Category Archives: Austin

Brexit in the Bardo

As I made my way to the Capital Factory, that go-go hive of entrepreneurial-ism in the center of Austin, to hear what the U.K. Dept. of International Trade had to say about Brexit, I thought about a University of London marketing class I took years ago. The professor, a Scot, turned to a world map. He drew a line between Europe and the United Kingdom. Then he drew an arrow across the Atlantic pointing toward the United States and made a prediction: At some point, the British will break away from Europe and join the United States in an economic block. Prescient fellow.

Two countries with a lot in common. Map courtesy of the mls.co

Borders, walls and disagreements

It takes guts to tell your story when the facts aren’t clear, but the U.K. team did an admiral job. Representatives from the British Consulate’s Department for International Trade, law firm Taylor Wessing and accountancy Blick Rotherberg were optimistic that even the Irish border conundrum could be resolved — at the last minute (“That’s the way Europeans do things.”).

 It was one day after Parliament sent Prime Minister Theresa May once more into the breach of negotiations with the European Union, and less than a week after Congress reached an agreement to pause the longest government shutdown in U.S. history so our elected officials could settle a disagreement about a wall between neighbors.

Almost three years ago, on the heels of a political gambit by then-Prime Minister David Cameron, British voters opted to leave the European Union. The questions are when and how. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

Do we stay or do we go?

Ross Allen, the New York City-based director at the U.K. Department for International Trade led the discussion, reminding us that the United Kingdom has a special relationship with the United States. The two countries are genetically linked — in language, history, laws and culture — and those commonalities matter a great deal.

Data Privacy: Privacy continues is a hot button for the U.S. GDPR is in place in the U.K., as is Privacy Shield. Regulation is a moving target, but there is a common foundation.

Business Headquarters: “Pragmatism” is the operative word. Considerations such as degree of industry regulation, the need to move people around Europe, the size of the organization, labor laws and tax rates all factor into a decision.

Regional Differences: London will continue to be its own country, as are all great cities. But other regions, particularly the north, where businesses that rely on international supply chains will be hit hard – Leeds, Northern Ireland, Wales. I read this morning that U.K. automotive production declined 8% in 2018, as investment plummets and jobs disappear.

Trade: Separate trade agreements are in the works with Israel and talks are underway with South Korean and Japan.

Defense: NATO, an intelligence community that’s joined at the hip.

Worst case scenario? On March 29, Parliament decides not to decide. A second referendum to stay in the E.U.? Too late and too expensive. Unlikely.

“I am England”

Every muddle has its heroes, and I asked Vice Consul Haileigh Meyers and her Silicon Valley-based colleague David what they thought about Prime Minister Theresa May.

She (Mrs. May) is a true public servant, and she realizes she needs to get this done. She’s driven by a commitment to public service.

UK International Trade and Investment
British Consulate-General
After negotiation Brexit, Theresa May will not run again for prime minister. Photo courtesy of euractiv.com

Imagine taking a job that no one else wants, a job that brings you defeat and humiliation by even your closest allies. Imagine sticking with that job as other opportunities more to your liking and skill set pass you by. If you haven’t read the New Yorker piece on Mrs. May, do. Here’s hoping Queen Elizabeth, another woman who knows a great deal about sacrifice in the name of public service, can offer guidance from her own long tenure as leader of a nation that faced and dealt with dwindling political and economic power.

Y2K.2 ?

Closing the session, Allen tossed out a provocative idea: “What if it’s just like Y2K, and we wake up and nothing happens?” Some of us remember the panic that preceded the turn of the century hysteria about whether networks and data centers could tolerate the transition between “1999” and “2000.”

After the session, I rode down in the elevator with Drew Haas, who is moving to London next week to open the U.K. office of San Saba Pecan. They have a warehouse outside of York, and Drew will be growing the business in Europe, where almonds are vulnerable to some stiff Texas competition.

POSTSCRIPT: Inflexibility: The flip side of determined leadership?

UPDATE March 18, 2019: The BBC reports Mrs. May will try to get her proposal passed after two rejections, something the now-famous House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has ruled as a no-go unless there are “substantive changes” to the proposal. Will Mrs. May charge into the same brick wall once again?

UPDATE March 21, 2019: The meltdown.


What will it take to make us safe?

We expect our government to keep us safe. The Constitution cites “providing for the common defense” as part of the reason to even have a government. In the best of times, protecting a country as proudly technology-driven as ours is a tough job. And these are not the best of times.

Ranking members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence were in town recently to talk about the challenges of overseeing national security in a cyber world. Below, from left, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), Vice Chairman Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), Chairman Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) and Moderator Stephen Slick.

Photo courtesy of the Texas National Security Review

“Technology is a wonderful thing. It helps us communicate, but it can also be meddled with,” said Burr. “We need to change the entire architecture of government to recognize we’re not in the 20th century. We’re in the 21st century, and that’s not just government (alone), it’s how we integrate that into the private sector.”

We can thank the Russians and Facebook for jump starting a public conversation about technology, sharing, business models and national security. Consider the complexities. Our finance, hospitality (Airbnb), mobility (Uber and Lyft), communications (Apple, Facebook and AT&T), oil & gas (pipelines), as well as many power, water and utility networks, are privately owned, managed and vulnerable.

A broken partnership and the spectre of 9/11

Technology has historically been a collaborative effort between the public and private sectors. Nuclear technology came out of World War II. The networking technology behind the Internet came out of the Defense Dept. via DARPA and the PARC research facility. But these days, the companies with the research and development muscle to push the boundaries of technology are global, rich and fast-moving. Thanks to Edward Snowden, intellectual property concerns, employee activism and a large customer base outside of U.S. borders, they don’t necessarily trust government to lead them down the right path. Google’s withdrawal from Project Maven, the Army’s first implementation of artificial intelligence is a case in point.

“We don’t want to stop innovation,” Cornyn explained. “But we need the private sector to be responsive to the needs of government.” He made a cautionary reference to the government’s failure to predict the incomprehensible horror of the Sept. 11 attacks:

Photo courtesy of Stan Honda


“The most important failure was one of imagination. We do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat … No president can promise that a catastrophic attack like that of 9/11 will not happen again. But the American people are entitled to expect that officials will have realistic objectives, clear guidance and effective organization.”


Excerpted from The 9/11 Commission Report

There are striking similarities between Big Tech and Washington. Both profess transparency but value secrecy. Both think globally and maintain strong international allegiances. Both know results matter. Both value the rights, freedoms and security our nation represents. Best case scenario, each provides a check and balance on the other.

Guardrails for the application of new technologies

Big Tech recognizes emerging technologies like AI are potentially dangerous. In June, Google published a set of internal principles that were accompanies by a cautionary memo from its chief executive, Sundar Pichai, “We recognize that such powerful technology raises equally powerful questions about its use.”

“This is why we’ve tried hard to articulate a set of AI principles. We may not have gotten everything right, but we thought it was important to start a conversation.”

Sundar Puchai, chief executive officer, Google

But Google’s AI principles don’t work for everyone. America’s fiercest competitor, China, requires companies to give up their source code, both figuratively and literally, for government applications. It has made artificial intelligence the cornerstone of its long-term strategy for technology leadership and a way to automate social control. Witness a recent issue of Jeff Ding’s excellent China AI newsletter for a translation of a white paper by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT) for an outline of “how Beijing aims to use AI to automate censorship, control of public opinion, and improved public security.” 

“If America gives up its leadership ability to set a a framework, it’s not going to happen,” warned Senator Byrd. Vice Chairman Mark Warner, both a founder of and an investor in technology companies, was more blunt. “We need guardrails…. We constantly reach out and beg them (the private sector) to work with us in a meaningful way.”

An inflection point in American history

Senator Ben Saase (R-NE) also spoke, describing the long-term race with China as “an inflection point in 230 years of American history,” an opportunity to “organize the American people around long-term competition with China.”

Senator Burr suggested that a public-private partnership located perhaps in North Carolina or Austin could develop the “architecture of cooperation” between the government and private sector.

Certainly, the Army took a calculated risk with its newly-formed Army Futures Command. Based here in Austin, AFS is an entire brigade charged with drawing talent from the start up community to develop the weapons of the future. It’s a big cooperative initiative with a challenging scope.

Never waste a good crisis

Austin has a solid track record of public-private partnerships, most successfully with SEMATECH, formed in the late 1980’s when the semiconductor industry was fighting a losing battle with the Japanese. But P3s are no silver bullet. They are highly collaborative. Competitive issues can be a barrier. They require the participation of top talent. Crises come and go, and their goals and structures must adapt:.

  • A crisis is helpful to attract support, but there must be an overarching vision to give it the flexibility to adapt as things change. Political, social, economic, and technological conditions are fluid and a P3’s structure, mission and goals needs to reflect those changes.
  • Collaboration is key, modeled from the top and rewarded at all levels of the organization. Beware of making intellectual property a barrier in this integral process.
  • Large companies have the resources – talent and support – to collaborate. Smaller companies quickly become overextended. Set realistic expectations with leadership.
  • Define ROI in terms of the organization’s goals. Establish incremental ROI benchmarks to demonstrate early successes. People will be watching.

A closing note on intellectual property

Intellectual property is a concern in any collaboration, but restrictive IP requirements can torpedo possibilities. I found this article by Charles Duhigg a fascinating case study of the Silicon Valley mindset. It describes tech’s proprietary focus on IP and the lengths Google took to retain the knowledge inside a top engineer’s head, the intriguingly perverse Anthony Levandowski. The piece closes with this quote from Levandowski, who as of this writing is working with Chinese investors to fund his self-driving truck start up:

“The only thing that matters is the future… I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess — the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution, and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know that History to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.”

Anthony Levandowski, serial entrepreneur and former top Google engineer

If you’re interested, Here is a link to the presentations from the Fifth Annual Texas National Security Forum, “The Return of Great Power Competition” and the inspiration for this entry.

In closing, please enjoy the holiday and its determination to focus our attention on peace and goodwill to all.

Thanks to Facebook and the Russians, we can have a public conversation about technology and national security. Cartoon by Sara Lautman, courtesy of The New Yorker

Blockchain’s Promise: Trust

Pete Harris stopped by a session of the World Spins to share his take on blockchain, the software technology generally overshadowed by its trendier spawn, bitcoin and the Bitcoin network. Harris, who bears a striking resemblance to Bilbo Baggins, has a relationship to hype similar to mine with spreadsheets. That is, he is clear and takes  sticks to the facts as he sees them. Even so, it doesn’t take long to recognize blockchain’s promise. If it’s possible to transact business based on a series of permanent (i.e. they can’t be changed), transparent interactions, then our trust-starved world may have a chance of recovering its footing.

https_blogs-images.forbes.comjamiemoyfiles201802block-chain-2852998_1920-1200x534 (1)

The blockchain network: can it build trust?  Photo courtesy by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay, courtesy of Forbes

 

“We’ll have to wait and see” 

Harris’ blockchain CV dates from his Wall Street consulting days over a decade ago. These days, having sworn off airplanes, he spends much of his time with the Austin startup community where over 70 young cryptocompanies are  tackling data integrity issues where they find them — finance, healthcare, contracts.

I watched a handful present at Harris’ Monday night meetup. They ranged from Po.et, copyright/intellectual property protection, to GovernanceChain, an accounting network and CityShare, a digital shopping/hospitality network for member cities. Among the more visible is Wanchain, a Chinese nonprofit that’s figuring out to securely connect separate smart contracts, each with its own blockchain, a pivotal step in supporting a currency-agnostic global financial network. Interestingly, Wanchain’s technology is developed in China; the company’s U.S. headquarters is in Austin.

One of the best parts of these presentations is listening to company execs say, “I don’t know,” and “We’ll have to wait and see” — something I hear very often.  But I suppose that’s the beauty of a working with a nascent technology.

Privacy is implicit in the design

Speaking of wait-and-see, someone asked about blockchain’s impact on GDPR, the  European Union’s toughened privacy requirements known as the General Data Protection Rules. With the compliance deadline looming next month, that too is a wait-and-see. But since transactions are permanent, transparent and traceable, the blockchain ledger eliminates the need for centralized control. The integrity of the information is inherent in the software design.

A peek at a mobile citizenry in a digital world 

Today, 10% of the world’s GDP is in block chain. But it’s not all business. In the public sector, tiny Estonia has fashioned itself what the New Yorker magazine labelled a digital republic. Its citizens are free to live and work wherever they please while continuing to  vote, maintain their health, pay taxes using digital IDs.

Curious? Here in Austin, check out the:

Weighing the Trans-Pacific Partnership on a Larger Scale

Two statistics alone — that 96 percent of the world’s consumers and 80 percent of the world’s purchasing power are outside the United States — should insure our attention is riveted on the first of President Obama’s signature trade deals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as it bobs before an un-receptive Congress in a lame-duck year.

 

charlesrivkin

Ambassador Charles Rivkin, the State Department’s assistant secretary of Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs

This week TPP evangelist Charles Rivkin was in town to talk about the state of the deal and its benefit to the small businesses and tech startups that make up 95% of Austin’s economy. Ambassador Rivkin is no empty suit. His blue-chip credentials in technology, entertainment and business include negotiating the $1B sale of the Jim Henson company. A self-effacing speaker, he cited a nickname, “Don Quixote,” for promoting causes he believes in (like President Obama).

 

Trade is a complex topic that quickly becomes emotional. But Ambassador Rivkin did something interesting:  he inched the discussion out of the “what” category (jobs) and into another, more properly labeled “how.” Framing TPP as a once-in-a blue-moon opportunity to “raise the standards of international trade” — climate change, endangered species, human rights — while also touting the benefits to specific sectors of the economy. In technology, for example, TPP is the first trade deal to address intellectual property.

Windmill alert:  Watchdog groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Citizen oppose the deal, which doesn’t go far enough for their respective publics. EFF in particular is worried the deal will hamper investigative journalism and openness while endangering privacy. Nobel Laureate and Columbia business professor Joseph Stiglitz, an advisor to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, is also against it, pointing out that financial industry, as always it seems, gets off lightly, as do pharmaceuticals and big business in general.

But other voices support Ambassador Rivkin’s argument. The New York Times’ Nathaniel Popper’s nonlinear look at trade deals cites  TPP supporter David Autor (“China Shock”):

global-trade_paul-windle

Courtesy of Paul Windle, the New York Timescites TPP supporter David Autor (“China Shock”): TPP:

 

“The gains to the people who benefited are so enormous — they were destitute,m and now they were brought into the global middle class…The fact that there are adverse consequences in the United States should be taken seriously, but it doesn’t tilt the balance.”

In other words, trade can be seen as a tool to offset economic aid, or as Popper concludes, the benefits of trade have to be evaluated on both sides of the transaction.

Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman is a bit pithier: “Politicians should be honest and realistic about trade, rather than taking cheap shots. Striking poses is easy; figuring out what we can and should do is a lot harder.”

Any way you cut it, I’m glad we have a savvy Don Quixote at work on TPP.

 

 

 

 

What Does An American Look Like?

My friend Prithvi was sworn in this week as a U.S. citizen. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation about the experience:     Swearing in

The ceremony was beautiful.One thousand one hundred sixty-six (1,166!) people from 97 countries participated. After waiting outside for about 30 minutes, we took the oath and a lovely band played the “Star-Spangled Banner.”  It was an emotional moment.

Several judges spoke about the United States being a nation of immigrants and as new citizens, our enriching that heritage. They encouraged us to tell our stories and enrich America with our culture.

A woman judge told a story about a Bangladeshi immigrant who became a citizen.  When he was shot after 9-11, he sued to stop his assailant’s execution. We were strongly encouraged to vote:  There were voter registration desks in every corner of the building.

The head of the immigration service there, whose grandfather was from Mexico, asked us what an American looks like.  Then he said, “This!” and gestured at us.  Each country was called out, and the people of that country were asked to stand. Then he said, “Mexico,” and everyone remaining stood up.  There was roar from the stadium.

Prithvi is from Mangalore, India. She is brilliant and well-rounded: a technical manager at Apple, the mother of a three year old, the wife of an equally brilliant engineer.  She also runs a non profit for Indian children. I can’t imagine anyone’s taking issue with her becoming a citizen.

I asked her how it felt to be an American.

I don’t known what that means. I have felt American for a while.  And Indian.  That will not go away.

Prithvi’s experience was a reminder of what we’re about — and it’s not those plastic American flags realtors insist on sticking in everyone’s yard, nor the mattress sales, nor the grocery store aisles clogged with overflowing baskets.

At a time when our world’s politics are compared with — heaven forbid –“Game of Thrones,”  let’s try our best to rise to the occasion, to return some of what we’ve been given — to read, listen critically, write our elected officials and vote. Let’s try our best to make things better.

 

SXSW Interactive: Can design change the way we think about healthcare delivery?

Can we use the creativity and rigors of the design process to change how we deliver health care?  After a week of SXSW Interactive, I’d say yes, it makes sense and certainly couldn’t hurt. After over a decade seeing two parents through the Kafka-esque twists and turns of the health care system, I consider the American approach to delivering medical (and elder-) care on par with Chinese water torture, only more expensive.

Pauline van Dongen's solar-paneled dress prompts us to re-examine why we wear clothing. Why not apply that same thinking to health care?

Pauline van Dongen’s solar-paneled dress prompts us to re-examine why we wear clothing. Why not apply that same thinking to health care?

Here in Austin, The University of Texas announced a radical-sounding partnership between the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas Dept. of Art called The Design Institute for Health. The newly-formed group, led by two veterans from IDEO, the design firm famous for its longstanding relationship with Apple, are part of a push to figure out how to deliver community-based health care funded based on the “value it creates.”  The medical school’s charismatic dean, Dr. Clay Johnston, is inviting hospitals, doctors, nonprofits and the community as a whole to help re-think what the farm animals in the movie “Babe called “the way things are.”  I can’t imagine many things more challenging, or exciting.

If you have any doubts about the mind-unleashing power of design, I refer you to Paola Antonelli’s SXSW keynote, “Curious Bridges: How Designers Grow the Future.”  Antonelli, the curator of architecture for the Museum of Modern Art, guides us through a series of examples of design that provokes us to re-think the “way things are.”  Examples include a belt that simulates menstruation (to, one presumes, produce empathy in the opposite sex) and wearable clothing made with 3D printers that simulates the body’s movement created by Pauline van Dongen, who wore a sweater made of flattened solar cells during her session later that day. Think about it, technology-based clothing that’s comfortable, practical and adaptable.

Design was the subtext of a fascinating but sparsely-attended talk by Eric Topol’s called “Democratizing Health Care.” Here is a doctor, researcher and (I have to assume) AMA member, who understands that people want healthcare to be simple, affordable and effective. After opening his talk by citing medication errors as the fourth cause of death in the United States, Topol showed a portfolio of on-demand tools — a wrist band to detect seizures, an app to measure arrhythmia, or using a smartphone to digitize the heart — technology moving at the pace of Moore’s Law to troubleshoot, coordinate and identify illness — without causing the patient to go broke or die.  I don’t think any of the devices Dr. Topol showed were ready for prime time, but they they — or improved versions — will be, and they will advance the revolution.

Why not?  If we can cast off stilettos and create sympathy for PMS, why not re-think health care as a human service for real people?

Can Lassie be saved? When re-branding doesn’t work

I’m still reeling about Lassie. That the scion of a loyal, courageous, elegant line of war heroes (The Courage of Lassie) has been re-positioned as the “Kate Middleton of animals” is more than I can bear.

Lassie, enduring her rebranding as a product pitch dog.  Courtesy of The New York Times.

Lassie, enduring her rebranding as a product pitch dog.  (Courtesy of The New York Times)

Granted re-branding is tricky, as are brand extensions. Should this young Lassie have been a brand extension instead of a re-brand?  Can Lassie come home?

Case in point:  I’ve been admiring a new extension of a venerable local brand as it’s come together over the last several months.  The new building is adjacent to the original, so the relationship of mother-to-child is obvious. Of course, this is not Hollywood, but we’re getting close to it here in Austin, Tex.

The original, Fonda San Miguel, is a gorgeous place filled with a world-class art collection, food and drink. A welcoming, elegant restaurant with adjacent gardens.

It's the kind of restaurant eople take pictures of each other standing in front of

It’s the kind of restaurant where you go to curry favor.

Here’s the extension. It’s unannounced, unopened but rumored to be a tapas bar.  Perfect, no?

The new tapas bar of Fonda San Miguel in Austin, Texas.

The child of the grand Fonda San Miguel, just across the garden in Austin, Texas.  A bit of hipster funk.

The brand extension works because it contrasts with the original while maintaining the flavor. It’s unexpected, but it makes sense. (I sound like I’m at a wine tasting, don’t I?  But you understand what I’m saying.)

A lesson for Dreamworks?  Don’t tamper with an icon.  Did anyone ask Marilyn Monroe to lose weight?  Well, probably, but that’s another conversation.

Is it presumptious to compare a Hollywood icon to a local institution?  Perhaps. But then again why not, if something is to be learned?

Maybe Lassie’s great-great-great offspring should have been renamed “Lasi” and positioned as a fashion blogger?