Monday, May 17, 2010

We Respect Your Privacy

I love when I sign up for some free thing, and they make me put in my email address to get their junk mail, and the form says "We respect your privacy."


Maybe that's the wrong question. Maybe the question is:

What privacy?

Most people today have an email address for stuff they don't want to read. Those who don't have a filter or some other methodology to toss the garbage out. Or they have given in, as I have. I just ignore most of the mail I get.

I don't know what's worse. That you don't really respect my privacy or that I don't care.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Farmville Could Change our Eating Habits

I know this sounds truly asinine, but Farmville could to have more impact on our eating habits than Food, Inc. I'm sorry to have asked this question, but when I did, I found out that 63 million people are active Farmville users, and that Food, Inc.'s box office gross was under $5 million, and we all know seeing a movie costs more than a dollar.

Farmville isn't out to change our eating habits, but they do come up with all kinds of cool and interesting crops. I need to look some of them up. For some of the crops, like durian, I look them up and think "Oh, that's what it's called!" But just as often, it's like "Really? There is such a thing?"

So where could this change our eating habits. Well, if 30 million people suddenly decide they want to try a jackfruit, not much of a shift would occur. Fruit trees take years to grow, so you will either be able to get your hands on a jackfruit or not. Most people know this about fruits, and even if they wanted to try a new fruit, they aren't going to replace their apples.

But for amaranth, which is a grain, you could really create a shift. I don't think people will replace wheat and corn, but it's possible to imagine. I don't know about you, but corn is kind of wearing thin with me.

A while back I was talking to one of the largest grain importers in Israel, and he said the amount of grain imported annually doesn't change much, but the type of grain does. Right now, quinoa is "in". Grains take weeks or months, not years, to grow, and they can be stored and transported.

From what I read on amaranth, it's got a higher protein content than wheat, and it's easier to grow in various conditions. I bet I could find some in the health food store. With 63 million people already exposed to the product, this is an interesting marketing opportunity for someone.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Driving Out of Gas (TEDx Follow -up)

As a follow-up to TEDx Tel Aviv, I spent part of my afternoon in the BetterPlace electric car visitor center outside of Tel Aviv. The facility is in the last standing oil tank left at Pi Glilot, which was the storage area for gasoline in central Israel. Apparently someone figured out that having such a facility adjacent to your largest population center isn't terribly bright. The petrol was moved out. BetterPlace managed to salvage one tank and convert it into a beautiful visitor center.

We were hosted by founder and CEO Shai Agassi himself, who spent over an hour answering our questions. I was so late to my next meeting that I missed it, not just out of respect (Agassi was late to his next meeting too), but because I was completely blown away by Agassi's generosity and devotion. The answers to the questions were jaw-dropping beyond all expectation.

I took the time out for this, not just because I like to mix with smart people, but because I truly care about this issue. I have had visions of overhauling transportation since I was 11 years old. I've thought about transportation deeply and often, though I haven't taken the time to make it a central part of my life.

I had a lot of questions, but I didn't ask any. I still have them. I am concerned about what's next, what we do to stop paving our earth with parking lots and freeways, how we cure traffic, and stop bashing into one another. I have a lot of questions, but I didn't ask them because they became instantaneously irrelevant to the conversation.

The conversation took place in the context of the singular, compelling vision of eliminating gasoline. The conversation lived inside the clarity with which Agassi has considered, research and planned how to make that vision a reality.

I have to make a confession here. Often, when I see or meet someone doing great things, I think to myself "I could do that." Sometimes I even think "I could do that better." I know, you never think that to yourself. You also never think "How the heck did he get that job?" or "He might be famous, but he's kind of a jerk." I know you never think those things. But people like myself, with big egos or big jealousy syndromes, sometimes think those thoughts.

But today I found myself, really, truly in awe listening to Agassi. I mean, this guy, he has a vision. He is out to end oil dependence. He is out to replace the gasoline industry. But that's not the main thing. Lots of people have vision.

This guy truly has the leadership and business skills, the audacity and modesty to pull it off. That's impressive. Very, very impressive, and very, very rare. But even that's not not the main thing.

What's fundamentally unique about Agassi, is that, on top of all those things, he has the ability to think, plan and execute at the level of the entire ecosystem. I should say "ecosystems", because the more you ask, the more you hear that Shai Agassi has thoroughly researched, questioned, analyzed, and created ecosystems. Not just one ecosystem. Multiple ecosystems.

He has considered the economic ecosystem of how people purchase cars and the lifecycle of automobile value to consumers. He has considered the entire ecosystem of where we get our energy now, how it could potentially be garnered, and how it needs to be delivered. He understands the entire car industry from manufacturing to distribution. He understands the ecosystem of introducing new technology. He understands his competitive environment and has multiple potential scenarios played out in his head.

Agassi has thought deeply, researched thoroughly, and asked the right questions. Come to think of it, he's asked the wrong questions, too. He's thought about it all.

The result is that at BetterPlace, absolutely everything is thoroughly researched and planned. Everything is considered from how the price of oil is determined; how to avoid impacting the power grid; how to build an outdoor charging station that will never electrocute anyone in any kind of weather.

The group of TEDx refugees asked intelligent questions. Every question got a thorough answer that showed depth of thought from macro to micro , from economic to engineering, and from basic human behavior to basic physics.

No words can describe the thoroughness with which this one man has thought through all the aspects of his business. No less astounding is his ability to articulate all of this with clarity and purpose. Yet even more indescribable is Agassi's humility and humanness. You are in the presence of a human being, not an idol or a figurehead.

One of the final questions was about tension between Agassi and his investors. Here, again, he gave a thoughtful answer on multiple levels. On the micro level, Agassi shared personal stories of trust between himself and Idan Ofer. On the macro level he spoke about how our society vilifies public figures and seeks scandal rather than inspiration. Agassi spoke of the loss of our perception of our leaders as heroes and our loss of trust in the human spirit.

In short, he spoke like a hero, whether you choose to believe that such things still exist or not.

Monday, May 3, 2010

This Side of the Line

Mid-day Saturday, I remember that I don't have any hot-dog rolls. I recall that yesterday, when it was too late for me to do the shopping, my son had announced that we needed 15 of them for the Lag b'Omer bonfire.

Ok, I think. We'll just take a drive over to Jaljulia and get some. They must have bakeries there, and they don't close on Saturday. Tevel comes with me, and I'm vaguely aware that his dad might think that it's not a great idea to take the kids to an Arab village with me. Not that I don't buy my vegetables there all the time -- but that's on the edge of town and now we are going into town.

I ask at the petrol station where the bakery is, and they tell me that I need to go to Kfar Bara, another mile up the road. No biggie. Still, I experience a vague discomfort as I drive there, thinking, the discomfort is silly. It's an Israeli town, it's 5 miles from my house, I've never heard of any incidents, and yet, there's a vague discomfort.

The bakery owner sells me rolls and pita, tells me, yes, there's been quite a flow of people today and he had forgotten it was a Jewish holiday and the Sabbath, and he hadn't yet prepared for the potential demand.

As I drove out of town, there was a woman hitchhiking. When I see these ladies hitchhiking by the side of the road, it breaks my heart. We have them in my town too, because of the inconvenient bus schedule. When I seem them standing by the side of the road, I always stop, and usually go out of my way to take them to their destination.

Now I know I shouldn't stop in an Arab village and pick up a hitchhiker. But I just couldn't see her at the side of the road like that, so I stopped. I told her I could take her to the outskirts of the next town, but not into the town. She turned me down with body language, probably not because she couldn't speak Hebrew, but because she was in shock. She knows I'm not supposed to stop for Arabs and she knows she's not supposed to get in the car with a Jew. So that settled that.

It's weird, you know, or maybe it's not.

People live in their separate communities. I grew up in America, where the social norm says that pluralism and integrated towns are equivalent. After 200 years of failing to artificially integrate people, you'd think someone would have the thought that integration, in and of itself, may not be morally "good" (or "bad" for that matter). But Americans are stubborn, and the society refuses to accept that people, by and large, want to live with people like themselves. In fact, it's almost considered morally wrong to oppose artificial integration. It's as if there is something unethical about people wanting to live in a homogeneous environment.

In Israel, the social norm is that people want to live separately. Now, I'm not a fan of the "separate but equal" train of thought, because nobody is under the illusion that it's equal. Not in the US, not in Israel. It's not equal. But that's the end of the moral issue. Apart from problems of measuring equality, there is no reason why heterogeneous residential communities should be better than homogeneous ones. People have their tribes, they always have and they always will.

It's not necessarily a question of race. Sometimes "like themselves" means belonging to a socio-economic group, to an age group, or even to a particular profession. Sometimes it's just being someone who loves bar-hopping or a particular sport, or even a particular sports team. It's perfectly natural.

It's almost embarrassing for someone like me, that is, someone who believes in equality, who loves everyone, and who is something of a peacenik.

But when I look around at my friends, the people I hang with are pretty homogenous, socio-economically and culturally.

I was talking about this just last night with meezoog founder Tuvia Rosenthal. Meezoog is a technology that basically allows you to check out if someone is trustworthy or socially compatible. Right now it's a dating application, but clearly there are additional applications for this.

What I said was, indeed, when I meet a guy on Facebook, if we have no contacts in common, the chance of a first date being successful is very low. Tuvia pointed out that this is fairly true in Israel, that is, in a small population, if my social network on Facebook is well-developed and gives a good representation of my RL social chains. I can see that. The main communities in my RL are high-tech, roller-blading, synagogue, and Landmark (self-development). I have dozens of friends from each of those networks. If you don't know any of them, you might be a really kewl person, but we don't have a lot of interests in common, so we aren't going to have much to talk about on a date.

Obviously, an application like meezoog makes sense if you are in New York City or Paris, where the population is much, much bigger, and you need a better measure of trust than 1-degree of distance. 2 or 3 degrees of removal are helpful in this case for checking out whether someone is of dating caliber.

In other words, our compatibility and trust levels are directly correlated to how closely connected we are to the same people. Or to similar people.

Maybe it's the sad truth, or maybe it's just the truth.