Drinking straws and social capitalism

January 12, 2008 at 7:53 pm

While reading Matthew Davidson’s blog, I came across this interview with Benjamin Barber on the Bill Moyer program on PBS. He says that American capitalism “… is no longer manufacturing goods to meet real needs and human wants.
Capitalism is manufacturing needs to sell us all the goods it needs to produce, in order to stay in business.

As someone who has lived in another country and seen America from afar, I definitely get the sense that we as Americans identify first and foremost as consumers, and secondly as citizens. It is a mandate from mass media to consume, consume and consume. You can never have enough stuff. Shop until you drop. The boys with the most toys wins. We are not told to vote, we are told to shop, and Barber argues that we are being treated as infants.

What do we do with all this stuff that we buy? Well, most of it gets used for a short period of time, until the next great thing comes along, and then we dump the “old” (but still perfectly capable) thing for the new model. Annie Leonard tells us in the Story of Stuff, what happens to all this trash, and where it really ends up.

Moyer argues that capitalism is good because it gives us consumers lots of choices. Barbers excellent example is that when you fly to L.A., you have hundreds of cars that you can choose from to rent, but then you sit for five hours in traffic on the highway, because the one choice you don’t have is to take reliable, cheap, efficient public transportation. That is a social choice he says, which I would argue does not usually come into play when privatization is heralded as the answer to all of our problems.

I observed this when I was living in Denmark, a country which has public healthcare and education. When you go to the doctor’s office, you don’t have to show an insurance card or credit card. You just show them your national ID card, and everything is covered. As a resident of Denmark, you have a right to free healthcare. Of course, it’s not free because you pay for it through your taxes, but it’s available to everyone, no matter if you are unemployed or how much money you make. The Danes as a society decided that they valued healthcare and education, and were willing to pay for it through their taxes to ensure that everyone has access to them.

Now what is happening as a result of reign of the conservative political party in Denmark, is a trend towards adopting the U.S. model of privitization. Many private hospitals are opening up in Denmark, and the best doctors are going to work at those hospitals because they can get paid more. This of course results in a decline of good public healthcare. Some might say that privatization is good for society because it brings more choices, but as Barber says, what are those choices and for things that all citizens need, are those choices equally available to all citizens?

Americans have decided that we would rather pay less in taxes and instead pay for healthcare through our employers or out-of-pocket, which of course means that 54.5 million Americans don’t have health insurance because they are unemployed or can’t afford it. Sure, we might have more choices when it comes to which doctor/hospital we can go to, but that doesn’t make much difference if it’s so cost prohibitive to visit a doctor that we just don’t bother to go at all.

According to the Institute of Medicine, “lack of health insurance causes roughly 18,000 unnecessary deaths every year in the United States. Although America leads the world in spending on health care, it is the only wealthy, industrialized nation that does not ensure that all citizens have coverage.Insuring America’s Health: Principles and Recommendations, Institute of Medicine, January 2004.

At the end of this interview, Bill Moyers begs Benjamin Barber to not leave us in the dumps. Give us some hope for how we can do things better he says. Barber gives an example of LifeStraw, a company from Denmark which makes a $2 device to purify any water, no mater how foul it is. The world’s greatest killer is diarrhoeal diseases from bacteria like typhoid, cholera, E. coli, salmonella etc.

The problem that LifeStraw is solving is getting clean water to people in developing countries. And Barber points out that Lifestream is a very profitable company. They have produced a product which solves a real problem, and it’s saving lives.

Companies in Denmark are making a profit by creating tools to save lives, while American health insurance companies are making huge profits by destroying lives. What does this say about our American society?

I strongly recommend watching part 1 and part 2 of the interview with Benjamin Barber.

Lessons learned from webpreneurs and parrots

November 1, 2007 at 10:40 pm

Chicken the Parrot I’m taking care of my friend Dan’s parrot. His name is Chicken because he clucks like a chicken. He has beautiful green feathers and a yellow crest. He sits in his cage and looks very intently at me, maybe trying to figure out what could possibly be so interesting about a piece of metal that I’m staring at all day. Parrots are intriguing creatures, highly intelligent, they use their beak as if it were a third claw, gripping the side of the cage to navigate around.

Today I opened the door to his cage to see if he wanted to come out to explore the apartment. I tried to coax him out with a cashew, one of his favorite snacks. Strangely enough, he remained in the cage, even when I went out for the evening, he did not venture from his perch.

I wonder if this is a common trait of all living creatures, including us humans. Even when the door is opened to us, inviting us to come and explore another world, that is both exciting but also scary, we choose to remain in the cage where we are comfortable and safe. Sometimes we don’t even realize that we are in a cage, because we have grown so accustomed to “the way things are”.  We don’t dare venture outside this cage because it requires a leap of faith, and quite frankly, we are too chicken to make that jump.

Tonight I took a step back to evaluate what my personal and professional goals are, and came to the conclusion that I don’t want to be consulting for the rest of my life. It’s been coming more and more apparent over the last year or so, but recently (maybe due to the inspiring people I met at Podcamp Boston) I’ve come to realize that I dislike having to sell new project work all the time. There is something very gratifying about doing a client project well, and pleasing your customer, but I don’t think it compares to passionately doing your own thing.  So what if it fails – at least you have tried. And the worst case is that I have to go back to consulting – I know I can make a living at it.

From Jay Dedman, one of the creators of FireAnt, a videoblog aggregator tool:

So I guess I become one of many software entrepreneurs who pass on this advice: Do it for as long as you can on your own. Success is definitely about good ideas, team, and execution…but it’s also all about contacts and luck. Don’t believe the hype of quick riches. haha and trust yourself.


I’m thinking about these things right now as I contemplate my next move. It’s a common theme that has been echoed in the Founders At Work book and other people I’ve spoken to at conferences, SXSW and other tech events. Do it by yourself as long as you can, and it will be obvious when you need to go for funding. Read Jessica Livingston’s interview with Joel Spolsky, founder of FogBugz. Joel says:

Remember, the original model was, “How can we become a big consulting company and then build a software company inside a consulting company?” The consulting company was a means to an end. It was to get cash flow, so that you could build a real software company. And when you were done, the theory was you’d still have these consultants, but software companies often need consulting arms.

37Signals has also succeeded in going from a consulting company to a products company, and report that it was a gradual process, one day at a time. They didn’t just cut off all of their consulting customers from one day to the next.

Basecamp was developed alongside client work and was treated as essentially a third client. It had to compete for resources on equal footing with other clients, which meant that every hour we spent on it had to really count. With constrained resources, you realize the value of the marginal hour very quickly. You can’t just goof around with science projects, open-ended explorations, and play time with new whiz-bang technology. Instead, you have to deliver real value, real soon. Otherwise the project is simply going to languish as it loses out to the “real work” of paying clients.

Ask 37signals: How to go from clients to products? – (37signals)

Digesting these words is encouraging as I make the decision to not take on any additional client work, but to maintain on our existing clients, and focus on building the products and services that I want to offer. More on that later. Thanks to these webpreneurs for sharing their insight, and thanks to Chicken for being a mirror of the chicken that is me sometimes.

How to Feel Miserable as an Artist

June 12, 2006 at 12:09 am

Remind yourself. From wish jar journal found via Michael Martine’s blog.
 Wp-Content Miserableartist

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Building a live music calendar

June 11, 2006 at 3:04 pm

While reading from Derek Siver’s O’Reilly blog, I came across Mark Hedlund’s talk Entrepreneuring for Geeks which described how the more technically minded can move into making companies of our own. He started out the talk with a set of proverbs.

The three proverbs that struck close to home for me were:

  • pay attention to the idea that won’t leave you alone.
  • build what you know
  • momentum builds on itself

Pay attention to the idea that won’t leave you alone

Several events have occurred in the past two weeks which have echoed these words in my mind.

During the BarCampBoston I spoke with other geek entrepreneurs about the problem of finding live music, and the guys from tourb.us told me about how they are scraping venue’s sites to get concert listings. They are providing a service that answers a particular need – when is my favorite band coming to town?

This triggered a memory of an exchange I had more than a year ago with trombonist Phil Wilson at the Jazz Journalists Association panel at Schullers Jazz Club. Jon Hammond organized a panel discussion on the topic of Boston as a Launching Pad for a Jazz Career. I asked the panel what kind of online tools or services could be provided to re-ignite the jazz scene in Boston. And Phil said that he would like to see a service that would notify him when a musician was going to be performing.

Then at the last Python meetup, Dan Milstein raved about the python scraping library BeautifulSoup and described how capable it was at scraping baseball scores off a website. I played around with BeautifulSoup awhile ago, but never actually built anything using it.

Scratch an itch

“Build what you know” affirms that the most basic advice of idea generation is to scratch an itch you have yourself. Now I have an itch to scratch. I love going out to hear live music, especially jazz – but there is no single site that aggregates the concert listings. There are several sites I must visit:

  • MyRootdown Improv Music Calendar is a great site built by graphic designer and improv enthusiast Shawn dos Santo. Shawn is doing a great job of posting events he hears about, but there’s no way for people to post their own gigs
  • The WGBH Jazz Calendar is good but again, it doesn’t have an RSS/iCal feed so I have to manually visit the site everytime I want to see who’s playing.
  • Each and every venue has their own concert listing page (Scullers, Regattabar, Wallys, Berklee, Reel Bar, etc.) and of course, none of them have RSS or iCal feeds.
  • I’m sure there are others that I don’t know about

The basic problem here is that there is a fragmentation of information. Since none of the sites publish their event listings in any sort of structured way (RSS, iCal, hCalendar), it’s tedious to monitor these listings and thus hard to stay on top of what’s going on in the Boston jazz scene.

The “Pull” method

Immediately after hearing Phil’s suggestion, my technical mind started churning as I thought about generating dynamic RSS feeds based on artist or band name, and then using something like Feedblitz to turn those RSS feeds into email notifcations. As much as us geeks would like to think it’s true, the average person still has no idea what an RSS feed is or how to use it. Email is still the lowest common denominator.

But the question still remains how to get the data into a system in the first place. It is not likely one can expect musicians to enter their gig listings themselves. And here is where Beautiful Soup comes in – if I scrape the event listing sites, I can put the data into a system, extract the metadata (band, location, date/time, cost, etc.) and syndicate these concert listings as RSS feeds and subsequently email notifications.

There is even a python script called Scrape ‘n’ Feed which will automatically turn a page scraped with BeautifulSoup into an RSS feed. This is why I love python – there is almost always a library that does exactly what you want. And there is also a python script to convert iCal into RSS.

The “Push” method

Now suppose for a moment that one could get musicians to enter their gigs into some sort of system, and what if you could offer a service, let’s call it GigBlast, which would push their gig information out to a bunch of event listing services: WGBH, eventful.com, upcoming.org, boston.craigslist.org, meetup.com, etc. using the API provided by those services or in the case of WGBH which has no API, use python libraries such as clientform to submit the form.

This would make it easier for musicians to get the word out about their gigs, give fans a tool to be informed when these musicians are performing, and ultimately get more people to go out to hear music which would create more demand for live music. Maybe I’m an idealist to think that it will have such far reaching effects, but even if no one else uses this service, at least I’ll be scratching my itch!

Momentum builds

Stay tuned for more thoughts on publishing events to the web using Apple’s iCal. This will simplify the data entry process even more as musicians can simply add their event info to iCal, and in the background it’s it’s transparently uploaded to their website and automatically pushed out to the event listing services.

I also want to explore the use of microformats, such as hCalendar, which I think have a better chance of being adopted among musicians, venues and bloggers since it is fairly easy to implement – just a few changes to the HTML template. Pages formatted with hCalendar are a breeze to scrape using Technorati’s events feed service and can be searched using Technorati’s experimental Event Search tool.

Well, after many days of sideways rain, the sun has finally come out in Boston, so I’m going for a jog in the Fens.

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