Category Archives: business

…on the Entrepreneurial State

With the next Canadian federal election less than a year away – and undesirables like Wayne Gretzky soon to be purged from the voter lists – I’ve been getting a lot more fundraising emails lately. As of mid-December I’d received nineteen in eighteen days. It was like a Christmas advent calendar, but in my email inbox! (Like a beleaguered Silician storekeeper, I paid my “protection money” and now they’re leaving me alone. :) )

Politicians are often derided for their short-term thinking, which is probably a fair criticism. If you ballpark an election cycle at roughly four years, newly-elected officials might take a year to learn the ropes, a couple years trying to be effective, and then a year trying to get re-elected. Judging by how successful those old Soviet and Chinese Five-Year Plans typically were, that might not be quite enough time…

The kind of decade-scale industrial policy used so effectively over the past half-century by Japan and South Korea (and Singapore… and Taiwan… and to an extent in Norway) typically occurred when these countries were dominated by one political party. This political stability may have allowed government and industry to set effective long-term plans without fear that a few years on, a new Prime Minister would reverse course on everything.

Of course, one-party dominance is no guarantee of long-term economic success – as evidenced by Mexico, parts of both the American South and South America, and … Alberta. As recent history shows, our neighbours would rather stay a Saudi prince’s whim away from economic catastrophe, than raise sales and income taxes to build up a treasury to buffer themselves from the ravages of the resource cycle. It’s as if they’d read Aesop’s Fable about the ant and the grasshopper, and concluded the grasshopper was the role model!

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The witless wisdom of Shai Agassi

dunning_kruger_effect by AddAttack

Dunning-Kruger effect graphed by AddAttack on DeviantArt.

LinkedIn has an “opinion leader” piece from Shai Agassi, founder of bankrupt car-battery-switcher Better Place, telling carmakers how they need to respond to Tesla’s success. Who better to give them advice than a guy who raised $850 million for an ignorant, impractical, impossible business model, then drove his company into the ground?

Inviting Agassi to share his clearly-witless wisdom about the auto sector, would have been like inviting André Maginot — architect of the not-so-great wall of France — onto the post-World War II lecture circuit to talk about the future of warfare.

Pre-fisking preface: about Agassi

Before we get to the meatless bones of his commentary, we’ll start with a bit of background about Agassi. From Wiki, he seems to’ve been a very successful software entrepreneur. He may even have been the Michael Jordan of enterprise software — the thing is, Michael Jordan knows that no one wants to hear him talk baseball.

Unfortunately, being so impatient that he didn’t want to wait two more years to become the CEO of SAP, Agassi resigned. Alas, power bends judgment as surely as gravity bends light, and he decided he was destined to remake the auto industry.

Agassi’s clueless enthusiasm — let’s treat Smart cars like smartphones! — makes him a textbook case of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which basically states that:
– people who’re experts at something, know they’re experts;
– people who’re non-experts, know they’re non-experts;
– and people who lack the faintest clue, are so ignorant of their very ignorance that they think they’re experts too.

It boggles the mind that LinkedIn would list a guy who proved himself so catastrophically wrong, as a “thought leader” — what’s next, NPI (new product introduction) advice from Sergio Zyman and Brian Dyson, the men who brought you New Coke?

Pre-fisking preface: the business world’s Kim Kardashians

Of course, LinkedIn brought Agassi in not because of insight, but eyeballs. Or as the TV world calls it, ratings. LinkedIn’s “thought leaders” don’t need to have a track record of success, they just need to draw traffic to the site. And while LinkedIn might have snagged some deep thinkers, one rather imagines that most successful businesspeople are too busy, you know, running successful businesses, to pen puff pieces.

Which means the content providers will inevitably be attention-hungry, less-successful entrepreneurs: the business world’s equivalent of reality-TV stars. Except that reality-TV stars know they’re not A-list actors, while these entrepreneurial remoras seem to think they’re sharks. Again, Agassi might well be a software shark; but when it comes to cars, he’s chum.

Pre-fisking preface: channelling Tom Friedman

Agassi’s piece is so breathlessly definitive in its vacuousness that it looks to’ve been ghostwritten by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ opinion columnist most famous for the book The World Is Flat, written in his signature algorithmically-reproducible writing style.

To his credit, Friedman isn’t just a billionaire’s daughter’s kept husband: he has a unit of time named after him, the six-month-long Friedman unit — “F.U.” for short — for the fact that for two-and-a-half years he insisted Iraq would turn the corner in the “next six months”.

People wanting a cortex cleanse from Friedmanisms (e.g. “suck on this“, “hyperconnected“) are well-advised to read lots and lots of Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, whose signature anti-Friedman diatribes are the epic essays Flathead, and Flat N All That, the former of which is the source of the cartoon “The Moustache of Understanding” below. (click to embiggen)

friedman

That done, let’s turn back to Mr. Agassi’s titular wisdom from this LinkedIn post.

Three lessons from a highly ineffective founder

“Some of the most serious reporters concluded that Mr. Musk should throw his doors open and share all his secrets with the current carmaker. Tesla had already partnered with both Toyota and Daimler, so one should assume they shared some secrets with those market leaders.”

No, Tesla didn’t share secrets with Toyota and Daimler; they negotiated contracts to develop the battery systems for the California-only RAV4 EV compliance car, and the Smart Electric Drive. This is readily-available information; it’s taken me longer to type this paragraph, than to look it up!  Can a software guru be Google-illiterate?

“Imagine for a second that car companies are like yachts racing in the ocean. While the entire industry represent yachts jostling for position along a similar course, Tesla’s catamaran diverged from the pack, and all of a sudden seems to be gaining tremendous speed.”

Here’s a perfect Friedmanism – first off, a catamaran is not a yacht. If it’s in the race, then the opening sentence should say “boats racing in the ocean”. Next, the writer tries to express the idea that the Tesla catamaran has “raced ahead of” or “broken from” the pack. But “diverged” implies a detour; a wrong turn; it implies Elon Musk’s ship is accelerating in the wrong direction. What began as a promising simile has crashed on the rocks of impaired grammar. Editor…! — is there an editor in the house??

1. An electric car is an object of desire

All cars are objects of desire! That’s why companies invest so heavily in advertising and branding – to make them into objects of desire! The only person in the auto industry who ever treated cars as commodity products, was the guy who thought he could the manufacturers to build all their vehicles off a generic-enough design template to make it easy for him to switch the batteries!

Instead of deciding on “what environmentalists will be willing to give up to drive electric”— such as having only two seats in the back of an odd shaped car — Tesla decided to build a car that supersedes all buyer’s expectations.

First off, Tesla doesn’t target environmentalists, who frankly aren’t wealthy enough to afford luxury sedans. And “two seats in the back of an odd-shaped car” ? This is a throw-back to the EV1, which was fifteen years ago. That’s so long ago, they didn’t just release a movie about how it got killed, they released a sequel! Two years ago!

There is one (1) two-seater plug-in car available in the US today: the Smart Electric Drive, which looks exactly the same as a regular Smart. Why, it’s the very vehicle that Tesla used to work on with Daimler. (The current Smart Electric Drive is a 100% Daimler product.)

And there are at least nine plug-in cars on the market today that seat four or more people, and all of them look like normal vehicles. Well, except the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which looks normal in Mitsu’s home market of Japan. One of these normal-looking electric vehicles, the Chevy Volt, has won Consumer Reports’ award for highest customer satisfaction two years in a row, implying that yes, Shai, Olde Economy carmakers know how to meet buyers’ expectations with electric vehicles.

Seriously, claiming that Tesla is the first carmaker to discover that the secret to EV’s is to exceed customer expectations, is as ludicrous Italian Renaissance doctor Realdo Colombo claiming to be the first person to have “discovered” the clitoris in the 16th century — as if it was a faraway continent! How much of a bubble would Agassi have to live in, to think that after a hundred years featuring such iconic zillion-selling vehicles as the Model T, the VW Beetle, and the Toyota Corolla, it took until Tesla for anyone actually, finally get it right?  It’s a statement so stunning in its Valley-centric, navel-gazing ignorance, as to be mockworthy.

Oh, and one last thing – “supersede” means “to take the place or position of”. Tesla did not build a car that “took the place” of buyer’s expectations. It built a car to “sur-pass” or “ex-ceed” buyers’ expectations. Presumably, the spell-checker caught that sur-ceed wasn’t an actual word and suggested “supersede” instead. Furthermore, all carmakers already exceed their customers’ expectations, though most of them aim for lower price points than Tesla did with the Model S. It’s one of the reasons why they manage to sell so many more vehicles than Tesla does.

The lesson: Design a car that provides car buyers with the possibility of upgrading both battery and software, while retaining the car [over twenty years]. Such a possibility will enhance the resell value of cars, and in doing so could drastically reduce the monthly lease new buyers will face at the dealership.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Shai Agassi probably doesn’t drive the same car he’s owned since the first World Trade Center terrorist attack (1993). It’s hard to imagine that someone who tried to be part of the auto industry would be so blissfully oblivious to the fact that people’s car needs change over time. (How many university students buy minivans because they plan to drive their future tween-aged kids around town, twenty years hence??) But then, this is a guy who thought it wouldn’t be a big deal to convince the world’s major automakers to all change their designs, for his benefit.

Batteries are “Exponential Technology” – they benefit from reduced cost, improved storage and longer life with every generation, all of which are compounding year over year. Exponential technology is the most disruptive force that hits incumbent industries.

Every technology improves exponentially, because of a little phenomenon called the experience curve that applies in almost every manufacturing endeavour. Including internal combustion engines. There’s also the fact that batteries improving at 8% per year (at best) are far less disruptive than microprocessors doubling in speed every eighteen months. More broadly, rules from the world of software don’t always apply to the world of stuff. Our author should know this, given that his great success at SAP prepared him for … even greater failure with Better Place.

More broadly still, if he believed batteries were doubling in speed every eight years, what the hell was he doing trying to set up a battery-switching based business model??  The improvements in battery technology would have been a “disruptive force” that would’ve soon torpedoed Better Place, if he hadn’t sunk it himself, first. More likely, he started Better Place because he didn’t believe batteries would progress very fast — and rather than admit he was wrong, he glosses over that point. The reader’s ignorance is his bliss.

So average your future cost estimated down heavily and plan for profits to come after volume goes up the s-curve instead of focusing all your calculations on the first batch of cars.

They already do this!!  Development costs for new vehicles run in the hundred of millions — the Volt topped a billion dollars — so the fact that new product launches don’t bankrupt “Olde Economy” automakers kind of implies they know how to amortize development costs over years’ worth of vehicle sales. It’s the height of arrogance for a man who didn’t know how to price his own auto industry product, to lecture established car manufacturers on how to price theirs. He’s a naked, failed courtier raving about his clothes. (I’d’ve called him an emperor, but he hasn’t enjoyed a modicum of auto-industry success.)

The lesson: If you launch a new category, consider very seriously launching it under a new brand with a whole new experience. Direct sales will allow incumbent carmakers not only to control its brand experience; it also translates into a lower per-unit cost of sales once volume starts to pick up. Ask Apple…when you have a differentiated product, you want a differentiated destination store for people to come and experience it. If you do it right, the retail value per square foot beats the rest of the industry – by a mile!

One wonders if Agassi was using a team of ghostwriters and there was a shift change, because earlier in the article it’s (correctly) noted that “mass-market carmakers should probably never try to repeat Tesla’s model – in making cars or in business model. What works for Tesla will not work for GM, and most likely be value destructive for any mass-market incumbent.”

And yet several paragraphs later, it’s recommended that mass-market carmakers repeat Tesla’s model of direct sales because, “if you do it right, the retail value per square foot beats the rest of the industry – by a mile!”. Did he not proof-read his own article? Does he care? Is this a secret homage to Harry Frankfurt’s classic, On Bullshit?

Mass-market incumbent automakers have a massive advantage over Tesla in their omnipresent bricks-and-mortar stores, which give them direct reach and presence in tens of thousands of locations around the world. No one in their right mind would give this up — but then, no one in their right mind would champion or fund a battery-swapping company for cars. (Tesla’s situation is different, as their proposed swapping stations can be run at a loss – they aren’t a company profit centre. Better Place’s swapping stations were intended to be profit centers.)

The analogy with Apple fails as well; before the Apple Store, there were Apple “store-in-store” locations at Best Buy and other retailers. The automobile analogy would be to have a separate part of a showroom dedicated to a manufacturer’s electric vehicles. Dealers already dedicate different areas of their showrooms to various vehicles, and the sales person’s job is to help people find the vehicles they want. Besides, the showroom model is working pretty damn well for electric cars — Nissan is having trouble maintaining Leaf inventory at dealers, because it’s selling so fast!

In brief…

While LinkedIn may have thought Shai Agassi would make a great auto-sector “thought leader” — he’ll draw readers as surely as Kim Kardashian (somehow still) draws viewers — they would do well to recognize that they didn’t land themselves an automotive Steve Jobs; they got themselves a Steve Ballmer instead.

A patent app mishap

FC patent apps

I hope that if/when this patent application gets granted, they update the title…  otherwise, someone at Samsung will have some ‘splaining to do!

Electron democracy

A long-belated companion to Steven Chu’s “Time to fix the wiring” essay I posted earlier, this is the white paper I co-authored for the same McKinsey & Company series. Given the roughly five-month delay in uploading this, I suppose “Time to post the writing” might be an apt subtitle… :)

Ever the stickler for citing sources (in university, while writing up a chemical engineering lab report, I once cited a colleague’s report I made use of, in my bibliography of sources – yes, I was a wild one) I was pleased McKinsey kept the footnote crediting the work John Robb and Jeff Vail.

Four years on, it’s encouraging to see how wrong the essay has turned out to be — because all the recent developments are for the better. It would be as if an investor bought a bunch of boring utility stocks for the safe, reliable dividends, only to discover at the end of the year that they got a bunch of capital appreciation as well.

Though on that note, I think fossil-fuel burning utilities are already a risky investment now, because renewables are already eroding their business model in some countries… and since renewables will get dramatically cheaper going forward as production scales up, the phenomenon will inevitably repeat itself around the world.  (Speaking of uploading delays, clearly I’ll have to get to part 2 of this series…)

When the essay was written (late 2008), grid energy storage seemed a long, long way from commercialization, so our assumption had been that large-scale hydro plants and smaller-scale fuel cell facilities would complement renewables’ intermittency.  (The EV / PHEV adoption rate is such that these are unlikely to offer any appreciable grid storage by 2030, either…)

With Germany’s announcement of a program to subsidize battery-based residential energy storage systems, enabling companies to ramp up production and get the economies of scale with which to drive aggressive cost reductions, it looks like fuel cells will face a lot of pressure at the residential scale.

As for the resiliency benefits of on-site power generation, that seems to have become a priority for many tech companies, in areas where subsidies for on-site generation are available.  (I could justify mild subsidies, because on-site generation minimizes the need to maintain or expand transmission infrastructure, which can be expensive.)

One wonders if some of these companies are worried that a renewables future will destabilize the grid: this is a “myth”conception, as many utilities point out.  I read somewhere that when Germany began its Energiewende — (renewable) energy transformation — the feeling was that the grid could only handle 5% intermittent renewables (ie. wind + solar). Then it became 10%, and then 20%. Then it became 40%. The latest I’ve seen is 60% with the possibility of 80% for continental Europe. As technology improves, that will only increase. Especially if/when electricity-to-hydrogen or electricity-to-natural gas technology matures, allowing for large-scale storage of excess, intermittent electricity.

On the fuel cell side, Bloom Energy seems to have become adept at acquiring subsidies market share in the on-site generation space, despite the fact that their technology is less efficient than combined-cycle gas turbines.  (That said, turbines are generally LOUD and therefore not suitable for on-site location.)  As such, when it comes to larger-scale on-site 24/7 fuel cell power generation, since Ballard isn’t in that game anymore, I root for the folks at ClearEdge Power, whose use of cogeneration makes it possible to achieve overall energy efficiencies of 90%+, even if only a portion of that becomes electricity. :)

 

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Electron-Democracy

By Matthew Klippenstein and Noordin Nanji

3 March 2009

The way electric power is generated and distributed will change substantially over the next two decades. Power will be democratized, as small-scale production at the individual and community level moves from niche to normal. The resulting “electron-democracy” will still have centralized power plants, but power grid activity will increasingly be dominated by innumerable incremental energy flows between small producers and consumers. This is likely to happen whether or not public policy mandates a shift away from dependence on fossil fuels.

Most centralized plants (hydro excepted) cannot easily adjust to demand fluctuations, leading to steeply discounted off-peak rates and the need to acquire additional plants for high-demand periods. More broadly, an expansive transmission grid dominated by a few central power plants is vulnerable to disruption from both natural phenomena and human malevolence.

In contrast, smaller-scale power generation can respond more nimbly to market demand, in a shorter time frame, with lower capital costs. Filling supplemental power needs with niche supplies rather than primary power facilities creates new generation options that that otherwise would be impractical. Finally, a grid fed by a broad, physically dispersed heterogeneous mixture of power sources would provide robust protection against disruption.1

Putting these strands together and looking forward, the distributed grid might look like this: intermittent wind and solar power generation would be complemented by load-supplementing fuel cell plants, in much the same way that peak power and base load power plants interact today. Electric vehicles (EVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and batteries would serve as grid energy storage when excess energy is being produced. The latter is analogous to the role of pumped-storage hydroelectric in current utility systems, where water is pumped from a lower reservoir to a higher one for later use in generating hydroelectric power.

Considering the intensifying pace of climate change, governments should play an ambitious role in the transition from today’s grid to tomorrow’s electron democracy. Governments could coordinate with local business to develop centers of excellence for distributed power in targeted industries. Mechanisms such as feed-in tariffs—which grant favorable rates for those generating power from renewables and clean-tech sources—could facilitate the development of these regional technology clusters. They would bring ancillary economic benefits as well.

We are hopeful that by 2030, our energy system will be considerably less dependent on fossil fuels, particularly for electric power generation. Supported by a diverse array of renewables, our energy needs could be met with an overlapping set of complementary clean technologies. In doing so, we would strongly curb our global warming emissions. We would then be poised not only to stabilize the climate, but to transcend the Fossil Fuel Age entirely and open a new “Age of Sustainability” in our human story.

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1 A closer examination of these topics is available from Jeff Vail (A Theory of Power) and John Robb (Brave New War) in their writings on “rhizome” at jeffvail.net and “resilient communities” at globalguerrillas.typepad.com, respectively.

Book Club 08 – Cradle to Cradle

One line item in my 2013 “bucket list” was to upload the book summaries from my work business book club.  Since we covered about 40 books, and I wanted to upload one book a week, March was about the latest date I could start this project, and still hope to finish within the calendar year.  :)

Instead of uploading these chronologically, I’ve decided to upload them thematically, so people interested in, say, Toyota, or sustainability, don’t have to wait for weeks and weeks until another book of interest gets covered.

In addition to the blog, I’ll make all the PDF’s available in a publicly-accessible Google Drive, at:
http://tinyurl.com/Matthews-Book-Club

The first uploaded book summary is that of Cradle to Cradle, the landmark book by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. In addition to the PDF below, the summary has been made available at:
http://tinyurl.com/08-Cradle-to-Cradle

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https://i2.wp.com/www.caragreen.com/images/tinymce/cradle_to_cradle.jpg

Book Club 08 – Cradle to Cradle

 

Plug-in electric car sales in Canada, 2012 (via GreenCarReports)

My new adventures as a Canadian correspondent for GreenCarReports.com begin with this post.  Readers are encouraged to show them some love.  :)

My ongoing efforts to track Canadian EV sales figures (and those of a few other countries) remain visible here.

Reflections on others’ perceptions of still others’ hard-workingness

(originally written Dec 20, 2011 — part of my Great Upload of 2013)

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I saw an item the other morning suggesting that as a country, Italians actually work 20% more hours per year than Germans and French.  This runs counter to the popular moralistic argument that countries that run into debt troubles, do so because they’re lazy.

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The idea that poor countries are poor because they’re not hard-working, is a variant on the outlook that wealth is a moral outcome of life.  This perspective holds that if you’re rich, you deserve it because you were harder-working / smarter / more cunning than everyone else.  And by corollary, if someone else is poor, it’s because they’re lazy / dumb / naive.  By further corollary, if you’re poor (or less rich than you want to be) it’s inevitably someone else’s fault, of course — government is a popular target.  :)

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Taking a broader perspective, many in the West retain the silly notion that the “Protestant work ethic” powered the Industrial Revolution (instead of, say, the exploitation of fossil fuels, which allowed small European countries to spend unprecedented amounts of energy doing and making things, like dominate the rest of the world).  Popular historian Niall Ferguson seems to’ve devoted a chapter to the Protestant work ethic in his new book, Civilization: the West and the Rest, calling it one of the West’s historical advantages.

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This bias is most revealingly shown in the comments of an Australian diplomat reporting back from a trip to Japan at the turn of the 20th century, using the “l-“word or some similar paraphrase to describe the indolent islanders, who could never hope to achieve anything in the go-go world of world economies.  (I came across it in a South Korean economist’s book, Bad Samaritans.)  Within a few decades, of course, Japan had industrialized, militarized, and attempted to colonize East Asia with — if this is possible — even more barbarity than shown by the Europeans in their heyday.

And it’s not just recently that the Japanese got industrious either.  Within a decade of the introduction of firearms around 1542 (through Europe, not China, funnily enough) Japan may have had more guns than any other country in the world.  For some reason, once the country had been unified, the Shoguns introduced the world’s most comprehensive gun-control laws…  :)

No doubt other cultures have similar stories, too.  One can imagine what a Chinese ambassador in the Middle Ages might’ve thought of the hapless Europeans, who lacked the Five Great Inventions: the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, the printing press, and the seedless mandarin orange.  (Others’ lists may vary.  ;)  )

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Such context also helps to make sense of stories closer to home: there was a recent Globe & Mail article about how 1/3 of Canadians expect to be paying mortgages past the age of 65.  This does not a stress-free citizenry make.  (Most frightening for us post-baby-boomers: old people always vote!!)

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One can wonder why someone would sign up for a mortgage that retires after they’d like to (why anyone would agree to provide that mortgage, is another question).  But it could be that they were taking cues from Ben Bernanke, the Chair of the US Federal Reserve.  The central banker refinanced his house twice (!) in the past decade, and at the age of fifty-eight, still owes almost $700,000.  Assuming a 25-year-amortization just for fun, he could be paying that back, well into his eighties!

One wonders if Bank of Canada chief Mark Carney also falls into that all-encompassing “do as I say, not as I do” category.  Fortunately for Bernanke, he has kids, so if “worse comes to worst” (that’s how you’re supposed to say it, people!) he can always move in with them.  :)

Second fiddles (usurping first-fiddle status)

(Originally written April 29, 2012 — part of my Great Upload of 2013)

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Cory Schneider’s replacement of Roberto Luongo as Vancouver’s #1 goalie has been all the talk for the past week or so.  But so solely focused was I on a work deadline, that I didn’t even cobble my thoughts in the extraneous minutes of each day, as I normally do.  (Tea-drinking social caterpillar that I am, I don’t spend much time chatting or on coffee breaks.  ;)  )

So, now’s my chance!

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One really feels for Schneider, who put up astounding numbers (1.31 GAA! .960 save percentage!) but got two losses in the three games he appeared in.  It’s a bit like Dominik Hasek’s performance in ’93-’94 (1.61, .950) when the Devils beat his Sabres in seven, in the opening round.  Since Devils’ goalie Martin Brodeur went three playoff rounds and only faced twice as many shots as Hasek, you can roughly guesstimate that Hasek was 50% busier than Brodeur each night — and still almost pulled it off.

Schneider’s rise to #1 status triggered a few items in the quirky relational database that is my brain, about understudies making it big.  Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem I Will Survive was actually the B-side of the record, until DJ’s decided it was better than the now-long-forgotten A-side (“Substitute”).  What’s a B-side?  A “throwaway” song which wasn’t good enough to be on the album, so got dumped on the back side of a vinyl record single.  ;)

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A case with more cultural impact was when Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers got eclipsed by their opening act… the Jackson Five (featuring a young Michael Jackson).  Perhaps despairing of ever making it in music, Vancouvers’ co-founder Thomas Chong drifted for awhile before embarking on a series of, ahem, counter-cultural movies with Cheech Marin…

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And on the business side, William Wrigley made baking soda.  His chewing gum started off as a freebie giveaway in baking soda tins, at least until demand for the gum exceeded demand for the baking soda, and he decided to focus on that instead.  (Funnily enough, the baking soda itself had started out as a freebie giveaway with soap, which was Wrigley’s original business before he’d switched to baking soda!  Who knows?  In an alternate universe, “Ivory” might be manufactured by the conglomerate of “Proctor, Gamble & Wrigley”.)

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Moving back to hockey, everyone’s familiar with the freewheeling, “firewagon hockey” the Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers played in the 1980’s.  The all-offense all-the-time style was actually brought to North America by the Winnipeg Jets in the 1970’s, back when they were part of the World Hockey Association.  The Jets paired a couple Swedes (Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson) with the aging-but-still-great Bobby Hull, and built their team around the European game.  They won three WHA championships, including the last-ever one in 1979, against an Edmonton Oilers team featuring Wayne Gretzky, which coach / GM Glen Sather was savvily building around the same model.

In a twist, the WHA championship was called the Avco Cup, named after a division of Textron, a conglomerate whose carbon fiber materials division Ballard bought, eleven years ago.  So there’s actually a (very tenuous) Ballard link to all this!  Cool, eh?

[note: I was working for Ballard Power Systems, when I wrote this, primarily for work colleagues]

Epic Vancouver 2012 (and raw food)

(originally written May 15, 2012 — part of my Great Upload of 2013)

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I outlined a piece tentatively titled “Douglas, Deng and Diocletian” on Saturday, as I cycled to Vancouver’s new convention centre along the largely-empty downtown bike lanes.  ;)  But alas, attending the Epic Vancouver “green consumerism” show threw those plans off-kilter.  Musings about historical figures are “evergreen” projects — they can be written up any time — but event-driven patter has a best-before date.  :)

I was surprised that Cadbury didn’t have a booth at the conference; they were the first major confectioner to switch a major product line to all-fair trade chocolate a few years back (their flagship “Dairymilk” bars) and you’d figure they’d want to make sure everyone knew it.  Heck, according to the Tommy Douglas bio I just finished, our Greatest Canadian hired one of the Cadbury heirs to help set up government-run enterprises (insurance, bus services) to help improve Saskatchewan’s finances so the province could finally move ahead with universal healthcare in 1962.  Being able to tie the Cadbury name to Canadians’ most treasured institution, would seem like a marketer’s dream…!

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The Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association had a century-old electric vehicle on display (model year 1912).  I was shocked (ha) to see steering was accomplished with a bunch of levers — like a modern military tank.  I guess the automotive Steve Jobs hadn’t yet reinvented the human-car interface with the steering wheel.  (“We think this ‘steering-wheel’ thing is going to be big — it’s insanely great!!“)

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As is typical of these trade shows, the headline sponsors were environmentally-conscientious corporate behemoths, but the exhibitor mix went well into the “granola” spectrum.  ;)  One of these was the raw food society of BC, who seemed a pleasant if misguided bunch.  Which isn’t to imply that the rest of us aren’t misguided — we surely are, just in a more mainstream way.  ;)

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As I understand it — possibly incorrectly — the idea is that raw food is closer to what humans evolved eating, meaning it’s better for us.  As such, it belongs to a family of beliefs which considers technology unnatural, and hence bad, or possibly dangerous.  Of course, while we may chuckle at the raw-fooders, most of us are a little uncomfortable with GMO’s.  The sad hilarity is that it’s more logically consistent to reject all technology from fire onwards, than to pick and choose an arbitrary point between “natural” technologies and “unnatural” ones!

To adapt an analogy I heard in some podcast, cooking is a convenient technology, just like writing.  The pot gives us an external stomach in which to pre-digest our food (using heat) for easy nutrient absorption, just like paper and other media give us an external brain to store data for easy information retrieval.  And while cooking probably destroys some nutrients, it kills off microbes which cause food-borne illnesses, too.  In earlier eras before modern healthcare technologies, that was pretty important!  The Chinese have been cooking water for at least three thousand years: tea is lightly-flavoured boiled water with a caffeine kick.  It was the Red Bull of its day!  ;)

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I imagine most Canadians who go on raw food diets lose weight, if for no other reason that junk food options must be pretty meagre.  Eating less calorie-dense foods, they’d probably feel full sooner, and their bodies would have to work harder to pull nutrients out of the food they did wind up eating.  Since modern urbanites tend to be on the thick side of fit, this probably nets out positive on health, but mainly as a result of better eating habits, as opposed to prehistoric ones.

One species that could definitely benefit from cooking is pandas, who eat 12 hours a day.  Their carnivorous digestive system can’t extract nutrients from bamboo very easily — not that there are many to begin with!  And given all the fiber they take in, they’re not just regular, they’re frequent: dozens of times a day.  Reminds me of when Leo was a newborn.  ;)

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I didn’t see any vegetarian groups at Epic, though the crowd was probably their target market also.  While Westerners could probably benefit from reducing meat in their diet, avoiding meat is more of an ethical issue than a “natural human condition” issue.  One theory has it that meat-eating is a big reason why we spread across the earth, and our largely-vegetarian chimp brethren didn’t.

The premise is that meat enriched the milk of human mothers so much, they could wean babies earlier than other primates (traditional societies wean at around 2 years; largely-vegan chimpanzees at about 5 years).  This meant humans could reproduce faster and dominate the world the way we’ve been doing, for the past tens of thousands of years.  It would also imply that to enjoy a truly representative Paleo diet, raw food enthusiasts would want to get used to all manners of sashimi.  :)

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Considering how much flack TIME magazine got recently for putting a woman breastfeeding a three-year-old on its cover, this all seemed topical enough to justify swerving my writing plans.  As strange as that may seem to the rest of us, if she was a paleo-diet vegetarian, five years might be scientifically justified (!).  It seems weird to us since it’s so far from our cultural norms, but most cultural norms are laughably arbitrary: while my Ukrainian grandmother looked queasy when I told her I ate raw fish, my Japanese mother-in-law was astounded that I sometimes ate carrots, uncooked…!  :)

Of whales and wind turbines

(originally written June 20, 2012 — part of my Great Upload of 2013)

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So I was reading up on my Ray Kurzweil last night, because it’s good to read people you disagree with once in a while — but preferably no more often than that.  ;)

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Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil is a futurist who believes we’re heading into a singularity where, in this century, life will transcend biology and we’ll reach some sort of a higher condition of life.  His ideas could probably be summed up as:

– it took billions of years to go from single-celled creatures to multi-celled ones

– then hundreds of millions of years to get to human-like creatures

– then hundreds of thousands of years for homo sapiens to create cities

– then thousands of years for us to start making upgrades (artificial hips, pacemakers and the like)

– and in a short span of time, we’ll transition from a biological-molecule-based form of consciousness to a silicon-based one

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His ideas are pretty much distilled in this decade-old article/manifesto, which he wrote during the heady days of the dot-com bubble.  As such, though the trends in computing power have probably continued, economic progress… has not.

He made surprising choices in some graphs (e.g. patents issued over time) in that he didn’t factor in the huge effect of a rising population.  It looks like the number of patents issued per year went up tenfold from 1900 to 2000, but the US population also increased four-fold from roughly 70 million to 280 million.  So patents per person “only” went up 2.5x in a century.

There’s a big wrinkle though, which is that the US urban population went from about 40% to 80% in the century of 1900 to 2000, so the urban population probably rose about 8x [28 million to 200 million] in that century.  So in the past century, patents-per-urban-person might only have gone up… twenty percent?  A bigger wrinkle is the fact that half of US patents nowadays go to foreigners, and the biggest wrinkle is probably that patents aren’t a great way of measuring innovation.  They might be the best available measuring-stick, but that doesn’t mean they’re all that accurate…

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Cities and Whales

The urban-population factor is important because recent research purports to show that as metropolitan areas get bigger, they tend to “speed up” — since Metro Vancouver has twice the population of Metro Calgary, one would expect Vancouver to have 15% higher per-capita mean income and patenting rates.  Of course, local factors like the tar sands mean that these general trends come with massive, massive margins of error.  :)

The reason for this trend might be that as cities get bigger, people can become more and more specialized, and nudge the boundaries of human knowledge just a bit further in one tiny area.  And with so many people around them, there’s a better chance they’ll run into someone who can make use of that knowledge.  And there is a symmetric downside: apparently per-capita crime and other social ills also tend to increase about 15% with each doubling in city size.

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This “speeding up” with bigger size is the opposite of what happens in publicly-traded companies, which tend to “slow down” as they get bigger — fewer patents per person, lower per-person revenues, etc.  (The trend surely holds true for privately-held companies too, but since public companies release quarterly financial statements it’s waay easier to crunch public company data than private companies’.)  This phenomenon could elegantly, partially explain why public-sector bureaucracies often seem worse than private-sector ones: few private companies ever reach the size of governments!

A similar “slowing down” with size occurs in biology, a phenomenon known as Kleiber’s Law.  (Not to be confused with George Clooney’s girlfriend Stacy “Keibler”, or the cookie-making “Keebler” elves.)

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In the critter world, when animals double in size, their metabolic (food) requirements tend to only increase by 70-ish percent.  To use math terms, the exponent describing the relationship between metabolic rate and mass, is between 2/3 and 3/4.  And before you ask, yes indeed, there is the usual academic bun fight over what exactly that exponent is!  :)  To use a better example than the one offered in Wikipedia, if we were to compare a 200 tonne blue whale with a 20 gram mouse, the whale weighs 10,000,000x more, but only requires about 10,000,000^0.7 = 80,000x as much food.

Another example of how life seems to “slow down” for big creatures is the reasonably-accurate factoid that many mammals, big and small, have a lifespan of about one to one-and-a-half billion heartbeats.  And indeed, whales live a lot longer than mice — in the absence of whalers.  And cats.  :)  I could imagine that for our earliest mammalian ancestors, this might have represented a good balance between “durable enough to have offspring” and “not so resource-intensive as to starve other important bodily functions of nutrients”, but then I imagine a lot of plausible-sounding, completely-inaccurate explanations.  :)

Rambling aside, as animals get bigger, they get more efficient with their food inputs.  Which brings us to wind turbines!

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…and wind turbines

One of the few things I remember from my chemical engineering economics course is that the cost of components in a chemical plant increases more slowly than size, with the exponents generally in the 0.5-0.8 range.  We could think of this as a rough industrial analogue, or maybe even an extension, of Kleiber’s Law.

This trend applies to wind turbines, because if you scaled up a turbine so its blades and everything else were twice as big, you’d need more than twice the material, but you could probably extract quadruple the energy.  (Taller turbines can access stronger winds, and the blades would rotate through 4x the cross-sectional area, but various losses would eat away at that.)  The net effect is that bigger wind turbines are more efficient per-tonne-of-construction-material.  Not unlike that whale.  :)

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And back to Kurzweil

Before setting sail on that cetacean tangent (ie. talking about whales) we were examining how a lot of the technological progress feeding Ray Kurzweil’s optimism might not have come from exponentially-improving calculation power, but from a one-time migration of people from the countryside to the cities.

If population growth and urbanization were big drivers for the extraordinary progress we made in the 20th century, it stands to reason that we might see a slowing-down of things in the 21st century, as world population (and world urban population) level off and start falling.  This would be a bit of a downer for techno-optimists’ utopian visions, but would fit the more pessimistic notion that the human condition is a cycle between harsher and milder dystopias.

As an admirer of the great Greek tragedies, I’m in the latter camp.  And while I’m as overconfident in my opinions as most men, I have an ace up my sleeve: as per page 3 of the TIME magazine article, people with mild depression are more accurate at predicting future events!  Nice of the universe to finally throw us folks a bone…!  ;)