Archive for October, 2010

The future of agriculture in Hawaii – this Thursday

October 26th, 2010
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ThinkTech Hawaii

The response to our ThinkTech agriculture program has gone off the chart. We drew back from the half day program we had contemplated and set it up on a more modest scale – a routine luncheon panel in a collaboration with the Hawaii Venture Capital Association starting 11:30 am this Thursday at the Plaza Club.

We're calling it “Can there be a Renaissance in Agriculture for Hawaii?” The idea was not to assume that there actually was or would be a renaissance happening but to raise the question and see whether people felt it should, could or would happen. No guarantees there.

The panelists we selected were Darren Demaya of the Kai Market Restaurant at the Sheraton Waikiki, Claire Robinson of Whole Foods, Andres Albano of CB Richard Ellis, who sells farmland, Richard Ha, a sustainability farmer on the Big Island, and Kyle Datta, of Ulupono Initiative, who’s trying to build a business network of new agriculture for Pierre Omidyar.

It’s actually a fabulous panel, well able to cover and exceed the essential points of the inquiry, public interest in local foods, competitive prices, reliability and the supply chain, the challenges of starting a farm and being a farmer, and how to be an investor and make money in the new agriculture.

That’s actually a pretty ambitious panel program for a given routine Thursday afternoon.

Our regular crowd of Hawaii Venture Capital and ThinkTech supporters could see it right away, and they signed up in droves. But the word got out beyond them, and lots of other people started to sign up also. I guess people think that agriculture has become more important to Hawaii, possibly because of sustainability, tech, jobs and the economy, and the linkages with aquaculture and biofuel, all relevant and powerful reasons. This is much more than nostalgia.

Whatever their reasons, they’re calling and writing and coming down in bunches. A number of legislators are interested and some candidates and other VIPs. Way beyond the normal crowd. What does this mean? I think it’s a credit to the Hawaii Venture Capital Association, which over the years has emerged in my view as the leading tech and capital trade organization. For its part, ThinkTech is delighted to be involved in the planning and organization of programs of this nature.

Public participation is of course voluntary, driven by a “need to know” in the business, academic and government communities. They want to know what’s going on. They know that we need to master these issues before jumping into the decision process that will hopefully take us to the next step.

They know how easy it is for us to make a monumental mistake. They know how dangerous it is to let government take the field on these things and without taking input from knowledgeable common sense constituencies.

What I’m saying is that people in these communities want to rub shoulders with colleagues and friends and grapple with the costs and benefits of our future. They know the best way to do that is to network up a storm at straight talk programs, and to bring out good speakers and test fresh ideas with them.

The bottom line is whether the crowd that shows up will be driven to action. Regrettably, that would be the exception not the rule. Lots of these programs are for the sake of interest or curiosity, and it stops well short of action. But others actually move people to do things, and that's far perferable.

In a best case analysis, what could the agriculture program do so move people to do things? Well, given that we’re going to hear from a really good restaurant and a high quality food store all touting local food, I expect more people will be eating local food. Longer lines at Kai Market and Whole Foods, but what about the families that can't afford to pay more than conventional prices?

The more pressing question is whether this program will motivate people, especially young people who have had training in both science and business, to get into farming as a career, and whether it will motivate legislators and managers to create incentives that will make it easier for them to do that.

Another issue that pops out at you is the land issue, an issue that touches everything we do, since as everyone knows, land is simply too expensive here and in the long run we cannot have a sustainable economy without coming to grips with this frightening disparity. At the base of it, you can’t farm without land, and land in Hawaii is scarce and embedded in a system that makes it too expensive.

What to do, what to do? One thing that might be considered is the idea of turning over state land to agriculture. That hasn’t happened. There was an article in the paper today reporting that the Obama administration will be turning over public land for energy projects. Can’t we learn from that? Is there any reason the State of Hawaii cannot likewise turn over land for good public purposes?

I’ve written about this before. The state has huge amounts of fallow and unproductive land. Why oh why can’t it make that land available for new businesses, especially farming businesses. There’s no good reason. The people on the beach could be middle class farmers today if we could only allow them some land. Would we rather let the state land sit stagnant and unproductive? Would we rather let them live their lives out on the beach?

Hopefully, this program will raise the larger issue of who’s going to take action to bell the cat for a better future, individuals, government or business. Yes, agriculture will ultimately be profitable because food shipped in will ultimately be too expensive. But who will own the farms and make the money when that happens? Will we be taking about charity and the common good, or will we have new monopolies.

The smart guys look ahead. The rest of us should too. Come to our program on Thursday this week October 28th, and see into the future of agriculture in Hawaii and thus also our own future. If we don’t do that, who will? Sign up on hvca.org or thinktechhawaii.com.

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Crazy for Crazy for You

October 19th, 2010
By



ThinkTech Hawaii

When I was a kid growing up in New York I went to see a lot of Broadway and although I really like Gershwin and Cole Porter, I didn't particularly like musicals. There were lots of musicals in the '50s but I evolved away from them and looked for more edgy things in my Broadway exploits in those days. It was a mistake.

Once in a while, I did see a musical, and some were memorable. But the truth is I can’t remember any as memorable as “Crazy for You” at the Diamond Head Theatre last Saturday. It was a life experience. I’m not going to go through the playbill, but this was flawless, and left me breathless and transported.

The leads were out of this world. The two of them had a visible, tangible magic together. No surprise that they brought in the leading man. But it was a surprise to find that the leading lady is a student at UH. Somehow they had chemistry akin to the characters they played. They WERE those characters.

These players brought you into their world. It was a phenomenon that drew you in, made you wanted to be with them and live the story with them. It took you back to life in the times my parents always spoke about, for me only one generation removed.

The show is great Americana. From the icons of Harvard and Manhattan and Broadway, and the machinations of a burlesque impresario, in a trip west to the redemption of a theatre about to be foreclosed in Dead Rock, a desert town in Nevada, an hour’s walk from the nearest train station.

It’s a story of America coming together happily in art and in liberation even in the early days of what would be the Great Depression. With humor and good nature at every turn, with sassy and delightful romance touching your heart every step of the way, brightening your Saturday, making for a wonderful theatre experience.

The sets were out of this world too. They were all movable and for scene changes the players pushed whole buildings across the stage. They seemed to dance even while they did that, which was perfect. Everyone was having fun.

Gershwin is always great, but never better, especially with a small group of musicians. As you get older, I suppose you appreciate these things more, in the richness of the context. So many great songs, living in a timeless and touching story, and so many messages and memories living in Gershwin.

Everyone could tap dance, effortlessly. Where did they learn that – I thought it was extinct. They tap danced with abandon atop a chauffeured car, a prop so strong you could do that. They climbed on the roofs of the moveable buildings and sang from chairs stacked six high. It was eye candy all the way through.

My favorite scene was where the lead, who was impersonating Bela Zangler, meets the real Zangler, and they do this slapstick shtick together. Yes, it was perfect ‘30s humor, but still really funny 80 years later. I wondered whether they got it from the original or the revival or perhaps they made it up here.

These stage moves were difficult, demanding and bristling with creativity. They were clever, funny and brilliantly executed. Scene after scene, act after act, I couldn’t find anything I didn’t love about this performance, so in case you’re wondering about theater in Honolulu, it’s alive and well and a gift to us all.

Maybe this was one special performance where things just all fell perfectly into place. Maybe they’ve done it this way for as long as the show’s been running. I wish I could compare notes and find out. Suffice it to say, however, that at our performance they got a standing ovation that lasted a very, very long time.

Movies are nice, and my wife and I watch a ton of them. This was proof again that nothing beats live theatre and the roar of the greasepaint and small of the crowd. You really need to the sensory experience of live theatre first hand, flesh and blood players playing well, playing just for you, only a few feet away.

Score one for the arts in Hawaii. This play was extraordinary in talent and in direction and every other thing. Proof we can contend with the best of them, anywhere. We have talent, style, detail and excellence, offered at reasonable box office prices. What more can you ask? We’re all lucky to live Hawaii.

This was worth traveling hours to see. This time, I doubt they could do it better in Las Vegas or even Broadway. By the time you read this, the engagement will be over and the show will be closed. But the next time you hear about a musical at Diamond Head, don't pass it by. There’s a fair chance it’ll be just as good.

When I was a kid, I usually fell asleep at musicals. Not this one.

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Automated cars are not far off

October 12th, 2010
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ThinkTech Hawaii

If you hadn’t noticed it, Google has been working on an automated car. This should come as no surprise in view of all the action in recent years on drones and autonomous underwater vehicles. It’s really amazing. It’s just like Google to do this. If you have the imagination and the resources, why not? But I am impressed. When you think about it, it’s a great idea, and an idea whose time has come.

Look what happened while we weren’t watching. The technology has built up and around this idea to make it completely timely.

We have the RFIDs. After all, they’re all over Hong Kong and Singapore, monitoring every bridge and tollway and in the subways. And we have the GPS. Loran folded a generation ago, and for a few bucks you can tell where you are anywhere in the world to a tolerance of inches. Wow.

New York cabs have GPS that reports to their owners exactly where they are at all times. The cabbies don’t like this much – they like their “privacy,” but in fact the technology is mature enough to know the exact location of every cab on the road, and by extension every vehicle of every kind on the road. Get the idea?

And if that isn’t enough, we have the sensors that let you talk with the roadways. They tell you where you are, and you tell them that you’re there. This sounds useful when you’re talking about automatic cars.

Add to that the possibility of putting RFIDs and sensors in other cars in the next lane for example, so your car will always know what other cars are around you, and where they are relative to your car. Does that sound safe, or what?

Oh, and yes we have the computers. Not only the kind you can send your letters on, but the kind that can navigate and drive a drone and an autonomous underwater vehicle, and the radios and communications systems that can do that half a world away.

With these technologies, think of the possibilities, and say, jeez, why didn’t we think of this before? Indeed, it’s time has come.

If you can control a drone or a bomb to an acceptable accuracy, certainly you can control a car. People are not nearly as accurate or reliable. After all, at the end of the day we’re no better than flesh and blood. We’re mammals, and we drink beer and have emotions that sometimes favor passion over reason.

An automated car is a far better bet. It never drives under the influence of anything. It is not confused by cellphones or radio programs or emotional experiences of any kind. It can have multiple failsafe systems and know exactly where it is, and who’s around it, and how close, every moment.

It never gets lost. It never speeds or tailgates or goes through red lights or stop signs. It always signals and holds its lane. It can park and stop on a dime. It never makes jerky moves, and is very respectful of pedestrians. Do you know anyone that reliable?

All you need to do it tell is where to go, and then it navigates to that place using best practices and following all the rules. In the meantime, you can get on the phone or play an electronic game or watch TV or eat your lunch, and you don’t need to be concerned. When you get there, it tells you, like the subway.

None of this is hard, and we’ve done all of it, and well, already in other contexts.

The notion that driving is a “privilege not a right” becomes passe. Anyone can operate an automated car. Just talk to it. You wouldn’t need any skill to drive – what does it take to punch in a destination? In fact licenses could become unnecessary.

I suppose you’d want to be sure the kids can’t punch in a destination and run away from home, so we’d have to have special locks and password or fingerprint access to restrict them from doing so.

And all those Garmin functions we like so much could be built in. Need gas or more likely an electric charge? Tell the car and it’ll just take you there. Need a meal or a room or a hospital? Just tell the car, no problem.

These cars could be made more efficient than the most efficient computer you’ve ever seen. They would pick the best route and pick a speed that would be within the limit and most energy efficient. New maps could be downloaded automatically by wireless every day.

Of course, if anything goes wrong the car would phone home automatically too, just as the high priced cars do right now.

Drunk drivers would become irrelevant, and this might even ultimately put MADD out of business. The big benefit is that you wouldn’t need to actually drive anymore. You only need to identify the destination. You lose in the thrill but you certainly gain in so many other ways, especially in convenience and in the stress department.

All the best driver moves and practices can be programmed, and it would be as if you had the best chauffeur in the world. Imagine all of us with automated chauffeurs. You wouldn’t have to concentrate on the road at all – you could have a civilized conversation with your passengers, assuming the word passenger is still in vogue.

The people who love driving and love their cars would oppose this as if it were a violation of the right to bear arms. It’s not clear how the police would react – on the one hand they might love it because it would reduce infractions, but they might also hate it because it takes away the power and control they have on the road.

It would likewise deprive the cities of much needed revenue for those infractions.

The government would see it as a political threat – it would cost big bucks to put the infrastructure in and if anything goes wrong the political leadership would be blamed. It won’t be easy or quick to get government on board. And indeed, at first things might very well go wrong. But once the technology settles down, surely things would be far more right, and insurance companies would have less risk and little to charge for.

The auto industry would be schizophrenic about it, I expect, just as the auto industry is quite schizophrenic about electric cars. The industry would resist any disruptive departure from the classic driver-driven car. Of this, you can be sure, even though there are untold billions to be made. The new generation of cars would be completely different, and at first expensive and even unpopular.

In the end, like most disruptive technology, people would beat a path to its door.

After all, you don’t need to make driver’s seats anymore - you could make the car a Star Trek control room conversation pit instead, where everyone sits in a circular configuration in soft chairs around a coffee table, for example, and takes a ride without anyone driving. It’s fun to be alive in a century when this can come true.

Of course, there would be transitional issues, like what happens when half the cars on the road are automated and the other half are not. We would want to get to 100% automated soon to avoid that problem, and related confusions and risk.

Machines are tools, invented to serve us. With new 21st century technology, they are more powerful tools that can do things we never imagined and far better than we could ever do them.

The Google idea is not just pie in the sky. We’re already precious close to a realization, so yes we could design and build these devices fairly quickly and yes we could deploy them in our cities and on our highways pretty quickly.

And we could save an enormous amount of money doing that. My guess is there are definitely automated cars in our future.

Yes, I know we love our conventional cars, especially in Hawaii, and there will be those alive today who would never in this lifetime actually adopt this new technology. For me, my reaction in seeing the Google article was twofold. My first thought was why didn’t I think of this, silly me.

My second thought was good for Google, but there’s no chance the cars will be mass manufactured in the U.S. China will be building them too, along with automated buses, trucks and electric bicycles too. Of that, you can be sure.

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The roadways at our feet - new and provocative sources of energy

October 5th, 2010
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ThinkTech Hawaii

A fellow I know suggested I take a look at a movie about Solar Roadway Panels on the web. Would they work in Hawaii? He gave me this link: http://www.consciousmedianetwork.com/video/2010/061810.htm. I looked at it. It's about solar roadway panels, and it is VERY interesting.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about the possibility of generating power from street traffic for a while. My own theorizing, however, has been more on the sidewalks than the roads (perhaps it’s my way of keeping my head out of the gutter) and using the pressure of the traffic, rather than solar from the panels, to generate the power.

The movie claims solar roadway panels would work at as low as a 15% efficiency. Even assuming that, haven’t they noticed just how dirty roads get, even in clean air Hawaii, and how the dirt builds up hard on them. The oil and schmutz from cars, trucks and buses only accelerates the process. It wouldn’t take much to bring that efficiency down to zero. That dirt will coat and bond to any glass surface quickly and stay there until you clean it off or have a flood. How do you make a flood?

Plenty of jobs for a limp economy, but all that labor won’t come cheap. So What’s my Line for Bennett Cerf – "what do I do - I’m a solar cleaner," something like a chimney sweep from Dickens. Nobody I know will do Dickens. It’ll have to be automated. In the tech world yet to come, the real money may be in building automated solar road panel cleaners, something like the Zamboni at the ice rink. Is the world ready for this? A risky business, I’d say, not likely to get much traction in Hawaii.

But I do think a pressure panel device might work here. All it needs is traffic and Lord knows we have plenty of that. But who would pay for it? Infrastructure-wise, I think we’ll be underwater for decades and lifetimes. Maybe it’s a matter of changing the notion of public dedication of streets so people can make a more direct investment. With solar panels, we’ll all take a greater interest in keeping the roadways clean. But you wouldn’t want anyone to park in front of your house to block the sun. Trees that shadow the roadway are definitely out.

Pressure panels would have to odd result of turning traffic from a liability into an asset. Those silly guys with the SUVs would actually be doing us a favor. You’d want to have not less but more traffic in front of your house. You could scrap rail (saving $10 billion for the panels) and any thought of limiting auto registrations. The more traffic, the more power. A sign at the entry to the neighborhood – "traffic, especially heavy truck traffic, welcomed here."

Suppose I was personally willing to spend the money to install these panels in front of my own house. That would work, but not without a change in the notion of dedication. Otherwise, it’s definitely trespass and maybe criminal too. Would the city let me tear up the street, and keep the energy I generate? How about the whole block? "No, no and no", as Panos likes to say. Would the neighborhood chip in to install them? Who would maintain/clean them? Would there need to be a covenant running with the land to bind my successors? Complications abound.

More likely, a private developer could make it happen. He could install these panels in the parking lot of say a shopping center and the solar and/or vehicular activity in the parking lot could provide power for the center. He could buy his own Zamboni to clean the place. Beyond that, he could install pressure panels inside so the foot traffic in the center could also provide power. Will people love to shop with the lights under their feet? Oh, yes. Ads you can walk on – a brand new business model. Maybe even interactive foot games or music, like Tom Hanks in F.A.O. Schwartz. Downtown Las Vegas déjà vu plus. But would it be economical? Not likely.

They‘d better be cheap enough to compete with HECO and feed-in rooftop solar with cheap cells. In the movie, the solar roadway panels look pretty complicated. Nanotech conductors might be better, and cheaper. The most complicated part, I think, would be wiring the panels together. Remember also that this would be non-firm so a storage solution would have to be devised. Perhaps the nanotech conductors could include that storage solution. That’d push the envelope for sure.

And if we do push the envelope, the electronics could do us still other favors. Not geolocators or driving instructions (GPS works well enough for that), but perhaps systems that will keep us in our lane and at acceptable distances from cross walks (that was in the movie) and the cars around us. To say nothing about the benefits of traffic and law-enforcement traffic signal, speeding and stop sign sensors that could be bundled into panels like this. That assumes they can overcome the resistance of the anti-vancam lobby, which at last sighting was pretty damn strong. If they can, that’s another new and exciting business model for our state.

Provocative possibilities. It all boggles the mind, but then the expense might do that too. That's my reaction, and I'm sticking to it. But you can take a look at the movie too, and see if you agree.

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