Archive for November, 2007

Thoughts on Electricity

November 27th, 2007

I installed the TED Model 1000 in my house last week and the results have been interesting, if not revelatory. The device hooks into my circuit breaker panel and has a separate display that plugs into any outlet in the house. When set up, it shows exactly how much electricity we consume, updated every second. I can add the rates I pay and see how much I am spending on a per-second basis as well. It is fascinating to see the difference when we turn on/off a single light.

I have a couple of observations from a week of using the thing:

1) We have a usage “baseline”, or several actually. In the middle of the night (grr, insomnia) with all the lights out and everything closed down, we have an ambient drain of about 0.15 kwh. During the day, even with all the lights off, it is higher- more like 0.6 kwh. I haven’t figured out why this is exactly. I’m starting to suspect that the refrigerator works harder in daytime when it gets opened and closed regularly.

2) Savings will come from a few big changes like trying to use the dishwasher less (or maybe not at all), and a lot of small ones. I tend to leave lights (or music) on in a room if I leave, but know I’ll reenter in a couple of minutes. I can now quantify exactly how much that costs me and I’m inclined to do it less.

I also have a wish: the device has a USB port, but apparently it isn’t functional. I’d really love to work through the data in greater detail on my computer, so I wish the TED’s makers would turn on the port and build some software to let me analyze consumption patterns.

I’d also like more granularity, but that isn’t realistic. I’d like to see the data measured on a per-outlet basis so I could figure out *exactly* how much energy each electrical device I own draws. That’s beyond the scope of the TED, though.

The TED cost $150, plus a few dollars to have an electrician hook it up. It was a pretty nominal cost for some very interesting data. People say they made up the cost pretty quickly with the money saved on electrical bills. We’ll see how long that takes.

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Air Travel on the Brain

November 21st, 2007

On the evening of the Thanksgiving holiday, here is a gorgeous visualization of air travel across the US, compiled by a graphic artist named Aaron Koblin. I’m a sucker for stuff like this. The static views are beautiful, but the time lapse version is mesmerizing.

[youtube H2qTwvaQ_F4]

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When is a Secret not a Secret?

November 19th, 2007

This isn’t really my area, but I find the idea of “secrets” fascinating.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling last Friday in an interesting case. An Oregon Islamic charity named Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation came to believe that it had been the object of warrantless wiretapping surveillance in the aftermath of September 11, and brought a civil action against President Bush and other US government officials.

During the proceedings, government lawyers inadvertently delivered to Al-Haramain a National Security Administration call log marked “Top Secret” together with other unclassified information. The log (which the court’s opinion doesn’t actually describe) was given to Al-Haramain’s attorneys and directors and seen by a Washington Post journalist. The FBI then collected all copies of the log from Al-Haramain’s counsel (though perhaps not from its directors).

The Ninth Circuit ultimately held that the log, though it had been disclosed, still counted as a “state secret” and could not be used by Al-Haramain to support its warrantless wiretapping claims. It sounds like that was their only piece of solid evidence, so the pundits say the organization’s chances of success are now close to nil.

What intrigues me about this is what “secret” means here. Apparently it means “still secret even though it has been disclosed”. Had this been a trade secrets case in which, say, the mythic Coca-Cola formula had been inadvertently disclosed to Pepsi Co it is hard to believe that the court would have still called it a “secret”- once disclosed there is no more secret.

To my eye (admittedly inexperienced in these matters), the court punts on this. It says, offering some rather thin reasoning and assurances that it reviewed the materials and found them to be very sensitive indeed, that even though the secret was disclosed to Al-Haramain, the government had not waived the state secrets privilege.

It sounds like the court was concerned that in a different set of circumstances the secret information could have been made completely public, destroying any shred of actual secrecy. Worried about pointing toward such a course of action in future inadvertent disclosure cases, the court allowed the government to maintain the fiction that the information was still secret.

So to answer the initial question, a trade secret ceases to exist once disclosed.  A state secret can apparently be much more open and retain its secret identity.  Interesting indeed.

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Pathclearer- a Blank Slate Approach to Commercial Contracts, and not having to define “Beer”

November 10th, 2007

Attorney/entrepreneur D C Toedt posted a thought-provoking piece on his blog called the “Pathclearer” approach to commercial contracts. The premise, as articulated by an attorney at English brewer Scottish & Newcastle, is that commercial agreements and one-time transactions are different beasts, but lawyers erroneously tend to treat them the same.

An M&A transaction, for example, is a one-time occurrence. Details are tremendously important because if something goes wrong the only practical recourse may be litigation.

A commercial agreement, on the other hand, is the start of a relationship. For the most part, both sides will perform happily so long as it benefits them, and poorly or not at all if it doesn’t- i.e. there is no way in the real world to force a relationship to work if one side doesn’t want to be in it.

That being the case, Pathclearer asks if simpler and shorter agreements might work better in many cases. Start with a bare agreement to work together and add in only what is necessary to make the parameters clear.

I love this approach, and for many reasons. The Pathclearer article points to a great example of a relationship bound up with such a complex set of documents that even after both sides agreed the relationship wasn’t working they couldn’t change it because they couldn’t figure out with certainty what the terms of the deal actually were.

Even more to the point, this sort of “blank slate” approach might (we hope) let people think about the issues that are actually important rather than wordsmithing the fine points (such as the example of hours spent by the lawyers trying to define “beer” precisely).

At the same time, would a company (or a lawyer- such as me, perhaps) look hopelessly naive trying to put this idea into practice? I can see the Pathfinder idea working very well in certain situations and causing enormous consternation in others where the experiences of the opposite side lead it to feel that every detail matters (as I have found to be the case with many large organizations).

Rather than a specific plan of action, then, I take the Pathclearer approach to heart as a philosophy. I believed in the idea before I saw the article, or I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention. Still, it is useful to think about the purposes of the Pathclearer concept, and approach commercial agreements with those thoughts in mind:

*Identify the business concerns before reviewing the agreement
*Focus on the key issues. Remove or ignore stuff that doesn’t matter
*Avoid tinkering with the language that isn’t critical
*Reduce and simplify as much as possible

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My Ongoing Experiment with Digital Signatures

November 9th, 2007

A few weeks ago Dave Winer posted a screed about the complexity of the VC financing process. One of his points was that legal transactions rely on the fax machine- that unglamorous item of 1980s technology- to an inordinate degree.

He’s right. It is a cumbersome process: email documents, open attachment, print, fax, (sometimes mail originals) repeat.

There has been a law on the books in the U.S. since 1999 called E-SIGN that says electronic signatures are just as valid as manual ones, provided a few simple requirements are met. So why are people still using fax? Are lawyers simply luddites?

Perhaps, but I decided to try out some digital signature services- if nothing else to see why few people ever talk about them. Since I really don’t like reviewing products I am not going to name the services I tried, but instead to make some general observations based on the handful of transactions I have used them for.

People aren’t Ready for “Pure Digital” Signatures
Under E-SIGN a “signature” can consist of a digital stamp in the footer of a document with the date and some identifying information (such as an email address). A sample is below.

In practice this does not work for humans. I used this format in one transaction and the exact words of the opposing counsel were “I’m sure it is legally binding but I don’t have time to look it up”. This format isn’t required by E-SIGN, of course- one of the other services uses a font style that looks like a signature and puts it in the “right” spot in the signature block on the document (see below).

This is a seemingly small thing that makes a world of difference.

Fax “Just Works”
One of the services let me add nifty “stickies” to the signature blocks in my documents and when it worked scrolled signatories through the documents to just the right spots and collected all of the needed information beautifully. The problem was that it didn’t work reliably. One signatory couldn’t open the “digital envelope” containing the file at all and I had to resort to paper and fax. The whole thing also only works in Windows and requires a desktop download, so I could only use it from one computer (and that with Parallels installed).

Fax, on the other hand, uses tried-and-true technology and only needs to be compatible with the phone line. Low tech and the darn headers are ugly, but the process is effective and doesn’t require much thought. I like to think, but not about how to send my signature pages out.

I Still Want a Digital Signature Facility
I said previously that I would very much like a digital signature facility that I can route documents through as an adjunct to- and probably eventually as a replacement for- the manual pen/paper/fax. I still do. The systems need some tuning, but they will get there. The founder of one of the services in particular has been endlessly helpful to me in my experimentation and I hope he keeps at it until he gets the system down. It will work eventually, it’s just going to take some time and iteration to get it to “just work” as smoothly as fax does at its best.

Tivo Finally Sells its Viewer Data

November 9th, 2007

I probably watch about one hour of TV per week, but I still love Tivo since it means I can watch that one hour’s worth any time I want.

They just announced their own Nielsen-style viewer statistics package for advertisers. I suppose this shows how much I don’t know about broadcast media, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why they didn’t do this years ago. I know they have all the data on what Tivo users watch, so it seems like a no-brainer to put that data to work bringing in revenue for the company.

Side note to Mr. Tivo: please use the incremental revenue from this program to bring back the lifetime subscription. If you do that, even if it is only for a short-time promotion, I promise to buy a second box.

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How Greg Lemond Might Respond to Dick Costolo and Marc Andreesen

November 8th, 2007

In Founders at Work, Joshua Schachter advises new entrepreneurs to keep the product simple- do one thing and do it well, in essence. This strategy worked well for del.icio.us, which is a simple (in a good way) web tool. He built it largely on his own in his spare time while working for Morgan Stanley and that setup worked very well for him.

Mike Ramsay from Tivo, on the other hand, developed an extremely complex product (I found great humor in the section of the book where he describes the enormous back-end efforts to manage programming information for every TV service in the US, and then explains why he feels compelled to throttle anyone who describes Tivo as “like a digital VCR”) that required enormous engineering, marketing and other resources. Tivo raised significant money from VCs and went public to raise even more. Again, this has worked well for Tivo.

This pattern also reminds me of the Dick Costolo/Marc Andreesen online debate about raising outside capital that I continue to see discussed from time to time. Dick built Feedburner with a relatively small amount of outside cash, developed an excellent product with it and sold the company to Google for a solid return. Consequently, his advice to entrepreneurs is to raise enough capital to allow for a good return for founders and investors even if the business is not a home run.

Marc, on the other hand, has built two large businesses and sold each of them for over $1B- two grand slams. Both companies were heavily VC funded and Marc believes that the cash gave both businesses the wherewithal to survive difficult times, revise their business plans and ultimately become very successful. Based on his experience, then, the advice is to raise as much money as possible whenever it is available on acceptable terms.

All of these companies and people were successful, which means all of them are correct. Del.icio.us and Feedburner needed only modest capital to acheive their objectives. Tivo, Netscape and Opsware needed far more.

This brings me back to a piece of advice I picked up years ago in an entirely different context. Professional cyclist Greg Lemond wrote a book on cycling training in which he talked about one of the great fallacies of training- emulating someone else’s habits just because the person was famous or successful. As he put it “what works for ___ is good because it works for ____. That fact that it worked for ___ doesn’t mean it is right for anyone else.”

In other words, the paths to success of others are valuable for the ideas they can provide, but they are not the “right” path for everyone. Past experiences are data points to analyze, not prescriptions to swallow whole.

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California Clean Tech Open, TED 1000 and the Refrigerator-Unit Electricity Measure

November 1st, 2007

I attended the California Clean Tech Open Finals this week, a business plan competition for emerging companies in the clean technology area. The companies were impressive and the event sold out at 900 tickets- both great signs for the sector.

Having reflected on it, two thoughts stick in my head about the event:

1) The tradeshow format (someone I know likes to refer to it as a “science fair”) is brutal, and perhaps hardest on new businesses. With no context (esp name recognition) other than the information the companies present it is very hard to tell which companies have real prospects.

2) One of the evening’s speakers was Noah Horowitz from the NRDC. He gave a fascinating talk about the power drain of consumer electronic devices. Per my recollection, a 2 or 3 tuner digital video recorder such as Tivo uses as much energy per year as a refrigerator. An Xbox360 or PS3 uses huge amounts of peak power, and if inadvertently left on will drain as much electricity as two refrigerators per year.

I had no idea I had so many refrigerators in my house. If nothing else, the event prompted me to buy a TED 1000 to display real-time electricity usage in my house. I’ll be interested to see how many more refrigerators I have hiding in my house.

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