Tag Archives: economics

Triple Bottom Line in Open Source

One of the more thought provoking things that came out of the OpenStack leadership training at Zingerman’s last year, was the idea of the Triple Bottom Line. It’s something I continue to ponder regularly.

The Zingerman’s family of businesses definitely exist to make money, there are no apologies for that. However, it’s not their only bottom line that they measure against they’ve defined for themselves. Their full bottom line is “Great Food, Great Service, Great Finance.” In practice this means you have to ensure that all are being met, and not sacrifice the food and service just to make a buck.

If you look at Open Source through this kind of lens, a lot of trade offs that successful projects make make a lot more sense. The TBL for OpenStack would probably be something like: Code, Community, Contributors. Yes, this is about building great code, to make a great cloud, but it’s also really critical to grow the community, and mentor and grow individual contributors as well. Those contributors might stay in OpenStack, or they might go on to use their skills to help other Open Source projects be better in the future. All of these are measures of success.

This was one of the reasons we recently switch the development tooling in OpenStack (DevStack) to using systemd more natively. Not only did it solve a bunch of long standing technical issues, that had really ugly work arounds, but it also meant enhancing our contributors. Systemd and the journal are default in every new Linux environment now, so skills that our contributors gained working with DevStack would now directly transfer to any Linux environment. It would make them better Linux users in any context, not just OpenStack. It also makes the environment easier for people coming from the outside to understand, because it looks more like what they are used to.

While I don’t have enough data to back it up, it feels like this central question is really important to success in Open Source: “In order to be successful in this project you must learn X, which will be useful in these other contexts outside of the project.” X has to be small enough to be learnable, but also has to be useful in other contexts, so time invested has larger payoffs. That’s what growing a contributor looks like, they don’t just become better at your project, they become a better developer for everything they touch in the future.

The long and interesting history of East Palo Alto

Moreover, the questions being asked today about why the tech industry lacks racial diversity, and what the long-term consequences of gentrification are in the U.S.’s most economically vibrant regions like the San Francisco Bay Area are deeply intertwined in a way that is hard to perceive unless you step back.

This is a story of how two neighboring communities followed entirely different trajectories in post-war California — one of enormous wealth and power, and the other of resilience amid deprivation. It’s about how seemingly small policy choices can have enduring, multi-generational consequences.

A year ago, I told you my family’s history in Silicon Valley. Let me tell you another story.

from East of Palo Alto’s Eden | TechCrunch.

Great long form piece on East Palo Alto over the last 70 years. It makes you think about how national and state level policies play out in individual communities, sometimes in unexpected and undesirable ways.

Via Sean Collins on Twitter.

BBC – the Elements

BBC the Elements

A close look at chemical elements, the basic building blocks of the universe. Where do we get them, what do we use them for and how do they fit into the economy?

via BBC – Podcasts and Downloads – Elements.

BBC is running this very cool audio series that dedicates 40 minutes each to every element in the periodic table, specifically looking at how it fits into our economy. They are doing one element a week and started last November, so are about 1/2 way through the periodic table now.

So far all the episodes I’ve managed to randomly catch on WAMC have been great. But if you want the complete set, they’ve got it loaded up as a podcast as well. Definitely worth your time.

Why IBM Should Stop Buying Its Stock – WSJ.com

For the past 20 years, IBM has been an avid, methodical buyer of its own stock. In 1993, it had 2.3 billion shares outstanding. Today it has 1.1 billion, shrinking at more than 1% per quarter over the past few years. At that pace, there will be no more publicly traded IBM shares left by 2034.

via Why IBM Should Stop Buying Its Stock – WSJ.com.

This was a key reason that I decided to leave IBM. The current focus on earnings / share at the expense of all else isn’t becoming of a company with a 100 year tradition of innovation. In the quest of this it also looks like there will be another massive layoff in the next couple of months.

Still makes me sad, as there are tons of great people doing great work at IBM. But it’s more in spite of the executive leadership than because of it.

Stories from Detroit

I grew up in rural Michigan, 45 minutes away from any freeway. I’m the first male member of my family in three generations never to have worked in front of a lathe, and aside from one uncle, I’m the oldest with all of my fingers intact. The university had given me some grandiose ideas like “true solidarity with the oppressed,” and I figured “the oppressed” lived in Detroit, never mind the patrimony. I thought I was making a sacrifice. I thought moving here was staying home when everyone else was leaving the state. I thought I was going to change the world and had some vague notions of starting a school. I cringe at how naive I was. I first rented an apartment in the city, sight unseen, that didn’t have a kitchen sink, so I did my dishes in the bathtub.

Aside from bidding jobs, I spent my days like everyone else: sanding floors in cheap rentals for $8.50 an hour, which got me thinking: I could buy a house and fix it up myself. Not that I was sure how to go about buying, let alone renovating a house. It was just an inexplicit dream, some trick that would keep me from leaving like everyone else, make me a true Detroiter.

via Why I Bought A House In Detroit For $500.

A really interesting long read about a guy that decided to buy and fix up a house in Detroit. As we’ve now, as a country, expanded into all the places we can, our next century is going to be as much about rebuilding and reclaiming as anything else. This is a great micro lens for the macro picture of what that means.

Planet Money T-Shirt Project

If you haven’t been following along: Planet Money has been making a t-shirt, and working to follow it’s creation throughout the global supply chain. This has led to a ton of podcast episodes that trace that path, cradle to grave.

They also have this really great mixed media summary of the whole story, which includes a look at everything from the raw cotton, to the process of getting the shirt to you. Including great video of the machines used along the way.


On this Christmas Eve take a minute to follow something as simple as a t-shirt through the global economy, and realize how connected we are, even through seemingly everyday things.

The Cost of Patent Trolls

Interesting new paper on the cost of Patent Trolls in the US.

In the past, “non-practicing entities” (NPEs), popularly known as “patent trolls,” have helped small inventors profit from their inventions. Is this true today or, given the unprecedented levels of NPE litigation, do NPEs reduce innovation incentives? Using a survey of defendants and a database of litigation, this paper estimates the direct costs to defendants arising from NPE patent assertions. We estimate that firms accrued $29 billion of direct costs in 2011. Moreover, although large firms accrued over half of direct costs, most of the defendants were small or medium-sized firms, indicating that NPEs are not just a problem for large firms.

For reference, $29 billion is more than NASA’s budget ($19 billion in the same time period). This is a huge problem that has real impacts on our economy and our recovery.


Ruining the Curve

New research points that the bell curve isn’t really a natural distribution, but what happens when you put humans under constraints:

Human performance, by this account, does not often fit the bell curve or what scientists call a normal distribution. Rather, it is more likely to fit what scientists call a power distribution.

Aguinis said the bell curve may describe human performance in the presence of some external constraint — such as an assembly line that moved at a certain speed.

“If you had a superstar performer working at your factory, well, that person could not do [a] better job than the assembly line would allow,” Aguinis said. “If you unconstrain the situation and allow people to perform as best as they can, you will see the emergence of a small minority of superstars who contribute a disproportionate amount of the output.”

As someone that has often “ruined the curve”, this doesn’t really surprise me. The curve is so easy to ruin, because it was entirely artificial in the first place.

Stop the Presses

I had an interesting conversation earlier this week with a co-worker about our local paper, the Poughkeepsie Journal, having thrown up a paywall on their website. He’s a good decade plus older than I am, and we’re bother Poughkeepsie Journal subscribers, which means we both have unlimited access to their digital content.

I think the current PJ approach is a disaster. Not because making people pay for digital is a bad thing, but because of the way they are doing it. They’ve spent all this money on a “virtual paper”, this goofy web app that makes it look like an actual paper. I thought it was aweful, my colleage quite liked it.

And that’s the point. The people that want the digital paper to act like a physical paper, are all older than 40, and are aging out. Anyone younger than that has had the Web for their adult life, and wants their information in a digital first state. You want people in their 20s and 30s to buy your product, you need to make it native to them. Not doing so is just a going out of business strategy.

Where’s my clean, responsive website, that seemlessly works in mobile, tablet, and desktop? Where’s my urls to articles that work forever, so if I want to link something in a blog, twitter, or facebook, I don’t generate a broken link after 7 days when you shuffle it off to a different archive site, or loose it forever after 30 days. Where’s my setting to turn off advertising on the digital site as a subscriber? Where’s my kindle version?

And the answer is, no where. And that’s why most of the friends I have that are younger than me completely scoff at paying for a Poughkeepsie Journal subscription. Want to see this stuff done right? Got check out the Boston Globe, and read about what they did. That’s worth a digital only subscription.

There are solutions out there, and I actually think that if you make a compelling digital product, people (especially people in their 20s and 30s) will pay for it. But digital has to be the first priority of the organization, and right now, for Gannett (the PJ parent company), it seems like it’s about 15th priority. The one bright spot I’ve seen is the Poughkeepsie Journal is really doing a good job with twitter. I suspect that’s because they are doing that independent of Gannett (who uses the same antiquated CMS backend for all their papers, compare Poughkeepsie Journal to Burlington Free Press some time). So I think the folks at PJ might actually get it, but they are hampered by a parent company that doesn’t.

Here’s to hoping they make the leap past this very broken digital attempt and into something digital native, while there is still cash in the bank. I want the Poughkeepsie Journal to still be around in 10 years, and that’s not going to be true based on the path they are currently on.