tech fraud, innovation, and telling the difference

I admit it. I’m something of a connoisseur of fraud, particularly technology fraud.I’m  fascinated by it. That’s why I have not been able to keep my eyes off the unfolding story of Thernos. Theranos was a company formed to do blood testing with minute quantities of blood. The founder, who dropped out of Stanford to pursue her idea, imagined blood testing kiosks in every drugstore, making testing ubiquitous, cheap, safe, painless. It all sounds pretty great in concept, but it seemed to me from the very start to lack an important hallmark of seriousness: evidence of a thoughtful survey of “why hasn’t this happened already?”

There were plenty of warning signs that this would not work out, but I think what’s fascinating to me is that the very same things that set off klaxons in my brain lured in many investors. For example, the founder dropped out of school, so had “commitment,” but no technical background in the art she was promising to upend. Furthermore, there were very few medical or testing professionals among her directors. (There was one more thing that did it for me: the founder liked to ape the presentation style and even fashion style of Steve Jobs. Again, there were people with money who got lured by that … how? The mind boggles.)

Anyway, there is, today, a strange current of anti-expert philosophy floating around Silicon Valley. I don’t know what to make of it. They do have some points. It is true that expertise can blind you to new ideas. And it’s also true that a lot of people who claim to be experts are really just walking sacks of rules-of-thumb and myths accreted over unremarkable careers.

At the same time, building truly innovative technology products is especially hard. I’m not talking about applying technology to hailing a cab. I’m talking about creating new technology. The base on which you are innovating is large and complex. The odds that you can add something meaningful to it through some googling seems vanishingly small.

But it is probably non-zero, too. Which means that we will always have stories of the iconoclast going against the grain to make something great. But are those stories explanatory? Do they tell us about how innovation works? Are they about exceptions or rules? Should we mimic successful people who defy experts, by defying experts ourselves, and if we do, what are our chances of success? And should we even try to acquire expertise ourselves?

All of this brings me to one of my favorite frauds in progress: Ubeam. This is a startup that wants to charge your cell phone, while it’s in your pocket, by means of ultrasound — and it raised my eyebrows the moment I heard about it. They haven’t raised quite as much money as did Theranos, but their technology is even less likely to work. (There are a lot of reasons, but they boil down to the massive attenuation of ultrasound in air, the danger of exposing people to high levels of ultrasound, the massive energy loss from sending out sound over a wide area, only to be received over a small one [or the difficulty and danger of forming a tight beam], the difficulty of penetrating clothes, purses, and phone holders, and the very low likelihood that a phone’s ultrasound transducer will be positioned close to normally with respect to the beam source.) And if they somehow manage to make it work, it’s still a terrible idea, as it will be grotesquely inefficient.

What I find so fascinating about this startup is that the founder is ADAMANT that people who do not believe it will work are just trapped in an old paradigm. They are incapable of innovation — broken, in a way. She actively campaigns for “knowledge by Google” and against expertise.

As an engineer by training and genetic predisposition, this TEDx talk really blows my mind. I still cannot quite process it:



Lies, damn lies, and energy efficiency

This afternoon I was removing a dead CFL from a fixture in the kitchen when it broke in my hand, sending mercury-tainted glass towards my face and the floor. Our kitchen had been remodeled by the previous owner before he put the house up for sale, and he brought up to compliance with California Title 24 requirements for lighting, which at the time could only have been met with CFL fixtures that used bulb bases incompatible with the ubiquitous “edison base” used by incandescent bulbs — after all, with regular bases, what would stop someone from replacing the CFLs with awful incandescents?

I’ve never liked the setup, and part of the reason is the many compromises that come with CFLs. Though they have certainly saved energy, they’ve been a failure on several other levels. First, they are expensive, between $8-14 in my experience. (These are G24 based bulbs, not the cheap edison-compatible retrofits) Furthermore, they fail. A lot. We’ve lived in this house since 2012 and our kitchen has six overhead cans. I’ve probably replaced 7 or 8 bulbs in that time. Finally, with the fancy CFL-only bases come electrobroken_cflnic ballasts, built into the fixture. One has failed already and it can only be replaced from the attic. I hate going up there, so I haven’t done it even though it happened six months ago. The ballasts also stop me from putting in LED retrofits. I’ll have to remove them all first.

The thing is, only a few years ago, it seemed like every environmentalist and energy efficiency expert was telling us (often in pleading, patronizing tones) to switch to CFLs. They cost a bit more, but based on energy savings and longer life, they’d be cheaper in the long run. But it turns out that just wasn’t true. It was theoretically true but practically not. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon in the efficiency world.

There were other drawbacks to CFLs. They did not fit lamps that many people had. The color of their light was irksome. There was flicker that some people could detect. When they broke, they released mercury into your home, that, if it fell into carpet or crevices in the floor, would be their essentially forever. Most could not dim, and those that could have laughably limited dimming range.Finally, they promised longevity, but largely failed to deliver.

Basically, for some reason, experts could not see what became plainly obvious to Joe Homeowner: CFLs kinda suck.

So, was pushing them a good idea, perhaps based on what was known at the time?

I would argue no. This was a case of promoting a product that solved a commons problem (environmental impact of energy waste) with something whose private experience was worse in almost every way possible. Even the economics, touted as a benefit, failed to materialize in most cases.

I would argue that the rejection (and even political backlash) against CFLs was entirely predictable, because 1) over promising benefits 2) downplaying drawbacks and 3) adding regulation does not make people happy. What does make people happy is a better product.

So far, it looks like LEDs are the better product we need. They actually are better than incandescent bulbs in most ways, and their cost is coming down. I’m sure their quality will come down, too, as manufacturers explore the price/performance/reliability frontier, and we may end up throwing away more LED fixtures than any environmentalist could imagine. Not so far; things are holding. They’re a lighting efficiency success, perhaps the first since incandescent bulbs replaced gas and lamp oil.

The lesson for energy efficiency advocates, I think, is:

  1. UNDERpromise and OVERdeliver
  2. do not try to convince people that an inferior experience is superior. Sure, some will drink the Kool-Aid, but most won’t. Consider what you’re asking of people.
  3. Do not push a technology before its time
  4. Do not push a technology after its time (who’s days are numbered)

Simpler times, news edition

The other evening, I was relaxing in my special coffin filled with semiconductors salvaged from 1980’s-era consumer electronics, when I was thinking about how tired I am of hearing about a certain self-funded presidential candidate, or guns, or terrorism … and my mind wondered to simpler times. Not simpler times without fascists and an easily manipulated populace, but simpler times where you could more easily avoid pointless and dumb news, while still getting normal news.


It wasn’t long ago that I read news, or at least “social media” on Usenet, a system for posting on message boards that predates the web and even the Internet. My favorite “news reader” (software for reading Usenet) was called trn. I learned all it’s clever single-key commands and mastered a feature common to most serious news readers: the kill file.

Kill files are conceptually simple. They contain a list of rules, usually specified as regular expressions, that determine which posts on the message board you will see. Usenet was the wild west, and it always had a lot of garbage on it, so this was a useful feature. Someone is being rude, or making ridiculous, illogical arguments? <plonk> Into the kill file goes their name. Enough hearing about terrorism? <plonk> All such discussions disappear.

Serious users of Usenet maintained carefully curated kill files, and the result was generally a pleasurable reading experience.

Of course, technology moves on. Most people don’t use text-based news readers anymore, and Facebook is the de-facto replacement for Usenet. And in fact, Facebook is doing curation of our news feed – we just don’t know what it is they’re doing.

All of which brings me to musing about why Facebook doesn’t support kill files, or any sophisticated system for controlling the content you see. We live in more advanced times, so we should have more advanced software, right?

More advanced, almost certainly, but better for you? Maybe not. trn ran on your computer, and the authors (its open source) had no pecuniary interest in your behavior. Facebook, of course, is a media company, not a software company, and in any case, you are not the customer. The actual customers do not want you to have kill files, so you don’t.

Though I enjoy a good Facebook bash more than most people, I must also admit that Usenet died under a pile of its own garbage content. It was an open system and, after, a gajillion automated spam posts, even aggressive kill files could not keep up. Most users abandoned it. Perhaps if there had been someone with a pecuniary interest in making it “work,” things would have been different. Also, if it could had better support for cat pictures.

Garbage can strikes again

When I was in policy school, we learned about something called the “Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice,” which for some reason has stuck with me. I don’t want to boil it down too much, but in it, Cohen, March, and Olson (and later, Kingdon) theorize that people are constantly coming up with “solutions” that more or less end up in a theoretical trash bin. Except, nobody ever empties the trash. Instead, it lingers. At the same time, the random stochastic process known as life generates a constant stream of problems. Every once in awhile, a “problem” comes along that fits a “solution” waiting in the trash can, and if there’s an actor who favors that solution who has been paying attention and waiting patiently, he trots it out and starts flogging hard.

In light of the Paris attacks, we’ve been seeing this from the security establishment in a big way. They like tools that let them see and watch everything, and they do not like anything that gets in their way. So, for example, banning encryption that they cannot defeat is a solution that sits in the trash can perpetually. That’s why it’s unsurprising that the ex-CIA director is calling for Edward Snowden’s hanging or Dianne Feinstein and other senators are railing against Silicon Valley for offering its users strong encryption.

It’s all about having an established agenda and seizing an opportunity when it comes along. Politics as usual, move along, these droids are not particularly interesting.

But there is actually something a bit interesting going on here. The actual facts and circumstances right now do not support the panopticon theory of governance favored by intelligence and law & order types. The terrorists in this case did not use encryption. They sent each other SMS and other messages completely in the clear. If you look in the Internet, you will find article after article debunking the notion that controls on encryption would have made a difference in these attacks at all.

In fact, given the circumstances of this particular case, it looks like the intelligence agencies already had all the tools they needed to stop this attack. They just didn’t. This, if anything, should be the actual story of the day!

Okay, so this is perhaps also not interesting to the jaded news junky. Maybe it’s a bit further down in the playbook, but we’ve all seen people who should be on the defensive go on the offensive in a big, loud way. But I still find it disturbing that the facts are not steering the debate at all. If you enjoy making fun of fact-free conservatives, then this is not the circus for you, either, as powerful Dems are behind this crap.

Various media outlets, even mainstream ones, are calling out the bullshit, but the bullshit continues.

Same as it ever was, or new, disturbing political discourse untethered to reality. You decide.

Oh, and just as an aside: you can’t stop the bad guys from using strong encryption. So what are you actually calling for?




Un-American Things

Barack Obama and Ted Cruz are currently having a bit of a one-sided insult match in response to the president suggesting that rejecting Syrian refugees, or only letting in refugees in who meed certain religious criteria, is un-American.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I think The President is right, of course. Our highest ideals are of opportunity and openness, and I think we all want to live in a country that is the destination for those in need to rebuild lives shattered through forces beyond their control.

But the president is also right in another way that I think is interesting. This country does not have a culture of risk-aversion. Or at least it doesn’t regarding most new things. I mean, let’s grant for the moment that letting in Syrian refugees means we are opening ourselves to some non-zero incremental risk of violence. Why shouldn’t we take that risk? We’re risk takers.

This is not a country that adopts the precautionary principle to food and environmental regulation. We don’t stop Uber and Airbnb before they get started because they might be unsafe. Nobody (federally) says, “sure, you can have a gun, after you show us you can handle it safely.” You want to use some new chemical you just invented in your industrial process? Have at it (generally), until we know it’s dangerous. So it goes. Nuclear power, moon exploration, homesteading the West. In the cases where we do have regulation, I think you’ll find 100% of the time that it came after something bad happened regarding the very thing being regulated.

And I think that’s more or less a fine, and certainly, very American philosophy. We’ve had some very bad outcomes here and there (leaded gas), but on average, the risks have worked out in our favor and we get more benefit than harm. In the case of Syrian refugees its a question of compromising our ideals to gain a little safety. Totally un-American.


What the other guys believe

How well do you understand the beliefs of those at the opposite political spectrum as yourself?

Being a semiprofessional policy nerd, so I thought I had a good handle on this. I know, for example, most of the conservative and liberal arguments for this or that policy proposal, and can (and do) rank them on their credibility all the time, constantly adjusting those  rankings as I learn more about the world. That’s a wonk’s life.

But here’s a different question: which of those arguments do they believe and feel are the most compelling?

Some JMU researchers have devised a little experiment to determine just that. It’s a short questionnaire. You should take it! They ask you a few questions about the best policy arguments from conservative and liberal viewpoints and then they ask you your own political orientation.

I learned something from my results. I was able to correctly identify the favored argument of political conservatives approximately zero percent of the time. 0 for 5!

Paul Krugman thinks liberals understand conservative reasoning better than conservatives do liberal reasoning. Well, he might be true with respect to the logic of the arguments, but at least for this guy, he’s dead wrong regarding the beliefs about the strengths of the arguments.

h/t Baseline Scenario

Leave it in the ground

About a decade ago, Alex Farrell, a professor in the UC Berkeley Energy and Resources Department, Alex Farrell, had a series of papers unpopular with environmentalists. They showed that, essentially, there was no peak oil. In fact, at prevailing prices of the time, one could profitably extract a supply of petroleum to last hundreds of years at current rates. The supply would come not just from traditional sources, but from Canadian bitumen and coal-to-liquids conversion. He also pointed out that this is a bad thing, because those alternative sources of petroleum products have ridiculously high carbon intensities. That is, they’d be much, much dirtier than regular oil.

Sadly, Professor Farrell did not live to see the story of peak oil fade from most environmentalists’ consciousness nor to see the price of oil has drop so dramatically. And, in fact, at today’s prevailing prices, influenced by fracking and cheap natural gas (which is not a short term substitute for oil but could be a long-term one), we just don’t need oil from the Canadian tar sands. There’s not really a strong economic case for it, and the environmental case is, well, awful. I guess there is still a story to be told about “continental oil independence,” but, well, that’s only physical independence. Unless we plan on declaring a state of emergency and militarily controlling oil transfer, oil is still a worldwide commodity,  and if there were some kind of oil crunch, we’d take the economic gut punch all the same.

I think Obama made the correct decision today, to nix the Keystone Pipeline.

Score one for common sense.

Why I’m usually happy when iniatives fail

San Francisco’s anti-Airbnb measure (F) went down last night. So did another ballot measure (I) that would have put a moratorium on the construction of new housing in the Mission. The commentators on KQED this morning were calling it a failure for the progressives and a win for Airbnb, which spent millions to stop F.

Eh, maybe. I like to think of it as perhaps the electorate realizing that in general ballot measures are blunt tools that tend to offer simple (and wrong) answers to complex problems. Sometimes those answers directly benefit the individuals or organizations that sponsored the measure, at the expense of everyone else.

I’m not saying that the housing situation in SF is great and does not need to be addressed. It does, but I don’t think I know how to address it, and those measures certainly were half-cooked. I’m not even opposed to trying out half-cooked ideas when a situation is dire. But I’d like to see those experiments tried out by city councils and state legislatures that can, you know, augment, amplify, or reverse them as results come in.

Of course, legislative bodies often don’t act fast enough or decisively enough for many of us. It’s worth taxonomizing why that might be:

  • the legislators do not care
  • the legislators are bought off by bad guys
  • the legislators think other issues must take precedence
  • the legislators do not understand an issue well enough to craft a solution (note: they have staffs and experts at their disposal. What do you know that they do not?)
  • legislators believe that something you think is a problem is not actually a problem
  • legislators consider factors about which you don’t care
  • none of the proposed solutions could garner a majority

We could go on, but I guess my point is that the initiative process was designed to deal with a legislature that seemed to be at odds with the electorate. Seemed is a strong word. There was good evidence it was so. But more often, I think some of those other explanations are in play, and vote accordingly.

Falling out of love with Silicon Valley

I came to Silicon Valley in the mid 1990’s. Reflecting back on that time directly out of college, I remember that I thought computer chips were exciting and that the best companies designing and manufacturing them were making huge money. Of course, I had been fascinated with computers since I was little, as had many of my coworkers.

Anyway, computer chips seemed really cool back then. They looked cool. They were made in cool manufacturing environments. The tools to design them were cool. And the chips were getting better and faster all the time. Honestly, it just seemed like fun and I wanted in.

In those years, I distinctly remember social events where I would try to express my excitement about semiconductors and folks would just politely back away from me, the crazy nerd.

Today,  Silicon Valley is still cool. In fact, it’s way cooler and more widely cool. People are making even more money, more people are involved, and the products they’re churning out are used by more people and in more numerous ways. And, the only reason you can’t talk about your work at parties today is because everyone is so tired of it.

But, SV today leaves me cold.

What has changed is cool itself. I liked nerd-cool, but this is mainstream capitalist cool. Banker cool. “Kids” in hoodies cool. Ignore the rules cool.

The people being drawn to Silicon Valley today, like me, are also coming because it’s exciting, but what excites them is not the same as what excited me. For awhile I thought this was a software vs. hardware thing. (It is, but not entirely — requires a separate post for sure.)

I see two basic factors for my loss of affection for SV:

  1. Today’s hot companies generally deploy tech rather than make it. The exceptions seem to be when they have to develop something for operational purposes, and when they do they seem to keep their innovations close. Poster child for this might be Google, which had to invent a lot of its infrastructure, though a Google starting fresh today would probably have much less to do. Anyway, not creating things you don’t absolutely have to create is probably smart, but can we admit that it’s also boring?
  2. The business models make me uncomfortable. Making a thing (or software, or a service) and selling it in a two-party, pareto-improving transaction is very passé. In fact, if your plan is to make and sell hardware OR software, your prospects for raising money are limited. Instead, advertising and market-making are hot.


When I was a young man, choosing my major in college, there were large, successful advertising businesses and large, successful market makers. But I would never have spent a femtosecond considering working for either.

Today, advertisers (Google, Facebook, etc) and market-makers (Uber, Airbnb, etc) dominate Silicon Valley. They’re great companies, I guess, but I have to wonder why so many engineers are thrilled to join them. Steve Jobs once famously recruited John Sculley by asking him if he wanted to sell sugar water for the rest of his career, or if he wanted to change the world. Well, it seems that sugar water (or perhaps, sugar water once removed) may have actually won in the end. (Interestingly, Apple continues to mostly avoid this model.)

I still love tech. Maybe the tech nerds will regroup somewhere and stage a comeback. Probably not going to happen in SV, though.