Robots in Space

Candidates in Orbit by PJ O’Rourke laments the lack of vision when it comes to space policy from either side of the aisle. After an engineer states that Obama will “kill the manned space program”, he asks:

Then the engineer asked me a question.. “What message will it send in 2023 or so when China can put a man on the moon and we can’t put one in low Earth orbit?”

NASA is withering because it doesn’t have the funding to do anoher Apollo program and doesn’t have the vision to do something remarkable that it can afford. But something is amiss: Technology has advanced so much in so many areas that many hugely expensive things are now dirt cheap. Can we leverage that?

One good idea mentioned: Turing NASA more into an R&D rather than an operations agency. There is a better way than trying to put men in space the same way it was done in the 1960s, and perhaps NASA R&D can find it. We can revamp the concept of space exploration with a large focus on unmanned robotic exploration, just as we control UAVs today, remotely. It’s time to think about a permanent Moon base staffed by … robots.

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Educational reform is dead, we need Agile Schools

Educational reform as we know it will die says Steve Peha. He makes the case that the reforms of the past few decades – testing, curriculum standards, etc. – have not make a difference, and that technology products themselves haven’t worked. Rather, he suggests Agile processes and concepts (scrum, XP, Kanban, Lean) could be used to run schools more effectively.

Learning is iterative, learning about learning is iterative. And yet, we attempt waterfall-model-type reforms that are hugely expensive and take years before we find out, they didnt really make a difference. The better way, of making incremental improvements, measuring and iterating, via agile methods, makes a lot of sense. Since Government-driven processes are inherently over-controlled and, due to risk-aversion and politics, rarely adaptive, one wonders if this approach would bog down as much as other reforms. Merit pay was to incentivize innovation; charter schools was to break the bonds that prevented innovation; testing was to measure performance (a key element in agile is measurement and iteration). So rather than think of prior reforms as dead ends, perhaps we should consider them as incomplete and missing the key ingredient – an operational model for improvement. Agile processes provide that.

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Why I created Freestar Technologies




Why you need your own company by Derek Sivers explains:

Then I realized why I need to start a new company. Not for the money. Not because I’m “bored”. But because a company is a laboratory to try your ideas. (The word “laboratory” is defined as a room for research, experimentation or analysis. I think of it as a sandbox or playpen.)

In the end, Derek knew what he needed to do, not for money or fame but for himself, was to create a vessel to pursue his ideas:

And this made me happier than doing nothing. This isn’t work, it’s play. It’s my place to try my ideas.

It hit me: This is why I created my own company recently. As an aspiring entrepreneur, I’ve had several projects, ideas, (and now in the post-business plan era) Lean Canvases, and implementations, needing other pieces to ‘launch’.  I was hit with a challenge: At what point does hobby become project become launchable idea become a startup seedling? How do I think and work on these? I created a company as a vessel to capture and pursue ideas, to nurture them to the point of launch.

In doing so I realized it wasn’t just my ideas alone I could help, but those of others as well. I’ve had the privilege of learning about a lot of other great things going on in startups in Austin and elsewhere, including watching literally dozens of startup pitches this month at SXSW interactive, RISE Austin this week, in my Venture Forth class at TechRanch, etc. I saw both the promise and the needs of startups and entrepreneurs, the common theme being the need to discover and validate what the ideas mean for customers.

So Freestar Tech is in the business of supporting early-stage startups turns ideas into successful companies. I’m bring my experience and skills in software, technology Lean Startup, business development, etc. to bear on making it happen. Who’s ideas?  My own … and maybe yours. That’s why I created Freestar Technologies.

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SXSW interactive: The Web Comes To Austin

“It’s [SXSW interactive] become the world capital of the web. Temporary capital but real …” – Bruce Sterling

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Why Go To College? Or, How not to waste $100,000+ on a College Education

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years of the futility of College, that Higher Education is a bubble and that students are better off doingsomething else.  There is good reason for it. College is expensive, and unreasonably so.

In discussing with a friend some ideas in education, I asked him what was the biggest problem in education, and his response was: “A College degree is worthless.” This business owner doesn’t pay any more for new hires with a College education than those without. He expects them to do and know certain things and have skills but, guess what, College almost never gives them those specific skills. Oops. He trains them up, degree or no.

For some students, College has become a bad financial deal, a nightmare of large debts for an education that doesn’t give them the golden ticket to the good job and the good life they expected. In the extreme case, you can spend $200,000 for an elite private Liberals Arts College degree and end up working for Starbucks. That’s not an urban legend, but an anecdote from the New York Times.

So when James Altucher says Don’t Send Your Kids to College, bucking a few generations of American Dream conventional wisdom, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. He makes the financial pitch: $100,000 to $200,000 and four years on College is a big sink of money and time, isn’t it possible to use that in a more financially reward way? Invest it in the stock market and you will get a better return than the income differential would give you.

Yet my own daughter is busy taking College prep courses, doing AP tests and getting ready for a College experience. I can’t say no or discourage that, nor can millions of other parents with aspiring College-bound children.  We don’t want to deny our children that educational experience that will be with them for life, nor risk that missing out on that credential will hurt them down the road. In my case, with my EE degree in the early 1980s, I went from a summer job making $5 and hour to making $33,000 a year straight out of College. It was definitely a good deal for me at the time, and led to a good career you cannot get otherwise. That path to a professional career is a key reason why we went to College in previous generations, and a reason why many next generation students will still need College, even if its reformulated for the 21st century.

Now it’s true that many people will argue for going to College for the simple reason that it ‘worked’ for them. Well, most of us older than 35 were educated before the WorldWideWeb busted open vaults of knowledge. There is more knowledge available just a google search away, then existed in the best University libraries two decades ago (or even today).

The reality check is that a lot of what worked in the past is not working, and a lot of past impossible alternatives to traditional College are now possible. A lot more students are going to College now, and undoubtably some don’t belong there. There are several problems. One are those who are simply not academically prepared or rigorous enough.
and second, those students who lack the motivation to get much out of their college education.  If those students don’t get prepared for a specific career path, they may end up in the nightmare category with an expensive degree and nothing to show for it.  Second, many students aren’t properly aware of the ‘real world’ and haven’t figured out what they want to do in life, or even if they do have some idea, it’s often based on idealism versus reality.
Preparation, motivation and direction are all needed to succeed in College. If you are not ready, don’t go.

Why go to College? In basic terms: To Learn, and to get a credential to prove that you learned.

There is one key thing any student needs to learn. It’s more important than grammar, Calculus, the history of England, how to develop a business marketing strategy, or quantum states of high energy particles.  It’s how to learn. Once you know how to be a self-learner, you are a scholar. You can go places knowledge-wise, and extend your capabilities
in research and knowledge that will be with you for life. Anyone who stops learning in life, is set for a diminished and boring future, professionally and personally.

For some technical areas, it goes beyond merely learning to learn, but a specific set of knowledge and skills.  The degree and department is as important as where you go to school. It really doesn’t matter where you got your English lit or sociology degree, it won’t get you a petroleum engineering or chemist job. Conversely, any specialized degree will be valuable if and only if it’s a solid credential, based on school and GPA.

What if you could get a credential that showed: “Here’s a Self Learner. Here’s a Scholar. Here’s someone who knows how the world works, knows how to think, is diligent and can get things done.” Sooner or later, HR folks in businesses will look at that and realize they’ve got an employable candidate, and that credential would be as good as any generic liberal arts BA.

So do you need to go to College to prove that?  Ah, there’s the rub. You probably COULD find alternative ways to show and prove this out, and some of those alternatives would be probably more interesting, fun, challenging and real.  Like becoming a 3rd world missionary, starting a business, spending four years working on the ground floor of your chosen profession, travelling, etc. Or learning in non-traditional ways. Don’t study Chinese, live in China for 9 months and learn it there. Becoming a “Road Scholar” gives you the kind of education you can’t get in a classrom, but doesn’t give you credits and credentials that are easily digestable by HR. But then, if you are doing all those interesting things for a job interview and not for life, maybe you are doing it for the wrong reasons.

Since College is 4 years of time plus a lot of money, one has to ask, what about the
opportunity costs? What else can one do that would take you farther and faster? Are there
such alternatives? The good news is there are alternatives to a traditional four-year College degree,
almost all of them provide some value to students.  Consider Community College for the first 2 years,
and then transfer to a 4-year school that accepts the credits, for example Texas College ‘core’ credits are transferrable to Texas state schools, like UT, so you can learn the 40+ credit college core on the cheap and then pay only for the remaining 70 or so credits, could be under 3 years. There are low-cost alternatives to an expensive College, if you want a degree on the cheap; for example, Western Governor’s University online program will run you not much more than $10,000 for a degree, and other online degree possibilities are in that range.

Even more radically inexpensive is the next generation of online Higher Ed alternatives, providing College courses and tests for much less, and in some cases free. You now can learn practically anything online, most of it for free; MIT’s MITx, offering many of their courses as open courseware is a trailblazer in this trend. With so much learning on the cheap, the next barrier to fall will be the barrier between non-traditional learning and the traditional credential.

You might compare these alternatives to using different car models for your commute. You can use a basic Honda Civic as a vehicle instead of a Mercedes; they won’t have the prestige or cachet of an elite University, but it still will get you where you need to be, if what you want is a basic degree. Some Colleges will be better than others for certain degrees or paths, such as pre-law, pre-med or engineering.  College is just a vehicle, and you can get the high-end or low-end; the only mistake would be to pay high-end prices for an education that is only a low-end credential.
We now have non-College learning alternatives, think of them as scooters, e.g., learning via the cornucopia of information online is one alternative. They too can get you where you need to go.

Learning during your ‘gap year’ is one useful approach. Community College plus free online courses can give you a broad swath of College-level experience and might be especially useful for someone not quite sure or ready to commit to a particular degree or program. if College is like a car, why buy one before you figure out exactly what type of car you need?

If you want to avoid wasting a lot of money on College, then the ground rules for any student going to 4-year College need to be:
1. Preparation: Have taken College prep level courses in High School. Taken AP courses. If you need remedial education, stick to Community College.)
2. Direction: Know what you want to get out of College and why. This means what type of career or job path you want to be on after College. If you don’t know what you want, don’t go. Instead, go out and experience the world for a year and figure it out. (**)
3. Motivation: Be a motivated self-learner, ready to get the most out of every College course.(*)
4. Alternatives: Know that College is better than alternatives, and that the path you are on requires a degree to succeed. If not, try alternatives.
5. Thrift: Learn as much as you can through least expensive means and methods first (including free!).

(*) If you are already a self-learner, and the purpose of College is to teach you to be
a self-learner, why is self-learning a prerequisite for College? Because non-self-learners are wasting their
time in College, will not learn effectively, and the art of being a self-motivated learner doesn’t require
an expensive school. Actually, College shouldn’t teach you to be a self-motivated learner, but should help you to be better skilled at self-learning – research, writing papers, synthesizing what you know into conclusions, etc.

(**) For students who probably could and should advance beyond High School, but havent quite figured out what to do or how, there are many alternatives to a 4-year College, and one approach is to ‘take a break’ and for a year or two explore alternative: Get a job and or learn to start a business. That’s right, an 18 year old could start a business and learn more in one year than even an MBA student about how business works. Or join the military and learn a lot about discipline and our foreign policy. Take alternative education courses, online etc. Travel the world. Attend community college. So don’t go to College, learn about the world and then decide. The best learning is by doing.

How do you know if you have a child ready for College?  A simple test is this: Tell your child:
“I will spend $1,000 on your College for each Good Book you read. The more you read, the more I’ll support you.” Then it’s up to them, to read from a list of Great Books, good literature and non-fiction. Think about it. If they read Hume, Adam Smith, Plato, and useful current books such as Malcom Gladwell’s books or other non-fiction, along with some good literature, they would have absorbed some great learning. If they are not up for the diligence and intellectual curiosity it takes to read history, philosophy, biography, etc. then they aren’t up for an expensive traditional College either. If they are, bravo, you’ve just taught them their freshman year.

To make sure the student has the right motivation, make students pay for part of College themselves, as having skin in the game makes the student motivated to not let their investment go to waste. “Most people who wasted their College opportunity had no skin in the game.” It doesn’t hurt to make sure they have a job in the meantime. If it’s a menial job, they will understand the drudgery of life required when you dont have a skilled job. If it’s in the field they want to go into, the job will help them decide and be a path to accelerating them to success.

College is an investment, and like any investment of time and money, you need to look at the ROI and at the alternatives that are available. With the plethora of alternatives, there is no reason at all to waste $200,000 on a College education. Rather, make sure you have the motivation, preparation and direction set to make the most of your College experience, and utilize all the alternatives possible to make that experience the lowest-cost yet most enriching experience possible. It would be a tragedy if your College degree isn’t worth it, but it needn’t be.

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On losing Andrew Breitbart

I was shocked to hear of the passing of Andrew Breitbart – a journalistic innovator, media iconoclast, and conservative activist rolled into one – who died at only 43, a few years younger than myself.  Breitbart is one of those few shining stars expert at shaking up the media status quo and knocking down shibboleths and liberal presumptiveness. For his trouble, he was hated by all the ‘right’ people for doing all the right things. He will be missed. One Redstater’s remembrance, Breitbart and conservative convert whistleblowing, closes with Andrew Jackson’s quip:

“One man with courage makes a majority.”

Note to self: Keep trying to bend the universe. You only have so much time.



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It isn’t news until Harvard does it

Educational ‘innovations’ are in the news, for example,  Harvard Seeks to Jolt University Teaching. The venerable 400-year-old College held a workshop on innovating in teaching, and talked about why lectures may not be the most effective pedagogical device. A cynical commenter replies:

“This sort of work is being done in many places; it’s called the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Perhaps it isn’t news until Harvard does it?

I had the same reaction to Apple’s iBook annountment. They are not the only ones enabling multimedia authorship, but they may be the best at getting good press mileage out of such announcements. Some are noticing that:

Apple has simply thrown another platform into a crowded and incompatible market.

Likewise, I’ve seen discussions about Khan Academy, as if they are the only ones who put out videos teaching basic classroom material a mere 40 years after the BBC’s Open University pioneered video learning.

There is something profound happening in education, there are innovations and shifts: Separating teaching and assessments, with outsiders doing the grading, part of a disaggregation trend. A plethora of free resources and media, some of it enabled by peer production and lower-cost internet tools and technologies. Not only does that mean more online courses and choices, but traditional education both disrupted and (if they take advantage) streamlined by these innovations.

It would be unfortunate if these innovations are ignored and treated as non-news until Harvard does it, but at least MIT is ahead of the curve.

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Books for entrepreneurs

I am not sure how an under-30 CEO finds time for  280 must-read books for entrepreneurs, according to, but it’s a good list to start from.

I read and recommend ReWork, Lean Startup, and a number of others on the list are classics, such as works by Deming, Christensen, and ‘Crossing the Chasm’ by Geoffrey Moore.

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My “Year of Hustle”

I found the term “Year of Hustle”, via Unicornfree, in a blog post talking about how a web-savvy designer broke the chains of hourly consulting and got their own bootstrapped software business launched and on to revenue that’s now a six figure income. Neat.

Being in an early-startup-launch phase requires hustle: It’s heart, it’s effort, it’s discipline, it’s movement, it’s speed. So I will make 2012 my own ‘year of hustle’.

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Lessons from my early-stage startup journey

Joe Gascoigne, founder at Buffer, offers up 10 lessons from my startup journey so far. There’s a lot to relate to and like in his advice.

In my own startup journey, I’ve been three months in full-time bootstrap effort, so not as far along as a guy who has a team and a revenue-generating product already. One thing I’ve had to tangle with is “What idea to pursue?” Joel’s “4 steps to a startup”  starts with ‘start with an idea’. For many, the seemingly hardest step. Others fall into a deceptively simple trap – having too many ideas, not sure which ones to pursue and which ones to drop, and none of them ever the perfect idea,  so do you keep searching?  This is where Joel has some good insight:

A side point about ideas is that you will learn far more by being in the process of working on a bad idea than you will by waiting for the perfect idea.

I have to agree with that. Distilling my own “lessons learned so far” on an early-stage startup:
1. It’s okay and normal to have more than one passion, idea, and set of interests. (See Randy Komisar’s ‘portfolio of passions’).

2. What’s not okay is to be diffused or distracted by the panorama of possibilities. We have finite energy and bandwidth, and maximum focus requires minimizing the scope of what we take on. Take your portfolio of passions and ideas, and make one of them your main active project, but you can still think of those other ideas as side projects and inactive ‘on the shelf’ ideas. This way, opening one door doesn’t close other doors, it just leaves them on ice, for later. In my case, I pivoted when from my cloud-EDA idea, when I decided it was no longer Idea Numero Uno, and my other passion – education – is now the focal point of my efforts.

3. Many ideas are so-so, none are perfect, all have flaws. It’s only in working through them that you can really prove them out. So don’t worry if your idea is lousy, if you do Lean Startup right, it will change! Or as a commenter on Joel’s blog put it:

Anyways, 6 months into my first venture, I now believe that the testing and iteration phase is what a start-up is all about. The original business plans and projections are such a joke when seen retrospectively.

4. Originality in business models is overrated. If you copy a business model (as long as you aren’t copying technology), you’ve solved part of the challenge of the startup. For example, a freemium cloud-SaaS subscription-model for delivering software is no longer an innovation, but it works. It’s innovative enough if you apply that model to a unique customer, problem and application space. (Probably the best businness idea is a truly innovative solution to a well-known problem; tackling a ‘new problem’ or inventing something too novel might be harder to get traction.)

5. Customers are a stable configuration, and their problems are a bit less stable but consistent, while solutions are more changeable. Implementations are the least stable. For this reason, asking “Who is my customer?” is the first question to ask about any business idea. It’s also a good question to ask constantly as the business evolves: “Who is my customer? And what problem of theirs am I solving?” ( And i f you can’t answer that, what sort of idea do you really have?  Ideas without customers are interesting science or technology projects, but  are not startup business ideas.)

6. It’s okay to break the above rules and other startup rules as long as you learn something significant each day that moves you forward. A startup is a process of searching for a business model to turn into a real business; it’s by definition a learning process. What this means is that if you are learning (e.g. by failing) or succeeding, you are making progress. If not – then you are in trouble.

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