Thursday, March 31, 2011

UW EIC Winners

3rd Annual Competition Best Yet

EnVitrum makes porous building materials out of waste glass
~ It was a great afternoon at the Seattle Center Exhibit Hall for the culmination of the University of Washington's Environmental Innovation Challenge. 17 teams made it to the finals and were scored on their 1-page executive summary, a 2-minute stand-up pitch, the caliber of their exhibit hall demo, and the judges' assessment of the potential impact of their idea.

The first prize winner was Voltaic, maker of modular components for electric vehicle drivetrains, including motor, transmission, braking, and power electronics. The team installed their prototype in a Honda Accord donated from Burien Honda and showed how they could both power the car and brake it by running the motors backwards. Regrettably, we couldn't take it for a real test drive, but I'd sure like to see it out on the track to see what it can really do.

The Voltaic team at UW CIE 2011

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Where's It Wednesday—XXVII

Another easy one (I think.) Somewhere in Seattle... Where is this?

Somewhere in Seattle...

Answer next week.

Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
Other weeks' puzzles here.
Answer to last week's puzzle after the jump.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

UW Eco Innovation

Competition Thursday at Seattle Center

~ This is the third year that the University of Washington's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is holding the Environmental Innovation Challenge. Competing teams are formed from degree candidates at any of Washington's colleges or universities and usually include students in engineering and business, but often drawing on the talents of students in diverse and unusual disciplines. Many of the teams come up with truly innovative and intriguing ideas.

This video from last year's competition features UW Professor Emer Dooley, whose course helped launch the competition, bits of pitches from some of the teams (including last year's winner, Envitrum) as well as comments from some of the judges:

Themes from the past years included water and energy; this year the theme is "innovations in cleantech." Judging is based on the business plan, a short pitch to the judges and a demo of the team's prototype. I've been reviewing the 18 teams' one-page summaries and am really looking forward to Thursday and meeting the teams and seeing their demos.

The Environmental Innovation Challenge will be held at Seattle Center's Exhibition Hall from 1:30 to 7:00. You follow happenings on Twitter with hashtag #enviroinnovation.

Monday, March 28, 2011


(What) Were We Thinking?

~ We'd all like to believe in magic ponies. And political lollipops. And the miraculous results that come from merely cutting "waste, fraud and abuse."

Tom Toles on Voter Amnesia

What would work better?

Cutting out the waste of time believing what politicians say, rather than what their records show they actually do. Or the waste of resources trying policies that didn't work any of the other times we tried them.

Cutting through the fraud that we can have everything we want without any pain or sacrifice. Or the fraud that science, reason, rationality and evidence don't matter as much as ideological purity.

Cutting back the abuse of our political system by those who rely on the half-life of electoral recollection to be measured in weeks (or days.)

If we really want to cut waste, fraud and abuse, we should start not with the programs, but with the Congress.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Small Business Worries

Uneven Tides

~ Small business is right to worry. While mainstream economists look at their econometrics and declare that the Great Recession is over, most small businesses have seen scant signs of an upturn.

The usual Randite suspects continue trying to pin blame on the Obama Administration. The criticisms include supposedly onerous taxation (even though taxes have been cut) and burdensome regulation (alleged despite a paucity of specifics) but most tendentious are the vague allegations about impaired "business confidence." It's really just shorthand for the other two: business will lack confidence and so hold back the economy unless assured by solid promises of still lower taxes and yet milder regulation.

There's a confidence issue, for sure, but it's a con game orchestrated by discredited maestros, mendacious hacks, and political hatchetmen.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Wireless Electric Vehicles

The Power of the Open Road

South Korean Online Electric Vehicle (OLEV)
~ What will power our transportation future? The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has built a prototype magnetic train that runs on an electrical road:
On Tuesday researchers launched an environmentally friendly public transport system using a "recharging road"-- with a vehicle sucking power magnetically from buried electric strips.

The Online Electric Vehicle (OLEV), towing three buses, went into service at an amusement park in southern Seoul. If the prototype proves successful, there are plans to try it out on a bus route in the capital.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Zeppelin on Rails

1930's Schienenzeppelin

Schienenzeppelin | Zeppelin on rails
~ This German 20 tonne aluminum body "rail zeppelin" used a wooden (ash) propeller and a 46 liter BMW V-12 engine to reach 140 mph in 1931. This only model was dismantled by the Nazis to build Messerschmitt fighter planes.
Originally good for 120 mph—comparable to the fastest streamlined steam locomotives—the Schienenzeppelin topped out at a magnificent 140 mph in the summer of 1931, a speed record which stood for 23 years and which has never been surpassed by a gasoline-powered locomotive. Unfortunately, the train never made it into production. Problems with propeller safety and reliability prevented it from attaining mass production and the speed record prototype was dismantled in 1939, on the eve of World War II.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

An Intellectual Wilderness

No Good Reason?

Recycle Congress logo
~ There is a growing trend to not just abandon reason as a tool of inquiry, debate and decision, but to actively attack and kill it. The exaltation of willful wishfulness, even stupidity, is astonishing, and has now overtaken our supposed leaders in Congress. It's bad enough that most Americans don't understand climate science (or any science) but it is shameful and harmful beyond words that members of Congress abet, validate and perpetuate the ignorance. A recent piece in Nature about the current attempts to neuter the EPA is a must-read on the subject. Excerpts (emphasis added):
...Republicans on the House of Representatives' energy and commerce committee have made clear their disdain for climate science. At a subcommittee hearing on 14 March, anger and distrust were directed at scientists and respected scientific societies. Misinformation was presented as fact, truth was twisted and nobody showed any inclination to listen to scientists, let alone learn from them. It has been an embarrassing display, not just for the Republican Party but also for Congress and the US citizens it represents.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Where's It Wednesday—XXVI

Somewhere in Seattle... Where is this?

Somewhere in Seattle...

Answer next week.

Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
Other weeks' puzzles here.
Answer to last week's puzzle after the jump.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

5 Gyres

Surveying Oceans of Plastic

5 Gyres volunteers working for plastic-free oceans
~ The first scientific survey of the accrued plastic pollution in the five gyres of the oceans is nearing completion. Researchers from the 5 Gyres Institute are on their way to the last of the five: the South Pacific Gyre.
The crew will sail over 2,000 miles from Valdivia, Chile, zig-zagging through the South Pacific Gyre, to arrive at Easter Island on April 7th, and onward to Tahiti on May 10th. Little data on plastic in this region exists, but the researchers expect to find the same kind of plastic pollution--known to harm marine life, to be a navigational hazard, and to possibly threaten human health—that they have found in every sample of the sea surface they’ve taken while sailing 20,000 miles through gyres in the North Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
It's a big problem. Floating plastic debris in the other gyres each reportedly cover an area the size of Texas. The debris is mostly tiny, the result of degradation by water and sunlight, but is readily ingested by sea life, which mistake it for food.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Casino Culture

Whither Investing?

Roulette wheel
~ It was probably 25 years ago that I first heard the stock markets described as the World's Largest Legal Casino. With the passage of time, this description has seemed less and less tongue-in-cheek and more like a sardonic condemnation uttered by an exhausted and disillusioned investor (of which I have known many.)

The latest indication of the growing grip of gambling mentality is an unintentionally revealing piece in the Atlantic Monthly: Does Anne Hathaway News Drive Berkshire Hathaway's Stock? Really. The article's subhed anticipates the knee-jerk derision such a thesis merits with a defensive "the idea may not be as far-fetched as you think." The article goes on, earnestly, noting a "correlation" between six dates where news about the actress immediately preceded upward movement in the stock price of Warren Buffett's firm.

Now it would be easy to dismiss this as simply the result of ambient ignorance and superficial attention span on the part of a large number of people who just happen to also style themselves as investors. A scrolling headline about prospects for a star role ("Hathaway's stock rising in 2011!") just might refer to the company, and gosh, who doesn't like the Oracle of Omaha's chances to add value? Buy!

Are these "investors" gambling? Maybe. But there's one group here that certainly is: the supposed professionals many institutions and individuals trust to wisely manage their assets.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Future of Work

Geoffrey Moore Keynote at Washington Innovation Summit

Geoffrey Moore
~ Geoffrey Moore, author of the seminal book Crossing the Chasm, captivated the lunchtime audience at yesterday's Washington Innovation Summit with a fast-paced and ranging, but conceptually deep exploration of the digitization of everything, globalization, the reconfiguring of how business is organized, social media and the future of work. Some of his ideas he's already put in earlier books, but perhaps some will find greater elaboration in his forthcoming book, Escape Velocity: Free Your Company from the Pull of the Past, which will be published September 6th by Harper Collins. Some of the corollaries of his remarks are very encouraging for the future competitiveness of America business and, in what would be a great relief for many locally, for Microsoft in particular.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Privacy and Trust

Discussion at Washington Innovation Summit

New Yorker cartoon: On the Internet no one knows you're a dog
The cartoon that started
all the discussion
~ Is privacy a quaint notion as web sites track users, aggregate data, mine it and sell it to advertisers? Should we have some kind of "Do Not Track" opt-in or other list to protect the web-surfing public? Such questions occupied part of the morning at today's Washington Innovation Summit. Several panelists, including Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna, took a swing at it.

There are 33 ways (according to Microsoft Chief Architect Sean Nolan) that web sites can track your Internet behavior and use the information to better target ads for to at you. (There was some mention of tailoring content to you as well, but—timeout for honesty!—most sites explicitly encourage you to tell them what you want by setting preferences or directly searching. When was the last time you were asked what kinds of ads you'd like to see? The surreptitious tracking is for ads, not the content you came to the site to find.) The most insidious part of this secretive data collection is that much of it is collected or quietly handed off to entities other than the one that provides the site content one went to find. There's a host of third party data collectors that are compiling information on each of us based on what we do on the web. You probably don't even know who they are.

Should we worry? Should we regulate? Are we losing our privacy?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hydrovolts Wins ImagineH2O Contest

Turning Water Into Opportunity

Power from Water
~ Yesterday Hydrovolts took first place and the 2010 Water Energy-Nexus Prize. The company wins $20,000 and a package of professional services. Awesome!

It's great validation for the concept of distributed microscale hydropower from flowing water. Hydrovolts has identified a diverse collection of market segments each of which could provide real opportunity to fulfill a great need. Several have global scope, and sales could be pretty robust if the company can get a decent product to market before its competitors do.

Some good press on the competition in the past; there should be some more in the coming days.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Where's It Wednesday—XXV

Somewhere in Seattle... Where is this?

Somewhere in Seattle...

Answer next week.

Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
Other weeks' puzzles here.
Answer to last week's puzzle after the jump.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


The Deficit Scold Agenda

Energy subsidies by sector
~ For two years we've been hearing from many quarters about the urgent need to cut government spending to bring down the deficit. Some of the rationales may have merit, but what passes for debate on the subject is deeply unserious.

For proof, one need look no further than subsidies to oil and gas.
President Obama wants Congress to chop $3.6 billion in 2012 oil and gas tax breaks for a total of $46.2 billion over the next decade. Among Mr. Obama’s targets: a nearly century-old oil and gas industry tax deduction for the costs of preparing drill sites and a manufacturer's tax break granted the oil industry in 2004.

The number is significant, but still little more than one-tenth of the federal subsidies that oil and gas companies might receive over 10 years. Adjusted for inflation, they currently receive about $41 billion in annual subsidies annually. That amounts to more than half – 52 percent – of total benefits distributed to energy sectors by the federal government.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rotary First Harvest

Working in the Community
Working for the Community

Rotary First Harvest, District 5030
Yesterday I spent the morning volunteering at Northwest Harvest. I was one of more than a hundred volunteers who showed up to help process the enormous amount of donated food.

For three hours several large rooms of the warehouse in Kent were a hive of activity as volunteers repackaged frozen peas, oranges, grapefruits and lemons into small boxes for distribution to local food banks, who in turn pass the boxes on individual families.

Food banks and nutrition programs provided by Northwest Harvest play a vital role in the social fabric of our communities.
In 2010, one in seven households in Washington struggled to provide enough food for their family. This year, the state’s budget crisis will result in the elimination or significant reductions of critical services that help struggling families meet their basic needs, like keeping food on the table.
One in seven. Chances are you know someone being helped by one of the programs of Northwest Harvest. Perhaps it's your neighbor. Or the single mom at the coffee kiosk. Or the fellow who's been looking for work since 2008. Perhaps it's you.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Green Tunnel

Hiking the Appalachian Trail in 5 Minutes

A stop-motion video over 2,200 miles of trail from Georgia to Maine. Sublime and gorgeous, especially on a day of rain:

Why hike the long trail? In part:
because hiking defines freedom, adventure, peace and beauty;
because no two days are ever alike.
because the toughest executive decision out here is how much water to carry, how many miles to hike, and where to camp -
best of all, none need board approval to be put into action.
because, mercifully, there are no phones or pagers on the trail;
because some of the most awesome people I know walk trails.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Corporate Diets

Quarterly Profits Obsession

Four enticing sweet desserts
I wrote last week
that long-term corporate health depends on more than repeatedly maximizing short-term financial profit.
So it was pleasing to find a piece a few days later referring to Nokia's current struggles that expanded on that idea:
Instead of maximizing profits, organizations should focus on optimizing sustainable effectiveness, driving financial, social and environmental outcomes over longer periods of time. So while Nokia’s quarterly earnings may not have won the battle of prevailing profits, they’ve certainly proven “sustainably effective” over the long run. From this perspective, Nokia’s financial performance has been consistently above average, and it is consistently rated one of the most sustainable organization on the planet.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Theater of the Absurd

The US Congress

Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) displays a new zenith of sarcasm as he responds to the utterly risible Upton-Inhofe bill the GOP is muscling through the US House of Representatives:

Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition to a bill that overturns the scientific finding that pollution is harming our people and our planet.

However, I won't physically rise, because I'm worried that Republicans will overturn the law of gravity, sending us floating about the room.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Where's It Wednesday—XXIV

Somewhere in Seattle... A wind turbine and an exhaust stack. Where is this?

Somewhere in Seattle...

Answer next week.

Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
Other weeks' puzzles here.
Answer to last week's puzzle after the jump.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mad Men on Trains

Not So Mad Really

I don't watch much TV, but I make a few exceptions. One is Mad Men, a frequently hilarious period piece about Madison Avenue advertising firm and its people in the early 1960's. In the vein of the show, actors Vincent Kartheiser and Rich Sommer discuss trains:

So why trains? "No parking, no mechanics, no traffic jams... Save time, save money, save aggravation."

The best line (other than "We are paid to sell cars, floor wax and brassieres") would have to be: "I read a piece that in 40 years gas will cost almost a dollar a gallon." It has been my experience that the future has always been much more than predicted: more chaotic, more fast-paced, more expensive. Predictions of future gas prices have invariably been low. The future of liquid fuels will likely be much more expensive than we imagine, perhaps horrifyingly so.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Costly Car Culture

Public Transit Saves Money

Parking garage prices in New York City
A report from the American Public Transportation Association shows how much money the "average" commuter would save in each of 20 different US cities. The US average is $825 per month. Figures are based on gas prices of last Friday and reflect an average monthly parking cost of $161.56.

Seattle is number 5 on the list with a monthly savings of $973. Using a rather simplified calculation that ignores such things as licensing and taxes, you can calculate your own savings here.

Given the trend of oil and gas prices, savings are likely going to increase, even if public transit fares also keep going up.

(h/t Grist)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Decline of Liquid Fuels

Running on Empty

The situation with liquid fuels is getting quite serious. Only crackpots deny that there is a finite amount of oil in the Earth, and both our demand for it and our extraction rate of it have gone almost entirely upward for a century. We will run out, and, while many dismiss this as some event of the distant future, the negative consequences are coming much, much sooner. And they are very negative indeed.

Our government is generally loathe to tell us bad news, preferring a sunny optimism bordering on Panglossian delusion. Yet an official of our Energy Information Agency at an EIA conference can present things like this:

World's Liquid Fuels Supply, EIA 2009

"Unidentified Projects"? Talk about unknown unknowns. It's also worth noting that the fattest swaths of this chart, our preponderant supply sources, are already in steep decline.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Who Speaks for Business?

The US Chamber Does Not Speak For Me

Empty podium
Who speaks for business? Who advocates for business and articulates their views on public policy? Businesses and their leaders do of course. They just don't always speak with one voice. And not all who claim leadership actually lead.

For example, a recent survey commissioned by international renewable energy group NTR Foundation and conducted by the Brunswick Group found more than half of the largest US companies wanting an end to the ambiguity surrounding climate change legislation.
About 50 per cent of America’s top business leaders believe a lack of clarity on climate legislation is negatively impacting upon the ability of the US to compete in the global market.

Seventy per cent of the respondents said climate change would be an important part of their commercial decision-making within five years. But almost three in four of the business leaders said security of energy supply was a more “pressing issue” for them than climate change.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The 9 Faces of Entrepreneurship

Another Look at What It Is

Picture puzzle: find 9 faces
The very readable Tim Berry has a short but enjoyable post on what entrepreneurship is. Taking off from Peter Drucker's bon mot that it is neither art nor science, but merely a practice, Berry suggests that it can be many things apart from art or science, including:
  • A way of life
  • A dream
  • A nightmare
  • A false hope
  • An escape
It has been several of these for him at one time or another. I suspect most entrepreneurs, except perhaps those that never get past the dream stage, have experienced more than one as well. I know I have.

Left off the list, however, is one I believe matters most: a mission. No entrepreneur is successful without having the zeal to solve some problem. Entrepreneurs are driven. They have an abundance of passion. It is as if they cannot do anything but be an entrepreneur.

And sure, it's a practice too. There is always more to learn, and one can always attain greater mastery of the craft. Without the passion to strive towards ever-greater goals, however, practice becomes repetitive routine, mere motion. Skills maintenance is not sustainable for entrepreneurship; only continuous personal growth will do. It is this unquenchable drive that is the clearest face of the true entrepreneur.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Purpose-Driven Capitalism

Sustainability is Good Business

Duke Energy logo
Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers is not like the leaders of most large incumbent energy companies. He recognizes that climate change is real. He understands our "carbon-constrained" future. He resigned his position on the board of the US Chamber of Commerce because of its policies.

His support for action on climate change is laudable, especially because of his position atop a legacy energy company. His call for action comes despite the possibility that it would cost his own company money.

Yesterday he went farther, generalizing the core idea, and calling for "purpose-driven capitalism" that elevates other priorities along side of making profits. Addressing the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce in Durham, Rogers said:
We need to refocus on purpose now, on values, on significance. Wealth for wealth's sake is meaningless. Just as getting big simply to get large is misguided, and sometimes tragic. This reorientation is purpose-driven capitalism.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Where's It Wednesday—XXIII

Probably a pretty easy one. Somewhere in Seattle... Where is this?

Somewhere in Seattle...
Answer next week.

Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
Other weeks' puzzles here.
Answer to last week's puzzle after the jump.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Oil Closes Above $100 Per Barrel


It's not often I hate to be right. It took only two of twelve months too.

Price of oil per barrel as of 2/28/11

I suppose Libya and Iran have something to do with it, but when oil companies announce their next round of record profits we'll see the real driver: opportunism.

Oil will fall back on profit-taking or when oil traders' innate ADD causes them to fixate on something else. Until the some real or imagined panic provides a pretext for the next spike. All things considered, however, ethically indifferent investors should be long on oil for quite some time.

New prediction: $120 per barrel by July 4.