end of the boom.  Very few angels or VCs were interested in making this type of investment.
Despite the difficulties, there were some real benefits to starting when we did. 
  • We were able to recruit and retain some great employees without using extraordinary means.
  • We were able to acquire very expensive test equipment for pennies on the dollar.
  • We were able to find commercial space for very good rates.
  • There was not an expectation from our investors that we would immediately win big deals.  We were able to win some small deals, refine our products and build our company.  When the market started to turn around in 2003, we were ready.
  • We were able to build a business that let our customers get maximum use and evolution from their existing network, rather than the bubble approach of rip and replace.
In all these cases the benefits came from a contrarian approach.  Simple, but hard.

Point 4: Expect some failures, but manage them and learn from them

I like to fish.  Since big fish eat little fish, and since all fish start life as little fish, most fish are conditioned to hide in places that are hard to access.   If you try to get them out, you are going to lose some end tackle (i.e. hooks, weights and lures).  However, I tell new anglers that if you are not losing some end tackle, you are not fishing in the right place. You do have to apply some discretion.  I always prefer to throw a 20 cent plastic worm into a nasty brushpile rather than a $5 crankbait.  Stil,l you have to be willing to lose some tackle to catch fish.  Simple, but hard.

I also like to play bridge.  The scoring in bridge is such that success is rewarded more than failure (being set) is punished.  You need to be aggressive to win.  The saying is that if you are not occasionally being set, you are not being aggressive enough.  Again, you have to apply discretion.  There is a time when you are vulnerable, where the penalties are doubled. That’s the time to be a bit more careful.  However, if your opponent is vulnerable and you are not, bid away.  It may not work out in any given case, but over time the averages will work in your favor.  Simple, but hard.

In product development there is a fine line between aggressive schedules and unrealistic schedules.  If you are meeting all of your schedules and all of your designs are successful, you may not be aggressive enough.  Sometimes you may not be willing to embrace the chance of risk, such as when a contract penalty clause is in play.  During the other times, are you willing to allow aggressive plans to fail sometimes, and not punish those involved because you know that you are ahead in the long run?  Simple, but hard.

Another fine line is between spending a lot of time doing market and customer research on a product versus trying a lot of ideas quickly.   This goes to the previous point about a bias for action.  One thing that we see with Google is that they crank out a tremendous number of products.  Some are boring, and some are failures.  However, the sheer volume of product delivery means there will be some winners.  Google mitigates risk by minimizing the cost and time of bringing these products to market.  In the equipment business it’s harder for us to develop new products quickly and cheaply.  What we can do and have done is make the products very flexible and programmable.  Get them out ASAP with functionality that we have reasonable confidence in, get it in front of customers, and then update it to match their real needs.

One of our few absolute failures that we had was when we abandoned the notion of flexibility in favor of product cost.  The resulting product was close to what the customers needed, but the lack of flexibility meant that we couldn’t close the gap.  We had to kill the product.  We certainly learned from that failure, but we didn’t fire anyone.  Simple, but hard.

I sometimes characterize learning from mistakes aspect as “Experience is how we avoid mistakes.  Unfortunately, mistakes are how we gain experience.”  Put another way, “The lessons at the school of hard knocks are expensive, but they stick.” 

Continued in Part 2

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Opposition is Not Necessarily Fear, Hate or Racism

There is rampant name-calling and use of ad hominem attacks in today’s polarized political environment. One particular favorite is to accuse one’s opponents of hate, fear or racism, without the need for any evidence of such emotions or actions. I give some example of this behavior below. As far as I can tell, none of the linked articles provides a basis for the name-calling that is used.

Opposition to Gay Marriage Labeled as Homophobia

For example, opponents of gay marriage are routinely accused of homophobia or hatred of gays.  What may be a principled opposition based on social mores or religious beliefs is characterized as being driven by a hatred of gays themselves, or even self-hatred.  Another tack is to portray opposition as being driven by fear of gays.  A quick check of Google turns up some relevant examples:
I personally am torn on the issue of gay marriage, and can see merits on both sides.  However, calling me a hater or homophobe is unlikely to swing me to your side of the argument.

Opposition to Illegal Immigration Labeled as Xenophobia

Another area where this tactic is widely used is on the topic of illegal immigration.  Proponents of stronger enforcement of the border and/or opponents of amnesty are labeled as xenophobes or racists.  Here are some examples I turned up with a quick search:
Usually there is no evidence of xenophobia provided.  In conversations, protestations by the accused of support for legal immigration, even including reform, are ignored.  

Support for Voter ID Laws Labeled as Racist or Jim Crow

The grand-daddy of all ad hominem attacks is to call you opponent a racist.  This has been seen in full force during debates about new voter ID laws.  Google is ready with plenty of examples:

I will have more to say about racism in another blog.  For now, suffice it to say it is still a favorite tactic to use it to beat down opponents and to instill fear about holding positions in opposition to certain groups.

Opposition to Sharia or Radical Islam Labeled as Islamophobia

Another widely used pejorative is Islamophobia.  It is often trotted out to whack opponents during any discussion of radical Islam or Sharia law.  More help from Google:

I am adamantly opposed to Sharia law and radical Islam, based on the facts of their history and their stated goals.  I am afraid of neither, and I am not afraid of Islam.

Please Use Facts and Reason, not Name-Calling

I understand that sometimes there is fear and hate involved in contentious social and political issues.  What I object to is the routine, baseless and self-serving move to belittle one’s opponents through name-calling, ascribing to them a fear, hate or racism that is not necessarily present.