Monday, August 25, 2008


Link to article

Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein, two Tokyo-based architects who have turned PowerPoint, that fixture of cubicle life, into both art form and competitive sport. Their innovation, dubbed pecha-kucha (Japanese for "chatter"), applies a simple set of rules to presentations: exactly 20 slides displayed for 20 seconds each. That's it. Say what you need to say in six minutes and 40 seconds of exquisitely matched words and images and then sit the hell down.

Link to JoelOnSoftware article

It sounded like a good idea. Speakers have to plan very carefully and rehearse repeatedly to make sure their speech is going to synchronize correctly with the slides, which makes for a more polished speech. They have to edit mercilessly to boil their subject matter down to 400 seconds, which makes it more interesting and dynamic. And if they suck, well, you don't have to wait very long for them to go away!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

101 Atheist Quotes

An interesting read for atheists and religious people alike:

Link to Atheist Blogger page

Another quote that I quite like:

The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not.

- Eric Hoffer

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Advice on how to run effective meetings

Link to Cnet article

For companies to operate effectively, executives, managers, and key employees need to know how to run effective meetings. Meetings are how conflicts are resolved and plans are agreed upon. They are how critical strategic and operating processes are developed, managed, and to some extent, executed. Conversely, ineffective meetings result in lost productivity and frustration. They can also be a sign of a dysfunctional workplace, which can result in operating failure.

Three rules of meeting etiquette
  1. Every meeting has a start time and an end time.
  2. Every meeting is run by someone who is responsible for every aspect of the meeting including agenda, attendance, punctuality, and documentation. That person keeps everyone on topic and moves the meeting along using the methods described below.
  3. Key decisions that are reached during the meeting regarding strategies, plans or objectives should be published by whoever ran the meeting within one day. That also goes for follow-up or action required and an owner for each item.
Five rules of engagement for effective meetings
  1. Listening is good. Gratuitous speech is bad. Silence means consent. Don't chime in just to hear your own voice.
  2. Presenting new ideas or brainstorming is good. Knocking down another's idea is bad. There's a time for reaching consensus.
  3. Attack the problem or issue, not the person you disagree with. "I don't agree with you" is okay, but "I think you're an idiot" isn't.
  4. Stay on topic, but don't beat a dead horse. Save other subjects for other meetings. Use a "parking lot" for important issues that may need to be revisited at a later date.
  5. Be open, honest, and forthcoming. Don't hold back, bullshit, or sugar-coat issues. This is especially critical in meetings where key decisions are based on the information presented.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Death of Network Television

Link to article

Cable networks target just those viewers who want what they have to offer. Broadcast networks want everyone. And the business of wanting everyone has never been worse. At the end of last season, ABC, CBS, and NBC reported their smallest combined audience ever, an event that has become a gloomy yearly occurrence.

Ways that broadcast TV might be reborn:
  1. Accept the fact that niche is the new normal
  2. Know your brand
  3. Don't count on "flow" unless all your programming is aimed at the same audience
  4. Content counts
  5. When you say the TV season is 52 weeks, you have to mean it
  6. Don't break faith with your audience
  7. If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em
  8. Lowered expectations can be your best friend
Conversations about the future of television tend to vault way past next week or next year into a world where schedules don't exist and 10,000 programming options are all available at any moment, half of them fully interactive... It sounds like fun. But in reality, the number of cable channels has topped out. And the number of households that subscribe to basic cable—about 65 million—hasn't budged for a decade.

To redefine itself, FX had to make casual viewers expendable in order to build its rep with committed ones. "We want to have somebody's favorite show," Landgraf says, "not everybody's 10th-favorite show."

"A lot of times, we'll premiere an episode of Top Chef and then rerun the episode right when it's over. And people stay tuned! Some of our shows are really like crack," he laughs. This practice makes sense in two ways: It's cost-efficient and it builds loyalty. The tactic used to be dismissed as killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, until people noticed that the goose kept on thriving. Now it's just a matter, as Cohen puts it, of "feeding the beast."

Discussions at the networks about what's depleting their viewership tend to focus on familiar culprits: YouTube. The internet. Xbox. The iPod. Too many options. Instead, the networks should try to make TV shows for people who want to watch TV shows.

Broadcast networks routinely spend three months promoting a show that they then cancel after two airings. Or they get a few million viewers hooked on a serialized drama and then drop it midway through a season, leaving fans hanging. This simply never happens on cable, where if a series gets a 13-episode order, those 13 episodes are damn well going to air, even if it's just because there’s nothing else to take their place. Every time the networks reshuffle their grid in a spasm of quick-fix panic, they disenchant more viewers. (a textbook example: Joss Whedon's Firefly)

For 50 years, pop culture has moved in only one direction—toward more options, fewer mass phenomena, and greater consumer control. And there's no turning that around, especially with a generation of viewers that sees no meaningful distinction between a broadcast network and a cable channel.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Shai Agassi - Better Places

Shai Agassi's TED Talk

Link to article

The problem, he decided, was oil-consuming, CO2-spewing cars. The solution was to get rid of them. Not just some, and not just by substituting hybrids or flex fuels. No half measures. The internal combustion engine had to be retired. The future was in electric cars.

Agassi reimagined the entire automotive ecosystem by proposing a new concept he called the Electric Recharge Grid Operator. It was an unorthodox mashup of the automotive and mobile phone industries. Instead of gas stations on every corner, the ERGO would blanket a country with a network of "smart" charge spots. Drivers could plug in anywhere, anytime, and would subscribe to a specific plan—unlimited miles, a maximum number of miles each month, or pay as you go—all for less than the equivalent cost for gas. They'd buy their car from the operator, who would offer steep discounts, perhaps even give the cars away. The profit would come from selling electricity—the minutes.

When I ask Shai if he's worried about a competitor stealing his idea, he stares at me like I'm an idiot. "The mission is to end oil," he says, "not create a company."

Most startups try out their product on beta testers. Agassi wanted a beta country. A cooperative national government would be willing to modify the tax code or offer other incentives—essential to getting consumers on board quickly.

The entire staff is trying to write a mission statement with help from a moderator. He flips through slides on a screen: "Our mission is to transform personal mobility." "Our mission is to break the world's oil addiction (before it breaks us)."

Agassi, in a black leather jacket, a stiff blue-and-white button-down, and faded jeans, stops the moderator. "We still think we're selling to them," he says, after one of his long, drawn-out pauses. "We're not. It's not us to them. It's them to us. You see, people want this to happen; we just happen to be in the way of their getting what they want. We can't give them the car fast enough. That's something we need to capture: 'We're here to serve you,' not 'We're here to sell to you.' We're a facilitator, not the creator. This is going to be a community. We just need to get out of their way. They're going to push for policy, they're going to sell the cars, they're going to be zealots."

Update: article on EVs being deployed in Hawaii, and the reasons why Hawaii is ideal as a test site

Update: article showing Better Place's battery swap prototype

What should companies build? (Steve Yegge)

Stevey's Blog Rants: Business Requirements are Bullshit

Some investing advice:

Warren Buffett and Peter Lynch, both famous and successful investors, say pretty much the same thing about investing. Peter Lynch's mantra sums it up: "invest in what you know."

If you actually take the time to read Lynch's books (which I have), you'll see that this pithy mantra is a placeholder for something a bit more subtle: you should invest in what you know and like. You should invest in companies that make products or services that you are personally excited about buying or using right now.

When you invest with this strategy, you're taking advantage of your local knowledge, which tends to be more accurate than complicated quantitative packets put together by analysts. And your local knowledge is definitely more accurate than the reports produced by the companies, who want to paint themselves in the nicest light.

Warren took a lot of heat in the 1990s for not investing in the tech sector. But hey, he didn't feel comfortable with tech, so he didn't invest in it. One way to look at this is: "ha ha, what a dinosaur, he sure missed out, and now he's, uh, only the richest person in the world by a small margin." But another, more accurate way to look at it is this: he's the richest person in the world, you asshole. When he gives you investment advice, take it!

Let's say, for instance, that you hear that Subway (the sandwich franchise) is going to do an IPO. They've been privately held all these years and now they're going public. Should you invest? Well, let's see... the decision now isn't quite as cut-and-dried as it was in their rapid-expansion phase, so, um, let me see, with current economic conditions, I expect their sales to, uh... let me see if I can find their earnings statement and maybe some analyst reports...

No! No, No, NO!!! Bad investor! That's the kind of thinking that loses your money. The only question you should be asking yourself is: how many Subway sandwiches have I eaten in the past six months? If the number is nontrivial — say, at least six of them — and the rate of sandwiches per month that you eat is either constant or increasing, then you can think about looking at their financials. If you don't eat their sandwiches, then you'd better have a LOT of friends who eat them every day, or you're breaking the cardinal rule of Buffett and Lynch.

The key message of the blog post (takes a while to get there):

You can look at any phenomenally successful company, and it's pretty obvious that their success was founded on building on something they personally wanted. The extent that any company begins to deviate from this course is the extent to which their ship starts taking on water.

And the key leading indicator that they're getting ready to head off course? You guessed it: it's when they start talking about gathering business requirements.

Because, dude, face it: if it's something you want, then you already know what the requirements are. You don't need to "gather" them. You think about it all the time. You can list the requirements from memory. And usually it's pretty simple.

And the most important part, if you want to start your own company (the example Steve uses is the Flip camcorder):

You don't need an original idea to be successful. You really don't. You just need to make something that people want. Even if someone else appears to be making something popular, it's usually possible to improve on the idea and grab market share. And it's painfully counterintuitive at times, but the best improvements often come from simplifying.

The easiest way to build a product that kicks ass is to start with someone else's great idea (camcorders, for instance), and take stuff away.

In any event, originality is overrated. Coming up with something completely original isn't just hard to do: it's also hard to sell, because investors (and possibly customers) will need to be educated on what this new thing is and why people would want it. And when it comes to buying stuff, nobody likes to be educated. If the product isn't immediately obvious, investors and customers will pass it up.

It's easy to come up with new product ideas if you start with the understanding that everything sucks. There are no completely solved problems. Just because someone appears to be dominating a market with an "ideal" offering doesn't mean you can't take market share from them by building a better one. Everything can stand improvement. Just think about what you'd change if you were doing it for yourself, and everything should start falling into place.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Pro-lifers! Ban breast-feeding, caffeine, and exercise!

Link to letter by William Saletan (of Slate)

Choice excerpts:

In particular, I commend the language of the draft, which would define abortion as "any of the various procedures—including the prescription, dispensing and administration of any drug or the performance of any procedure or any other action—that results in the termination of the life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation."

To classify oral contraception as abortifacient, one would have to posit a scenario in which the drug fails to block ovulation, then fails to block fertilization, and yet somehow, having proved impotent at every other task, manages to prevent implantation.

Breast-feeding, like oral contraception, alters a woman's hormonal balance, thereby suppressing ovulation, fertilization, and, theoretically, implantation.

The evidence suggests that drinking 10 ounces of coffee per day could double the probability of miscarriage. Therefore, to avoid the theoretical abortifacient risk, employees must be guaranteed the right to refuse caffeinated beverages to any woman who appears to be of childbearing age.

Research published last year in a British journal of gynecology demonstrated that, as with caffeine, "exercise early in pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of miscarriage." Again, to avoid abortifacient risk in women who are not yet pregnant, the draft regulation must guarantee the right to withhold any collaboration in exercise by women of childbearing age.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Women, Overwork, Borrowing

The linked article describes these are the three coping mechanisms that were used by American workers over the last 30 years - the wife entering the workplace, working more hours, and borrowing (credit cards, mortgages, home equity loans, etc.)

The author's prescription for improving the health of the economy are as follows:

The only way to keep the economy going over the long run is to increase the real earnings of middle-class and lower-middle-class Americans. The answer is not to protect jobs through trade protection -- that would only drive up the prices of everything purchased from abroad. Most routine jobs are being automated anyway. Nor is the answer to give tax breaks to the very wealthy and to giant corporations in the hope they will trickle down to everyone else. We've tried that, and it hasn't worked. Nothing has trickled down.

Rather, the long-term answer is for us to invest in the productivity of our working people -- enabling families to afford health insurance and have access to good schools and higher education -- while also rebuilding our infrastructure and investing in the clean energy technologies of the future. We must also adopt progressive taxes at the federal, state and local levels. In other words, we must rebuild the American economy from the bottom up. It cannot be rebuilt from the top down.