Saturday, June 23, 2007

The So What of Earlier Primaries

The current issue of the Atlantic Monthly has a short article (subscription required) assessing what imapct the earlier schedule of primaries might have on the presidential elections. The specific assertion that caught my eye was that, by shaking out the field earlier, we might better get to know the final candidates (Republican & Democratic) during the general election - and might avoid the mistake of electing an unknown quantity as president, with Bush and Carter cited as examples. The current, counter-veiling argument that I've seen to all this is that the accelerated schedule will favor those candidates who come into the primaries with significant name recognition and a large war chest. I don't have too much to say on this topic, as I haven't yet dug deep into it, beyond wondering whether shaking out the big party candidates earlier might make it easier for a third party or independent candidate to mount a serious run - a la Bloomberg entering the race late, or even the approach Fred Thompson is taking to the Republican nomination? I'm not saying this is a good thing, but as I try to keep up with the chancing dynamics of our elections, I'm still trying to find the bright side... Thoughts? Hopefully more informed than mine?

Facebook & LinkedIn Open Up has a lead article on the promise of Facebook. While the headlines are a little grandiose, I do agree with the conclusions, albeit for different reasons. Specifically, I think that Facebook is poised to become both an entrenched and fundamentally revolutionary web platform. I think opening up to the development platform to the developer community at large will accelerate this trend, but what I think that Facebook fundamentally got right, better than any other major player in the social networking space, is their underlying model of a social network - how they represent the people, relationships, entities, and other parts of what makes our lives rich, outside of the internet.

Once a few years pass and a generation (with a small g) comes of age with social networking technology, and the hub-bub of college freshman's profiles coming back to haunt them as job seekers (and similar stories) disappear, I think you'll find the data, user base, and applications supported by a platform like Facebook to be truly enriching to our day to day lives - from dating, to maintaining friendships over continents, to nurturing communities of interests, to professional uses like job seeking, recruiting, and even relationship-based selling.

It'll be interesting to see how it all plays.

In related news, LinkedIn has announced that it will be opening up its platform, as well, in the next year. Also, check out Mashable, a cool blog that I've only recently found, reviewing trends in social networking websites. I'll try to come back to what I like about Facebook, and more generally on social networking and community websites in a future post, but it just hasn't been top of mind recently.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Green Ambition

On my jaunt out to San Diego last week, I picked up a copy of Seed Magazine, which takes stylistic cues from Wired and other culture magazines, and applies them to the world of science, producing a sort of hipster-Scientific American, I guess. I've read the magazine a few times, and have generally found it to be decent. In the June 2007 issue, I was specifically drawn to the cover story, "The China Experiment," promising a detailed look into technology initiatives native to China focused on improving the environment. While the article contained a couple of interesting facts (15 of the top 20 cities on the World Bank's assessment of "most polluted cities" are in China), a number of quoted platitudes ("It's historic," says Kishan Khoday, head of the UNDP's energy and environment program in China. "It's going to take efforts on all angles of the issue to get it done"), by and far the most interesting parts were the anecdotes of specific initiatives that have been undertaken to green China, sometimes in unique ways. For example:
"For the Olympics, a designated weather modifciation office will reduce air and ground pollution before the Games by shooting rockets filled with silver iodide into the sky to make rain. Beijing's Science and Technology Department has been experimenting with hormone therapy and cross-breeding to produce flowers that can withstand a Beiging August. "I'm sure that during those three weeks it will be crystal-clear in Beijing," energy analyst [Jim] Brock says. "They're playing with all sorts of things."
A weather machine? It's the sheer audacity of the project that is both terrifying and encouraging. Perhaps when they focus their energy on climate change or clean energy production. On a less sinister note, the article also mentions the growth of market for locally-implemented solar power solutions - where in villages and small cities with inconsistent grids, local entrepreneurs have seized a market opportunity to create stores like the "Solar Supermarket" dealing in solar generators, heaters, and cookers that provide cleaner energy to poorer populations.

On a separate note, carried a story today about announcing an initiative to develop plug-in hybrid electric vehicles that would far out-pace current standards for mgp. While it seems doubtful that even $10 million is sufficient to make a dent in the problem, Google's commitment to innovation in new problem spaces continues to impress. More over, the dual focus on technology innovation and thinking about new ways of addressing the market are also very encouraging:
Google said Tuesday it is getting in on the development of electric vehicles, awarding $1 million in grants and inviting applicants to bid for another $10 million in funding to develop plug-in hybrid electric vehicles capable of getting 70 to 100 miles per gallon.

The project, called the RechargeIT initiative and run from Google's philanthropic arm,, aims to further the development of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles - cars or trucks that have both a gasoline engine and advanced batteries that recharge by plugging into the nation's electric grid.

"Since most Americans drive less than 35 miles per day, you easily could drive mostly on electricity with the gas tank as a safety net," Dan Reicher, director of Climate and Energy Initiatives for, wrote on the organization's Web site. "In preliminary results from our test fleet, on average the plug-in hybrid gas mileage was 30-plus mpg higher than that of the regular hybrids."

The project also aims to develop vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, allowing cars to sell their stored power back to the nation's electricity grid during times of peak demand.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Slowing Online Sales

Like you, the NYT headline caught my eye last week "Online Sales Lose Steam!" What could it mean? Recession? The resurrection of the brick and mortar? The mom and pop? Bookstores? Record stores? Dubious, I bookmarked it - but before I could issue a takedown, beat me to it.

While Jack Shafer gives the story the rod from a journalistic perspective, I'll issue my one and only piling-on: which is my general dismay at the way both market researchers and consultancies (like Jupiter, the issuer of the data) and the NYT are able to take the data-rich markets and behaviors of the web and gin up sensationalist stories that don't really add up to much. Do I have lots of evidence of this happening? No, not right now. Does it irk me, nonetheless? Yes.

Is City Living Too Dear?

RM sends an article describing a project by the organization Best Foot Forward to systematically measure the Ecological Footprint of the city of London. The article, which is part of a sequence of articles on "Megacities," posits that city dwellers contribute a disproportionate load to energy and resource consumption, and that the growing move to urbanization, generally, and "Megacities," specifically, represent an increased ecological concern

Urbanites, even in poor cities, tend to have the money to consume more than their rural brethren, Rees says, so cities tend to have outsized ecological footprints. However, he notes, public transportation, efficient heating, streamlined services, and other things that are economical in cities but not elsewhere can ease urbanization's impact on the environment. “Cities do enable—if we organize them properly—the displacement of private cars in favor of public transportation, cogeneration, recycling, and remanufacturing,” he says. “In general, high-income cities increase the ecological footprint because of rising incomes and rising consumption, but we could—through intervention in the economy, appropriate planning, densification, and tax policies—turn it around. But so far we are choosing not to do so.

”The number of urbanites has tripled since the early 1960s and now represents half of the world's 6.5 billion population, which approximately doubled during that time. Meanwhile, our global footprint has more than doubled since the early 1960s, when it took up half the planet's renewable resources. It now exceeds the Earth's resources by about 25 percent, meaning that we are degrading the planet's ability to support us. If you think of those resources as a bank account, we are no longer living only off the interest. We are spending capital.

In sending the article, RM mentioned that he was surprised at the assertion that urbanites were bad ecological citizens, citing his impression (one that I share) that cities tend to be more efficient consumers of resources, due to economies of scale, generally, and the enabling of specific public policies, like those mentioned in the article, for which cities allow.

So how to disentangle the assertion of urbanites as bad actors? Well, the first is to understand the comparison. When comparing the Environmental Footprint of an urbanite to a ruralite, I think the assertion probably holds true. Let's consider a developed economy comparison of an urbanite in a city like New York or London to their rural counterpart - it is probably true that the urbanite both consumes net more products and services as well as requires those products and services to be imported in to the city and disposed of out of the city, whereas the ruralite may consume more locally produced products, and be able to dispose of them more efficiently (if not, necessarily, any more safely). Similarly, in a developing country standpoint, the challenge often may be that those ruralites are, in fact, rural poor, and simply do not have the economic capability to consume at parity with their urban counterparts, even the urban poor. In both cases, the impact is likely to bias the comparison against the urban population.

The challenge in that comparison lies in the fact that, at least as far as modern economies have grown, people get drawn to urban centers based on the ability of cities to create wealth, jobs, and opportunity. The logical conclusion of a finding that rural living is more sustainable that urban living - which would be to encourage more people to live in rural settings - does not hold at scale, because rural economies generally can't sustain the population mass, and therefore, those populations migrate to urban centers. Hence, global trends towards urbanization.

I think the more salient and actionable lessons from the analysis are to focus on patterns of consumption (among both rural and urban populations, but probably exaggerated among urban populations), trying to align consumption more closely with sustainability (i.e., how can we convince people to simply consume less) and separately, investing in public policy that continues to increase the efficiency by which products and services can be delivered to urban markets.

And a last note - the greater difficulty in the urban vs. rural comparison above is that it is probably not the demographically relevant comparison. Rather, of a greater concern is the trend to suburbs, exurbs, and other types of "cities" where citizens have the "richer" consumption patterns of urban environments, but benefit from none of efficiencies in delivering those services created by dense, urban environments. This rapid development of suburbia, and the patterns of living and consumption there are the demographic trend probably warrants the most concern.