Monday, March 31, 2008

Nationalism and Chinese DNA

Here's an incomplete and tentative idea that could, were there a truly significant number of people reading this blog, put me in less than good standing with the Chinese government.

Much like the companies about which Umair Haque is worried, China the country (however you define it: the people, the government, the communities, the vaguely unifying culture) has a DNA problem.

Again, this, like most of my thoughts on China, is tentative, but here are the beginnings of what I'm thinking...

We have riots in Tibet. The glory of the Beijing Olympics are in danger. The Dalai Lama is freaking out. The Chinese government is being obnoxious, imperialist, racist, whatever you want to call it. A dominant, "civilized" society is clashing with an ultimately defenseless and outnumbered indigenous culture. And, of course, it's horribly tragic.

And the tragedy, in my opinion, goes far beyond the beatings and imprisonments. It's a tragedy of a poisoned culture.

In a New York Times article today, there's a woman named Meng Huizhong. She's a 52 year old office worker in Beijing, a main stream member of China's urban middle class and a woman whose political opinions are dangerously extreme. She hates the rioting Tibetans for their lack of appreciation for all that China has done for them, and she's disappointed in the Chinese military for failing to execute them all.

Ms. Meng is a very real part of China. She's the kind of person I met often in Beijing, the kind of person that made every day I spent in that city an adventure. She is someone with whom I would work or study or simply talk, someone with whom I could easily connect, and then, somehow, someone that would suddenly drop something totally radical into the conversation.

I'd hear what she said; I wouldn't know how to respond; and the connection would break. Her unselfconscious, hypnotized love for China would push me out of her world. We would become two species almost, creatures of different DNA.

That nationalism is often a huge part of being Chinese. It's totally normal. Ask someone in Beijing if he'd support an invasion of Taiwan tomorrow. He'd tell you yes in a heartbeat. It's scary, but it's real; it's widespread; and it's powerful.

Look at the Tibet situation. Look at Han Chinese reactions. Look at Ms. Meng. Blindness. Anger. Hatred. Inhumanity.

But Ms. Meng is human, and our hypothetical Taiwan invader is human. They connect as well as anyone else. They think similarly. They act similarly. They respond to the same inputs and incentives. But they've adjusted to a different world, evolved tiny differences in their DNA. They are resourceful people coping with the strange realities of the societal conditions under which they live. And those conditions, those constraints, those fleeting and nebulous components of the thought environment in which they've been soaking all their lives, have and produce DNA that, to me, seems bad.

So there you go. That's my rave for the moment. Maybe DNA's the wrong metaphor. Maybe it's my non-nationalistic DNA that's bad. Or maybe it's just time for me to go to sleep and think about this some more tomorrow.

Note: Find a possible cure for bad DNA here and a possible cure for nationalism here. Thurman should be pretty self-explanatory. Abani might be a little trickier. Listen for this line, though, and see where it takes you: "The cause of all our trouble is the belief in an essential pure identity: religious, ethnic, historical, ideological."

Update (Apr 1): Emily Parker at the Wall Street Journal isn't as distraught over Chinese nationalism as I am, but she does know it's a worry.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Stories and Savings

I've been slack over the past few days. Phone calls and meetings by day. Socializing and evangelizing by night. Too much talking; not enough reading; not enough writing.

My theory is that I need to bring literature back into my life. Books make me want to write and write better, and all this interaction with the outside world is making me unacceptably negligent in the book reading department.

Regardless of reasons or excuses, however, I have to make my third post of the week. I can't live with two posts. And I definitely can't live with two posts when one got political. Totally unacceptable.

So I'll tell you about a story. Not tell a story. Tell about a story.

Last Friday, Charlie Szoradi stopped by the office to talk about websites. Charlie is the founder of GreenandSave.com, an online resource for people looking to build and remodel homes in environmentally friendly ways. He was in Wilmington setting up for the Delaware Great Green Expo. And, having heard about me from Paul and Doug, the guys that grilled me on the radio in February, Charlie came in to see the demo and talk about vision and plans and potential collaboration.

It was a great. I was all fired up: waving arms, jumping around, and raving like a madman. And Charlie had lots of questions and lots of ideas. My brain was whirring, and that's always fun.

So much fun, in fact, that I went to the Expo on Saturday to see him give his presentation.

I got a feel for Charlie and Green and Save on Friday, and the impression he and his project left was a very good one, but it wasn't until I heard him tell his story on Saturday that the real excitement hit me.

Green and Save was born of a story. The way Charlie puts it, the site came about as a result of nearly four years of highly detailed and well documented research. It's an attempt to share everything he and his wife learned while managing a hugely ambitious remodeling project. They had bought a house outside Philadelphia, and their goal was (and still is) to turn it into a main stream suburban living structure that functions in as much harmony with its natural environment as possible.

The Szoradis aren't the only people to have attempted such a feat. They aren't the only people to have succeeded beyond expectations. And Green and Save isn't the only site on which homeowners or builders can find tips and tricks and referrals and advice. In my opinion, however, it has the potential to do great things.

Green and Save disseminates anecdotal discoveries: at its core, it is a personal story and the lessons learned therefrom. The story is compelling. The lessons are useful. And the site stays sane and broadly relevant by relentlessly reminding people that there are wonderful, impactful environmental things we can do that will save us money. The model makes sense.

The site hasn't been online for long, however, and, in my opinion, it needs work. The advertising is distracting and maybe non sequitor. There's way too much going on on the front page. There aren't intuitive ways for users to interact with the information. And the story itself only really crystallized for me when I heard Charlie tell it in person. The genius is there, but it hasn't quite emerged.

It can. It should. And I hope it will.

I love Charlie's story. I love that he's using a website to tell it. I'm excited to go up and see the house in person. I'm excited to present my argument for pushing the site in a more interactive direction. And I'm excited to talk more about potential collaboration.

More to come soon I hope.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Depoliticizing Climate Change

The Breakthrough Blog told me about this post in Framing Science.

Matthew Nisbet, author of Framing Science, is a professor whose research focuses on "the intersections between science, media, and politics." Listen to Nisbet here and, read about the blog here. Definitely worth a few minutes.

The post that Breakthrough mentions is worth a read as well.

Professor Nisbet thinks Al Gore should "stay out of election politics in 2008." Nisbet suggests that Al work, instead, to "raise the profile of climate change in a non-partisan way." Like it or not, climate change is a partisan issue, and Nisbet believes that Al Gore has contributed to that partisanship by failing to distance himself from the Democratic Party.

Apparently I've been living in a cave for the past three years, for I was under the impression that making a hit movie, developing a sense of humor, and winning a Nobel Peace Prize would be enough to earn Al Gore broad based approval ratings in his home country. According to the polls, however, that's simply not the case. Al has been preaching to the choir, not recruiting new harmony. He has strengthened the conviction of those of us already concerned about climate change, and it looks like he has also strengthened the conviction of those that doubt the science.

I'm surprised, but I can't argue with the numbers. Obviously something is wrong with Al's message. If that something is the fact that people continue to see him as a Democratic Party leader, then I'm with Nisbet, and it's time for Al to ditch the Party.

It would be a bold move for Al Gore to go totally apolitical. Whether Republicans acknowledge it or not, however, the less political Al Gore has been a much more inspiring Al Gore. And I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that breaking his remaining political shackles will further fuel his passion and take him to yet another level of effectiveness.

This statement is the product, no doubt, of my suspicions regarding the competence and honesty of governments in general, but I think Al Gore has had a more meaningful impact on the world from the private sector over the past 8 years than he could have had from the White House. Granted, a Gore victory in 2000 would have spared us the current administration, and that would have been nice, but I like what Al has been doing.

Generation Investment Management looks to me to be a world leader in its commitment to non-speculative, long term market investing. And, last I heard, Al is far more than just another celebrity VC Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Part of me would love Al Gore to come out tomorrow and tip the Democratic nomination in Obama's favor. But, now, after reading what Professor Nisbet has to say, I'm thinking hard about partisanship. And that makes me think hard about government mediocrity and the power of the private sector and the importance of investing in the best businesses and the cleanest technologies.

And I'm wondering what's more important: securing an Obama nomination or depoliticizing Al Gore.

Maybe I've drifted too deep into the realm of assumption with this little exercise. Maybe neither the nomination nor the depoliticization are important. Maybe an Al Gore endorsement wouldn't push Obama over the edge. Maybe it's impossible to depoliticize a former Senator, VP, and presidential candidate. Maybe Al's work over the past few years isn't as impressive as it appears. And maybe Republicans simply will never respond to climate change. Ever. No matter what.

Regardless, Nisbet's got me excited about the possibility of a depoliticized climate change conversation, and I think Al ought to listen to the Professor:

Wait until the nomination is settled, and then work during the general election in a bi-partisan way to raise the profile of climate change as a campaign issue that all Americans should be equally concerned about.

If Obama's as smart as he looks, he'll understand.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Why I'm Crashing the Conference Next Time

Wiley went to PyCon 2008 in Chicago weekend before last, and, after a couple of days out there, he sent me this email:

OK dude, so I managed to pitch and debate your website to a group of six incredibly smart and well connected programmers. I passed out your urls on paper to all six of them and tried to get them interested in writing in to you. I almost want you to come out here and crash the conference, but it's pretty much too late for that. This is definitely, definitely a place that you would have wanted to be though. I'm serious, next year come to PyCon.

Crash the conference? Incredibly smart and well connected programmers? Hmmm.

But wait. What did he mean by "debated?" Were they discussing the relative merits of different frameworks and programming languages? Were they telling Wiley what tricks they'd use if they were building the site themselves? Or were they rolling their eyes at the project and leaving Wiley to flail, heavily outnumbered, in my defense?

I emailed back:

Wow. Crazy. I def need to hear more.

And I guess the big question is simple: Can we hang with these guys, or are we pretending (and I don't mean in sheer technical knowledge; I mean in ability to make a meaningfully positive contribution to a successful technical business)?

It's weird not having had startup success. Sometimes I wonder if it'll ever happen. Other times I know it WILL happen; I just don't know when.

Know what I mean? Confidence doubt fluctuations?

Wiley related to the fluctuations, but he's not worried. Of course we can make meaningful contributions. The conversations with the programmers were totally constructive. They dug the idea. They had their questions and suspicions, but they want to play with the site. They want to use it.

Wiley's email ended with the following:

Bottom line is what we both know. If you're making websites, the more tech you know the better. Short of that, the more technical people you know the better. Your proximity to contemporary technical knowledge has a major relationship to your probability of success or failure. Proceed accordingly.

And I think we have been proceeding that way for a while.

A combination of nights, weekends, and a thesis project produced our functional prototype site. We've assembled what I think is already a great group of technical friends and advisors to help with hiring and strategic decisions. And now we're figuring out who's available to sit down and do the next big build.

We might convert a friend or advisor into a primary programmer. We might tap a little US-based development shop we know. We might go back to our China roots. We might do something totally crazy involving Vietnam. We probably won't try to convince Wiley he's ready for the programming big time (metaphorME is far too important a project to interrupt), but we're open to anything and excited to keep rolling forward.

Confidence and doubt will surely continue to fluctuate, and I'm sure things will drag on longer than expected sometimes, but we're on a good path, and, once again, I have the reassuring feeling that this has been, is, and will be a good gamble.

The first and most obvious reason for the optimism right now is that the vision is only getting more powerful. We need an economy based on educated, intentional choice. Capitalism is straight up unsustainable (in the pre-eco sense of the word) when markets are ignorant. We need to learn. We need to teach. We need to enlighten each other. Fancy laws and fancy technology simply aren't going to have meaningful lot of long term impact unless a whole lot of people start actively and mindfully participating in the market economy.

The other, significantly more esoteric, reason for the optimism is something I didn't realize until earlier this year when my granny died and my family responded with more love and trust and generosity than I thought possible. Seeing and feeling that led me to focus in on a totally far out little lesson I started learning when I first watched the original British version of The Office.

There is but a hair's breadth of sanity that separates us from those characters. We are all 100% capable of acting at least as outrageous as Gareth Keenan. And we do act that ridiculous. We all do. A lot of the time.

Those same tiny little human minds of ours, however, not only dreamt up but also produced the masterpiece that is that show, a rewindable version of that reality. As totally incompetent as we are, our imaginations, our eyes, our hands, and our ability to communicate and organize let us create miraculous and mind boggling things. We created the computer screens in front of us, the electron distribution system that's powering them, and, of course, those wonderful internets that make it all so much more fun.

I think each and every one of us are simultaneously David Brent and Ricky Gervais. We should doubt ourselves, but we should also keep in mind that the genius is there, that we can and will, if we want to, contribute to big, spectacular achievement.

Ok. Enough. I'll leave you with one last quote from a recent Wiley email:

Seen on a T-shirt at PyCon 2008:

"Guns don't kill people, magic missiles do."

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Wind, Branding, and The Year of Steelcase Furniture

I don't know how I missed this last Tuesday when it hit newsstands, but word from The New York Times is that corporations can now buy naming rights for wind farms.

Hunter S. Thompson's
reaction, no doubt, would be to get naked, check to make sure the shotgun was loaded, drag a recliner out onto the porch, pour a tall glass of something strong, and smile at the colors of the dawning apocalypse. That'd be his reaction had he read Infinite Jest, anyway. For those of you that haven't read it, it's a monster of a David Foster Wallace novel. It deals with family, intensely competitive high school tennis, drug addiction and rehab, Quebecois separatism, and the psychology of entertainment. It takes place in a future North America in which numeric years have been abandoned in favor of The Year of the Whopper, The Year of the Adult Depend Undergarment, The Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken, etc. And it's a great book: Wallace's unsubtle ridicule of omnipresent marketing is only one of many beautiful satirical details.

But Hunter Thompson is dead. David Foster Wallace has found what might be an even more fitting medium in unrestrained journalism. And there's more than just giggles and eye rolling to take from the article: it's a good reminder of how sustainability marketing probably shouldn't be done.

I think it's fair to assume that Steelcase Furniture, the company mentioned in the article, bought the naming rights of the wind farm in order to more closely associate themselves with renewable energy. A company might buy stadium naming rights to subliminally bombard people with a brand, but I can't really imagine a wind farm achieving the heavily visited, newsworthy destination status of a ballpark.

It's great that Steelcase was willing to prepay for all of the renewable energy credits the wind farm will generate. It's great that they see that consumers care. And it's great that they are publicizing the fact that companies can make a commitment to renewable power right now.

Paying to associate a name with a wind farm strikes me, however, as the kind of old-style, non-innovative marketing move that both Umair Haque and Do The Right Thing founder Ryan Mickle would ridicule. It's not business-customer interaction. It's not openness. It's not marketing by listening. It's just pasting a name out there and hoping for positive brand association.

My impression is that Steelcase is already a pretty seriously leaderly company with regard to sustainability. If they chose to spend their marketing money NOT on naming rights but rather on educating us about what they're doing and asking us for thoughts and feedback, I think they would take their leaderliness to another level.

...

This is something of an aside, but another reason the article caught my attention is that the research I'm doing for Acorn Energy right now involves wind power and its relationship to energy infrastructure.

Acorn is all about efficiency, all about infrastructure, all about the grid. We invest on the non-sexy side of cleantech. We clean coal wastes, both solid and gas. We lay demand response software on the grid. We help cities escape electricity monopolies and purchase power portfolios with which its citizens are comfortable.

Wind is particularly interesting to us at the moment because it's becoming clearer and clearer that it "needs a dance partner," that wind's ability to get seriously economical and thus seriously scalable depends on our (the all-encompassing "our") ability to deliver well designed and well implemented infrastructure upgrades.

More to come on this topic for sure. Lots to learn. Totally fascinating.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

More Perfect

My sister came to two conclusions after watching Obama's More Perfect Union speech yesterday.

One, she thinks our kids and their kids are going to be writing term papers on the speech someday. And, two, she thinks we should name the startup More Perfect Market.

"If he can use the words more perfect, you can."

She's not alone. Ever since I started blogging, More Perfect Market has been quietly gaining support.

Part of me really wants to keep the blog and the website separate. I feel like I'll have more writing range if I do it that way. I feel like it'll be easier to write about my grandmother or my other lives if the blog's affiliation remains unofficial. But, if people are calling for More Perfect Market, I should probably give them what they want.

I do think the name More Perfect Market works. I like dropping a huge and philosophically controversial word like "perfect" and keeping it safely qualified. I think More Perfect Market plays nicely with the subtitle we've been using with Productipedia since last summer--More Perfect Market: buy for good. And I love that it invokes the Founding Fathers. For all their faults, I'm a sucker for Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. I dig their willingness to write and write and write and engage the country in the ideological details behind the government they were designing. Calling that transparency might be a little over the top, but the fact that decisionmakers published detailed arguments for the ratification of the Constitution in newspapers is definitely noteworthy for its openness.

And we do need a more perfect market.

Bill McDonough says he uses the tools of commerce because they are fundamentally honest: "we can't exchange value for very long if we don't trust each other."

I agree in principle, and I fully support the business that MBDC is doing, but I think we should keep in mind just how much bad value commerce continues to exchange. We pay businesses for the goods and services we want. We get our shoes, our fuel, our food, our toilet paper, but we also get greenhouse gases, exploitation of desperate communities, and lobbying for regulation that produces short term prosperity at the expense of everyone's long term future. The money we spend does much more than just turn water and flour into bread or squeeze the juice out of an orange. There are side effects, positive and negative, and those side effects don't affect our markets in proportion to their impacts on our world and on our lives. Markets can be honest, but today's level of honesty is simply not honest enough.

Buyers need to understand what they're getting in exchange for their dollars, the good and the bad, the short term important and the long term important. Buyers need to understand that they have choices. And buyers need to buy (or choose not to buy) accordingly.

I hope both the website and the blog, whatever they're called, can help stimulate that kind of demand side behavior.

We're not going to make anything perfect by getting people to think and learn and discuss before they buy, but it will be a step in the right direction, a step toward something a little more perfect.

Note: If anyone wants to weigh in on the More Perfect Market name or blog and business separation, no decisions have been made, and I'd love to hear what everyone has to say.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Telling the Truth

I read an article about the persistence of fiction in the New York Times Magazine yesterday, and I've been thinking about strategic persuasion ever since.

In 2004, Andy Martin, a loose cannon Illinois Republican, "exposed" Barack Obama as a Muslim. Despite news organizations' and fact checkers' efforts to make it clear that Martin's claim was unfounded, almost four years later, the rumors persist.

Farhad Manjoo, the article's author, writes:

Journalists typically presume that facts matter: show the public what is true, and they will make decisions correctly. Psychologists who study how we separate truth from fiction, however, have demonstrated that the process is not so simple.


We hear stories, and we remember them. When we hear them over and over again, we remember them more vividly, and they feel increasingly real. In determining a story's veracity, we often rely on relative sense of familiarity: the more familiar, the more likely to be true.

We have a predictable psychological vulnerability to strategic persuasion. Scary.

And extra scary for those of us laying a foundation on which to build an open source research project.

We are aggregating expert opinions and collecting user opinions and hopefully figuring out which companies do business most humanely and sustainably. We are susceptible to all kinds of falsehood. Our decision to focus on the positive, to gather gold stars rather than black marks, makes us susceptible to greenwash. Our decision to engage the greenest and most activist people we know in early user testing and design makes us susceptible to exaggerated accounts of psychopathic corporate behavior. And our openness to user opinions makes us susceptible to false rumor perpetuation, mistakes, and infiltration from both pro- and anti-business interests.

I don't think we have a choice, though. We have to invite our users to participate. We have to include even the most radical of the activists. We have to engage the companies. In my opinion, drawing from all corners of the collective wisdom is the only way to go.

But, if we believe the article, how do we do that? How do we invite all information, true and false, and expect not to perpetuate the false just as much as the true?

We can certainly start by shooting for the Wikipedia solution and trying to harness the size of a community to keep things accurate. As much abuse as Wikipedia takes for its imperfections, the fact that so many millions of people are on the site everyday is an impressively effective check against inaccuracy. Impactful falsehoods simply don't last. Committed users feed info to moderators, and moderators swoop in and clean up messes.

But isn't it a problem that people see the falseness at all? Didn't the NYT Magazine article just teach us that?

It did. But it also might have taught us how to strategically persuade for the truth.

Nicholas DiFonzo, a psychologist at the Rochester Institute of Technology, gives Obama high marks on his handling of the Muslim rumor, particularly a refutation Obama offered during an interview late in January with the Christian Broadcasting Network. Obama offered a clear, point-by-point rebuttal to every argument in the chain e-mail, and he provided an important alternative story — "dirty tricks."

The alternative story. If fiction has power, why can't fact have it too?

Maybe this is all about storytelling. Maybe fiction has been more compelling than fact because it is, by nature, more creative. Maybe it's better crafted and thus a better story.

And maybe that's the key for all of us. Barack Obama. Al Gore. Participant Productions. Dave Eggers. Chris Abani. Hunter S. Thompson. Everyone. Tell the story well. Enlighten creatively.

All I have to do now is figure out how to build that into a user community culture...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Creation and Capture

I once asked an experienced Silicon Valley angel investor/board member/management advisor how I should answer the how do you plan to make money question.

He told me to respond in three parts:

1. We are not going to focus right away on making money. We are going to focus on creating value for our users: giving them something they love.

2. We're also going to focus on growing our community. While the value we create will be what keeps people coming back to the site, we need to introduce people to our service and get them hooked, and we need to do that effectively and inexpensively (this is something for which we have some plans, but it's certainly something on which we're still looking for advice; I'll make it a post of its own someday).

3. If we pull together a community of users, engage it, and enable its growth, then we will be building an asset. We will find ways to capture the monetary value of that asset, but we will monetize only if the monetizing itself adds to the value we provide to our community.

My friend in Silicon Valley said that we should be committed to building a business, but we should be far more committed to the project's social and environmental mission.

I've posted about community and business models before in reference to Loic le Meur and Seesmic, but, this past Friday, Umair Haque brought it up and got forceful.

When you try and "monetize your users", you accept the almost obscene assumption that people are meant to be pimped out, sold to the highest bidder, resources to be slashed, burned, and exploited.

We'll keep talking about business model possibilities. And we'll keep discussing boring old money making tools like commission sales and advertising. But Umair is right: "when we figure out how to capture value, we must do it in a way that doesn't destroy any value we create."

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Beyond (But Including) Microfinance

In this week's New Yorker, there's a feisty little article about microfinance and what it doesn't accomplish.

As chic as microfinance is, says James Surowiecki, its big picture economic impact is small. "Microloans make poor borrowers better off. But, on their own, they often don't do much to make poor countries richer."

Microfinance smooths incomes, and that's important. It eliminates a lot of desperation, and it frees up cash that poor families can spend on education and healthcare. By itself, however, it doesn't create economic development.

Microfinance implicitly assumes that everyone can and should be entrepreneurs. The history of economic development disagrees. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), not tiny sole proprietorships, are the kinds of businesses that separate developed from developing economies. While close to two thirds of American citizens work for SMEs, almost no one in the developing world does. Microfinance alone does not affect that imbalance. It doesn't fill the "missing middle."

What might fill it, reckons Mr. Surowiecki, is small scale equity investing. Microfinance alleviates poverty. Eliminating it is a job for paycheck-providing SMEs. Google.org, the Soros Economic Development Fund, and the Omidyar Network seem to agree. And so do economists Karol Boudreaux and Tyler Cowen.

My hands on experience with microfinance, though admittedly limited, led me to a similar conclusion. Microfinance is a wonderful tool. A life of raising 12 pigs, 9 sheep, and 3 chickens is better than the life of raising 4 pigs, 6 sheep, and 2 chickens. But microfinance only gets really exciting when you stir it in with other development initiatives.

In October 2005, I transitioned from fully intense Chinese study into what quickly became fully intense microfinance work. My initial responsibilities at PlaNet Finance China were translation and grant proposal writing, but the resourceful nonprofit hustle quickly demanded more. And the crash course was amazing. Long before I came close to knowing what I was talking about, I was interpreting financial details from grassroots accounting people to visiting donors, drinking competitively with provincial party officials, and wading through the black dusty fog of coal mining country while filming a little documentary (you can watch the 13 minute film here and here; a friend put it up on YouTube, and, for some mysterious reason, split it into two pieces).

It was an opportunity for which I'm hugely grateful. It showed me that there really are two distinctly different Chinese economic cultures. One is famously ambitious and wants very badly to get rich quick. The other hides in the agricultural interior, slowly and painstakingly working to build long term sustainable microeconomies. Through my work with PlaNet Finance and their grassroots Chinese partner organizations, I had a chance to admire the beauty of that secret China.

And what I saw was so much more than just microfinance. It was participatory grassroots social work. It was educated but humble local people going into the poorest villages and engaging their neighbors in a dialogue about what their communities needed most. It was listening and negotiation. It was willingness to be flexible. It was road building, tree planting, well digging, fence running, and school renovation. And microfinance was the cherry on top.

The organizations with which PlaNet Finance worked were mostly very small and agriculturally oriented, so I didn't get an opportunity to see any SME investing or support in action, but much of what Mr. Surowieki says feels intuitively true. If the Ningxia Center for the Environment and Poverty Alleviation, the group with which I worked most closely and the champions of the participatory method as described above, had the resources, of course they would inject SMEs into their economies. It would be another tool, and they would use it.

My feeling is that all communities are going to need more than just microfinance. Maybe the ideal more is the nurturing of SMEs and the creation of jobs. I think it's probably more complicated than that, though.

I don't know, but it looks like I'm about to do a little more learning.

I spent two of my college summers working for a startup credit card company in Wilmington, DE, and an old colleague of mine has a situation on her hands. What was once their little startup is now the credit card arm of a huge global bank; she is in charge of a chunk of money that's supposed to use microfinance to fight poverty in Wilmington; what they've tried so far hasn't worked; and she's hoping I can come in and add a fresh perspective. It'll be a juggle to stay on top of everything, but there's no way I can say no to something like that.

I'll try to keep the blog updated on the progress. It's good to get a little microfinance in here finally.

...

What pushed me to write the thoughts above was a little convergence that happened over the past few days. In addition to the New Yorker article and the Wilmington microfinance proposal, I got an email from a blog reader the other day asking me if the brand comparison startup project was "a niche tool for the relatively well-off or something broader."

Fair question. How do you form a more perfect market without fighting poverty?

It's absolutely true. The project is catering to internet savvy shopping cart pushing Americans, and the website alone, even if it reaches some barely imaginable pinnacle, can only be a tiny piece of the solution. But maybe using charitable contributions from credit card companies to fight poverty in Wilmington, DE, USA is another tiny piece. And maybe as we all work on our tiny pieces, we'll find ways to stitch them together. I don't know if this is the best way of going about it, but it's what I got at the moment, so I'm going to go for it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Overcompliance

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that I wanted to write about consumer mandated excellence and government mandated compliance.

I consider Plan A's survival in the face of financial difficulty an example of consumer mandated excellence. There are no laws demanding that Marks & Spencer go carbon neutral and landfill zero waste starting in 2012, but Marks & Spencer had made a promise to its customers, and they were not willing to face the consequences of breaking that promise.

Through the work I'm doing for Acorn, I've stepped squarely into the world of government mandated compliance. We are watching with interest a particular coal effluent mercury sequestration technology, and demand for that technology will be tied quite closely to regulation decisions made by both state and federal governments in the USA. The key competitive advantage of the technology has to do with the chemical state of the mercury it sequesters. It is, apparently, not nearly as dangerous as mercury sequestered using more common activated carbon based processes. If the US government gets tough on mercury emissions and sequestered mercury storage, this new technology could do very well.

Maybe I'm leaping a bit logically here, but I see a fundamental difference between a consumer mandate and a government mandate.

A consumer mandate, if directed properly, should produce a race to the top. Imagine consumers want running shoes made from continuously recyclable plastics with biodegradable, replaceable soles. Nike makes a beautiful shoe that meets expectations: everyone flocks to Nike and buys their shoes. Adidas makes an even cooler, even greener shoe: everyone flocks to Adidas. Nike one ups Adidas. Adidas one ups back. The process continues, and we live happily ever after.

A government mandate, however, has a hard time making that happen. Without cooperation from consumers, government mandates produce races to the middle. The government makes a law about disposal of sequestered mercury. If coal plants break the law and get caught, they get fined, so they bust out their calculators, do a little addition, and change their business. Marginally. They invest in better mercury sequestration and disposal technology, raise the price of the electrons they produce to cover their investment, and forget about it until the next round of regulations comes along. The plants have no incentive to go above and beyond.

I realize that this is an outrageous oversimplification. Assuming an unobstructed path to sustainable sneakers is an exaggeration. Ignoring the power of strategic persuasion mischief (greenwash) is overoptimistic. Intentionally avoiding more complicated (and maybe more effective) government mandated market-based solutions like capping and trading is unfair. And comparing brand name shoe companies with anonymous coal fired electricity producers clearly makes no sense.*

Regardless, it's an illustration of my developing suspicions and unseasoned opinion. We simply cannot settle for races to the middle, and I'm not convinced that government can lead a race to the top. It has a role to play. We need rules and regulations. We need an end to subsidies to industries that already externalize massive costs to society (oil, corn, etc.). We need thoughtful, committed, uncorrupt leaders. But, ultimately, we need consumers to demand that companies do the right thing.

Compliance is nice, but we need overcompliance.

*Note: I was going to say something about apples and oranges, but, given my heightened awareness to metaphors, I thought it might be funny to say something instead about snails and pterodactyls. Then I realized that other people probably wouldn't be as amused as me. It still makes me laugh, though. Mostly because the word pterodactyl is funny, but also because I recently read about Paul MacCready and the fact that he once built a life size, flying, remote control pterodactyl.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Dudes, Websites, and Metaphors

Last fall, Wiley, my friend and longtime Beijing roommate, swore off romance in favor of dudes and websites. It's been an immensely productive few months.

In the heat of the LanguageCalls startup, Wiley and I both assumed responsibilities that brought into very clear focus our lack of technical expertise. We ultimately (thanks almost entirely to Wiley's tireless work) assembled a legitimately competent group of technical people, and LanguageCalls chugs on. Wiley and I both know, however, that LanguageCalls's founders would have saved everyone mountains of frustration had they leaned from the beginning on IT professionals and not on us, a couple of kids they hired because we speak good Chinese.

We're working on our own projects now, and what we saw at LanguageCalls has had a big impact on both of us. I've kept technical people intimately involved in every big startup-related decision I've made, and Wiley has set up shop in the Django framework and started teaching himself Python.

I think my project is on a sane and careful technical track, and I feel good about that. Wiley is leaps and bounds ahead of me. Aided no doubt by the aforementioned lifestyle adjustment, he has been building real live websites.

Chinabites has been his main focus, and it's a great idea with big potential. MetaphorME, however, is the project about which I'm most excited. For the U2 fans out there, if Wiley's development portfolio is The Joshua Tree and chinabites has a chance to achieve With or Without You stardom, metaphorME should fill nicely the Running to Stand Still role. A little edgy. A little lesser known. Harder to monetize. But totally awesome.

I don't remember exactly when the metaphorME concept was born, but I do remember why. I've only become consciously aware of this over the past couple of years, but metaphors are everywhere. Call a friend; watch the news; read a magazine: we are all constantly making analogies, drawing situational parallels, and creating emphasis through figurative language. Constantly. And once you tune into it, it gets intense. You see the one word verb-switch metaphors. You explore the stories behind the cliched proverbs. You arbitrate. You notice a metaphor's tiny contradictions. You find unanticipated and unintentional brilliance. You identify metaphors you like and build them bigger. And, most rewardingly, you start to collaborate.

Wiley and I are on the same page with regard to metaphors. We both appreciate their subtle ubiquitousness. We dig the poetry they create. And we crave participation in elaborate metaphorical team effort. When we first started talking about metaphorME, we envisioned it as a way to bring a huge and diverse community of metaphor makers into that collaborative creative process.

Imagine somebody somewhere needs a metaphor. She's got a situation she wants to explore, but she can only communicate about it literally, and that's just not enough.

We think the internets ought to provide a solution. She should be able to go to metaphorme.com, post her situation, brainstorm with the community, steer a bit with ratings and comments, and, hopefully, eventually, quench her thirst for figurativity.

What's live online now isn't fully functional, but the essentials are there, and it's running smoothly. Wiley invited a few of us on to play for the past couple of weeks; he has worked out the major kinks; and, as of today, he has given the rest of us his permission to invite others.

So far, not only has it been heaps of fun to make metaphors, but it's been fascinating to be a part of the very beginnings of a user community.

And with every new user we add, it's going to get better and better.

We'll get to watch the creation of personalities, the creation of trusted content providers. We'll watch comments, tagging, and interfaces as they evolve in response to collected feedback. We'll watch feedback collection itself evolve. We'll watch the rating system, see how well it pulls the cream of the user generated content to the top. And, of course, we'll watch usability and hooks and enjoyment, watch what it will be about metaphorME that brings people back for more.

Click here; create an account; and check it out.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Power Oft Forgotten

About a year ago, Marks & Spencer, the big, British department store chain, made some bold commitments. They introduced a "100-point, five-year eco-plan" called Plan A ("because there is no plan B") and announced to the world that, by 2012, they will be carbon neutral and send no waste to landfills.

This past January, they reported slipping sales numbers and dove into some significant financial trouble. Since the beginning of 2008, their share price has fallen 18%, devaluing their business by GBP 1.6 billion (USD 3.2 billion plus).

In an article written for the Harvard Business Review the other day, Sir Stuart Rose, M&S's CEO, reassured us that Plan A is not in danger. "Despite the tough consumer climate and the reaction to our sales results, we are sticking to Plan A. There are compelling commercial--as well as moral--reasons to do so."

I don't doubt that Sir Stuart and the other decision makers at M&S are morally committed to Plan A. I don't believe for a second, however, that the decision to keep Plan A was anything other than economic.

And that's good news.

It's evidence of the power we, as consumers, have. There are a lot of companies whose survival depends on whether we choose to buy their products or the almost identical products their competitors make. If one of those companies slips up and, say, breaks a promise to take a leaderly role in the creation of a sustainable future, they put themselves in danger.

M&S kept Plan A because its reputation (and thus, arguably, its very existence) now depends on Plan A.

It's important to remember that consumers have the ability to destroy companies. It's also important to remember that our power doesn't end there. Just as we can ensure failure, we can create huge success as well.

And I wonder why we didn't do that for M&S.

It's certainly possible that Plan A is in the wrong place at the wrong time: it's helpless in the face of some horrible DNA problem at M&S. Maybe customer service is terrible. Maybe product quality is declining. Maybe management's failing to inspire people to work.

It's also possible that Plan A isn't is as comprehensive or well managed as it needs to be. Maybe people are worried about its lack of focus on suppliers. Maybe people are suspicious about the fact that M&S hasn't "actually done a hard cost-benefit analysis" of Plan A. Maybe M&S's marketing people haven't communicated Plan A's impact well enough.

But maybe consumers simply haven't responded. Maybe Plan A is truly amazing, and maybe people know that, but maybe they don't really care.

That's scary. We should care. And I think somewhere deep down we do care. But it's easy to get cynical, easy to tune out the big picture, easy to feel small and helpless.

We're not helpless, though: we can wield immense constructive economic power. We just don't know it, or we easily forget it.

It's critical that we remember. Just as we can choose to withhold our support for a company when they disappoint us, we can choose to GIVE our support when we feel that it's warranted.

Notes: I reined this one in pretty far. Lots of places my mind wants to pull me. When have consumers wielded that "immense constructive economic power?" What does it mean that "somewhere deep down we do care?" How is it possible that M&S could go totally carbon neutral by 2012? Lots to think about. Lots to write.

One tangent I want to explore very soon is the difference between consumer movement mandated excellence and government mandated compliance. I want to think about overcompliance and contrast it with a government-led race to the middle. I'll shoot for Monday or Tuesday.


Also, thanks to Triple Pundit for directing me to Sir Stuart's HBR Green article.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Screenshots I Promised

Verrico Associates, to radically oversimplify, are the people you call when you spring a toxic waste leak, notice you're about to spring 175 more, and realize you're in over your head. They are a "training, consulting and auditing firm specializing in environment, health, safety, and security."

I connected to Verrico a couple of weeks ago when an old babysitter of mine talked to her brother in law, and he called his third cousin, whose veterinarian's step-sister's electrician once installed some compact fluorescent bulbs in the Verrico office.

Or something like that.

Anyway, a series of phone conversations and emails piqued mutual interest, and, on Monday afternoon, I went out to Kennett Square, PA to say hi. The Verrico folks introduced their business. I asked some questions. And then they asked me to present.

The previous conversation had me fired up. I saw that there was a projector in the room. And I figured I'd unveil the prototype.

No one has done any serious coding since early February. We've fixed bugs, changed some text, adjusted interfaces. But, to be honest, nothing has held this up but excessive perfectionism on my part. I've simply been reluctant to reach outside the inner circle.

The mood was right at Verrico, though, so I fired up the browser and walked them through the site.

It went beautifully.

Huge thanks to Jerome for leading the development of the prototype. And huge thanks to everyone else that contributed code and technical advice.

I know I just claimed that I was going to keep these posts short, but I can't resist. I have to give you the six image blog version of the demo. Comment or email for more info.

1. The front page. The name's just a placeholder, but everyone seems to dig the logo.

What do you want to buy? Toothpaste? Toilet paper? A mobile phone? A pair of basketball shoes?

2. Main stream jeans. How about a pair of jeans? Imagine you're planning on buying blue jeans tomorrow, and imagine you want to see which jeans-producing businesses are most worthy of your support.

The first thing you get is a list of main stream brands that make blue jeans, sorted by which brand of jeans get the most gold stars.

3. Gold stars. What do the gold stars mean? Why does Country Blues rank so highly?

Each gold star represents a vote of confidence from an expert, and each expert has a different philosophy about what constitutes a responsible company.

4. Non main stream jeans.
Maybe main stream brands aren't responsible enough for you. Maybe you want to see what smaller, greener, lesser known companies produce blue jeans. Or maybe you know of a non main stream jeans producer that you'd like to recommend to other users in the community.

We don't have any expert awarded gold stars outside the main stream (for now at least). We're ranking non main stream brands by aggregated user opinions instead.

5. Alternatives to jeans. Maybe even the alternative jeans don't do it for you. Maybe you need alternatives TO blue jeans.

Blue jeans isn't the best example for this. Think bottled water. Think bleach. Think gasoline.

6. Jeans wiki. For every product category, we want to see if we can get a wiki going. We figure a community of people interested in consuming more responsibly might know a thing or two about production processes. And we figure a few product category wiki pages might even grow into a wiki web of processes and materials and suppliers and companies. We'll see. Part of what we're doing is running an experiment: How much do people know? How might they want to interact? How we can help?

I'll leave it at that for now. We have a few other pages built, but the six above did the job the other night. I'll post more as we continue to push forward.

If anyone has any questions, please ask.

And if anyone's curious, here's a link to our original, pre-database, non-functional demo pages. The contrast is kind of fun. It'll be even more fun when we set some users loose on the prototype. We have a lot of work to do before we get there, but we're inching closer every day.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Releasing the Cow

My sister and I have been thinking about cows lately.

The bigger conversation started with preoccupations and distractions. It escalated once we brought Bob Thurman into the mix. And it turned to cows when Thich Nhat Hanh weighed in...

The Buddha and a group of monks were lounging around one day when a frantically wide-eyed farmer came looking for his lost cows. The monks hadn't seen the cows, so the farmer, now unhappier and even more frantic, ran off to look somewhere else. When he was gone, the Buddha turned to his monks and got metaphorical...

My dear friends, you are the happiest people in the world. You don't have any cows to lose. If you have too many cows to take care of, you will be very busy. That is why, in order to be happy, you have to learn the art of cow releasing. You release the cows one by one. In the beginning you thought that those cows were essential to your happiness, and you tried to get more and more cows. But now you realize that cows are not really conditions for your happiness; they constitute an obstacle for your happiness. That is why you are determined to release your cows.

I've developed a minor cow problem. My blog post ideas are turning into cows. I get an idea in my mind, and it slows me down a step. Until I can mold it into a post, it makes it just a little bit harder to deal with everything else.

Usually, it's not a problem: it's just work. I spend some time thinking, outlining, synthesizing. I write something down. I post it up. And I move on. The cow wanders into my mind. I pat her. I feed her some hay. And she saunters off into the distance.

I don't mean to say that the writing is easy. I am, after all, comparing it to having cows in my mind. But the cows are usually cooperative.

Over the past few days, however, I've had a lingerer on my hands. She stares at me; haystalks poke out the sides of her mouth; and, as soon as I stop paying attention to her, she moos.

It's stupid. I shouldn't be letting this happen. But I am.

I think my problem is that the cow in question is a cow I don't understand. I should understand her: she's a just a cow. But I'm blocked, and I'm only getting more confused.

So, I'm trying something different. I'm writing about cows in general (above). And I'm accepting abbreviated, unsynthesized, half-confused thoughts about the one cow that won't leave me alone (below).

A few days ago, I read a Forbes article called Capitalism 2.0. If I've understood properly, the authors, Todd Henderson and Anup Malani, have offered quite a radical little policy suggestion.

By investing in certain ways and purchasing in certain ways, we make what are essentially equivalent to charitable donations. Because they serve the same purpose as donations to nonprofits, they too should be tax deductible.

Think about socially responsible investing. About 10% of all invested assets go into SRI funds. Those funds underperform the market by an average of 3.5%. People know that, and they choose to invest anyway. In 2005, investors would have made an extra USD 84 billion had they invested traditionally rather than with a conscience. In a roundabout way, investors took USD 84 billion and "donated" it to "charity."

Now think about donations embedded in the prices of consumer goods. Fair Trade certified coffee is more expensive than unfair trade coffee. People regularly pay that premium, however. In order to ensure that farmers in the developing world are paid a fair price, consumers "donate" USD 5 for every pound they buy (Fair Trade coffee costs about USD 15 per pound, while mystery beans cost only 10).

We're donating, and we're donating a lot, but present tax code doesn't reflect our philanthropy. The article's authors think it should.

And I don't know how to react.

I love the idea of creating incentives for people to invest responsibly and buy responsibly. I love the idea of lowering the price of paying that premium. And part of me wants to congratulate Forbes and its journalists for jumping on the "creative capitalism" bandwagon.

Another part of me, however, tells me to dig in my heels and naysay. Don't trust the government with something like this. Think about lobbyists, campaign contributions, corruption, Exxon Mobil and their strategic persuasion campaigns. It simply can't work. The government is incapable of approaching a problem like this objectively. Right?

I'm confused. I'm looking at the cow. I don't know what to tell her. And she's just flicking her ears, chewing some grass, and looking right back at me.

But now I've written this. Now she's words on a computer screen, and hopefully she'll stay here. Maybe I'll revisit someday. Maybe I won't. It's been an educational couple of days I guess. It brought that Thich Nhat Hanh passage to life and gave me an opportunity to reconnect with my academic roots. I certainly can't complain about that.

Who knew how broadly applicable a degree in Eastern Religion could be.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Wait Begins

If you don't know TED, I recommend that you introduce yourself. Technology. Entertainment. Design. And those words do it no justice whatsoever. TED is a conference that happens once a year in Monterey, CA and then usually a second time every year somewhere else. It brings a group of ridiculously smart and well-connected people together, asks the most brilliant and passionate among them to speak, and sets no boundaries except a loosely enforced 18 minute time limit. It produces mind-blowingly fascinating presentations about a wild variety of potentially world changing ideas.

My friend Mike introduced me to TED by hijacking my computer, loading up Hans Rosling, and pushing play. Hardly a day has gone by since on which I haven't emailed someone a link to a TED Talk.

Anyway, what I meant to tell you two paragraphs ago is that yesterday was the last day of TED 2008, and, if we're lucky, pretty soon we're going to see the latest Talks start to trickle onto the TED website.

I've been reading Ethan Zuckerman over the past few days to get a preview of the new material. Zuckerman writes a blog called My Heart's in Accra. In his words, it's a collection of "musings on Africa, international development and hacking the media." I first read him when I was following the TED Global conference in Arusha, Tanzania last spring, and I've kept an eye on him ever since. As he did from Arusha in April, he's spent the past few days liveblogging from Monterey.

Based on Zuckerman's notes (and with links to his posts), here's what I'm most excited to watch:

The repeat performances.

Botanist adventurer Wade Davis, author of One River, talked in 2003 about the tragic erosion of ethnodiversity. He continued that line of thinking this year, reminding us that while "humans are the agents of cultural destruction, we can be the agents of cultural survival.”

Novelist and poet Chris Abani, talked in Arusha last spring about stories, what they can teach us about cultures past, and how they shape cultures future. He talked again on Friday, positing that "the world is never saved in grand gestures, but through small, soft acts of compassion."

The development discussions.

Paul Collier ties compassion to enlightened self interest, and Bob Geldof transforms from pop punk songwriter to philanthropist.

The energy ideas.

Felix Kramer talks about hacking electric cars, and Craig Venter proposes that we use combinatorial genomics to turn CO2 into biofuels.

The superstars.

Dave Eggers asks that we all take time to educate our communities, and Stephen Hawking reminds us that "nothing is older than the universe."

And, of course, TED's specialty, the totally unexpected.

Joshua Klein
wonders just how smart crows are; Paul Stamets promotes fungus; and John Francis shares a life of listening.

TED 2008 ended yesterday, but BIL rages on. BIL's the new kid. It's a free, participant-organized conference that's hoping to become the open-source version of TED. We won't know how it went until it's over this afternoon, but I'm curious. If nothing else, I do appreciate its user-generated chameleon of an acronym. Blasphemy. Irreverence. Lilypads.

Note (Monday Mar 3): Umair just brought me back to Earth on TED a little bit. He likes the Talks, but he doesn't like the DNA. Solutions need to come from people that are suffering, not big brains in cushy auditoriums. I wonder what he thinks about last April's TED Global in Africa. I have to say that it was pretty weird when they threw William Kamkwamba on stage. Hmmm.

Another note: Should I have posted that as a new entry instead of making notes in green here?