Goals vs. Systems
This is another interesting article from Mr. Dilbert. I suggest my reader(s) take a look, but for this post it was more or less a trigger and my post won’t focus too much on it. When I was quite young (probably 11 or 12) I gave a lot of thought about what I wanted to do with my life (actually, it wasn’t as portentous as that, I think about long-range things all the time; I thought about building a house for nigh on 3 decades before it finally happened). I felt that if I set easy to reach goals I would quickly reach them and then be left with nothing. I decided then to set my goals so astronomical (it wound up being literal) that it would take essentially forever to realize them, thus I would never be left with “what’s next”. To give you a scale for judging ‘astronomical’, my ‘reasonable’ unreasonable goal is to build space stations in the Lagrange points fore and aft the moon. You know, something modest that holds a few hundred thousand people. Sadly (or laughingly, depending on my mood), I have made no measurable progress toward achieving those goals. However, whenever any opportunity arises (I firmly believe that people are ‘lucky’ all the time (see here for some of my ideas) and simply lack the wit to realize) I always measure them against my long-term (‘reasonable’, keep that in mind) goal. When I evaluate the potential of a business opportunity it is always along the lines of ‘can it scale far enough and fast enough to make it worth the intense effort needed (I am quite cognizant of the 100+ hours per week a business startup requires for success). If I don’t feel that effort is likely to be rewarded I wait to see what the next one brings along.
Because of my lofty goals my calculus has had me sidestep or ignore quite a few opportunities over the years, opportunities that no doubt could have been grown into very nice little businesses that might have brought in millions or more a year. Because my goals are so lofty (I was going to use ‘ridiculous’, so I guess you can guess where my state of mind is at present) I am extremely risk seeking (in business; I still have no interest in jumping out of perfectly good planes). Because high reward almost always comes with high risk (unless you are a banker in our f-ed up world today where you can make astronomical rewards by destroying the world’s economy, then get bonuses for your effort), since I seek high rewards, in order to have the resources to accomplish my goals, naturally my approach is extremely high risk as well. High risk, by definition, means low probability of success, so I invest a lot of time and effort into projects that statistically speaking are highly likely to fail. I made this decision decades ago because it is clear to me that doing the same thing that everyone else is doing is never going to be high reward. One of the reasons I am attracted to the world of invention is that in our current world’s economy having a patent on a (desirable) product means you have monopoly powers and can have elevated margins in spite of the markets efforts to drive you down to the typical 20% after tax margins (so when you see a company making margins higher than that you know something interesting is going on). In order for me to afford the billions (lots of billions!) to build space stations I need big fat margins, margins way larger than the marketplace will normally allow. That is the main reason for my somewhat single minded obsession with inventing new things and trying to commercialize them (well, I am inventive, but I seldom invest energy in going from idea to reality unless I think there is a huge market for it).
I also know in the world of invention that all are not created equal. Indeed, the vast majority of patented ideas are worth less than the paper they are printed on, so though I have explored the mechanics of patenting over the years I have never felt any motivation to file for one until recently (relatively, it has been nearly a year now since the process started): my DNA sequencing idea. Looking back at that post I was so optimistic that it would be different this time (I tried to find investors back in ’08 with zero luck), but reality has reared its ugly head, yet again, and the long odds have stretched its hand out and relegated this to the dust bin of history (not even a footnote!). It turns out there is a company called Pacific Biosciences that has a functionally identical product (technically quite different, though) that it already has in the markplace (unlike my earlier mentioned ‘competitor’ (can’t really call them a competitor if I don’t have a product, eh?) which has been promising a commercial product for the last several years), is well funded (more than $100 million) and is actually generating millions in revenue each quarter. Since I was not getting any interest from investors before I found out about this product I can’t imagine suddenly I will get interest now. While it might be possible to still get interest in the patent, if it is granted as written (meaning the claims aren’t narrowed to uselessness), I have pretty much given up any thought on it.
I, of course, have a long laundry list of other ideas that I may or may not invest energy in. As I believe I bored you with a number of times before, I am slowly working toward making a commercial effort out of aquaponics (see here for what I think the potential is) and according to my nice pretty spread sheets this has as much or more potential as the DNA sequencing idea has/had, though there is more work and less protection from competitors (meaning managing the growth becomes critical; fortunately I expected to care about that and spent a lot of time focusing on that in my MBA education). I won’t bore you with other ideas (I have mentioned several here off and on), but they also depend on long odds. Recently I have been thinking about how much longer to beat this dead horse and when to give up on my lofty (astronomical (ridiculous)) goals.
It might be possible to get some of my interests in space satisfied by doing my own exploration. Years ago (over a decade now) I spent a lot of effort on an ‘atmospheric satellite’ idea. The idea is to build a huge light-weight plane that can fly at extremely high altitude (not as crazy at it might sound, really, the technology is from back in the 50’s and 60’s), say around 20 miles (100K feet) well above almost all the weather and nearly all the moisture, making it a nearly unbeatable location for stargazing (and telecommunications, my original business intent to pay for my stargazing). The wrinkle then becomes how to make a huge (I am talking football field sized planes, doanchano) mirror that is light enough to fly up there. There are approaches for doing so (I will avoid boring you with these) and I believe it is feasible to investigate that in my post space station life. There is also the idea of micro-satellites where the costs can be dramatically lower (but still likely to be more than I can convince my wife to cover). I believe there are enough things that are affordable that can indulge my interests in space, but I don’t see any of them making enough money to even pay the bills, let alone leading to space stations (unless they are for fleas ;-)).
It has been a rough last couple of years; giving up on long-held dreams is not easy. I worry about becoming a bitter old man who rails against the world (well, more than I already do). Not a very good role model for my boy and not a very good husband for my wife (nor, I suspect, a great child to my mom either). I lack the capacity to grok the math that might allow me to invent ‘warp drive’, so to get to space on my own will require either ‘winning the lottery’ (i.e., one of my ideas (e.g., DNA sequencing, aquaponics, etc.) pay off) or dramatically narrowing what ‘get to space’ means. Telepresence has taken such huge leaps forward lately that I suspect that putting little micro remote controlled lunar landers (say, sugar cube sized (do they still make sugar cubes?)) could allow for exploration but in the hands of ordinary people. Do we really _need_ to put people in space (other than diversifying our race locations so we can avoid going extinct with a single event here on Earth)? If we can knock off a bunch of zeros on the price then it becomes practical for ordinary people to get involved and suddenly, the market I have been focused on springs into existence, just in a very different way than I had anticipated. Who knows? Perhaps in the long run my ‘failure’ will still lead to success.
At least that is what I tell myself to try to keep from sinking into depression and becoming that bitter old man.