Thursday, January 29, 2009

Every job is a green job....

There's been a lot of focus on green jobs saving our economy. I think this approach is misguided because it's looking for a silver bullet to save us and that investment in research and development will create new jobs and innovation to lead us out. The model for this is the internet creating new jobs. The problem is that analogy is flawed because the internet as it developed wasn't about creating new technologies but instead building out proven technologies and incrementally improving old technologies. Most of the technologies of the internet in the early 90s had been proven and were highly reliable. The internet boom just replicated it en masse. It applied well known technologies to the masses.

The same thing is going to happen here with green technologies. We already know how to make cars more efficient, we have well developed hybrid technologies that would double the average miles per gallon if mandated. Houses in Germany have greatly reduced the amount of energy houses need. We also know how to logically partition homes such that heat is needed on demand in selective rooms, LEDs for lighting. We have the tools today.

So the question is not, how do we create new technologies but how do we systematically apply the ones we do. There are few processes in our supply chain and internal operations that cannot be tweaked and improved. For instance, think about the all the cardboard boxes used for shipping, we deliver products in cardboard boxes that are then recycled. Why not pick up the same shipping boxes and return them for reuse? Can we create more intelligent power systems that go into hibernation when not needed and come alive on demand.

What we need is to look at everything and make it a green job. Imagine how we can make packaging irrelevant. Amazon has reduced the amount of packaging. Imagine going to the Apple store and getting you iPod shuffle in a paper bag instead of a plastic box and selling plastic boxes when used as a gift. That is a green job, re-imagining packaging.

Can you imagine our recycling processes where compostable items are decomposed at point of disposal. Can we imaging corn starch based containers that dissolve and decompose when dumped into a landfills that sort automatically. There are technologies there that just need new application.

We shouldn't be looking for green jobs to create an economy, we should be greening all jobs and industries. We have enough work to do and that's a subsidy that makes a difference since we re-engineer our processes and that lasts from this point on.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A picture says a thousand cars.

Courtesy of the Yahoo Car Free group is a series of pictures from the Guardian about the pile up of unsold cars around the world. The thing that amazes me is how much space cars take in our lives. You go to any American shopping mall at night and you are amazed by the moat of asphalt that surrounds the mall for cars.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The rise of boring and the next big recovery...

Today the New York Times has an article on Wal-Marts green initiative. While I am not a big fan of Wal-Mart, I am not a big fan places like Whole Foods either. However, I am going to say that Wal-Mart is more important that Whole Foods if we are to tackle our environmental challenges.

The article focuses on the impact that Wal-Mart has on suppliers and by insisting on Green changes they impact the product mix for all stores. GE and Proctor & Gamble acquiesced to Wal-Marts need for CFLs and detergent sold as concentrates. They also revamped their shipping strategy to make shipping 25% more efficient. Now this isn't sexy stuff, but boring stuff that makes a huge difference. Wal-Mart is moving in the right direction, and moving everyone else too. The same thing happened with Home Depot as well on the CFL issue. This particular paragraph struck me:

Under Mr. Scott, who is retiring this month at the age of 59, the company that democratized consumption in the United States — enabling working-class families to buy former luxuries like inexpensive flat-screen televisions, down comforters and porterhouse steaks — has begun to democratize environmental sustainability.

The word democratize is interesting in this context since it means bringing to the masses, but democratize also has another meaning of favoring social equality, or not snobbish. And that there is the leverage point, the green movement has to stop looking down on the masses and start understanding the masses, and existing with the masses. Whole Foods and their ilk tend to be about snobbishness, we need to start thinking in terms of green as looking sideways at all levels.

A conceit I play in my regular life is that I describe myself as working class, which in many ways is a ridiculous statement given my background and employment. But it's not in my world view or my general actions. I tend to buy mass market goods, frequent yard sales and Craigslist and dress more frumpy than I need to. I also believe that everyone is trying to do the best they can given their efforts until proven otherwise. I make an effort to talk to the security guards at work, the janitors, the sales clerks, etc because my life is in their hands as theirs in mine. If we understand the constraints that people live under, we can understand why they buy what they do. Some of it is social pressure, some of it economic, some of it is taste.

But aside from the reactionaries, most people given a chance to buy something better for the environment will, but they don't want to be forced into a green or green beans decision. If Wal-Mart is able to bring cost effective green to the masses and make it assumed, then this is progress.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

betting on the future...

As we soak in the grandeur of what is the changing of the guard in Washington, I was most struck by Obama's cry for us to accept the hard choices with aplomb (my paraphrasing) and one of the hard choices that we have to make is what we will do about climate change. Some of these will be easy choices such as my call on my Facebook status:

Charles asks in the spirit of the challenges ahead of us. Take this small act. Don't use a disposable cup if you have an alternative available

But on the bigger issues, we need to ask are the arguments false ones. This is explored by Tim O'Reilly in blog post that if we pursue a greener path, we win in all cases. Pascal's wager is interestingly about God, and believing in God. If you believe and you are wrong, the cost is nominal. If you don't believe you are in God and you are wrong, well it's Hell, literally. And that is the bet with the environment.

Another way to look at this is that critics often claim that regulation will wreck industries, think mandatory Close Captioning or unleaded gasoline. But in both cases, things did not break down.

This is a post worth reading, for the hard choices are sometimes hard because we imagine them to be.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Yes We Can!

In honor of the inauguration of the U.S.'s first Black President, I'd like to put this post up for some themes for the first 100 days of the Obama administration with some personal Green Goals.

1) Commit to taking Mass Transit or alternative transportation once in the next 100 days if you have never done so before. And if you already do, consider getting another friend to meet you via mass transit by meeting at a common place more accessible by mass transit.

2) Recycle more, if you see a recyclable item, please pick it up and recycle it. Sure someone may have thrown it away, but this is an action you can do to alleviate it.

3) Consider your own economic stimulus package by spending money on services instead of stuff. If you need stuff, consider buying it second hand or from freecycle. Use the money you saved to buy a meal at a local establishment, get a car wash from a local store or get a massage. We are becoming so more effective at making stuff that our economy cannot thrive only on stuff.

I was listening to the Director Steven Soderberg on the the radio show "The Treatment" and the following phrase struck me, "In life there are no answers, only choices"

The choice is ours, yes we can.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Attention vs. Affection.

I had some pretty interesting feedback from my last post about "What Matters. Who Cares?" I can be a smart ass about things, because I've forsaken much of what most people want in life. I'm not about the nice car, but boy am I about writing something worthy of a Pulitzer, hell that's something I can get behind. Re-read that last sentence, it didn't say I aspire to win a Pulitzer, but to have the talent to do something that good. Some years, the competition is just too good. But to be in that company would be inspiring. One thing where people rightly care about things is raising their kids. Everyone wants their kids to do well, it's probably evolutionarily inspired to make sure your kids do well, actually just better than everyone else.

But what amazes me is that people have to ask, how did they turn out and most people will say ok. And they didn't have all the advantages that today's typical kids have, the lessons, the programs, the computers. Those things don't make a student better, but what they may do is find what someone is good at through exposure. Too much of our educational dollars is spent on sending people to college. It's a waste, since they might be happier and more effective in non-college type work. We need people who can work with their hands, who can build stuff. It's not as easy as it looks. But we convince ourselves that if you don't have a college education, you don't have a chance. Actually, you don't have a chance if you don't offer something of value. Now the Wall Street jobs are probably gone, Michael Lewis so vividly recounts in "The End"

To this day, the willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grownups remains a mystery to me. I was 24 years old, with no experience of, or particular interest in, guessing which stocks and bonds would rise and which would fall. The essential function of Wall Street is to allocate capital—to decide who should get it and who should not. Believe me when I tell you that I hadn’t the first clue.

I’d never taken an accounting course, never run a business, never even had savings of my own to manage. I stumbled into a job at Salomon Brothers in 1985 and stumbled out much richer three years later, and even though I wrote a book about the experience, the whole thing still strikes me as preposterous—which is one of the reasons the money was so easy to walk away from. I figured the situation was unsustainable. Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud. Sooner rather than later, there would come a Great Reckoning when Wall Street would wake up and hundreds if not thousands of young people like me, who had no business making huge bets with other people’s money, would be expelled from finance.

So why the College-Industrial complex? In short, the money. There's a lot in grants, scholarships, etc. Education is not a calling, it's a business. Don't let anyone fool you. And what do they address, not skills but fear. Love of learning is so not on the radar of the average college student, no it's about getting a job and getting into bed with the girl on the other side of the lab. Speaking of fear, I recently re-engaged with Television (capital T), and it's an amazing thing. If you look at the advertising, there are two kinds:

First, you totally suck and you got to improve yourself. This is the drugs, the workout tapes, the do it yourself stuff.

Second, you totally rock and deserve to pamper yourself. The luxury goods.

A bit of a contradiction, eh. (Bear with me, this all actually connects).

When we raise our kids, we want them to be in a good school district, and sure it helps. We want them to have resources. And most of all we don't want them to be left behind. Fear and Deservedness in our personal legacies. Frightening. But if you look at success, you realize there's a lot of luck. Malcolm Gladwell's new book "Outliers" if nothing else should rob ourselves of our self determination. Yeah, we have to put effort in but it doesn't mean it's going to happen.

So what can you do? You can create a spark in your children that causes them not to ask what's missing, but what can I do with what I have. (I'm assuming they have a decent lifestyle and are not dodging bullets, I'm not naive.) To get them to wonder and explore, regardless of what they have. I love the stories of Feynman playing with ants going, what are these ants doing? What, why, how and make are the values you inculcate in their minds. If you can think that way, you can see opportunity wherever you are at.

This post has gone too long, but it all boils down to Robert Redford in my posts these days. The actor Sam Waterston was getting accolades for his recent work and Robert Redford gave him some advice that is timeless, "Don't confuse attention with affection." In my career I've seen wild swings, it happens. I see how people respond to the it company of the moment. I try to remember Redford's maxim in these times. In the same way, preparing and mentoring is not about showering them with attention of the best, but genuine affection, that leads to the ability to affect the world they live in.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

what matters, who cares?

You should. I remember when I got my first job out of college and one of the techs in my group asked me if I was happy with my salary and I said it's ok and it depends. If I'm learning and growing and my time is being used effectively, than I'm happy. If I'm going to have my time wasted then you could pay me ten times as much and I'd still be unhappy. I basically said, there is no such thing as a time lottery, I can get a ton of money very quickly, but I can't get a ton of time with lucky numbers. It's all about return on time. It caught him by surprise, and I was a little cocky. But there was a lot of truth to my words. There's been times where I haven't made a cent and been incredibly happy and productive. There have been others times where I've been paid well and seen my life disappeared.

This is an awkward segue to a post by Tim O'Reilly called "Work on Stuff that Matters: First Principles" And in it he explores three rules for determining what is "Stuff that Matters"

1. Work on something that matters to you more than money.
2. Create more value than you capture
3. Take the long view.

He expounds on these points quite well, with room for discussion. These are great guideposts, but how do you get to do stuff that matters. If you have been reading my blog you get that I have an odd combination of interests, and one is business. I read the Harvard Business Review at the library, and every so often something doesn't suck. One was an interview with the slashmaster Robert Redford who talked about getting the right to experiment (stuck behind a paywall, Dear HBS consider creating more value than you capture and after a period of expiration release your content. The professors who wrote those articles aren't getting royalties, nor in most cases were they paid, and if any of their funding was government funded you really should publish those out in the free.) In it he said that you need to negotiate the two picture deal in life. " you need to be prepared to "horse-trade with the devil" by trading "a sure thing for the right to experiment."

Now you don't often get to do that at work because most of our work isn't piecemeal like a motion picture. But it is a model for you to get the right to experiment.Or the right to do "stuff that matters"

Personal finance experts recommend 3 - 6 months of savings which I think is ludicrous. You should be thinking in terms of 3 - 6 YEARS. I know people who have done it without striking it rich. FY money is powerful, it gives you control. So how do you do it?

First off, develop a love of freedom. If you can internalize the love of freedom you will save because money does not translate only to stuff, it translates to control. Companies love their employees to be in debt with a mortgage and car payments because it makes them pliant. Hiring is a pain in the ass, and if your talent can walk out at a moments notice it causes them problems. That's why HR talks about retaining talent with all the mamby pamby stuff, but behind the scenes they want to socialize you to debt. It is so part of our American psyche we don't have to try and it does explain some of our productivity. The Chinese have no idea how to get into debt. It's not human nature to want to be in debt.

You can't control top line revenue all the time, but there is usually a way to manage your bottom line. Choose your spending well. Make sure you spend for you not to impress others. They won't be impressed by you, they'll be scared by you and just buy something nicer the instant you buy something nice. Structure your spending so your reserves go a long time.

Think deeply, what matters is usually what is old. Social networks have great power not because they answer an new need, they address an old need, the need to feel part of a community and connected. The office water cooler would have to be created even if every desk had a water fountain.

Lastly, think about how do you play with the house's money. One thing that has helped me is figuring out ways to have your FY work for you. Keep the principal solid, don't put it at risk but use the proceeds of your principle to make money for you.

It's tough times to say "do stuff that matters" but you can do it.

Am I Archeologic?

Today after an unplanned run with a running group whose emails I receive, but haven't ran with until now (normally I swim on Sundays, but alas the pool was closed, it helps if I read my email) I decided to string together a few errands. One thing that has been on my list is to take my two boxes of recyclables to the buyback center that have been sitting in the middle of my living room. Being a member Silicon Valley's disappearing middle class, I don't have the space to have a junk room where my recyclables can go, though when company comes I put them in the garage. Conceivably I could get a bigger place, but why when it can be worked around.

(an aside.... you ever notice that advertising for furniture and model homes do not reflect any realistic or sustainable way of living. I love how they show computers and electronics on furniture in the middle of the room and there are no power cords. Nikolai Tesla imagined wireless electricity but there were shall we say issues. We create these "ideal" models of how we are suppose to live and none of them are sustainable. We get thousands of square feet and have to employ subsistence wage slaves to clean out our places. Gigantic castles bankrupted the lords of the 15th and 16th century, McMansions are doing the same.)

But this post isn't about recyclables, but it's about disposables. One of the services that the Sunnyvale SMaRT station offers is electronics drop off (note I did not say recycling) and me being a nosy type (writing is the chronicling of the obvious around us that we are too busy to notice) I took a look at what was in the drop off. And to my shock there was my printer (well not my printer, but my model of my printer) and a pang of recognition took hold. Since I too have in my worst homo economicus manner thought of drop kicking my printer through the uprights. Here's why...

It still works. It is a fantastic printer, had it for the past few years and it works. Plugged into my network and a great workhorse . However, it is running out of toner. I've been shopping for toner and it's $80 freaking dollars and I paid $50 for the thing. Yeah yeah yeah, it's got the stubby toner that doesn't deliver that many pages, but I've had this for 3 years off of the same toner. Now that's the business model, I didn't go to business school but I know that that's the racket, razor, razor blades, blah blah blah. But given the economic situation I can buy a newer version of the printer for you guessed it $50. And here is the rub, the new model and the old model use the EXACT same toner cartridge.

So if I was a rational person, I would buy the new printer for less and give away the old one and failing that, dump it at the electronics drop off. Talk about misaligned incentives. Now I think you can get away with charging more for the toner since that's how MBAs think (razor, razor blades, blah blah blah) (they also think selling risk to others is a good thing, but I won't go there, just a little note, if you piss in the water supply, make sure that you aren't so stupid to do it the water supply that you will eventually drink from. Morons).

So this closes this extremely long and discursive post, some day when we are long gone (at this rate I'm guessing 2027) some alien archeologist is going to look at the vast amounts of working electronics sitting in landfills that are perfectly functional and go wasteful morons. Let's stop trying to figure out how to screw each other over for some Cristal, and figure out how to make an economy that works. Remember, "eco" is the root of "economy" and "ecology" and digging deeper like an archeologist, the origin

First we will look at the root eco, which is derived from oikos, and then we will look at the root nomy, which is derived from nomos.

Oikos (οικος)

Transitioning from the Dark Ages towards the Classical Age, not only did city-states, like Athens and Thebes pop up, but so did large family organizations within them. This family organization in Ancient Greece was called an oikos. Basically, the oikos referred to the house and everything included in the house, such as extended family, slaves, farmland, etc. The responsibility of running the oikos went to the oldest male in the family and it was his responsibility to ensure that the household was well off. Since agriculture was by far the greatest asset that the Ancient Greeks had, farming played a huge role in determining how sufficient an oikos was. Keep in mind that oikos is the underlying inspiration for other words with the root eco-, such as ecology and ecosystem.

Nomos (νομος)

The second part of the word economy comes from the Ancient Greek root nomos. Nomos translated literally means act, law, or principle. The root nomos shows up in other words, like astronomy (the law governing stars) and autonomy (the law governing self). The Ancient Greeks first combined these two roots to form oikonomia, which is just the plural of oikonomos. When the Romans conquered Western Civilization, they replaced -ik- with -ec-, thus making oeconomia. Eventually the o- dropped off throughout history and the word economy was born.


Usually when people hear the word economy, they instantly think of money, Wall Street, giant corporations, and GDP (Gross Domestic Product). All of these aspects that come to mind are integral in order to maintain our system of living, however some might not realize that the word economy literally means “the principles to maintain our house”. Now, whether that “house” is government, Earth, or family is relative.

As we recover from a party that trashed our house, let's start figuring out rules to maintain our house.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

If everyone was using a CFL would you do it?

Driving (yes, I know that is a no no but hey I'm not perfect) home today I heard a great story on the PRI show "Marketplace" that looked into research on what makes people more environmental. Apparently, it's when others in your peer group are green as well. This seems to jive with that our reference group influences us more than we would like to admit as a summer study that revealed that if your friends are overweight, it's likely that you will be too. So succumb to peer pressure, go green.

Speaking of driving, if your friends can't motivate you to drive less, how about being driven by saving some hard cold cash. That's the premise of this article from the Wall Street Journal that explores the cost of driving.

I'm looking forward to it warming up, so that I'll start riding more often (or so I tell myself). Some things to think about to kick off the new year.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

How progress is made...

It's a new year, which means that it's time to get caught up on last year to move on with the new year. This includes an article in the New Yorker on Nobel laureate (and Secretary of Energy appointee) Steven Chu.

He asks us to consider the lowly refrigerator with the following:

Refrigerators consume a lot of energy; all alone, they account for almost fifteen per cent of the average home's electricity use. In the mid nineteen-seventies, California—the state Chu now lives in—set about establishing the country's first refrigerator-efficiency standards. Refrigerator manufacturers, of course, fought them. The standards couldn't be met, they said, at anything like a price consumers could afford. California imposed the standards anyway, and then what happened, as Chu observed, is that "the manufacturers had to assign the job to the engineers, instead of to the lobbyists." The following decade, standards were imposed for refrigerators nationwide. Since then, the size of the average American refrigerator has increased by more than ten per cent, while the price, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has been cut in half. Meanwhile, energy use has dropped by two-thirds.

The transition to more efficient fridges, Chu pointed out, has saved the equivalent of all the energy generated in the United States by wind turbines and solar cells. "I cannot impress upon you how important energy efficiency is," he said.

This is a powerful example, it does show that there is a lot of potential in improving efficiency of our lives. I wrote earlier about passive heat homes where the improvements in home sealing has eliminated the need for furnaces. Well back to refrigerators, the architect WIlliam McDonough often talks about a Chinese manufacturer who builds refrigerators meant for the U.S. market in the U.S. Their reasoning, Refrigerators are mostly air, why ship air across the planet.

Now, while I am very much pro-engineer, I also don't want to create a crutch for us to not consume less. Michelle Singletary, the personal finance columnist asks us this year to reconsider the title of "Consumer". This is a clear way to impact our world, where we are always told that everything new is always better.

Speaking of goals, I still have to set my 2009 goals. Something that I have found very effective is a method of goal setting that columnist Charles Jaffe shares that has worked for me too. I plan to add a few eco-goals to my list this year. I hope you'll consider adding a couple as well.

Happy New Year everyone, in the immoral words of Hill Street Blues cop Sergeant Esterhaus.."Let's be careful out there."