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    More Tech Stuff Baltimore Needs

    Occasionally we here in the burgeoning tech community in Baltimore have paused to take stock about how far we’ve come, and what would be good to do next. About a year ago, Mike Subelsky made some suggestions on the BaltTech blog, and he’s recently identified some awesome emerging leaders who have made a real difference in the last year. Many of the ideas he identified are ones that people have taken up and run with.

    In my travels in the last year, I’ve come across several ideas that are working in other places that we should consider pursuing here – in no particular order.

    • Startup Weekend – Bring together a bunch of startup-minded people on a Friday, form groups, and build something entirely new from scratch by Sunday. Demo it on Sunday afternoon. I had the chance to attend StartupWeekend Seoul this summer and it was a great experience. Lots of relationships were formed and some truly great ideas were unearthed. We need a big-ish place where folks can hang out for 3 days straight and someone to take the lead.
    • Girls In Tech – This organization is a global group of women who are making a real difference in the tech community. Some have griped about the name, and I agree it’s somewhat problematic – however to their credit they are trying to do their best to attract young women involved in tech and create a culture that is at least somewhat fun and edgy. Behind the scenes, its founders and main movers and shakers are some of the most intelligent and connected emerging women leaders in the tech world; with strong leaders in China, New York, and San Francisco. I promise you that a Girls In Tech Baltimore chapter would find good connections worldwide.
    • Founder Dating / Find-a-Cofounder – These events have been popping up in San Francisco, Seattle, and New York in various forms. The idea here is that if you can bring together a ton of people who all have a clear intent to want to form a startup – if they can find good partners to work with – maybe something will come of it. This seems like a great way to unearth “startup-curious” folks in boring jobs and pair them up with ambitious entrepreneurs who just need a strong partner. And every other combination. Worth doing. (And it looks like a meeting may be happening next week to start the conversation!)
    • Hacks and Hackers – Baltimore has the critical mass to support a chapter of this group that aims to connect journalists and tech/developer people. And entrepreneurs. News here is horribly broken and it’s going to take an entrepreneurial mindset to fix it. The sooner we can get journalists and smart startup people to get to know each other better, the sooner a new model will be discovered. Get on it.
    • TEDxBaltimore – I helped pull together TEDxMidAtlantic in 2009 and 2010, and TEDxOilSpill this summer. TEDxMidAtlantic aims to throw a spotlight on a wide range of creative thinkers in and around our entire region. Mel Brennan from YMCA of Central Maryland and Open Society Institute have been discussing a potential collaboration to help produce TEDxBaltimore, which would have the opportunity to focus on Baltimore and its future potential. I strongly support this and anyone who would like to step up will find support from YMCA, OSI, and TEDxMidAtlantic. Contrary to some recent tweets, no date has been set.
    • Entrepreneurs Unplugged – This event in Philadelphia features an entrepreneur on stage to discuss their story, successes, and failures. As long as they can keep from lying on stage I think this could be an extraordinarily powerful format. GBTC has had a Face2Face program for several years, which avoids the tendency that entrepreneurs have to whitewash over failings and details by pulling together a very small group over dinner. Both are awesome.
    • Reverse VC Pitch Party – My friends Larry Chiang and Dave McClure have been dreaming this one up, so VC’s can do “outreach and education and stimulate deal flow.” I think it’s a great idea and I’d love to see groups like my own Baltimore Angels as well as some of the VC firms in the region get up on stage and talk about the deals they like to see, the reasons startups should seek them out, etc. A great way to turn the tables and share perspectives that are all too often misunderstood.
    • CityCamp – In the spirit of BarCamp and SocialDevCamp (both of which could use folks to take the charge for updated events – we’ll all help!), CityCamp is a catalyst and a forum for talking about what’s working and what still needs to be done from an Open Government / Gov 2.0 standpoint. It’s what Baltimore City’s well-intentioned “Data Day” this summer perhaps should have been. There’s a lot of potential for involving folks from the design, architecture, and foundation community here too.
    • Junto & Salons – Ben Franklin convened a regular gathering of smart folks in Philadelphia, many much older than himself, to discuss ideas of the day and to trade notes about what businesses had gone bankrupt and the like; he called it a Junto. Lately I’ve noticed an increasing number of evening salon conversations about politics, startups, tech and the like. Our friends in Philadelphia revived the Junto tradition a couple of years ago, with awesome results. We’ve discussed doing it here but it hasn’t happened yet. Are you the charismatic leader?
    • Bootstrap Baltimore / Mosh Pit 2.0 – For the last two years Jared Goralnick has put together Bootstrap Maryland at University of Maryland’s College Park campus. This is a great event, and we could use something here in Baltimore that is aimed at drawing out the amazing quantity of entrepreneurial talent here in Baltimore’s many universities. A few years ago, GBTC hosted an event called MoshPit – a business plan competition for college students. We need to revive this program and meld it with something like Bootstrap. And we especially need to reach out to students in engineering, science, and the arts – not just business students.

    Go ahead and steal these ideas. There are plenty more where these came from. Borrowing working ideas from other places means they have a much higher chance of success than trying to design a totally new event format from scratch. Plus, it gives the potential for direct exchange with organizers elsewhere.

    If you are interested in pursuing any of these ideas, ping me – I can put you in touch with the originators of these events. And thanks again to everyone who has stepped up to make a real difference here. We are changing this city one mind at a time.

    The Coming American City

    In business, one seeks to establish a sustainable long-term competitive advantage — something that allows you to outperform or outlast others.

    Cities provide multiple competitive benefits: their compactness directly affects time, energy, and resource efficiency. In addition, cities generate new ideas and cultural experiences by bringing together a critical mass of diverse people.

    While technology has certainly made it possible for people to work from just about anywhere, this is really only useful for executing work which has already been broadly defined; when it comes to generating new ideas nothing beats face-to-face interaction. It is simply a higher-bandwidth form of communication, and ideation requires trust and some level of long-term interaction.

    Car culture is inefficient and runs counter to a lifestyle designed primarily around face-to-face interaction and ideation. Idea-based industries (advertising, banking, technology) have long flourished in urban environments — the kind in which walking, bicycling, and public transportation are the most effective modes of transport.

    The very idea of parking is a ridiculous and outdated concept. The notion that we should devote land, tie-up business resources in this feudal enterprise, and perhaps most ridiculously spend time looking for parking spots should convince anyone that this arrangement is not sustainable.

    The strategic competitive advantages of cities are clear and incontrovertible. But if cities are so great, why are ours in such terrible shape?

    Take Cleveland, for Example…

    Most arguments against the benefits of cities tend towards the “Yeah, but” flavor — citing examples of how specific cities have failed. Such arguments are more informed by historical economics than by rational analysis of the present or future.

    The argument in support of cities is deductive: inefficiency costs money, cities are more efficient, therefore cities have an advantage. The arguments used against cities are inductive: our cities have not worked well, therefore no cities can ever work well. One possibly valid reason to doubt the deductive argument is the very fact that so many people believe the inductive argument to be valid: the deductive argument can be invalidated only if the presumed efficiency never exists, which could happen if a critical mass of people does not accrue to realize it. Thus, the only thing in the way of a more efficient American future is our own doubt that it is achievable.

    Here’s how Americans have been duped about the nature of cities, and how we can overcome our 20th Century biases to realize the sustainable competitive advantage that awaits us in our cities.

    Industry

    Industrial America was not a particularly pleasant place. Cities were crowded with workers, factories, coal smoke, animal waste, polluted waterways, and with the possible exception of New York’s Central Park were not designed environments in any way. It is quite understandable that people of means would have wanted to separate themselves from “common workers” and remove themselves to land surrounding the city. After all, land was the ostensible indicator of wealth for generations. Speaking generally, city centers were thus for people of lesser wealth.

    Immigration

    America’s great industrial centers required a vast supply of workers, and they came from across the globe. Each new wave depressed wages, which made them seem less desirable than the last, and clashing value systems created a constant xenophobic revulsion that made for de-facto segregated neighborhoods. Not wanting to risk these vagaries or witness these shifts, many opted for less dense, more stable environments.

    Unions

    Large numbers of low-wage workers densely packed in urban centers could be readily organized for collective bargaining. Henry Ford, in particular, hated this idea, not because he opposed the interests of those being organized, but because he hated the idea of someone profiting from those organizing activities. Ford was deeply anti-Semitic and he ascribed everything from banking to labor organizing as an evil influence of the Jew on the pastoral idea of the progress of industry.

    As much as anyone else, Henry Ford invented the suburb and he did it to prevent workers from becoming organized. The Model T, and the suburban hierarchy it enabled, were not only the products of his business — they were a design element in the industrial, suburban future that Ford helped to create.

    Industrial Consolidation

    It is common to throw around words like “industrial decline” and to talk about the “rust-belt”, but the fact is that the post-war period was marked more by prosperity and consolidation than any kind of “decline.”

    The capitalist system was just doing what it is supposed to do: create value for shareholders by eliminating inefficiency, and in many cases firms followed Ford’s example by relocating to suburban locations where land was cheaper and unions could be more readily controlled.

    Reflexivity

    Reflexivity is the idea that market participants can affect a market just by observing it. For example, a currency trader with an established track record can move a currency merely by stating an intention to take a position. In the same way, cyclical disinvestment in cities was launched by corporations who began to systematically disinvest in cities as part of their consolidations.

    Systematic disinvestment in downtown areas by corporations led to a cycle of negative effects, almost all of which are what people mean when they talk about our “urban ills.” But as intractable as these problems seem, they do not negate the deductive argument in favor of urban environment. Instead, the argument is more along the lines of Yogi Berra’s, “No one goes there anymore — it’s too crowded,” which is both fallacious and clearly informed primarily by human perception.

    Feudal Equilibrium

    Reflexive disinvestment has affected politics in particular. Populations in many American cities are off 40% or more from their historical peaks (around 1950). Voter engagement in municipal elections has been abysmal; city officials are often elected on turnout under 25% and by margins of just a few thousand votes.

    As a result, city politics often pulls in people more interested in using these positions for their own personal gain than for the greater good. However, there is a catch: if the abuses are too egregious, even more people will leave the cities and the parasite will kill its host. And so we end up with a kind of Peter principle of public service: each post is filled by someone competent enough to survive minimal public scrutiny and still get away with whatever shenanigans is motivating them. (Obviously this cannot be a fair characterization of every individual, but it is descriptive of the system as a whole.)

    The political power establishment thus wishes to prolong this state of affairs; attracting large numbers of new, middle class voters will assuredly end their reign. So they do not advocate this; instead of implementing designs that would attract real investment, they talk about “getting tough on crime” and “fixing our schools,” and sometimes they genuinely believe they can address these problems. However, these issues are just final effects of reflexive disinvestment; fix that and crime and schools will fix themselves.

    American Exceptionalism

    Americans are too often blind to lessons from other parts of the world. Europeans are too effete and socialistic; Asians are too “foreign”. And everybody else, with few exceptions, is the enemy. We are not terribly good at stealing ideas from elsewhere, and we tend to over-value our own experiences.

    Detroit’s current failures do not mean that cities are inherently ungovernable or inefficient.  Tokyo, Berlin, Paris, London, Shanghai, Seoul and countless others serve as examples of livable modern cities that are being productively adapted with 21st century designs. Within the US, a few cities like Portland offer hints at what can be.

    Still, neither examples (nor counterexamples) affect the deductive argument. But when considering examples, Americans are biased towards negative American examples over positive international ones.

    If one is going to try to argue against a deductive argument using an inductive one, it could at least be complete and balanced.

    “But I Like the Suburbs…”

    Thankfully, everyone is different. And often I hear people say, “But I like living in the suburbs.” Or they point out that I (or others) did or do. [Full disclosure: I have lived in the suburbs, worked in the suburbs and the city, went to college in the city when I was younger, and just bought a house in the city because I think now is a good time to make that investment; I am also tired of spending time driving.]

    But here again it is inappropriate to try to use single individual examples to invalidate the general deductive argument. I am also not making a judgment about the relative value of the city or the suburbs. Too often people feel that their lifestyle is being threatened, and that is not the point of this argument. The only relevant issues are economic: if someone wishes to live in the suburbs, they should expect to pay for it with time, fuel cost, relative isolation, and a potential long-term political marginalization.

    And the fact is that they will probably be less happy. A study recently showed that commuting is the single-most injurious activity to happiness, while having dinner with friends created the most happiness.

    Right now, we are subsidizing the suburbs with fuel costs which do not account for environmental externalities. There is no reason to expect this to continue; however even if it does, energy will never be free. Suburbs are a bad economic bet for this reason alone.

    Race and Partisan Politics

    These two issues are so complex and divisive, I will refrain from discussing them here, despite the fact that I have considered them both in great detail. Each deserves a post (or a volume of books) in its own right.

    However it should be said: race is not important to the deductive argument, and neither is partisan politics. Positive, reflexive investment in cities will make them efficient, productive, and diverse; this is a centrist idea that should make both the left and the right happy. Politics and race are both issues that have all-too often been hijacked by people looking to promote their own interests, and Americans have been historically unable to perceive any issue free of these lenses.

    Placing Bets on the Future

    The long-term strategic advantage that cities can provide (specifically through time, energy, and resource efficiency) is not made any less real by our past failures; America’s cities are indisputably its best hope for the future. The natural evolution of the American economy tends towards higher-order activity, and will ultimately settle on creativity and design at its apex. The longer we wait to begin a cycle of positive, reflexive investment in our cities, the longer we stall our country’s competitiveness and our ability to innovate.

    We must only convince ourselves that a more efficient and livable future is possible; the rest will follow.

    Design for Behavior: Part 1

    The First Church of American Business teaches that virtue accrues from execution, and that the ability to manage big, complex to-do lists either personally or via delegation is the key to getting ahead in business.

    From there it also holds that competition is all about having and managing longer and more complex to-do lists, and beating out the other guy who’s presumably doing the same thing. Books with titles like “Execution,” “Getting Things Done,” and the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” depict the business world as a crazy-making self-perpetuating scheme of testosterone-fueled competition, which ultimately aims to canonize its Saints the way the sports world does its highest trophy winners.

    Business book writers have it particularly easy; they go back and look for the “winners” of this apparent competition (Jack Welch, Bill Gates, Eric Schmidt) and assign them all manner of superhuman qualities. Occasionally they come across somebody who somehow managed to get on top without shaming (and presumably out-executing) all of his or her peers, and they shrug in disbelief and assume that they must have “the vision thing” and canonize the schmuck anyway; the last thing the high priests of productivity would want to admit was that they didn’t see someone coming.

    My deepest wish is to go back to 1960 or 1985 (maybe both) and gouge out the eyes of these practitioners with their own tassel loafers. We’ve seen how this all worked out; this approach to business has led us to the only place it could: a testosterone-fueled sham of an economy.

    Certainly execution is important. But in the rush to assign virtue to execution itself, we’ve lost sight of what it is we’re executing – that “vision thing.”

    Design is the most important force for good in the world today. Overstated? I don’t think so. Design indicates intent. I believe humanity has good intentions for the world; therefore I believe that design is the way in which we will manifest those good intentions.

    Many people are confused about what design is. They confuse it with industrial design (iPod, Beetle, Aeron Chairs) or graphic design (packaging, advertising, marketing, websites), or simply assume it’s one of those “art things” that they don’t have to worry about because they didn’t study it in business school.

    But in fact, people design things every day. We are all designers of our lives. In the simplest choices, we are signaling our intentions about how we want to interact with the world and sending subtle cues about the kinds of interactions we desire.

    Getting good at design is a little bit like becoming a Jedi master – it comes from a place inside where less is more and where silence is more powerful than sound.  It’s about looking for the reasons why something will work rather than the ways it might fail. It’s about finding the line, the melody, the art, the poetry in mundane transactional details and teasing it out to make it serve you. It’s tough to explain, but over the next few days, I’ll be reviewing some recent, unconventional examples of design in my own experience.

    Design is all about executing a small number of the right tasks.

    Tip: Be with People who Love what You Love

    This morning, I attended another of Jeff Pulver’s Social Media Breakfasts.

    Every time I go, I end up risking a parking ticket. The metered spots are invariably for 2 hours, and 10AM comes almost instantaneously. I can’t tear myself away to go mind the meter; been lucky, so far.

    At these events, I’m continuously engaged with friends new and old; like-minded people who love ideas like I do, and who can bat them around like tennis pros.

    If you’re like me, you find this kind of intense interaction to be exhilarating and stimulating.

    This is what we want to facilitate at SocialDevCamp East — a thoughtful conversation about new ideas and how to realize them. We want to discuss the future in an informed way, synthesizing the lessons of the past with today’s emerging trends. We want to include economics, psychology, and design in this discussion. And iPhone and Rails and Twitter.

    Anyway, if this sounds like a conversation you want to have, we guarantee that SocialDevCamp is going to be a blast, and that the day (and the party afterwards) will be a blur. A good blur; a blur you can leverage in the form of new ideas, relationships, and opportunities.

    We want to thank our two newest sponsors: AwayFind.com and WebConnection.com. Also thanks to David Kirkpatrick, Senior Technology Editor at Fortune magazine, for attending.

    Looking forward to seeing you and your ideas in Baltimore on May 10th!

    Sincerely,
    Dave, Ann, Keith, and Jennifer