A Good Pitch

My MO should be obvious: cut to the chase.

The Gallery page of our DIY Pitch

A pitch deck is an entrepreneur’s holy grail; the golden keys to funding and growth. With just a few meaty slides slathered with storytelling and wrapped in Q&A, a pitch deck turns innovation into business: it unlocks the potential of ideas to create value.

I’ve watched and read numerous pitches, studied a couple of books and a few articles about pitch design, and come to a conclusion (albeit inconclusively) that there is no such thing as a good pitch deck. There are only good ideas, with evidence to support them, and talent to make them tangible.

My early pitch decks were bad, but slides were not the reason; it was my thinking. My seminal concepts were inspired but crude and unfinished, scatterbrained, superficial, impractical, pompous, facile: a proverbial tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

I designed those pitch decks myself, so I blamed myself for the results, but if creative agents had designed them for me, I would only have others to blame. The decks would still have been bad (though better looking) because my ideas were half-baked; not ready for show time.

Over the past few months, my thinking at least has improved. What used to be emotional aspiration is now roll-up-your-sleeves technical innovation; what used to be idle speculation is now evidence-based hypothesis; what used to be ad hoc fixers is now invested talent capable of executing a plan.

All of these changes occurred within the past year, and they make me feel both confident and vulnerable; confident in the quality of the Humaginarium project, vulnerable to a discovery that even my best shot may not be good enough. Not because of me or my team, nor because of our skills and technology; but because we now fight for competitive advantage in an open field, with no cover and no possibility of retreat. Damn the pivots, full speed ahead!

This new, improved me is perhaps manifest in the DIY Pitch that I’m attaching to humaginarium.com. The pitch violates some of the cardinal rules of pitch design: it doesn’t fit on the head of a pin and can’t pass through the eye of a needle. The full pitch takes about 30 minutes to watch, and that’s why I made it do-it-yourself. The DIY Pitch is consumable in a minute; it can also be used by others who want to pay attention and spend some time. The individual decides what to order and the DIY Pitch delivers.

This is how it works. The DIY Pitch deck is all online, available 24/7 on any device. The home page is a Gallery of 30 pitch pages (i.e. slides). A stakeholder is prompted to choose how to view them:

  • Click & Choose — open pages in any order; stop when you’ve seen enough
  • Elevator — 1 minute that helps you decide if this project is your thing
  • Finance — 10 minutes that help you decide if there’s adequate ROI
  • The Full Monty — 30 minutes for all there is to see and hear
  • Live Online — 45 minutes of custom presentation with Q&A

No matter which presentation an individual chooses, it can be stopped and changed at will. All presentations are self-paced, though only two are self-directed. Every page has text on the screen and a button that can be pressed for VO narration when wanted (read + listen). Two pages have a PDF download and other PDFs are available to qualified stakeholders.

My MO should be obvious: cut to the chase. I don’t know what excites different stakeholders: making a buck, changing the world, creative excellence, having fun etc. So I make it easy for every individual to get what they want. They’ll decide when, where, and how to be pitched; I’ll provide the information they ask for. That’s as close as I’m likely to get to a good pitch.

Twin Peaks

They are mountains of the mind

What an ordeal, but it’s over now. I have ascended two snowy peaks that were long troubling my eastern horizon. Casting their chilly shadows at sunrise, glinting stubbornly as the sun set, and murmuring, “You’ll never do this, Bob; go find a nice round hill that’s more your speed.”

Damn it, a nice round hill is not my speed! When I walked the Hill of Tara, despite its fabulous history, I felt tired. When I walked the South Downs, with the Channel sparkling in the dips, I felt lost. I don’t find my meaning in soft, green, sun-dappled hills.

I don’t because they’re easy, and when something is easy, that generally means it’s customary. When something is customary, that means others — many others — have done and enjoyed it, are no longer thinking about it, are taking it in stride. That’s not my thing.

I don’t want to walk to my destination; I want to climb, and I want the climb to be difficult. I prefer forbidding peaks, shimmering in the white radiance of eternity, looming under a canopy of frozen, black cosmos. I prefer slopes that are practically vertical, factories of perilous scree, veneered with a thin layer of redoubtable ice covering rock that is rotten and patiently waiting, like a predator, for its next satisfying kill.

That captures the essence of my twin peaks. They are mountains of the mind rather than earth. In fact they are grant applications: one to the National Science Foundation, the other to the National Institutes of Health. Written in parallel, nearly suffocating me with stress. Why were these grant applications predatory?

Because they attract people like me, to come a little bit closer, to view a delectable feast, to find a comfortable seat at the banquet, only to discover that — oh no! — I’m on the menu. The table has been set, not for me, but for a coterie of peer reviewers, the gourmands of esoterica. To them, I’m not a climber making an inconceivable first ascent, but a contestant in a cooking show. I concoct my new recipes, source my rare ingredients, roast and plate my novel thinking and writing…

And then? Then the gourmands sniff it, nibble it, finger it, turn it in the light, contemplate it, and instantly judge it. Mostly their judgments are superficial and harsh, because peer review is a fast, furious, anonymous, and competitive business; neither leisurely, cordial, nor philosophical. It is as subtle and nuanced as a high-stakes horse race: years in the making, thundering out of the gate, over in a few minutes.

However, in a small fraction of reviews, the peers are impressed, their judgements are profound, or at least have profound implications. And that is why these grant applications are worthy endeavors. They are hard and the probability of success is vanishing. Who could ask for anything more?

What makes an application hard? To begin with, it’s “the ask.” The NSF publishes their ask in document called the Solicitation. The NIH publishes their ask in a document called the Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA). These documents can be hard to find for the uninitiated, but once found, they are seriously hard to read and interpret. Each is supported by hundreds of pages of PAPPG (NSF) and Applications Instructions (NIH).

Why so labor intensive? A hint of passive aggression at the agencies? Don’t be ridiculous! The ask is hard because it’s written for myriad climbers, each of whose routes and peaks are quite awesomely different. One document guides thousands of different aspirants, so it is inevitably confusing to each of them. Many applicants hire a professional Chingachgook, for a hefty fee, to show them how to plan a route and provision their expedition. I didn’t. After all I trained as a textual scholar back in the Jurassic period, so I know how to parse a damned sentence, even if it’s written by a cabal of technocrats.

Reading the Solicitation and FOA, with accompanying instructions, is followed by writing, which in my case is more aptly described as nit-picking. I rewrote my Project Description (NSF) and Research Strategy (NIH) maybe 400 times. Before getting to the summit, I felt dead certain I would fall off the mountain and end up lying in a ditch.

After writing and nit-picking, the last traverse of the perilous journey is a portal for submitting an application online. NSF has Fastlane and NIH has ASSIST. These portals are supported by, and dependent on, other portals including Research.gov, Grants.gov, eRA Commons, and NCBI. Writing in them is comparable to digging your ice pick and crampons into the aforementioned veneer. As often as not, you fly off the pitch and have to call the HelpDesk to pull you back up.

I cannot say enough good things about the HelpDesk. Nicer, more patient, more helpful people than the telephone agents do not exist, of that I feel sure. If you are one of the livestock who’s been oinking about the “deep state,” I have a suggestion for you. Go write a grant application to fund your nutty worldview. Like most others, you may not be funded, but the experience will fill you with tenderness and respect for the gracious civil servants on a HelpDesk, and for the agency that employs them, and for the state that makes it all possible.

North Face of the Eiger, the “Wall of Death” (photo credit)

I always take the same perspective with each new adventure. I put myself in the position of being at the end of my life looking back. Then I ask myself if what I am doing is important to me.” Reinhold Messner

Lineage

We don’t have lineage among our bona fides?

Lineage is a product of continuity, and continuity is a product of evolution. Lineage has history, pedigree, familiarity, assurance. It reinforces our mental model of how good things happen and work. Because we like what we know and we know what we like, usually.

Innovation is a product of disruption, and disruption is a product of revolution. Innovation lacks history, pedigree, familiarity and assurance. It’s risky and uncomfortable. It may satisfy needs, but it takes a lot of getting used to and learning to trust. We usually don’t like what we don’t already know.

I hold these truths to be self-evident, but like most truths of that sort, they’re fraught with tension. That’s because people typically want to have their cake and eat it. They want lineage and innovation at the same time though the two may be diametrically opposed.

If you have attained lineage or you value and reward it, you probably don’t do innovation. You are less interested in the new than the known. Clayton Christensen coined the term “sustaining innovation” in order to connect the opposites — to argue that some innovators make incremental rather than transformational improvements, but that’s a mare’s nest. Making something better is a process of extending its lineage; it’s not an organizing principle of innovation.

The people who want to have their cake and eat it, those are individuals like ourselves, but also organizations such as employers and federal agencies like the National Science Foundation (“Where Discoveries Begin”) and the National Institutes of Health (“Turning Discovery Into Health”). Those agencies are much on my mind at present, because I’m sending SBIR (“America’s Seed Fund”) proposals to each.

The charter of SBIR is to promote innovation in part by selecting for lineage. That’s why most SBIR funds are given to nicely situated academic teams. Wait, let me clarify. SBIR funds are for corporate entrepreneurial teams, but in reality most of them are led and staffed by academic stakeholders who want to commercialize their previously funded academic research. Such stakeholders provide a project with lineage whereas scrappy inventors have only their wit and passion to recommend them, usually.

Unless memory fails me, as a former academician I’m pretty sure that college professors are generally risk averse. They are conservative, self-centered, they don’t like to put skin in the game, in fact they don’t like playing games with their career but prefer the certainties of job security, organizational hierarchy and the comforting sameness of job responsibilities that change only a little from season to season. The ubiquitous tenure system ensures that innovators are largely excluded from academia because they are disruptive.

That is why SBIR requirements for both lineage and innovation are an unacknowledged oxymoron. Unacknowledged because both are explicitly and unapologetically written into NSF solicitations and NIH funding opportunity announcements.

The best way to qualify for SBIR with these agencies is to derisk a project by summoning lineage as evidence that it’s a sure bet. And yet the best way to qualify for SBIR is to explain that the project is so risky that private investors won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole; therefore taxpayer money should finance it.

Humaginarium is one of those scrappy inventors born of a garage rather than an ivory tower. We have an innovation that is damned risky, and we don’t have lineage among our bona fides. What would you do in our place?

Well, we can’t become less innovative. Innovation is what makes our project meaningful and fun. And we can’t borrow lineage, can we?

Actually we can. Because the technologies we are bringing together have been developing for decades, in many cases with government funding, only not for our purposes. System dynamics, computer modeling of health, bioinformatics, biochemical engineering, predictive simulation, adaptive experiential learning, instructional technology. These are the cross threads of our invention, forming a new fabric of impact and consequence.

Precisely what consequence I can’t reveal here, not because it’s a secret but because I’m out of space. For now, suffice it to say that pretty soon you’re going to love what you don’t already know. That goes double for people with chronic illness.

A griffin of classical antiquity combining the eagle (innovation) and lion (lineage) into a mythic animal that embodies an impossible ideal. (Image courtesy of Pixabay.)

Poster

Fixing the Achilles’ heel of health literacy

The Institute for Healthcare Advancement is hosting the 20th Annual Virtual Health Literacy Conference on May 25-27, 2021. You can register for free and learn by attending live sessions on your device.

My contribution to the conference agenda is a poster about Constructive Health Competence (CHC), which combines health literacy with other useful skills that are likewise lacking across most of the population.

An image of the poster follows this text. The image is rather large and perhaps will be slow to open. Those who wish to read it can open it large in the browser or download it. In the conference, the poster is accompanied by my voice-over. I am inserting the script of that here.

This poster acknowledges an Achilles’ heel of health literacy. The crazy assumption that folks will understand and use the information they read.

That’s not true of many people. The average adult in our midst reads like a child in middle school. Half of all adults can’t even do that. Others read better, so long as the text isn’t health information.

That’s because health information is not written in a vernacular. It’s by and large a professional rhetoric, a technicalese that requires higher education to understand and use.

Yet health literacy is not a professional or cultivated competence. It’s just regular folks being able to understand their healthcare, in order to inform their medical choices and decisions.

We can agree that health literacy is an important skill, too important to let language get in the way. So this poster outlines a fix for the Achilles’ heel. The fix removes textual obstacles to understanding complex information, and replaces them with pleasurable sensations.

Sensations are the fodder of art and entertainment; in this case, AAA video games. Visual and behavioral sensations are catalyzed by game mechanics and aesthetics. This is the stuff of visceral experience rather than quiet study.

That’s why playing video games is constructive. A game is a multifaceted kit that lets players themselves build the knowledge and skills they need to win. And in our games, the way to win is to defeat the illness lurking within.

So, assume we disconnect health literacy from language literacy. Can we now build effective health promotion? Nay, more is wanted. We add scientific literacy, another competence that most folks lack. We provide opportunities for regular folks to understand and use biomedical and social sciences in the game. We believe they can and they will.

The project enhances these literacies with health acumen, an ability to deal with perplexing unknowns that make us afraid or angry or depressed or unable to resist. And with medical self-efficacy, the ability to get anxious clinical situations under personal control.

The poster sums it up as constructive health competence. And because CHC emerges in the magic circle of play, regular folks can get into it. They can escape from suffering into a fantasy that brings them back to their true selves. Selves that are not dominated by chronic illness.

Copyright 2021 Humaginarium LLC

Resolve

Striving to go beyond, not back to normal.

The worst of bad years has finally ended. A hopeful New Year has begun. It’s time to make a New Year’s resolution. But hold on, wait a minute — resolve means very different things!

In one sense, resolve is to fashion a solution. I may resolve a conflict or a problem by settling differences; or resolve a mystery by explaining how something happened. Resolutions of that sort are answers and remedies. They can help the troubled and distracted get back to normal.

That’s typically not what New Year’s resolutions are for.

In a different sense, resolve is to make a decision. When feeling disquiet, uncertainty, challenge, yearning, I may resolve to make a change, or make a difference, or make something new. When I do that, I’m bravely striving to go beyond, not back to normal.

Going beyond is what New Year’s resolutions are for. They’re wholesome, even heroic gestures of self-determination. We pooh-pooh them because they’re hardly ever kept, and that’s sad, but also beside the point. Keeping a resolution is the end of trying. Making resolutions is the beginning.

Resolve is the beginning of a change process. How often do complicated new processes work as planned? Not often. How often do they generate unplanned results? Quite often. Even when change processes collapse, they may illuminate defects and limitations that were easy, even convenient to ignore.

Resolve in the sense of decision-making is a driver of constructive health competence promoted by Humaginarium. Constructive health competence is Humaginarium lingo for patient empowerment — though I don’t much like the word “patient.” It sounds so wounded and dependent and vulnerable. I prefer consumers or customers or just plain folks, because those words are full of agency, implying at least the potential for self-determination.

Resolution is cardinal to constructive health competence because people who use our video games come to understand and take better care of their own one-and-only (i.e. their body). They become excellent stewards of the self. They really want to live better and they’re ready to do something about it. That’s a big change!

I insist that foolish, ignorant, fearful, timid, anxious, feckless, angry and deluded people can’t be good stewards of anything, much less their health. So our program replaces those self-limiting conditions with resolve. Resolve to do whatever it takes to win in the imagination, and in life.

Our customers will learn how to make good resolutions on New Year’s and every other day too. Let us all do the same.

The principals of Humaginarium made several fine resolutions on January 1, 2021. Will we keep all of them? Any of them? None of them? I don’t know, and nobody else does either.

I don’t know how my story ends, only that it begins and begins again, and again and again, because it is well worth trying, and I would be absurd not to try.

As we proudly, nay bravely stand on the threshold of 2021, that’s what most matters to me.

The Business Plan

Think different?

One of the first and last words entrepreneurs hear when forming a tech startup is “pitch.” Referring not to the black muck that’s used to pave roads, nor the slant of a roof that prevents snow from piling up, nor a thrown ball that dances past a bat. This pitch is a PowerPoint deck.

Actually two decks: vanilla with about 10 slides and Neapolitan with about 50. Vanilla is for stakeholders who don’t dawdle. It cuts to the chase. Neapolitan is for slackers who need time to imagine that the venture wants only three years to pay out 10x what’s put in. A deck is paired with a script that couches the bulleted points in persuasive storytelling.

Prominence of a pitch contrasts with obscurity of a business plan. According to pundits who pass through startup incubators like roving bounty hunters, business plans are fossils. They take time to research and write and evaluate (diligence), they involve demonstrable facts and testable assumptions (empiricism), and they are not viable (so yesterday). Dude, if we’re going to bet on PITS (pie in the sky), let’s go fast and break things! The investing equivalent of high-throughput screening.

What a designer famously wrote about websites may be said about the pitch: “don’t make me think.”

A good pitch makes people think in a certain way, of course. That’s called fantasy. A business plan makes people think different, in a way called dialectics. It took me a while to realize this, and I am now creating the Humaginarium business plan (better late than never). Using the cloud app LivePlan to organize and prompt my writing, the business plan covers operations and markets; in an appended business pro forma, it covers commercialization and finance. Slowly. Carefully. Decisively. Come what may.

Writing a business plan feels to me like exploring majestic terra firma, after imagining a new world while sailing, surrounded by sea and sky.

To fresh entrepreneurs who have been threading the needle of a just-right pitch, I can recommend that you set it aside for the loom of a business plan and pro forma. Put first things first. Prove to yourself and stakeholders that you have the right stuff for a moonshot. Don’t mistake an albatross for a necktie.

The time will come later to whistle a happy tune in a dainty little pitch.

Covey’s Habit #3: Put first things first (the chicken before the egg).

Content

Content begins on the outside and ends up inside.

With written briefs and schedules flourishing in the rear view mirror, we’re beginning our approach to another early milestone: content. That word seems to mean everything and nothing at the same time. Let’s dispel the ambiguity.

In my view, content derives from information. It happens like this.

  1. Information is sculpted into communication
  2. Communication is rendered as media
  3. Media promote experience
  4. Experience is distilled into ideas
  5. Ideas are summoned into knowledge
  6. Knowledge is the safe harbor of content.

Phew! If all that is true, then it’s fair to say that content begins on the outside and ends up inside. Content bends the objective to the whims of the subjective. It starts as facts and finishes as perception. Content is what we think we know and what we think we can use to achieve our aims. Content bestows power.

Our briefs claim that the streaming content of Diabetes Agonistes is formed from six tributaries: biology, chemistry, psychology, environment, community and aesthetics. Biology and chemistry: these are scientific, decidedly factual. Psychology is less scientific because it is more tolerant of speculation and ideology. (I think therefore I am? Arguable. I am therefore I think? Indubitable!) Environment is the physical world that supports or harms life, and is very scientific. Community is the moral world of connections and relationships, interdependence and conflict: dynamic, metamorphic, cultural. Aesthetics are the human spirit, a force field that makes the cosmos personally meaningful, for better or worse.

All of these tributaries form the almighty stream of content in our project. Our schedule says we will survey the stream by July 2020, in time for designers to paddle its churning rapids, keeping us onboard as we twist and bobble onward.

Our first step of content discovery is to create a framework: the loose contours of information that we gather way upstream, in the placid pools of scholarly and popular literature. We do this to appreciate how others understand human metabolism, healthy and otherwise.

Framework in hand, we interview a gaggle of subject-matter experts in several disciplines: asking them questions about the literature, uncovering leads to additional information that we missed in our framework, learning how to bend information to the learning objectives of our curriculum.

Yes, our curriculum, because even though the thing we are making is a drop-dead gorgeous, butt-kicking, soul-riveting video game, under its covers it will be a competence builder; it will not teach, but will prompt and empower people to learn.

After the interviews, a great slog begins. The slog is a spreadsheet Topic Index. Word by word, row by row, an inventory of accurate and useful information that users may turn into knowledge while playing our video game — whether or not they want to. In fact we know they won’t want to and that’s why we won’t tell them they’re learning. Instead we’ll encourage them to feel they are winning, which after all beats learning in any head-to-head competition.

Once our Topic Index is written, we may rest. Our labors regarding content will be finished for the time being. We will set it aside and turn full attention to the next milestone: a technical marvel we call evaluation website.

The evaluation website is a test bed for our modular proof of concept, of which an elaborate simulation and a competency model are very important parts. Why mention them in this post about content? Because the content we delineate in the Topic Index will be plowed into the simulation and the model long before they see the light of day in a video game. The evaluation website is where stakeholders in our success will observe, manipulate, and comment on the content we have mustered for their immediate enjoyment and lasting benefit.

Scientific entertainment. Le Repos (1911) by Félix Edouard Vallotton, pictured with neurons that may be firing in the model’s limbic system as her friend approaches with a glass of milk and a cookie.

Briefs

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow?

For the poet TS Eliot, April was the cruelest month. For Humaginarium, it wasn’t too shabby. It began with completion of a grant proposal and ended with a synoptic schedule and briefs for our project. We did exactly what we said we would do, and that feels nice. Hopefully a sign of things to come.

The project schedule spans 28 months, from approval of our Phase 1 Project Pitch to completion of our Phase 2 proposal. The blocks of planned activities are:

  1. Proposal development: 12 months (43%)
  2. Project preparations: 6 months (21%)
  3. Research and development: 9 months (32%)
  4. Phase 2 proposal: 1 month (4%)

Six months of slack time are anticipated, three of which we’ve already used. Slack time buffers the impact of uh-oh pivots and koala-like performance.

Our project preparations kicked off on April 6. By September 30, we’ll have devised a detailed schedule in MS Project that allocates 33 professionals and 2,000 testers to a hierarchy of tasks that aggregate in five complex, glorious, interdependent milestones. This glorious amalgam is our modular proof of concept: empirical evidence with a direct bearing on our next project starting on January 4, 2022.

The briefs are 3-4 page orientations for members of our professional cohort. They cover all the major bases of on-ramp:

  1. Content brief
  2. Creative brief
  3. Curricular brief
  4. Evaluation brief
  5. Office brief
  6. Scheduling brief
  7. Technical brief

The briefs are not restatements of our proposal, but narrative seasonings for kicking it up a notch. Since the subject matter of the briefs has been top of mind for a full year, they were surprisingly hard to write. Hopefully easy to read.

Their overarching theme may be quoted from the technical brief. It applies to everything we’re doing from now on:

Innovative popular systems are the technology of this project. We also have lofty and arguable philosophical, social and economic ideas, but the project is not about them. It is technical and pragmatic. Our only job is to demonstrate that the systems we plan to build are feasible.

The content brief concerns six classes of information that will be mustered for our simulation: biology, chemistry, psychology, environment, community and aesthetics. These data are the knowledge that we impart to users without uttering a word. Like magic.

The creative brief concerns art and entertainment. It says our greatest invention is a way to make science and education more palatable and engaging to those who couldn’t care less. It claims that Humaginarium is the most fun you can have with your body. And we mean it!

The curricular brief says that our video game inculcates a competency model that makes healthy choices and healthy habits likely, if not inevitable. There’s no teacher. Experience teaches! Our technology merely facilitates. Users get to be thank god-almighty free at last.

The evaluation brief concerns the website we will build in the digital public square to demonstrate our technical and aesthetic wizardry. Thousands of people may drop by and leave feedback, and while there enter a lottery for valuable prizes. Money can’t buy me love? Not.

The office brief describes our virtual office, which is actually our Business G Suite account with twinkling lights, glass balls and tinsel. It explains how colleagues around the United States will receive assignments, post work and get paid. Work happens, meetings are ad hoc.

The scheduling brief explains our techniques of project management that somehow combine careful planning, practically unlimited flexibility and iron-clad budgeting. We want to know how and when everything will happen, and yet not mind of it doesn’t work out that way. Zen.

The technical brief is the one I was afraid to write, because it is technical and I am not. However it pleased technical lead Dave Walker so I’m more relaxed after all. Feasibility is the gist of this brief. It poses many of the questions we must answer well to qualify for Phase 2.

So then, April at least in this case has not been the cruelest month. You may ask along with the poet, “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow Out of this stony rubbish?” I will tell you now. They are the seedlings of health literacy, health acumen, and medical self-efficacy for patient sufferers who may not, who cannot be fooled again, because soon they will know better.

Scheduling

Plans are containers for snappy bits.

“It is a curse having the epic temperament in an overcrowded age devoted to snappy bits!” That’s me thinking about Humaginarium in 2020 — quoting JRR Tolkien thinking about The Lord of the Rings in 1944.

Both projects (his and mine) are gigantic and erudite, yet made for untutored masses with purportedly short attention spans. How odd! Both are outlandish and amusing, steeped in adult fantasy and occult imagery, yet each feels natural and familiar to regular folks who are purportedly empirical and pragmatic. How peculiar! Tolkien’s project characterized the deranged evil that threatened himself, his family and friends and civilization. Mine models poorly controlled illness that threatens me, my family and friends and civilization. How curious! Nobody paid Tolkien to devote years of his life to his project. He was merely asked to write a sequel to a successful children’s book. Nobody has paid me to persist in my project after my first successful startup, yet I do. How strange!

We both know why. Epic undertakings occur because their makers want them, not because “users” or “customers” demand or even expect them. The efforts such undertakings require are their own sweet reward, not a down payment on fame and fortune that may never come. Large, innovative projects have no ulterior motive. They truly exist for their own sake, though makers may want them to change the world a little, for the better: in my case to make it a happier and healthier place to live, in Tolkien’s to justify a personal commitment to virtue in a fallen world. When makers work hard, great things may come about. It’s just possible. On the other hand their projects may fail, they may give up and turn back. When that happens, problems like evil and illness may become even harder to fathom, as though the human spirit perceives them and doesn’t care. The fallen world doesn’t change, but its problems do. They grow worse.

An epic temperament is all very well. It’s the mother of invention. It kept Tolkien going and keeps me going more conscientiously than orders and lucre ever have. What makes the temperament a curse is not the inspiration, but the perspiration. The curse of snappy bits: pesky details of how and when things will be made. As avaricious angels — who may have never had an original idea of their own — are fond of saying to makers: “ideas are basically worthless.” Execution matters. Stuff has value. If it doesn’t sell it doesn’t count.

Stuff rarely just happens. It must be inspired, ideated, investigated, planned, prepared, washed-dried-ironed-folded, assigned, designed, developed, tested again and again, repaired and refined and finally launched — or at least saddled and walked out of the barn. Tolkien did that with The Lord of the Rings. He not only wrote and typed and recited his story again and again for years before it was printed. He also wrote a “history” of the different world in which his story unfolds; he invented languages spoken there, animated deities adored and feared there, empowered supernatural laws and fierce traditions that shaped reality there; and he created newfangled geography, morphology, astronomy and physics so his story would make perfect internal sense to every one of the purported nincompoops who would eventually buy and read his very long and complicated novel. He did all of this not to please them, but to please himself and a few individuals he loved. He had no customers or bosses or investors or contracts, so he made The Lord of the Rings in his spare time after work while raising a family, and gardening, and fixing the plumbing, and running errands on his bicycle. How impractical! What a stupendously foolish way to create one of the most beloved and best selling stories of all time! If only there had been an Innovation Corps or incubator or creative writing program to show him how to do things the right way!

Tolkien and I planned our respective projects. Plans are containers for snappy bits. They tell makers what will be done, by when, for how long, by whom, with what results. Plans are details of execution: how an epic temperament actually makes the things it wants.

Unlike Tolkien, my plan is a schedule. Correction: right now it is the outline of a schedule. Relatively little is scheduled just yet, just enough to inform the National Science Foundation how my execution will play out. For this reason, Dave Walker and I have begun writing a proper schedule: him in Microsoft Project, me in Merlin Project. What snappy bits may our schedule contain? Here’s what I know:

  1. The project is named Diabetes Agonistes
  2. The start date is April 4, 2020
  3. It has three phases: preparatory, generative, evaluative
  4. Preparatory ends no later than September 2020
  5. Generative and evaluative end no later than June 2021
  6. The schedule involves 24 credentialed professionals
  7. It also involves 2000 online testers (the “nincompoops”)
  8. The project produces evidence rather than product
  9. Evidence lowers the risks of product development that follows
  10. Evidence is collected in five milestone deliverables
  11. Milestone deliverables cohere in a modular proof of concept
  12. The project allocates cash of $233,613 and equivalent sweat equity

The preparatory phase, which we’re in now, produces our detailed project schedule, two websites, seven briefs, and an ineluctable sense that the epic temperament of Humaginarium is mastering the snappy bits and throwing off a nagging curse, in our overcrowded age: turning “worthless ideas” into treasure worthy of Khazad-dûm.

Writing

George Mallory had similar thoughts, standing at the foot of Mount Everest.

One year to write 20 pages! That is how long they took. Even for me — the slowest of the slow, the latest of the late — this is a personal best. How did it take so long?

Easier question: why didn’t it take longer? Answer: because there was a time limit imposed by somebody else. A timer was set in April 2019, giving me no more than one year to finish or be damned. Not liking the eternal-infernal option, I finished my writing with precisely four days to spare (phew).

Same sort of thing happened in 1975, when I “finished” (i.e. stopped) my doctoral dissertation in English Letters at the end of a fifth year living in the UK. There is evidently something about limits that makes me want to exceed or at least ignore them, as long and as much as possible.

My recent year of writing was an NSF SBIR Phase 1 proposal. Together with documentation it turned out to be 10 x 20 pages, but the Pareto principle applies to just those measly 20 pages comprising the Project Description and Technical Discussion of a game changer known as Diabetes Agonistes.

The National Science Foundation does very nice things for aspirants and martyrs who want to cross the chasms of technical innovation. They carefully publish an explicit Solicitation telling applicants how to write a proposal; and they reinforce the Solicitation with a Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide that kind of “tells ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em” — with more detail in different words. They further reinforce those helpful documents with myriad web pages of procedural, referential, social and historical information that strikes aspirants with awe and turns some of them into martyrs. Reading this stuff feels a bit like gazing at a Himalayan summit from a safe distance and thinking, “it’s not that tall after all.” All told, there are hundreds of fact-packed government pages that are not only helpful, but also debilitating. Even for me, a person who loves reading for its own sake, that textual mountain was a lot to take in. Consequently much of my year spent writing was actually devoted to getting ready to write and then afterwards checking to make sure that my text was complete and compliant with standards. Even now I’m not sure that it is. The summit is shrouded in mist, and there is a throbbing red glow within it.

As usual with anything related to health care (e.g. Diabetes Agonistes), there is a way to leapfrog the labor by delegating it, with cash. You can hire a consultant, one who is well versed in government documents, as your sherpa. The consultant tells you what to write, and when to write it, and how to revise it until it is ready for primetime. Alternatively, you can hire a consultant as your ghostwriter and project manager: a magus who will use you as a subject-matter expert, write a splendid proposal for you to sign, and afterwards (if successful) manage the entire project for a reasonable fee.

I considered consultants. I attended a two-day workshop hosted by one of the best, and interviewed four others who came highly recommended. I chose not to engage one because (idiot that I am) I wanted to learn and master this writing process myself. I felt there is no text in the English language that I can’t wrestle to the mat (hubris), and if I don’t do the heavy lifting myself, I won’t do all the necessary thinking either. Then I would lose an ineffable chance to experience something new: crossing one of the wider chasms of technical innovation. I’m sure that George Mallory had similar thoughts, standing at the foot of Mount Everest.

Apart from reading and processing freight cars full of documentation, another cause of my slowness was poetics (so-called). Hard as it may be for readers of this blog to believe, I am very careful about every word I write, often writing them over and over in different ways until they sort of chime in my ear and look good to my eye. For this reason, what I want to express is perhaps 30% of my writing. Wordsmithing is 70%. The nutty thing about that is, my subject matter here for the most part is technology, and literary style is certainly not one of the criteria for evaluation of my proposal. Nonetheless, I can’t help myself. My muse insists.

As soon as my writing job was done a few days ago, I turned to (what else?) more writing. I quickly wrote a Project Pitch for educational technology that may bend the curve of COVID-19. Fascinating proposal which will go nowhere, of course, but deserved to be written. Then I started writing an SBIR Phase 1 proposal for the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, one of the National Institutes of Health. And also began writing a series of briefs for the NSF project team, in case that proposal isn’t kicked out like a stray dog.

Will I set a new record for slowness with NIH? I think not. Having practiced and sort of mastered the process of parsing technical documentation with NSF, I am likely to cross the next chasm like a hare rather than a tortoise. I will certainly let you know when that happens.

Scientific entertainment. Female nude, back view (1831), by Alexandre-Jean Dubois-Drahonet. Pictured with coronavirus on the prowl.