Making a Difference

My Personal and Professional views

It’s Good to be King – Until Your Not!

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How would this go?

adobe-spark-2Me – “Honey would you turn on the news?”

Spouse – “Sure. I turned on NPR“

Me – “Honey, turn on the lights in the den.”

Spouse – “Hmmm, Ok“

Me – “Honey can you close the garage?”

Spouse – “Really?  Ok“

Me – “Honey, it’s a bit chilly, can you turn up the thermostat to 70?”

Spouse – “Can you get off your lazy ass and do it yourself?”

I am confident that if you treated a family member or friend the way you can treat Amazon Echo and Google Home you would be in the dog house fairly quickly. The fact is it is pretty difficult to ask just about anyone to perform all of the trivial acts that fill up our days. Not anymore.

Lately, I have been living like a king.

Me – “Alexa, turn on the lights.”

Alexa – “Ok”

Me – “Alexa set an alarm for 6 am”

Alexa – “Ok, alarm set for 6 am”

Me – “Alexa, play the myths and legends podcast.”

Alexa – “Ok, playing the latest episode of myths and legends.”

Me – “Alexa, set a sleep timer for 10 minutes.”

Alexa – “Ok, I will stop playing in 10 minutes”

Me – “Alexa, turn off the lights”

Alexa – “Ok”

Me – “Alexa, Goodnight”

Alexa – “Goodnight”

This is not a blog about whether to buy a Google Home or an Amazon Echo. Rather it is a discussion of the impact devices and capabilities like these will have on society. Frankly when I hang out in my place in Westford, Ma.  and boss Alexa around I feel pretty powerful. Not powerful like a dictator but more like someone in control who gets obeyed without pushback or delay. What effect will this have on us when this type becomes common place? Will we be able to discern between how robots and humans behave? Yes, I said robots. They are among us and they are listening, dutifully.

My Roomba vacuum never tires of sucking up the dust off of my wood floors, unless it uses getting stuck under my chaise as an excuse to sleep. I love the ability to ask Google or Alexa what’s on the docket for tomorrow and whether or not it is going to be a hat and gloves kind of day. The ability to command these little devices makes it easy for me to do even more than I typically would.

What will happen to the first generation that grows up with Alexa as a nanny? Your going to have some pretty precious individuals who are used to always getting their way. More importantly, what will happen when Alexa or Google fail? Your going to have some really frustrated middle schoolers. Your also going to have some pretty bent out of shape adults.

The other day when my Alexa dot lost its little mind, I had to actually reach up and turn on my bedside lamp, manually, with my hands. I could have pulled a muscle or even fallen out of bed!

There is no doubt that things are changing and changing fast but I just want to be on the record for saying these devices are a bit of a tipping point. Once you get used to being the king of your domain its not so easy to go back. In short order, we will be able to ask Alexa for a single malt on a silver tray and that may just be the beginning of the end.

I’m a fan. I will take the time to connect Alexa to my lights and to my Sonos speakers when its supported, but I know one-day things will go wrong and I hope I and Amazon and Google, are smart enough to make sure the lights still turn on and the furnace still heats the house.

What do you think? Have you interacted with these devoted servants? What’s that? I did not hear anything? Will you answer me already? Jeez! Humans!!


Written by Jim McNiel

December 17, 2016 at 7:22 pm

Posted in society, Uncategorized

Do We have AI Yet? Or is the Answer Still 42?

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Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jim McNiel

August 3, 2016 at 8:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Let us not mislabel camera assisted cruise control with true autonomous vehicles.

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LiDAR Google Car


The Google Self Driving Car and the Tesla Auto-pilot assisted driving are two completely different approaches to developing a truly autonomous vehicle.


First of all, Google uses 360 degree LiDAR which scans everything around the vehicle and collects 1.3 million readings per second. This coupled with: sonar devices, stereo cameras, and radar provides a much more sophisticated approach to “seeing” than what is taking place in Audis, Mercedes and Teslas. Of course it costs a lot more but Google feels that if we are going to succeed in getting robots, (truly autonomous vehicles) on the road, we are going to need to demonstrated extraordinary safety. Secondly, everything a Google car sees and experiences is sent to the cloud, processed and then share with all other Google cars. To quote Google car inventor Sebastian Thrun, “Every new born Google car holds the collective knowledge of all previous cars.”




Tesla’s approach of incremental development leading to a fully autonomous vehicle is a very different and potentially damaging approach to the problem. The problem with Tesla’s strategy is that the are relying on the most unpredictable factor on the planet, the human.


They media is already calling the recent Tesla collision the worlds first “Self Driving Fatality.” Simply put, this is wrong. Its not the same thing. This misrepresentation of the technology could set back municipal legislation on self-driving cars by years. This could cost the US 10’s of thousands of lives in unnecessary auto collisions.


If you are in a position to report on or write about this technology, please take the time to draw the distinction between truly autonomous self-driving vehicles and driver assist technology. There are not the equal.








Written by Jim McNiel

July 3, 2016 at 7:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Power of Optimism and Fusion

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In 1998, my friend and co-investor in Net-Tv told me about an incredible, also read implausible, investment he and his father were involved in. Tad Buchannan described the technology as a dumpster sized fusion reactor that could power San Francisco. Hearing something like this from anyone should send all smart money to the exits but this was Tad and Mike Buchannan and these were two very honest and trustworthy people. At the very least they believed in what they were investing in so I thought it was worth a look.


What Tad was talking about, in layman’s terms, was an electrical power plant fueled by a continuous fusion reaction. The best way I know to describe this is to say that the company was planning to bottle the sun.

A video from Tri Alpha


When you think about a star, if you ever do, you may wonder how it works, where does all that light and heat come from and how does it work for billions of years? To understand you need to break down Einstein’s theory of relativity. E=MC2 . Simply put E, Energy is equal to the value of Mass multiplied by C The speed of Light squared. In other words, the atomic weight of the two colliding atoms multiplied by the speed of light and squared. The resulting large number is the amount of energy that comes out of the fusion reaction. A star is a luminous sphere of plasma held together by its own gravity. The idea behind confined fusion is to replicate what takes place in star in a controlled fusion reactor and then capture that heat and energy and convert it to electrons.


A star has plenty of gravity to pull escaping atoms back into its plasma core to foster continuous reactons. In the case of Tri Alpha the gravity is created by a series of electro magnets surrounding a vacuum. The magnets keep the super heated hydrogen, plasma, in place while it is merged with boron. The game is keeping the plasma ball suspended and hot as new fuel is introduced into the system. The fusion reaction caused by the colliding atoms releases enormous amounts of heat and energy which can converted into electricity.


A competing company but agreat explanation of fusion.


Here is the bottom line. If it works you have a system that produces clean electricity from a nearly inexhaustible fule source, water and boron, and the only by-product is inert helium gas and no dangerous nuclear radiation. In other words, exactly what the world needs and more than likely too good to be true.


If this scheme had been surfaced by anyone other than Tad and Michael, who are really trustworthy individuals, I would have never taken a first look. After meet Norman Rosstoker, Michel Bindbauer, Harry Hamlin, Buzz Alderin and George Sealy it was clear to me that these men were serious and convinced the system could be built. As a childhood fan of nuclear subs, nuclear power and Jules Verne, I thought it was worth investigating and eventually investing.


At the time I was a General Partner at Pequot Capital and my job was to make investments in promising technology. The problem with Tri Alpha in my mind, and my partners, was the time required to reach a working prototype. Our investors expected returns in less than 7 years and this project could, and would, take much longer than that. So no one was too surprised when Tri Alpha failed the deal pitch and we all turned down the idea of investing as a fund. Subsequently I told my partners that I was going to invest personally and I was surprised to be joined by: Art Samberg, Larry Lenihan, Erik Jansen and Marco Arese. Art also called John Mack, then at Morgan Stanley and John joined in as well.


In the years and additional rounds of funding to follow Marco and Art played major roles in helping us to expand our investor base. Marco brought in a group of Italian investors which included Enel the Italian power authority. Art got serious and started bringing other serious investors.  Years later we would add NEA, and Venrock. As of this writing we have gone from our humble 2.5-million-dollar series A to raise more than 500 million dollars to develop the world’s first clean fusion reactor.


In 2006 I handed by board seat to Art and accepted a seat on the board of Interfusio the offshore holding company for Tri-Alpha. In time Interfusio will be responsible for licensing TAE technology around the world. In the meantime, I listen in on the regular TAE board meetings and I am comforted by the quality of professionals who are now running the board and the company including Dale Prouty who took over as CEO after founder and pioneer George Sealy passed away.


With the company now out of stealth mode and working on our first commercial prototype I am delighted and relieved to report that what was once the riskiest investment of my career may actually turn out to be the most successful and more importantly the most impactful invention of the 21st century. Imagine a world with unlimited amounts of cheap clean electricity. No more need to burn coal or go to war over oil fields. Every country can secure adequate amounts of hydrogen and boron and we can all enjoy cheap and plentiful carbon free power day and night.


This will happen. It will likely happen in the next decade and it could not come at a better time. If we are to reverse the negative impale increased carbon has had on climate change, we will need to convert every power plant on the planet to use Tri Alpha technology. Our cars can be electric and eventually our larger ships can have mini TAE reactors. Planes will need to continue burning dinosaur juice but that is a tiny part of the overall carbon problem.


I am extremely hopeful that the invention of Fusion Electricity has come in time to halt the ceaseless pollution and damage cause by developing and burning fossil fuels and can also lead to a more equitable distribution of wealth and basic human necessities. Of course this last part should not surprise you, after all it should be clear by now that I am an eternal optimist.




Written by Jim McNiel

May 1, 2016 at 7:09 pm

Customer Disservice

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I have been an ATT customer for over 15 years maybe 20. When you think about the 4 mobile phones in the house and my regular overseas travel the numbers add up. I would say that lifetime billings from ATT have run roughly 75K or approximately 5k per month.

Recently I moved my phone number to my corporate ATT account and setup the old ATT account with my wife as the account owner.

Today, when attempting to unlock an IPhones for my son’s semester abroad ATT denied the unlock not on the basis that the phone was ineligible but because the account was less than 60 days old. I have spent the past 3.5 hours trying to get this restriction waved only to end up with a case being filed and a 72-hour response promise. Not a resolution promise but a response.

If I wish to pay to unlock a phone I already own ATT wants $225.00. Which means this entire mess, which has brought me to the point of leaving ATT and moving to Verizon or Sprint, is all about $225.00 after at least 75K of business.

In my business customer is King. Customer is especially King when he/she is suffering because of some ridiculous bureaucratic regulation that results in punishing long-time loyal customers.

ATT you owe me 3 things:

1. An Unlocked phone, quickly so my son is not stranded in Europe without the ability to communicate for a reasonable price.
2. An apology for taking up my precious Saturday afternoon.
3. A 350 dollar credit for my wasted time and believe me you are getting a rock bottom bargain.

PS – Whether I decide to stay with or leave ATT over this I will still send them the invoice for $350.00. It will cost them more Thant that in accounting confusion trying to figure out if they owe it or how to respond.

ATT it is time to give customer reps like Alexis and Blaine and Carol some authority to make decisions on behalf of your customers. Take a hint from Zappos and then maybe we will not focus so much on the price of data but enjoy the value of consistent quality customer service.

Written by Jim McNiel

August 22, 2015 at 8:13 pm

Branding Essentials

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Just Media did a nice job helping to summarize the key elements behind branding.


As far as I am concerned marketing is the best job possible for a modern day storyteller.

Written by Jim McNiel

August 20, 2015 at 9:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Chicago to Tax the Cloud –

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When I go into New York City to grab dinner and a show I am using New York services. I drive on the roads or use public transportation. City police and state-troopers protect me. I enjoy street lights, parks and entertainment venues. The businesses I visit also use NYC services and for this we all pay taxes. OK, I get it.

Now tell me, exactly what is Chicago doing to assist Netflix in delivering video? How much time has the Chicago city council spent designing AWS API’s? Zero, Zilch, Nada. This is basically a local government imposing a toll on services they have no involvement in and costs the city nothing. Are you ready to pay 9% extra for your cloud applications Chicagoans? Is this the result of Chicago bemoaning the loss of Blockbuster Video Sales Tax? How much tax should we pay to use Google or Twitter? If you were to setup a new call-center using cloud based CRM are you going to choose Chicago and pay an extra 9 percent?

WSJ sums it up well when they point out that Chicagoans may end up paying 18% on “Amusements”. I wonder if this will include watching Nova on PBS?

NetFlix – Get out of Chicago and let the citizens let Rahm Emanuel know how they feel about it!

Written by Jim McNiel

July 11, 2015 at 3:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized