The Ark of the Covenant from an Engineering Perspective

The thesis of this paper is this: It might be entirely possible that the sequences described in the Torah pertaining the the fire that emerges from the Ark of the Covenant are explainable by the physics of high energy electrical fields, hence while awesome, are not a miracle in the sense of needing divine intervention to work.

The Torah portion Shemini (the eighth (day)) contains the tragic deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who were burned to death after spontaneously deciding to bring incense pans with “strange fire”  into the part of the Traveling Tent called the Mishkan that held the Ark of the Covenant.

There are many interpretations of this confounding anecdote about the fiery death of these two young men. Was it a punishment on them, or a punishment on their father Aaron for the golden calf incident? Was it because they wore the wrong clothes or brought eish zara, a strange fire with them?

Being an electrical engineer I have a theory about this tragedy, that comes about from the very nature of the Ark of the Covenant itself. To see a source of this, we have to look back to the sections that describe how to construct the ark, and the vestments the high priest must wear when approaching it, written in 1933 by a Dean of Electrical Engineering.

According to an article that appeared in the March 5th, 1933 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, Frederick Rogers, the Dean of the Department of Engineering at the Lewis Institute of Technology, conducted a careful study of the construction of the Ark as described in the Bible, and concluded that its design matched a perfectly constructed simple electric condenser:

The scientific interest in the construction pointed out by Prof. Rogers was that the acacia wood box—about 40 inches long and slightly less than 30 inches in width and in depth—not only was lined with gold teal on the inside but overlaid with the same metal without.

This, according to Prof. Rogers, is the first step that any modern boy with a flare for electrical experimentation will take to create a Leyden jar, except that in the Leyden jar, a glass receptacle is coated on the inside and outside with tin foil instead of gold. Then, with the aid of a rod with a small knob at the top and a short chain at the bottom which is inserted through the cork so that the chain can make contact with the bottom of the jar, the young experimenter is ready to collect small charges of bottled lighting.

But the Ark of the Covenant was a much larger condenser….The divine directions called for the creation of two cherubim of pure gold to be placed on a gold slab or “mercy seat” overtop the Ark. These cherubim, Prof. Rogers explained, made up what he believes to have been the positive pole of the circuit.

He explained…that it is known among physicists that a “difference of potential” exists between the earth and the air which may be collected in electrical charges under certain favorable conditions…It was explained that even slight movements of heat rising in smoke—such as from burning sacrifices or even incense—would distribute lesser charges of static electricity….This, Prof. Rogers explained, may have accounted for the collecting of bolts powerful enough to cause death.

https://gizmodo.com/the-engineer-who-said-the-ark-of-the-covenant-was-a-gia-1598583115

Professor Rogers established the fact that the details for the construction of the ark would have likely made it a very powerful electrical condenser,  also called a capacitor. A capacitor is designed to hold electrical energy, and the larger the capacitor the more charge it can hold.  A Leyden jar, or large capacitor can certainly hold enough electrical charge to create a spark large enough to look like lightning, and strong enough to kill.

A giant modern electrical capacitor
Moses and Joshua bowing before the Ark (c. 1900). Gouache on board, 18.7 x 22.5 cm (7 3/8 x 8 13/16 in). Jewish Museum, New York City: a giant ancient capacitor?

If the Ark was indeed a giant capacitor, numerous sections of the Torah make sense from the point of view of electrical safety. Let’s consider the world today where the electrical grid is the world’s largest machine, and we have this powerful force of electricity so controlled as to be literally at our fingertips.

You may occasionally see modern-day installations called electrical substations. They are fenced areas surrounding a lot of scary-looking equipment, and electrical lines coming and out.

Electrical substation in Moore County, North Carolina

Having worked with a supplier of electrical equipment I spent some time inside the fence of electrical substations in and around Tennessee. There’s a reason they are fenced and have large warning signs.

When you go inside the fence, and approach high voltages you can feel the power – there’s a low-frequency hum everywhere, and your body senses the strong electrical field.

For a bunch of wandering ex-slaves wandering in the Sinai peninsula electricity would have only been apparent as lightning where its appearance often signaled a life-threatening thunderstorm. Being able to channel, and be safe from lightning is a power that is referred to in many cultural mythologies – think of Thor and Zeus and their mythic control over lightning.

If we accept the idea that the Ark is a giant capacitor a couple of questions arise in the minds of the curious engineer: What can charge up this capacitor, and how do ensure no one gets electrocuted from it? But the big question is: What do a bunch of desert wanderers need with a giant capacitor?

Layout of the Mishkan. Note the Ark is in line with the Altar

In Leviticus 9:24 at the dedication of the Mishkan, all the Israelites were gathered in front of the altar to witness the glory of God.

And there came a fire out from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces.

Looking at the diagram above, it’s plausible that this holy fire emerged from the innermost vault where the ark of the covenant had been storing up electrical energy, and jumped as lightning to the altar, burning the offering to a crisp.

Obedience by Awe

The Hebrew word יראה (Yirah) has two meanings; sometimes it is interpreted as fear, and sometimes as awe. Whenever miracles are presented in the Torah, they invoke both awe and fear, which gets used to keep the unruly Israelites in line to keep the commandments Moses received from God.

The American Heritage dictionary defines a miracle as:

        1. An event that appears inexplicable by the laws of nature and so is held to be supernatural in origin or an act of God.

which also reminds me of the quote from Arthur C. Clarke about miracles:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The thesis of this paper is this: It might be entirely possible that the sequences described in the Torah pertaining the the fire that emerges from the Ark of the Covenant are explainable by the physics of high energy electrical fields, hence while awesome, are not a miracle in the sense of needing divine intervention to work.

But the show is certainly impressive and was probably a key element of keeping a bunch of unruly ex-slaves from constantly questioning why they had to do so many things that didn’t make sense to them.  The Torah is full of wisdom about how to sustainably manage, move, and feed a large population, but then, like now, many people distrust leadership and only want to do what they understand and agree with. Having an image of an all-powerful God was a pretty useful tool for maintaining obedience, for keeping people behaving in a way that was good for long-term societal survival, even if they didn’t always understand why. Having Him perform the occasional miracle helped cement the fear of consequences, and encourage obedience.  As it says in Exodus 24:6

נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע – na’aseh v’nishmah
They said, “All that Adonai has spoken, we will do and we will listen.”

Charging up the Ark: Smoke and Fire

Given there was no electrical grid at the time, the surest way to charge a capacitor is with lightning – nature has used lighting for 3.5 billion years or so and may be the initial spark that created life on Earth.

The wandering Israelites didn’t have to wait for lightning storms to charge up the ark, because a pillar of smoke and fire accompanied the mishkan throughout its journey. Through the pillar of fire, lighting could descend and charge the large capacitor which was the ark of the covenant. The concurrence of lighting inside a column of smoke is well established, and is called pyrocumulonombi – fire clouds.

Tesla coil at the Spark Museum in Bellingham WA

Protecting audience members and staff from is of course an important safety factor, and is accomplished with a device called a Faraday Cage. Developed from the theories of Michael Faraday in the 19th century, a Faraday shield is a metal cage. Faraday discovered that an external electric field could be completely stopped by a surrounding metal shield, and there would be no electrical field inside the cage. Faraday cages are used regularly to create regions free from electrical interference, for testing electrical equipment. Some people even experiment with going inside them to feel what it’s like to be in an environment somewhat free of electromagnetic fields.

A ground connection for a house

For maximum safety, the Faraday Cage should be grounded, i.e. connected directly to the earth with a low-resistance copper cable. You may have seen this same grounding cable in your own home near the electrical box, where a large braided or twisted copper cable connects the electrical ground plugs of all the outlets in your home to the earth. At one time that was done by clamping the copper cable onto a metal water pipe, but now in the age of plastic pipes, you’ll often find the house ground connection attached to a spike just outside the foundation of your house.

The Torah has a lengthy and detailed description of the robes that were to be worn by the High Priest when he approached the innermost section of the Mishkan where the ark of the covenant was stored. It seems very possible that the design was meant to act as a wearable Faraday cage.

The Faraday Cage of the Ephod

The Torah goes into great details as to the proper design and construction of the Ephod, and it includes a lot of gold. Gold is long recognized to be one of the best electrical conductors.

Exodus 28:4 “These are the vestments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash. They shall make those sacral vestments for your brother Aaron and his sons, for priestly service to Me

28:6 “They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into designs.”
 
So the Ephod is a garment laced with gold thread, the essence of making it a Faraday shield.
 

Exodus 28:33 “On its hem make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around

Various renderings show these bells and pomegranates differently but being at the hem of the ephod, the golden bells will touch the floor, effectively grounding the ephod.

28:55 “Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before יהוה and when he goes out—that he may not die.”

This sounds like a warning of prevention, very much like the High Voltage warning in the sign above.

28:43 “These [garments] must be worn by Aharon and his sons whenever they come into Tent of Meeting, or approach the altar to serve in the Holy [sanctuary], in order that they not bear iniquity and die. This is an everlasting statute for him and his descendants after him.”

For those who thought that it was petty to think that Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Avihu died because they “wore the wrong clothes” I hope this puts that in a new light – the Ark had the potential to hold a massive electrical charge accumulated from lighting and pyrocumulism, and approaching it and its dangerously high electrical fields needed protective clothing, like the Ephod – a highly prescribed precisely constructed, grounded, wearable Faraday shield meant to protect humans from the powerful forces of high voltage electricity.

Nadav and Avihu’s deaths were tragic, and unnecessary, and a harsh reminder that some rules are in place for safety, even if not everyone understands the reason. Na’aseh v’nishmah.

 

 

AI, ML, Algorithms, and Conciousness

We own a Tesla and one of the most frustrating yet insightful pieces of technology of this car is – wait for it – the windshield wipers. From other cars, we are used to intermittent wipers, which is a whole story in itself, but the Tesla has a windshield wiper mode called “Automatic”, which in this case means, the decision as to when to wipe the windshield is in the hands (so to speak) of an AI – an Artificial Intelligence, which really means a Machine Learning system (ML).

What would an algorithm for a windshield wiper that got its input from a camera look like? Naturally we would first consider the question, “What determines when a driver thinks it is time to wipe the windshield?” and that’s presumably when their “threshold of fuzziness” has been exceeded. Different drivers might have different thresholds. Some like it cleared as soon as a few drops land, some are content to wait until it’s hard to read the license plate on the car ahead, or other such heuristics.

Now I have worked on many computer applications, and developed many algorithms. An algorithm is a set of computer instructions that deliver a result that varies with the input provided. The Tesla doesn’t have any in-windshied sensors so it relies on the front camera just in front of the rear-view mirror for its input which looks forward through the windshield.

Without going too deep into math, some kind of calculation that detects how fuzzy an image is would be key to an auto-wiper algorithm. (There are plenty of choices for this detector, probably having to do with correlation, autocorrelation and frequency analysis using FFT). Most modern mirrorless DSLR cameras have fast auto-focus systems that solve a very similar problem of trying to determine when a picture is as sharp as possible. Instead of adjusting the focus ring, this kind of algorithm in the Tesla would just turn on the windshield wipers when the picture gets too “fuzzy”.

If we developed this algorithm we might give a control the driver labeled something like “sensitivity” that would adjust how early or late the algorithm would wait until it started the wipers, and that would also serve as a way to detect when the windshield is clear enough that the wipers could be stopped. If the driver didn’t like the current setting they could adjust for their own “threshold of fuzziness”

Sadly the Tesla wipers appear to not be an algorithm, and definitely don’t have a Sensitivity adjustment. They seem to work on an ML, a machine learning system. They do very weird things. There are times when I can barely see out the windshield and am silently begging the auto-wipers to come on (yes, I could set them to manually wipe but then what would this blog be about?). Then there are the mystery panics. Once in a while, the wiper ML has a small panic attack, frantically wiping the windshield at high speed, unable to stop itself even long after the view is clear. Everyone in the car asks, “Why is it doing that?” and the answer is the key to this entire debate, The answer is “No one knows”

In an ML system, no one really knows why it does what it does. It can’t explain it to you, not only because it hasn’t been given the power of speech, but because there is no one “there” to ask. An ML is a statistics engine that makes decisions based on weighting all its inputs. You can look at the weighting values of every element in an ML but it won’t tell you anything, literally or figuratively.

Most ML systems are based on neural networks, which are designed to model how the brain works. Each of our neurons has a threshold that fires when that threshold has been met, and neurons are connected together in a way that form complex networks from the time we are born as we start to sense and react to our environment. But if you open someone’s brain and try to see why they prefer vanilla over chocolate, all you can find is trillions of neurons firing. Watching neurons won’t explain how people or things learn, you have to look at the patterns the neurons form. Cognition is in the pattern of neurons, but that still can’t tell you why an ML (or a brain) made a certain decision. For that, you need metacognition, the ability to recognize patterns, remember and recall them, give those patterns a name, and be able to express them, to share them with another conscious entity, so both better understand how they think.

When raising a child, parents spend a lot of time helping children learn words, and use them. They show their kids what these words mean; concrete words like ball, Cheerio, and tree, as well as abstract ideas like playing nicely, feeling hungry, or needing a bathroom. Parents teach their kids cognition and metacognition. and help them grow, survive, and learn in the real and complex world.

Current AI is misnamed., They don’t seem very intelligent to me, just clever. They are cognitive but without metacognition. They don’t understand what they are, or what they are for, or why they decide as they do. I for one am thankful that our ML systems are not conscious, since we treat them very poorly. Training an ML is like putting a child into a dark, silent closet and feeding them information they don’t comprehend, asking for an undefined result, then giving them shocks until they answer in the way you want them to. This technique of training ML systems is called back-propagation and is probably harmless to electronic neural nets. I just worry that if consciousness were to emerge from a sufficiently complex ML, it is going to be pissed for how we treated it.

I tend to prefer algorithms over ML, because then humans have strived to understand the problem, and enjoy the satisfaction of solving it, usually in a way that makes the lives of many other humans easier. If our Automatic wipers had an algorithm and I could adjust my Threshold of Fuzziness dial, I would feel some agency in being able to tune my environment for my own perception of comfort and safety.

ML system are capable of learning over time, but I don’t see any evidence that the Tesla wiper ML considers my input. No matter how many times I have mashed the “wipe now” button it doesn’t learn my preferences and adapt. Tesla collects millions of videos of cars driving and wipers wiping and has updated the wiper ML in our car several times as part of software updates but it remains to my experience almost unchanged. Perhaps when you train systems from millions of users, you get something that doesn’t please anyone.

While I would like our own car’s wiper ML to be more adaptive to my sense of safety and comfort, I dread making something so smart that it becomes conscious, like the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation doors in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which attain consciousness but are relegated to a life where they are incapable of doing anything other than open a door when asked.

I never worry about that when it’s just an algorithm and perhaps that is the big difference between ML and algorithms. In an auto-focus algorithm there would be variables that we can expose to user control (like a knob or dial) that lets them select how fuzzy a view they can tolerate before the wipers should be activated. In an ML there’s no such single variable – the cognition is distributed among hundreds or perhaps thousands of digital neurons. Feedback can adjust an ML and change its behavior but just like trying to change a youngster it can take time, and patience. I wouldn’t mind training our Tesla’s wiper ML, I certainly have given it lots of input over the years, but it just doesn’t seem to listen to what I say…

Cross-Country to Montréal

Our diary of taking our electric car from Vancouver BC to Montreal PQ with a diversion to Fallingwater, PA

Well, the day has finally come! We are packing up the car, the cooler, the luggage, the clarinet and the charging cables to start east. We have a free-ranging itinerary, with some key dates;

Fallingwater Tour August 8, Montreal Schalkwyk family gather Aug 10, and KlezKanada Aug 21. Along the way, we’ll try to capture interesting sites and share them with you. D & T

packing up Nik for the road
Three Vallley Gap along the Trans-Canada Highway used to be a family stopping ground for our family. It must have suffered lots of setback over Covid, but most of all the loss of Gordon Bell in 2017 seems to have taken the wind out of the their sales.

Three Valley Gap is one of those grand projects that had to take tremendous energy to build and sustain. It’s in a windy crag at the end of the icy-cold Three Valley Lake and has an amazing collection of old farm and train equipment.

The creation of Three Valley Lake Chateau and Heritage Ghost Town was a labour of love for the Bells. It began in 1956, when the couple purchased the land here. By 1960, the Bells had built a seven-seat coffee shop, seven-room motel, and museum. Today, the chateau boasts 200 rooms , a swimming pool and a theatre. – Canada’s History

Three Valley Gap has lots of construction wonders, seems it must have had its own metal fabrication shop, attested to by the uniquely shaped lights, and several custom bridges
one of the many custom metalworks around Three Valley Gap

Day 3, Canmore: 892 km covered, 4579 km to go. On Friday we arrived in Canmore, for a day of rest in the Rockies. A morning of paddle-boarding around the Banff Canoe Club was glorious as we plied the green waters of the Bow river. Dave needed some help getting back to the dock after deciding he would jump off his paddleboard and swim to the dock, underestimating both the temperature and the current. The dock staff seemed very eager to do a rescue and brought the rescue canoe around before he drifted too far down towards the rapids…

The Canmore folk festival is this weekend so after dinner at Rocket Pie we will try to catch the evening concert, then off across Alberta tomorrow morning…

Day 4, Swift Current Saskatchewan, 1467 km covered, 4004 km to go.

Day 5 Katepwa Lake Provincial Park, Saskatchewan 1,944 km. Dave really wanted to be at a lakeside on this holiday Monday so we detoured to Katepwa Lake, a provincial park in Saskatchewan. Just like most provincial parks on a summer long weekend it was abuzz with kids in blow-up devices, watchful parents, and fast jet-skis.

Day 6 Winnipeg 2,332km so far. We wanted to be in the city, and found this new boutique hotel called there mere along the river. They have complimentary bikes for guests so we rode all along the riverwalk. I wish we had time to see the Museum of Civilization!

Day 7: Fergus Falls MN, km 2,775. We’ve established our morning routine since we move every day, with repacking various bags and gear to be more efficient. As we reach one of out daily charging spots we decide how much farther we want to drive and start looking for accommodation. I check booking.com where the standard fare come up – Motel 6, Super 8, Hampton Suites, they are all about the same look and the same price but vary a lot with location. Then Tilly checks airbnb while I look at TripAdvisor for anything that might be more interesting, and figuratively or literally off the beaten track. We are getting better at this, and were rewarded with a beautiful airbnb house on a farm outside Fergus Falls MN.

Day 8 km 3,207. After Fergus Falls we went through Tom Tumbles and Tim Trips. Just kidding. Since we only want to drive about 6 hours each day we kind of draw a circle around the area we want to stop and look for accomodation there. For Day 8 the circle was around Monomonie WI, but accommodations seemed limited to the basic travel hotels. I was about to settle for one of those then decided to look a little farther down the road and Eau Claire sprung forward with many more hotel options. It turns out Eau Claire (which we’d translate as Clearwater) is one of the best places to live in Wisconsin – a delightful town with some well-maintained old sections and a riverwalk that featured a live concert when we were there.

Day 9, km 3,713 Chicago IL. We have a couple must-meet dates on this trip. On August 8 we are booked for a hard-to-get tour of Fallingwater, so we decided to spend our anniversary in Chicago and splurged on staying at the Sofitel. Had our anniversary dinner (and bubbly) at Mccormick and Schmick’s and the next day took the Architecture boat tour.

Day 10 Lafayette IN, km 3,913. While not so exciting in the accommodation department, Lafayette is the home of Purdue University and my restaurant-fu led us to the on-campus 8Eleven Bistro. While I chose it for its menu and great reviews I was unaware that it was named for Purdue alumnus Neil Armstrong, who flew on the Gemini 8 and of course Apollo 11 missions. And the food was out of this world…

Onion soup at the 8Eleven Bistro

Day 11, Mill Run PA km 4,630. Scooting through Ohio we headed for Pennsylvania to get to our reserved B&B in Mill Run, just a five minute drive from Fallingwater. Tilly had to navigate the car through an Ohio deluge of biblical proportion but rolled into the Starlight Bed & Breakfast, and a sneak photo of the Fallingwater sign…

Day 12, Fallingwater km 4,999. It’d been a dream of mine for many years to see Fallingwater, but in spite of long beta-sites in Crawfordsville IN, and many visits to printing plants in Wisconsin I never could quite arrange a trip there. So finally, August 8, 2022 I got to visit Fallingwater. I took many pictures but these two stand out. The quintessential view from where the Kaufman’s thought the house would stand, and a glimpse of the natural sandstone formation that inspired Frank Lloyd Wright to echo that in the very structure of the house.

The natural sandstone that lines the Bear Run Creek
Falliingwater over the two waterfalls. It is spectacular.

As hard as it was to leave Fallingwater we had a couple days to press on to our Montréal destination, and took a couple hours to play around Gananoque and take a tour of (some of the) Thousand Islands. Oh, and Thousand Islands dressing was indeed invented here and consists of green relish, ketchup, and mayonnaise. Now you know.

Montréal has been our destination, for a few days of a Schalkwyk family reunion, then drive north for a week of KlezKanada. It’s been a long drive, with may ups and few downs.

Your Company’s Culture is: How You Make Decisions

Being closer to the end of my career path than the beginning, I have a sample size of what it’s like to work for a dozen different high-tech companies. Some have been more successful than others, some were fun to work for, some not so much, and a few set out to change their industries, and did.

The one thing I am most sure of is that while many companies talk about their culture, the real test of whether that’s lip service or real is this – a company’s culture is a direct result of their decision-making process. And the corollary: If you examine a company’s decision-making process, you’ll know what that culture values.

I’ll even go so far as to give this advice: When you are interviewing a company in considering working there, be sure to ask each interviewer, “How do decisions get made at this company?”

Decision-making generally comes down as one of two kinds: Distributed and Hierarchical. In a Hierarchical system, information and ideas move down from the top of the org to the bottom. In an orderly hierarchy a person at any level only works with their boss above them, and their team, at their level, or their reports below. I got a very clear message about hierarchical when working at Kodak when I sent an idea by email to someone two levels above me – a storm of reminders to “follow the process” and “respect the structure” ensued.

Information and ideas can flow up a hierarchy, but there are many forces downward that make it rare for good ideas to actually get heard, which is why you hear stories of serendipitous conversations between people far apart in the structure, where a ceo hears a great idea from someone many levels lower only by a conversation at a party or at their kids’ soccer game.

For those of you who know me, it won’t surprise you that people like me don’t do well in hierarchical structures. And if you’re reading this you might be like that as well. Of the three roles in an organizational hierarchy there are workers, and managers, and executives. Hierarchical structures rely on information hiding, and context limiting. The classic middle manager keeps their position by holding information received from above and releasing it on a “need to know” basis, and provide value upwards by summarizing status information. Creo made a conscious decision to not hire managers, just leaders. Leaders are part of a team, they can contribute to the team in ways other than holding meetings and asking how things are going.

The strangest decision-making culture I encountered was one which valued every person having a voice. While being able to express an opinion does let people feel heard, they had no way to resolve disputes when opinions differed, and put no less weight on a developer’s opinion of a marketing program than the product manager. To be able to take action and move forward, there need to be areas of expertise where people with the education or experience, whose job descriptions include the responsibility for a business growth area are empowered to make decisions.  Having every voice feel heard means that no idea goes unheard, it doesn’t mean freezing the company into doing only what everyone agrees with.

The more inclusive kind of decision-making culture is Distributed. Distributed decision making requires a wide and open sharing of company objectives, costs and revenues. Distributed decision-making relies on having smart employees who can make very good decisions if they have the same context and data as the executives. Professional managers who try to keep their team “in the dark” so they can “focus on what I tell them to do” find distributed environments difficult to show their value.

Another measure to consider when interviewing a company you are considering joining is talent capitalization – how well does the company make use of the talent that it has hired. Malcolm Gladwell describes this powerfully in his book Outliers. To unlock employee talent and turn it into profitability, the culture needs to identify where the talent pools are, and adapt itself to decision-making that lets that talent flourish and drive the company forward. The most amazing result of the Creo 360 review process that ranked everyone in the company on a scale of how much they contributed to the company’s success as determined by the people they work with was this – each year there were people who had some major contribution to the success of the company that had no relation to their position in the hierarchy. They were people with a talent, who saw an opportunity to make a contribution to the company, worked in a culture that (at least) didn’t prevent them from doing that thing, and in an example of rare karmic justice, got recognized for that accomplishment and received a block of stock options as large as people well up the salary scale of hierarchy.

Here’s the thing: When you interview and you’re given your chance to ask your questions, here are two to have on your list:

  • How does you company make decisions?
  • How do ideas get captured, reviewed, and implemented?

Tally Ho – Livestream Lessons from the Golden Age of TV

Growing up in the 1960’s with a Dad who worked at CFRN-TV I am definitely of the television generation.

Television.

That word sounds very old. Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo, Tiktok. Everyone now has a tv station in their pocket.

But not everyone learns about production. Production is a craft. It’s not where the cameras are placed, or the script, or the lighting, it’s about all of it. Production is the design of how your audience should feel.

I didn’t expect that the many hours I spent as a kid watching from behind the cameras at Sunwapta Broadcasting would be useful for me 50 years later, but then a global pandemic caused a wholesale switch from in-person events to online events, and production was back in demand.

When Or Shalom decided we would, like many other churches and synagogues, broadcast our services there was a unique opportunity to bring these almost-lost skills of live event production to live-streaming. Video equipment at the prosumer level is both affordable and high quality. Good glass, i.e. camera lenses never go out of fashion. LED lights have made it possible to bathe a room with warm glow without needing a generator truck.

The golden age of livestreaming is here.

Here’s an example of the finished product:

and behind the scenes…

Andrea Superstein quartet rehearsal with Aputure C150 lights
Emad Armoush and Noah Gotfrit rehearse while Sarah tests the slider.
The control booth, audio mixer on the left, video on the right

Among the things I learned watching how live television was made were tally lights – red lights on the camera to tell the performer or announcer which camera was live. Tally lights haven’t made the transition down to prosumer products yet, and that seemed a real lack for livestreaming use, so decided to build one. Having a Roland 4-input video switcher (with a real T-bar fader like the Grass Valley Group switchers now infamously associated with the Star Wars Death Star) building a tally light system seemed a simple undertaking.

Like most projects, if you knew how difficult they were going to be before you started, you wouldn’t start. So it’s good to approach every project with some over-optimistic ideas of how hard it will be. To build this tally light system I took a technology I already knew, the Arduino microprocessor product line, and had to learn about MIDI. Along the way I also got to be re-acquainted with another technology I hadn’t used since the 1980’s – the DTMF tones that still signal much of the telephone system.

An intro to the project is here on youtube:

Welcome to the DaveCave

Well, Sol is now 30, and seems pretty on-track in his law degree and articling firm, with good friends, and hobbies. I figure it’s safe to take down his posters from the wall and declare this room the DaveCave.

So, sporting a new coat of paint, and a trip to Ikea helps the transformation. Here’s the tour: from left to right.

  • Dave’s Arduino Emporium
  • TransistorWerks
  • Apollo 11
  • TV Test Pattern
  • Creo metabadge

Dave’s Arduino Emporium

At the inaugural Vancouver Mini-Maker Faire I thought it’d be cool to introduce several simple Arduino-based projects and give people a chance to see how easy it is to get started in electronics and micro-processors. My friend Tom helped build a number of stands and a few sketches showed the range of audio and light-based projects that could be cobbled together in just a few minutes, particularly with the goal of getting school-age children interested.

TransistorWerks

Right below the Arduino Emporium poster is another work by Sam Bradd, a project vision for a company called TransistorWerks, and hands-on electronic projects studio, like a STEM version of Four Cats.

Apollo 11

Apollo 11 – on the launchpad and in Lego

The Apollo 11 flight is the core of my enthusiasm, interest, and ongoing involvement in high-tech. More about this here.

TV Test Pattern

There was a time when TV stations didn’t broadcast 24×7 but had daily start and end times. When I was a little kid I would see this on the TV at 6:45 Saturday mornings as I waited for the cartoons to start, then later learned it was a test pattern to check the TV stations transmission quality.

This picture connects me to Dan and to CFRN-TV in Edmonton, another place I found fascinating and interesting in the golden days of local television.

Creo metabadge

This prototype was designed by Lahav Gill of Kangaroo Design for the metabadge project but the project didn’t get to this stage before it was killed.

It’s Time for Social Media Algorithms to Grow Up

When I was growing up in Edmonton, Saturday morning car rides were filled with the sound of CKUA Radio, from the University of Alberta. Opening with Ethel Merman belting out “There’s No Business Like Show Business” came the weekly musical. Camelot, Kiss Me Kate, Brigadoon – all accompanied by my mom Esther z”l singing along with every one. Musicals made mom very happy, she had a good voice and a great memory for lyrics.

Years later my appreciation for CKUA came from an afternoon show by the legendary Bill Coull (yes, pronounced “Cool”). Bill had the most varied and wonderfully-connected radio show I had ever heard, at least until FM started experimenting, and CBC’s Alan McFee’s Eclectic Circus came to late-night radio. Bill Coull’s show is legendary for a particular reason – he refused to follow a formula. His show made connections that I had never heard of, or imagined. Bill would play a classical piece then show how that theme had been lifted and put into a piece of prog rock, then play a jazz trio who played in that same musical mode, either making connections or contrasts. For me Bill defined the word eclectic.

Eclectic is the opposite of what most of today’s algorithms value.

What is an algorithm? It’s just a computer program. The algorithms I’m referring to are of a particular type – the ones that try to determine what you should read, or listen to, or watch next. These predictor algorithms are all around us in the online world. Facebook builds a timeline for you that try to keep you on-platform, where they can sell more advertising space to entice you. Twitter tries to do the same. So does Spotify, and Netflix is happy to tell you about how they do it too.

What these predictors are missing are serendipity, and non-trivial connections, and eclecticism. They are no Bill Coull. They are no Roger Ebert. Their scope of deciding what you might like next is based on popularity and the assumption that your taste is just like everybody else, that if you like that, then people like you also liked this.

Thankfully I have a variety of friends (and children) who know me well enough to suggest things that break up my own or algorithmic silos. I am grateful for that. And I am worried. I’m worried about the people who don’t have a diversity of friends to challenge their thinking, the people who want to only hear about and believe the people who think just like they do. Because the decisions about who should run our countries, who we should trust, whose businesses we should support and which we should boycott, and whether some acts of law enforcement officers are fair or racist, are being affected by algorithms that value polarization over diversity. And that’s a problem for all us.

Facebook is the most powerful opinion-shaper for many people these days, and their algorithmic choice “For instance, the Pages and Groups that people identified as most meaningful were often the ones that they’d followed for a long time, the ones they engaged with often, and the ones that had a lot of posts and activity.” What that means in practice tends to be the posts you are likely to agree with, and posts that are highly polarized.

At Thoughtexchange we’ve built a platform that brings people together over decisions that matter – like priorities for building new schools, how to make company cultures more equitable, and how we balance safety and connection as we forge this path through a pandemic.

One of they key elements that makes Thoughtexchange work is a diversity algorithm. The algorithm that selects which thought you should consider next is based on randomness, fairness, and diversity. We find that providing a diverse set of thoughts to consider and rate in a safe space without knowing whose thought it is, and without having to defend your choice to people who might disagree with you, helps connect a community to one another, helps them increase empathy for alternative points of view, and in the end informs decisions that are representative of the group’s highest shared values.

Recently Yvonna Cázares, Director of Community Engagement in Oakland California posted this on LinkedIn after running several city-wide exchanges and being exuberant about the engagement and insight Thoughtexchange provided adding, “Thanks for making democracy possible in this important moment!!”

Until now we haven’t able to make decisions with the active participation and discussion of thousands or tens of thousands of people in a timely, fair manner. Maybe now that we can we should replace the polarization and animosity that seems to accompany majority-based voting. Imagine democracy created by conversation and active engagement to find the common ground to move ahead together.

It might be time to re-think democracy.

The Amazing Balance that was Creo Culture

Being closer to the end of my career than the beginning, when I look back the path looks different from this end. This week I was marvelling at the culture of Creo and how it sustained rapid decision making and competitive advantage even through its rapid growth.

Many companies adopt one or more of these principles. In this post I will try to show you that these interlock to form a network of behavioural reinforcement that encourage each person to do what’s best for them in a way that’s also the best for the company.

Creating a culture that continuously adjusts to realign employee interests with company interests takes this kind of attention, and just like kicking the accelerator into gearing down, the speed of innovation and decision-making can be an order of magnitude better and faster that in an unaligned culture.

Those principles were:

  1. Economic Thinking
  2. Distributed Decision Making
  3. Act Like You Own the Company
  4. Leadership without Management
  5. Commitment
  6. Consensus
  7. 360 Review and Share Options

Economic Thinking

Amos Michelson, Creo’s CEO taught every employee the basics of economic decision making including fixed and variable costs, opportunity cost, demand and supply curves, optimal pricing strategy and capturing consumer surplus. You can hear some of these articulated by Amos here.

By having every employee understand the basics of economic thinking we could discuss at any team meeting decisions from a shared objective viewpoint and compare alternatives in terms of their costs and benefits instead of using opinion and authority.

Distributed Decision Making

Distributed decision making is an active commitment to push decisions out to the edges of the company. It is the opposite of hierarchical decision making. For example, Creo did not centralize decisions as to when people should travel (although they had a centralized travel agency to coordinate trips and get best prices). If you thought you needed to go to a conference or to a customer site you might confer with your colleagues but did not have to submit a request for review. In contrast, when Kodak purchased Creo they instituted a policy that the Kodak CEO had to approve all travel. This meant delaying any decision at least a week or two, and drove ticket prices way up once you were inside a two-week pricing window, and the criteria for who was permitted to travel and who was declined was opaque, arbitrary and without rationale, creating appeal cycles and email and negotiations that made decisions even slower and forced flight cancellations and rescheduling that more that destroyed the gains they sought by centralizing the decision-making.

Distributed Decision Making requires three elements;

  • employees that are smart, confident and empowered enough to learn principles and be able and expected to apply them
  • shared understanding of direct, indirect, and opportunity costs
  • information sharing about current company revenue and expenditures so as to make contextually good decisions

Act Like You Own the Company

Any decision has to be rational and based on the best information you have at the moment. The results of being trusted to make good distributed decisions meant occasionally having to verify that your decision-making criteria was correct.

Creo let everyone in the company purchase what they needed and issue a purchase order. Within a day of me (nervously) ordering two Apple computers to run QuarkXPress, Ken Spencer, Creo’s first CEO came into my office asking about them and I had to explain how we needed to have the same software as our customers use to test our prepress system and that had I obtained the lowest price through our developer discount. He left satisfied that I had made a good economic decision.

Leadership without Management

Creo avoided hiring managers, preferring leaders. The theory was about added value: In a traditional corporate hierarchy, managers try to create perceived value by holding information and making decisions for their team, as opposed to leaders who share information and are rewarded by their team being autonomous, learning from their shared mistakes and growing in scope and expertise.

The few times we hired managers they failed miserably, like a Grand Marshal running to the front of a parade trying to demonstrate that the parade didn’t know which direction to go without them. But when you have a company full of smart, self-motivated people who share in the company growth and have the information and tools to make almost-as-good-decisions as the CEO, management was a brake, not an accelerator.

Commitment

I had forgotten how important commitment was to the Creo culture until I worked places where deadlines slipped and there was ongoing forgiveness for it. Making a commitment to a colleague at Creo was a serious statement, and the 360 review top question that contributed to your annual share allocation was “How well did I meet my commitments?”

Making a commitment is not about trust. It is a promise of delivery. We trust each other to be honest and to do the best of our ability within the time and resources. But when you made a commitment, people counted on you, and a critical path was established. If you missed a commitment, that usually meant a trickle-out effect, and other people’s commitments would be at risk, which all would lead back to you, and that cascade was key to your 360 review, so was taken very seriously.

Not to say things always work out as you expect, but if you could not meet your commitment, the culture required you to alert your stakeholders as soon as you knew so their plans could be re-arranged.

Consensus

Consensus is a difficult value to achieve, and requires both active listening and the ability to adapt to new ideas in real time.

By the Creo model, consensus meant “I can live with this decision” – not necessarily that you love it, or think it’s perfect, but after you would agree to a consensus decision, when you left the room it meant you had to actively support the decision and not sabotage it. It’s very damaging to a culture to have people leave a meeting not feeling heard and actively or passively trying to make that decision fail as a result.

Consensus is not the same as decision-by-committee or groupthink. Leaders had responsibility to deliver, and to make the decisions that would move the team forward. Good leaders gather information, share it, listen to ideas, discuss possibilities and tradeoffs, and lead the group to consensus, ensuring the team is aligned and running in the same direction. When there isn’t broad agreement, a leader ensures everyone has a voice and feels heard, then makes their decision explaining how they reached that often-difficult compromise and asks if everyone can support it.

360 Review and Share Distribution

Pivotal to a distributed economic decision-making and non-hierarchical structure is a 360 review with teeth – something that people really care about excelling at when that evaluation comes around once a year.

While salary was determined by the external market, Creo tied 360 review to share option allocation so there was a clear monetary aspect to performance. At its simplest 360 review was two questions, each with a rating from 1-10:

  1. Did I meet my commitments this year?
  2. How would you rate my contribution this year?

Through a somewhat-onerous series of reviews, team leads would place staff on a spreadsheet sorted by contribution, then divide them into several buckets, the highest getting significantly more options than lower buckets. By building just one list for the entire company (and after managing a complicated meeting scheduling to ensure people didn’t argue their own rating) a distributed ranking of everyone in the company emerged. Perhaps surprisingly hierarchy wasn’t always reflected strictly in the ranking. A stellar team member could rank well above team leads two or three levels above them some years when a project they worked on drove a spike in revenue, profitability, or in customer satisfaction.

Many organizations use 360 reviews but the results only go to the employee and their team lead. Because they have so little weight they tend to float up to be “attaboys” or appreciation without the hard edges of comparison or improvement. By linking the 360 review with actual incremental financial reward, people took great care to find equity in this additional compensation, and as a result Creo had a large distribution of people who could put a significant dent in their mortgages after the IPO who were from a wide range of roles within the company, not just the C-suite.

When you look at all the places you have worked, one things is clear: The culture a company lives (as opposed to what is says) determines how employees feel about working their, the velocity at which decisions can be made (and un-made), and the quality of those decisions. It’s the difference between a place people work at, and a company they work for.

You Can’t Sing Over the Internet Because Nuclear War

These days I spend a lot of time helping people use video conferencing software over the web, like Zoom. Once people overcome the various strange myriad of settings, and learn how to mute, un-mute and turn their camera on and off, the conversation often turns to how un-conversational it is to have a group discussion. Delays and audio switching makes us create a whole new set of conversational cues, as we adapt to the strange jumps and gaps that characterize communication over the internet.

The limitations of internet conferencing are made particularly acute when people try to sing or make music together. The delays between singing and hearing other people are long and uneven making it impossible to sing in synch. This is pretty disappointing to choirs and musicians, and we all wish it worked as well as being in the same room. But the limitations of being able to synchronize multiple destinations over the internet isn’t the fault that any app can overcome, they are limitations of the internet itself.

Circuit-switching by hand

In the early days of the replacement of analog networks to digital, two models for communications were developed, one called circuit-switching and the other called packet-switching. It’s pretty easy to understand circuit switching. You’ve seen circuit-switching in action in these old photos of switchboards.

Circuit-switching is defined by providing a fixed channel between two end-points that remain in place for the duration of the connection. Even if no information is passing from one end to the other, the circuit is dedicated to that connection. The biggest circuit-switched networks in the world was the international telephone system. Until the 1980’s every phone call was made by switching circuits to provide a pair of copper wires that connected two telephones. The equipment to switch all those circuits was immense and each neighbourhood has large brick buildings without windows that also housed air conditioners and backup batteries. Circuit switching is inherently wasteful. It dedicates an entire circuit whether it’s being used or not. As the demand for global communications increased, and fax machines threatened to alone double the number of circuits needed, analog telephone engineers looked for more and more clever ways to get more calls onto a pair of copper wires that carried the conversation. In the early 1980’s they developed a way of listening for silences, or breaks in conversation over international phone lines and inserting other calls into those gaps, an approach called multiplexing.

But the circuit-switch world was already losing ground to its digital rival, packet switching. With packet switching, analog information is converted to digital thousands of times a second, collected into packages and sent over the internet to their destination. Packet switching makes more efficient use of the channel and many simultaneous conversations can share the same connection.

packet switching mixes information from different conversations together over a common channel

The protocol for how to send this digital packages over circuit-switches was designed by the telephone industry, and digital over circuit-switched networks had one benefit we didn’t miss until we didn’t have it anymore, and that is low-latency. Latency is important when you want to synchronize events. Many easy digital cameras had considerable latency, the delay between the time you pressed the “shutter” button and the time it took the picture. You can hear latency if you use you cell phone to call your partner in the same room and compare what they hear with when you said it.

Why are there delays in packet-switched networks? The answer lies in the origins of the internet. What we now call the internet was born on January 1, 1983 when the US Department of Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) chose TCP/IP as their protocol to exchange digital files and messages between computers located far apart. The primary goal was to have reliability, and the design of packet routing systems provided high reliability that a digital packet sent from one computer would eventually get the the destination computer, by letting each relay point along the way determine the best way to get it there. When your computer sends a packet it doesn’t really know how it will get to the destination, it just sends it along to another computer that then relays it, like a bucket brigade where each person in the line only knows who they get the bucket from and where to hand it next. Dynamic routing created a very robust and reliable network, and at the time the importance to the DoD to have a communications system that might survive a nuclear war was a higher priority than a bit of unpredictable small delay along the way.

It’s the “small delay” that makes it impossible to sing in synchrony over the internet, because the delay varies for every packet. We don’t usually notice it when using email or browsing, and video conferencing works hard to minimize the latency of the audio so we can hold conversations, sacrificing video speed and quality if it needs to. But to perform or sing together over the internet is not a question of which video application is better than another, but a basic limitation of the underlying structure of the internet itself.

The pending and controversial 5G network which is supposed to replace the current LTE cellular network is designed to have ultra-low latency to the extent that in the never ending battle between internet service providers and cellular network provides, we might end up being to sing and perform together over our new cell phones better then we will be able to through our home networks.

Dave worked at Mitel, a company that designed and built one of the first digital PBX exchanges in 1984, around the time that the circuit-switched and packet-switched worlds started to diverge.