Sunday, September 18, 2011

Rally for electric cars.

On Saturday September 24th, the Silicon Valley chapter of the Electric Auto Association is hosting a Electric Vehicle Rally at Palo Alto High school. There will be electrical vehicles of all kinds and even the opportunity to get a ride in one. For more details visit the Rally Home Page.

I'll be there, make a note in the comments if you want to do a real world meet up.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What's missing?

This is what I saw coming out of the high speed train station in Suzhou. Note that there are not directions to car parking, just bicycle parking and other forms of alternate transport. Wonder when they will add car parking? China's economic growth is happening without cars (though it growing to cars, is that progress?). Which is a precondition for another?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A vision to tomorrow....

Frank Bruni has a nice Op Ed Piece in the New York Times on the leadership of Janette Sadik-Kahn whose bicycle advocacy efforts have been covered before.

Bruni discusses the challenges of not only changing a city, but a mindset and the chicken and egg challenges of putting infrastructure in place to support alternate transportation. He presents some nice statistics on how New York compares to other cities, the enforcement of traffic laws and the availability of bicycle parking. (More on that in a future post). Much of a community identify comes from the symbols that matter. Bruni closes with this fantastic observation:

The Chicago transportation commissioner, Gabe Klein, noted that biking pushed back against a range of modern ills. “There’s the congestion problem,” he said. “The pollution problem. The obesity problem. The gas problem.”

On top of all that, it makes an important statement about our priorities — about our willingness to amend the reckless, impatient, gluttonous ways that have created not only smog and clog in our cities but also a staggering federal debt.

“Bikes are definitely a symbol of what your city stands for,” said Klein.

Overall a good read.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

10 years later.....

As I write this, today is my birthday. In about five minutes and what will be the date of this post, it will September 11, 2011. Ten years later. Today when my mother called me to wish me a happy birthday, she asked me how I felt about tomorrow, and I told her that I felt sad, that it seemed like a wasted opportunity, that it triggered us entering into two wars, one of which was clearly needless, that it distracted us from the larger issues at hand instead of bringing a great country into focus, we became obsessed with shopping, gross consumerism and excessive easy credit that led to the economic overhang that haunts us today. But most of all I feel that except for a few hassles at the airport, things seem amnesic as if nothing meaning occurred to us.

This week, I've been coming back from a long trip, and for some reason I've been angry for reasons that I haven't been able to pin down. Later this evening, while I was cleaning up after a casual celebration I realized that the anger has been in the lack of perspective and context that infuses our lives. We seem a country obsessed with drama. Reality TV shows, a New York Times article about resorts that boast about where Snooki had slept (to be honest, I'm inferring that, I just saw the email teaser and couldn't breakdown and read it in a rare bout of self control), here in Silicon Valley the focus was on the twin dramas encompassing Techcrunch/AOL and a potty mouthed CEO unceremoniously fired over the phone. In the realm of real news, we have a presidential campaign dominated by flamboyant non-issues of the promise of $2 per gallon gasoline. The largest legitimate salvo to some does of relevancy was a jobs bill whose goal was to generate demand by more tax cuts on the hope and prayer that those funds will be spent across the economy to stimulate demand, though my fear in an age of mass market consumerism a few top brands will simply witness increased dominance as more people buy iPhones and iPads, the spoils will continue to go to the few. Perhaps a few service sectors such as restaurants and beauty services may see an uptick, but not enough to pull an economy out of the doldrums. My wager is more of that tax cut will be spent of movies, than books. Junk food than exercise.

That is the world that I see, I am fortunate that I was not directly impacted by that day. I had no friends in the towers or in Washington DC or Pennsylvania despite my ties to the New York Area. I did have the responsibility to motivate and organize the communities I oversaw to bring some positive action. I was unemployed at the time, it was my most productive time. I along with other alumni leaders of the Ivy League and Seven Sisters channeled the energy of fellow alums by organizing a non-profit community service fair that wasn't a job fair but a volunteer fair. We were oversubscribed both on non-profits who wanted to present and people looking to make a difference. It was a time where people wanted to change the conversation, not merely accelerate it. People wanted to re-engage with the communities.

A friend of mine created a discussion group called the "Engage Forum" and we met in potluck style meetings and looked over out ballots in earnest to understand what we being asked to decide. We had discussions, both left and right, even in San Francisco. As we went to Iraq, we were fortunate to be able to get Larry Diamond to speak on his experiences on the Coalition Provisional Authority to make sense of what was coming next. I invited a friend who was also the Mayor of Mountain View to attend since she had recently been part of a group of leaders selected to go to Afghanistan as part of an outreach effort. She fell in love with the country, and eventually went to Afghanistan to create opportunities for Afghan women to become self sufficient. Whenever a news story about a death of an American came on the radio, I would pause. She would eventually pass away in Afghanistan, but due to illness not ill will.

In the aftermath, there was a possibility of a deeper understanding of our role in the world. The door was open, but somehow it closed. Most people where I live have no connection to anyone who is serving to keep our cupcakes flowing. So without that connection, we focus on the cupcakes flowing. When gas prices go up, it's not clear we connect the dots. The context is that things are good, at least things are good for me.

And it is good for me, and that is why I am sad and angry at this time. In the reflection of ten years past, in my milestone of another year on this planet, in the milestone of 10 years since that fateful day. I ask what have we learned, I ask what have I learned? And the conclusion I come to is that the past 10 years have been an accelerator of our former selves. Arno Penzias, the Nobel prize winner once said that technology is not good or bad, it makes things just more so. It's an accelerator. If you don't know where you are going, a sports car gets you lost faster and further than you could before.

The debt has grown, our bodies have bloated, our distractions have multiplied. All factored by the new tools we have today. In our effort to return to normal, we accelerated the life before the event in a huge game of catch up, and so we did and then some. We focused on meeting those people's immediate desires, we still do. That's what this valley does.

However, ten years ago we took a pause to reflect on those desires, today perhaps in remembrance we should pause again.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Ideas and Execution.....Making mass transit work?

I just got back from a trip and part of that trip took place in China, where I had the opportunity to take one China's (in)famous high speed trains. And while one can speak about the safety of the trains, one should reflect on the safety of cars in China as a baseline for comparison. Mass transit accidents stick in people's minds because they are so rare, while car accidents though far more frequent are forgotten because they are so common. So the odds were in my favor, but this isn't a post on transportation safety.

What was amazing was how smooth and efficient the trains were. Going to the train station if you were a Chinese resident you would simply go to an automated kiosk and obtain a ticket. You put your destination and it would tell you which train was free. What is amazing with this system is that it coordinated the seating for all the stops along the way. Someone would get off, that seat would be free and you could buy a ticket, if not it would offer you the next train. Pretty amazing logistics.

The other thing that impressed me was the distance it covered. It's often said that mass transit required density, but maybe it just requires numbers. I traveled between Shanghai and Suzhou which are about 70 miles apart. That is about the same distance between San Francisco and San Jose. Even though there were highways, the trains were frequent and full. About 3 and hour. It was clear that the train was a better alternative, it was fast and comfortable.

What would happen if we made a huge investment and made trains in the U.S. more frequent? Would they be full? The argument is that we won't add trains until there are more riders. But there won't be riders until there are more trains. It's a chicken and egg problem. There are many metropolitan corridors where mass transit might work, but the key is to make it workable for the needs of people.

Monday, September 05, 2011

"Make Taste Not Waste" - greening your coffee drinking


"Make Taste Not Waste" is the advertising slogan currently being used by coffee press manufacturer Bodum. I saw this slogan at a cafe at Tokyo Observatory and was surprised by the direct line taken against the ubiquitous single us coffee capsules by Nespresso and Keurig K-Cups. The single use convenience pods do make a particularly good cup of coffee there is clearly the downside of all convenience food in the packaging and waste of the pods when used. The increasing popularity of these pods are definitely a concern for traditional coffee maker manufacturers.

I do agree that the pod systems make for a consistent cup of coffee, but is it worth the 9 billion capsules that are disposed of every year according to Bodum. Something to think about, even when you consider the source. In full disclosure, I do use a Bodum french press daily and have been very satisfied. I chose this interestingly to avoid having to use the disposable paper filters which predated the capsule craze. Another side note, a green product has to work in reality, not just marketing. I also purchased this Bodum Travel Press with less than stellar results. So an effort at being green, ended up being potential landfill (though I still keep it since it's all plasticy and I use it for tea).

So it's nice when advertising is meant to ask bigger questions. So I applaud Bodum's move and hope that the competitors will come up with green alternatives. Though others are trying, as this Instructables article shows. (It is an awful lot of work, so you have to be really dedicated. Keurig offers a Reusable Coffee Filter as well and the reviews seem pretty positive overall.

But a simple way to address the issue of packaging is to use less, one of my favorite perks for coffee is that Peet's offers $0.25 discount if you bring back your old coffee bag when you get fresh beans. I can personally vouch that it's possible to use a bag for an extra long time.

So you can make your morning buzz more green, regardless of how you make your coffee.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

When business knows what politicians don't...

Been traveling, back from Asia and a lot to write blog about alternative transportation. A little to jet lagged to write originally, but here is an interesting look at reinsurance, risk and climate change. Enjoy

Bloomberg has an interesting editorial on how the Insurance industry is looking at climate change and how it differs from pro-business politicians views. The insurance industry has to be brutally honest at the way it looks at data, there are no politics in loss. In short it's betting on climate change happening.

Hurricane Irene’s residue is likely to include a confusing debate over whether insurers or property owners are responsible for storm-caused water damage. There’s no lack of clarity, however, over whether the insurance industry believes in climate change and its ties to lethal weather: It does.

The editorial points to a cover story article in Bloomberg Businessweek which has the following:

To that end, Swiss Re has started speaking about climate risk, not climate change. That the climate is changing has been established in the eyes of the industry. “For a long time,” says Bresch, “people thought we only needed to do detailed modeling to truly understand in a specific region how the climate will change. … You can do that forever.” In many places, he says, climate change is only part of the story. The other part is economic development. In other words, we’re building in the wrong places in the wrong way, so wrong that what we build often isn’t even insurable. In an interview published by Swiss Re, Wolf Dombrowsky, of the Disaster Research Center at Kiel University in Germany, points out that it’s wrong to say that a natural disaster destroyed something; the destruction was not nature’s fault but our own.

There is a solid discipline in gambling, you play the odds and in most cases you shouldn't gamble (outside of entertainment value). The house knows this, but most players don't. This plays out in the general public as well.

Reinsurers, however, have no incentive to mislead. Their choices on risk, with billions of dollars at stake, are necessarily aligned with the pursuit of truth. If a reinsurer is more scared of a risk than it should be, its shareholders will punish it. If it is less scared than it should be, the world, eventually, will break it. There are rewards for politicians, corporations, think tanks, and activists who dissemble about risk. There are none for reinsurers. If they’re taking on less of it than their insurers would like them to, then the world is more dangerous than we’re willing to admit. What a reinsurer will underwrite, then, offers a marker, one edge of what Bresch calls the gap between modeled and perceived reality.

We are players in the casino, and the house is mother nature. But while we can't completely change the odds, we can shift them to our favor (card counting, etc) and we can price the returns (going to different casinos with different payouts). Most of our politicians are placing sucker bets by denying any possibility of climate change. A lot has been said about "tail events" such as "Black Swans", but what if you assume black swans aren't that rare? Cultures do live that way:

Catastrophes do not surprise all societies equally. Greg Bankoff, an historian at the University of Hull in Britain, has defined for the Philippines a “culture of risk,” a set of adaptations built around the constant threat of natural disaster. Agricultural systems in the Philippines focus on minimizing loss rather than maximizing yield. The islands developed a kind of low, buttressed “earthquake baroque” style for stone buildings. Communities are quick to relocate out of danger.

As a culture, Americans are about maximization of return, not minimization of loss. We see this in our habits, our loan behavior (housing bubble anyone. Pricing climate change into our actions and policies is not a definite outcome, but it does make for a good insurance policy for our future.