Jan 22 2013
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Four San Francisco Things I Won’t Miss

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Jason Evanish’s post "25 Things I wish I knew before moving to San Francisco" has gotten a lot of traffic, and it’s a great, if a bit earnest, “newbie’s” view of SF.  I prefer a little more “bite” and usually recommend Drew Hoolhort’s "Moving to San Francisco" for a sharper look.  (EDIT:  An SF native just posted a much more grounded list).  Together, both pieces are a great guide for recent immigrants, and they got me thinking… with only a few weeks left in my 10+ year San Francisco residency before I decamp to Manhattan, rather than write about what I’ll miss, and there’s plenty I will, I thought I’d give the Interwebz a bit of balance and contribute a piece about what I’ll be happy to leave behind.

I give you:  Four San Francisco Things I Won’t Miss

  1. Gagging on the smell of raw sewage and urine.  Urine.  Everywhere urine.  Rivers of it streaming along sidewalks from the corners of buildings.  The stench of every underground passage, stair well, BART/MUNI escalator and elevator (oy, the MUNI elevators).  Mix in aggressive low flow toilet mandates, water conservation, a 100 year old combined sewer and storm drain system, and you get a pervasive “sludge” backup all over the city, with sewer gas wafting from nearly every street grate.  The city is, in effect, a giant backed up toilet.

  2. Decaying physical infrastructure. Heaps of trash, peeling paint, tagging and graffiti, broken and vandalized infrastructure, weedy unmowed grass, dead trees, cracked and uneven sidewalks… as fast as something is fixed or replaced:  it’s completely trashed.  Apart from a few exceptionally rich areas with completely private maintenance, monitoring and security, any part of the city that is covered by public services is a depressing eyesore.  With very few exceptions, the following story is repeated ad nauseum: 
    1. Bond issue passed (i.e. money is borrowed)
    2. Years of studies and “community input” complete
    3. Politicians assemble for ceremonial ground breaking
    4. Construction of new improved public space
    5. Politicians assemble for ceremonial opening
    6. Less than 24 hours after the opening festivities, the new public space is a broken trash heap, with no budget or plan for security, maintenance or anyone who gives two shits.

  3. A laughably dysfunctional government.  The stories of corruption, cronyism, and incompetence are legion.  Here’s a classic piece, and another, but these stories are everywhere you look.  In all my years here, I’ve never once met anyone who knew or cared about this.  Most residents can’t name their supervisor, nor do they vote in local elections.  It’s the government the citizens of San Francisco elect and deserve.

  4. MUNI is a joke.  A desperately unfunny joke.  Just Google “MUNI sucks” for an avalanche.  Here’s a nice summary.

Honestly, there’s probably more than four, but I don’t want to get too down on my fair city.  It was a great ride here, and while the city drives me crazy, I do love it.  

She’s an aging prostitute, who smoked and drank a bit too much, whose dress is a bit tatty, but she does know how to have a good time, and she taught me a lot.  

Farewell SF.  It’s time to move on.  I love you.  I hate you.  I will miss you.


Oct 05 2012

Politico’s “Answer This”

Politico kind of annoys me, but I’m still addicted to it.  One of the regular features I really like is their “Answer This” feature, where they give people a standard set of questions to answer… sort of the political equivalent of James Lipton’s “10 Questions”

I just discovered that a certain person from the Clinton era has appeared as an answer to these questions from more than one interviewee…

James Carville:  Think of one of your least favorite people in Washington, and without naming him or her, describe what makes that person so unappealing.  There is nothing appealing about him at all. The rule prohibits me to disclose names, but his initials are Dick Morris.

Robert Reich:  Think of one of your least favorite people in Washington and, without naming him or her, describe what makes that person so unappealing.  The smirk on Dick Morris’s face.

(And that’s how I restart my blog, after exactly a year of inactivity :)


Oct 05 2011
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What Steve Jobs Did

As told by videos that speak for themselves. 


Jun 19 2011

Video

Martin Short as Nathan Thurm, representing Big Oil.  A great bit worthy of a rerun every now and then.  With Bobby Kennedy Jr. as the interviewer.


Jun 17 2011

Google +1: Who Likes It?

17 days into the launch of Google’s +1 button, how’s it doing? 

Here’s a screen shot of the social media sharing buttons from today’s “most popular” story on HuffPo:                                 

                                      

Hmmm. 

* strokes chin *


Jun 14 2011

Video

An op-ed by Bill McKibben, author and founder of 350.org, narrated and illustrated by Stephen Thomson of Plomomedia.com


May 12 2011

Video

Ernie enjoys “Game for Cats” on the iPad 1


May 03 2011

An Outsider’s View of Google Culture

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I’ve never worked at Google, but like most Silicon Valley technologists, I know many people who have, at all levels, from both pre and post IPO eras.  I’ve also been a devoted, delighted, and frustrated user of Google products; I’ve run a startup that depended on its generous and amazing APIs; and I’ve been on campus for many a lunch, a few biz dev meetings, seminars, and a couple of interviews (which I failed, like many others do).  It’s a fascinating company, and I’ve been interested in it since I confidently scoffed at the idea of a new search engine having the audacity to compete against the likes of Inktomi and AltaVista.

So it was with great interest that I bought "In the Plex" the new book by Steven Levy, who had unprecedented insider access for two years while he developed the first “semi-authorized” biography of this groundbreaking company.  After reading it, and giving it a few days to gestate, something crystallized in my mind regarding Google culture that I had observed, but couldn’t quite put my finger on.

It manifested itself in the way I felt uncomfortable watching nerdy Google executives awkwardly interview celebrities like Conan O’Brian, Lady Gaga, and Tina Fey.

It came up when I pondered Google’s notorious feeling that management is unnecessary, intrusive, and a big waste of time and effort.  And again when I thought about its infamous lack of customer service, and its minimal, often patronizing customer engagement.

It also arose when I pondered the Google products that limply stagnate, fail outright, or in the worst case, generate a firestorm of negative PR — many of  which have a strong human (or “social”, to be buzzword compliant) component.  Buzz, Wave, Dodgeball, Blogger, Orkut, Latitude, OpenSocial, and PowerMeter are all notable examples.

After reading the Levy book, I realized the common thread among all these observations:  Google’s culture is an “unhuman” culture.

Not inhuman, but unhuman.  There are plenty of wonderful, sensitive, and empathetic humans at Google that I consider very close friends of mine, in roles as individual contributors and senior management.  But the dominant culture, philosophy, and the “Google Way” of product development is the most “unhuman” of any technology company I’ve observed.

There are a number of quotes in the book that illustrate what I mean, but this one does it best:

Marissa Mayer, the fierce protector of Google’s look, once quelled an incipient revolt by designers by finally defining what rankled her about a stunning design submitted to her. “It looks like a human was involved in choosing what went where,” Marissa told them.  “It looks too editorialized.  Google products are machine-driven.  They’re created by machines.  And that is what makes us powerful.  That’s what makes our products great.”

Google’s strength and its weakness is an abiding faith the the power of logic, algorithms, data, and the massive computational power that scales it all to previously unimagined heights.  They are nerds who think big, and they’ve hired people who think like them — the culture is remarkably homogenous in that respect.  

This homogenous culture has created the world’s most powerful search engine, the world’s most amazing voice recognition and natural language translation services, the world’s most powerful globally distributed parallel computer, the world’s best mapping and visualization service, and on and on.

But this same homogenous culture has created a huge blind spot that continually gets Google in trouble when its efforts require the involvement of messy humans on a scale beyond simply supplying search or advertising keywords.

Over and over in the book are examples where product developers proudly “dog food” their own products to thousands of Googlers for months, only to find, much to their surprise, that when released into the real world, the shit hits the proverbial fan. 

We had five thousand internal [Chrome] users, but not one noticed that Hotmail didn’t work.

And

When a Gmail user signed up for Buzz, a social network instantly appeared, based on one’s email contacts.  When this feature was tested internally, the employees trying it out loved it.  … None of the questions touched on whether there might be privacy concerns in building an instant social network based on one’s email contacts.

Not only is Google unhuman by design, but through its rigorous hiring process (Larry Page still approves every single hire), it perpetuates this culture to such an extent that it’s difficult for Google to even understand why Google is different from the real world. 

I love nerds.  I am one.  But I also think it’s a mistake to create a nerd-dominated organization.  And now we have a very rich, very powerful one in Google.  It will be interesting to continue to watch it interact with the real world, as it continues to learn and develop its algorithms and massive data stores. 

I’m sure it will continue to have the “greatest enthusiasm and confidence in its mission.


Mar 27 2011
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Preaching to the Green Choir: A Dead End

          

A recent UC Berkeley study on climate change messaging concluded that excessively emotional and fear-based messages can backfire when presented too negatively, acting to discourage behavior because they engender a sense of powerlessness. 

I’m shocked (shocked!) to find that scaring people with negative messages doesn’t change their behavior!

Excuse my sarcasm, but this obvious fact has been a hot button with me for years.  I’m not the only one.  Back in 2004, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus created a stir with their report on The Death of Environmentalism and their subsequent book that argues environmentalists were dead-ending their cause by unwittingly managing it as a special interest group — i.e., in marketing terms, a niche.

Even as early as 1970, the literature from environmental psychology and applied behavioral analysis studying what messages were most effective to get people to stop littering / recycle / etc., made it clear that fear-based negative messages are good at drawing attention, but unless they are paired with positive, empowering, and inclusive messages that foster a sense of hope, community, and shared values, they end up discouraging the very behavior they were intended to encourage, leaving their audiences feeling powerless, alienated and defeated.  In the worst case, they result in anger, distrust, and derision.

And yet, we still see the same types of marketing messages from environmental and cleantech types:

  • The polar bear trapped on a small patch of ice
  • The hockey stick graph of atmospheric carbon
  • The ubiquitous picture of a fragile planet earth, sometimes on fire
  • Belching smokestacks
  • Barren deserts
  • Exhortations to save the earth, the air, the planet, the polar bears, etc.
  • (The other dozen or two are left as an exercise for the reader.  Start with a Google image search on “climate change” for example.)

Why do these cliched, emotional, fear-based, messages persist?

Shellenberger and Nordhaus have most of the answer, and my own experience with marketing and PR types in the field provide the remainder:  it’s a vicious circle of marketing to a niche group of early adopters that respond positively to these messages, which results in continuing to define that niche group as ever more separate and isolated.  In effect, we are all too often preaching to the choir, and in the process, alienating the larger audience. 

Demographic studies show this niche group at around 10% of the population, depending on how you count (I’m being generous).  The choir is at best one in ten people.

So after giving you a somewhat emotional fear-based message about emotional fear-based messaging, I’m going to give a positive prescription for messaging, lest I be accused of committing the same sin I’m railing against.

Re-evaluate the value of marketing to niche early adopters.   The “choir” demographic is already actively seeking environmental, climate change, and cleantech information (mostly from other choir members and the web).  They don’t need to be beaten about the head to drive their behavior. We know who they are: highly educated, high income, mostly white, homeowners, left-leaning politically, etc.  We know how to reach them, and we know how to speak to them.

It’s the other 90% that requires our best marketing research and resources.  We need to start asking how to reach the “beef jerky” crowd (FYI, I love beef jerky).  We may not be able to reach the Glenn Beck demographic, but if we try speaking in a language of shared values for that outlier group, then we might very well succeed at communicating to a broader middle ground.

Adopt a list of “off limits” marketing messages and images.  We should try to develop messaging by first taking the iconography of the “choir” off the table.  In addition to the bulleted list above, I suggest removing the following hoary symbols that one might easily find in a Google image search on “environment”, “climate change,” or “renewable energy”:

  • The color green
  • The light bulb
  • Wind turbines
  • Mountains, trees, babbling brooks, the sun
  • Little girls in cotton print dresses blowing on dandelions in fields of tall grass
  • Al Gore (no disrespect to Al, but he clearly is not a mainstream marketing image).
  • You get the idea

Emphasize broader shared values:  While the broader audience may seem highly polarized, there are themes that bring together groups that, on the surface, may seem strange bedfellows: 

  • Responsibility toward children / future generations
  • Saving money, particularly as energy costs inevitably rise
  • Decreasing dependence on repressive oil-based foreign states
  • Nationalism:  restoring pride / independence
  • Negative feelings toward large monopolistic corporations

I personally have had success with these themes in my own experience marketing to diverse audiences, and I know that there must be more, and better, messages out there already being used by someone much smarter than I.

The positive conclusion of this post has been designed to communicate the shared value of reaching past niche markets to bring cleantech solutions to a more mainstream and much larger audience. 

                                      

I am indebted to my co-founder, Diane Loviglio, for the long hours of market research that informed the ideas behind this post, but she should not be blamed for anything dumb I say here, nor do I imply she agrees with any of it.

"Dead End" photo credit:  Flickr:deber10


Mar 18 2011

On “Technical” Managers

The NYT recently featured a piece on an internal Google effort, code named Project Oxygen, to study what makes a good Google manager.  Here’s the “hook” of the story:

[The study] found that technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight. What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

This is both great, and tragic.

Great, because, in the classic “googly way” (using data analytics to automatically extract findings from the texts of employee surveys), they have developed a list of criteria that is specifically tailored to help Google improve their management.  Something that many companies simply don’t have the time, resources, or worse, even the desire to accomplish.

Tragic, because the primary “hook” of the story, that technical expertise ranks dead last, is viewed by both Google and by the NYT as a sort of “man bites dog” story.

Now clearly, a manager has to have some level of technical ability.  They need to understand the issues, and provide advice and leadership when necessary.  And for first line management, who are directly managing technical contributors, they often need to help train and guide new members of the team. 

Sadly, however, the prevailing view in technology companies, and particularly in Silicon Valley technology companies, is that a manager needs to have technical expertise that is on the order of the best members of the team they manage.  I’ve heard the following phrase so many times, it’s like a broken record to me:  “Well, there’s a lot of really strong technical people on this team, and the manager needs to have the respect of the team, so blah blah blah.” 

The notion that top technical staff only respect managers who could compete with them writing code, or doing research, or designing circuits, or whatever is, to me, one of the primary reasons that technical organizations are rife with bad management.

Show me a manager who can perform the jobs of their top technical staff, and I’ll show you someone who likely micromanages, doesn’t know how to delegate, isn’t as open to solutions that don’t jive with their own biases, and is focused too much on the details while ignoring bigger, more strategic issues. 

The best manager is one that can go on vacation for a month, with the team running just as smoothly without her.  How is this done?  Because such a manager has created, delegated to, and empowered a team that can achieve its mission.  The skills required to do this rarely have anything to do with a high degree of technical ability.  This has always been true, and the Google Project Oxygen is just one more study rediscovering this “surprising” truth.

I hope that the conclusions of Google’s own excellent study are taken to heart by the company, but given the firmly embedded myth of the “strong technical manager,” I don’t think it’s going to be easy.

Graphic below courtesy the NYT.

         


Mar 10 2011

Persistent Software Development Myths

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Recently, I was interviewing for a management position at a “large Silicon Valley software company” and one of the interviewing managers asked me a fairly standard question:

"What would you do if you came into a project that was behind schedule, and, in general, a big hot mess?"

OK, I’m paraphrasing here.  He didn’t actually say “big hot mess,” but you get the idea.

I replied almost instantly:  “There’s only two things you can do.  Change the schedule, or keep the schedule while dropping function.”

I smiled, confidently.  He stared at me, expectantly.  “There’s nothing else you could do?” 

Uh oh.  Did I overlook some key management technique?  Was this interview FAIL?  Turns out, he was looking for the following answer:

"You could improve development tools, techniques, and processes."

Oy. 

I said, well, of course you could, but those are never going to fix a late project, they’ll only give you incremental improvements over a long period of time, as they slowly work their way into the development “organism.”  He didn’t seem satisfied.  I think he might have had more faith in “process” then I do.

The exchange reminded me of two myths that I keep seeing surface over and over during the last 30 years: 

  1. Excessive faith in the latest tool, technique, or process
  2. The Eternal Mythical Man Month

Process/Tool Fetishism

Here’s Kurt’s highly simplified overview of the major software development advances, since… well, since software was invented as a concept in the 1940s.

  1. 1950s:  Symbolic assemblers
  2. 1960s:  High level languages
  3. 1970s:  Code inspections, unit/function/system/performance test techniques
  4. 1980s:  Object-oriented programming
  5. 1990s:  Garbage collected interpreted/scripted languages
  6. 2000s:  Object / relational languages
  7. 2010s:  Agile / test-driven development

Of course, there’s stuff missing, but this is my personal list of the “big hitters.”  The biggest leap was in the 60s with high level languages.  Programmer productivity and quality made huge leaps, and by huge, we’re talking 2-4X or more.  After that, we’ve never seen such a big impact, regardless of the technique.  We are light years ahead of the tools Grace Hopper used on the Univac, but each new advance has offered less and less impact on overall productivity — we’re now measuring improvements in the tens of percent range, best case.  Nobody will honestly say that using Rails over a non-O/R environment will make a team twice as productive.  50%?  Maybe, if you’re lucky.

And the kicker is, even if you thought Rails could give you a 4X improvement, that’s only in the development slice of the project.  Projects don’t fail because developers are 50% slower than projected.  They fail in the requirements and design phases.  Note that my list shows no tools or techniques in that area.  It’s my humble opinion that as far as requirements and design, we’re not much better off today than Grace Hopper was.  In fact, she might do a heck of a lot better than us.

The Eternal Mythical Man Month

The second recurring myth is absolutely the most tragic, because it was identified and explained so convincingly shortly before the beginning of my programming career, way back in 1975, by Fred Brooks in his book “The Mythical Man Month.”  In its most simplified form, the book explains why throwing more people at a late project simply makes it later (“Brook’s Law”).

And yet.  I’ve never stopped seeing management throwing people (or “resources” as we say now, in HR speak) at a project to try to get it to move faster.  Almost everyone who works at a large software company today can bitch about a project where this sin is currently being committed. Why is this?  It’s not a difficult concept to grasp.  The book has been around for over 35 years, and it’s an easy read.

My personal theory is detailed in my previous post:  most management sucks.  This sounds harsh and simplistic, but it’s the only thing that makes sense to me. 

There is reason for hope, however.  Violating Brook’s law is a luxury only available to those companies that can actually afford to “throw resources at a problem.”  Today, there’s a whole lot more small software companies than large ones, so if you want to avoid management that has a habit of violating Brook’s law, then keep working in small companies, or small teams in bigger companies.

Of course even that advice is nothing new.  Back in 1963, Thomas Watson, President of IBM, was upset about the recent announcement of the Control Data 6600, which became the world’s fastest computer, beating IBM’s fastest by about 3X.  He bitched to his people in a memo:

 Last week Control Data … announced the 6600 system. I understand that in the laboratory developing the system there are only 34 people including the janitor. Of these, 14 are engineers and 4 are programmers … Contrasting this modest effort with our vast development activities, I fail to understand why we have lost our industry leadership position by letting someone else offer the world’s most powerful computer. 

When told about this memo, Seymour Cray, the designer of the 6600, replied, with characteristic verbal efficiency:

It seems like Mr. Watson has answered his own question.

A toast to Seymour, who understood Brook’s law 13 years before it was published :)

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Mar 07 2011

Why Your Manager Probably Sucks

When was the last time you heard anyone talk about their great manager?  My personal anecdotal evidence suggests that only about 2 out of 10 conversations with “managers” as the topic have positive things to say about the managers in question.  Admittedly, my sample is completely unscientific, and there may be horrendous bias in that “80% of managers suck” statistic, but even allowing for some bias, I’ve never had anyone disagree with the statement that the majority of managers they interacted with over their working life did a poor job.

Why is this?  Is management just simply too hard?  Are managers simply not learning the right management techniques?  Are there even management techniques that work?  What is it about those managers that do succeed?  What is their secret?

I’ve thought about this question as long as I’ve had managers (30 years), and as long as I’ve been one (15 years).  I’ve read a number of “management” books, and attended some “management” classes, and I’ve marveled at the huge volume of management “how to” books in the business sections at libraries and (now bankrupt) book stores.

Here’s my conclusion:  managers are born, not made. 

The best instruction can improve someone’s management skills by 10 to 20%, but if they suck at the job, there’s no fixing it.  Why did I come to this conclusion?

What, in its purest form, is a managers job?  The manager assembles and maintains a team to accomplish a task.  End of story.  Assembles and maintains a team.  If the team is skilled, motivated, empowered, and happy, they will do great things.  If they fail, they will learn from the failure, regroup, and eventually win.

If the team is dysfunctional, there isn’t a management book, course, or technique that will save them. 

Great managers create great teams.  Bad managers create bad teams.  It’s as simple as that.

Here’s the problem.  “Build and maintain a great team” is a very non-precise, non-objective, non-scientific goal.  It’s very touchy feely.  It’s all about people, who are complex and emotional and very non-scientific.  I submit that understanding people to the extent you can compose them into a great team:  knowing what roles they are capable of playing, knowing how they will interact with others, anticipating problems and heading them off, and quickly addressing them when the arrive — these are skills that one is born with, not taught. 

Additionally, I submit that only a small fraction of people are born with these skills, and that fraction is why there’s an 80% chance that your manager sucks.  And frankly, there’s not much anyone can do about it. 

Except, perhaps, to get rid of as many managers as possible, in order to increase the odds that each one, is, in fact, a born manager.


Mar 04 2011
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How Not to Talk About Energy, Part 2 of 2

                     

In the previous post, I spoke about how “energy insiders” tend to talk right past “regular people” by using units that only insiders have a feel for (kilowatts, therms, joules, BTUs etc.).  I argued that both sides could communicate much more effectively if the discussion was based in dollars, which everyone has an intuitive feel for.  That “Part 1” post was essentially the microeconomic side of my argument for a more “cost based” energy discussion.  This post is the macroeconomic side of that argument.

As important as communicating with individuals is, the energy policy discussions that happen at the state and national levels are probably even more important.  In policy discussions, the problem isn’t just that we’re talking kilowatts instead of dollars, but that economics are often completely absent.  Worse, when economics are included, they are frequently used to incite fear, uncertainty and doubt.  In its extreme form, the discussion degenerates into childish name calling and scare tactics (e.g. “radical environmentalists hell bent on destroying the American economy”).  The fact that such extreme views receive any traction at all is a testament to the lack of a “stable base” to construct a meaningful dialog.

The “instability” of the energy discussion in this country has implications.  For decades, United States energy policy has predictably and embarrassingly lurched forward and backward like a limp flag fluttering in the economic winds.  When energy prices rise, enough political capital accumulates and renewable energy / energy efficiency achieves government support (incentives, credits, subsidies, R&D grants, etc.), only to disappear when the economic outlook turns grim and energy prices recede.  The appearance, disappearance, and reappearance of the White House solar panels are visual evidence of this phenomenon.

Recently the Chamber of Commerce’s Karen Harbert called for an “adult and unemotional” conversation about energy costs.  Not surprisingly, the reason for this call is that the Chamber questions the “types of monies that were spent in the stimulus package on very high-cost energy sources” “in light of the country’s economic troubles.” 

While I’m sure I’d disagree with Ms. Harbert on many things, I completely embrace her call for that “adult and unemotional” conversation on energy costs.  Bringing economics and economists into the discussion won’t always be smooth sailing, but I think the following framework is something many sides could agree on to help keep the discussion “adult and unemotional:”

  1. Any cost accounting should include both initial, as well as total life cycle costs over some appropriate time horizon.
  2. Everyone should agree on the appropriate time horizon.
  3. All parties should be rigorously inclusive of all costs (i.e. subsidies should be accounted for on all sides, and no unpriced “externalities” are allowed).
  4. Both payers and beneficiaries should be clearly identified (e.g. individuals, corporations, society).
  5. The cost of “doing nothing” is just as important to measure as the “doing somethings.”

One great thing about our country’s expertise in business is that we have an amazing set of skills in cost accounting.  It’s time these formidable skills were applied to energy discussions as rigorously as they might be when discussing health care or replacing the Air Force’s aging tanker fleet.

I’m no Pollyanna; I don’t think that just adopting a more “cost based” approach to energy discussions will magically make our disagreements go away.  Intelligent people can take the same economic data and draw different policy conclusions.  Still others aren’t actually interested in a true conversation, but only seek to muddy the waters in order to protect the status quo.  But even so, if we strive to always clearly present the underlying economics of energy policy choices, and to challenge others to do likewise, in the worst case we will be able to “out” those whose only goal is to sow fear uncertainty and doubt, and in the best case, we may actually be able to build a stable base on which to find common ground with other “unemotional adults.”  

The ideas behind these two posts were informed and much improved by discussions with Diane Loviglio, Jonathan Koomey, Severin Borenstein, and Saul Griffith.  While none of them should be blamed for anything dumb that I say here, nor should it be assumed they agree with anything I say, but that said, any credit for worthwhile ideas is likely due to their valuable insights.


Feb 28 2011

How Not to Talk About Energy, Part 1 of 2

                                

I’ve spent a lot of the last four years of my life talking about energy with all kinds of people.  For the purposes of this post, I’ll divide those people into two big groups: “energy insiders”, and “regular people.”

Energy insiders are scientists, engineers, policy makers, investors, journalists, etc. who’ve spent some time thinking about energy in one form or another.  In these conversations, energy data, and being precise about that data, is very important.  This data comes in the form of watts, watt-hours, therms, cubic feet, gallons, joules, BTUs etc.  Sometimes these units are converted back and forth, but the conversation always includes at least one of them.

Energy insiders have an intuitive feel for these units.  They can tell you how many  kWh you might get out of a portable generator per gallon of gasoline; they can guess the ballpark range of natural gas therms the average 3 bedroom home in Chicago might use in January; they know if an 8 kW solar electric system seems too big, too small, or just right for a particular home; in other words, like all “insiders”, they have a “feel for the numbers.”

Here’s the problem:  regular people don’t have any feel for the numbers.  I mean, like… zero feel.  But in almost all cases, energy insiders use their “insider” units to talk to regular people. 

Regular people have an intuitive feel for one, maybe two units.  The one they all understand is dollars.  Your average person on the street will likely be able to tell you if $200/month seems low, high, or about right for their monthly utility bill.  They may have a sense for how many gallons of gas they use in their car (the second unit), but more likely they’ll only know roughly what it costs to fill the tank.

Weight Watchers(TM) understood this.  They knew that calories were the precise and scientifically accurate units to use when discussing weight loss, but they knew that regular people had (and still have) zero feel for calories.  Unlike the energy community, dollars aren’t a good proxy for calories, so they invented their own units (their “points” system).  They designed it such that regular people could easily get a “feel” for the balance between calories ingested versus calories burned.  And it worked. 

We energy insiders can argue amongst ourselves all we want in watts or joules or whatever, but until we realize that unless we speak to regular people in a unit they have a feel for (i.e. dollars) we might as well be talking to a wall.

(Part 2 of 2)


Dec 26 2010

Hello world

Something odd happened.  I read an article that convinced me to do something.

It convinced me to start writing.

Hello world.

I don’t know how I feel about my former reluctance to write.  I’m a good writer, but I always felt constrained by the physical keyboard and the rules of language.  I’m a story teller, but my natural medium is verbal.  I can make a lot more mistakes verbally than I can with writing, and yet still come across as reasonably intelligent.  It’s much harder to fake it in written form.

But talking is ephemeral, and non-Googlable.  And I’ve decided to be more Googlable. 

And to say “Googlable” as often as I can.

So fasten your seat belts, it’s… well, you know the rest.