Category Archives: Uncategorized
Why Conference Panels Are So Boring

LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman trashes the professional conference staple: the multi-speaker, moderated panel:

For conference organizers, panels represent an undemanding ask. For participants, they’re a way to put themselves in the middle of the action without needing to invest significant amounts of prep time. Unfortunately, this usually ends up creating a “co-owners are no owners” dynamic. When responsibility gets so distributed, no one feels obligated to carry the show themselves. Even moderators may feel comfortable just winging it.

But this is only the start of a panel’s structural problems. Because there are so many people to introduce, introductions take too long. Because panelists know they’ll only have limited time to speak, they tend to focus on clear and simple messages that will resonate with the broadest number of people. The result is that you get one person giving you an overly simplistic take on the subject at hand. And then the process repeats itself multiple times! Instead of going deeper or providing more nuance, the panel format ensures shallowness.

Even worse, this shallow discourse manifests as polite groupthink. After all, panelists attend conferences for the same reasons that attendees do – they want to make connections and build relationships. So panels end up heavy on positivity and agreement, and light on the sort of discourse which, through contrasting opinions and debate, could potentially be more illuminating.

His preferred alternative? A one-on-one, fireside chat. Or failing that, the panel should be structured so that participants have specific questions to answer to avoid repetitive points, that they only respond to each other when they disagree, and that the audience vote at the end on who was most persuasive.

For my part, I’ve seen boring fireside chats and well-done panels, so the format is not always the issue. The trick to a good panel is mostly in the advance conception and speaker selection, to make sure you have engaging speakers with different viewpoints on a clearly defined question.

But moderation is also key. The best panels I have been on allowed some “opening statements” from speakers but otherwise involved a flow of conversation with a skilled and knowledgeable moderator. And ideally, as Hoffman describes, the panelists then disagree with each other.

Either way, it’s food for thought in an era when people not only have limited time for conferences, but the speakers now have to compete with smart phones for audience attention.

The Trade Case That Could Kill U.S. Solar

Solar panel prices have plummeted as much as 80% over this past decade, leading to a huge boom for renewables and helping to dethrone coal in our power sector.  Much of that decrease has been the result of large-scale manufacturing advances and scale from solar panel manufacturing in China.

But a new trade dispute could upend the economics of the solar industry in the United States.  It starts with Suniva, one of the few domestic solar panel manufacturers that was left in the U.S., until it went bankrupt earlier this year.  Although Suniva assets were eventually bought by a Chinese company (ironically), its creditors now want the U.S. to invoke an obscure law to “level the playing field,” per Bloomberg:

Suniva is asking for import duties of 40¢ per watt for solar cells, which currently sell for 25¢ to 33¢ a watt. If the company prevails, the price of panels imported into the U.S. could double, potentially crippling demand for solar power. Suniva’s ­majority owner, Shunfeng, makes its own panels in China and opposes the trade case, but it lost its say once the bankruptcy began. Suniva’s biggest creditor, New York-based SQN Capital Management LLC, made filing the trade case a prerequisite for a $4 million loan Suniva is using to finance the Chapter 11 case.

The case goes to the U.S. International Trade Commission, which will rule by September 22nd and then send its recommendations to the president. But even if the commission finds against Suniva, trade experts apparently think the law gives the president broad authority to slap import duties on the panels.

The fear is that this case plays right into Trump’s political hands: he can kill the solar industry, which is a rival to his favored coal base, and he can then claim to put “America first.”

But given that solar PV jobs vastly outnumber coal jobs, and that solar panels provide Americans with choices to save money on utility bills and reduce local air pollution, it would be a backwards move, even by his logic.  As with so many issues and this new administration, we’ll have to wait and see on the outcome.

EV Drivers Get Up To $1540 To Let Their Utility Delay Their Charging — New BMW & PG&E Pilot

Electric vehicles are good for the environment not just because they decrease petroleum fuel burning, but because the batteries in the vehicles can help support a cleaner grid.  To test that concept, BMW signed up drivers of their electric i3 vehicle for a project with Pacific Gas & Electric in the Bay Area.  The basic goal was to reduce demand from a fleet of vehicles at a time when the grid was constrained, by activating software in the vehicles to halt charging for up to an hour.

The upside for drivers who participated?  They got $1000 for signing up, plus as much as $540, depending on how many days they did not manually opt out of the program.  Drivers were notified by a software app when a delay was about to happen and could use it to opt-out if needed.

In practice, that meant eight delays in charging over the 18-month pilot period for the typical driver.  However, some vehicles, based on when they were plugged in and how little they opted out, had more delays.  Of the 100 participating drivers, for example, three vehicles participated in over 50 events.

If it sounds like a good deal, that’s because it is.  In fact, 500 drivers ended up applying for just 100 spots in the pilot.  The report did not mention if the payments were cost-effective from a ratepayer standpoint (I suspect not).  In other words, could that electricity have been more cheaply supplied or reduced elsewhere?  But given that this was a pilot, it was important to get data and participation first.

During the 18 months (from July 2015 to December 2016), PG&E asked BMW 209 times to “provide capacity of 100 kW over an hour-long period.”  This is actually a lot of times.  As a point of comparison, residential “demand response” (as this kind of moderated demand is called) programs are capped at 15 events per year.

Ultimately, BMW met 90% of the events.  The reason for the failings was mostly due to technical problems, which apparently got fixed as the pilot went on.  And the response time to actually delay the charging once the utility sent the signal was 2.3 minutes on average, which was fine for the day-ahead market and not bad for the real-time market, which requires 4 minutes at most of delay.  The lag was mostly due to communications issues that seemed to get fixed as the pilot unfolded.

Drivers seemed not to mind the delays.  The most opt outs for any one event was on Thursday, October 14, 2015 at 11 PM, when three customers opted out. The majority of events had no opt-outs and only two participants opted out for more than two events over the entire pilot.  Meanwhile, 95% of the drivers surveyed said that they never, or rarely, had to change driving or charging behaviors.  Ultimately, 98% indicated they were satisfied with the experience.

But there was one relatively big hitch to the findings: not enough EV drivers were plugged in at any given moment to meet the demand response events.  As a result, BMW had to rely on “second-life” used electric vehicle batteries to meet almost 80% of the power requested during these events.  The vehicles on average supplied the other 20% of the demand reduction.

Possibly because of time-of-use rates and cheap off-peak power, many drivers did not plug in until after 9pm.  As a result, these drivers simply missed any demand response events happening during the daytime or early evening.  In fact, only 37% of the drivers charged at work during the day, due to the lack of availability of chargers at their place of employment.

Meanwhile, the drivers that were able to participate in the top 10%:

[A]re characterized as frequent drivers, who have regular charging patterns and are not on a [time-of-use] rate. These drivers habitually plug in and begin charging around 8 PM in the evening and typically charge for about 3 hours. Since a majority of the events were called from 8–9 PM, these vehicles were frequently called upon and able to participate.

So in the long run, more workplace charging and electricity rates that encourage demand response participation could address these challenges.

Meanwhile, the benefits to the grid look very promising.  Each vehicle contributed 4.43 kw of demand response delayed usage.  It may not sound like much, but assuming by 2030 the state has 1.2M electric vehicles, with 250,000 drivers enrolled in this kind of program and 17,000 participating in a demand response event:

[T]he potential load drop of a single event in 2030 is about 77.6 MW, which is enough to power approximately 58,000 homes in California. Thus, on a larger scale, a similar program has the potential to provide a significant resource.

So while more work remains to be done, this pilot project is overall very encouraging.  Coupled with reforms related to boosting workplace charging and improving electricity rates (the subjects of a forthcoming report from UC Berkeley and UCLA Law), this kind of demand response could be very beneficial for the state.

And it could put a healthy dollop of cash in EV drivers’ wallets to boot.

Is San Francisco Ready For A Safe Injection Facility? City Visions Tonight At 7pm, KALW 91.7 FM

Should San Francisco provide an indoor, medically supervised facility where drug users can safely and legally inject?

Last month, the board of supervisors convened a special task force to examine this issue. Harm reduction advocates and local public health officials support it, but many members of the community are concerned about what it will mean for the city’s neighborhoods and for those who would utilize the services.

I’ll be moderating a discussion on the pros and cons of safe injection facilities in San Francisco tonight on City Visions at 7pm.  Panelists include:

  • Alex Kral, Director of the Behavioral and Urban Health Program, RTI International
  • Gary McCoy, HIV/AIDS activist and Recovery advocate
  • Laura Thomas, Deputy State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance

City Visions airs on local public radio KALW 91.7 FM in the San Francisco Bay Area and via our website.  Call in, comment, or email with your questions!

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

The singer-songwriter recorded an obligatory speech earlier this month, or else he wouldn’t get the prize or the cash.  Complete with some strange background soft piano, the talk offers some insights into his influences and his thoughts about music versus literature.

Spoiler alert if you listen in: he discusses the books Moby Dick and All Quiet On The Western Front at some length.

You can listen to the full talk here:

The New York Times also has a summary of the speech.

How Republicans Could Change Their Mind On Climate Change: The Case Of “Red State” Renewables

Republicans tend to be skeptical of climate science and actions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions out of concern for the negative economic impacts and the potential for more government regulation.

But the reality is that fighting climate change represents a generational business opportunity for the United States.  As I wrote recently, the required action will necessitate huge investments in everything from the electricity grid to the automobile sector.

Renewable energy in particular may be the “gateway drug” to get Republicans to support these investments.  Take wind energy, as the New York Times reports:

The five states that get the largest percentage of their power from wind turbines — Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, Oklahoma and North Dakota — all voted for Mr. Trump. So did Texas, which produces the most wind power in absolute terms. In fact, 69 percent of the wind power produced in the country comes from states that Mr. Trump carried in November.

So it’s not surprising that representatives and senators from these states have been some of the strongest supporters of federal tax credits for renewables in congress.

Overall, the electricity sector is one area where states have a lot of sovereignty to push for low-carbon technologies.  Blue states in turn can encourage red-state action, which will help change the politics on clean technology in these states, as the clean tech industries mobilize and lobby their representatives.

A good example is the effort to integrate California’s grid with western states, as the New York Times story describes:

California and other Western states are discussing linking their electricity markets more closely, which would allow more renewable energy generated in the red states to flow to California consumers — and move California money into the pockets of red-state landowners.

Republican-led Wyoming, the nation’s largest coal-producing state, could be a prime beneficiary, with a proposed wind farm that would be one of the biggest in the world. The governors of Wyoming and California are discussing a deal, though both are nervous about giving up some control of their electricity markets.

That plan is held up by politics in California and a fear among these other states of having their grids controlled by California interests.  But for climate advocates, it could be not only a long-term energy strategy, but a political one as well.

The Caribbean’s Three Greatest Pianists Celebrate The Music Of Ernesto Lecuona At SFJazz

Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and Michel Camilo are three of the greatest Caribbean jazz pianists (Valdés and Rubalcaba are from Cuba, Camilo is from the Dominican Republic). Ernesto Lecuona was arguably Cuban’s greatest composer, considered the George Gershwin of that island nation.  He passed away in 1963 but not before leaving an incredible legacy of songs informed by his Cuban and Spanish heritage.

So it was a treat to hear all three pay tribute to Lecuona last night at SFJazz. They marveled at the composer’s technically challenging pieces, with Camilo and Rubacalba referencing Lecuona’s “big left hand” that required them to “split their brain in half” to play the Cuban rhythms on the left with the Spanish classical-infused melodies on the right. Indeed, Camilo in particular seemed tripped up at times on his solo pieces, although his rapid-fire chops dazzled the crowd at turns.

In terms of format, they alternated between solo and duo performances, with a finale as a trio.  Camilo began solo for two pieces (“San Francisco El Grande” and “La Negra Bailaba”), then invited Rubacalba on stage to join him for a few songs, including “Danza Lucumi.” Camilo then left for Rubacalba to solo for a few. Valdés then joined Rubacalba for a final song before intermission.

Valdés started the second half solo, with his virtuosity inspiring repeated standing ovations from the crowd.  He then invited Camilo back out for some joint performances. Rubacalba completed the trio for a roaring finale, punctuated by an encore with all three masters seated at a makeshift bench on one piano.

For those unable to attend the show, all three composers are featured in the documentary “Playing Lecuona” (trailer above), which gives you a flavor of what transpired last night and will continue through this weekend at SFJazz.

How To Persuade NIMBYs
One of the frustrating aspects of arguing with those who oppose new housing in their neighborhood is the typical dodge-and-weave around Econ 101 issues.  As any first-year econ student will tell you, more supply of housing will lower prices.  But many NIMBYs instead argue that more housing just drives up prices by gentrifying neighborhoods, when the exact opposite is true.
Noah Smith describes these typical arguments made by housing opponents and offers these suggestions on how to respond to them:
1. Econ 101 supply-and-demand theory is helpful in discussing these issues, but don’t rely on it exclusively. Instead, use a mix of data, simple theory, thought experiments, and references to more complex theories.
2. Always remind people that the price of an apartment is not fixed, and doesn’t come built into its walls and floors.
3. Remind NIMBYs to think about the effect of new housing on whole regions, states, and the country itself, instead of just on one city or one neighborhood. If NIMBYs say they only care about one city or neighborhood, ask them why.
4. Ask NIMBYs what they think would be the result of destroying rich people’s current residences.

5. Acknowledge that induced demand is a real thing, and think seriously about how new housing supply within a city changes the location decisions of people not currently living in that city.

6. NIMBYs care about the character of a city, so it’s good to be able to paint a positive, enticing picture of what a city would look and feel like with more development.

For a less politic take on how to advocate for housing, Seattle’s (aptly named) Dan Savage pulls no punches when it comes to what it will take to improve housing and rapid transit in our urban centers:
Housing scarcity—exacerbated by the ridiculous amount of this city zoned for single-family housing—deserves as much blame for the displacement crisis as gentrification. More. And unlike gentrification (“a once in a lifetime tectonic shift in consumer preferences”), scarcity and single-family zoning are two things we can actually do something about. Rezone huge swaths of the city. Build more units of affordable housing, borrow the social housing model discussed in the Rick Jacobus’ piece I quote from above (“Why We Must Build“), do away with parking requirements, and—yes—let developers develop. (This is the point where someone jumps into comments to point out that I live in a big house on Capitol Hill. It’s true! And my house is worth a lot of money—a lot more than what we paid for it a dozen years ago. But the value of my house is tied to its scarcity. Want to cut the value of my property in half? Great! Join me in calling for a radical rezone of all of Capitol Hill—every single block—for multi-family housing, apartment blocks and towers. That’ll show me!)

Both pieces are worth reading in full, especially for those concerned about the lack of new housing supply in our job- and transit-rich urban centers.

LA Metro Will Slowly Re-evaluate Its Entire Bus System In Light Of Declining Ridership

Falling transit ridership is a nationwide problem, but it’s particularly a setback in Los Angeles, which is investing like crazy in transit due to two recently passed transportation sales tax measures.  Laura Nelson covered the recent ridership decline in the Los Angeles Times and what L.A. Metro plans to do about:

Metro bus ridership fell 18% in April compared with April 2015. The number of trips taken on Metro buses annually fell by more than 59 million, or 16%, between 2013 and 2016.

A recent survey of more than 2,000 former riders underscores the challenge Metro faces. Many passengers said buses didn’t go where they were going — or, if they did, the bus didn’t come often enough, or stopped running too early, or the trip required multiple transfers. Of those surveyed, 79% now primarily drive alone.

In an attempt to stem the declines, Metro is embarking on a study to “re-imagine” the system’s 170 lines and 15,000 stops, officials said. Researchers will consider how to better serve current riders and how to attract new customers, and will examine factors including demographics, travel patterns and employment centers.

Meanwhile, as Metro explains in its outlet The Source:

Metro has not embarked on such a systemwide effort since the 1990s so it is timely given the significant expansion of the Metro Rail system this century, growth of municipal operator services and the popularity of other transportation options (i.e. ride hailing services such as Lyft and Uber).

As I blogged earlier, it was easy to dismiss prior reports of falling ridership, but now is definitely a good time to take it seriously.

But Metro won’t exactly be hurrying to get to the bottom of this.  The bus system review isn’t planned to be completed until April 2019, which will then require public hearings later that year.  So any actual changes won’t go into effect until December 2019 — at the earliest.

Two years seems like a really long time to study this issue, although Los Angeles does have an enormous system.  Still, a little urgency could be in order.  And in the meantime, the agency could focus on one immediate step that is guaranteed to boost ridership: require local governments with major transit stations to relax restrictions on adjacent development.

And Metro could start with the recalcitrant neighborhoods around the new Expo Line.

Otherwise, we’ll have to wait a while on any results from the bus study.

RIP Chris Cornell

The former Soundgarden lead singer and guitarist was found dead last night after a show in Detroit.  He had a beautiful voice and an interesting approach to songwriting, using unexpected chord and key changes that gave some of his more traditional-sounding rock tunes a left-brained, almost mathematical feel.

Here he is singing a cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” in tribute when that artist passed away last year:

My favorite tune of his though is probably Black Hole Sun.  Rest in peace.

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