Saturday, October 28, 2006

On this date in 1919 Congress enacted the Volstead Act, which provided for enforcement of Prohibition, over President Woodrow Wilson's veto.
New criteria for Idealab businesses:

A few weeks ago, Google announced that it planned to install a large solar energy system on the roof of its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. “Green tech” is all the rage right now in Silicon Valley, with venture money pouring into environmental start-ups, and hip technology companies falling all over themselves to show their earth-friendly bona fides.

But that’s not why the Google announcement caught my eye. No, what intrigued me was the company that was building its solar system: EI Solutions, a division of Energy Innovations. And Energy Innovations is — are you sitting down for this? — an Idealab company.

Idealab? The original “Internet incubator” founded in the mid-1990s by the charismatic, hyperkinetic Bill Gross? The one that flew so high during the Internet bubble — with companies like eToys and and — only to crash and burn once boom turned to bust? The one that was sued in 2002 by some of its most high-profile investors, including T. Rowe Price, which asserted that its money had been misused and wanted it back? Yes, that Idealab.

We haven’t heard much about Internet incubators lately — and with good reason. Many of them no longer exist. Several that went public during the boom, like CMGI, now sport anemic stock prices, and aren’t really incubators anymore. The essential business model of an incubator — that a company could exist purely to create start-up companies — is now viewed largely as bubble folly...

But Mr. Gross and Idealab, it turns out, are still very much with us. Idealab is still a company that exists to create start-ups, most of which begin life as a glimmer in Mr. Gross’s fertile brain. The companies it starts aren’t always about the Internet anymore, though some are. Mr. Gross has started a company that is making an affordable 3-D printer, which it hopes to bring to market next year. Another Idealab company sells proprietary robotics technology to supermarkets and toy companies. Yet a third,, is an Internet search engine in which advertisers pay only if customers take an action, rather than simply click to a site. (Mr. Gross is the inventor of the “paid search” idea that Google went on to perfect.)

He never lost his belief that his model of company-creation could work — if, that is, he could learn to bring his own frenetic idea-generating brain under control.

So, no longer would Idealab start a company a month. “We needed a much higher bar for the kind of companies we would create,” he said. “We needed to have protectable intellectual property. Our companies had to be in growing industries, with high margins — and protectable margins. That was something we never used to think about. EToys had great customer service, but it had no protectable intellectual property. Anybody could do it.”

And finally, Mr. Gross said, the companies he wanted to start had to be able to make a real difference in the world. You could argue, I suppose, that to make such a grandiose statement suggests that Mr. Gross and his colleagues were still afflicted with at least some of the hubris of the bubble days. But Mr. Gross argues that building a company requires so much effort, and entails heartbreak, that it just didn’t seem to be worth it unless Idealab companies were going to do something that mattered.

One of the first companies to emerge from this new focus was Energy Innovations.

From New York Times 10/28/06

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Case for Alcoholics Anonymous:
It Works Even if the Science Is Lacking
October 17, 2006; Page D1
The Wall Street Journal Online

A newly published review of addiction-treatment research delivers a verdict that is being interpreted as highly critical of the 12-step model of Alcoholics Anonymous.

"No experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of A.A. or (professional 12-step therapy) for reducing alcohol dependence or problems," concluded a group of Italian researchers in a July review in the prestigious Cochrane Library. The purpose of the study was to compare the efficacy of A.A. and professional treatment based on A.A. with other types of alcohol therapies and interventions. The study concluded that A.A. and A.A.-based therapies were no more or less effective than the alternatives, and that more and better studies of A.A. and 12-step therapy are needed.

News coverage was immediate. "Review Sees No Advantage to 12-Step Programs," read the headline in a national newspaper.

Could this mean that A.A., the world-wide fellowship of recovering alcoholics, doesn't work?

What it actually means is that the pursuit of evidence-based medicine sometimes produces conclusions and headlines that are misleading. That untold multitudes of problem drinkers have become abstinent after attending A.A. meetings is undisputed. Also undisputed is that anyone who follows the A.A. recommendation of abstinence will never again experience drinking problems.

The Cochrane conclusion indicates that A.A. hasn't been subjected to the gold standard of medical experiments, the double-blind randomized clinical trial. As a result, no scientific proof exists that A.A. causes its members to quit drinking, that they wouldn't quit eventually on their own or that an alternative might not work just as well.

It is hardly scandalous that A.A. hasn't undergone the most rigorous of scientific testing. Evidence-based medicine is designed to root out false marketing claims and unnecessary costs. A.A. makes no marketing claims and charges no fees. Instead of being handed scientific literature, newcomers to A.A. hear existing members tell how they used the program to get sober. Evidence-based medicine is also designed to compare treatments. An A.A. spokesman in New York says, "We're not in competition with anybody. We're not saying we're better than anybody else. We don't recruit members, and there are no dues or fees for A.A. membership."

A.A. doesn't comment on published research or public criticism, including from addiction specialists or other treatment providers who might view A.A. as competition. This no-comment policy makes A.A. an easy target. A Penn & Teller documentary, televised in 2004 and viewable on the Web, characterizes A.A. as a marketing and financial fraud -- without mentioning that A.A. charges no fees. Subsisting on the sale of literature and donations, A.A. is a nonprofit that in 2005 reported total revenue of $13.2 million and total expenses of $12.9 million.

Many problem drinkers quit with no help. And for those who fail at that, differing addiction treatments tend to succeed at similar rates.

Founded in 1935, A.A. is a decentralized collection of nearly 53,000 groups in the U.S. alone, each autonomous and without any membership list, which would make difficult any effort to conduct a double-blind randomized clinical trial. Such a trial could raise ethical questions if, for instance, a newcomer were steered to an alternative treatment -- including possibly a control group receiving no treatment at all.

A multitude of studies show that A.A. attendance is associated with reduced drinking and higher social functioning. Addiction specialists say these benefits likely apply to newer self-help groups such as Smart Recovery, Secular Organizations for Sobriety and Women for Sobriety.

Unlike randomized clinical trials, associative studies don't prove cause, but are often treated as powerful evidence. For example, although no studies prove that moderate drinking enhances health, a wealth of highly publicized data show that a drink or two a day is associated with reduced rates of cardiovascular disease, among other benefits.

Questions about the efficacy of A.A. arise in part because the treatment industry often immerses its patients -- at a cost -- in the same 12 steps that A.A. introduces free. If professionals are charging for what amounts to an introduction to the A.A. model, experts say, there ought to be evidence of efficacy.

Some experts say the demand for efficacy data on A.A. reflects disbelief among professional therapists that their services are no more effective than a fellowship of recovering drunks. But Marica Ferri, lead author of the Cochrane study, says, "I do not distrust A.A."

Following professional therapy of any sort, A.A. attendance is associated with better outcomes, studies have shown. A year-2000 Journal of Studies on Alcohol study of 466 problem drinkers found that for those who attended A.A. following professional treatment, the three-year abstinence rate doubled, to more than 50%.

Professional therapy is often necessary because it gives the patient a chance to speak in private, and because it allows for the diagnosis of co-existing disorders such as depression and anxiety, which are common in alcoholics, particularly women.

Write to Kevin Helliker at kevin.helliker@wsj.com1

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Barack Obama is a phenomena, we can all agree on that. David Brooks puts his finger on why in his insightful column today. In this election, and probably in 2008, it just doesn't make sense for politicians who want to win an election to brand themselves as a liberal or a conservative, no matter what Rush Limbaugh advises.

Jimmy Carter was elected because he held out the hope of a new way. Obama is doing the same thing; who is the Republican that can beat him?

The Era of What’s Next
New York Times
Wooster, Ohio

Sometimes liberalism is dominant and sometimes conservatism is dominant, but sometimes there is no dominant ideology.

Between 1932 and 1968, liberalism dominated American politics. The big accomplishments were liberal accomplishments — Social Security, Medicare, the civil rights movement. Even if Republicans sometimes held the White House, the general drift of things was still to the left.

Between 1980 and 2006, conservatism was dominant. The big accomplishments were conservative accomplishments — the defeat of communism, the reinvigoration of the economy through deregulation, tax reform and monetarism, the rebalancing of the culture to emphasize family, work and individual responsibility. Even if Democrats sometimes held the White House, the general drift of things was to the right.

But in some eras there is no dominant political tendency. The 1970’s were such a period. That decade was marked not by a change in political winds so much as by disillusionment and a scrambling of political categories. People who once had been liberals drifted away. Voters became cynical about politics itself. The pendulum swung not only from left to right but from politics to antipolitics. Jimmy Carter promised a break from the normal methods of political life.

We’re about to enter another of those periods without a dominant ideology. It’s clear that this election will mark the end of conservative dominance. This election is a period, not a comma in political history.

That’s clear not only because Republicans could lose their majorities, but for several other reasons. First, conservatives have exhausted their agenda. They have little new left to propose and have lost their edge on issues like fiscal discipline and foreign policy. Second, conservatives are beset by scandals, the kind of institutional decay that afflicts movements at the end of their political lives. Third, the Reagan coalition is splintering, with the factions going off in wildly different directions.

Fourth, there is no viable orthodox conservative candidate for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Orthodox conservatives like Allen, Frist and Santorum are fading, and only heterodox figures like McCain, Giuliani and Romney are rising.

If you look at the political landscape, identification with the Republican Party is falling but identification with the Democratic Party is not rising. Instead, there is a spike in the number of people who do not identify with either. People correctly perceive that neither party has a coherent agenda this year.

In the near term, the candidates who thrive will be those who offer a new way of politics. This might be the maverick independence of McCain, or the ostentatiously deliberative style of Obama, or it could be the manner of somebody whom none of us are even thinking about. Candidates who seem conventional will have a tough time. This includes Hillary Clinton.

Process issues will come to the fore, issues that have to do with the way politics is conducted. So will issues of character and decision-making style. George Bush’s secretive and declarative method will soon seem archaic — like the silent picture acting style in the age of sound. Instead, voters will look for candidates as interactive as the technology around them.

The center of political gravity will shift. In the liberal era, the urban Northeast dominated the landscape. In the conservative era, it was in the South and in bedroom communities like those in Southern California. In the coming era, the center of gravity will move to the West and the Midwestern plains, and to the pragmatic, untethered office park suburbs sprouting up there.

The people who will be most important are those who can most precisely identify the new era’s defining problems. The first is the continuing rise of Islamic fundamentalism. It’s clear the categories of the nation-state era — rollback and containment — are not working to reverse extremism, but what will? The second big problem is entitlement spending and the stultification of government.

The third challenge is the emergence of China and India — seizing the opportunities afforded by those new workers, mitigating the pain associated with tougher competition and managing the fiscal imbalances. The fourth is the growing importance of cognitive skills and cultural capital, the need to surround people, especially children, with stable relationships if they are to flourish.

One party will become distracted by passing squalls, but the other will focus on those issues. Then, a new period of dominance will begin.

Motto for IDEA Cafe/ Franklin Circles:
"Rooted in Christ, Accomplish" from today's
lectionary reading, Eph 3:14-21

Brothers and sisters:
I kneel before the Father,
from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named,
that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory
to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self,
and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith;
that you, rooted and grounded in love,
may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones
what is the breadth and length and height and depth,
and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,
so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine,
by the power at work within us,
to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus
to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.