Another Reason Why We Need a Revolution in Manufacturing: Get Legacy Kruft Out of the Supply Chain

Through Indiegogo, a crowdfunding site, I backed a project called Bug-A-Salt, an air gun that fires a load of salt at flies and other flying insects.  As we say a Valhalla, a small bet on a big win.

Here’s a picture of the device.



BUG-A-SALT 20120910022859-bugasalt-exterminating-4359-500x416

The entrepreneur, Lorenzo Maggiore, has overcome all design obstacles and produced, with an overseas manufacturer, a first run:


Lorenzo Maggiore posted an announcement 17 days ago

A humble thank you from the BUG-A-SALT Team to each and every one of our 10,768 contributors. Your energy, enthusiasm and incredible support has inspired us in a way that was impossible to imagine only 66 days ago when the campaign was launched. The final hard work now begins to get over 21,400 guns in the hands of the new BUG-A-SALT army spread out in 70 different countries around the world. Check back here for frequent updates on delivery dates and thanks in advance for your patience—we are building the business not only right under our feet but right in front of your eyes.
Thanks again,

Now the fun begins.  Lorenzo is trying to import the first 7000 units, and runs afoul of one of those legacy constructs, government and Customs.  Here’s the deal:

Lorenzo Maggiore posted an announcement 4 hours ago

Post Campaign Update #3

To all our restless and excited Indiegogo supporters: Below is a letter from our Custom’s agent yesterday (names blocked) regarding our first container load of 7,000 guns now being inspected in US Customs. Please remember and forgive us—we are first time business people trying to deliver on a magnitude of orders much, much bigger than we ever anticipated. The logistics of manufacturing, ocean transport, Customs, and fulfillment are complicated. We underestimated timeframes but we are learning and we are trying our best! Hang tight and get ready to pity the fly….


Since container is at exam site on the floor, if it gets released tomorrow, they will still have to re-load and will give us until Monday to pick up without charging storage. I just left a message for Customs to find out status and I have to wait for their call back. I also called the exam site and they advised that CPSC is also examining this container since these are air guns. The lady at exam site reminded me that today is just the second day that exam is in progress and Customs/CPSC have 5 working days to decide what they want to do so that would be until next Tuesday. I’ll keep checking and provide status daily.

Best regards,
xxxxxxxxx, CHB
Assistant Import Manager


The problem?  Customs doesn’t know what to do with something like this.  Years ago, a scientist I worked for was telling a story about a colleague of his trying to import a box of (harmless) microorganisms into Turkey.

The Customs rep asked what it was.

The scientist said it was microorganisms.

The rep asked what a “microorganism” was.

The scientist said it was a tiny animal.

The rep asked how many he was importing.

The scientist said “about 100 million.”

The rep looked up “100 million small animals” in his book of customs duties and proposed to charge the scientist a huge sum.

Shorter supply chains — which the Maker Movement and other technologies can bring us — avoid legacy entities like governments and Customs authorities.

And get us our Bug-A-Salt units faster.


DreamForce 2012

Went to DreamForce last week for a couple of days.  My first time.  I’m always intrigued by companies that build of an ecosystem of contributors, and had wanted to see this event for that reason.

I was very pleasantly surprised.  I think of Salesforce itself as a Web 1.0 application (or maybe 0.9).  It was a world-beater when it took down Siebel, but the whole world of web applications has moved forward quite a bit.  As Salesforce admin at Valhalla Partners, I have a heck of a time getting people to log their deals (we use it to track deal flow), and at least part of it is the clunky interface.  Not being able to see your subtask and your context at the same time is a huge liability of the Web 1.0 world (and only partially cured in Web 2.0 btw).

But the ecosystem around Salesforce is really vigorous.  There’s a lot of app work with first-rate UX.  And, if you think about it, Salesforce may be the #1 Web platform for databases about people and people-oriented workflow.  Certainly Microsoft Dynamics and Google apps can’t touch it.

I don’t know if we’ll find investable opportunities around this ecosystem, but I’ll give it a serious look.

Let me know if there’s anything you see that could use our capital…

Graph processing and graph processing tech

I’ve been reading a bit about graph processing lately, and the tech that supports it.

I’ve thought that relational dbs were useless for graph problems since maybe 1985, when I started trying to keep my financial records in a database and found that it was nearly impossible to track the basis of a stock using the relational paradigm because it had to iterate over all the historic transactions for a given ticker and essentially compute what I read was called a “transitive closure”.

I wasn’t any database god in those days, but it seemed to me that there were an awful lot more problems in the world that required transitive closures than those requiring select and project, or even select, project, and some reasonable number of joins.

Well, of course graph problems don’t do very well in the relational formalism, but graph formalisms don’t do very well in the bounded computation formalism.  It’s easy to get swamped with nodes tweedling to one another.

I read the paper on Pregel with interest (and, of course, Google is probably on to Pregel 3.0 by now, or they wouldn’t have published the paper :-)).  But I’m curious to hear more about other approaches.

Your thoughts?

Anonymous browsing and the future of advertising

I’ve started to look at anonymous browsing.

So far, the schemes that are really anonymous are pretty kludge-y.  It looks like you find a path through cooperative servers to near your endpoint, and then, like Foxface from The Hunger Games, sprints over the last link or two to the destination.  Effective, if what you want is to keep from being tracked.  But not easy to use, and probably not destined for the mainstream.

Is this the best outcome?  Widespread use of anonymizers leads to a “distributed denial of data” attack on brands and merchants.  I have no great love for brands and merchants — they certainly treat consumers pretty cavalierly — but the outcome I want is to have (moe) power over them instead of them having (more) power over me, and ultimately, perhaps, to share power so that we both get part of what we want.  It’s the Intention Economy all over again (I know, I’ve been on this like a broken record, but Searl’s book is a great set of ideas).

Pivots and Faceplants

We didn’t even have a word for “pivot” until a couple of years ago.

Companies “changed their strategy”, or “re-examined their business”, or “took a fresh look”.

Then all of a sudden “pivot” burst on the scene, and business became more like downhill skiing or dancing than war.  Everyone began to pivot.

Unfortunately, not all pivots are alike.  Valhalla’s Managing Partner Art Marks distinguishes between pivots and “faceplants” as follows:


  1. New Strategy: Redefine mission based on market feedback, evidence of shortcomings.
  2. Capabilities: Exploits existing capabilities
  3. Evidence: Strong evidence of success on new path
  4. Plan: Predicatable requirements for cash required to break even


  1. New Strategy: Redefine mission because old one didn’t work
  2. Capabilities: Imaginary and exaggerated new capaibilites added to enterprise
  3. Evidence: More hope than evidence
  4. Plan: Future cash requirements still uncertain.

Admittedly, many Faceplants disguise themselves at Pivots.  But still worth testing for one vs. the other.  Well worth it.


More on FOSS and Utopian Socialism

When I blogged about this yesterday I was unaware that the topic I was broaching — the similarities between the Free and Open source movement and utopian socialism — was a well-traveled topic.

My friend Rob Atkinson (for whose Information Technology & Innovation Foundation I am an advisor) turned me on to an article by Milton Mueller on “Info-Communism” which, despite the provocative title, is actually a careful review of the debate between the open-sourcers and the information-property-ites and well worth reading if you want to understand what is morally and politically good about open source.

Meanwhile, my intent was to discuss whether or not open-source approaches ehance or stifle innovation.  My working hypothesis for some years has been that open-source code enhances innovation in areas that use the code (duh) but stifle innovation in the open-source area itself, and that open source is appropriate for software projects where stability and quality is more important than innovation.

I still sort of think this, although I’m open to counter-examples.

FOSS and utopian socialism

Continuing to read “Intention Economy” with great interest.  Chapter 12 (“Free and Open”) on the connection between “free and open source software” (“FOSS”) arrested me.

Searls argues that “…free markets on the Internet depend on FOSS code and development methods”.  I’ll admit that I’m ambivalent about open source.  I made a good living in the ’80’s and ’90’s from proprietary shrink-wrap software on the Microsoft platform.  It was a great platform, chock-a-block with innovation, and we made decent livings while doing work that was fun, interesting, and arguably benefitted society.

Open source has changed all that.  The price of software has been radically lowered, and while in each case users of the software (who typically are developers themselves) benefit from high-quality ubiquitous software, it’s hurt the software coder in general and the American software coder in particular.  (See “Entrepreneurs are the New Labor” for one view on this, for example: Rao doesn’t blame FOSS for the current state of affairs, but he is actually somewhat murky on how it has come about.  His conclusions and my hypothesis may not be inconsistent.)

In any case, Searls describes the FOSS world in something like the same terms Marx used to describe his Utopian vision of communism.  Here is Searls (op. cit., Kindle edition, Location 2286) (quoting Yochai Benkler [“Coase’s Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm”] as well):


Active and useful FOSS code is social as well as personal, in the sense that the writers of free and open code need to cooperate with each other. Yochai Benkler explains this in both “Coase’s Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm” and The Wealth of Networks. In “Coase’s Penguin,” he writes,

The central organizing principle is that the software remains free of most constraints on copying and use common to proprietary materials. No one “owns” the software in the traditional sense of being able to command how it is used or developed, or to control its disposition …

I suggest that we are seeing … the broad and deep emergence of a new, third mode of production in the digitally networked environment. I call this mode “commons-based peer-production,” to distinguish it from the property- and contract-based models of firms and markets. Its central characteristic is that groups of individuals successfully collaborate on large-scale projects following a diverse cluster of motivational drives and social signals, rather than either market prices or managerial commands.

And here is Marx, in “The Communist Manifesto”:

Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

Both authors have the theme of disruption of old proprietary relations and the establishment of a new order where price, property, and contract do not direct the course of production but rather the overall needs of the community.

I’m not likening the two in order to besmirch FOSS, but rather to draw attention to its utopian character and to probe its actual underpinning.

Just as communism, in practice, required an absolutist state to order “the people” to do “the rights things”, so FOSS, in practice, requires a system of “tithing” where big tech companies — Google, IBM, and others are mentioned in Searls — need to subsidize the open source community by grants of time, money, or both.  The instantiation of communism, of course, was the very opposite of the dream.  What can we say about the instantiation of FOSS?

In the areas where open source has had the biggest inroads — Internet infrastructure, arguably, operating systems — innovation has languished.  We are still playing with VMS and Unix in one form or another, after 30 years.  And the Web stack, despite its creakiness, is not particularly changing.

Compare this to the Big Data area, where innovation was sparked by proprietary projects at Google and others.  We have new approaches, new architectures, and ample innovation.  This innovation is, of course, now spilling out as open source in the Hadoop ecosystem.  It will be interesting to see how much further innovation occurs in the areas that are now open-sourced (as opposed to the application or other layers that are benefitted by the existence of the new “free” stuff).

Jury is still out for me, but I can only offer two cheers for open source.  The vision is swell; the free stuff is awesome.  The net result may be suboptimal.

Your thoughts?