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Fukushima-type reactors in the USA

I was moving a bookshelf around my house this weekend when I found a copy of “Nuclear Power Reactors in the World,” an April 2000 publication by the IAEA.  (Don’t ask why I have this kind of crap lying around …) It struck me that people would want to know what reactors are “like” the Fukushima Daiichi reactors in Japan which have been causing all sorts of problems lately. Well, here goes:

View BWR 1970s reactors in the USA in a full screen map

The March 2011 earthquake / tsunami / reactor emergency brought to the public eye the dangers of “active safety” in engineered systems.  Elements of reactor design and operation which may have seemed appropriate in the 1960s (when these reactors were designed) now seem like “what were they thinking??” anachronisms to concerned laypersons.

Specifically, I’m talking about the need for electrical pumps to be in continuous operation to prevent reactor core overheating; use of water (hydrolysible into 2H2 and O2, explosive and reactive gasses) as coolant; use of cladding and fuel alloys that are subject to fire risk and enhanced toxicity (zirconium and MOX); and storage of spent fuel rods in top-floor containment pools subject to sloshing and evaporation and requiring electrical pumping. Keep in mind that all of the bad shit at Fukushima started happening after the earthquake and tsunami had passed, during a period where the active safety systems relatively slowly stopped working.

(Lots of folks don’t realize it, but you can build stable, passively safe, high tech systems, to a degree. Simple airplanes are built to fly themselves. If you’re up in the air piloting a Cessna in level flight at, say, 5000 feet, you could probably take a 10 minute nap and live to tell about it. Yes, there’s gravity involved, but the aerodynamics involved let the plane stay up there either flying (engine on) gliding (engine off) for quite a while with no requirement for constant input and management. Contrast this with something like the Joint Strike Fighter, where the plane is intentionally aerodynamically unstable and, without the constant inputs of a high-speed computer, would fall out of the air like a brick. We want reactors that are boring and Cessna-like, not delicate JSF divas that literally melt down without enough attention.)

(Non-geek version: the Fukushima-type reactors are like delicate plates spinning on top of poles.  You can’t just leave them be without expecting to break a lot of shit.  And they don’t tend to revert to safe or stable states when they break.)

The above map names the US-based reactors with BWR type (boiling water; arguably the most dangerous type still in service), manufacture by GE (GE, Toshiba, and Hitachi were the suppliers at Fukushima), and construction dates that include the 1970s (1969 in the case of Nine Mile Point).  This does not mean that you should freak out if you live near these plants.  But it does mean that, in the broadest sense, these types of reactors are subject to the same types of risks as the Fukushima reactors.  (Keeping in mind that even Fukushima was fine for 30+ years until a 9.0 earthquake.)

If you want to do something positive about nuclear power in general, don’t freak out or ask for all nukes to be banned. Instead, the nuke-minded citizen should:

  • …push for greater research on safer alternatives like pebble bed reactors.
  • …push your Congressional representatives to get off their asses and open up a real, centralized, better-than-inaction interim solution for the nation’s nuclear waste. (This gets rid of fuel rods sitting in ponds at the very place where they can do the most incremental harm when things go wrong…)
  • …pay, pay, pay. [Good] nuclear power will not be cheap. But it can be vastly improved from the Fukushima state of affairs. However, it will take enormous amounts of money for research, and the political will to eschew interim half-assed solutions (like putting cheap BWRs into service well into the 1970s, when other approaches were already either viable or in progress).

Newest source of entrepreneurial financing: the dole

From the VC grapevine comes word of a new innovation in startup funding in Portland (and elsewhere), Oregon: the unemployment department

From http://www.oregon.gov/EMPLOY/UI/ui_special_programs.shtml#Self_Employment_Assistance__SEA_

The Oregon Self Employment Assistance (SEA) Program helps eligible unemployed workers set up a business on a full time basis and still receive full unemployment benefits.  …
To qualify for the SEA program, you must:

  • have a viable business idea,
  • be willing to work full time in developing the business, and
  • have or be able to obtain the financial backing needed to start and sustain the business until it becomes self-supporting.

Kind of cool.  Normally, I’d understand that there’s a hazard here (given that I am an investor in several Oregon companies that all pay unemployment insurance premiums, which could be raised if this gets exploited).  But unfortunately, I paid enough premiums immorally required on myself (which payments I could never collect, because I was the entrepreneur and would have been ineligible had I quit) during my Oregon years that I feel a bit justified here.

One-click Unsubscribe: For ALL Your Emails

I sign up for (let’s call it) 5-10 new web sites a week. It’s an occupational hazard.

(In fact, there’s an even weirder effect where sometimes there are web sites I know only from Webex demos or slide decks, and not from visiting the site itself. But I digress.)

As a startup, you SHOULD be sending retention and call-to-action emails. It’s a no-brainer. I don’t fault you for it. In fact, if I were an investor or advisor, I’d insist that you do it. (So many Web services naturally get more valuable over time, with the addition of users, data, events, etc., that you are often literally doing your users a favor the first time you harass them to come back.)

And, inevitably, the day comes when I tire of your appeals, and I want to pull the plug (or at least turn up the squelch knob).

BUT: when your “unsubscribe” link prompts me to sign in to your Web site — with a username I don’t remember (not even pre-filled in for me), with a password I even more certainly have forgotten, into your unfamiliar interface — in order to stop those email from coming in, then you are doing wrong.

Your “unsubscribe” link should have enough of a unique auth token in it that I can manage my email preferences. At the very most, it should be a two-or-three-additional-click process to verify with a round-trip email and link combination.

Instead, after two or three times trying to play nice and click your crappy “unsubscribe” link, I will just start clicking “report spam.” Enough of that, and your email throughput will suffer, and with it, all of your retention/CTA messaging.

So please: make it easy to unsubscribe (or at least to manage email prefs). Short-term minimization of your unsubscribe rate is not clever, and will ultimately kill your other metrics (not to mention incur user wrath).

This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by WMG.

Was looking today at a Facebook email (yuck) exchange regarding heavy metal and hard rock with an overseas pen pal. One of the links traded was to Ronnie James Dio’s “Holy Diver” video, a rockin’-ass metal song with laughably horrific production values in the vid.

That video in question I had found as a “related video” while surfing some other metal (probably Sabbath) on YouTube.

You heard me right: I probably never would have found out about Holy Diver if not for a bunch of dubiously-legit uploads to YouTube, which uploads, through the collective intelligence of commenting, tagging, and merely self-serving passively surfing users, became woven into a preferences graph that drove me into Dio’s grip. (Forgive me.)

WOE IS THE F-ING RECORD COMPANIES, THEY HAVE LOST SO MUCH REVENUE BOO HOO HOO BECAUSE I WATCHED A 20-YEAR-OUTDATED ROCK VID ON YOUTUBE, flail and rend garments etc.

Oh, wait — no, that’s not correct:

Yep, I bought the song. That is: the system works. Exactly like folks like Steve Jobs and the YouTube boys and your humble correspondent have been saying. There’s a place for freedom, and a place for commerce, and they can coexist. My anonymous and unknown friend in cyberspace puts up a crappy VHS-dub of Dio to share with me, I discover and rock out to it, and I buy the song.

But Warner Music Group (WMG) is operating on a plainly brain-dead policy. For instead of promoting that virtuous cycle above, they have chosen as a matter of policy to piss all over my unknown cyber-friend, me, RJD’s bank account, and indeed all precedents of good internet behavior. They have used the threat of violence-through-the-courts to have the link broken, and replaced with “This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by WMG.” In WMG’s preferred universe, I never discover Holy Diver, RJD never gets his 10c or whatever from iTunes, and you never have to read this rant.

So, let me review the options WMG has:

1. Benign neglect toward music-sharing (especially of old and/or non-premium formats). Begets wider distribution of the catalog. Enables an increase in fan discovery and delight. Drives marginal purchases based upon that discovery and delight, and encourages the budding polyglot.

2. Relentless malignancy toward music-sharing. Squelches wider distribution of the catalog. Precludes an increase in discovery and reduces delight. Increases dependence on old, broken business model of top-40 radio and brick-and-mortar distributors, and cultivates mono-consumers who cleave to niche preferences.

In fair-mindedness, I must back down from the “brain-dead” accusation (see also my self-moderation imperative from earlier posts). There is, to be fair, one very good remaining reason why WMG might rationally choose #2 above. That is the legal doctrine that rightsholders like WMG must assert their rights or face losing them due to estoppel (I may have the legalese wrong). In other words, WMG may well have right-thinking, option #1 favoring executives, but if the general counsel raises the spectre of losing all copyrights, then that fear could drive an otherwise bad decision.

What we need is a law or court decision that provides some limited protection to copyright holders: a failure to enforce rights in one specific medium, format, or type of venue shall not be deemed a waiver of rights in any other medium, format, or type of venue. Then, WMG could let YouTube run amuck, with some sort of implicit understanding that HD videos or 128k audio would provoke legal action, but that sub-par stuff would not.

Otherwise, we end up in world where online video is Hulu, not YouTube. Don’t get me wrong — Hulu is fine for what it is: a way to rot your brain with mainstream media candy. It’s fun for catching “30 Rock” or “The Daily Show.” But YouTube is different and more important, culturally and economically, than Hulu, because it enables and empowers a different class of people to participate in the (potentially-)mass media.

Massachusetts Doesn’t Add Up

One nice thing about having a (practically infinitely) divisble currency unit is that you can use arithmetic to sum your accounts and settle them on a “net” basis.

Sometimes, such as in CDS clearing situations, this gets a bit hinky: lots of counterparties, etc. Sometimes, with lots of debits and credits on both sides, you really need to double-check to make sure you’ve got it all added up right.

But if I owe you A and B, I really ought to be able to pay you a sum C = A + B.

Not in Massachusetts.

Somehow this would seem less objectionable if it weren’t for the fact that I was trying to dissolve an inactive corporation so as not to have to keep shelling out tribute. You can (send one) check out any time you like, but you can never leave…

Microsoft: Clueless or Actively Hostile to Search?

I know that large enterprises have traditionally taken a lot longer to get clues, both generally, and specifically around search. To some extent, this is just a factor of organizational size: Voyager‘s awesomely successful enterprise search marketing company, SEMDirector, is helping enterprises learn to adapt to this brave new world, and creating a lot of value doing it.

Of all big enterprises, Microsoft is one that we’d expect to be relatively early on the search bandwagon. After all, they’ve largely reoriented the company around search and advertising.

But inexplicably, the very best assets that Microsoft has from a search-marketing content perspective — the gigs and gigs of support info and (heh) bug workarounds on their massive, persistent, ubiquitous installed base — are piss-poorly optimized for search!

Sometime, try searching for something like, oh, say:

exchange server pop mail marked as read  

…which you might do if, like me, you’re frustrated that MSFT’s latest version of Exchange server can’t seem to support POP3 access without flagging all the POP’ed messaged as read (thereby screwing up the flawed but de facto organizational method that Outlook has trained us all to use over the years). (Yes, it’s a real problem; no, I haven’t found a solution.)

Well, the first several hits are forums, blogs, and ISV’s offering solutions. Somewhere around 9th place comes a hit from Microsoft, though, and you’re thinking: “Great! these forum postings are people complaining, but the solution will just be right here in the handy Microsoft link! Boy, what smart guys they are!” So you click on Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 Solution Center

…and what you get back is a huge page full of what I can only describe as “useless crap”. Twenty or thirty topics, all loosely grouped around a product, but nothing apparently on my problem. A confusing mess of acronyms and key terms.

Sigh. OK, So then you pull out the backup. Use your browser’s in-page-search (cmd-f) to find “POP.” Surely, one of these thirty topics is about what I want, I just need to find it here. (Though, isn’t that what the search engine was supposed to have done? Whatever.)

Search: “POP.” A few instances, but nothing relevant. OK, Search: “marked as read.” One instance, but describes the opposite of my problem. How about “marked as unread.” Also irrelevant.

Now you sit back and scratch your head: Every single other link in Google, prior to the Microsoft link, was relevant (if not useful) to my particular problem and my carefully worded query. Now comes the link from the very author of my misery, the Leviathan, and NOT A SINGLE G.D. SENTENCE is relevant to my problem!!

And that’s when it hit me: Microsoft’s “support” pages are actually search engine spam.

(And Google has properly detected this: that’s why for Microsoft’s own product, and despite Microsoft’s huge “Google Juice,” its own support pages rank a pitiful 9th.)

The answer to what needs to be done is fairly simple. (Our friends at SEMDirector could walk you through it.) Push the search engine juice out to the edges of the graph (leaf nodes with real info, rather than these pseudo-indices which serve only to conflate keywords together that don’t belong on the same page); let real human end-users discuss topics, using words that come naturally to them (and hence to other help-seekers); engage external bloggers and forums both to push info out into the ecosystem and to get deep links back in to the leaf nodes.

(Back in 2004, I was seeing this kind of search-friendly behavior on HP’s server support forums, and it was AWESOME. But then, that was all about running Linux on a well-engineered, open platform.)

All of the above recommendations are anti-hierarchical, control-ceding, conversation-seeding moves. They require a mental move from hold on tightly to let go lightly. I’m talking about not just opening the kimono, but playing volleyball on the nude beach. Do you think that a company unable to do that with its support pages is going to be able to embrace a whole new and orthogonal, search-and-ads based strategy?

Customer Satisfaction Owners: Read Your "noreply" Messages!

A quick thought: If you have responsibility for customer satisfaction at a company that relies heavily on the Web for customer experience, you should seriously consider making a practice of /reading the emails that come in to your “noreply” spambot addresses/. (Of course, you should /not have/ noreply addresses; it’s so f’ing insulting to your customer it’s beyond belief.) Essentially, if you want to see the misery of your least happy customers, the total flaming death-threat rants of your spurned customers, the pleading, pathetic missives penned into dodgy webmail interfaces and painstakingly drafted for maximum persuasive effect in solving the customers’ issues, and not least the Tourettean shitstorm of schizoid freakouts that result from when the former (bivalent term) customers have their first emails to “noreply” bounced and yet, beyond all logic and reason, reply again to curse the souls of the whoreson mongrel ancestors who brought a demon like you forth onto the Earth — then you must look into the heart of darkness, the festering cistern of the bit bucket to which you have relegated your hardest problems. Yeah, I got my email reply to a support ticket bounced from a “noreply” address today. Helpful stuff, too, had anyone been around to read it.

NBC F—ing Gets It; Why Don’t You Other Media Types Dig?

Who here has seen The Office — American version? Yeah, I thought so: it a pretty darn worthwhile download. (Those of you who are puzzled at why I called it a “download” rather than a “TV show” had best get with the picture: “push” style TV is dead to an entire rising generation of attention-greedy, affluent knowledge workers. We consume our video via iTunes and BitTorrent, thank you very much.) Here’s the twist, though. If you google around for the character names, you’ll run across “blogs” set up for the characters by NBC. (In the past, you may have found such things done by rabid fans, as for the series Arrested Development, or outsourced to niche creative geniuses like my man Elan Lee, but now we’re seeing the oldest of old-line players get on board.) What’s so special about this? Well, think of it this way: those blogs are in-character and professionally written — but not just for the main characters! In fact, some of the funniest stuff that NBC has put up is for an ancillary character, downtrodden boomer office schlepp Creed. The blog is exploring and fleshing out an entire new space and giving depth to a minor character, with production value and infrastructure underpinning it. Which, if you think about it, is an extension of the ostensible value the network adds in the first place (plot, character, production, etc.), but instead of being constrained to 22 minutes a week of airtime, they are going deeper and wider. Previously (pre-Web world), you couldn’t justify paying a creative to create this deeper world around each character, because it wasn’t economical to put it in the show. But now, the show is kind of just a long video ad for the web property… The blog creative work plus the quick release to iTunes can only mean that someone at NBC really f—ing gets it! And kudos to him. Because most of the media industry deserves to die in shame and penury, but the product manager for The Office is a goddam hero of the revolution. Finally, I want to share with you this gem before some corporate assclown takes it down: more Creed Thoughts on all-you-can-eat-buffets contains the bachelor boomer’s thoughts on nutrition-in-bulk by means of buffet restaurants, including musings on fat waitress seduction and plate-diameter pricing models. But the real reason that that this is an ingenius and genuine bit of fan outreach is to be found in the comment section.  His commenters have been cheering him on with crude, even vulgar commentary, engaging with him as though he were a kind of dirty class clown sitting in back.  And NBC — either out of ignorance or winking complicity with the engaged fans — has left the crude comments there, unedited.  It’s a bit unfortunate that the example here is such a crude one, but folks, this is real social media, and it’s why the sucess of The Office‘s franchise is different not only in degree but in kind.  Whoever is moderating that blog is either way out-of-it, or with-it, and I suspect the latter.

Everything Old Is New Again: Innovation to Adoption Lag

There are a lot of problems in software that aren’t solved well in a ubiquitous product (think PIMs, Personal Information Managers; they all suck royally despite everybody’s best efforts, and the OSAF Chandler project has taken years trying to redesign the very concept, with little to show for it to date). But there are precious few problems that haven’t been solved at all.

In fact, a ton of things that are being held up these days as “innovations” are rehashes of old concepts from the 90s, or the 80s, or sometimes even the 70s. Today this came into sharp focus when I saw this bit from a circa 1999 document on the Semantic Web by the Right Reverend Tim Berners-Lee. Here he asks, then answers, a question:

<blockquote> Surely all first-order or higher-order predicate caluculus based systems (such as KIF) have failed historically to have wide impact?

The same was true of hypertext systems between 1970 and 1990, ie before the Web. Indeed, the same objection was raised to the Web, and the same reasons apply for pressing on with the dream. </blockquote>

Then, while searching for some theory on append-only databases (such as would be used in a revision-control system), I came across this 1994 piece on “collaborative filtering.” That report in turn points to earlier work on “Information Tapestry” from the early 1990s.

So: 1970-1990, hypertext exists and is studied in CS departments. 1995, Netscape IPO. Early 1990s, collaborative filtering exists and is studied in research labs. 2006-2007, rise of Digg and Delicious.

I think there’s a very strong case to be made that VCs should stop looking for “innovation,” per se, and start looking for 10-20 year old CS masters’ theses that touch on an emerging market space…

Swik Has Jumped the Shark

Seattle-based Open Source startup Sourcelabs put together the Swik.net wiki a year or two ago. They seeded it with some links of moderate usefulness, and for a brief time, it was a decent, if hit-or-miss, way to find information about an open source project or tool that you were considering using.

No more. Not only are most of the pages I’m finding on Swik these days simply a one-link screen-scrape to the actually interesting page (which often ranks higher in Google alone, anyhow), but Swik has committed the cardinal sin of infovoria: playing audio that automatically starts on page load.

(They do this by means of an auto-starting video advertisement that spams up the top bit of the page. Not quite as egregious as a MIDI object, but every bit as annoying.)

Unbelievable. I thought we’d gotten past this with the turn of the millennium. But everything old, it seems, is new again. Swik, however, now gets the same mental category as “About.com,” namely, ad-filled, nearly unusable results not to click when they appear in a web search.