Monday, April 23, 2007

The Best and the Brightest

David Halberstam died yesterday. I am currently reading his outstanding book, 'The Best and the Brightest' which is a extraordinary series of portraits of the men who made up the Kennedy administration, and who led us in to Vietnam. I discovered from the New York Times that he lived in the Bay Area and died in an auto accident in Menlo Park.

He wrote of people who were so close to greatness, but created tragedy. I'm fascinated at how this small tragedy has revealed to me how close to this great author I was, and never even realized it.

His book has one core message, which applies to startups as much as politics: Don't waste your opportunity to make a difference by being arrogant, narrow-minded, or dogmatic about reality. Adjust and thrive. Deny and die. Even the best and the brightest can blow it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Negotiating for Minority Rights with Car Bombs

It's a horrific scene, and an even more horrific number of deaths. No, not in Virginia -- in Baghdad. Again. 115 die in a single gigantic explosion.

This is really quite simple, and it's based on the diffusion of technology, in the form of high explosives. The Sunnis are a minority in Iraq, and to make their position even worse, they're the deposed former nasty overlords and oppressors of the Shiites. The Shiites are, not surprisingly, highly enthusiastic about massacring the Sunnis as soon as the Americans get out of the way.

But wait, say the Sunnis. You may massacre us -- there's frankly not much we can do to prevent it, since you've got lots of guns and explosives of your own, plus control of government and an advantage of numbers -- but we're certainly not going to go quietly, and you're not going to get anything like peace. In fact, you'll get fear and chaos and random death which will make any massacre-based future social order carry the distinct and unpleasant taste of spoiled victory. We'll mostly be dead, but we'll keep blowing you up, too.

So let's negotiate about this whole massacre thing, OK?

That's why 115 people just died in a single gigantic explosion in Baghdad today. To send a simple message -- "Let's talk."

Iraq is very far gone, and it's almost entirely due to widespread availability of guns and high explosives, which make conversations like this quite a bit more percussive and destructive than they otherwise would be. So what do the gun nuts recommend for our society? More of that recipe, please!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Product Review: Moka Junior Express Coffee Maker

I've now raved about this little coffee maker to a couple of people, so I'm writing a review that I can point everyone to instead of repeating myself. This is a stove-top coffee maker that looks (and works) a lot like those little camping espresso makers you saw back in college:


It takes about a cup of water and about two scoops of coffee. The water steams up through the grounds as you heat it on the stove, and the results are dark, rich, and utterly fabulous. It's coffee that is halfway to espresso - I cut it about 50/50 with milk -- and the taste is out of this world. For $20 at Target or Amazon, it's a real winner.

The back story on this is interesting: My friends Matt and Jen swear by this coffee maker, and have been using it (and its larger sibling) for years. They bought me one about three years ago, and somehow I never got around to using it -- force of habit with the drip coffee maker, I guess. We have a friend, Ophelia, who travels lightly through life -- she's biked across the U.S., and is currently camping out in the Bay Area post grad school at M.I.T. When she recently showed up to stay with us, carting her approximately 40 pounds of worldly possessions, lo and behold, a Moka had made the cut. After she made me some coffee from it (which Matt and Jen did years ago -- mea culpa, guys, I was young and foolish!) I was hooked. I dusted their old gift off and have been avidly using it ever since. I now plot how to get a first cup of Moka coffee in me before I head to the office -- a real behavioral change. For the cost of three drinks at Starbucks, you've gotta try it.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Concierge selling services: Reverse your model!

There are a ton of people in the business of packaging up your stuff to sell on eBay. AuctionDrop are the ones that come first to my mind, but this article lists about a dozen.

The basic premise is that a local business can provide a service involving listing, packaging, shipping, and managing the paper trail for used goods and make plenty of money. All these people have focused on sellers thus far -- I suppose on the theory that the motivation to clean our your garage is stronger than the motivation to buy some shiny object in a faraway place.

This is silly, because attraction to shiny objects is deeply human. In my previous post, I discussed a multi-city search for a Performax sander. I'm a woodworker, and I've decided it's time that I had a sander in the shop because I'm tired of two-week gaps in projects while I take a pile of panels to the mill. In my quick survey of Craigslist, I found broadly similar sanders that I would buy in cities ranging from Boston to Los Angeles -- at prices ranging from $850 to $2800. Now, guess which one I want to buy? But do I even want to deal with the hassle of trying to arrange buying something remotely and shipping it to myself? Unlikely. I may even have a tough time having a serious conversation with the seller, given that what I want to do bears a strong resemblance to some well-established scams.

AuctionDrop and others should step in to this market.
"Listing, packaging, shipping, and managing the paper trail for used goods" can work with the causality arrow pointed in both directions -- or, said another way, as a post-purchase rather than pre-purchase option. I want to be able to get an approximate quote from AuctionDrop to drive to zip code 90210, pick up a purchase weighing 300 pounds, put it in a box, and send it to me in 94025. I want to be able to loop them in to the email chain after I buy something in Boston and have them deal with the details. Inspection of the goods at a basic level would be great, too -- there would have to be some significant liability waivers, but "I plugged it in and it ran" is certainly something that they could indemnify. This could be very lucrative. In order to get the $850 sander vs. the $1800 sander, it's easily worth it to me to pay someone $500, and I can't imagine that shipping costs from LA are more than about $200. There's a fat margin in there waiting to be exploited by... someone.

Craigslist: Please Innovate!

I spent some time using Craigslist this weekend. It works spectacularly well for many things, such as local searches for stuff to buy with a specific keyword. My example of the day is Performax sander, and yup, there is one. I can even grab an RSS feed of this search and dump it in to Bloglines as a way of watch-listing newly posted items -- probably the #1 most useful feature on Craigslist for me.

But I can't search for similar sanders in Los Angeles, or even Sacramento, without going to those separate city instances -- and I have to click through the miserable front page (apparently designed as a one-time picker for your home city, and little else) to get to each of those cities. None of the listings have any structure to them -- which means that when there isn't a handy keyword, I have to go through thousands of listings by hand with almost no tools to help me narrow my focus. Aargh! And where are the maps, or at least the easy tools for people to include maps from 3rd party providers? I get about a 50% hit rate on map connections for real estate listings, so something is clearly broken there.

Ironically, I end up doing Craigslist cross-metro searches on Google by default. This Google search for "Supermax sander for sale" returns listings in Boston, Madison, Los Angelss, and San Jose -- all on Craigslist. Is it really that hard for Craigslist to do this? And do they really want this business going to Google by default?

Being free and basic is great. But the world needs something more than basic, and is willing to pay for it. Oodle, Vast, and others are trying to make this work -- with limited success thus far. Craigslist can innovate, and it should.