Saturday, April 26, 2008

It's Official: Food is Oil

I would not have anticipated ever writing anything with this thesis: Fidel Castro was right.

A couple of years ago, he made it known that the global subsidy of biofuels would lead to an increase in the price of food because of the diversion of grain stocks (such as corn) into fuel production.

It seemed basic economics at the time and he's been proven correct. We saw it in the developed world first in the form of an increase in the price of milk (made from corn, essentially) and subsequently all dairy products.

Now we see it in the form of other grains, like rice and wheat, and there is no obvious end in sight. The craze to invest in biofuel technologies was nothing other than a stall tactic, to prevent investment in real alternative energy sources. While it's nice to re-use things like old fry oil to run your Mercedes or semi, there just isn't enough used restaurant oil to make a dent in our demand for energy.

Instead we've taken the final step in linking our food supply to the energy market: we've decided to invest heavily (and irrationally) in converting our food directly into energy with ethanol and soy biofuel subsidies.

It's not as though there had not previously been a link; oil companies have been powering agribusiness for the last 75 years at least. Petroleum waste products have been productively combined with chlorine and other chemicals to produce a huge number of chemicals that have proved useful as pesticides (and as PCBs, PVCs, and other plastics) and have led to the current abundance of food.

Ostensibly, this is a good thing; however as this has occurred, farming has become big business, and the same corporations that control the chemistry of the food supply (like Monsanto and Exxon/Mobil) now control the food supply itself. There's no monopoly like two monopolies.

If this theses are correct, one of the best things we can do to lower food prices and to promote investment in sustainable alternative energies is to loudly protest the investment in biofuels.

By removing subsidies for biofuels, we 1) direct food back to the food supply, thereby easing prices, 2) promote investment in sustainable alternative energy solutions, 3) agitate the monopoly link between corporate farms and the petroleum products they use, 4) put additional pressure on automakers to seriously consider the development of non-petroleum powered and, certainly, of non-biofuel powered vehicles.

So, I exhort you: help stop the subsidy of biofuel production. If there is a natural market for it, it will stand on its own.

Otherwise all we're doing is making food less affordable, creating agony for countries that can't afford these price increases, and extending the life of the petroleum monopolies.

Certainly new technologies like slow discharge capacitors hold real promise. Let's develop these ideas and show the oil companies that their stranded costs are their responsibility, not ours.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Building Tech Startups on the East Coast @ SocialDevCamp East

As we gear up for SocialDevCamp East in Baltimore on May 10, one of the things that we'd like to highlight is the diversity of Web 2.0 talent available here on the east coast.

The conventional wisdom today says that to make it as a social startup, you should a) move to San Francisco (preferably East Bay or SOMA), b) meet a bunch of cool people (natch), c) get funded (cake!), d) get featured in TechCrunch, e) build your startup to 500,000 users, f) get snapped up in an early acquisition by Google for $90M, g) repeat.

For lots of reasons, the odds of this working are low and getting lower. Why? For one, this is the conventional wisdom; everybody's doing it, why shouldn't you? Loads of ditto-heads are creating a glut of ideas. They all can't win.

Second, VC investments are often a trailing indicator of successful business sectors. VCs follow what has worked previously, which leads to persistent failures at the end of a business cycle. Why else do you think they need to rely on outrageous 100x returns? To make up for their last round of losses.

Why do you live where you do? Family, a partner, school, friends, or do you simply love where you live? There are countless talented people who have made the same choice as you, and they've made this choice not as a runner-up to a life of glory in the Bay area. They've made the choice as a matter of personal identity and conviction.

As I meet members of the tech business community along the east coast, I hear two things consistently. One, that the Bay area is getting weird these days, and that they are "all smoking the same air." Second, that the "VC community doesn't get it here," and that it's hard to get funding and launch a web-based startup on the east coast.

Sorry, but we can't have it both ways. We must choose: do you want to live in the Bay Area and sustain the vagaries of that echo-chamber culture, or do you want to grow where you're planted and build viable businesses here?

The fact is that we can't expect to improve the tech startup climate on the east coast if we don't come together and make it what we want it to be. And that means we need to stop looking over our shoulder at the west coast and start building businesses here and now, using telework, co-work, or traditional workspaces.

The 37signals blog covered this topic today, and reflected many of my opinions on the subject.

This is part of what we want to address at SocialDevCamp East. If we want to have a thriving startup culture here, we need to build it -- one relationship at a time.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Being an iPhone Developer Has Its Privileges

It means you get to pay $99 (plus sales tax). Hopefully in a few minutes I'll have a certificate to test apps on my iPhone!

See you at iPhoneDevCamp in New York this weekend?

We'll be sure to have iPhone topics at SocialDevCamp East on May 10!

SocialDevCamp East, May 10 in Baltimore

The last few weeks have been really busy. So much has been going on I haven't had time to blog.

Since last time, I've launched a new company called Roundhouse Technologies and helped to organize an unconference here in Baltimore called SocialDevCamp East.

I'll be talking about Roundhouse Technologies in more detail in the coming weeks. In the meantime, it's important to get the word out about SocialDevCamp, as it's coming up fast -- on May 10.

SocialDevCamp will be held in Baltimore and is an unconference focused on the future of the social web. We're looking for developers and thought leaders who are interested in imagining the future of the web, not just where it is today.

While "monetizing Facebook applications" might have been a good topic for six months ago, we're after a little deeper reflection than that. What are the long term implications of platforms like Facebook? What effect will Google's Application Engine have on creativity? What direction is the ideation, funding, and liquidity process going in? Do we need to create new paths to liquidity, as some have suggested?

SocialDevCamp is an unconference, so the agenda is not cast in stone; we'll form the agenda based on the interests of the attendees. It's also free to participants. Our costs will be covered by some sponsors; we need sponsors. My new company is one, but we could use more. Please email me at dave at roundhousetech dot com.

Why is SocialDevCamp East in Baltimore? It's central to DC, Philly and pretty accessible to NY and Boston. Our hope is to draw deep thinkers from each of these markets. This kind of conversation is happening much more frequently on the west coast, but as a friend of mine recently said with tongue firmly in cheek, "the people in San Francisco are all smoking the same air." There's something to that. We have an opportunity to have a thoughtful, realistic conversation that's influenced by reflection and not so much by what might be happening on Sand Hill Road.

We expect to have about 100 people. Please spread the word. We're planning to have four separate break out session periods, plus lunch and an after party. We hope you can make it to what should be a great event!

Sign up to attend with the event page on Facebook and the Barcamp PBWiki event page.

And if you know someone who would be a great fit for the event, please pass on the word. We're really looking forward to meeting all of the fantastic thinkers in our midst here on the east coast.

And yes, the venue has not yet been confirmed, but we're working that now. We'll update as soon as we have more specific details.