Sunday, June 22, 2008

When "where" = money, money, money

It's not just for gadget-lovers anymore -- GPS technology has invaded common tools such as cell phones. Millions of us are walking around leaving traces of data on where we're going and where we've been. And where there's scale, there's entrepreneurs scurrying after profits.

A Columbia professor and businessman have created Macrosense, a massive statistical-analysis engine for geo-data, the New York Times reported today.

Knowing where and when consumers move could be crucial for businesses seeking to expand or improve services, according to Tony Jebara and Gregory Skibiski, founders of Sense Networks. They have already tested their enormous engine with major finance and consumer firms, reporter Michael Fitzgerald writes.

Unfortunately, founders wouldn't tell Fitzgerald how they got all the geo-data. (Cue creepy music...)

But they have released a Joe-Shmo version for local Blackberry owners -- sorry, Jitterbug devotees -- called Citysense. The service will tell users where traffic is worst in San Francisco and where everyone else is going out, according to its Web site.

In other words, if you were holding out hope that the corner of Broadway and Columbus was traffic free, now you can be told definitively, every time, that it's awful. Joking aside, the service could be neat -- I haven't tried it yet. But I do know that the attempt to cash in on the cache of geo-data out there is going strong in Palo Alto, too.

Local entrepreneur Shailendra Jain's geo-tracking Web site Abaqus went live earlier this month. Abaqus enables anyone to track him or herself using geo-enabled devices, either with embedded software or software downloadable from the site.

Users then upload their tracks to the site, adding photos and notes to the maps if they wish –Look! I’m at the drug store! Look - now I’m on vacation in LA! –- to create geo-diaries.
I borrowed a GPS recorder from Jain and tracked myself hiking around Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park.
(You can see my “track” if you visit Abaqus; I made it public. It’s called, creatively, Hetch Hetchy.)

Diaries are the tip of the iceberg, Jain said. Like the Sense Networks founders, Jain sees dollar signs in geo-data. In the future, it could help business services such as online shopping sites, he said.

For now, he’s working on synching the site with other online services such as Flickr. And there are also personal uses such as tracking fitness or gas mileage.

Nowhere else can users simply store the data and fiddle with it later, he added.
"There's no [other] service that says 'Independent of what you want to use it for, just record it here,'" he explained earlier this month.

He was sitting in his downtown Palo Alto home office in front of an enormous world map, continents and oceans unfolding behind him. Alongside him were two computer screens covered in maps. This is a man who’s done a lot of thinking about location, I thought.

While some software costs about $10 to download now, depending on the device you want to upload to Abaqus with, Jain’s plan is to offer it all for free by the end of the year. He’ll make money through the partnerships with other Web services, he said. Read more about Abaqus in the Weekly article I wrote.
Or drop everything and go straight to the site to get the software yourself. You don’t want to be the last one without some sort of geo-tracking program running on your phone, do you? I thought not.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

My Cup of Tea

This gorgeous waterfall is my cup of tea.

Also yours, and the cups of 2.4 million other Bay Area residents.

The fall flows into the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, an enormous pool of water in Yosemite National Park. Water from the reservoir travels 160 miles via gravity – ancient Roman aqueducts, anyone? – to the Bay Area to water our plants and wash our hair.

I visited Hetch Hetchy last weekend and was awed.

The reservoir was created by damming the Tuolomne River following a congressional act of 1913 allowing Yosemite lands to be developed for water supply. The construction of O’Shaughnessy Dam flooded the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a land that -- according to early-20th-century naturalist John Muir -- once rivaled Yosemite Valley in grandeur, with majestic granite cliffs presiding over idyllic

There are still people calling upon the government to “Restore Hetch Hetchy” to its earlier beauty. It’s high time to remove the dam, they say. They claim something has been lost.

They may be right.

But Hetch Hetchy is still incredibly gorgeous now, with its hulking rock formations rising above a deeply blue lake that stretches into distant crevices. It is eight miles long and can hold up to 117 billion gallons of water, according to a brochure created by San Francisco and the park service.

Waterfalls tumble down hillsides and pines overlook the artificial sea. It is awesome – both awe-inspiring, and totally radical, dude.

Hiking to Wapama Falls, pictured above, puts a new perspective on where water comes from. I got home and turned on the tap and tried to square the tinny-tasting stuff coming out – a product of my old, old pipes – with the icy shower that rained down from Wapama. No such luck. But I did get Palo Alto's 2007 Water Quality Report in the mail the day before, which informed me that 87 percent of the city's water comes from Hetch Hetchy. Nestled in the pristine high Sierras, that water is so clean it needn't even be filtered, according to the booklet.

Despite the serene surroundings of our drinking water, all is not well in Paradise. The pipelines that bring Hetch Hetchy’s sparkling sea to our faucets cross three fault lines. Officials worry an earthquake could have disastrous consequences.

To read more about possible water doom and efforts to head it off, check out Sue Dremann’s excellent piece for the Palo Alto Weekly from November. (It just won first place for “analysis” in the 2007 Peninsula Press Club awards, held this June.)

Or visit Hetch Hetchy. It’ll get you thinking about water, guaranteed.

A numbers note: Just how many Bay Area residents drink Hetch Hetchy water is a bit unclear to me. The figure 2.4 million is commonly cited, including in a brochure produced by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, city and county of San Francisco and the National Park Service called “Hetch Hetchy and Tuolomne River Watershed.” Yet the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency states 1.7 million.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Monday, June 16, 2008

Brand Stanford

Stanford University debuted its own YouTube channel today. I like it a lot.

Watching a video of Oprah Winfrey’s commencement speech from Sunday, then a talk on sticking with good-but-failing-to-generate-ROI ideas by Google’s Marissa Mayer, I was struck by three things.

The first was a shockingly precise memory of watching Sesame Street as a kid. At the start of each video, a few soothing guitar chords sound and a woman warmly intones, “This program is brought to you by Stanford university. Please visit us at Stanford-dot-e-d-u.” It’s a ringer for the PBS funding mantra that ends with “viewers like you” that capped every Sesame Street episode I ever watched. How nice, I thought. I will visit Stanford-dot-e-d-u.

The second was an appreciation for the diversity of content – although that depends on your definition of diversity, I’ll concede. Various shades of famous, inspirational or otherwise brilliant speakers might not strike some as diverse. (Where’s the footage of freshmen taking Jell-o shots or wily pranksters floating sofas in Lake Lag?)

And the third was the unmistakable branding going on. STANFORD right at the start of the video. And STANFORD again at the end, in case you missed it.

It makes sense. Stanford generates an immense amount of content – more than a million Web pages, according to Scott Stocker, director of web communications. Fewer videos of course, but I bet still quite a bit of action what with all the bold-font-worthy folks coming to speak. Why not try to grab the bull by the horns and brand it? After all, Stanford went to the trouble of inviting those noteworthy people to speak. And they pay those clever minds to work there. They deserve the recognition.

Stoker acknowledged the branding aspect. People often forward videos of Stanford events to their friends, he said, and explained, “We don't want that connection to get lost that this content is coming from Stanford, that this talk that they're listening to is coming from Stanford University.”

Since its 2005 debut on iTunes, the school has used the short, five-second branding intro, he said.

But the most important aim is to further the school’s educational mission by spreading Stanford content, he said. How nice for all the rest of us. (No sarcasm there, honest.)

While we’re on the topic, the entrepreneurship resource page run by the Stanford Technology Ventures Program has a wealth of video clips, many fascinating and all better than watching the Celtics lose to the Lakers.

The next big Stanford web project is a redesigned home page and a redesigned admissions page. It’ll be unveiled sometime this summer, according to Stocker.

Then we'll see the main page that silky-voiced, PBS-reminiscent woman is recommending we visit. Some small part of me is hoping Stanford's Web designers decide to greet the world and lure prospective students with something like: "Stanford University is made possible by Web browsers like you."

We'll just have to wait and see.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Face-bloc blacklash & Valley joie de vivre

Maybe the backlash against Facebook will calm down now. Rumors are the cushy $600-a-month subsidy for employees who live within a mile of downtown offices has been cancelled.
So perhaps the blame heaped on the heaps of young Facebookers in downtown Palo Alto will let up.

The social-networking company’s presence has become ubiquitous in the last couple years. Up from its single office in 2004, the firm now rents five spaces and employs 600 people as of this spring -- and counting. Its logo-emblazoned track jackets, hooded sweaters, messenger bags and other collegiate apparel are sported by young people at every crosswalk.

All those people are pushing rents higher and crowding locals out of cafes, a summer 2007 Valleywag post groused. And as the company’s expansion continued unabated, so did the rumor mill, blaming Facebookers for exacerbating the already astronomical rent inflation of downtown.
I decided to write an article for the Palo Alto Weekly examining the Facebook influence on downtown. I found out commercial rents have indeed risen 20 to 25 percent in the last year, according to a local realtor. A residential realtor said subsidies such as Facebook’s are commonplace among tech firms, implying it’s not just the upstart firm inflating prices.
All those clothing logos actually help one employee spot her co-workers, who she otherwise wouldn’t recognize, the company is growing so fast. Read the whole article for more.
But if Facebook’s subsidy-cancellation causes employees to flee downtown, will University Avenue’s bustling vibe take a nosedive?

Currently, the company builds on an already-resurgent feel in downtown.
When I arrived at Stanford in 2002, directly after the tech blow-up, University Avenue seemed so cruelly named. Palo Alto was no college town. Sure, there were plenty of collared shirts eating lunch on the main drag and shoppers in the drugstores in the afternoon. But that was replaced by a weak trickle of pedestrians by the evening. We eyeballed each other curiously, like animals come to drink at a little-visited stream.

Of course, the whole area felt a bit deflated. Then, you could spot empty office parks from the freeway and see through their windows clear to the sky on the other side. It was a bit ghastly, and not just a little reminiscent of abandoned Gold-Rush era towns elsewhere in the West.

Fast forward six years.
It’s a scene from the film, “How Palo Alto got her groove back.” Despite some warning that the subprime crisis will – and has – already affected the area, there’s a genuine bounce-back feel. The restaurants are packed in downtown and several bars now charge cover, a formerly rare practice.

So will Facebook’s end-of-an-era crackdown on employee benefits put a damper on the hoo-rah feel? I don’t think so. Employees will likely continue to fill the street on work days and perhaps go out for drinks after work. (If they’re not busy playing beer pong in the office, that is.)
Since the firm provides free meals a-la Google, the eateries of Palo Alto will probably be minimally affected. Residentially, if some employees move away in search of cheaper pastures, other equally or more affluent renters will pop up to claim those checkbook-squeezing apartments. They will have an equal need for deodorant and coffee from downtown stores.

The bigger question is whether downtown will feel any different when the entire company moves. Rep Brandee Barker said Facebook rents rather than owns office space. And it has intentions to grow, grow, grow, according to reports on founder Mark Zuckerberg. If the company ever wants a campus, it’ll have to decamp to an office park elsewhere. Maybe it’ll make its new home in one of the last of the vacant complexes, still sitting empty out by the freeway…

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

But who will help the geeks?

Entrepreneurs, take note: your chances at success just hitched up a notch. Versatile businessman Saeed Amidi has opened another Plug and Play Tech Center for promising start-up companies in Palo Alto.

Plug and Play centers are an alternative to traditional start-up incubators in venture capital firms, according to Amidi, the Plug and Play CEO. Instead of tying their fortunes to any one funder, young companies are housed in a sort of entrepreneurial ecosystem until they are ready to spread their wings -- and let the money come rolling in. Amidi is quick to point out that Google sparked a bidding war while housed at one of his properties years ago.
The centers' model is to cluster start-ups in a sort of beehive of brilliance. As they draw on each others' energy and creativity, they are also given access to a formidable line-up of connections.
There are regularly scheduled visits from angel investors and venture capital firms such as Draper Fisher Jurvetson. There are monthly Web 2.0 events.
There are even semiannual expos, whereby a feeding frenzy of media and funders descend to hear an exhausting roster of business pitches. And Amidi’s own fund, Amidzad, may choose to kick in some dough for the best ideas.
Lucky entrepreneurs, indeed.
Amidi’s latest Plug and Play Center is on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto. It opened in early May. With space for about 15 companies to work side by side, it may not reach the fevered pitch of the Sunnyvale site, which has 129 start-ups, he said. But it’s got the nearby businesses of downtown, including Accel and Norwest Venture Partners, he said.
To read more about the Plug and Play concept and hear Tim Draper's thoughts on it, check out the article I wrote for today’s Palo Alto Weekly.
Meanwhile, reporting on Plug and Play got me wondering – what about the geeks?
To rent space in a Plug and Play center, start-ups must demonstrate their potential, according to to Shobeir Shobeiri, a Plug and Play business manager. Applicants are screened not only for the strength of their ideas but also for the quality of their team, he said. That could mean an upper hand for communicative folks skilled at the sort of networking Plug and Play arranges. It could mean an advantage for the Stanford computer-science-majors-turned-start-up-founders I’m working with for an article series now (more on that later). Far from the stereotype of shy computer nerd, they seem immensely aware of how to meet-and-greet and pitch ideas. Their handshakes are firmer than most adults'.

So are the introvert genius-geeks just left in the dust? In the era of the elevator pitch, what about the nerds mumbling at their shoes? Think of the cliché of nerdy, adolescent Bill Gates. Or any stereotype about engineers or programmers, for that matter. Are the terminally shy worker bees still starting companies, and if so, how much does charisma matter?

A lot, apparently. Just visit Stanford’s School of Engineering, home to many of its entrepreneur-grooming programs, and you’ll see fliers for overcoming fear of public speaking plastered in the halls. Social know-how is not quite the reigning jewel of innovation -- yet.
Or maybe it is. Maybe those fliers are targetted at the small, stuttering minority. Perhaps the brilliant introvert truly has gotten a bit more savvy about wooing venture capital, now that such practices are Valley mainstays.
The rise of the Cool Geek to replace the Awkward Nerd was recently chronicled in a New York Times Op-Ed piece by David Brooks. And in fact, he credited some of Silicon Valley’s biggest legends with the transition:

“The future historians of the nerd ascendancy will likely note that the great empowerment phase began in the 1980s with the rise of Microsoft and the digital economy. Nerds began making large amounts of money and acquired economic credibility, the seedbed of social prestige. The information revolution produced a parade of highly confident nerd moguls — Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Larry Page and Sergey Brin and so on.”

The jury is out, however, on whether this transformation has happened to nerds or just alongside them. Does society like nerds more, or are they genuinely more likeable? If only someone could build a Facebook application capable of riddling me that.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Local writing. Really local writing.

Hi. I’m Arden Pennell, a journalist based in Palo Alto, California.
Welcome to my new blog, ArdentNews. Obvious pun aside, the name connotes passion. Silicon Valley is packed with passionate people. In this blog, I’ll write for and about those people – and anyone else with an interest in the Valley.

ArdentNews’ focus will be on questions I hear people ask and trends we residents observe. For example, in one post I'll ask what effect Facebook really has on downtown Palo Alto, hype aside. Other posts will address Stanford’s amazing start-up-company machine, female power brokers in the Valley (or lack thereof), and how to go on a cheap –but classy! – date in our pricey hometown.

I promise readers to avoid gimmick-based posts and snide commentary. Such writing usually isn’t informative, despite tantalizing headlines and a know-it-all tone.

I work as a reporter for the Palo Alto Weekly, so many posts will refer to articles I’ve written. There’s a difference between a blog post and a newspaper article. The former allows – heck, welcomes – opinion and having fun with the writing. The latter put the highest premium on facts. The reporter’s personality is frankly less important, or not important at all. (Or that’s how it goes at the Weekly, anyway. As most literate folks know, some papers have a more, er, flexible sense of journalistic ethics.)

ArdentNews will draw on both sorts of writing, personal and professional, to look at life in the Valley and Palo Alto in particular.
Questions are welcome. In fact, they’re requested. I’d like to hear what people want to know and then try to find out the answer.
If something interesting or crazy in that only-in-Silicon-Valley kind-of way is going on –I haven’t heard the phrase “Web 4.0 ” yet, but hey, it could happen – tell me about it.

Feel free to comment, correct, disagree, digg it, and so on. That’s all good stuff. The more dialog on ArdentNews, the better.
Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy. Below, some info about me.

About me:
I have a knack for original paragraph headings, as you see above.
I grew up in New York City and went to Stanford University for a taste of something new.

I later lived in Berlin and wrote the blog New Yorker in Berlin about the city’s post-Cold War culture. It’s hard not to become fascinated by a city where former Communist secret police are awarded higher pensions than their victims. Or where the main advocate for a Holocaust memorial stole a corpse’s tooth from a concentration camp to bury inside the memorial.

Now I live and work in Palo Alto. Silicon Valley is a magnet for creative, passionate – there’s that word again – people who ardently believe they are capable of transforming society. It’s fascinating to be surrounded by such people, even if their predictions are sometimes off (“tech bubble,” anyone?). Besides New York, the Valley is the only place where I won’t grouse too loudly about rents or $4 coffee. It’s worth it to be here.

Labels: , , , , , ,