Alexandra Samuel's blog

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Jerry Greenfield on entrepreneurship at Oberlin (live blogging)

Ben & Jerry took a correspondence course to learn how to make ice cream, and opened shop for the first time in May 1978. Then winter came, and people stopped buying ice cream. Jerry describes himself as the least creative and entrepreneurial person he knows -- it's all been Ben -- but he then came up with the company's best marketing idea ever:
PODCBZE. Percent off per degree celsius below zero.

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Thinking about entrepreneurship in Oberlin

I'm spending the next couple of days at my alma mater, Oberlin College, which is a small liberal arts college in northeast Ohio. Oberlin is best known for two things: its music conservatory (one of the top two or three in the country) and its strong tradition of supporting progressive social change. Oberlin was the first school in the U.S. to grant degrees to women, and the first to grant degrees to African-Americans, and has continued that tradition with strong campus and community involvement in everything from the underground railroad, the civil rights movement, opposition to the Vietnam war, and in my day, activism on gay rights, AIDS awareness, and action against the first war in Iraq.

This is the first time I've visited Oberlin since 2001, and it's extraordinary to be back here. My experience at Oberlin was everything people hope a college education can be: it expanded my intellectual horizons, balanced and deepened my political and social commitments, formed the basis for personal relationships and personal skills that have served me ever since, and was a hell of a great time, too. My time here was so fundamental to who I've become, and such a truly happy time in my life, that visiting here feels like a return to home in a profound way.

I graduated from Oberlin in 1992, and on this visit, I'm also struck by how very long ago that now feels. My attachment to Oberlin has made it a recurring place in my dreams over the year, and after so many years away, it now seems more familiar as a place I visit in dreamland than as a place I actually lived. As I see some of the faculty friends I've stayed in touch with over the years, I realize I'm now at the age and life stage they were at when I was an undergraduate. And then there is the most obvious change: students now walk around talking on cell phones.

I'm here for a symposium on entrepreneurship; I'm speaking tomorrow about social entrepreneurship in particular. In this context, I'm thinking a lot about how my experience at Oberlin contributed to my development as a (then future) entrepreneur. I started a couple of campus groups, gaining experience that in retrospect was key to my learning how to start stuff. And what I learned about social movements -- in class no less -- that has evolved into part of our business knowledge.

One of the things I spent some time studying -- in a preliminary way -- was ethical business practice. My very last paper at Oberlin was about labour relations at Ben & Jerry's, which provided a great excuse to think about what responsible business looked like while eating a lot of ice cream. I was totally obsessed with Ben & Jerry's at that time; when I get home I'll dig out and scan the photo of my freezer just before my 21st birthday party, when it was full of about 15 pints of ice cream, representing every available B&J flavor. So it's a great thrill that the first keynote of the symposium is being presented by Jerry Greenfield (Oberlin '73), who is talking about his own experience with entrepreneurship.

I'm live blogging Jerry's keynote -- and despite time changing, I'm still the only person in the room with an open laptop! It feels a little incongruous, but it does help counteract this feeling of being SO old.
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Is Facebook trying to kill you?

What robots in popular culture tell us about our technology nightmares

Cyborg hand

My new TV addiction is "The Sarah Connor Chronicles", which brings the Terminator franchise to the small screen. There's nothing like watching robots kick ass to make me think about the big issues in life, and this week's man-versus-machine showdown got me thinking about our widely-noted anxiety about the possibility of robot or cyborg takeover.

From Blade Runner to the Matrix, from Star Trek's Borg to Battlestar Galactica's Cylons, we've spent a lot of time imagining the day when our super-strong, super-smart robots get tired of vacuuming and decide they want to rule the world. You can even buy a witty and informative manual on How To Survive a Robot Uprising.

As a sci-fi fan and insomniac I've spent more than my share of hours staring at the ceiling and wondering whether our house is about to be stormed by robots who've made their escape from the Honda assembly line. That's given me an opportunity to consider a more immediate threat: Facebook. Not just Facebook, actually, but all the social networks and online communities to which we give our eyeballs, braincells, hearts and dollars. Could these online communities constitute the machine threat that sci-fi has taught us to anticipate?

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You can't download sovereignty

I waited for Tivo. I waited for iTunes video downloads -- and I'm coping with its still-too-limited content. I'm even scraping by without Amazon Unbox. But THIS is the last straw:

We are deeply, deeply sorry to say that due to licensing constraints, we can no longer allow access to Pandora for listeners located outside of the U.S. We will continue to work diligently to realize the vision of a truly global Pandora, but for the time being we are required to restrict its use. We are very sad to have to do this, but there is no other alternative.

Our friend Adam put us onto Pandora a couple of months ago. It is a deeply groovy, rapidly addictive web radio service that creates custom channels based on your musical preferences. It took just a tiny bit of feedback to get a great mix that plays a great range of mellow working tunes on one channel, a set of showtunes on another channel, and energetic hip-hop on a third. Most magically, each channel settles into that perfect balance of tunes you know and love, and tunes that you are thrilled to discover. For those of us who have ceded control of the radio to our children, this is a wonderful chance to explore musical genres that don't involve farm animals or princesses.

But once again, Canadian sovereignty has done me out of my online content. Part of me (the part that subscribes to Entertainment Weekly) wants us to undertake the digital-era equivalent of those currency schemes in which countries adopt the US dollar instead of going to the trouble of running their own currencies; let's just trade our precious intellectual property freedoms for a broadband hookup that delivers all the goodies available to our southern neighbours, and sign onto all the American I.P. laws so that what works there works here.

The other part of me (the part that subscribes to the New Yorker) is sick of being ingored by media companies that can't be bothered to navigate regulations they haven't written themselves. Yes, it's very convenient to get the laws changed when your mouse is about to go rogue, but sometimes companies have to figure out how to comply with laws instead of just writing new ones.

And the way I see it, there's no time like the present: with the majority of the US media empire stymied by a labour force that has recognized its own interests in digital media rights, their lawyers might as well turn their attention this way. Maybe we can catch their attention if we point out that the writers up here are covered by a different union.

Postscript: I just checked out the Pandora blog post on why they've just blocked the UK, and they make it sound like it isn't a matter of navigating regulatory hurdles (at least in this case) but rather, of needing to negotiate with every MPAA/RIAA-like organization worldwide. But look back further in time to the discussion that accompanied taking Canada offline, and someone points to the paragraph in the Pandora FAQ that bemoans the lack of a DMCA in the rest of the world (or at least, the lack of a DMCA-like provision for streaming music). It sounds like quite a tangle -- as confirmed by Michael Geist's explanation of webcasting law up here.

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Google docs: now in Safari

I just discovered that Google Docs finally work in the Safari web browser. (Up until now, Mac users had to access their Google Docs via Safari.) I think we may have the iPhone to thank for this; all those iPhone users wanted mobile access to their documents! I wonder what else the iPhone will finally bring to the Mac platform.

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A new way of thinking about our name

Open source didn’t just open a Pandora’s Box for the software industry -- it was the emergence of an entirely new method of production based upon social interaction and low transaction costs...Social signals, rather than price or managerial demands, drive contributions and coordination.

-- Ross Mayfield, Social Network Dynamics and Participatory Politics
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How your non-profit can earn revenue with Web 2.0

Social media for social enterprise

Social Signal has worked with many different non-profit organizations, of varying size and means, to create a variety of social media sites, of varying scale and ambition. One thing that just about every non-profit client (and most for-profit clients) ask is about the return on investment. How can non-profits assess the financial value of their social media investments? And perhaps even more fundamentally, how can they find the money to pay for sites that can be costly to build, and just as costly to run?

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Can your software or web project pass this test?

"If you want to do something that's going to change the world, build software that people want to use instead of software that managers want to buy."

- from Groupware Bad by Jamie Zawinski

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Five ways to shape the soul of the Internet

Does YouTube make people into exhibitionists? Does Facebook stunt teenagers' social skills? Does 43Things help people realize their dreams?

Journalists, academics and web surfers have been arguing over whether the Internet is Ultimate Good or Ultimate Evil long before the social web (a.k.a. "web 2.0") came along. But blogs, social networks and other kinds of online communities have raised the stakes and intensified the debate. Social web sites are more intensively interactive, and more socially connected, so they offer users an experience that is potentially more compelling (or in the view of Internet skeptics, distracting/disengaging) and (in the view of Internet boosters) more elevating, because they realize the Internet's potential for forging and deepening interpersonal and community connectedness.

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WANTED: Integration between Remember the Milk and Basecamp

I've been looking into options for improving task management with Basecamp, given my frustration with Basecamp's lack of due dates or task details.

Basecamp is what I need to manage the big picture of projects, keep in touch with clients, and assign tasks to my team, subcontractors, and client staff. I wrote up a pretty detailed picture of how we're doing this in my post about our Basecamp workflow.

But Basecamp is not a good tool for personal task management. That's why I use -- and quite like -- Remember the Milk, a very sophisticated yet intuitive task manager. RTM lets you categorize tasks into categories (lists) of your choice, tag any task, associate tasks with locations, assign priorities and due dates to tasks, share tasks with colleagues -- basically anything you might need to do to manage your tasks effectively. And it has lots of nice add-ons, like an iGoogle widget that you can even use to view RTM tasks in your Firefox sidebar.

As it stands, the combo of Basecamp and RTM is pretty unsatisfying. I have to manually copy my Basecamp to-dos into my RTM lists. And then when I complete a task, i have to mark it complete in both places.

Since many of my tasks are independent of particular client projects, it doesn't make sense to manage all my tasks from within Basecamp (especially considering the limitations of the Basecamp task system). What I really want is to create and manage most of my tasks from within RTM, but still be able to include my Basecamp tasks in the RTM system.

I'm hoping the RTM team will make this possible by building a bridge to the Basecamp API. Ideally RTM would first introduce nested lists, so that each Basecamp project could be an RTM list (tab). A basecamp to-do list could become a nested list on that tab, with tasks listed inside the nested sublist.

It's a little trickier without nested lists, but I'd still settle for a dump of all my tasks in a given project, directly into an RTM tab/list of the same name. I'd lose the in-between layer of to-do list names within Basecamp, but I can live with that -- especially if completing a task in RTM marks it complete in Basecamp.

The RTM team is the obvious gang to take this on, especially since they are looking for value-added options that would induce people to pay for RTM Pro (I'd happily pay more than $25/yr for Basecamp integration, myself -- I could imagine $10/month as a fair pricepoint). 

But the RTM folks are busy, busy, busy. So I'm hoping there are other developers out there -- people who could use the RTM and Basecamp APIs to build this sync function without the official blessing of either service. If this sounds like you, let us know how we could help make this happen. And if this mashup sounds like something you'd want, leave a comment so we can figure out whether there's enough interest to warrant a development bounty.

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