Archive for the ‘Energy’ Category.

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

Let’s Use Technology To Solve Real Problems

I wrote in the past that most of what we see in the technology space is useless, and people that are supposedly so smart are ignoring problems that will have and are having an enormous impact on society (energy, peak oil and climate change).

Perhaps this blog is starting to influence the culture. I saw a couple of articles on Business Insider that spoke to this point.

One is an interview with the COO of the credit card processor Square.
Want to recruit great people in a talent crunch? Solve a real problem. “We have a mission of helping local businesses thrive so that they can grow their businesses so that they can hire people so that they can help the U.S. economy. It’s not social gaming — that’s a very good business, it can be a very creative exercise for the people who work there, but it’s not clear that it has any societal impact, and if it does it may be negative.”

Another article was called “Our Best Entrepreneurs Should Be Solving Real Problems, Not Sitting Around Creating Apps”  by Steve Faktor. The title of the article on the author’s website is “How Killing the Angry Bird Will Save American Entrepreneurship.” I might get his book.  (Warning: His website is not very good. It takes a long time for each page to load. It looks like he has a LOT of widgets and add-ons.)

Faktor mentions solar panels in his article. There is not a whole lot in these articles about energy and climate change, but it is nice to know that I am not the only person who is skeptical about the utility of the social-mobile-game-app-widget nexus. What I do not understand is why all the VCs in the Valley who think they are so smart and think they can see around corners ever supported all this junk. So maybe they made a lot of money. But if we do not handle our energy problems, all these VCs will be kings of nothing.

For a bunch of people with advanced degrees, people in the Valley sound just as provincial as people in poor small towns. Hillbillies with diplomas are still hillbillies. I keep reading articles and seeing videos of all these people saying that entrepreneurs should solve real problems. When will they start funding solutions to real problems?

The big news yesterday in tech was that Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion.  People say that Facebook needed to buy Instagram because the “problem” that Instagram solves is that using Facebook’s iPhone and Android apps you have to go through five or six screens to upload photos from your phone. But with Instagram you only need to go through one screen.

If my apartment building does not have electricity, I have a problem.

If my apartment building does not have water, I have a problem.

If the food does not get from the farm to the grocery store four blocks away, I have a problem.

If the CTA shuts down, I have a problem.

If Facebook goes under, I do not have a problem.

Peak Oil Notes From James Kunstler

Barnett Shale DrillingOn 2006-04-18, I attended a lecture at DePaul by James Kunstler, an author and podcaster who has written on Peak Oil. I found out about it after I started attending the now-defunct Chicago Peak Oil Awareness Group.

I kept my notes. Each paragraph is a page from my notes. I have chosen to type them in as I wrote them, so some of the sentences will be a bit choppy.

Contributes to NYTimes Sunday magazine. Stocks up today, oil prices up too. Mostly: implications of peak oil. What are we going to do? Hubbert: Made predictions in the 1950s, said USA would peak in 1970s, was laughed at. 1973: Foreign countries take over. 1980s: OPEC loses leverage. Long Emergency: Includes climate change (like Katrina). Oil and insurance companies are rethinking Gulf of Mexico. We must make other arrangements. There will be no “hydrogen economy”. Alternative energies cannot run WalMart, Disney World and highways. “The Heroic suburbs”. Cheney said the American way of life is non-negotiable. This is a false message; things will be negotiated for us.

Some say suburbia is okay because people like it and people choose it. The question will not be what do we like but what is possible. Suburbia: cheap energy, cheap land. We put our wealth into a way of life with no future. Suburbia is “entropy made visible”. Dirty secret: basis of American economy is the housing bubble. The mortgage mill industry has replaced actual industry. We have put so much into this; the psychology of previous investment produces denial behavior. America’s leading religion: worship of unearned riches, getting something for nothing. Our society wishes for rescue remedies.

Gambling is reparations for American Indians. Technology != energy. Kunstler went to Google. Lots of games, snack stations, executives and engineers dressed like skateboarders. It was an infantile company. Pay attention to “tech == energy”. Airlines is the first industry that will go down. We will use what we can, but not the way that people think, perhaps on a neighborhood/district basis. We will live more locally. No more WalMart, or 300 mile Caesar salad. “Rocky Mountain Institute”: trying to produce a hybrid car. That promotes the idea that we can be a car-centric society. Social implications: Motoring will become less democratic. We must restore American railroad system. This would have the biggest effect. The infrastructure is there. Bolivia would be ashamed of our rails system.

We need a project to boost confidence. We should not be passive victims of history. Trains, barges and boats are more efficient than trucks. “The downscaling of America”. How we feed ourselves, trade, inhabit terrain. Globalism is transient, it needs cheap energy and world peace. We are seeing more friction between countries fighting for oil. China is much closer to Central Asia. Crop yields will go down. Crops will be grown for people. Kunstler does not know what the other arrangements will be. A lot of economic losers will be around. A lot of turbulence in the former middle class. Fascism: Americans will beg to be pushed around. You will be lucky if the feds answer the phone. Kuntsler thinks it will not be an orderly transition. It may get violent. Living standards will go down.

WalMart will be toast in 10 years. They are really very fragile, just a warehouse on wheels. “Bargain shopping”, but what is the bargain? Mega-city: Cities will contract, centers will densify, especially along waterfronts We will get more serious about boats. Buildings are being made to be heated with natural gas. Many Midwestern cities are contracting now. Buildings will be 5 floors and under. Cities will be gothic/medieval in scale. We will have electricity if we are lucky. Mechanics will be very necessary. Now we are in automobile slum. “The public realm” will come back. Knowing your history allows you to face the future with confidence. It gives you a hopeful present. We have places not worth caring about. Suburbia is not worthy of us.

He saw a bumper sticker on a Ford Expedition that said “War is not the answer.” If you drive an SUV, war IS the answer. Young people will be forced to be heroic. We are a nation of clowns. We will need to get serious. We used to be an earnest people, no wishing for the Powerball lottery. Public speaking will be an important skill. We need a serious discussion about nuclear. Heating houses will resolve themselves in 5 years. 1890s: 10% of the workforce was servants. Urban/rural distinction may become very sharp again. Suburbia muddled the distinction. In 25 years, electricity may not be around.

Many laws mandate suburban sprawl. Phoenix, Arizona will shrink a lot, due to energy and water. For Las Vegas, the excitement will be over. The problem with pushing biofuels is that assumes we will have an orderly transition. It may be disorderly. Marketing, PR may not be around much longer. Adults do not engage in wishful thinking. There is a failure of authority, and of the legitimacy of authority. College may be elitist again.

Image from Wikimedia


Most Technology Today Is Useless

One thing that has been bugging me recently is that a lot of what is going on in technology is stupid and pointless. I think the big issues facing not only the USA, but the world as a whole are peak oil and climate change. If we don’t find something to replace fossil fuels, I think we will backslide technologically and deal with a lot of societal and geopolitical tensions.

Hedge funds and banks on Wall Street hired people with degrees in math and physics to develop software that figured out ways to trade more profitably. I think society would be better off if mathematicians and physicists actually worked on math and physics. And the financial-industrial complex nearly drove society off a cliff. So much for the idea that the best and brightest know how to allocate resources effectively. Or that they were all that bright to begin with.

The free market may be good at solving short-term wants, but it does not seem very good with long-term needs. Perhaps in a country where more people look at the web sites for Fox News and ESPN than The Oil Drum or Oil Price it’s a futile quest.

I was at a startup conference about six months ago here in Chicago. It seemed like most of the companies were “building mobile social networks so you can send your tweets to your friends’ iPhones.” I felt like playing “Worthless Copycat Technology Bingo”. There was one that was trying to commercialize a new process for manufacturing solar panels. Pretty much everything else was Garbage 2.0. One was a social network for men so they can get together and do manly things. They had pictures of guys playing cards, and mountain biking, playing video games. What they offer that you couldn’t get from Meetup, Craigslist or Facebook was unclear to me.

There were a few articles a few months ago on Business Insider about a presentation by Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, on their hiring practices. It went on and on about how they want “A-players”, and how to reward them, blah blah blah. A few commenters pointed out that it’s absurd for Netflix to talk about how they want the smartest people. All they do is rent movies; they are not curing cancer. Given that the stock price has gone from $300 to $66, that their plan to split the company in two was withdrawn after about 3 weeks, that they took a lot of heat for raising prices dramatically and that they are losing subscribers, I think it’s fair to ask if Mr Hastings deserves even mediocre employees.

If you are not solving an A-problem, then you don’t really need A-players.

Image from Kristian Dela Cour on Flickr