Friday, October 19, 2007

David Weinberger is a Mover and Shaker

But then, we already knew that.

At last night's Mass TLC annual awards gala, lots of companies and individuals were recognized in various categories. You can read about all the winners here. Doug Levin took the CEO of the Year for putting Black Duck Software squarely on the map as experts in software licensing for anyone with a software application who cares about its IP pedigree (and let's face it - everyone should).

But I was excited for David Weinberger, who won in the "Movers and Shakers" category, along with Linda Plano, who is a director at the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center. (Linda also has chaired the MIT Enterprise Forum's Ignite Clean Energy (ICE) Business Presentation Competition for the last two years.

I've heard great things about Linda, but David was my client many years ago when he was at Interleaf. Now he's best-known as the author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, and more recently, Everything is Miscellaneous, which David talks about here. He's a brilliant, humble, dryly witty guy and it was great to reconnect with him a year or so ago.

Congrats David!

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Monday, October 15, 2007

MITEF: Robots Rove 'Round Homes, Battlefields

“Engineers make the suckiest user interfaces ever, they really do.”

Dr. Rod Brooks, CTO and cofounder, iRobot and Panasonic Professor of Robotics at MIT

That was my favorite quote of the evening from the brilliant and entertaining Dr. Rod Brooks, CTO and co-founder of iRobot and long-time director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. He keynoted last Wednesday night at the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge event, “The Next Wave of the Robot Revolution.”

Brooks made that remark in the midst of a story about user-interface design for robots. An engineer he worked with complained that users didn’t know how to use his robot, and came to the conclusion that gives engineers a bad rep: “We need smarter users.”

Brooks cited a number of trends that robots are just tailor made to address:

  • Industrial societies need to outsource low-cost manufacturing
  • Aging populations will require more services
  • Cultural expectations of job satisfaction have changed dramatically
  • But some jobs can’t be outsourced (if they are location specific, like mining for example)

While we’ve come to accept robots as useful devices for search and rescue or assembly line work, in other cultures, they are more accepted as companions. For robots to make that leap, they will need to manipulate the world and to be more social, said Brooks.

Brooks observed that the more expensive robots are less autonomous; the less expensive robots are more autonomous. Expensive robots have usually been tailored for highly critical, high stakes tasks (space station repair), but tend to require a good deal of intervention. On the other hand, the Sony Aibo (sadly, discontinued) was cheap and pretty autonomous.

People do get attached. We’ve all read stories about folks naming their iRobot Roombas and you can buy a wardrobe for them here. (What’s next, rhinestone collars?)

Brooks shared photos from a war zone of one of iRobot’s bomb-detecting robots that a soldier had named Scooby Doo. Scooby sported his bomb tally in hatch marks right on his chassis, with both a count for IEDs and unexploded ordinance. But eventually one of those IEDs got the best of Scooby and the soldier sent him back to iRobot for repairs. The iRobot staffers explained they’d just send him a new one. The bomb technician replied: “I really want Scooby; we’ve been thru a lot together.”

Here’s Brooks’ recipe for the elements that make a successful robot, which he defines as a device that detects the world, computes and then changes the world external to itself. It’s no modest feat, as it requires:

  • The visual object recognition capabilities of a two-year-old child
  • The language capabilities of a four-year-old child (because they understand syntax completely)
  • The manual dexterity of a six-year-old child
  • The social sophistication of an eight-year-old

For background, check out the information on robots being developed at MIT's Computer Intelligence and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) here. For a fun video of Domo, pictured above eating a banana, visit here.

In closing Brooks relayed that everyone always asks, “Did you get the company name from the movie, I, Robot?” And he has to respond that both parties stole it from the same place, the Isaac Asimov novel. (You can’t copyright a book title, he notes.)

But he adds that there are some interesting parallels with the movie. (He pops up a slide with a photo of the three iRobot cofounders on the day the company went public: himself, Helen Grenier (the chairman), and Colin Angle, the CEO. He explains that the movie also featured an academic like me, a smart woman like Helen and a dashing male lead like Colin. “But the academic is killed in the first scene, so I don’t like that movie very much.”

Brooks' keynote was followed by a terrific panel made up of executives from established firms like Brooks Automation and ABB Robotics, as well as younger firms – Kiva Systems, North End Technologies and Vecna Technologies. Sorry to shortchange the panel, but I’m out of steam for now.

For other takes on the evening, see Candace Lombardi’s CNET article here, Wade Roush’s article here and a blog post from Binary Times here.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Tech Blogs with Scott Kirsner: The Convo Continues

Scott Kirsner is going to moderate a discussion on October 23rd at the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC- very cool space I might add). CHEN PR is sponsoring, along with our esteemed law firm Morse, Barnes-Brown & Pendleton, coopetitor Schwartz Communications and the CIC.

I'm on Scott's panel along with a host of more distinguished bloggers (see below). Scott envisions a few questions to kick things off, followed by lots of Qs from the audience and open discussion.

The bad news: We hit the attendee limit in the room in just three days after Scott posted. But I'll blog about it and I'm sure the others will, so you can get the essence.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Tech Blogs: How are Blogs Changing the Way Technology is Covered?

Entrepreneurs, CEOs, VCs, journalists, and PR professionals are increasingly cranking out blogs, podcasts, and video dispatches. How does this change the way the tech sector gets covered? What does it mean for CEOs trying to get their stories out, PR firms trying to get coverage for their clients, VC firms touting their investments, journalists trying to cover important news, and customers tracking the market? (Not to mention the relationships between all of these players.)

We'll bring together representatives from all four camps for a wide-ranging conversation (definitely *not* a panel) about the way blogs are changing the game in the tech world.

Participants will include:

- Don Dodge, Director of Business Development, Microsoft Emerging Business Team, and blogger,

- Jimmy Guterman, Editor of Release 2.0 and blogger, O'Reilly Radar

- Barbara Heffner, partner at CHEN PR and blogger,

- Nabeel Hyatt, CEO at Conduit Labs and blogger,

- Bijan Sabet, venture capitalist at Spark Capital and blogger,

- Chuck Tanowitz, director, Schwartz Communicatons and blogger,

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Dan Lyons Talks Blogging and Flogging

In November 2005, Forbes reporter Dan Lyons wrote "Attack of the Blogs," an infamous cover story. From the intro blurb on the article:

Web logs are the prized platform of an online lynch mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective.

As that promising intro indicates, the article focused on the manipulation of blogs in smear campaigns, used by unethical companies to trash their competitors.

The legions of responsible bloggers were not amused. Lyons got skewered, and in his own words, “People basically said, ‘You’re an old print guy and you don’t know what you’re doing.’”

Fast forward two years and Lyons has achieved considerable fame and notoriety -- writing a blog, or more precisely, a flog -- The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs. He’s been toiling away for nine years at Forbes, writing well-regarded, substantive pieces. But with the arrival of Fake Steve on the scene and his subsequent uncloaking as its author -- Lyons got vaulted into tech celebrity.

Lyons chatted candidly about this strange ride at a recent meeting of the Social Media Club Boston. BusinessWire sponsored an interesting panel made up of Forrester analyst Josh Bernoff; Steve Restivo, Director of Corporate Affairs, Wal-Mart Northeast; and Lyons, who is a senior editor at Forbes in his day job. The panel was humorously moderated by Monika Maeckle, VP, Southwest Region, BusinessWire.

Since Lyons was terrifically funny, and his metamorphosis from print journo to blogger so dramatic, I’m going to zero in on his remarks for this first post, and then move on to some of the other remarks of note in later posts.

Lyons explained that Fake Steve started as a joke. He was dabbling to figure out what blogging was all about. “I started with a fake Sergey Brin blog and then a fake Chris Anderson Long Tail blog and a regular (non-fake) blog on open source at,” Lyons explained.

Then he got the idea of doing Steve Jobs. “I thought: ‘That would be funny.’ And that took off. It was really absorbing and way more fun than my print job.”

Lyons noted it prompted a profound change for him in thinking about blogs, based on something he’d undertaken as a lark, a side venture. As the blog went on, it wasn’t just satire. It was news analysis with a flair, along the lines of Jon Stewart or Colbert, but with a tech twist.

Once FSJ began to gain steam, Lyons talked with a friend who was the general counsel at the New Yorker, and she said, “You’ve really got to shut it down. You’re gonna get fired.”

Then Fake Steve started to get interesting email, including one from Lyons’ boss, Rich Karlgaard (publisher of Forbes) suggesting that FSJ come write a column for him. Another email from Elevation Partners (the private equity firm where Bono is an investor; EP owns about 40% of Forbes) offered to make an investment in the blog.

Fast forward a few months. Rumors began to swirl about the identity of FSJ, and after many wild guesses, Brad Stone of the NYT finally got it right.

At least 50 people knew FSJ’s identity, so Lyons was surprised that the story hadn’t broken earlier. He thought, “When it gets revealed, it won’t be fun anymore.” But then he thought, “It’s not like people know who I am; it’s not like I’m David Kirkpatrick.” (Laughter)

Lyons feels FSJ hasn’t changed much now that his identity has been outed. “The first week, I dreaded it,” Lyons said.

Someone asked a question about what the blog has meant to his career. Lyons deadpanned, "It’s pretty much shot." (Uproarious laughter.)

Lyons continued: "So here’s one of the huge things I like better about blogging -- you can change things. There’s no way to do a ‘do-over’ on a big cover. But with a blog, when I get a comment from Larry Lessig saying, ‘I really like your blog but by the way, I never took any money from Google and I wish you wouldn’t say that I did,’ I can respond to that, right away."

Another Q: What were your influences?

Lyons (deadpan): "Chekhov, Tolstoy of course." Then Lyons confessed he like Spy Magazine and Private Eye. He stole the Secret Diary idea from Private Eye, which used to do fun spoofs like The Secret Diary of Richard Branson.

Another audience member asked what Lyons is interested in when he’s writing for the magazine once a month.

Lyons politely explained that the magazine comes out 24 times per year (c’mon people – know thy publications). He’s writing the gadgets and tech column now. He just did a story on xBox. He still likes entrepreneur stories.

For those of you who just can't get enough of FSJ, he's got a book coming out later this month. You can read a positive AP review here.

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