Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Real Jobs Problem

It's the economy, stupid. 


Well, yes, it always has been, if you're in the distortion field of politics. 


But whose economy? The pundits, the White House, the Republican candidates all miss the mark. They keep talking about debt, taxes, and monetary policy. None of those things tell the real story behind today's economy. 


The Old Economy
Keynes was right--in the old economy. Economy gets weak, pump some money into the economy through public works projects, which 


1) puts people to work, which 
2) boosts the economy and 
3) generates new tax revenue, while 
4) leaving us with another generation of reliable infrastructure to support 
5) more growth (for growth's sake, which is another post). 


The Beach Ball
Imagine a beach ball, partially deflated to represent a recession. Got it? Now imagine the govt pumping that beach ball back up through sensible public investment (which we haven't seen for decades).

The New Economy

Same beach ball, same pump, but it's not re-inflating. Why?

The sides are blown out. No, I'm wrong: the sides have 2 knife wounds in them, inflicted by--wait for it--our own government. That's right, your government. Which ain't yours anymore.



Whatever do you mean, Mr. Crystle? 


The "air" in the beach ball is economic activity. Since the signing of GATT in '93, and then NAFTA, and the endless AFTAs thereafta, the government--your government, though you don't own it anymore--has facilitated and even encouraged the largest transfer of economic activity from US soil to other countries since its founding some time ago when electricity was just trickling down to a key on a string.


Our economy was relatively self-contained. And then, the salesmen arrived. In droves. 


"Free Trade," they exclaimed. As they sold you down the river, or rather, across the Pacific and Rio Grande, they convinced you that Free Trade will save and even increase your job opportunities, all you needed was training to bridge you from your Old Economy job skills and job--since moved offshore by the Free Traders--to your New Economy job. 

Except it was a plank, not a bridge. Or a bridge to nowhere. 



They argued that by building up Communist China's middle class, we'd be able to sell our products and services there, and everything would be just great. 


But they left one thing out: our products (and more and more, services) are now made in China, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Mexico, etc, etc. 


Oh, so what we really need is innovation! Yes! That will save us!


Well, our most innovative company--which does a great job of refining other companies' inventions and making them much better (iPod, iPhone, iPad, for instance), inscribes on its products, "Designed in California". 


But made in China


So why would the Free Traders do such a thing, eviscerating the middle class, stagnating wages, weakening towns and cities across the country? 


Profit over country. Profit over democracy. Profit over your rights. Profit over the rights of the developing world's workers. 


The degradation of our economy is decades underway.  GDP has become a false measure. So has the DOW and other indices. They don't measure how you and I are doing. They measure leveraged economic activity with a Designed in USA label slapped on to add insult to injury. 


Bush celebrated increased productivity as a testament to the strength of the economy. Well, yes, productivity goes up when you lay off workers but sell the same end product. How do you get the great opportunity of putting people out of work? 


Outsource. Productivity is the measure of output per employee. So if you can't increase your output, cut your employees.

The 1,000 people that made the part that goes in the car are expensive. So let's get a 30% discount by going to trade violator communist China, charge the same to the customer, and book a productivity increase while pocketing the difference. 



Dire Straits used to have it right with "Industrial Disease":
wanna have a war, keep our factories
wanna have a war, keep us on our knees
wanna have a war, stop us buying Japanese
wanna have a war to stop Industrial Disease
But we have wars--Yemen, Libya, Iraq & Afghanistan.

The war economy is booming--defense contractors are loving our 4 conflicts. Every immoral, civilian-killing drone gives them over a million bucks of future orders. They should sell caskets too--package deal.



I'm frustrated with our national politics. As a country, we've bought into American Exceptionalism, but I don't see us as exceptional. I see the monied class--left, right, whatever--controlling policies that benefit their bottom lines over education, jobs, local economies, clean water, rational security policies, health care, and the human condition. Policies for the few at the expense of the many. 


Same ship, different captain, same direction. 


We're now a plutocracy, with our representatives, legislative processes, White House (regardless of its occupants), and economic system controlled by the plutocrats like Goldman Sachs, Exxon, and especially Citi, which penned the paper "The Plutonomy Symposium Rising Tides Lifting Yachts", in which it argues that it should take advantage of the reality that the rich and superrich will continue getting richer. 


That was 2005. 


Wages? Stagnant since the 80's. Wealth? The top 20% control 80% of the wealth, a significant increase since 1980. 


There's nothing exceptional about getting stuff made overseas on the cheap. Nothing at all. Free Trade is not about you. It's about them. The top 10 or 20%. 


China is a communist country. It continues to murder its people when it feels threatened by them, imprisons democracy activists and religious leaders, exploits its workers, and censors or smothers any voice raised in opposition to its world view. 


America is happy to do business with it. 


Your America. Your government. Which you've handed to the plutocrats who serve the very wealthy extremely well. 


Obama is one of these plutocrats. 


I'm amazed that Fox News and its followers call Obama a socialist. The guy's paved the way for even greater control of US policy and wealth by the rich and powerful--how can you call him anything but a servant of the rich and capitalists? 


When the sky was falling on middle America, what did Bush do? Told us to shop. Be good consumers. Sent us a check to shop a little more (twice!). 


What did Obama do? Coddled Wall Street. Make it safe for international bankers. Shore up Wall Street profits. Make it easier for Communist China to suck even more out of the US economy. 


So back to the beach ball. It will never re-inflate. It's over. They won. 





They control our elections through campaign donations and the ownership of the airways, they control our government through lobbyists (elected lobbyists and their professional counterparts), and they apparently control you and your perception of what the demons really are in the US. 


Like education. 


That's the problem, it's those greedy teachers making $50k a year. Did you ever consider why your school taxes go up, your income stays flat, corporate taxes go down, jobs go overseas, college becomes unaffordable, GDP and the DOW grow to record levels, that somehow, in some way, this is all connected? 


Of course not. 


We're passive idiots, believing the shit they've been selling us for decades, hoping that some day the extra training will magically create a decent job and adequate healthcare, that poverty will be vanquished, that our kids will have reliable, decent opportunities in the future, and that we can get a clean drink of water without worrying about the pharmaceutical content. 


Well you can hope in one hand and piss in the other, and see which one fills up first. 


Me? I'm tired of hope. Hasn't worked.


Action? 


If I believed for a second--and I do not, currently--that the people of this country would gather together and say "enough!", and demand a change to our plutocracy, and take to the streets, and fight for justice, and demand equity in our futures, and demand a realignment of our realities to the rhetoric...well, maybe I'd feel like there's a chance. 


Today, this dark windy day after the hurricane, I don't believe that. I believe those among us who would lead, resist, agitate, fight, and evangelize the restoration of democracy as the overlord of its economic system, as opposed to the reverse, well let's just say I think we've been burned too many times by the likes of Obama, Clinton, Pelos, Reid, Casey, Rendell, Corzine, and Schumer. 


Unless...?
  • Enforce trade agreements. 
  • Slap a "democracy tax" of 25% on any product made in a country that does not have a formal participatory democracy--that's the baseline. China, read this and get to work. 
  • Funnel the revenue from the democracy tax to investing in infrastructure & education.
  • Lower the corporate tax rate to 25%, but close all the loopholes.
  • Invest in entrepreneurs, the true job creators
    • startups--not just tech startups, but startups in general
    • small, established companies that need capital to grow
  • Get corporate money completely out of the political process
    • campaign funds
    • lobbyists (but who will write the laws?)
  • Publicly finance campaigns. We still have a few smart people around--let's figure it out. 
  • Prosecute those who have defrauded the government and homeowners. Vigorously, publicly, and spitefully. Put Spitzer on it. I don't care about his personal smarminess--he's a great prosecutor. 
  • Create specific tax benefits for any company that moves production BACK to the US, and specific penalties for those who keep it overseas. 
This isn't protectionist. I'd say those arguing for greater access to cheap labor are undemocratic, unAmerican, and "protectionist" toward the rich and all that the rich control. 

It's your country. Or used to be. When are you going to claim it?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Jawbreakers

About two and a half years ago I broke my jaw. Normally when this happens, it's because of a blow to the face--a well-timed uppercut, or a poorly timed left turn.

In my case, it was stress.

A few months earlier, in November 2008, I had run a project straight into a brick wall and had to lay off 10 people, shut down the project, and step down as CEO.

There are a lot of reasons this happened, but the primary reasons were 1) I didn't have the support of my team and 2) I tried to spend my way around the problem by outsourcing locally at corporate rates.

I thought I could outrun the problems. And I was very, very wrong.

The good news was that by January I was sleeping again. The bad news is I was grinding my teeth nightly. At some point, parts of my jawbone were protruding through my gums.

I went through a painful surgery, followed by weeks of severe swelling and bruising.

Keeping yourself stress-free when building a startup--or leaving it--is pretty much impossible. But there are things you can do to take care of yourself, to notice the signs of burnout, and to proactively relieve your stress.

Recently I've been stressed about the beta, and I've noticed the signs--clenching my teeth, etc. This time, though, I'm not terribly interested in breaking my jaw again, so I've been walking more, taking lots of guitar breaks, and doing some simple meditation.

There's no real moral to this story, just a recommendation: take care of yourself. Notice the signs. If you're feeling stressed, identify the source and try to deal with it. And get in the habit of doing things that reduce the stress, because it can very easily end up being a well-placed, unintentional uppercut to the jaw.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Thoughts on Google + Moto

Google purchases Motorola for 12.5 billion in a defensive move to get Motorola's patents. Motorola has 19,000 employees, Google has 29,000.

The reactions across the board have been about the patents, the employee count, and Google taking a risk with hardware. Highly risky, yadda yadda.

Patents--yes. The rest of it is speculation, of course.

Here's my quick take, for what it's worth:

  • This is not a merger, it's an acquisition. Because of this, cultural issues, employee issues will be minimal. 
  • This is chess, not checkers. They've made the first of a number of moves, some of which are acquisitions, some of which are internal technology, and some of which are partnerships. To look at this as anything but a strategic first step is simplistic. 
  • Google's search business is under significant threat from Twitter, Facebook, Bing, and any answer discovery tool out there. 
  • Twitter does not--currently--have a compelling revenue model. And they know it, and Wall Street knows it, which means an IPO will be tougher.
  • Google will buy Twitter. Or it should. The value of the signals is worth at least 12.5 billion. Very few companies have the ability to monetize that, though we are trying. 
  • Microsoft is not dead, and it is incredibly relevant. 
  • Google will indeed make a phone, and I'll guess it will be at least competitive with the iPhone. Regardless, the Motorola acquisition gives a very expensive design shop. I could see Eric Schmidt moving over to manage it, restructuring it, and giving the Google vision guys proper access to exploit the best of Motorola's teams, ideas, and facilities. 
  • Google's phone partners will not jump ship. They might shop around, but I doubt they'll lose more than one or two minor players. Why? Android matters. IBM licensed PC architecture to dozens of companies, while selling their own as well. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

On another note...

I wrote a simple chat server using Node.js yesterday. I left the test running over night, came back this morning and it was still chugging, taking up, well, no CPU and was instantly available. It's a real-time system, and yes, I pulled it from sample code.

Take a look at http://chats.io, by Chris Mathieu, for a working example.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Next Web: Every Device a Web Service?

Someone recently ported Node.js to a jail-broken iPhone, turning the iPhone into a fully functioning web server/app server/web service.

Smartphones are capable of hosting web services, where other applications can request and receive information from them.

The question is, why? For what?

There's a disconcerting premise in a Denzel Washington movie that comes to mind, reflecting how information can be passed from one person to another like a virus, or in this case, a spirit (watch from 00:44):


That's where the next generation of web apps explodes just after your brain explodes. Imagine 100 people at a party, each with a smartphone hosting some web service that responds to requests for information.

What info matters? What info matters to people at the party vs their networks?

Peer-to-peer software shows an early example of the power of highly distributed, single-purpose applications. Napster, Bittorrent, etc.

SETI set my brain on fire back in the 90's; I remember talking with Dave about the possibilities of chunking out computing tasks to a vast network of desktops to leverage the collective computing power. SETI does just that to process info about the universe using a network of the world's idle computers through a screensaver.

But these are single-purpose applications. Highly distributed, single-purpose APIs will open up entirely new classes of applications.

What's an example? In the Node.js post I linked to above, he talks about leveraging what's native on the iPhone--camera, accelerometer, geo, etc. Let's take the camera.

Imagine a large crowd, say at a demonstration, and everyone there has the camera API exposed and running on their phones. Now write an application that creates a collective eye every 30 feet, then broadcasts this collective eye back to an app on everyone's phones. And let's say this app creates 10 collective eyes across 100 yards of space, and broadcasts all of those back to the app, or out to the web.

You've created a mesh eye, driven by time, space, and people. You've brought back the collective eyes back to those who generate it, such that the people who make up Eye 1 can see what Eye 2 is generating down the street, or around the corner.

(We can get into whether a mesh eye is practical (bandwidth, focal points), but there are some very useful, cool things you can do by aggregating multiple real-time video streams with close proximity to one another).

So we're able to move from running apps on your phone, to running APIs that allow developers to build apps around them that run on the web, or phone, or wherever.

An clear example of this would be if Fitbit, an app that tracks your activity based on motion, were to ship an API instead of an app. Currently, you install the FitBit app on your smartphone, and it transmits your data to their servers, and you access the results through the app or through fitbit.com.

But if installed their APIs instead, other developers could build a range of applications around those APIs, so FitBit would serve as the layer that provides specific access to your motion and other info, but other applications build specific apps that leverage that.

Maybe I want to build an application that shows activity levels during the day in specific cities, and displays the results on a real-time chart. That's currently possible by FitBit through their app and data they collect from you, but that's a closed system (they do have a server API in beta).

So what I imagine is

1) Google shipping Node.js as part of Android, Apple getting over itself and doing the same. MSFT, etc.
2) Users asked if they want to participate in the API program (in some friendly way)
3) Anonymity of data pulled from the phone; note that the APIs running on the phone can have nothing to do with what's running on the phone at all, and simply run as a service.
4) phones participate as an available API source based on bandwidth & battery reserve
5) a directory of available APIs running in the cloud somewhere

Devil's advocates step forward:

--cell phones don't have fixed IPs. So what? Create a proxy system, where the IPs are fixed and hosted at the proxy, and the smartphone logs into the proxy when the phone's available.

--cell phones aren't always on, so they aren't reliable. Ok, for what? Design apps that don't depend on full-time connectivity.

--why wouldn't we just build an app for that? Well, you're not getting it. Creating generalized APIs that any app on the web can access is significantly different from apps that run on your phone just for yourself.

All of those are valid criticisms, but bandwidth, processing power, storage will continue to improve and increase. Privacy matters, certainly, and should be part of the framework.

Every node becomes its own hub. The possibilities are as limited as there are smartphones and imaginative, useful applications of something like Node.js running (efficiently) on your phone.

Cool stuff.

Regenerative Help Ecosystems

I just got an email from the CEO of Apigee, which provides what appears to be a high-volume alternative API to Twitter and about a dozen other web services. I signed up a few days ago while researching.

It was an autogen email with an offer of help getting started, with a community manager copied on it. When I first read it I thought it was authentic because of the casual writing and the CC to a real person, but the "Hi charlie.crystle" kind of gave it away.

Oh well.

Something about that triggered a thought, something about how founders view their lives. On a daily basis, we run into problems along the way of executing our vision.

We plan, we research, we try, test, fail, and try again.

We offer and accept help along the way. The exchange of help is phenomenal. Stack Overflow has built what appears to be an incredible, fast-growing business on this dynamic.

I appreciate it when I'm trying to solve a problem, try something, and someone offers help on how to do it better. That's one of the dynamics we're building into Jawaya, recognizing that it's our natural inclination to help.

I appreciate it when someone reaches out and helps, even if they don't know they've given the help. And I'm more likely to help others after receiving help. It's regenerative, ever-expanding, and self-reinforcing.

If I find a great blog post explaining sockets in Node.js, that's help provided before the fact, an expression of generosity. Blogging can really help people.

Now when I say 'our', I mean the human race, but I'm likely applying that too broadly. Not everyone likes to help. Or offers. Even when they can.

But business founders, programmers, knitters, food enthusiasts--they are naturally collaborative, and help each other when they can. There are thousands of helpful niche interest communities out there.

So thanks Chet from Apigee. Even if it was an auto-gen email.