“Project Houdini” and the Obama Campaign

Buried deep in Newsweek’s fascinating “Special Election Project” piece is the following nugget:

The Obama campaign’s New Media experts created a computer program that would allow a “flusher”—the term for a volunteer who rounds up nonvoters on Election Day—to know exactly who had, and had not, voted in real time. They dubbed it Project Houdini, because of the way names disappear off the list instantly once people are identified as they wait in line at their local polling station.


Evidence Based Policy and an Obama Administration

That I’m a fan of Barack Obama is not a surprise to anyone who knows me. One of the things that appeals to me most about him is that he seems to be evidence based rather than ideology based. He is clearly very smart and secure enough in that intelligence that he can surround himself with other very smart people and actually listen to them. The thoughtful, nuanced positions he comes up with as a result may not play as well in a debate as pithy ideology, but they leave me with much more confidence that they are closer to “right” policy wise.

The outcome of the election is now looking likely enough that it’s not unreasonable to think about how the world might change under an Obama administration. NY Magazine just ran a lengthy, fascinating article on Obama’s transition planning process. Leading the process is John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Clinton and the guy who expected to be doing transition planning for Hillary Clinton. That Obama would tap a Clinton ally for the job (and that Podesta would take it) is refreshing compared to the political score-settling we have gotten used to over the last 8 years.

The article goes on at some length as to what the staffing and policy priorities of a hypothetical Obama administration might be and towards the end contains the following rather interesting quote:

Obama now informs Time’s Joe Klein that endeavoring to spark “a new energy economy [is] going to be my No. 1 priority when I get into office.”

Wondering what that may look like, I did a little Googling and came across the Center for American Progress, a think-tank helmed by the very same John Podesta. Front and center on the site is a link to “Green Recovery: A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy”. There, Podesta outlines a $100B stimulus package that would invest in the following six things:

  • Retrofitting buildings to improve energy efficiency
  • Expanding mass transit and freight rail
  • Constructing “smart” electrical grid transmission systems
  • Wind power
  • Solar power
  • Next-generation biofuels

As a second year business-school student with strong entrepreneurial leanings and about to graduate into a rather rough job and capital market, understanding ahead of time where $100B in new spending is about to occur is welcome information indeed. More thoughts on the opportunities this presents shortly.

Summer in San Francisco

Some times are so great, you can tell that they are among the best times of your life even while you’re having them. For me, this summer was one of those times. I spent the summer living in San Francisco, doing exactly what I’d hoped: working in VC, reading business plans, meeting with entrepreneurs, doing due diligence and generally learning the business. I also managed to find quite a bit of time to reconnect with old friends, work out in the mornings, ride my motorcycle into the hills and do a little traveling.

I’m now back at school for one last stretch of classes, but like MacArthur in the Pacific, I shall return!

Wow Google Spreadsheets

I’ve long been a fan of Google Spreadsheet. Like all disruptive technologies, it doesn’t meet the needs of most customers of the incumbent product, Excel. I’m no banker, but even my relatively neophyte hands keep trying to hit F4 to lock a cell reference or hit F2 to edit a cell. I miss being able to right click to format a cell, the lag time of javascript sometimes annoys the crap out of me, etc… I would not try to convince a Wall Street number jockey to switch from Excel just yet. No way.

BUT, also like all disruptive technologies Google Spreadsheet is quietly getting good at things that Excel can only dream of. Since it launched, Google Spreadsheet has had great sharing and concurrent editing capabilities. A team at school used a shared Google Spreadsheet as a “factory information system” in a simulated factory exercise and it was amazingly powerful.

More recently, Google has added amazing data extraction techniques. Put =GoogleFinance(“Oil”, “Price”) in a cell and you’ll get the price of oil updated in realtime. The following will pull all the headlines off Techmeme: =importxml(“http://www.techmeme.com”, “/html/body/div[2]/div/div[4]/div/div[2]/div/div/div/strong/a”)

There are also functions for trolling arbitrary HTML, for parsing RSS and Atom feeds and for importing CSS feeds.

Where the mind really starts to boggle is when you think about how every cell in every google spreadsheet effectively has an URL. So it should be almost as easy to publish from your sheet as it is to pull in from somebody else’s. Suddenly, there are network effects for spreadsheets, where your work can leverage off the work of others. This ability to ref a cell in someone else’s sheet doesn’t seem to be enabled just yet, but I can’t imagine Google isn’t working on it. I’m sure there are some issues around permissioning and detection of dependency loops.

Throw in a little work on keyboard shortcuts and a little Google Gears magic to make the app more responsive and workable offline and Excel will be starting to feel the heat…

Microsoft Points and the Hillarity of Patents

It would seem I am now an “official” inventor. The USPTO has granted, ahem, Method and system for in-line secondary transactions, an element of the work I did on the system that ultimately became Microsoft Points.

For the record, I think the US Patent system is horribly, horribly broken, particularly when it comes to software patents. Does protection of this “invention” really foster innovation? I don’t think so.

Perhaps more poignantly, the incident reminds me of the fiasco of Microsoft Points, yet another project that could have, should have, would’ve been really cool, except that the drawn-out, risk-averse, by-committee, design process yielded a mushy product with deeply fatal flaws.

Ever wonder why Microsoft makes you do math to figure out how much something costs? It was based on the theory that pricing something in actual currency would bring unbearable regulatory scrutiny. An issue that Amazon, which also has a sizable market cap, brand and balance sheet to protect (not to mention Google, Apple and of course PayPal) seem to have circumvented nicely. That and a completely evidence-free conviction that users would spend more that way. (The so-called “casino effect”)

Of course, on the upside, participants in international, user-to-user transactions can quote each other prices over IM or email. So it’s got that going for it. How’s that scenario working out for you guys?

San Francisco Bound

Today I’m heading out to San Francisco for the summer. I’m going to be working for a VC fund. I’ve already done some work with them and I’m super excited. They’re super smart, have a great track-record and seem like a ton of fun.

I’m also pretty excited to move back to San Francisco. I haven’t lived there since Dec. 2001, so this is kind of a homecoming for me. I think there’s a very good likelihood that I’ll be moving to SF permanently when school is finished in a year, so this is an auspicious start. I’ll be living in the apt. of an old friend from Echo Networks. I haven’t seen it yet, but it sounds awesome and the few photos I’ve seen look great as well. I’ve also shipped my motorcycle (an 1989 Honda Hawk GT 650 in case you’re wondering) down from storage in Seattle.

So if you’re in SF this summer or plan to be there or would like to plan to be there, please drop me a line. I’d love to catch up with old friends.

PicasaWeb Downloader

In the genuinely useful software dept., here is a little app written in C# (source included!) that will download an entire google web album. Great for grabbing copies of all of your friends photos.

The (very) end of MSN Music

This week, Microsoft announced that they will be de-activating the DRM Servers that issue new keys for music from the (now discontinued) MSN Music service. In other words, starting June 1st, copying your purchased music to a new PC and expecting it to play will no longer work.

I bring this up because once upon a time, I was in charge of MSN Music and I built the system that Microsoft is now disconnecting.

Ian Rogers has described much more eloquently than I can how many of us got suckered, forced or seduced into spending our time and energy on systems incorporating DRM, convinced that it was inevitable or necessary or not that big a deal. (And let’s face it DVDs, XBOX video games and iTunes rentals are all proof that the right kind of DRM does not neccessarily equal market death.)

I continue to think that designing DRM must have been an interesting intellectual problem, and some pretty big brains came up with some rather clever stuff. It’s easy to see the temptation: The theory was that “big content” would not license their material for playback on a system that did not offer protection from copying and that customers had a strong demand for this content. So implementing DRM was a way to give consumers what they wanted and as a nice bonus, if Microsoft could implement acceptable protections in a way that Linux or Apple could or would not, then Windows would have a sustainable advantage.

It was this shift to “content owner as customer” rather than “customer as customer” that in my opinion started Microsoft down a long dark path from which it has not (and may never) emerge. Once the technology existed, and once Microsoft had displayed a willingness to put their customers second, Pandora’s box had been opened and content owners started to demand all sorts of outrageous things. And thus our own weapons were turned against us.

Unfortunately for Microsoft effective DRM on a PC is fairly obviously impossible without some rather intrusive hardware changes and even the approximate “hard for some people some of the time” roadblocks they managed to implement turned out to be rather cumbersome, never worked reliably and made the entire system less stable, less usable and less useful. One hopes that someone wondered about the wisdom of sinking so much time and effort into an “anti-feature” – work done to ensure that Windows could do less than the version before it, but once promises had been made there was likely no turning back.

Lessons learned for me from this:

  • If a large percentage of the work you are doing is for the benefit of someone other than your paying customer, think very hard about whether you’re doing the right thing.
  • Committing to do something “forever” is an obligation you should only encumber upon yourself and very thoughtfully – like in the context of a marriage. Committing someone else (like your successors at work) in this manner is almost certainly a mistake.

So my apologies to the customers who bought what I now see as a defective product. And apologies to Rob Bennett, General Manager of MSN Entertainment, who has had to clean up more than his fair share of messes rather than getting to focus on growing his business. There was a time when there was hope and optimism around this business.

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”

If you haven’t seen them, you really must check out the two videos that will.i.am (of the Black Eyed Peas) created about Barack Obama. They both make the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

Doesn’t some part of you still believe that there are special moments in the world? Special people who catalyze and give a voice to a feeling that has been quietly building for years? When Kennedy pointed at the moon, when MLK stood on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, when Reagan talked about morning in America – didn’t these people shift the world around them just a little bit? Didn’t the right speech at the right time change you and how you saw the world? We all have our own: words, written and spoken that for some private reason moved us.

Today is the day where it could be made real. Today could be the day where we know this is really happening. Barack Obama did not grow up in the sixties. He was not shaped by Vietnam or Watergate. He did not come out of the same cohort of boomers that have run our country for so long. Those who scoff, who say that his difference is exaggerated do not understand how differently the world will see us if this man, this bi-racial man with an African father is the man we pick to be our president. How inherently different his perspective has to be. Louder than any policy this would say to the world that we have changed. We know we have made mistakes over the last 8 years (and longer) and there are more we will make but we have changed.

If you need evidence of his leadership, look to the way he has run his campaign – without turnover, without dirty laundry aired in public; just quiet competence. When did we become a nation that looked to time served? Inexperience did not stop Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Marc Andreesen.

To those who say that this is all just foolishness, that this optimism is just naiveté, that this will all be dashed on the rocks of bitterness and hardball, that what we really need is someone adept with a switchblade and a bank of favors (and there are many I respect who think so) I say maybe you’re right. Maybe tomorrow I’ll know you’re right. But today – like Fox Mulder – I want to believe.

Samsung on Failure

Chairman Kun Hee Lee of Samsung Electronics, as quoted in the HBS case on that company:

At Sumsung, we reward outstanding performance; we do not punish failure. This is my personal philosophy and belief. We need punishment only for those who lack ethics, are unfair, tell lies, hold others back or stand in the way of our unified march.