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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Boulder / Denver Big Data Meetup on 5/21/14

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Earlier today, I got a note from Andy Sautins, CTO of Return Path, about the four year anniversary of the Boulder / Denver Big Data Meetup. Andy is a good friend and one of the really strong CTOs in Boulder. It’s pretty cool to see what he and his gang have created around Big Data.

While Big Data is often an overused buzzword, this meetup is about helping people solve data problems in new ways that allow them to build and scale their business faster than ever before.  Over the past four year over 1,850 people have joined our group with over 100 routinely attending the monthly meeting.

For the upcoming meeting, Ted Dunning will be talking about machine learning with Mahout.

If machine learning interests you, especially on larger datasets, please sign up and join on 5/21/2014 at the CU ATLAS Room 100.

Interesting Tech / VC Stuff To Read on 4/10/14

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I’m bouncing around between a bunch of stuff and have a two board meeting day so I thought I’d just toss up a few interesting things I read this morning along with my thoughts.

Don’t let the regulatory past be the prologue for Uber: Phil Weiser, the Dean of CU Law and head of Silicon Flatirons has an excellent OpEd in the Denver Post about Uber in Colorado and the regulatory activity around it. I’ve been vocal with our state government to not behave in “incumbent protection mode” by over regulating Uber, Lyft, and other innovative new companies. It continues to be painful to watch our state government – which is so enthusiasm about innovation and entrepreneurship – keep stepping on their toes, and occasionally in shit, as they try to balance the incumbent / innovator dynamic. I’m glad Phil said what he said so clearly – it needed to be said.

Venture funding goes ballistic: VCJ: Some people are starting to call the top of the current cycle, at least in the context of flows of LP funds into VC firms. We had our LP Annual Meeting yesterday and I had a vibrant conversation with a few of our LPs about this topic at lunch. My view on the world continues to be simple – have a strategy and a set of deeply held beliefs. Evolve your strategy thoughtful and carefully, but never change your deeply held beliefts.

Understanding the Drivers of Success: Matt Blumberg, CEO of Return Path, reminds us that a rising tide raises all boats. He speaks from his own experience about some of the cycles he’s been through with Return Path over the past 12 years and how that masks potentials issues. Greg Sands from Costanoa, who’s been on the Return Path journey with me, Matt, and Fred Wilson from the beginning, weighed in with an email on the past that finished with a great punchline: “Finally, when the slow down comes, figuring out how to separate market dynamics from team team and know whether you have the mgmt team you need for the next part of the journey is *really* hard.”

How Cheezburger Recovered From Their Hiring Blunder: Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger, has an outstanding and very open article about some very hard decisions he had to make a year ago, how and why he made them, and how he and Cheezburger have recovered from some bad choices. I love working with Ben and especially enjoy how honest and internally consistent his brain is with what happened.

Heartbleed: What Is The Correct Response? I was going to write a post yesterday on Heartbleed but didn’t get to it. Fred Wilson wrote a great one this morning including searching for the correct response for him personally. There’s lots in the comment thread – go weigh in if you have thoughts or suggestions.

Ignoring Anonymous Coward and a Rant on Anonymous Apps

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Suddenly anonymous apps are all the rage again. Secret and Whisper are the two that have recently made headlines, but there’s a cockroach like proliferation of them being funded by VCs.

Anonymous Coward

As one of my favorite BSG quotes goes, “All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.”

I was generally ignoring this until I read a long post by Austin Hill titled On your permanent record: Anonymity, pseudonymity, ephemerality & bears omfg! It was outstanding and referred to a tweet stream by @pmarca on the same topic.

I’ve been trolled since I first started interacting with other humans online in the mid-1980s. The first time it happened was shocking to me. I was young (under 20), on a Usenet thread, and was part of what I thought was an interesting conversation. I no longer remember what the comment was that shook me up, but it was the equivalent of “go fuck yourself with an axe, chop out your liver, and die.”

Yeah – I wasn’t ready for that. After a few years of being trolled, I learned to completely ignore it. I recall discovering “anonymous coward” on Slashdot and – after thinking someone had come up with a particularly clever user name, I realized that was their label for all “guests” who commented anonymously.

When FuckedCompany.com came out in 2000, it was startling at first, but then it quickly became predictable. If you were part of a company that was fucked, you knew it. But when confidential information started appearing on a daily basis, especially in contexts where companies were trying to do the right thing, it became upsetting. Eventually, like being told to go fuck yourself with an axe, I became numb to it and started ignoring it.

At this point in my life, I realize that it is all just noise. So, for me, I just ignore it.

It’s the same kind of noise that destroys lives. It’s so much easier to be cruel when hiding behind a wall of anonymity. We already know how much easier it is to be cruel over email versus in person. Now put up an anonymous wall. Say anything you want. Release any confidential information you want. Lie about anything, since there is theoretically no way to trace it back to you. You are no longer accountable for what you say or do. You can say whatever you want, whether it is true or not. You can perform systematic character assassination without any consequences.

Every now and then one of the anonymous apps gets hacked. All the user data gets revealed. In the past, there wasn’t enough critical mass of this for anyone to care. But this time around, there might be. And, and Austin says in his post, there is merely the illusion of anonymity here.

“FALSE EXPECTATION OF ANONYMITY: The security model for both these applications is horrendous and irresponsible. The give the user an illusion of privacy, encourage users to say things without the burden of identity (both in good or bad cases) — but then provide no real anonymity or privacy is deceptive.” 

Go read the whole thing – I won’t repeat it here. But if you think what you are putting up on these apps is really anonymous, then keep doing it at your own peril.

But why are you doing it? What is the value to you? What is the value to society? What is the value to anyone else? And what is the cost?

This isn’t a moral question. Do whatever you want. But ask yourself the question “why”.

If you think this is new and exciting, just remember all this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.

Google Apps Users Should Use Google Public DNS

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Maybe everyone knows this, but it took me a while to realize that almost all of my performance issues with Google Apps were related to my DNS configuration. Once I switched all my machines and routers to Google Public DNS all of my performance problems went away.

It’s remarkable. Simply hard code DNS to 8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4. Problem solved.

My office, condo, and house in Keystone are all on Comcast. For the last month I’ve been struggling in each of them. There are days that Gmail feels almost unusable – five to ten second waits between messages. Web performance was “good enough” so I assumed it was a Gmail problem.

Nope – it was a Comcast DNS problem.

In hindsight, this is kind of obvious. But wow, what a difference it made.

Bitcoins Bitcoins Everywhere

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Bitcoins Bitcoins EverywhereI woke up this morning to several articles about Bitcoins. From Dave Taylor’s explanation in the Boulder Daily Camera to a paywall article that you can’t buy with bitcoins (ironic) in the NY Times (A Bitcoin Puzzle) to Fred Wilson’s blog (A Note about Bitcoin), I was surrounded by words about them.

We have an awesome CEO list that covers plenty of topics. Early in the week I posted a link to Fred Wilson’s post Buying Your Holiday Gifts With Bitcoin. That generated a fun discussion including lots of “what are bitcoins and why do I care”; “here’s what they are” kind of things. And then Kwin Kramer of Oblong weighed in with a phenomenal essay. It follows.

I’m with Seth; I think bitcoin is interesting on several levels, including as a real-life experiment with a semi-decentralized currency.

Bitcoin is a software engineer’s implementation of money (as distinct from, for example, a politician’s, banker’s, or economist’s).

There’s a lot of overlap between bitcoin fans and folks with strongly libertarian views. Many of bitcoin’s most vocal proponents see bitcoin as a currency, a replacement for currencies that are created and managed by governments. These folks tend to view bitcoin as a sort of electronic version of gold, a new currency that’s not a “fiat” currency.

I’m deeply skeptical of this set of ideas. First, and very generally, I don’t tend to think that dis-intermediating government institutions is a useful goal in and of itself. I would describe a well-run central bank like the United States Federal Reserve the way Churchill described democracy: the worst solution to the problem of managing a monetary system, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

In addition, core design decisions in the bitcoin spec make bitcoin a pretty terrible store of value and unit of account, which are two things we expect from a currency.

As has been noted in this thread, the total number of bitcoins is capped at 21,000,000. Currently there are about half that number of bitcoins in circulation. The rate at which new bitcoins are mined is designed to decrease over time. This means the bitcoin market behaves more like a commodity market than like a currency market, prone to volatility and some specific kinds of market pathologies. In my view the fact that the money supply can’t be “managed” by a central bank that is able to turn various “knobs” (interest rates of several kinds, the amount of money in circulation) is a bug, not feature!

The cap also means that a bitcoin-denominated monetary system will be a system built around deflation — the opposite of how the monetary system we use today is constructed. Over time, prices will fall, rather than rise. Economists generally view deflation as a problem. If prices get cheaper over time, all the time, people have strong incentives to delay purchases and to save money. If everyone saves, rather than spends, economic growth is impossible.

Economists have lots of tools for talking about this stuff. And, while economists often disagree violently with each other, the collective knowledge in the field is important and valuable. To draw an analogy, non-programmers can and often do have very insightful things to say about digital technology. But it’s definitely worth talking to experienced programmers when trying to understand a particular platform, protocol, or application.

I’m not an economist, but I find convincing the economists’ consensus that deflation is “bad.” At the very least, I’d argue that we don’t know how to build a stable monetary system on top of a currency that is fundamentally deflationary.

On the other hand, even if bitcoin makes for a poor currency, it may well be a very useful payment mechanism. The original bitcoin paper focuses heavily on this aspect of the system design.

To explain this a little more, we can think about how we use US dollars in normal, every-day life. I usually keep some printed dollar banknotes in my pockets. These banknotes — these “dollars” — are a store of value. (They’re worth something in an economic sense.) The banknotes are also a unit of account. (Lots and lots of things I encounter every day have prices denominated in dollars.) Finally, each banknote is a payment mechanism — a transaction mechanism. I can hand over a banknote to most people I might want to buy something from. They’ll accept it. We’ll both know what that means.

But physically handing over a “dollar” isn’t the only payment mechanism I regularly use. I have credit cards, and checks (sort of — that’s kind of changing), and now some other electronic payment mechanisms like PayPal and Amazon points.

It’s possible to separate the functions of value store, unit of account, and transaction mechanism. They fit together neatly and are systemically related, but they’re three different things.

The bitcoin peer-to-peer transaction protocol is pretty cool. It’s basically strong cyptography, good timestamps, and a consensus protocol for blessing transaction reporting.

Which boils down to a way to “hand someone cash” electronically. With no trusted third party having to broker the handover. And, theoretically, anonymity for both the payer and the payee.

As a software person, I think of this as a platform. A new electronic payment platform that may have significant advantages over most of the existing ones. To get broad adoption, platforms need killer apps. So far, there aren’t killer apps for bitcoin. But there are some possible raw materials for killer apps. Cheaper international payments. Completely anonymous electronic payments. But the great thing about platforms is that it’s often quite hard to predict early on what the killer apps might be. Particularly for the really disruptive ones.

A couple of final caveats. It’s not clear (at least to me) whether it’s possible to separate the currency aspects of bitcoin from the transaction platform aspects. If bitcoin does turn out to be a flawed currency, that could be a problem even if the transaction platform stuff is really useful.

Also, the bitcoin platform is pretty new and there may be some fatal flaws in the design of its anonymity features and its transaction log. For example, the transaction log is a global, permanent thing. To verify any bitcoin transaction you have to have a full record of every bitcoin transaction ever. That’s okay now; the system is small. Our computers and networks will keep getting faster as bitcoin use increases. But a broadly used currency will have to be able to support a lot of transactions. Maybe the design can be patched, either in a technical sense or in a social/institutional sense. But we don’t really know.

Some links:

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