Eclipse! That moon’s got chutzpah

Lessons learned from a very big, but very short event.

I’m ready to see the eclipse, or at least that part of it visible in Washington D.C. My neighbor has a friend at NASA, and she obtained an extra pair of NASA-certified cardboard viewing glasses. The last eclipse I remember viewing occurred in the early 1960s. My dad and I fashioned a pinhole in a cardboard box. We put the box over our heads and could see a tiny crescent projected on the inside.

The ancients, thinking celestial bodies were under the control of their various gods, must’ve thought the moon had a lot of chutzpah to slide in front of the sun like that. It scared the heck out of them.

Chutzpah is such a great word because it’s so elastic. In some contexts, it’s a negative. In some, a positive.

Here’s a case of bad chutzpah: A Florida man is headed to four years in prison for defrauding 1,200 companies out of nearly $600,000. His telemarketing operation convinced them that for $500, they would be listed on a special vendor list of FEMA. They’d get contracts noncompetitively. He even took their information and entered it into an online FEMA vendor form. That caused the agency to send an email response to the victims. Talk about a moon-in-the-middle attack.

Here’s a case of good chutzpah: Beth Angerman, the executive director of the Unified Shared Services Management Office at the General Services Administration. Why chutzpah? Three successive administrations have urged agencies to use more shared services. They’ve been pushing overcooked spaghetti uphill. In my interview, Angerman explains how her office has created detailed guidance to help agencies make an organized approach to shared services. Some projects have fallen apart, like Homeland Security’s deal with the Interior Department. Angerman hopes her work will help agencies avoid those situations and accelerate the parade of successes. It’s her job, sure, but it’s a tough one and takes chutzpah on the part of the Service to America Medals nominee.

I thought of chutzpah when interviewing Greg Allen, a brainy guy at the Center for a New American Security. He says artificial intelligence will help give the U.S. military its next generation of competitive advantage. Finding this advantage is a big strategic deal. It even has a name: third offset strategy. Lots of countries are catching up to the technologies that gave the U.S. its lethality over the past 40 years or so.

How does chutzpah apply to AI? Consider this. In developing the first atomic bomb, the United States devoted billions of dollars and tens of thousands of people to the Manhattan Project. All while waging World War II. No other nation had the resources to pull off such a project.

Artificial intelligence, on the other hand, or self-learning software, is a widely available commodity drawn from many sources. An artificially intelligent, self-guiding thingamajig could probably be countered in hours or minutes by an enemy’s artificial intelligence. So the advantage in having AI doesn’t lie in the AI itself, but how artfully the user applies it. AI for competitive advantage is mostly a matter of brainpower and much less of industrial might.

I once visited the IT shop at American Airlines. At the time, its CIO was a darling of the tech world. This was just when airlines were developing into digital entities with yield-enhancing algorithms and passenger self-service. The booking system the company had developed and perfected over decades, it was leasing out to competitors for a new revenue source.

Wasn’t that selling a prime competitive advantage, someone asked? The chief information officer answered, not really. We think we can use it more skillfully than the other people, he said. I thought, well, that’s chutzpah.

In the same way, the advantage in many of the technologies DoD pursues has a very short shelf life absent a culture of never-ending innovation. At its best viewing locations, the totality of the eclipse will only last 160 seconds.

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