A new comic tilt on climate numbers. Concerned experts and activists have been struggling for years now to find new ways to explain the urgent but elusive nature of the climate-change threat. Because the data is complex and the effects are measured in small degrees over long terms, this is not an easy problem. But Randall Munroe, the resident nerd-genius behind the XKCD web comic, has found one brilliant solution: A long scrolling chart, like a timeline doing a headstand, that tracks millennia of human history against trends of cooling and warming (XKCD). Munroe keeps you amused with historical tidbits and gags as you scroll down; then he wallops you when the graph reaches the present and takes off on a frightening tangent, illustrating just how far off the charts we’re headed. Come for the stick figure jokes and stay for the angst.
The fall of the house of Rothenberg. Rothenberg Ventures, with about $50 million in its portfolio, wasn’t a huge Silicon Valley venture fund. But it had great connections, threw extravagant parties, touted a “culture of awesome,” and led a high-profile charge into the virtual reality industry (Backchannel). So it was a mini-earthquake in venture-land when Mike Rothenberg laid off nearly all of his employees in August. Now his firm is operating under a new name and faces an uncertain future. The first lesson here shouldn’t be a surprise: The VC business is super risky — that’s its whole point! But Rothenberg’s downfall also involves some very specific failures of transparency and accountability that Backchannel lays out: Rothenberg was apparently funneling the fund’s cash into his own VR-content startup without keeping his limited-partner investors informed. The big trouble with Rothenberg might have been its initial strategic error in taking a fat upfront management fee rather than the more typical small annual percentage, giving the firm an initial cash boost but robbing it of recurring revenue. Or maybe it was that Rothenberg, as some complained, “went Hollywood” and lost his way. However you read it, the Rothenberg saga makes for an important cautionary tale for a VC industry that’s too often eager to win when it should be shrewd, and star-struck when it should be skeptical.
A new way to disrupt the real estate industry. Point, which just raised $8.4 million (Forbes), is a Bay Area startup that promotes the purchase of home equity. Investors buy a chunk of ownership in someone’s home; the homeowner gets cash up front, and the investor gets a slice of the upside (or downside) of the home’s value. Homeowners are expected to return the cash within 10 years, typically after a sale or refinance, This represents a new and potentially huge way to slice up the real estate market, where U.S. homeowners have $18 trillion in equity. It’s different from mortgages and lines of credit in that there are no loans involved — Point is just carving out a new kind of ownership. Similar schemes have been tried without success in the past; Point is touting smart underwriting algorithms as its secret sauce. If it can “make single-family residential real estate a liquid, tradeable asset class” (as a blog post describes Point’s ambition) while giving homeowners more options, it might be onto something. Just as long as we don’t tee up another 2008-style real-estate bust.
Testing what it takes to knock out the whole internet. Here’s another thing to lose sleep over: Security expert Bruce Schneier reports (on Lawfareblog) that “someone is extensively testing the core defensive capabilities of the companies that provide critical Internet services,” ramping up probe-like denial-of-service attacks to discover just what it takes to drive key Internet providers offline. In this case, “someone” looks more like a state than a company or a band of rogue hackers. China or Russia are the most likely suspects, according to Schneier, though it could be anyone with the right expertise (including the U.S.). The attacks are escalating, and calibrated in ways that seem designed to identify the exact failure points of the network. Schneier compares this kind of digital reconnaissance to the Cold War-era flyover missions the U.S. used to map its Soviet opponent’s air defenses. But since it involves the global trading system’s chief informational conduit, it also shows us just how blurry the line between corporate warfare and international conflict has become.
What your hospital can learn from Yelp. The healthcare industry uses an elaborate system of patient satisfaction surveys to try to assess its performance. A study by doctors at U.C.S.F. Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco compared the results of the industry’s own formal surveys with online reviews patients provided to Yelp and RateMDs.com — and found the online reports tracked the formal survey results pretty closely (The New York Times). But the informal reports also provided a much wider range of feedback for the healthcare providers, adding information about staff, hospital access, and convenience, as well as cost and scheduling. Furthermore, these broader factors aren’t just about satisfying customers; they often correlate with better clinical outcomes. As in so many other industries, actually listening to customers turns out to work better than experts expect.
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