Archive for September, 2003


September 30, 2003

Ultimate conference, new vocabulary? No and no. Lots of prior art there.


The Next Green Revolution

September 29, 2003

Jonathan Rauch has a new article up in next month’s The Atlantic Monthly on the subject of genetically-modified foods. If you’re not familiar with the subject, Reason magazine has a special section devoted to the matter. If you’re unwilling to click on that link and read the context, then I’ll summarize it for you: science is brought to bear on crops in order to alleviate a host of biological maladies via genetic manipulation rather than the traditional means of human-guided plant husbandry.

Rauch argues that genetically-modified foods (GM foods hereafter), or Frankenfoods as they’re called by their detractors, are actually a veritable blessing for humanity. He cites a number of examples of their beneficence and suggests that they might increase crop yields far in excess of what the Green Revolution achieved. He speculates that the yields possible using biotechnology would feed the world for the foreseeable future and help bring the Third World out of subsistence farming.

With all of the benefits, why is such an article necessary? The answer is fairly simple: environmentalists. Groups like the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Greenpeace argue that the potential downside of its widespread use could create environmental devastation. They further believe that we should study the issue until we can be sure that the risk levels have asymptoted.

That sounds fine and dandy. After all, who wants unnecessary risk? It seems reasonable. Except that the risks are far overshadowed by the possibilities. If food could be made cheaper, safer, and more plentiful, why would anyone oppose that? Because it disrupts nature? Because it might affect other plants in unknown ways? Sounds fine to me. Why? Because I know that we can deal with the problems as they crop up; we can especially deal with them once we’ve developed our knowledge of genetic engineering and that comes with experience in using it.

The environmentalists who oppose genetic engineering tend to consistently take nature’s side over man. While it’s hard to believe of anyone, I think that environmentalists genuinely hate their fellow man. They deride technology, they deride the fantastic wealth-creating powers of the free market, they deride the freedom that let’s individual and corporate initiative flourish. Life on earth is risky and we should undertake any effort to mitigate that risk. Our best bet is through technology and manipulation of our environment to create conditions more favorable to our existence.

The history of life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is a testament to the phenomenal power of technology to better our lives (or worsen it in the case of war and totalitarianism). We live longer, live better, and live richer to the degree that we embrace technology and freedom. Anyone who denies it is woefully ignorant of the historical record or willfully blinded by their beliefs and biases.

[UPDATE: Glad tidings as Brazil lifts its ban on GM foods. Brazil has been one of the staunchest nations opposing biotechnology. Other good news is that the scientific community is conflicted over the matter.]

Review: The Map of Innovation

September 28, 2003

The heady days of venture capitalists funding any idea with a Web presence and IPOs without business plans are long gone, but entrepreneurship existed prior to the Internet and will continue long past when the net becomes a ubiquitous utility like the telephone. Business has changed fundamentally since the dot-com boom even if investing hasn’t. To be successful in the business world today, you absolutely have to incorporate some sort of technology. If you don’t, your competitors will and they will have a lower cost of doing business because of it.

This is the general idea that suffuses Kevin O’Connor’s new book The Map of Innovation: Creating Something Out of Nothing. O’Connor might not be a household name, but he’s started several businesses that have achieved recent notoriety: Flexplay, which makes DVDs that become unusable after a certain period of time, and DoubleClick, which needs no further introduction. This book synthesizes his experiences in conceiving a business idea, soliciting funding, and getting it off the ground. While we may dispute the utility of his business ideas, they have been largely successful. That means that he might have something valuable to say.

I’ve read a lot of books on entrepreneurship in my quest for self-employment. They’re usually divided into two groups: those written prior to the Internet or only cursorily treat its affects and those created during the dot-com frenzy. The former are marginally useful since they offer some guidance on entrepreneurship even though their lack of technical considerations mitigates this usefulness. The latter are completely useless since they typically engage in strident hyperbole and grandiose pronouncements.

The Map of Innovation is different since it was written well after the dot-com hype had subsided. Even though the author built his major business, DoubleClick, during the IPO land grab, the book is remarkably free of the thinking that permeated that period. O’Connor’s focus is to get a business started on fundamental principles like profitability, great employees, and broad vision. And that’s exactly what a business book should target. If it seems obvious, O’Connor recognizes this: “I find that the best business books are obvious. But that isn’t surprising. The fundamentals of what you have to do are so obvious that they almost always get overlooked.”

The book is divided into four parts with an appendix containing DoubleClick’s business plan: 1) coming up with ideas, 2) developing the best idea, 3) getting funding, and 4) hiring great staff. These, unsurprisingly, are the steps that he believes are vital to founding a successful company. Of these, I think that his idea generation chapter is the weakest one of the bunch. This isn’t terribly important, though, since most people reading his book will probably have a few business ideas of their own or can come up with them readily.

My favorite part is dedicated to developing the best idea. It covers how determine the viability of your idea (how to vet it thoroughly) and how to present that idea in a business plan that will attract attention. O’Connor helpfully includes a basic outline for a business plan and then covers each item in considerable detail. I’ve read many books on constructing a business plan, yet I found his explanation to be the clearest and most straightforward one I’ve encountered.

The chapter on obtaining funding for your idea presents a series of solicitations starting with family and friends and ending with venture capital. O’Connor brushes off the problems with venture capitalists like dilution of ownership and the common occurrence of founder expulsion. He does offer some sage advice about how much money to seek and how that money should be spent. In light of his entrepreneurial history, it is unsurprising that he suggests such funding sources. His relations with venture capitalists were positive and he willingly withdrew from the corporate limelight.

Overall, the book is an excellent primer for anyone interested in creating a technology-oriented startup. It won’t provide all of the information necessary for the would-be entrepreneur, but it’s a good start. O’Connor tries to suggest that it would also be useful for new projects in an existing corporation but I don’t buy it. The advice just doesn’t apply as well. The only weak spot of the book is his Brainstorming Prioritization Technique, which is obviously a pet theory of his that he couldn’t bear to pare down. It amounts to brainstorming and then picking only three to six items from the brainstorm. It is painfully obvious and an altogether common idea generation method—and luckily is quickly read. The advice about venture capitalism is easily tempered by also checking out Arnold Kling’s Under the Radar: Starting Your Net Business Without Venture Capital or Philip Greenspun’s experience with venture capitalists.

[UPDATE: More thoughts on startups.]

Dropping Like Flies

September 28, 2003

Donald O’Connor died yesterday at age 78. That’s too bad—I’m going to have to find some of his old movies and see what he did besides Singin’ in the Rain, my favorite movie.

iCal Appointments

September 28, 2003

For my future reference: how to create .ics files dynamically. I had wanted to do this when I owned the pottery studio so that I could make our calendar available dynamically from the database. I probably could have done it easily enough, but I never took the time to look at the format. Plus, I wanted it to be Outlook-able too and that was just the hurdle my laziness needed to shrug the whole effort off.

Blogging vs. Journalism

September 28, 2003

There’s a perennial debate whether blogging is better than journalism. I’ve avoided talking about it or really delving into the matter because it’s nonsensical on its face. If you’re not familiar with the topic, Dave Winer is perhaps the biggest advocate of blogging as journalism but there are dozens of bloggers coveting the title as well.

To me the whole issue is crazy. Journalists find stories, they break stories. Bloggers comment on those stories. Their “reporting” typically consists of what they did over the weekend. The best bloggers might write essays about subjects that aren’t reactions to articles, but these are most often most alike op-eds than articles. I’ve never encountered an investigative blogger. Ever.

Why is that? I think it’s because bloggers aren’t getting paid to blog and they don’t (typically) answer to anybody. They can spend time discussing inanities with abandon. Those journalists who are also bloggers do blogging as a sideline, not something for pay. I would wager that most bloggers would bristle at having assignments, writing on a deadline, and being edited. If they didn’t, they would all be journalists. I’m sure that they like the casual nature of blogs and the liberties they can take with subject choice.

Are the two online genres mutually exclusive? Of course not. Journalists can report on interesting subjects and bloggers can provide the context and commentary that journalists cannot. Journalists typically don’t link off the site because the sites are designed to keep people there not shuffle them away. Plus, no journalist would ever link to another site’s articles to provide additional context that he or she couldn’t.

Bloggers don’t have such restrictions and they can aggregate across newspapers and non-traditional sources. They can also link to primary sources, like Udell noted, to let the readers judge for themselves. Journalists don’t typically do that—despite Fox’s pronouncements otherwise.

It’s like what Kevin O’Connor said about disintermediation in his book The Map of Innovation—I’m working up a full review on this book and will post it in the next couple of days. The airlines thought that the Web would usher in an era where intermediaries would disappear and they could sell directly to the public. He notes that that didn’t happen because few trusted the airlines to give them the best price on a given route.

A lot of people, bloggers especially, don’t trust journalists to give the whole story for a variety of reasons. They look elsewhere for other interpretations of the same story, other points of view. Bloggers fill that need and there are quite a few who have built up substantial audiences because of it. But even they don’t make any pretense that theirs is the final word or that their readers don’t continue along the chain of context providers.

That is why blogging and journalism are not mutually exclusive and why there will always be a need for both. Bloggers are the editorial writers of the new generation: a way for people to get different spins on the facts that journalists report. Only now there’s many thousands of them and they’re not syndicated except from their own sites via RSS. Anyone can offer up their editorials and anyone else can subscribe to to them. It’s like what the desktop publishing revolution did for the publishing industry: there’s nothing special about blogging per se except that the tools have made it cheaper and easier to get your words out.

Awesome Stationery!

September 26, 2003

Knock Knock is a stationery site with an attitude. From its Gesundheit cards to its line of report cards, Knock Knock embraces style while offering something different. There’s also some really original items.

Last Post of the Day

September 25, 2003

This is the last post I’ll have today because I am going to some ASP.NET training at the local Microsoft office and tonight is all birthday all the time.

Normal posting will resume tomorrow. Thanks for tuning in.

Happy Birthday!

September 25, 2003

Today my wife joins the Brown Family 29 Club. I couldn’t ask for a better wife: she’s kind, generous of spirit, demanding, and even-tempered. Oh, she’s also beautiful, sexy, and strong-willed. These are all things that I look for in a woman. It’s strange, but she’s the most mentally healthy person I know—completely at ease with her sexuality and her self.

We’ve been married for over ten years now after having been high school sweethearts. I can’t say that it’s been champagne and roses throughout. We’ve had our rough spots and we have our rough spots in the present. But I know that I wouldn’t want to go through it with anyone else and I can’t imagine life without her.

I can’t wait to start the next phase of our lives together. I think she’s really going to shine as a mother because all of her being suggests it. Our kids are going to be very lucky to have her as a mother—and me as a father of course—and I’m lucky to have such a wonderful person as a co-parent.

When life gets me down, she is my rock, my safe harbor. Thank you, Sandi, for everything and I hope your birthday is as special as you deserve!

Bill Likes to Drive Fast

September 24, 2003

Oh boy! It is opening directly across from my work. Oh boy!