Amory Lovins on Natural Capitalism

I recommend this series of lectures by the Rocky Mountain Institute‘s Amory Lovins. He delivered the lectures at Stanford, and they’re now hosted at the Social Innovation Conversations site.

I first came across these lectures on Jon Udell’s blog. Udell does a good job of describing them.

What you will hear, in these talks, is the distillation of a lifetime of experience in the creative optimization of the use of energy. The principles are all laid out in Natural Capitalism: integrative design, whole-system engineering, radical resource productivity, tunneling through the cost barrier. But it’s something else again to hear Lovins pile up the case studies, one after another, in a plain-spoken but cumulatively overwhelming stream of revelatory common sense.

Natural capitalism is wonderfully straightforward notion: essentially it states that capitalism is a reasonable framework for solving the world’s problems, so long as you assign reasonable value to the natural capital (clean air, forested land, mineral wealth) you consume and create. Everything belongs on the balance sheet. We suffer now because we thought of carbon dioxide emissions as a zero cost economic output that could go under the rug. Integrative design is another trend that I see rapidly becoming more prominent. And I was struck by Lovins’ use of this quote from Einstein: “I wouldn’t give a nickel for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

With these words still echoing in my ears, I was happy to read in this morning’s Boston Globe about a company called H2O Applied Technologies. According to the article, “They find ways to cut energy costs. They make energy-saving improvements. They buy and install new equipment. And they pay for everything.” They make their money by taking a cut of the resulting savings. It’s a beautiful model. No hand-wringing. No theatrics. No appeals to guilt or charity. Just profit-seeking capitalists trying to make money. If we do manage to save the world, this is how we’ll do it.

Here’s the link: Clients get energy savings, H2O shares the benefit – The Boston Globe (article may be behind a registration barrier).

Me on a Jon Udell podcast

Tim O’Reilly likes to quote William Gibson when he describes his approach to predicting the future: “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” In other words, if you can just find the people (O’Reilly calls them alpha geeks) who are leading the way, you can serve yourself a tasty slice of future pie before the crowds show up. I completely agree with this philosophy. One of the things I love about the current blogging culture is that I can keep up with the latest thoughts of the people, the alpha geeks, that I think are on the leading edge.

When Tim O’Reilly talks about people who can see the future before it’s very evenly distributed, he’s talking about Jon Udell. I have been a fan of Udell’s writing since his days as a columnist at Infoworld. Now he works at Microsoft. The reason for his departure is also the reason his writing is so prescient: he holds fast to his own compass, and when that compass was at variance with Infoworld’s mission, he knew it was time to move on. Few people are doing more to distribute the future than Udell. He is intensely focused on bringing the fruits of social computing and information technology in general to the broadest possible audience, whether it’s through screencasting, easy-to-use scripting languages, or underused federal databases. I know when he’s excited about something, I should learn more about it as fast as possible.

So I was especially happy that I got a chance to meet him at a recent symposium on social computing at Microsoft. I was even happier to learn that he wanted to interview me for a podcast on the programming contest that I’ve been running at The MathWorks for the past several years.

Want to listen? Tune in here: A conversation with Ned Gulley about the MATLAB Programming Contest « Jon Udell.

And if you stumbled across this post and want to learn more about the contest, you might want to read a paper that I wrote about it: In Praise of Tweaking: A Wiki-like Programming Contest.

How to use as a podcast

I don’t know if you buy into the Web 2.0 meme, but I do. There’s an amazing amount of good stuff to keep up with these days. It’s getting ever easier to create, package, route, re-package, re-route, and consume information. Mashups, those unanticipated combinations of multiple websites, were a good indication that things were getting interesting. Sticking apartment prices on a map is a nice, practical example of a mashup, but on beyond that, things get really weird. My current favorite nominee for unanticipatable Web 2.0 mash-hack was on display over at Jon Udell’s blog at InfoWorld. In this post, Jon is actually talking about the nature of video demonstrations, but his example is a lovely hack by Pascal van Hecke that involves turning into a podcasting tool.

So let’s review what’s being done here: an embedded Revver video is showing you how to combine a Greasemonkey script on Firefox with some special commands so that you can funnel random MP3s into a unified virtual podcast that your iPod can automatically scoop up and pour into your waiting ears. That’s not a mashup. That’s alchemy.

This stuff is pretty far out there if you’re not hip-deep in kool-aid, but I am and I find this example amazing for the virtuosic cross-pollination of information tools it displays. It looks gratuitous, but it’s actually very useful. Authoring at this level (composing? recombining?) is the skill that will be rewarded in the next decade. You have to start telling yourself: All data is free. All services are free. Now what?

Distributing the future

Happy New Year!

When a one year ends and another begins, pundits feel compelled to opine about the next big thing. I almost always find these predictions tedious and off base. Worse even than this is the speculative fiction that imagines what it will be to wake up ten years in the future, floating cars, police state and all. In an effort to be sensational, these stories and predictions extrapolate in silly directions.

I much prefer articles that talk about small but interesting things that are happening right now. This is often the best we can do when it comes to predicting the near future. As William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here. It’s just not very well distributed.” Tim O’Reilly (Mr. Web 2.0) is such a fan of this quote that he has made it something of a personal mantra.

I’ve taken to reading Michael Arrington’s blog TechCrunch lately, and I liked his approach to the year-end summation. He wrote a piece called Web 2.0 Companies I Couldn’t Live Without. I love to hear articulate early adopters describe the products that change the way they work. Arrington’s list isn’t that surprising, but it did, for example, convince me to go back and try NetVibes again. My personal list of web services that I wouldn’t want to give up includes Bloglines, the todo list manager tasktoy, and the excellent LibraryThing.

Jon Udell goes one step farther than Arrington. He noticed that the stuff he got excited about in 2004 often made a big splash in 2005, so he compiled a list of promising technology from 2005 that might just hit the big time in 2006. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but this is the best way I know to make an intelligent guess. Find what’s working right now and distribute it liberally. Something just might stick.

They’re called “rockdots”

Jon Udell’s Heavy Metal Umlaut video is being passed around a lot these days, and with good reason. He took a quirky page out of Wikipedia, coupled it with some quick and dirty video manipulation from Camtasia, and made a compelling illustration of how the Wikipedia actually works.

Here’s the current Wikipedia entry that initially tickled Udell. This odd little article started out two years ago with this inauspicious note about the spandex and umlaut circuit. Over time it morphed into a richly detailed socialogical digression. But how did that transformation come about? Udell decided to make a movie about that process: here it is.

Udell is on a roll these days, putting new and consistently interesting commentary into his InfoWorld columns and his weblog. In addition, he writes the occasional column for O’Reilly. If you’re so inclined, you can read a detailed account of how he created the umlaut video here.