Better Place

I remember reading the initial Wired article about Better Place and thinking, this could be amazing if they can pull it off and that’s a big if.  $1 billion and a meager 1,400 cars later, it pretty much exemplifies startups gone wrong.

The caution seems especially important in a culture that increasingly celebrates startups, threatening to confuse their mythmaking with reality. Agassi made great Kool-Aid and then drank it all himself.

“Everything we needed to go right went wrong,” says one former employee. “Every cost on our spreadsheet wound up being double, every time factor took twice as long.” There was profligacy, marketing problems, hiring problems, problems with every conceivable part of the business. There was questionable oversight by the company’s board of directors. There was bad luck. And there was hubris. “There was nothing normal about Better Place,” says Pross. “It was spectacular. Shai always said, ‘If we go down, we’ll make a lot of noise.'”

Agassi’s startup lived fast and died young, and left almost nothing behind beyond the car that Pross and I are sitting in. Better Place sold fewer than 1,500 vehicles. Its swap stations, located next to gas stations and near highway on-ramps, closed last year. Their once-gleaming white walls, inspired by Apple’s design, are increasingly caked in dirt.

Better Place is a tragicomic case study of the limits of innovation, the difficulties of getting consumers to embrace new technology, and the perils of believing your own bullshit. What follows is the story of how that happened: a step-by-step guide to the most spectacularly failed technology startup of the 21st century.

An excellent writeup of venture capital plus ego equalling vaporware. 

Mr. Fusion

The National Ignition Facility has, for the first time, generated more energy than it’s put in to a fusion reaction.

The most critical part of the reaction, and one that had been a real concern for Hurricane’s team, is the shape of the fuel capsule. The capsule is made from a polymer and is about 2mm in diameter (about the size of a pinhead). On the inside it is coated with deuterium and tritium—isotopes of hydrogen—that are frozen to be in a solid state.

This capsule is placed inside a gold cylinder, where the 192 lasers are fired, hitting the capsule and causing a fusion reaction. The lasers hit the gold container, which emit X-rays, which heat the pellet and make it implode instantly, causing a fusion reaction. According to Debbie Callahan, a co-author of the study: “When the lasers are fired, the capsule is compressed 35 times. That is like compressing a basketball to the size of a pea.”

The compression produces immense pressure and temperature, leading to a fusion reaction. Problems with the process were overcome last September, when, for the first time, Hurricane was able to produce more energy output from a fusion reaction than the fuel put into it. Since then he has been able to repeat the experiment.

The article also explains the differences between inertial confinement fusion (ICF or lots of big damn lasers) and magnetic confinement fusion (MCF or lots of big damn magnets). With the amount of criticism heaped on Livermore Labs over it’s apparent failure to produce results, it’s good to see them get one for the win column.

Dare Mighty Things

You know that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs have some of the smarted people in the world amongst their ranks. So you have to have some faith in this OkGo inspired landing strategy that they’ve come up with.

I guess if we can trust a computer to parallel park our cars, landing a 1-ton, nuclear fueled, multi-billion dollar rover on another planet shouldnt be too big a deal, right. Either way, August 5th, tune in.

The Intersection of This Way and Any Way

I grew up in a town of notoriously confusing street names. I remember distinctly writing down directions like “Take Any Way, to That Way, left on Oyster Creek Drive and right on Circle Way… ”

When is the last time anyone took down directions on pen and paper? In the Hyper-geo-located post-iphone/android world amateur cartographic way-finding is becoming a lost art.

The future of the coordinate-grid-for-the-air-strike-is-the-the-same-as-your-zipcode is here, and I’m still not sure it’s a good thing.

The $6 Billion Radio

From the attempting to solve problems we didn’t know had department, comes the Army’s one-size-doesnt-fit-all, universal radio.

In 1997, the Defense Department began its quest for the perfect family of radios: software-defined radios that, like computers, could be reprogrammed for different missions and could communicate with everything the US military used. Digital signal processing could adaptively use available radio spectrum based on the needs of the moment, turning soldiers, tanks, planes, and ships into nodes of a broadband radio-based network.

Great idea, accept the hardware has trouble with  heat, takes 15 minutes to boot and doesn’t really work unless you happen to be able to break a few laws of physics.

Driving Robots

As futurist Paul Saffo says, for a company like Mercedes nowadays, “the value add is the software and the computers. The wheels are primarily there to keep the computers from dragging on the ground.”

I for one welcome our new robot-car overlords. Hell, they have to be better drivers than 90% of this town.


From Daring Fireball….

But it’s not like there isn’t a damn good source that suggests Apple’s plans for K-12 textbooks are anything short of ambitious and transforming. I’m guessing Apple’s pitch to the textbook companies is something like this: “Digital transformation of your industry is inevitable. Here’s our plan; we’d like you to come along for the ride. But if you choose not to, we won’t hesitate to leave you behind.”

One potential byproduct of an Apple foray into textbooks? The much needed diminishment of Texas’ influence in the content of curricula across the country.

Additionally, i imagine as we roll out ciruccula for say, a teen dating violence program nationwide, we’d neeed to be on the cutting edge of these tools to remain relevant, especially if we have any hope of engaging a youth audience.



You’re living in the past and nine other mind-bending chronological curiosities.

About 80 milliseconds in the past, to be precise. Use one hand to touch your nose, and the other to touch one of your feet, at exactly the same time. You will experience them as simultaneous acts. But that’s mysterious — clearly it takes more time for the signal to travel up your nerves from your feet to your brain than from your nose. The reconciliation is simple: our conscious experience takes time to assemble, and your brain waits for all the relevant input before it experiences the “now.” Experiments have shown that the lag between things happening and us experiencing them is about 80 milliseconds.

Delicious Explosions

Q:  If a taco and a burrito are traveling near the speed of light and collide, will the result be delicious? 

A: The result would be an explosion large enough to destroy a small village.  high speed collisions do that, whether or not they are made of Mexican food.

Neil deGrasee Tyson AMAs on redditt

A Small Project

“Did Everyone in the 80’s have a  helicopter?” I say after the second run-through of the Air Wolf intro on Brian’s iPad. “You might be right,” he responds, “A-Team, Magnum PI – might just be how everyone got around back then…”

This conversation began as a debate one whether Pinero had been beat boxing/humming (or whatever the hell it is that he does) to the Airwolf Theme, or the some mangled mashup of Magnum and Sanford and Son. (It was Airwolf, spot on).

This entire scene can be supplementally overlaid on our tiny call center, where in 36 hours we’ll be launching a 24-hour service line for young adults in abusive dating relationships. This timeline has been somewhat accelerated, so we are of course scrambling. The focus of our efforts is on mine and Brian’s pet project of adding a SMS/text component to the hotline, a channel we hope will not only be more comfortable for clients in crisis, but also cross some digital divide issues, giving lower-soci0-economic demographics, who may not have access to a computer (but may have pay-as-you-go phones with texting) a way to connect. It would allow them to ask basic questions about the health of their relationships without the scary crisis levels of calling the hotline (thus also saving us valuable resources by allowing us to triage incoming calls). It would be the first-of-its kind human services texting helpline in the country and would be announced on national television the next day.

And as of the Airwolf conversation, it did not work. The timeline had left us flat-footed. Our IT support was on vacation, and Brian and I were left staring at stalled status bars for the install of our new miracle chat, as it fought for space on our inadequate internet connection. This wouldn’t be a crisis in itself, except the helplines computers are old (like first-term-W old), and the chat client was disappearing from the system every time the machine was shut down (which needs to happen, else they start melting). This forced the advocates to reinstall every single time, doing god knows what to the systems, and slowing down the internet to a damn near inoperable degree.

“So what if we just leave them on and logged in till we can figure this out?” Brian suggests.

“I really think that might melt them. Or at the very least cause some serious issues…”

“What if we buy a fan, crank the AC and if they crap out, maybe we get a new computer or two?”

I shrug. “Tell your folks to bring blankets and jackets”

As much as this sounds like Doc Brown holding the cables to together while the Delorian blasts down main street as lightning simultaneously strikes the clock tower and sends Marty back to 1985, it was the best solution we had. On to the next crisis.

As a side note, the fact that Brian and I are heading up this project is two steps shy of mildly psychotic. Neither of us have degrees in IT-related fields, and in college Franzia on the couch before class in the morning, happened more than once. Yet here we were heading up project that actually meant a damn and could make a difference in peoples lives.

I’ve made a point to never write about work on this site (which explains the decrease in posting of late, as so much of my life is about work), but we’re making an exception here. One this was important and had the potential to change the direction of how these types of services are offered. Two: not everything went exactly to plan (in fact nothing went to plan) but we pulled it off – Brian, and my absurdly small communications team hit the mark and in doing so crossed some invisible threshold into being more than just a job, but something we could be proud of.

At that moment back on my side of the building, the official panic level on the whiteboard was climbing from “take cover” to a midpoint between “…Imperial troops have entered the base…” and “Fast Zombies”

In addition to taking on a new service provision we war also launching a new website with our partner project in California. As with these things, I’d assumed the website would be the impossible task and the chat the easy one. It turned out to be quite the opposite in fact, with the website kicking along quite smoothly and the cant being an epic clusterfuck.  Still, any website is an effort similar to counting grains of sand on a beach – reading back through content, checking links, tweaking styles, uploading file after file after file…how many times our stylesheets have made the virtual trip from our desktops to the data center in Kansas in the past 48 hours – the distance numbers would get us to the moon at least.

The really stunning thing is, in hindsight it all works out somehow. It’s not perfect, but we did something new, something a bit epic on a ridiculous time frame that no one thought possible. Our announcement had a few hitches, but at the end of the day we have something unique. Something we can be proud of.