Thursday, September 05, 2013

Interesting business writing - on Amazon, Palantir and the U.S. power grid

There's been three pieces of business writing I've seen lately that struck me as particularly interesting, with features from Fast Company, Businessweek and Forbes.

The Sept issue of Fast Company cover story was "Amazonfresh is Jeff Bezos' Last Mile Quest for Total Retail Domination" by J.J. McCorvey and it's a tremendously interesting read on the company and it's efforts around the connected areas of same-day delivery and groceries. As McCorvey wrote in the piece...

"It's the so-called last-mile problem--you can ship trucks' worth of packages from a warehouse easily enough, but getting an individual package to wind its way through a single neighborhood and arrive at a single consumer's door isn't easy. The volume of freight and frequency of delivery must outweigh the costs of fuel and time, or else this last mile is wildly expensive."

Amazon has already been moving forward in this effort, with huge investments in warehouses (and a willingness to no longer fight state sales taxes that typically get incurred with warehouse presence a state) as well as local delivery options that complete with existing carriers. As I read the piece by McCorvey, it looks as if Amazon building a hyper-efficient network around fulfillment of goods, just as they built networks around the cloud and running the websites of other companies with Amazon Web Services and networks around self-publishing with Kindle Direct Publishing.

The Businessweek piece of late that stood out was "Why the U.S. Power Grid's Days Are Numbered" by By Chris Martin, Mark Chediak, and Ken Wells from the Sept 22 issue. Detailed in this thoroughly researched  feature was the increased usage by individuals and companies of power that's generated outside the grid that the authors note provided via 3,200 utilities in the US alone.

This usage of power outside the grid is known as distributed generation and most commonly includes solar and wind power. Also cited in the piece is how one of the technological advances moving forward distributed generation is an advance in microgrids, the systems that enable switching between different power sources, both generated within and outside the utility company run grid.

The last piece to note here was from the September 2 issue of Forbes with "How A 'Deviant' Philosopher Built Palantir, A CIA-Funded Data-Mining Juggernaut" by Andy Greenberg and Ryan Mac. It's a fascinating piece on the company and it's founder, Alex Karp. I previously wrote about and linked to a Dec 2011 Businessweek feature on Palantir and the Forbes piece details how the company has continued to grow since then with it's early roots as a U.S. intelligence company now added to with significant work around non-anti-terrorist efforts like detecting corporate fraud, analyzing pharmaceutical data and tracking license plates photographed on behalf of local government.

Palantir gets this work done by mining enormous disparate data sets (also known as unstructured data) to ferret out connections and information and detailed in the Forbes article is how the company has many privacy advocates concerned about the level of information it's compiled on the public. It's noted in the piece that Palantir not blind to these concerns nor potential misuse of information and has technical safeguards that keep a record of who views what data, a team of privacy and civil liberties engineers on staff and the CEO Karp himself, about whom senior Palantir engineer Ari Gesher is quoted in the article as saying "he's our conscience".

While this statement could be viewed as troublesome, the potential for abuse doesn't mean that abuse there and Karp nor Palantir by extension shouldn't be excoriated just because of that potential, but one thing that struck me from the piece was that the firm may be going public. My misgivings about a public company (charged with maximizing shareholder value) having the type of information Palantir has seems to get echoed by the authors of the Forbes piece...

"Karp has also stated Palantir turned down a chance to work with a tobacco firm, and overall the company walks away from as much as 20% of its possible revenue for ethical reasons (it remains to be seen whether the company will be so picky if it becomes accountable to public shareholders and the demand for quarterly results)".

It's terribly fascinating company that certainly appears to do important work very well, just will be interesting to see what occurs as Palantir continues to grow and potentially becomes a publicly traded company.