Monday, June 30, 2008

Needs, Tools, Horses, and Carts

This is part one in an accidental three part series. I couldn't get it all out in one shot. Or two, it turned out. Here are links to part two and part three.

Twitter made a nice little indirect contribution to my thinking about the brand comparison project last week.

Ever since my attempt at tweeting an adventure back in May, I've tried to be a better microblogger. I'm still a little shy about jumping in on other people's conversations, but I'm paying closer attention, following more people, doing my best to tweet narratively and entertainingly, and looking for others that try to be serious about the poetry of their posts. And I'm glad I've done it. I've made a bunch of new Twitter connections, and, among other things, they've provided me a couple of sets of fresh eyes on the blog.

Last Wednesday, one of those connections, Lynn, @organicmania on Twitter, and the brains and fingers behind organicmania.com, left a comment on my post about personality and multi-voiced blogging. She told me it is possible for personalities to thrive in a multi-voice environment, and, to convince me, she referred me to The Buzz Bin, a well respected marketing-focused blog that made a successful switch from a solo publishing project to one with many authors.

After reading her comment, I cruised over to The Buzz Bin and started to poke around. Before I could formulate any thoughts on the pros and cons of its multiple personalities, however, I read an article by Qui Diaz called Tools Are Only as Useful as Their Users, and it stopped me dead. It shifted my thinking to horses and carts.

The article notes the impressiveness of online social action tools and networks (a group of sites that, if I understand Qui's distinction correctly, includes, in addition to the sites she mentions, Kiva, Wiser Earth, and The Point). It wonders why they haven't achieved greater prevalence. And it proposes a hypothesis, a hypothesis that I think Qui articulates best in a comment in response to some questions from her readers:

I think the issue is that we’re trying to teach the tools rather than teach the need. If we focus on educating people about the issue, and why it’s worth their time/talent/treasure….and then back up what we’re saying by giving them the resources needed to spread the word, raise money, or any number of other actions…then they will determine the best tools/channels.

We're putting carts before horses.

We're building powerful, thoughtful, high-potential tools, and we're assuming that people intuitively understand our big visions, the motivations behind the creation of the tools. But, of course, we're getting ahead of ourselves. People don't intuitively understand. Not immediately, at least. Not without education. Not without proper focus on storytelling. Not without a horse. So the tools lie dormant and, eventually, tragically, rust and crumble.

And that gives me pause, for I'm building a social action tool, and, every day, I feel my attention being yanked from the big vision and into the cart-building details. It's what the project commands right now and what, I imagine, it'll command for a long time. It's what I have to do, but it's scary, because I can imagine a perfectly natural path that could lead me to a horseless cart.

In our attempts to be entrepreneurs, we scrap and hustle to move our projects forward, and, as we do that, our big visions drift out of our everyday lives. And, for us, that's ok. We've already done heaps of thinking and brainstorming and arguing. We already have strong feelings and opinions about the big problems and big solutions. Conceptually, we've arrived. We understand. We don't need a constant reminder of why we're doing what we're doing. It's second nature, something we can take for granted. So we move on to the details.

And that's fine, too. It's a necessary part of the startup process. We need the details. Without intense focus on the details, the wheels are going to fall off. And we can't expect horses to drag wheelless carts.

At the same time, however, the details are dangerous. They suck us in. They stick in our minds. They dominate our conversations. And, potentially, eventually, they displace the big vision in our evangelical outreach.

We think everyone gets the big vision. Everyone sees the need. Everyone knows the world can't live without the tool. And everyone understands perfectly exactly what we're talking about when we talk details.

But we're wrong. As clear as the concepts underlying our projects might be to us, as easily as we can see the needs for the changes we seek, we have to be humble about the intuitive brilliance of our ideas. We have to tell our stories and tell them well.

We need to feed those horses, keep them fat and happy. We can't afford to have them wandering off.*

And I'm going to end this here for now. It's the observation portion of the thought. Tomorrow, I'll write about what I'm doing and why I'm doing it the way I'm doing it. I don't think I've necessarily escaped this cart horse problem, for, as I said before, I'm barely breathing above the details. I do know, however, that I'm excited to post it up here and see if anyone has any thoughts to share. It's good to have an audience, even if it is a small one. There's a lot of peace of mind to be gained from throwing things out there and seeing how people respond.

*Note: As I'm sure you've noticed, this has been some seriously haphazard metaphoring. I've never worked with horses and carts before, and I think I'll have to come have a reread tomorrow before deciding what I really think. Sadly, metaphorME, our sandbox extraordinaire, is down right now, and, given the pre-Olympics chinabites rewrite and the fact that he's working for me now too, Wiley's too busy to fix it. Hopefully, once we do get it running again, we'll launch some in depth cart and horse exploration.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Special Treatment?

The Acorn blog still isn't ready, so energy-related raves are going to stay here for the time being. A colleague passed me this article yesterday; the mind started spinning; and I couldn't help myself...

The big goal a government has in mind when creating a carbon economy is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to a sustainable level without overwhelming industry to the point that it stops producing. In the electricity generation industry, the idea is to reward the businesses that produce electricity while emitting little or no carbon dioxide and penalize the businesses that produce electricity while emitting a lot. Provide capital to clean producers to help them expand and produce more clean electricity, and force the dirty producers to innovate or die.

Does that sound reasonable? Is there anything significant that I'm missing?

The reason I ask is that I just read a New York Times article about Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers and the complicated relationship he has with climate change, environmental protection, and Washington's approach to cap and trade.

The article is big, and there are plenty of points that it makes and questions that it raises, but it was the following quote that got me thinking about the goals of carbon economies.

Rogers sees this [the proposed and recently defeated Lieberman-Warner cap and trade bill] as a financial disaster for Duke. By his calculations, Duke would spend at least $2 billion in the first year alone and have to raise its rates immediately by up to 40 percent to cover that. Worse, coal-fired utilities would not get the special treatment they did under the acid-rain legislation. This time around, a large number of allowances would be given away to nuclear and hydroelectric utilities that already produce very little carbon dioxide. Those companies would not need their allowances and so could sell them for a healthy profit in coal-dependent states.

I don't understand what Rogers wants. I understand from quotes earlier in the article that he's worried about giving ridiculous amounts of new revenue to a government without a particularly impressive allocation plan. But he also wants special treatment for coal? He has a problem with the fact that a carbon economy will penalize coal-fired power and drive his business away from coal and deeper into renewables and nuclear?

Or maybe he's worried that it won't reward innovators that clean coal up?

I guess it's reasonable to consider the possibility that big penalties to coal fired generation and big subsidies to most everything else might overwhelm that piece of the industry, but it seems to me that, given the circumstances, it'll take technologies and/or policies much more radical than garden variety cap and trade to kill king coal.

Coal makes up a huge proportion of the US electricity mix, well more than double the proportions of natural gas and nuclear, its closest proportional rivals. Shouldn't it be safe for a while simply by virtue of its massive market share advantage?

And won't the limitations on the growth of its non-emitting competitors also protect it? Hydro can't grow much more, for there aren't many more good sites for it. Nuclear growth is tempered by huge up front costs, long and unpredictable build timelines, and collective memories of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. And renewables are still tiny: big, exciting, hopefully realizable dreams, but just barely relevant statistically.

Maybe it's natural gas that keeps Rogers up at night? But gas isn't totally clean. Cleaner than coal, yes, but not so clean and so scalable that coal should be worried about being driven out of business before getting an opportunity to increase its own cleanliness.

It seems to me that coal will have plenty of time to innovate.

And, honestly, plenty is more time than we should give it. According to the principles that are leading us to a carbon economy, producers of coal fired electricity should be pushed and pushed hard. They should get a chance to clean up, but they shouldn't have unlimited time to do it. They should feel some pain. They waited for regulation to force them do the long term smart environmentally and economically right thing. They should pay a price for their environmental irresponsibility (which continues, as we speak) and have to make adjustments, with the quickness.

If they can't do that - if, ultimately, coal can't compete in an economy that's on the road to carbon dioxide sustainability - then we should forget about coal.

Anyway, please tell me what I'm missing here. I think it's strange and maybe even suspicious that Rogers has rescinded his support for cap and trade legislation because the only carbon economy he can stomach is one that's NOT significantly more painful for coal than for low carbon options. I thought that pain was the goal, and I thought Rogers wanted it.

Maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe I'm misunderstanding the man's position (giving too much weight to his desire for special treatment and too little to his worries about dumping too much money into the laps of a potentially irresponsible government). And maybe I just simply don't know what I'm talking about.

That happens quite a bit. Please call me on it.

Note: I wonder how a post like this might go over on the future Acorn blog. Would it be a problem to admit incomplete understanding of something at the absolute core of the future of the energy industry? Would that reflect poorly on me? On Acorn? Worth considering I guess, but my feeling is no. I'm new to the energy world, but I've noticed that very few people in the industry understand anywhere close to everything we all ought to know. There's just simply SO MUCH to know (counterintuitive regulations, dense engineering details, crazy new science, heaps of recent changes, heaps more on the horizon), much more than most people can handle.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Game On

We're building again.

For real this time. A real live brand comparison beta.

The prototype did great work, but it's time for something that people can actually use.

We had two great development options from which to choose. We discussed, asked the experts, talked about our feelings, and the Django team won the bid.

Carl's running the show.

Eric's building the front end.

Wiley (yes Wiley) is doing support work.

All three of them have beards.

And I am absolutely thrilled.

The spec calls for a site that'll be unabashedly beta, highly experimental, and heavy on feedback collection. As we build, I'll do my best to keep you all in the loop. I'm sure we'll need help at some point, and I'm guessing I'll come begging for thoughts and ideas. Be ready.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Painted Face

For the Chinese government, the Beijing Olympics are all about face, all about how China looks to the rest of the world. The more smoothly the Olympics go, the more face the government earns.

And that's important. Because face is power. Face is trust. Face is money. Face is the government's mandate to rule.

According to James Fallows, a man whose opinion I trust more and more the more I read him,* the government is working so hard to protect its face that it's putting its face in danger.

In other words, China had a look in the mirror, figured things needed a little touch up, busted out the makeup, and started slathering it on. But making that happen safely and gracefully is easier said than done. The makeup is toxic. It's clown colors, not skin tones. And the only tools around to apply it are kitchen sponges, broomhandles, and staple guns.

China is closing up and pretending to be something it's not, and, by doing that, it's making itself unnecessarily vulnerable.

Without the makeup, China is China. It's a terrifyingly enormous developing economy with an authoritarian government, an unprecedented income gap, and looming water, air, and soil crises. It has corruption problems, deforestation problems, and an AIDS problem far bigger than most people would guess. Its cities are dirty, stinky, crowded, and plagued by bike theft. At the same time, however, China's a wildly dynamic and inspiring place. A world of hustle and hope, of challenges embraced and budding creativity. Living there, it felt like THE place to be, the cutting edge of the world, an intensely heady intersection of growth and poverty, a country changing daily and often for the better.

As host to the Olympics, the real, unmasked China could be lovably human in its imperfection, a place that could gain much more from a humble admission of its faults than from a demonstration of its strength.

But add the makeup, and things change. Hidden imperfections don't invite empathy; they breed distrust. And, if Fallows is right (and, according to my friends that are over there, he is), China's facepaint isn't fooling anyone.

It's simply inviting eye rolls and reinforcing suspicion about the sincerity of China's commitment to increasing transparency.

And that's if something bad doesn't happen.

Imagine a made up China. Clean sidewalks. Clean air. No traffic. No spitting.

Smiles. Hugs. Handshakes. Gold medals.

Parties. Celebrations. Karaoke.

Tourists. The Forbidden City. The Wall. Tiananmen Square.

And imagine a spontaneous protest, a patient activist emerging at an opportune moment.

Foreigners. Journalists. Cameras.

Imagine terrified 18 year old kids in big, green, oversized uniforms. Imagine their training, their orders, their education, their nationalism, their fear. Their fists or clubs or guns.

Imagine the story.

And imagine the loss of face.

Anyway, my imagination tells me that open beats closed. Nothing surprising, I guess: I always pull for things to work that way. In love, in business, and in government. For everyone. Even the CCP.

*Note: Despite an inauspicious first impression, I think Fallows is brilliantly thoughtful about China. If you get a chance, read his worried thoughts on the pre-Olympics tightening. His guesses at the reasons for it are fascinating, and, it seems to me, quite likely spot on. The Chinese propaganda machine remains a mystery, but the Fallows hypotheses are certainly worth considering.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Reluctant Writing on the Evolution of Overconsumption

On Friday afternoon, I read this Orion Magazine article, and immediately I knew that I wanted to write about it. I didn't have time to make it happen on Friday evening, but I figured I'd let it marinate overnight, read it again on Saturday morning, take some notes, and put something solid together over the weekend.

Well, it's Sunday night now, and things didn't exactly go according to plan. No shortage of marination. Plenty of re-reading. I talked about it with a bunch of different people. And I even sat down and started writing a few times. But I couldn't drag my thoughts out of my brain. Inspiration to communicate in writing just simply did not strike.

But.

I've told myself that, as much as blogging is for fun, it's also about discipline: it's about making sure to get the thoughts down. As my uncle Jamie told me that day, as we drove through the anthills and ghost gums, we'll never think again as we think right now, and every moment of thought we honestly and carefully capture will be a moment of thought we'll likely never lose, a way of thinking to which we might be able to return.

So. Despite the fact that I'd probably be smarter to sleep than write right now, here's what I can muster.

The article is called The Gospel of Consumption, and it's a rave about American insatiability. It reminds us that we work too much — in order to overproduce — in order to overconsume. It makes the argument that we've exchanged our pursuit of happiness for a pursuit of productivity and profits.

I don't think it's going to appeal to a particularly wide audience. It's an attack on profiteering industrialists, and, while the attack is probably perfectly justified, populism is not exactly an easy sell these days. Nevertheless, I like it, for it takes a shot at telling a story that I reckon ought be told more often.

The article starts by introducing a moment in American history, the moment at which "the industrial capacity for turning out goods seemed to be increasing at a pace greater than people’s sense that they needed them."

Technology had made it possible for Americans to achieve total material satisfaction by means of decreasing amounts of work.

Apparently, at that moment, American industry shifted its focus "from fulfilling basic human needs to creating new ones."

Businesses noticed that meaningful scarcity no longer existed, that they had achieved, for their customers, abundance. Markets were saturated. There wasn't room for growth. And that, for the aforementioned industrialists, was an unacceptable state of affairs.

So they went to work to change things. They held the World's Fair. They launched a public relations campaign called the "American Way." They used "advertising and other promotional devices" to increase consumer demand and, with it, industrial output.

In doing so, they shaped our culture. They marketed this country into an economy that runs on consumption based not on fulfillment of needs but rather on satisfaction of inessential desires.

And that, in my opinion, is a fascinating story, whether you're a populist, an industrialist, or any combination thereof.

The first question, of course, is whether or not it's true.

If it is, which I think it probably is, my next line of questioning gets evolutionary.

Just how important was that strategic persuasion campaign? Just how sophisticated did it have to be? Are people naturally ripe to overconsume, to hoard and waste and flaunt a bumper harvest? Or are we better than that, beings evolutionarily programmed to use every part of the buffalo?

Anyway, now that I've finally spit that out, I'm going to sleep. I'll revisit in the morning and maybe clean things up a bit. For now, though, I leave you with the dirty version.

Note: Thanks to Inspired Protagonist for introducing me to the article. If anyone doesn't know Inspired Protagonist, I recommend having at least a quick browse of the post titles. It's Seventh Generation CEO Jeffrey Hollender's blog, and, not only does it open some windows into the thinking behind what seems to be a truly thoughtful and long term focused business, but it has personality, and I appreciate that.

Cleanup (June 23): I figure I can pretty much let that lie. Not my most coherent work. But not too bad. Certainly a quick jump from the end of the story into evolutionary root causes, but I often get carried away with evolution, and I can live with that. I do wish, however, that I'd been able to do some actual weaving last night, present more of what the article said. There's a fascinating little case study in there, for example, of the Kellogg Company and the 30 hour work week. Something we should probably keep in mind. Something that might connect to Michael Pollan's
call for gardening or Google's "20-percent time" philosophy. But weave I did not, so this'll have to suffice.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Addendum to the Marketing Plan

Sitting here about to go to bed, and Wiley hits me with a little GChat:

you need to stop what you're doing and watch this

A YouTube link follows.

Gabe and Max. The return. The follow up. Responses to questions that BoingBoing sent them after watching the original Internet Thing.

As expected, it's top quality. Inspirational in fact. Inspirational to the point that I've set myself a new goal.

Someday, when I have a website that's beta tested and ready to rush out screaming into the big bad world, I'm going to get it in front of Gabe and Max, and I'm going to gather some video feedback.

Big dreams. This I realize. But, whenever I have big dreams, I remember Wayne's World and that triumphantly defiant prediction:

She will be mine. She will be mine.

Wayne wasn't messing around. And I'm pretty sure I'm not either.

It'll be a solid bunch of months before we see if I can actually pull this off. In the meantime, Gabe, Max, and I ask that you keep this in mind:

The internet is not an unlimited resource, like gasoline or fishes.

Goodnight.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Crays, Bugs, and Oil

I have a running joke going with a few people that if all things professional in my life fall apart - the startup project goes under, Acorn starts investing in tar sands oil exploration, and Bob Doss converts to fundamentalist Christianity - I'll go back to Australia and become a cray diver.

It's not clear if I'm actually a serious enough diver to spend 6 hours a day underwater, breathing through a hooka, and catching spiny lobsters with my hands, but I was once offered a ridiculously well paying gig on a cray boat out of Cooktown, so I like to believe that I'm a hot commodity up on Cape York.

Cray diving wasn't the only business opportunity that tropical northeastern Australia offered me, however.

I connected with a guy down in Cairns one time that was working with bacteria. He'd developed bugs that ate cyanide, and he was looking to let them loose on decommissioned gold mines. He wanted to swing deals with miners through which he would take responsibility for environmental cleanup in exchange for the rights to any gold he might find in the process. Apparently, when you use cyanide to suck gold out of finely ground rock, you end up not only with buckets of gold but also with big puddles of toxic deadliness all over the place. Toxic but full of leftover gold. The bacteria man wanted to bring in his bugs, put them to work on the puddles, get rid of the cyanide, and harvest the the gold.

Probably wasn't a good sign for his business that he expressed interest in bringing a then 23 year old not quite professional cray diver into the project.

Anyway, I bring all this up because of one of the first questions I asked the Aussie bacteria man. If the bugs eat cyanide, then what the heck do they poop?

I don't remember him having a satisfactory answer, but I just read an article about bacteria excrement, and I thought I'd put it into proper context before offering up the link.

The article came out over the weekend in the UK's Times Online, and it's all about bioengineering bugs that poop petrol.

It focuses on LS9, a Khosla Ventures backed startup that feeds wheatstalks and woodchips to bacteria and collects the "renewable petroleum" they excrete.

LS9 claims that their “Oil 2.0 will not only be renewable but also carbon negative – meaning that the carbon it emits will be less than that sucked from the atmosphere by the raw materials from which it is made." They claim that they're one month from putting their gas in a tank, two years from having a demo scale plant in operation, and three years from commercial scale production. And they claim that they'll be able to provide the world fuel at about 50 dollars a barrel.

Wildly ambitious, for sure, but wildly ambitious in a well intentioned kind of way. Certainly a nobler endeavor than pimping cray catching skills to commercial fishing boats.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

But There Was a Catch

I wrote about the Acorn blog last night. Tonight I present my first shot at an Acorn blog post. I'm not sure what I think of it, but maybe some of you will have some thoughts for me.

...

According to an article in the New York Times last week, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) has a tough road ahead of it. No one will take it seriously until someone else demonstrates it at commercial scale, and no one wants to be that "someone else."

While there are promising technologies in laboratories, the costs of commercial implementation are unknown, and, in the States at least, regulators aren't ready to take any chances.

Not long ago, the Appalachian Power Company applied to build a plant that would have captured 90% of its carbon and deposited it deep underground. The regulatory commission denied the application, saying that the risks to ratepayers, who would have had to bear the cost of CCS implementation through higher electricity rates, were too high. In the commission's opinion, no power company should build CCS into a commercial-scale plant because no other power company has demonstrated the technology on a commercial scale.

A classic Catch-22. No commercial scale implementation allowed until commercial scale implementation has been proven successful. The viciously circular perpetuation of a clearly suboptimal state of affairs.

Bad news for CCS for sure, but I don't think there's reason to give up hope.

The article cited one situation in which the government tried to step in and heavily subsidize the construction of a single CCS-enabled plant. As planning moved forward, the estimated cost of the project spiraled out of control, and the Department of Energy bailed. But it was a start; it showed that the government is paying attention. And, as technologies improve, maybe next time the price'll be right.

And there's always overseas. Norway's got a little something going on, and they even have an interactive interface that explains what they're doing. Worth a few clicks for sure.

We'll be keeping an eye on carbon capture and sequestration technologies. It's unclear what the future of renewables holds, so it's possible that we're going to have to rely on coal-fired electricity for quite a long time. If we do that, it's of utmost importance that we solve coal's greenhouse gas emissions problem. If Acorn can contribute to that solution by supporting great entrepreneurs looking to implement promising carbon sequestration technologies, we'll do it.

If anyone has info or thoughts or opportunities to share, we'd love to hear from you.

...

Is that a reasonable way to end it? Say we're watching. Say we're interested. Invite responses. Or should I just leave all that unsaid and figure the responses, if people have them, will come without explicit solicitation?

And what about the language? Any reason not to talk-write a post on a "professional" blog?

And CCS? Crazy situation, right? I've heard a bunch of different commentary on CCS. Heard people say it's a pipe dream technology that's 35 years out at the very least. Heard people worry about leaking, worry about toxicity underground. Heard people talk about limited time and money and attention and wonder about the opportunity cost of pursuing clean coal rather than focusing on something more long term abundant like sunlight. And, of course, I've heard that we'd be crazy not to bark up every tree we can find: cleaner coal is a lot better for the world than dirty coal, and choosing not to pursue a better world (even if it's only one that's incrementally better) is dangerous.

So, anyway, there you go. A stab at an Acorn blog post. I'm sure we'll discuss at the office a bit this coming week. If you have any ideas, tell me tell me.

Note: Tough for me to see a reference to Catch-22 and not get at least a little tangential. There are two books that taught me how much I loved to read. Jurassic Park in sixth grade and Catch-22 in ninth. Before Jurassic Park, I relied entirely on last chapters, back covers, and my imagination to survive reading assignments. Before Catch-22, I took for granted the stories I read. I figured authors just sat down and wrote wrote wrote. No planning, no thinking, no craft. Catch-22 turned me on to the open-endedness of stories. The many perspectives. The choices storytellers have. The infinite amount of space we have when we're telling stories to add more details, to set more stage, to prepare our audience for what's coming.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Personality Goes a Long Way

We're about ready to start an Acorn Energy blog. We figure John's a likable writer with some entertainingly contrarian opinions about energy and investing. We think we have a nice, diverse mix of portfolio company executives that can offer unique perspectives from the exotic frontiers of the industry. And we hope I can fill in the gaps by writing similarly to how I write here, only consistently succinctly and with a touch more focus.

We're still a little while from being ready to go, however. We need a name. We need to solidify a look and feel. We need to make sure everyone's comfortable with communication and editorial exchange. And need to figure out how to best organize the pieces and divvy the responsibilities on a team effort company blog.

Everyone's on board with the project's big focus. We want to raise questions, offer opinions, and start conversations that our readers (a group we hope will eventually consist of our investors, energy industry people, other venture investors, cleantech buffs, etc.) will find valuable. And we figure: give us a little practice and feedback, and we'll be able to do that well.

I'm still doing a bit of struggling, however, with the lack of a personality at the center of the blog. What I love about Pmarca, what I love about No Impact Man, what I love about AVC and Joel on Software and Seth's Blog and recent discovery James Fallows is that their writing is theirs and theirs alone, and their blogs, in addition to asking questions and offering info and starting conversations, give readers window after window into their distinctly individual and human minds.

Based on my experience as a reader, it seems a lot harder to showcase personality and achieve conversational intimacy on more "professional" blog or a blog that has multiple authors.

Union Square Ventures (the venture capital firm at which Fred Wilson of AVC is a partner) does it well I think. The Breakthrough Blog isn't bad at it. But there are heaps of others that I think would do a much better job of holding my attention if they focused more on the people and less on the company or topic.

As always, it's possible that I'm a statistically outlying opinion on this one. Maybe most people love the multiple perspectives thing. Maybe they don't even notice that voices change post to post.

And, maybe, hopefully, on the Acorn blog, we'll be able to introduce our readers to a whole gang of personalties, develop a whole gang of characters.

We'll certainly do the best we can. If anyone wants to help out with thoughts or advice or ideas, however, I'd much appreciate it.

Do you think we can build a multi-voiced, company-centered blog without sacrificing personality? And, if so, how do you think we should go about it?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

More Adventures in Cleantech

In keeping with the conference write up precedent that I set for myself in April when I was out in LA doing the Milken thing, I owe the blog some notes.

Yesterday's conference was called Cleantech Companies in Mainstream Markets. SJF Ventures hosted. Acorn had called and asked to participate at the last minute. We'd been denied (understandably, of course; it was bold of us to ask in the first place, ten days before the event). But we're on the lookout for new opportunities, and we're interested to see how other people define cleantech, so it was on with the suit and off to Wall St. for me.

There were eight total presentations: a keynote speech, three pitches* from companies doing work that connects to the energy industry, and four more from companies without the energy connection.

I turned my choice Milken notes into questions, so I'll do the same here, in no particular order:

-Kevin Skillern of GE Energy Financial Services, the keynote speaker, told us that there have been three nuclear energy related VC deals done in the past nine months. I'm curious as to what they might have been. Obviously not plant development. Software maybe? Something related to design and simulation? Remote monitoring and maintenance tools to prevent breakdowns or accidents? What vision do those VCs have for nuclear going forward? In what ways do they think the startups they're funding will contribute? I posed the short version of this question on Twitter, and I got this reply from @joeyheadset: "Related to nuclear energy"? That usually means Mutants. Or Zombies. Perhaps Zombie Mutants. Thank you Joey.

-ReCellular refurbishes discarded cell phones. They tell us they landfill nothing. If they can't refurbish a phone themselves, they either break it into component parts and send it to recyclers, or they send it to other refurbishers with different expertise or in locations closer to target markets. I worry about those other refurbishers. What do they do when they can't refurbish or can't refurbish with little enough work to make it profitable (it only takes ReCellular an average of 20 minutes to refurbish a phone, which kind of blows my mind)? I fear that a lot of those toxic phones end up in Chinese landfills. But I don't know: maybe ReCellular watches closely and sends only the phones that they know are refurbishABLE overseas.

-Should packaging be a part of the industrial or the biological metabolism? Should we manufacture it and recycle it or grow it and compost it? According to Allen King from Excellent Packaging & Supply, the cup and cutlery manufacturers with which he's working source all of their bio-feedstocks locally from non-industrial farms. However (provided that I took these notes properly), his manufacturers account for only 3% of eco-friendly food services disposables, and eco-friendly food services disposables make up only 3% of the greater food services disposables industry. That's a lot of room for growth and a lot of need for corn and potatoes and soy. Is it reasonable to imagine a future in which we can grow all that sustainably? Grow it without chopping down forests or blowing out soils or messing with developing world food supplies? Or might we be smarter long term to focus on cradle to cradle recyclability and leave the farmland to food production?

-Will uranium supply constrain nuclear energy development? If so, how soon?

-Brammo Motorsports CEO Craig Bramscher gave a solid presentation. The bikes look beautiful in the pictures. And Brammo gets big points from me for taking steps toward building an interactive, customer-focused website. But are cities really ready for plug in motorcycles with 80 lb. batteries? I'm impressed with the number of neophyte bikers that have signed up for test drives, and I'd love to take one too, but inadequate infrastructure is a massive barrier standing between test drive and buy. How are we going to fix that? Plug-ins are coming. I wouldn't want them to die for lack of plugs.

-Lamina's Frank Shinneman is a true LED evangelist, and he tells a good story. He gives off a pretty heavy anti-CFL vibe, however, and, maybe I'm crazy to feel this way, but his negativity toward CFLs made me less compelled by the rest of his presentation. Are CFLs really such a huge problem? Haven't they done a good thing by replacing lots of incandescent bulbs? Shouldn't they get some credit for that? And are they really even a threat to LEDs? Must the two be mutually exclusive? Must they be competitors? Frank sounded ready to start a Coke vs. Pepsi war, and I will only support a war like that if it promises to achieve a Coke vs. Pepsi level of silliness.

*Note: Not sure "pitch" is the appropriate word here, but there definitely was a salesy feel to things. Not in a bad way, of course: I was happy to hear the reasons the companies thought they were great businesses. It was a little surprising, though. Then again, a VC firm did throw the party, and they did invite fundraising startups to give the presentations. Publicly traded Acorn would have been a funny juxtaposition. Next year maybe.

Also note: Majora Carter was in the audience. I chased her down after the presentations ended, told her I was a big fan, and she was, as expected, warm and friendly and thoughtful and engaging. Absolute pleasure to meet her.

And, finally: Here's are links to all the participating companies, complete with feeble (and, potentially, inaccurate) attempts to explain what they do in as few words as possible:

Brammo Motorsports: vehicles as consumer electronics
FoodLogiq: redesigning the food distribution infrastructure to include
small, local producers
Excellent Packaging and Supply: distribution of bio-based packaging
ReCellular: collecting, refurbishing, and redeploying mobile phones
Lamina Lighting: all things LED
OwnEnergy: locally owned wind power
Sencera: affordable thin film photovoltaics

Monday, June 9, 2008

Books? Books!

I used to be really good about reading books. The air pollution in Beijing was oppressive. I accepted the questionable assumption that indoor air was way cleaner than outdoor air. And the constant basketball in my life made knee maintenance imperative. So I rode a stationary bike. 45 minutes a day. Five days a week. For close to four years.

The books got sweaty, but I flew through them, and I loved it.

Back in the States, however, I'm embarrassingly out of the groove.

I read my feeds. I read handwritten Bob Doss stories. I'll wake up tomorrow morning and re-read this to make sure posting it wasn't a mistake. But I've been totally slack when it comes to books.

I've been back for more than six months, and, unless I'm forgetting something, the only books I've read have been The Moral Animal by Robert Wright and Six Degrees by Duncan J. Watts. Both were enjoyable for sure, but both are science books: books rich in ideas, not so much literary inspiration.

And, given what feels to me like a ridiculous amount of writing that I've been doing since this blog kicked off in January, some literary inspiration would probably do me good. A little Ken Kesey maybe. Some James Baldwin. Hunter S. Thompson. Kurt Vonnegut.

But, nope, I have the luxury of clean air and beautiful outdoor running, and, apparently, I can't be bothered with books.

Luckily, however, my friends don't let me forget what I'm missing. They send me emails like this one, a reminder to watch the Mark Bittman TED Talk:

it repeats a lot of what is said in in defense of food by your boyfriend michael pollan. same message, but faster intake. for more thoroughness and awesomeness (and rage and paranoia), read the book.

I haven't read In Defense of Food yet, but it's on the list, and I reckon it'll even inspire. Pollan's got that Jared Diamond thing going on. Science that's literature.

But first I turn to Dave Eggers, the mastermind behind Giraffes? Giraffes!, the book with the title that dwarfs all other titles. I've been hearing good things about What Is the What for a while now, and I'm finally making it happen.

The literary inspiration should be back any minute, and you should demand nothing short of Shakespearean grace from now on.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Inside Out

My sister, in addition to doing the Great Books Master's program at St. John's College, works for an education nonprofit called the Touchstones Discussion Project.

Originally designed to bring discussion-based learning into prisons (and now looking to offer discussion-based learning everywhere that'll try it), Touchstones discussions begin with a short text, a few paragraphs carved from a piece of canonical literature. The discussion leader reads the text to the group. Everyone reads again on their own. Each person asks the group a single question. The leader chooses an idea around which to start the discussion. And she opens it up to the group.

No limits. No raised hands. No out of bounds. Just freeflowing discussion.

Giuls and her colleagues are in the process of making an instructional video for future Touchstones discussion leaders. They needed some rookies to participate in a filmed discussion. She figured I'd be a troublemaking enough participant. So she invited me down.

Given last night's meeting in Baltimore with Steve, geography cooperated, and, despite some heat and a little sleepiness, I rolled into the classroom ready to go this morning.

The text they gave us was a translation (from 17th century English) a short essay by Francis Bacon called About Revenge.

The reading was fascinating. The group was fully engaged. The discussion leader led beautifully. And, while I had about five million things I wanted to say, the fact that everyone else kept blowing me away with their observations made me want to listen even more than I wanted to talk.

We talked about public vs. private revenge. We talked about punishment, about rehabilitation. We talked about the evolutionary origins of vengeful feelings, the evolutionary origins of the forgiveness instinct, and how they might affect one another. And, most excitingly for me, we talked about this (from the translation, not the original):

No person hurts another just to hurt him. Rather, it is done for his profit or his pleasure or his honor or for some other reason. Why should I, then, be angry with someone for loving himself better than he loves me? Isn't that person just like a thorn or briar that scratches me because it can't do anything else?


The Brown-educated moral relativist in me did gleeful cartwheels when I first heard the leader read that. And not just because I love moral relativism (and love it so much I think I might marry it). More so because, last Thursday, as I the kitten and I were digging through the stacks of Bob Doss texts I have piled up in my office, I came upon a few sentences Bob had transcribed, a brilliantly simple thought from Edward Atkinson, a long time colleague of Bob's:

If you knew how I felt inside, you would not act that way outside.

But, then, most likely, if I knew how you felt inside, I would not mind so much the way you act outside.

Why don't we try turning ourselves inside out?

So there it is. Empathy. Understanding. That all important WHY.

I brought it up in halfway through the discussion this morning, and the riffs it inspired were incredible. When they make the video and send it around, I'll post it up. For now, you'll have to take my word for it.

Thank you Touchstones. Good to have a day back in school.

Note: Word from Touchstones veterans is that the About Revenge text is about 100 times more amazing when taught in prisons.

Two Points for Honesty

Staying with my sister tonight in Annapolis, MD.

I got in late. We talked about food for a while and watched the Michael Pollan TED Talk.

Now it's even later. So I'll make this quick.

On my way down here, I stopped in Baltimore to see Steve, a developer that made a bid on the request for proposal I sent out a little while back.

The request netted two proposals that I'd feel very comfortable accepting, and my big goal over the next few days is to pick one and start running with it.

I rolled into Baltimore expecting Steve to give me the hard sell. We had briefly discussed the difference between his proposal and the other one, but we hadn't gone into serious detail about why his was better.

We started talking, and things spun in a totally different direction. Steve didn't sell. He heard my story, heard me tell him what I do and don't like about the two proposals. He took it in. And he thought with me.

He told me what was good about his solution. He told me what wasn't so good. He told me what was good about the other solution. He told me what wasn't so good. And, as we got deep into it, he acknowledged I should probably hire the other guys.

He said I should make sure of a few things. I should ask a few more questions I still haven't asked. I should go ahead with the supplementary interview with Big Dan Shupp (both my biggest and toughest tech advisor). But, if all goes as well as it probably will, I should give them the job.

Honesty. Transparency. Open beats closed.

Brad Burnham wrote about it the other day in a great little piece about fraternizing with the competition. Fred Wilson continued that discussion on AVC. Umair Haque writes about it all the time. And Steve just showed it to me first hand.

He could have pushed a solution on me tonight, and it would have been a good one. But, instead, he focused on the problem, and he offered thoughtful advice.

I hugely appreciate it.

If anyone needs some web development work done, let me know. I know a wizard down in Baltimore.

Note: The title comes from a Guster song from a Guster album that I think has a decidedly rock opera feel. Not particularly relevant. But, as usual, it's past my bedtime, and that's my excuse.

Update (July 2): According to the blog post I just read, Seth Godin would 100% of Steve's decision to suggest that a potential customer hire the competition. I figure it carries a little more authority coming from Seth than from me. A little.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A New Confucian Journalism

Fall semester of my senior year in college, I took a class in Confucian Ethics with a visiting professor named Henry Rosemont, and, like no other professor I'd had before or have had since, he sucked us in. By mid-semester, we were hypnotized, thrilled to have supplementary sessions in his apartment three nights a week, drinking warm beer and cheap red wine from coffee mugs with he and his wife. There were more than a few moments at which he had us thoroughly convinced that nothing short of heroic embrace and evangelical perpetuation of the worldview at the heart of the Confucian tradition would save the world from the poisonous Western obsession with instant economic gratification.

No disrespect to Professor Roth and Laozi, but it was Henry Rosemont that first got me thinking hard about a trip to China.

After spending close to four years in Beijing, however, I'm sad to say that the most noticeable vestige of Confucian society is the aspect of Chinese culture that I consider most disturbing. Children in China, good, obedient Confucians that they are, still respectfully refrain from asking their teachers why.*

That said, I still do have big love for Professor Rosemont, Confucius, and their philosophical minds, and I still stop and read whenever I notice Singapore's elder statesman, the first modern Confucian political leader, makes news.

Passed from journalism.sg to Imagethief to my friend Dan's Google Reader Shared Items to me, I offer you the latest from Lee Kuan Yew:

So when you write an article with a little sting at the end, which is not true, I claim the right of reply. You have written 5,000 words, I claim 500 words. They refused, and in that case, I will restrict you. I will not block you because you will say I'm afraid of what you said. But I will restrict you and allow the other people, the other subscribers to photostat, fax, and now scan. So now you allow me the right of reply, I get the right of reply, the writer who puts in all these poison barbs no longer appears so smart. You can twist my arm, I'll wring your neck.


Hmmm. Right of reply. For the government. Sounds suspiciously like the propaganda machine wants the last word.

But I wonder if it has to be that way. I wonder if a right of reply like that could be a step in a good direction.

I like the idea of giving a writer's audience the opportunity to stamp its thoughts right there on the published work. Like comments on a blog, right? If I write something stupid or wrong or offensive on here, you can step in and dispute or correct me, and you can do it right there ON the article, right there for everyone to see.

Giving a semi-authoritarian government the ONLY right of reply is obviously problematic. The goal of the published response model is discourse. It's recognition of disagreements. It's quick paths to common ground. It's accountability. It's openness. It's digging past the surface level. And, no question about it, Lee Kuan Yew's proposal is more likely to lead to to greater conservatism on editorial boards than any of that.

But you never know. I reckon give it a try. See what happens. Maybe Singapore will hire Professor Rosemont to write its responses.

*Note: I'm clearly not adhering to best blogging (or conversational) practices here by dropping this in here and just leaving it hanging, but I'm going to have to get into it another time. If anyone emails or comments about it, however, that'll definitely spur me to write more about it soon.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Ad and the First Impression

My friends at Wokai recently recommended that I start reading James Fallows. They sent me a link to his blog, mentioned that they'd just posted about an article he'd written, and told me I ought to drop him into my Google Reader and keep an eye on what he writes.

When I clicked on the blog link, the first thing I saw was an Exxon Mobil video advertisement telling me that "the world has two real large challenges right now." We need energy to power economies to improve standards of living, and we need to be able to do that without destroying the planet. Trust Exxon Mobil, the ad suggested, Exxon Mobil has it all under control.

Every one of my alarm bells sounded. I was instantly suspicious, instantly suspicious of James Fallows. I figured the man must be on the payroll. Clearly, only a dyed in the wool PR mouthpiece would run an Exxon Mobil propaganda video on his blog.

A big reason for my reaction, of course, is that I'm afraid of Exxon Mobil. Al Gore singled them out when explaining the next generation of the strategic persuasion campaign. He said they had funded 40 front groups the expressed purpose of which was to "position global warming as theory rather than fact,” and that strikes me as desperately greedy behavior. Maybe I shouldn't be listening so much to liberals and godless tax-raisers, but I can't seem to help myself.*

Anyway, regardless of the validity of my reasons, the ad freaked me out, and it gave me a knee-jerk negative impression of James Fallows.

It turns out, of course, that James Fallows is something of an innocent bystander (and an enjoyable and insightful writer about China and American politics). That ad and others from Exxon Mobil are everywhere on Atlantic Monthly's site, so, unless you want to hold the syndicated blogger responsible for failing to quit or stage protests when his means of syndication entered into a questionable relationship with a questionable oil company, probably better to hate on Atlantic Monthly than Fallows.

But there is definitely a lesson to be learned here. For Fallows. For Atlantic Monthly. For all of us.

Be careful with advertising.

First impressions are so big and important. If someone comes to you for information (to your blog, your magazine, your brand comparison website, wherever), and the first thing she sees is a vague, greenwashy advertisement for Exxon Mobil, there's a legitimate possibility that she's going to look elsewhere for that information.

In Fallows' (Fallows's?) case, he almost lost me, and I'm someone with a startup project the future survival of which very well might depend on my ability to bring in some kind of ad revenue.

The whole episode has given me pause for sure: it's the first time I've ever had such a strong reaction to an online advertisement, and I don't want to take it lightly, so I figured I'd write and think and make some observations. For one thing, my reaction reinforces my desire not to mess with monetization until I can do it on my terms, on terms acceptable to my user community. And, as is customary in situations like this, it has me wondering about the power of full disclosure, the power of radical transparency.

Fallows could stage a protest against Atlantic Monthly's ad sales department, and maybe that would keep the Exxon Mobil ad off his blog. Instead, however, he could write an article about Exxon Mobil, their marketing efforts, their relationship to Atlantic Monthly, and the fact they have a prominent presence on his blog. He could post a link to that article right next to the ad. And maybe, just maybe, he could win back some of those first impression skeptics, pull them into his blog conversation, and have the ad's presence actually GAIN him credibility by making everyone think.

Hmmm. I'm probably diving a little too deep into the hypothetical here. But what can you do. It happens sometimes.

What do you think, James Fallows? Want to give it a try?

*Note: It seems to me that Exxon Mobil has a lot of compelling short term economic incentive to propagate lies, and it seems to me that the people running the Exxon Mobil show have a lot of compelling long term psychological incentive to believe those lies. But I guess that'll have to be another discussion for another day. This post has spun off crazy enough as it is. No need to send another thought thread jumping into the tangle.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Shiny Object

I got a great email from a reader today. He's a good friend of a good friend, and we've corresponded about the blog and the startup project before, but he took it to another level today. He convinced me that he'd do us all a service by starting a little unaccredited journalism project of his own.

He was eating dinner with some marketing people, and the conversation drifted toward social media and its marketing implications. He was the non marketing guy at the table, so he was tentative at first, but, after a while, he got right into it.

He brought up this blog. He explained its role as a companion to a startup project. And, the next thing he knew, everyone was discussing its potential as a marketing tool.

Apparently, he thoroughly surprised himself:

I hadn't thought about your writing and your blog itself in a marketing context before, which I guess is due to the fact that I've always thought that the internet is only for porn, copyright violations, and fantasy baseball.

But there is a marketing context to explore. I certainly can't say the blog's primary purpose is marketing. I write because I want to write. I write because I like the discipline. I write to organize my thoughts. I write in order to give the people that are emotionally close to the startup project but geographically far from me a window into my brain and opportunities to yank me back on track. But I also write because I want to have a donut shop: I want to attract strangers to my startup-related ideas, make friends with them, and, hopefully, eventually, turn them into beta users.

No question that the internet is primarily for porn, copyright violations, and fantasy baseball. Because it does those things so well, however, and because there's no one I know that doesn't love at least one of those things, the internet is full of people.

Those people have ideas. They have opinions. And, if I can swing the right shiny object in their peripheral vision, catch their attention, entertain them a little bit, and tell them I'm interested in hearing what they have to say, I think some of them will be happy to share.