Archive for the ‘Technology Is Useless’ Category.

Thoughts On An Eyewitness Account

One of the topics of this website is that “Technology Is Useless“. A lot of what is going on in technology (or what people consider technology) is useless to society at large. They think they are “solving problems”, but they are not even first world problems (like finding a cab). The companies people fawn over are not doing anything about climate change, or energy, or water. People in the startup cult are not as smart as they think they are. And I think a lot of them live in a bubble.

There is a guy living in Silicon Valley named Michael O. Church (henceforth MOC). Until recently, his site had a lot of posts that articulate this theme better than I have. But before I got around to writing this post, he took down most of his posts. You can find them archived here. [1]

From what I could gather before he removed his posts, he has been a software developer in SV for several years. He worked at Google, and was booted out due to politics. He started writing about the culture in Silicon Valley, and criticizing the startup fetish that has taken over our culture.

He has angered a lot of people in SV, which has hurt him when he has had to seek employment. One person that he angered is Paul Graham, programmer, author, founder of incubator Y Combinator. YC published the news aggregation site Hacker News.

PG has written a few books about a language called Common Lisp. He used that to make a company he sold to Yahoo in the late 1990s, which made him rich. He has written a few more books, and his essays on his website are pretty influential in “the Valley”. He started YC in 2005. Now, some VC firms will only invest in companies that are YC alums.

After the dot com bust, working at a startup had little appeal for a lot of people, especially outside the confines of SV. MOC credits PG with rehabilitating the image of startups via his essays and YC, and making them appealling places to work. MOC wrote this is good, but it has gone too far. Now startups have gone from being a stage a company goes through, to being an end in itself. It’s now a lifestyle. MOC wrote that PG is partly responsible for the “bro” culture we see in SV today.

MOC wrote that he has never met PG, but PG knows who he is and hates MOC. YC is an investor in Quora, and leaned on Quora to ban MOC from the site. Somewhere in the archives MOC lists a few more ways that PG has tried to make life more difficult for MOC, usually indirectly, and usually via YC leaning on companies to not hire MOC.

Why would PG hate MOC? Because MOC is living proof that PG is selling the world a bill of goods. PG tells people that if you work or found a startup, you will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams. Apply to be in YC! Change your life and the world for the better! Or come to SV and work for a company that has been through YC. It’s the ticket to fame and fortune!

MOC is a smart guy. He worked at a few startups, and it did not work out. He has written posts explaining that the only people that win in SV are the VCs. They always win. Sometimes the founders get rich, but not always. And employees usually wind up wasting years chasing the dream. They get paid below market wages. They are promised “equity”, but either the company goes under, or the half a percent turns out to be not a whole lot when all is said and done. SV is the Wall Street of the West Coast.

MOC is living proof that PG is pretty much putting lipstick on a pig. PG does not need the money. It is probably ego. PG wants a nice legacy. It is hard for most people to admit they are wrong. When you have spent the past decade pushing something, it’s even harder.

MOC also points out that when firms say “We don’t care if you have worked with the language we use; we just want smart people”, they are usually lying. Have you ever noticed these firms rarely hire anyone over 30? It’s not because you get dumb when you are 30. They know it’s harder to sell the false dream to people past a certain age. When you get married, have kids, have to pay off your student loans, and/or realize you will need a LOT of money for retirement, an actual paycheck looks better than equity fairy dust.

Here are a couple of more quotes:

From “Silicon Valley Can Be Beaten“:
Increasingly, true technologists look at the culture of the VC-funded world and realize that it has to die, because marketing experiments using technology have won the decade while the larger goal of improving the human condition has been forgotten. To be a technologist used to mean that one wanted to invest in humanity’s total capital; now, the industry has been swarmed by champion value-capturers. Consequently, the short-term “next quarter” mentality, couched in juvenile lingo about “failing fast”, has won and to have vision is to make oneself a pariah.

From “Don’t Waste Your Time In Crappy Startup Jobs“:
Scientific research changes the world. Large-scale infrastructure projects change the world. Most businesses, on the other hand, are incremental projects, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Startups are not a good vehicle for “changing the world”.

One thing he wrote that I really like and caught my attention is that most of the companies in SV companies are not really technology companies. These companies are marketing experiments using technology.

[1] I have wanted to finish this post for a while, so I am kind of going by memory here. Also, I have never contacted anyone mentioned in this post, including MOC. All opinions/interpretations are my own. Paul Graham does not endorse this post.

Image from Stargate Wiki, assumed allowed under Fair Use.

Thoughts On Startups, Braintree and Paypal

Last week Paypal bought a company in Chicago called Braintree. They make software that processes credit card payments. They guys at Braintree are smart (on some levels), but also a bunch of arrogant jerks. I am sure they will fit right in.

I once attended a presentation by a Braintree big shot. It was either the founder or the CEO. He said that he has spent all his career in startups. He also said he would rather hire someone who is young and smart than  than a middle-aged developer who has spent all their career at an insurance company. I was pretty shocked that someone would admit to age bias in public. I was also struck by the Startup Psychosis this guy had. See, according to people with Startup Psychosis, those corporate people are just not flexible in their thinking, especially corporate people who want to transition to a startup environment. But if you have been in startups your whole career, by definition you have agile thinking! Really, you do! Tell yourself that, because that is what makes it true!

It seems strange to me that people in the startup culture all think the same, talk the same, all read the same books, yet they all tell themselves they aren’t conformists like people who work in government or corporations. I still say that governments and corporations are more likely to produce goods and services that people actually care about.

I kind of hate it when people say they just want to hire smart people and do not care about what your experience is. Whenever I talk to those people, I always get told that they want someone with 5 years of X and so-many years of Y. I don’t claim to be the smartest person in the world, but I am smarter than some of the people at these “we-just-want-smart-people” firms. Maybe some of the people I interview with don’t like me. If you don’t like me, just say so, I won’t be offended. If you don’t like me, I probably don’t like you either.

I think that part of it is that a lot of people who say “we just want smart people” might believe what they say, but don’t realize that they might not want what they think they want. Also, I think some firms want younger guys because a younger guy will work longer hours because he doesn’t realize he doesn’t have to let some jerk walk all over him.

I attended a technology meetup at Braintree, and some young punk (with an Apple laptop, of course) said he did not understand why they had an Android API. After all, he said, “Everybody has an iPhone.” I told him I did not have a smart phone, and there are a LOT of people with Android phones.  I said, “Maybe everybody you know has an iPhone. That’s not the same thing.” He seemed offended, but frankly he deserved it. If you think you are a smart person, and you also think that everyone is like you, then you are not that smart.

It is interesting that they sold out to Paypal. A lot of people do not trust Paypal. One of the reasons some firms use Braintree is: They are not Paypal. That reason just went away. I predict a lot of people will look at alternatives. I doubt I will ever see the agreement, but for now Paypal is saying they will not get involved with Braintree. If the guys at Paypal and Braintree think anyone believes that, they are idiots. If Paypal is not going to muck with Braintree, then why did they buy it? And if Paypal changes their mind, Braintree can’t say no. If they think they can, their definition of “ownership” is different than everybody else’s on the planet.

If the CEO thinks that Java developers at insurance companies can’t change their stripes but Paypal can, then he might have more flexibility in his thinking than I gave him credit for. Or he’s just sucking up to his new masters.

This transaction exemplifies one of the fallacies of capitalism: That anything that happens in the private sector benefits all involved parties. Paypal gets some good technology. The big shots at Braintree get to cash out. The users of Braintree just lost their main reason for using Braintree in the first place. This transaction is wonderful for all those VCs and big shots who have spent all their lives in startups, but it is not good for the customers. Telling your customers to hope people they don’t trust won’t change their minds is not a good long-term plan for your customers.

If I know that some people use Braintree simply because it’s not Paypal, then I have a hard time believing the guys at Braintree were not aware of that. Yet they sold to Paypal anyway.

Enjoy your money, guys. Nobody will ever trust you again.

Image from Reddit, assumed allowed under Fair Use

The Queen Of Useless Technology

The “Technology Is Useless” theme has a couple of major sub-points: Most of what is going on in the technology space is not as innovative as many people think (especially the people doing it) and it is not being directed towards serious problems our society is facing.

Part of the cause of these is that a lot of people in the technology/startup world are not as smart as they think they are, and many of them live in a bubble. Maybe it is impossible to be a human and not live in a bubble. But if you are really so smart, you should at least be aware of it. I do not mean living in an economic bubble, but more in the sense of living in an echo chamber, and associating with people who think the same way you do.

Technology is pretty male-dominated. It may be impossible to declare a King of Useless Technology. But I may have found the Queen: Danielle Morrill. At this time, her blog has a picture of San Francisco at the top of every page.

Her tagline is “I can see the future, because I live in it today.”  What sort of future do you live in? Do you get electricity from a fusion reactor? Do you have an electric car with a range of 500 miles? Are your goods shipped in a cargo vessel that is powered by a nuclear reactor instead of diesel? That is the sort of future we need to working towards. Not going on and on about startups over and over again.

She also says “I’ve received most of my education in business working for my father’s finance consulting company, Reliant Consulting & Research, from the time I was 12 years old.” Finance consulting is another example of uselessness. How many people do you need to hire to refer people to Vanguard?

Now she runs some company called Mattermark. It  “Provides Powerful Tools for Researching Startups”.

So it’s a startup about startups. Is it a bubble within a bubble, or a bubble around the bubble?

She closed a prior startup she ran because she did not want to become a “zombie startup“, which she defines as “startups out there who are still ‘operating’ but might as well not be”.

More startups fit that definition than you think.

Image from Wikipedia, assumed allowed under Fair Use

Google And Innovation

I read an article recently that people should stop complaining about Google since they give people a lot of good free services, and they are one of the most innovative companies out there.

This article is relevant to the “Technology Is Useless” theme because it has a couple of interesting points about innovation. It mentions the self-driving car and Google Glass. I have no interest in Google Glass, but it is sure different than a lot of things out there. It points out that most of the startups are pretty derivative: “Foursquare for fitness enthusiasts,” “Instagram for poets” etc.

“It’s ${pre-existing startup} for ${some demographic niche}.” To a certain degree, there is nothing wrong with that. But let’s not call that innovation. Don’t expect people to be excited. Do not assume that you should be taken seriously simply because you are a startup. If someone were to ask me what I thought of a company described as “Instagram for poets”, my response would be: There is an “Instagram for poets”. It’s called “Instagram”.

On the other hand, the “Chevron of Deuterium” would be interesting.

Image from Wikimedia, assumed allowed under Fair Use

 

 

Some Useful Technology

In some of my “Technology Is Useless” posts, I have mentioned Groupon quite a few times. A big part of this is that until recently I lived in Chicago. I knew quite a few of the people who were at Groupon, and joined from a firm called Obtiva.

Obtiva was a consulting firm that Groupon bought. They pretty much built Groupon. By the time Groupon bought them, Groupon was about half of Obtiva’s business. Most of them joined Groupon. That was about two years ago or so. I know of at least one person who decided to go off on his own rather than go to Groupon. He makes iPhone apps, which may be a subject of a later post.

From what I have been able to infer, a lot of them are now leaving Groupon. The rats are leaving the ship.

Since I keep kicking all these guys around, I should be fair and point out that at least one guy is making technology that is causing the patented Technology Uselessness Meter go a little in the positive direction, and actually play a role in a lot of the issues that I think technology should be used for.

One of them joind a firm called TempoDB. It is a time series database. I thought you could just analyze time series data with a regular database, but I guess there are cases where you need something customized for the task. So I learned at least one new thing this week.

There is nothing to stop this stuff from being used by the useless startups that I have been yacking about. But (as I am writing this) the first two customers on their list deal with energy: Wattvision and sMeasure.

I have to concede I have never heard of a time series database. It looks like it might be a new category of NoSQL, in addition to the document, graph, key-value and object databases. According to their Jobs page they use HBase and Hadoop under the hood. I think Hadoop is kind of in its own category in NoSQL.

If all that NoSQL stuff is meaningless to you, don’t worry about it. I just felt that instead of only pointing out all the bad and dumb stuff I see, I should also point out something that I think is good.

Thoughts On Menus, Startups and Social Media

(My job has kept me pretty busy, so here are some more random thoughts on the “technology is useless” theme that have been kicking around in my head.)

So I found a post by a VC who wants to change menus in restaurants (see this article and the original post). His name is Dave McClure; I have never heard of him. I could not find what VC firm he is with. He says that it is a huge opportunity. Okay.

But then he says that menus have “problems”. He goes on and on about “problems”. I guess this is a “first world problem”.

Doesn’t agriculture have a lot of problems? What about the distribution of water? What about crop yields? I would call those problems.

I know that ultimately VCs are out to make money and not save the world. Fine. But don’t say you are solving “problems” when you ignore things that are real problems.

My main beef is that the VCs/entreprenuers/startup crowd all like to think that they are smarter than everybody else. That they are “makers” and “doers”. And they think that we are all to take them so seriously. And not point out that they are spinning their wheels while natural resources are getting more expensive. Some of them wind up creating jobs. But some of those jobs are doing really dumb things. Like social media.

I honestly think that we might reach a point where we cannot assume that when we flip the switch that the lights will come on. In many countries, that is already the case. I do not see a whole lot of companies at these incubators solving these problems. I don’t expect two guys with nothing more that a table, two chairs and a couple of laptops to find a new way to drill for oil or desalinate water. I just don’t understand why so many people think just because they are in a startup they worth paying attention to.

There are a lot of smart people in these companies. But there are different types of intelligence. I sometimes wonder whether they really think about what the technology is doing. A lot of it is just marketing. The funny thing is that a lot of people go into technology and software because they don’t want to be some damn salesman.

I (kinda-sorta) know a guy who runs a firm that does analytics on social media to help companies with marketing. We were acquaintences in college about 15 years ago. I was at a hack night at his company, and he introduced himself to me. We did not recognize each other at the time, but later I realized we had met long long ago. I admit, I do not know what he did during the intervening years. Maybe he did something scientific and what I would consider useful.

He has a CS degree from one of the best engineering schools in the world. This guy probably could help design a desalination plant or a nuclear reactor. Instead he is figuring out how to get people to buy more junk. Granted, they deal with a lot of data. Very high throughput.  But is that really the best contribution he could make to society? I have not been in Texas long, but I have heard that in the summer there are serious water issues. This state does catch fire. I think there might be brownouts in the summer time. Is the usual social/local/mobile app business really the best use of all that brainpower?

VCs will say they are out to make money. Energy and climate change are not their responsibility. If that is your response, then fine. I say you have better make a LOT of money. Because if the real problems are not addressed, you will need a lot more than you think.

A Rant About the Software Industry

This is sort of another “Technology is useless” post. Recently I sent it as an email to a few people I know after I said I was becoming disillsioned about the software industry. I think the software industry is getting better at looking at how it makes software, but nobody seems to be thinking about what the software or the company they are at actually does.

I am kind of frustrated with the software industry. I am trying to transition to another language (Ruby) that companies say they are clamoring for. Yet they all want someone with a few years of experience. I could probably get a Java job, but then the next time I look for a job, people will look at my resume, and say, “Hey, he’s done Java. Let’s give him another Java job.” I would like to get out of that trap. I don’t hate Java, like some developers do, but I would like to have some choice in the matter. I went into software to have more control over my life, but that does not seem to be happening.

Plus a lot of what goes on in software seems pretty stupid. Everybody keeps talking about startups, and counting on that to save the economy, yet a lot of them do stuff that is pretty stupid. Like finding bars that are not crowded. Or they are replicating some particular vertical from Craigslist (selling furniture, finding a babysitter). Or they have something to do with Facebook or Twitter.

Meanwhile peak oil and climate change are still bearing down on us. Shale oil may not be the savior that people hoped. We are still using hydrocarbons for transportation, while using more of it for plastic would be better (since plastics can be reused and recycled) and we are not doing enough to push electricity for transportation. Norway is going to try using thorium as a nuclear fuel. I am not sure why nobody tried this sooner. (If thorium is even half as good as its boosters say, it would still be worth it in my opinion.) I would like to be involved in finding and using energy, but I don’t have a degree in engineering, and I am not a grad student willing to work for half-price.

Startups and a lot of consulting firms do have a better process for making software than large corporations. It is more iterative and more responsive to users’ needs. It is easier to test, tested more often and in more ways, and generally easier to change. Larger firms, on the other hand, use what is called the “waterfall process”: make all the decisions up front, have a Bataan Death March to implement it, and hope that the users’ requirements have not changed in the meantime. So the people with the best process are making the least relevant software.

The last place I was at managed the electrical grid for a few states. (So far they have not asked me to come back, and for a variety of reasons I may or may not apply for another job there.) People complain about brownouts, but if the grid were to be overloaded and shut down, it would take three days for it to be turned on again. So the lives of 20 million people would be on hold for three days. They were pretty bureaucratic and slow, but what they do is pretty important. Go ahead, tell me how important your startup is. Tell me how important Facebook is.

But most startups think that what they are doing is a big deal, either due to the specific product they are pushing or because they are a Startup, and as we all know, STARTUPS ARE MAGIC. (Why? Because it’s a startup, silly. The reasoning always seemed kind of circular to me.) They go through incubators that cycle wave after wave of Zuckerberg wannabes, not seeing any irony that they are all depending on electricity from the same boring utility they all probably think they are too good to work for.

I think a lot of people are too enamored of their processes and technologies to ask themselves if what they are doing is useful to society, or even to themselves. I know someone who left Groupon who is now dedicated to helping software developers improve their skills. On one level, that is a good thing and should be encouraged. But once again, I wonder how much thought he has put into it. On his twitter profile, he says that “Latent human potential pisses me off.” Wonderful. But does he think about that human potential is doing? If all of the mental energy that people expend on sports and their iPhones was devoted to evolution and particle physics, we could probably cure cancer and have fusion in a decade. Nobody is predicting the oil will last beyond a century. What happens then?

I was at a tech meetup recently. The guy running it said he would start letting recruiter emails through to the list. He will still filter out the ones for people who are just cloning Groupon and Pinterest. Everybody else laughed when they heard that. But I wonder how many of them laughed at Groupon or Pinterest. Nobody would laugh if they heard about someone building another power plant, or building another desalination plant, or converting more land to farmland. Nobody would ask why anyone would want more electricity, water or food. Nobody would say, “Don’t bother, it’s been done.” If you think the clone of something is a dumb idea, then the original is a dumb idea too.

(When Groupon started, I needed people to explain it to me more than once. It’s like curling: It’s so stupid, my brain kept rejecting it)

In the past couple of years I have seen some interesting changes in the industry. People are now talking about the process of learning and productivity. The Pomodoro Technique and sites like LifeHacker are improvements. I don’t remember software developers ten years ago approaching the process of making software from that angle. There is also more attention paid to process, testing and workflow.

But sometimes I think that the infatuation with learning goes too far. I think for a lot of developers, the ideal is to be a trainer or an educator, to bring new people into the fold or help veteran developers do their jobs better. Another highly esteemed goal is to make software that other developers use in their toolchain: A library, a framework, an editor. Then there is all the obsessing about toolchains and workflows that developers do, and chasing trends. Should I use vim or Sublime? Moving the industry forward is necessary. But what about the users? When do we stop obsessing about how we make software, and start thinking about the people who use it but know nothing about how it is made? What about all the real problems our world is facing? I don’t mean the fact that many IT shops are on old versions of their software, or using bad processes or languages that you don’t like. Things like the fact that the world’s population is increasing, while crop yields are flat. The fact that the processes of producing and procuring energy are taking more energy. Perhaps software can do nothing for any of these issues. But let’s not confuse making your life easier with helping humanity. I just think that people with college degrees should do more to help the world than people who are less educated.

Some agile developers write books, make videos and put on conferences about their processes. Then they go back to writing software for startups that clone other startups. If the only people who take your advice are irrelevant, doesn’t that make you irrelevant too?

There is an article out there called “Facebook the Devourer” with a good line: “The best and brightest have been lured into the beast with giant paychecks, childish perks and the idea that somehow a new blue square button on Facebook is the best possible way they can change the world.” But what does changing the world mean? For me, it means find new sources of energy as well as more ways of utilizing current ones and designing and building the infrastructures to use them.

So anyway, I don’t have a degree in engineering. Should I just go to some startup or corporate job and suck it up while the world’s fuel tank goes to “E”? Maybe one person can’t change the world, but I am not too thrilled with where I see things going. I have had jobs that I have hated. Even though it can be good money, having a job you hate can be more stressful than having no job at all. I have this hope that if I learned some more math that maybe I could make software that is actually useful. I am involved with a library to implement math functionality in a language usually associated with web apps (Ruby). Perhaps I could be some roaming math/energy consultant before the seas rise and there really is no money to do things we should have done 30 years ago.

More Useless Technology

I have another “Technology Is Useless” post.

Kara Swisher of AllThingsD was on Gavin Newsom’s show in a segment called “There’s a lot of big minds chasing small ideas“.

She says everything in the Valley is overhyped. Then why are you there? She talks about how a lot of reporters hyped the Facebook IPO, then turned on it when it went south and they all said they saw it coming. She tried to chastise them. I say “tried” because she has no credibility. She also said Facebook is a significant company.  ‘Nuff said.

I have seen interviews with her where she has said that people outside the Valley just don’t “get it”. Maybe she doesn’t get it. She is the stereotypical Hillbilly With A Graduate Degree that we see all over the Valley. Lots of people east of the Sierra Nevada could have told you that most of what goes on in the Valley is stupid.

But she commits another fallacy. She calls the self-driven car a “big idea”. She says the Google glasses are a “big idea”. Just because something is a “big idea” does not mean it will work (self-driving car) or that it has any practical value (Google glasses). She says that we will see technology embedded in people. I will never allow anyone to embed anything in me. Anyone who has a tattoo is a slave. Why would I want anything embedded? Just because something is a “big idea” does not mean it is any good.

Plus, if someone can make a car that drives itself, can’t they figure out how to make an engine that runs on something other than petroleum?

Another example of useless technology that I heard about recently is a $6400 toilet. I heard about it on the New York Times Bits Tech Talk podcast.

Maybe I am not smart enough to be an engineer. But I think that it is pretty obvious that climate change is getting to be a big deal, and we need to get more energy sources to replace oil. Why are people working on fancy toilets and self-driving cars? Rich people and engineers working on anything other than peak oil and climate change are the technology version of Paul Krugman’s Very Serious People. If they are all so smart, why are they focusing on things that are trivial?

Ivory throne of Ivan IV of Russia from Wikipedia

 

Are Attitudes Toward Startups Changing?

I have written a few posts in which I stated that a lot of what is going on in technology today is useless because instead of looking at peak oil and climate change people are working on ridiculous, me-too start-ups. (Nobody will care about your iPad app if we cannot keep the lights on.)

I saw a couple of articles that are somewhat related to this idea. One is there are startups using “crowdfunding” for start-ups revolved around hardware that the supposedly smart VCs would not fund. Granted, the gadgets are small. I doubt anyone will ever fund a thorium reactor via Kickstart. The article does not mention energy but I did like it. I still say the VCs are not as smart as they think they are.

Another article dealt with the Facebook fallout. Paul Graham of YCombinator wrote a letter to his portfolio companies telling them that funding will dry up since Facebook’s falling price is putting a chill on the markets, so the companies need to hunker down. And it looks like Facebook’s revenue is not looking too good these days (see articles here, here and here). I cannot claim that I predicted these events, but I think it’s funny that our supposed betters in California and Wall Street all seem surprised by this. I have a hard time taking them seriously.

Image from Wikipedia

 

Startups, Energy and Society’s Issues

I was in Austin last month for RailsConf. One of the keynote speakers was David Cohen of TechStars. He talked about startups. (I don’t feel like watching the whole thing again, so I will go from notes and memory.)

Granted, this was RailsConf. Rails is used for webapps, and it would be silly to model nuclear fusion with a Rails app. But if you accept my premise that a lot of what is going on in the technology space these days is useless and does not solve society’s long-term problems (like climate change and peak oil), then a lot of what he said was just more of the same silliness.

At one point he said that he actually knows investors who did not put money into Pinterest! Can you believe it???? Actually, yes, I can. I don’t know why anybody uses it to begin with. He advised people against getting funding too early, and I have to give him some props for that, since he is a VC. It takes a big man to give people advice that benefits the questioner and not himself.

But it was more of the web-payments-this, social-something-or-other-that, startups-uber-alles for the win. He is another example of the Bias Against Big. A lot of people these days do not trust Big Government or Big Corporations, or both. Institutions do fail and make mistakes. Corporations make promises to governments and taxpayers, and then renege. But as was pointed out in the now-defunct “Inside Renewable Energy” podcast, a lot of people are buying into the startup mythology.

I am not saying that startups should not be encouraged. But a lot of people, even some governments, seem to be betting on startups. A lot of people seem to think that startups will solve all of society’s problems. As was mentioned on “Inside Renewable Energy”, a lot of this may be due to IT. A lot of successful companies that went on to make billions were started by two guys in a garage or a dorm room: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook. And a lot of people think that “two guys in a room” will come up with ways to solve our energy problems.

But will two guys in a dorm room figure out how to design and build the next generation of nuclear reactor? Will a couple of guys drop out of grad school, rent a small space, and figure out how to store solar energy and transmit it across continents? I think that, whether we like it or not, corporations and government (including the military) will have to be involved in all of this. I think there needs to be some pushback against the “startupification” of the USA.

We need to stop thinking that the way to fame and fortune is through whatever some VC in “the valley” can take public. 30 to 40 years ago, guys would go to college to get degrees in engineering so they could design rockets to send men to the moon. Now people think the way to success is to drop out of college to make yet another social network, or build even more games that are played on a three-inch screen.

What is bringing success to the valley is not really doing a lot for the rest of California, let alone the rest of the country. High tech jobs in the valley do not create as many jobs in other sectors as high tech jobs in other states. Part of this is due to geography (lots of mountains in California limit what can be built), and part of it is the tunnel vision.

Abu Dhabi, which makes a LOT of money from oil, is building a city that will run on solar energy. At least that’s the plan. I think this is the sort of thing that should be done in this country. If you think the answer is to simply “Drill, baby, drill”, then explain why an oil exporter is preparing a city that will not use any oil. At some point there will be nothing left to drill. What happens then?

Speaking of the world gone wrong, Facebook went public last week. It looks like the stock is not doing as well as people hoped. Why anybody cared about this company is beyond me. Facebook is really just a big email client. Except instead of the spam landing in your Inbox, they put it on the side and called it a business model.

In the IPO letter, Suckerberg wrote that “If we want to have the biggest impact, the best way to do this is to make sure we always focus on solving the most important problems.” What does he regard as important problems? Making sure the lights are still on and the trains are still running in twenty years, or figuring out how to sell you more junk?

Image from Wikipedia