Rice Ring Ceremony

Last week was Rice’s first ever virtual Homecoming. Owl Together brought together thousands of alumni, students, parents, faculty, and staff to help people connect – to the university and with each other – despite the challenging times.

As President of the Association of Rice Alumni, I was invited to make some brief remarks at the annual Rice Ring Ceremony, where students who will soon graduate receive their Rice rings. It’s always a heartwarming event and this year did not disappoint, even if we weren’t all together in person. Below is a transcription of my remarks:

“Welcome, Rice students, families, faculty, staff, alumni, and especially welcome to all those who have just earned their Rice ring! It has been nearly 20 years since I earned my Rice ring, which means this ring has been a party to myriad wonderful stories.

One of my favorite Rice ring stories occurred back in 2009, when I was living in Europe. I was visiting Amsterdam for the weekend and was riding the tram. While I was standing, I noticed that a woman seated nearby was really staring at me. I thought she might look a little familiar but I couldn’t place her; it was a little weird!

When the tram went around the corner, I reached out to grab the pole for balance. At that moment, the woman exclaimed, “Bryan!” and came over to talk to me. It turned out to be Joy Roth, a former Rice Alumni Board member with whom I had volunteered in Houston. I hadn’t seen her for years since she had moved to Nigeria and certainly hadn’t expected to bump into her in Amsterdam! She had thought she recognized me but, when she saw the Rice ring on my hand as I reached for the pole, she became certain.

She joined me in standing at the pole and suddenly two other women approached us from the back of the tram, asking if we had attended Rice – they had seen our rings too! The front of the tram suddenly became an ad hoc Rice reunion!

  • I love this story because it demonstrates how the Rice ring is a symbol of your connectivity to 55,000 Rice alumni all around the world. Although those 55,000 alumni are geographically, demographically, academically, and professionally diverse, we all share a common bond: Rice chose us and we chose Rice! No matter where life takes you, there will always be a parliament of Owls to support you in whatever you need.

The Rice ring is also a connection back to the Rice campus. Rice was my Hogwarts; it is a place I hold dear and love to visit. During times like these, when traveling back to Houston is impractical, my Rice ring keeps me connected even from afar.

  • As much as the Rice ring is a symbol of shared experience, it is also differentiated to symbolize what was unique about your individual experience. Each Rice ring displays your year of graduation. Mine shows 2001 which, as a computer science major, still reminds me 20 years later of the .com crash and how I had four job offers with software comanies rescinded in the same day! But it also reminds me of meeting and beginning to date a fellow Lovetteer who is now my life partner.

Your rings show 2021, which will remind you of unprecedented – and hopefully unique – experiences. From Hurricane Harvey to COVID, you have experienced challenging times at Rice. Outside of Rice too these are challenging times, combining global crises of health, economy, climate, and democracy. But I think 20 years from now we will remember 2021 as the year we turned it all around – and we will remember the Class of 2021 as leading the way.

  • So, from all of us alumni all around the world, congratulations on earning your Rice ring!”

It took every ounce of strength for me to resist making Lord of the Rings references, but I managed to stay strong!

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince Chapters 27 & 28

Every time Hermione refers back to Hogwarts: A History, I can’t help but think that, if GRRM had written the Harry Potter series, he would have actually written and published Hogwarts: A History by now – and I, for one, would be eager to read it! The downside, of course, would be that Harry wouldn’t be The Boy Who Lived; he would be The Boy Who Died in the First Book . . . and Deathly Hallows wouldn’t even be finished yet!

Hogwarts: A History

Let’s talk about Dumbledore getting Draco to monolog. He clearly seems to be doing it intentionally so what do you think is the purpose?

  1. to “save Draco’s soul” by talking him down from committing murder
  2. to stall for time for others to come do the deed
  3. to stall for time for Snape specifically to come do the deed, which, as we find out in Book 7, was the 3D Wizard Chess plan all along
  4. to tease out certain details for Harry to hear whilst he is totally petrified
  5. simply for the reader’s benefit
  6. other?

The first time I read this passage, I had just received some very sad, disappointing news. I thought to myself that I needed a little fantastic escapism so I why not continue reading Harry Potter for the rest of the evening – but then I read this and couldn’t fall asleep for a long, long time. OOF, it was like a punch in the gut – not just Dumbledore’s death but the seeming betrayal by Snape, the sacrifice of Dumbledore to waste his last spell petrifying Harry rather than protecting himself, and the revelation that the locket was a fake to boot . . . OOF! This was a series low point and I read it while I was at a low point too – double OOF!

Side note: I talk a lot about Harry’s exceptionalism – especially when it comes to defensive magic. That makes it, well, exceptional, that he has struggled with nonverbal spells, which I like as it makes him a little less OP.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince Chapters 25 & 26

Let’s look at the ways Voldemort stores/guards his six horcruxes (listed below chronologically in the order in which they were made):

  1. Tom Riddle’s diary – he gives it to Lucius Malfoy to safeguard
  2. Marvolo Gaunt’s ring – he leaves under a floorboard in the dilapidated Gaunt house
  3. Helga Hufflepuff’s cup – he gives it to Bellatrix Lestrange to safeguard
  4. Salazar Slytherin’s locket – he hides it in an epic, well defended cave that is akin to a video game boss battle
  5. Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem – he hides it in the Hogwarts Room of Requirement
  6. Nagini – he keeps her close to him

He employs multiple storage strategies, which seems smart; that way, even if someone catches onto one of his strategies, they won’t necessarily be able to figure out the others. Some of his four different strategies make more sense than others, though:

Strategy 1: lend a horcrux to a trusted lieutenant for safekeeping. This doesn’t really seem in keeping with Voldemort’s character. He is incapable of trust so I can’t really see him letting something so precious be the charge of anyone other than himself. It also isn’t a great strategy because it is vulnerable to betrayal by or ineptitude of his followers.
Strategy 2: hide a horcrux in a place that is meaningful to him but inconspicuous to anyone else. This strategy is really smart and is really hard to crack. Harry only really finds the diadem due to plot convenience.
Strategy 3: hide a horcrux in a well defended, grandiose fortress. This strategy seems very in keeping with Voldemort’s character – what good is a trophy without an epic trophy case? It isn’t as smart as the previous strategy but, when you’re one of the most powerful wizards in the world and therefore likely to be capable of magicking very strong defenses, it does make sense to lean on your strengths.
Strategy 4: keep a horcrux very close to himself. This makes no sense objectively; the entire point of distributing your potential points of failure is to, well, distribute them. If Voldy’s body gets killed, he needs his failsafes that will revive him to be, well, safe. If they are near him, it exponentially increases the likelihood that they too will be wiped out. Here again, though, when you are one of the most powerful wizards in the world, you can’t be blamed too much for your confidence in your ability to protect a horcrux that is near you.

All this is to say that I think Voldy would have been better off employing more of Strategy 2. However, I think it would have been more in keeping with his character for him to have employed more of Strategy 3 – and frankly I would have found that to be really interesting! Imagine what kinds of other epicly defended fortresses Voldy might have created in addition to the cave! Either way, he should have eliminated Strategies 1 and 4 altogether.
• Is it me or do the hurdles in the cave seem sort of . . . arbitrary? Cut your hand open . . . find the invisible boat chain . . . fight off inferi . . . really only drinking the poison seems to serve the plot while the others seem sort of ancillary. Or perhaps I’m missing something?
• Unrelated thought about the death of Harry’s parents: why didn’t they just disapparate once Voldy arrived? Or at the least, why didn’t Lily disapparate with Harry whilst Voldy dispatched James? It seems like if you were in hiding from someone, you would have a quick exit plan in place in the event that you were found!

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince Chapters 23-24

My Harry Potter book club leader, Becca, proposed an interpretation that Harry, the unintended seventh horcrux, was also the unintended Gryffindor horcrux! I haven’t heard that before and i doubt that JKR intended it that way per se so I think it’s doubly brilliant! This Ravenclaw’s mind is blown! This theory especially appeals to my OCD since it completes the Hogwarts House Horcrux cycle.

This original contribution shall be known henceforth as the Becca Eller Theorem and I should say that it qualifies her beyond doubt to be the next Hogwarts History of Magic professor . . . you know, after the current one dies!

Voldemort's horcruxes
Voldemort’s horcruxes

On the subject of horcruxes, in book 7 Voldy realizes at some point that Harry is hunting them and has been successful in destroying some of them. Why wouldn’t Voldy create some new horcruxes quickly and send them off to hide in random places?? He was killing plenty of people so would have had plenty of opportunity to create new horcruxes.

It would have been the smart thing to do – but the fact that he doesn’t do it doesn’t ruin the plot for me. What Voldy does do is pretty consistent with his character.

Thought exercise: is each fragment of Voldy’s soul the same “size?” I mean, when he has split his soul into seven fragments, are they each equal? Or does only whatever remains of his soul in his body split each time a horcrux is made? If the latter, then his first horcrux would would hold 1/2 of his soul, his second would hold 1/4 of his soul, etc. After having made six horcruxes, all that would be left in Voldy’s body would be 1/64 of his original soul!

It’s very interesting that Harry is so skeptical of Dumbledore’s assertion of the special power of love as magic. Once again, his similarities to Voldy shine through!

Right Place Right Time For Climatetech

Gandalf the White

Many lives ago I was CTO of a startup that built the largest DVD rental machine network in the world. We were acquired by RedBox, our largest competitor at the time, but before that happened it was amazing to participate on the front lines of a market in the throes of massive disruption. One day we pitched Blockbuster on licensing their brand so we could be their non-store network. They laughed us out of the building. Less than a year later they came back begging us to license their brand. A few months later they were gone.

That mid-2000s startup was probably the most I’ve ever been in the right-place-right-time. I’ve spent my career ever since in climatetech largely feeling like I was in the right place at the wrong time. Recently, though, the winds have been changing. It seems that there is a new massive corporate climate commitment every week now, public sentiment is strong behind climate, and there is an increasing recognition that we will need new technologies to build the sustainable, prosperous, equitable energy future we all hope for. The feeling is palpable – and it is energizing!

Climatetech now feels like movie rental disruption did 15 years ago: right-place-right-time. The question is, who will be the Blockbusters and who will be the RedBox/NetFlix/etc? Third Derivative is working with our partners to co-create the latter!

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince Chapters 16 – 19

Chapter 16:

Scrimgeour’s characterization never made much sense to me. I always figured that a battle-hardened ex-Auror wouldn’t be the type to care about fake appearances and goofy politics.

Rufus Scrimgeour by Edgar Torné

Looking at modern militaries, though, maybe Scrimgeour’s characterization is right on. As I understand it, the farther up you go in the US military, the less you advance by being good at militarying and the more you advance by being good at politics – which I guess is why you often see high ranking generals and admirals in Presidential Cabinet positions. So kudos to JKR for realism but I still don’t have to like it!

Chapter 17:

I have always liked “pensieve” as one of JKR’s cleverer plays on words. Depending on how you pronounce it, it sounds like “pensive,” which means “thoughtful” – a very appropriate descriptor for anyone using such a magical device to organize their thoughts. The word “pensieve” itself is a compound of the root of “thought” in multiple romance languages (pensée en français, pensiero in intaliano – and possibly others?) and “sieve,” a sifter or strainer. So “pensieve” literally means “thought sifter.” The verb I most closely associate with a sieve is “to sift.” As such, although it isn’t terribly original, I propose to use “to pensift” to describe the action of using a pensieve.

Regarding the wonkiness of Slughorn’s altered memory, I always read it as a physical manifestation of the damage that had been done to it by Slughorn. Previously, “healthy” memories have been described as silky and flowy / liquidy. It makes sense then that a damaged memory might exhibit a damaged “molecular” structure as well, inhibiting its flowiness. Becca in my book club has a different idea that the memory – like the person who gave it – doesn’t want to be shared so actively resists.

Chapters 18 & 19:

The bezoar isn’t the only payoff from Harry’s first potion lesson. In Philosopher’s Stone, Harry loses a house point for his cheek. In Half Blood Prince, he earns 10 points for sheer cheek. It’s like he made a cheek investment with a 10x return over five years – not bad!

Third Derivative Six Month Update

It has been six months since I began as Cofounder and CEO of Third Derivative. Below is a very long assessment of how things are going but the TLDR is that I am really thriving in this role, loving my team, and feeling really good about this decision!

Third Derivative

What is Third Derivative?
A joint venture of the Rocky Mountain Institute and New Energy Nexus, we describe ourselves as a fully integrated ROCKET SHIP of climatetech innovation, bringing together startups, investors, corporates, and policy makers to commercialize, deploy, and scale solutions to the most pressing climate problems. https://third-derivative.org/

Why Third Derivative?
It will take $2-3 TRILLION per year and bringing 2-3 new Gigaton-scale technologies to market per year to meet climate goals and we’re . . . not on track – not even close.
We’re falling behind because commercializing, deploying, and scaling climatetech is hard. Climatetech startups often have greater capital needs and longer paths to market, making it harder for them to compete with software ventures for funding.

Commercializing climate tech often necessitates navigating complex, slow-moving corporate customers, where it might take a year just to figure out whom to talk to. All of this is set against a regulatory and policy landscape that favors incumbents, not disruptors.

We often think of startups as facing a valley of death on their path to scale, but climatetech startups face FOUR valleys of death and, each time they successfully navigate one, they have to start all over educating an entirely new set of stakeholders. At best this slows the rate of climatetech innovation; at worst, promising climatetech dies on the vine (I have experienced both outcomes in my previous ventures!).

The Third Derivative Solution
We are attempting to fix this broken system at unprecedented scale and speed. Third Derivative brings together the key stakeholders – startups, investors, corporates, and policy makers – to get everyone rowing in the same direction. We scour the globe for the most impactful climatetech startups that match the technology needs of our corporates and the investment theses of our investors.

Each startup receives $100,000 funding from at least one of our investor partners and, as they go through our accelerator program, the investors are working right alongside them to help them succeed (while also gaining unprecedented diligence for potential follow-on investment). At the same time, our team is facilitating dealmaking between the startup and our corporate partners – helping the corporate “speak startup” and vice versa. Meanwhile RMI is providing its unparalleled market insights and policy access to give every participant in our ecosystem an advantage.

By filling these key gaps, we’re hoping to bridge the climatetech valleys of death, not only increasing the RATE of success, but – almost as importantly – also increasing the SPEED of success. In so doing, we aim to derisk the entire climatetech innovation category, unlocking trillions of dollars of investment that is currently sitting on the sidelines.
Some more on our r’aison d’etre:

What Have We Accomplished?
In these six months, we have:

  • Built a small team of former climatetech entrepreneurs, VCs, business execs, and policy wonks – most of whom have never met each other in real life #thankscovid!
  • Designed a global, virtual program
  • Secured corporate partners spanning the sectors that need to come together to meet climate goals: tech (Microsoft, AT&T, Google), finance (Wells Fargo), energy (Shell, Berkshire Hathaway Energy), and transportation (FedEx) – still working to bring some heavy industry and auto/battery OEMs on board (close on several)
  • Secured 10 VC Investor partners capable of follow-on investing $2 Billion across four continents
  • Raised a $3 Million sidecar fund for individuals to invest across our entire portfolio
  • Received 630 startup applications from 61 countries – with 2/3 of the founders identifying as women, people of color, or veterans! – during a brief, six-week window

We are now expanding our team and working with our corporate and investor partners to select the 50 best fit startups to join our inaugural cohort, which we will announce Dec. 1. I’m running the venture like a startup: we are moving with deliberate urgency and are learning quickly. There is a LOT still to be done but I am incredibly proud of what this smart, scrappy team has accomplished in such a short time – and under challenging circumstances! 

What’s Next For Third Derivative?
After our public launch Dec. 1, we will likely begin prototyping several complementary initiatives:

  • expand our partner network; we are having to say “No” to some really promising startups that don’t happen to align with our small current group of corporate and investor partners.
  • launch our own VC fund for follow-on investments in our startups.
  • build a search fund and/or venture studio that connects talented entrepreneurs with world-changing innovators and stakes the commercialization of their climatetech.
  • initiate prizes and other open innovation contests to create new markets – RMI has had great success with this model in the Global Cooling Prize so we might imagine similar initiatives, e.g. a Global Hydrogen Prize, where the economics, policies, and incumbents don’t currently support disruptive innovation.

How’s Your Personal Life?
What personal life?? Not really. 🙂 We moved in June to Boulder and, even though we’re still working from home, it feels good to have the move behind us. There is still a lot of work to do on our house (and office!) before we feel truly settled but we are loving Boulder so far. Katie is enjoying her new postdoc and our 2yo is thriving under the care of his grandparents, who are here helping us out. We mostly keep to ourselves due to COVID and haven’t met many neighbors yet – but Boulder has so much natural beauty to explore that, even keeping to ourselves, we’re quite happy.

I’m the President of the Association of Rice Alumni this year, which is a challenging time due to COVID and questions about race, equity, and justice at a university that was founded by a slaveholder. We have a talented, diverse alumni Board, though, and an incredibly capable staff, so we are working through it all – one Zoom at a time!

This is the longest stretch I have gone without setting foot on IMD’s campus since I interviewed there 13 years ago. Consequently I feel a bit isolated and disconnected from my network there. The lack of business travel due to COVID has been great but I really am missing travel for pleasure- hopefully that will be practical again in 2021.

If You Made It This Far . . . 
THANK YOU for supporting me during this new chapter! It hasn’t been easy per se but it is a grand adventure and I am loving it. How are YOU doing? Please shoot me a note and catch me up as I am missing connecting with you all in this time of distancing.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince Chapters 13-14

Thes chapters really got me thinking about the difference between Harry and Voldemort vis a vis their childhoods. I had always had in my head that they were similar – both having grown up without their parents – but the key difference that determined their divergent paths was that Tom Riddle was abandoned whereas Harry had lost his parents through a demonstration of their love for him.

Harry and Voldemort

However, if we look at their circumstances, Harry actually had a “worse” upbringing during his formative years. Tom Riddle at least seemed to receive decent care through the orphanage whereas Harry was openly despised by his caregivers. Yet Tom was up to nefarious deeds already as a child while Harry seemed to be a mostly decent human being.

Tom may have held a grudge once he learned that he had been abandoned by his parents but he wouldn’t have been able to comprehend that during his most formative years. Harry, on the other hand, doesn’t even learn that his parents made the ultimate sacrifice to save him until much later in his life.

In the nature vs nurture debate, JKR seems to be presenting that Tom Riddle was just a bad seed and Harry just a good egg from the get go. She [probably unintentionally] is channeling Aunt Marge’s “bad blood will out!”

“Choices” is definitely the theme – and Dumbledore even states it explicitly in Chamber of Secrets – but what leads us to make the choices we do? Generally we attribute choices to the “nurture” part of childhood development with the belief that we can raise children who make better choices by loving them, teaching them, etc.

In this case, however, Harry has not been the beneficiary of better loving, teaching, etc. than Tom Riddle, so why does Tom make such bad – evil, even – choices, while Harry does not? Harry has not had better “nurture” than Tom Riddle and you could even make the argument that he has had it worse! So I’m forced to conclude that “nature” is the explanation for Tom’s evil choices and Harry’s good ones. Or, more pointedly, they both are the result of protagonist / antagonist exceptionalism rather than the result of development.

This is also relevant to my previous discussion about how Harry is “just good” at some stuff, like flying and defensive magic, rather than working hard to develop those skills. Tom Riddle, it seems, is the same.

Let’s not forget, however, that Voldemort actually made Harry who he is in many ways due to the prophecy! That actually gives us a better explanation of why Harry is the way he is than just . . . reasons; he is the way he is because . . . magic!

Voldemort is probably the way he is because . . . magic . . . too. Perhaps there was a curse on the house of Gaunt (or perhaps Marvolo put one on Marope), or perhaps there was another prophecy about the birth of the Dark Lord that we never knew. Regardless, explaining things away with magic is super acceptable in a book series about wizards!

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince Chapters 5-8

The more time Harry spends at The Burrow, the more it seems like this world’s Rivendell – the last stop for warmth and healing before diving into the full adventure. Rivendell was also known as The Last Homely House, a name which feels very “Burrow” to me.

The Burrow by Rafael Chies

I don’t really understand how Tonks is able to cast a patronus. Don’t you need a strong, happy memory to do so? She doesn’t really seem to be in a good place for that.

For that matter, it has always seemed a bit lazy to me to have written in the use of Patronuses (Patroni?) for communication. That seems to be very, very off-target for something that requires a happy memory and is used to ward off evil happiness suckers. I mean, in a world where there is specific magic to turn a fricking rat into a water goblet, it seems really inconsistent to use one form of magic for multiple dramatically different purposes.

Sigh, after the events of Book 5, you would think Harry would be a little more willing to question himself when he’s super sure of some crazy conspiracy. Groups make better decisions than individuals and Harry saw that first hand last year. Frankly Ron and Hermione should be intervening more strongly with him: friends don’t let friends go off on misguided adventures! Or Dumbledore, for that matter: “Harry, keep your invisibility cloak on you at all times and don’t go on any stupid quests without consensus from Ron and Hermione or me!”

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince Chapters 3&4

Dumbledore at the Dursleys feels like really clumsy exposition – and out of character. It seems both contrived that he would work through the entire Kreacher issue in the presence of the Dursleys – there is no reason to do so – and inconsistent with his character that he would be so overtly condescending to them.

On the other hand, Dumbledore answering / not answering Harry’s questions on their way to meet Slughorn is pretty much peak Dumbledore in my mind – incredibly polite but also incredibly measured about exactly what he wants to reveal. It gives the reader the impression that Dumbledore has already anticipated all of Harry’s questions and is thinking several moves ahead. However, he lets Harry ask the questions instead of preempting them – which is probably good for Harry’s own development – even though the conversation arrives at the same answers.

Horace Slughorn fan art

This line that Dumbledore walks between being polite, charming, and so much smarter than anyone else in the room – almost but not QUITE to the point of smug arrogance – is one that I think Harris hit much more closely than Gambon in the movie adaptations.

My book club leader, Becca, pointed out that Slughorn seems to be seeking protection through all of his influential contacts. That’s not that different (although clearly lesser in degree) than his fellow Slytherin, Voldemort, seeking literal immortality through more sinister means. Those crazy Slytherins . . . always seeking longer lives!

Of course Nicolas Flamel did the same and was not a Slytherin . . . not even a Hogwarts student at all, in fact!

It is conspicuous that Slughorn and Harry both seemed to notice Dumbledore’s ring at the same time. I wonder if this is the result of something Dumbledore did intentionally to attract their attention to it, knowing that it would somehow help him achieve is goal of luring Slughorn back to Hogwarts.

Becca also called attention to a really cool Dumbledore quote:

“And now, Harry, let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.”

It reminds me tonally of one of my favorite Tolkien quotes from The Fellowship of the Ring:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

They both speak to the dangerous but alluring nature of adventure – and they both characterize adventure itself as having agency over you (Dumbledore says it is “tempting” you; Bilbo says it is “sweeping you off.”).

Add in . . .

“Don’t count your O.W.L.S. before they are delivered, which reminds me a lot of The Hobbit’s:

“Escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!” he said, and it became a proverb, though we now say ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire’ in the same sort of uncomfortable situations.”

. . . and this chapter seems to be the most Tolkienesque that JKR has ever written!