You are here

Albert Wenger

Content Written by Author

Monday, October 7, 2019 - 12:33pm

Back to writing about the climate crisis. Today is the beginning of a week of action by Extinction Rebellion – they are pushing for carbon neutrality by 2025. As promised before I will start looking at solutions. Following my post on greenhouse gases, it is pretty clear that there are fundamentally only two types of solutions: emit fewer greenhouse gases and recapture existing one from the air. I will write more about both of these, but today want to introduce a basic idea of reversing the carbon cycle.

What do I mean by this? Well, for the last 200 years or so we have been digging up hydrocarbons from the ground, mostly in the form or coal and oil and have been burning them while at the same time cutting back on forests.

We now need to do the exact opposite. That means we need to aggressively grow biomass which removes carbon from the atmosphere. We then need to make sure that the captured carbon is either stored back in the soil (for instance in the form of biochar) or is used in our materials supply chain (for example by creating plant based packaging material). One key insight in this context is that we now need less land than ever before to grow our food supply and can in fact cut down on that land use aggressively by building out vertical farming. The freed up land needs to be used for reforestation and for even more aggressive biomass growing (e.g. grasses that can grow up to 15 feet in a single season).

As the picture above shows, the other area where we can work on biomass are the oceans. This is tricky for many reasons that I will get into but because the oceans are vast could make a huge difference in reversing the carbon cycle. I will dig into each of these ideas in more detail in upcoming posts.

Friday, October 4, 2019 - 12:32pm

I will resume writing about the climate crisis next week, but today it feels appropriate to return to the topic of Trump. My last post was about the need to resist Trump’s return to cruelty as a means of politics. I am happy that this resistance has been building and most importantly that the Democrats appear to finally have found the courage to impeach the president. The longrunning prior calculation about how impeachment might affect the election was misguided, as I previously argued in a post in April.

There had been plenty of reasons for impeachment as it has been clear from before the election that Trump fundamentally thinks laws do not apply to him.  His admiration for dictators isn’t some kind of aberration in an otherwise democratic politician. It comes from the core of his personality. Thankfully with the latest texts revealing just how much the phone call with Zelensky was part of a classic quid-pro-quo cooperation with a foreign power, the case for impeachment has become stronger than ever.

The president and his remaining supporters are now retreating to the last refuge of scoundrels which is doubling down. “We are looking for the real killers”-style they are now proclaiming that the whole thing is an investigation into 2016 election interference. Trump himself has taken to calling publicly on other nations including China to join in, apparently on the theory that if it’s public it can’t be corruption.

Time to get on with impeachment. And I look forward to the senate vote which will finally force GOP members there to put their name indelibly in the history books, no longer getting away with equivocating television interviews.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019 - 12:36pm

Between the climate crisis and the US government crisis it’s difficult to remain upbeat. So today instead of writing about either of those I want to celebrate an example of what I call the Knowledge Loop in my book World After Capital

About a year ago or so I stumbled on a wonderful Youtube channel called Numberphile that has over 3 million subscribers. On Numberphile, Brady Haran gets mathematicians to explain interesting and sometimes simply just quirky bits of math. The videos tend to be under 15 minutes and are super engaging. Here is one I watched last night on transcendental numbers.

These videos convey so much wonder and honest excitement that provides a marvelous antidote for the cynicism that we are exposed to daily. I also believe that young people who watch these may discover an interest in mathematics and so am pleased to see that many of the videos have 1 million views. What a beautiful celebration and sharing of human knowledge!

Monday, September 30, 2019 - 12:39pm

In Aristotle’s theory of the mean, every virtue lies between two vices on either extreme. For example, courage lies between cowardice (a lack of courage) and rashness (an excess of courage). The general idea that there are failure modes in either direction is a useful one to consider, including when discussing inequality.

This was brought to mind when I saw Josh Wolfe’s tweet, making fun of Bernie Sanders for being an 0.1%-er on Twitter with over 9 million followers. This was in the context of Sanders suggesting that billionaires should not exist in support of his argument for a wealth tax.

I then tweeted the following (quoting Josh’s tweet):

What if the right answer is that both systems have strong positive feedback loops giving undue influence to a few?

By both systems here I mean the economy at large and online systems (such as Twitter) generating power law distributions. I have a section in World After Capital about this pervasive shift to power laws and how it is powered by the shift to digital technologies.

Josh then replied with a question: Is society worse off? There is a lot of evidence that the answer is yes. Since I had accidentally linked to a paywalled piece, let me link here to some recent studies:

- OECD Study from 2014
- World Bank paper from 2015
- IMF Blog post from 2017

Now there will almost certainly be issues with the econometrics on each of these (there always are), so I wouldn’t put too much weight into any one, but if you combine them with some logic and other empirical findings, the evidence adds up. Let me give just one example: as inequality rises it may get more difficult for children growing up in poor households to keep up with educational achievement (eg wealthy households pay for private tutors). That’s exactly what we are now seeing. That’s bad for society because it makes it harder for brilliant minds who happen to be born poor to contribute.

So yes. Excessive inequality is bad for society. That’s true for wealth and it also true for social media influence. Right now, that is the failure mode we should be worried about, not that we are somehow anywhere close to the opposite end of excess equality.

Friday, September 27, 2019 - 2:32pm

Earlier this week I posted Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN. In the speech she is visibly angry. I believe this anger is justified. We have been collectively ignoring the ever bigger warning signs coming from science that go back many decades. Why should children not be angry at us? We deserve this until we start acting to a degree that is commensurate with the existential crisis we are facing.

Having grown up in Germany, I have read lots of books and had some intense discussions with adults from my grandparents generation, about the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust. The same angry question stood at the center here too: How could you let this happen? And of course the circumstances were different and the details of the answers to this question are different also, but it does fundamentally come down to the same two cores: we were busy living our lives and we did what everyone else did.

I believe the most vicious reactions to Greta’s speech and her person overall come from people who deep down recognize how right she is. But it is far easier to attack the messenger and carry on as usual than to face the enormity of the changes that are required. Scott Aaronson, someone not given to sentimentality, wrote this about Greta:

You can make fun of her, ask what standing or expertise she has as some random 16-year-old to lead a worldwide movement. But I suspect that this is always what it looks like when someone takes something that’s known to (almost) all, and then makes it common knowledge. If civilization makes it to the 22nd century at all, then in whatever form it still exists, I can easily imagine that it will have more statues of Greta than of MLK or Gandhi.

That sums up my sentiment as well.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019 - 2:33pm

On Monday I wrote a post about the relationship between activism and innovation. Later that day Greta Thunberg addressed the UN. If you have not seen it, it is worth watching in its entirety:

Instead of providing my thoughts on it now, I would love to hear reactions from Continuations readers. I will write a longer post on Friday.

Monday, September 23, 2019 - 12:34pm

If you have been following my posts on the climate crisis, you know that I have been supporting various forms of activism. I was pleased to see the massive turnout at the climate strike all around the globe and especially here in New York, where Greta Thunberg will be addressing the UN today.

Some people have been pushing back along the lines of “this activism is distracting from the real need which is for innovation;” or “all they want is renewables but we really need nuclear;” or even more pointedly “the activists want socialism and only capitalism will give us enough innovation” to fight the climate crisis.

This is a false dichotomy. We absolutely need activism so that we can have more innovation. How so? First, in order to attract more entrepreneurs and private capital to the sector we need to price carbon and we need a high price for it. That will not happen without activism.

Second, there is a clear role for behavior change above and beyond innovation. If we remain stuck in industrial age patterns of production and consumption, wedded to the job loop, we will not succeed against the climate crisis. That will not happen without activism.

Third, beyond innovation and behavior change we also require the mobilization of public resources. As I tried to explain with the “alien invasion analogy” the scale of the climate crisis is such that we need to globally be on the equivalent of a war footing. Again, only activism will get us there.

But what about nuclear you may still ask? Absolutely there will be questions down the line that need to be resolved and this is one of them but that discussion can only be had in the context of real urgency which still needs to be established.

Thursday, September 19, 2019 - 1:36pm

The beginning of global climate strike is now only 2 days away. In New York City it starts noon on Friday at Foley Square with a 1pm march to Battery Park. Even if you cannot stay for the rally at Battery Park, everyone who has a lunch break should just use that to join the march! So: grab a sandwich and join. Details on the march here. Let’s make this bigger than anyone expects.

PS If you are wondering why, read my climate crisis posts. If you have time for just one, make it the Alien Invasion Analogy.

Monday, September 16, 2019 - 11:33am

So I had promised that I would start writing about potential solutions to the climate crisis. As I started down that path, I realized that to discuss their relative importance or effectiveness requires a better understanding of the scale of the crisis. The alien invasion analogy sums it up as a single number: the excess energy above the pre-industrial baseline that we are adding to the atmospheric system amounts to 1 Hiroshima-sized nuclear bomb every second (all day, 365 days a year). But why is that and how come it is isn’t more immediately visible? So instead of writing about solutions, I have decided to add a few physics posts first.

The first one is about the basics of greenhouse gases, in particular carbon dioxide (CO2). The Wikipedia entry is an excellent resource, and from it comes this crucial chart:

image

What are we looking at? The horizontal axis of this is the wavelength of light ranging from ultraviolet (UV) on the left to infrared on the right, with the small band of visible spectrum between them (see the labels in the yellow area).

The top area of the chart shows that most of the light coming from the sun is in the visible spectrum (the big red “hump”) with some in UV (which gives us sunburns). This sun light heats up buildings, soil, water, etc. during the day. As those things warm up they start to give off infrared light which is radiated back into the atmosphere. That’s the blue “hump” in the top portion of the chart.

Below in the grey area of the chart is the total absorption and scattering of light by the atmosphere at first and then decomposed into its major components. It is here that we want to focus our attention. In particular, let’s look at the Carbon Dioxide line. What we can see by reading the chart vertically is that CO2 has some “humps” that line up with the incoming light from the sun, but the really big “hump” lines up with the radiation that’s trying to leave earth back into space once objects have warmed up and are giving off infrared light.

Hence the term greenhouse gas. Carbon Dioxide and Methane play essentially the same role as glass does in a greenhouse. They let the sunlight in (minimal absorption on the way down from the sun) but trap the heat (lots of absorption and scattering when heat tries to escape). There is also an important interaction with water vapor, which is the most potent of the greenhouse gases that’s well described in the Wikipedia entry.

Friday, September 13, 2019 - 1:32pm

I have been writing a ton of posts about the climate crisis, including one about the global climate strike on September 20th, one week from today. Now is the time to stop the excuses and help promote this strike and also participate in it digitally.

So: stop whatever you are doing this morning, head on over to the Digital Climate Strike website and add the banner to your own site. It is literally as simple as dropping one script into your page.

Oh and of course if you are in New York City, please make sure to join the in person event here.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019 - 5:38pm

Children who were born on 9/11 2001 turn 18 today, officially becoming adults. We are approaching the point where this attack is effectively one generation ago. With growing distance we need to keep supporting those who lost friends, family, colleagues – as well as take care of first responders – while also becoming more dispassionate in our evaluation of our reactions to the events. We must revisit the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, the forever-war in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and the use of drones. All of these were created or massively ramped up in the immediate aftermath and have proven deeply problematic in countless ways. Ultimately the memory of those killed on 9/11 and since then is best served by returning to the principles of a democracy with a system of checks and balances, or in other words, by being the place those who attacked us were seeking to destroy.

Monday, September 9, 2019 - 2:32pm

I recently recorded a podcast about the climate crisis where I made the point that we should not think about innovation versus activism, we need both. In fact the level and speed of innovation that is required if we want to have any chance, can only be achieved if we make massive changes at the collective level (e.g. a $100+ per ton tax on carbon dioxide). Earlier in this series about the climate crisis, I wrote about the growing youth movement, today’s post is about another rapidly growing movement called Extinction Rebellion.

Extinction Rebellion was founded less than a year ago by Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook and has spread around the world since and has a strong New York presence. There are many factors that make Extinction Rebellion different but the crucial one is its theory of change, which is rooted in civil disobedience, drawing lessons from the civil rights movement in the United States, as well as other non-violent protest movements. The key insight here is that with time running out, non-violent direct action is the only viable fast path to change as only a small fraction of the population (3-4%) needs to participate actively.

Extinction Rebellion also has three demands that are fit for the magnitude of the crisis in their clarity and boldness:

1. Tell the truth: Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.

2. Act now: Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.

3. Change politics: Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.

Each of these makes sense on their own but they also work well in concert with each other. To understand “tell the truth,” consider my post on the “Alien Invasion Analogy.” The call to act now with a dramatic short term goal is about mobilizing all of our resources, the way we did during World War II. The third point is about staying democratic while also short circuiting the current political deadlock – not just on climate but just about everything else. This applies equally well to the United States as to the United Kingdom where Extinction Rebellion got going.

I encourage everyone to watch one of Extinction Rebellion’s “Heading for Extinction” talks. These talks have two parts. First, a summary of the science which points to an extinction level event and second, an explanation of Extinction Rebellion’s principles, demands and theory of change. You can find these talks on Youtube, but also via your local Extinction Rebellion group. Here is the talk from Oxford

Friday, September 6, 2019 - 5:34pm

Imagine the following scene: alien spaceships in orbit around earth, dropping nuclear bombs into our atmosphere at the rate of 1 bomb per second with the goal of overheating earth and destroying all life on it.

It is obvious what we would be doing. We would drop absolutely everything else and mobilize all of our resources to defeat the aliens. There are of course plenty of movie versions of that kind of scenario, such as Independence Day.

So why are we complacent instead? Because (a) it’s not aliens in spaceships, it is us here on earth and (b) the heat absorption is happening via invisible greenhouse gases. But the energy addition is exactly the same: 1 Hiroshima sized nuclear bomb per second worth of additional energy. All day, every day.

One way I have started to try to get people to wrap their head around the enormity of the situation is that I don’t present them with this as a fact. I ask them for an estimate instead on a per day basis. Most people come up with numbers somewhere between a few per day to a few hundred per day at the high end.  The actual number is closer to 100,000!

Once people hear the real number I then give them the image of aliens doing this to us. This does seem to get a lot of people who previously said they were not really all that concerned about climate change to want to learn more and become active.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019 - 12:35pm

Today we have launched a new website for USV. It is the second complete overhaul of the site since USV launched with a blog in 2004 (modulo some smaller experiments with tagging in between). The new site is up to modern standards in terms of speed and rendering on mobile. More importantly though it does a better job laying out the evolution of the USV investment thesis over time. It also provides much better access to the content that’s been produced on USV.com as well as on our personal blogs over the years (all of Continuations content is indexed there also). So go check it out – excited to hear what you think!

Tuesday, September 3, 2019 - 11:34am

The majority of the 2020 presidential candidates on the Democratic side support a Federal Job Guarantee with Andrew Yang being the lone voice in favor of a Universal Basic Income. Both of these policies are aiming to address the changes taking place in the labor market as our automation capabilities improve. In my book World After Capital and here on Continuations I have been a vocal supporter of a Universal Basic Income. But what about a Job Guarantee?

Before getting into the issues with a Federal Job Guarantee, I want to point out a related potential federal program that is worth investigating. I believe some kind of Civilian Corps, a la the Civilian Conservation Corps, could be a good idea to the extent it is broadly mandatory and kept relatively short (1 year or less). The goals here would be less employment per see but rather (a) increasing coherence of civil society by bringing people from all different walks of life together and (b) reconnecting people with nature.

Now another area that I am supportive of are massive infrastructure investments. But these will not, or at least should not, be huge employment creators. Take a high speed rail connection for the Northeast Corridor as an example. We need one badly – it would cut air travel between DC, New York and Boston significantly. But if constructed with modern technology it will not create a ton of employment. Long gone are the times where thousands of people with shovels building railroads. And that immediately brings me to one of the first issues with a Federal Job Guarantee. It will be extremely tempting to simply make more work by going backwards in technology, which would be a terrible misallocation of human effort.

But what about jobs like taking care of the aging population? Yes, we definitely need lots of work in this area and it is one where technology provides little in the ways of productivity. So why not target a Federal Job Guarantee at that? The key reason is that eldercare is super local and should be figured out by the respective communities. That’s virtually impossible with a federally run program. Now there may be ways to do this a bit better than strictly federal by making block grants that states can use to provide eldercare. Still these will be political footballs with myriads of opportunities for misallocation (eg lots of eldercare in a local politician’s hometown). Universal Basic Income, by contrast, puts each community into a position to organize eldercare the way it sees fit.

The same logic applies to taking care of the very young. Add one more point here: Universal Basic Income also enables parents to take care of children (or aging parents for that matter) by themselves. It fundamentally recognizes the value of this massive unpaid labor, most of it provided today by women.

So on this Labor Day, I would encourage everyone who is in favor of a Job Guarantee to come up with something more detailed than what is on the Bernie Sanders website and then see if it makes any sense at all.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019 - 1:31pm

Thirty one years ago, in 1987, I landed at Boston Logan Airport with an F1 student visa to attend Harvard. I was full of excitement and not the least bit concerned about getting into the country. I had been here twice before, once staying with a family in Rochester, Minnesota for a school year (1983/84) and once in the summer of 1986 to tour schools all across the US. Each time entering the country had been a complete non event (other than long waiting lines).

This past Friday, a 17 year old Harvard freshman from Lebanon was denied entry to the United States, allegedly over posts by others whom he follows or is friends with on social media. If social media had been around back in 1987 and if that was indeed the standard, there is no way I would have been let into the country. Many of my friends were strongly and vocally anti American and I myself had participated in protests against the deployment of Pershing missiles in Germany.

Not all my entries during my student years were as smooth as the one in the fall of 1987. I have spent quite a few hours in the waiting room at Logan. Even back then, long before 9/11 and the Trump administration, some of the immigration officers were incredibly rude and made me feel not welcome. I tried to attribute it to the pressure of the job but having grown older I now know that some people relish the power they have been given over others and that cruelty is never far away.

Obviously this is not the currently worst abuse of power at the US border by a long shot. It just struck me how completely different my life could have been and I hope this young man will be allowed to enter and attend school.

Monday, August 26, 2019 - 12:39pm

Of course Ethereum is not a walled garden the way AOL was. Anyone can write and deploy a smart contract, whereas adding functionality to AOL required a contract and a custom implementation. What I mean instead is that much of AOL’s growth in both revenues and functionality was financed by AOL itself. AOL made a lot of investments in startups which then purchased advertising on AOL, at least in the early days of this, extended AOLs functionality.

The decentralized finance (defi) space, which is frequently touted as Ethereum’s strongest use case, has some parallels to this. A ton of defi is in some way or another financed via Ethereum. Many decentralized finance projects have their own Ethereum based tokens. Some have been founded by people who have large personal Ethereum holdings. Consensys has been an active investor in the decentralized finance space.

Now when the dotcom bubble burst, it turned out that many of the companies that AOL had backed went out of business resulting in a loss of both revenues and functionality (much of which had migrated to the open web in any case). It is unclear to me, as of today, how much defi activity is actually connected to productive economic activity, as opposed to speculation and financial transactions within crypto. After looking at a number of projects recently it all feels incredibly self referential, solving problems inside crypto, such as derivatives or swaps on tokens, where the underlying tokens don’t appear to have much actual use. Again, many of these tokens only exist because it was easy to issue them on Ethereum to begin with.

It is entirely possible that we are witnessing the creation of a new financial system. This may be a case of bootstrapping in its original sense. As the system gets built it finds ever more actual usage. But it is also possible that it is a giant house of cards where both the financing and the problems being solved all relate back to the same source, namely Ethereum. It is in that sense that I am asking whether Ethereum is the AOL of crypto.

Friday, August 23, 2019 - 12:38pm

There are many terrific analyses of the WeWork IPO filing out there. One thing I have not read is someone pointing out how there is a possibility that this all works, despite the hokum language and the eye popping capital requirements, simply because we have created $3 trillion more dollars in the US alone (with equally massive central bank money creation in Europe and in China). On my blog I have been complaining about valuations as far back as I can remember but when interest rates approach zero funny things happen and when they go negative, as they now have for $13 trillion of debt, then anything is possible. The meaning of a discounted NPV gets completely blown up in such a world and it is entirely possible that WeWork can finance itself. I am still struggling with figuring out how to be an investor among this glut of capital.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019 - 1:39pm

On Monday of this week the Business Roundtable, an organization which “represents chief executive officers (CEOs) of America’s leading companies,” published a new statement on the purpose of a corporation. The new statement, which was signed by 181 executives, explicitly states that “we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders” (emphasis mine). This is an important departure from the singular focus on shareholders as the focus that has dominated the American corporate landscape.

Now of course it is easy to say one thing and do another and it is entirely possible that this is simply a cynical ploy to improve the public perception of large corporations. But in the Gallup poll of public confidence big business has been on the upswing for some years, and so I am taking this as a cautiously optimistic sign that we may have gotten past the peak of the focus on shareholders at all cost capitalism.

This is an area that I have spent a fair bit of time and attention on, such as being involved with the creation of the benefit corporation statute in Delaware and speaking at the first conference on steward ownership. It is important to remember that corporations have been around for quite a long time going back to the 15th century. For the longest time it was understood that corporations had a broad set of responsibilities to society in return for the many rights and protections that were afforded to corporations by society. The narrowing of purpose down to shareholders was a relatively recent phenomenon and one that we are hopefully starting to leave behind.

While the big corporations that signed on to this will have a lot to do to actually meaningfully live up to it, we are seeing many startups and growth companies already taking a broader approach. One area in particular where I believe corporations can and should be taking more responsibility as governments continue to drag their feet is the climate crisis. I will write more about that in the coming weeks.

Monday, August 19, 2019 - 5:39pm

Earlier this morning, I marked some 65,000 emails as read. Many of these are various kind of junk, but I am sure they contain some gems of opportunity and some important asks for help. They definitely include some instances where I reached out to someone and then never got back to their reply – for those: I am sorry!

I have long ago given up trying to read, never mind reply to, every email as it is simply impossible to get any work done (or have any time to think) if I let my inbox dictate my attention allocation. The reset is simply to give me one more query criterion for the email filters I use. 

If you feel that your email was one of those that I should have read and replied to and you happen to see this, please do not hesitate to ping me again.

Albert Wenger is a partner at Union Square Ventures (USV), a New York-based early stage VC firm focused on investing in disruptive networks. USV portfolio companies include: Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, Etsy, Kickstarter and Shapeways. Before joining USV, Albert was the president of del.icio.us through the company’s sale to Yahoo. He previously founded or co-founded five companies, including a management consulting firm (in Germany), a hosted data analytics company, a technology subsidiary for Telebanc (now E*Tradebank), an early stage investment firm, and most recently (with his wife), DailyLit, a service for reading books by email or RSS.