Seeking Alpha: How To Encourage Thinking Inside the Box

Seeking Alpha (SA) has long been a good website aggregating content about stocks from around the web, and they’ve come up with some useful innovations, such as paying authors for original content (1 cent per page view). The money isn’t great, but I know of at least one seasoned writer (Dana Blankenhorn) who is actually making a decent living on it… and I was the one who told him about the opportunity.

SA has been republishing about 2/3 of my content since 2007 – a little over 300 articles so far, although I have not participated in the exclusive content program, for two reasons. First, because my other blogs (AltEnergyStocks.com and Forbes.com) pay more (although still not much) and they don’t say that I can’t republish elsewhere afterwards.

Part of the reason they pay more is because Seeking Alpha is set up to favor conventional, easy-to-categorize content: About two years ago, they changed their categorization system to only include the traditional industry groups: Utilities, Consumer Goods, Etc. In the process, they eliminated the category Alternative Energy. Now, writers who focus on one traditional sector such as IT tend to be featured more prominently on the website.

My articles, on the other hand, are about green investing, a cross-cutting theme if there ever was one. Much of the time, they do not get categorized at all.

To be fair, I’ve talked to Eli Hoffman, who owns the site, and several other employees about this several times over the last few years. They are aware of the problem, and agree that it needs to be fixed, but they certainly have not made it a priority. Which is weird, since the claim that the main purpose of their site is to help people be better investors.

Since when did promoting conventional thinking make anyone a better investor?

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Bill Konrad 1930-2011

May father died on December 7th, and I just published his obituary on Forbes: http://onforb.es/BillKonrad. As a life-long investor and IT CEO, I think it would have pleased him to have it published there.

Interviewing his friends and family in the process of writing it was a great help in coming to terms with losing him, as was this shorter poem I read at his memorial ceremony:

Dad could be a little prickly and hard to know at times,
just like the cacti you see around you here,
at his favorite spot,
overlooking the Pacific ocean.

I believe he loved them because he saw a parallel between them and himself.
That parallel was not the unexpected beauty of their blooms,
a trait he never would have admitted to in himself…
But I think that was just his needles talking.

Instead, I think he valued their ability to thrive in adverse conditions.
Above all, he loved to watch them grow,
To see what unique forms they would take on.

Just recently he told me that, when he was young, he was somewhat sickly.
Against the odds, he did thrive.

Dad was a risk-taker, but not a gambler.
He did everything he could to stack the odds in his favor.
With his health, he exercised religiously, and kept careful track of everything he could,
from his pulse rate to the most recent medical research.

In the stock market, he would place big bets on individual companies,
but only when he knew everything he could about those companies.
He made his first million before he was thirty because he saw the emergence of of a new electronics industry long before most other investors.

His diligence continued to pay off even when he was 70,
When he won his age division in the Big Sur marathon.

Dad was a great role model.
He set goals for himself, and he succeeded at them.
One of his goals and successes was to be a great father.

I love you, Dad.

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Wood gas conversion of pickups

Biofuels Digest brings us the story of Wayne Keith and his wood-syngas conversion for pickups (I get the feeling he uses mostly pickups because you can use the truck bed as you “gas tank.”

I think this option has a lot going for it. The biggest barrier to cellulosic biofuels in my mind is the dispersed nature of the resource… it’s difficult to gather it op in one place to convert it efficiently into fuel. So if the conversion is done in the vehicle, the dispersed nature of (especially rural vehicles) is a much better match for the dispersed nature of the resource.

Gasification is not a good option for urban vehicles (since the resource is relatively scarce there, although much garbage works in these trucks), but it seems an elegant solution for utilizing the large volume of diverse biomass that would never be collected by commercial operations because it is both to dispersed and varied.

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Mathemagic

I just found out my college Probability and Statistics professor was on the Colbert Report last year. Apparently he’s the only mathematician to ever have been on the show.

Watch the video below for a sample Art Benjamin’s unique mathemagic (and Colbert’s four-standard-deviation humor)… and don’t worry, there won’t be a pop quiz after the episode.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Arthur Benjamin
www.colbertnation.com
http://media.mtvnservices.com/mgid:cms:item:comedycentral.com:262614
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

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The One Alternative Energy Sure Thing?

It looks like Tom Gardiner at Motley Fool is pushing one of my current favorite stocks, Ameresco (AMRC). The Stock Gumshoe deciphered the clues here, giving my Forbes blog about Ameresco a link.

A appreciate the Gumshoe for his dry sense of humor and ability to deflate the hype newsletter promoters are always trying to drum up. Not that I mind when those propmoters are pushing a stock I already own a substantial chunk of!

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Small is Beautiful

My recent Forbes article Cheap Photovoltaics Are Eating Solar Thermal’s Lunch about how the rapidly falling price for photvoltaic (PV) modules is undermining the case for concentrated Solar Thermal Power (CSP) is just one instance in a larger trend: In the modern energy economy, modular technologies advance more rapidly than large scale technologies because it is easier to get experience with them in the field at reasonable cost.

PV started with sub-watt sized cells in solar powered calculators. Solar calculators may not seem to have much to do with today’s multiple hundreds of megawatt (MW) sized plants which can be a billion times larger than a solar calculator, but the manufacturing experience with those tiny cells allowed manufacturers to bring costs down to the point where kilowatt sized systems started to be used on off-grid homes, which in turn brought down the price enough to allow subsidies to make solar affordable for most homeowners, and 1-2 MW commercial plants, and now we’re seeing announcements of solar farms approaching a gigawatt.

CSP, on the other hand, only starts to make sense at around 100 MW, so building each new plant represents a much bigger financial commitment than even a million calculators. Looked at this way, PV’s potential eclipse of CSP perhaps should have not been all that surprising. But hindsight is 20-20.

This also has implications for the advance of other energy technologies. Look for the modular technologies to gain ground at the expense of the industrial scale technologies.

Modular technologies

  • PV
  • Wind
  • Gas Turbines
  • Land Fill Gas
  • Grid based battery storage
  • Energy Efficiency
  • Smart Grid / Demand Response
  • Fuel Cells

Industrial Scale Technologies

  • CSP
  • Coal
  • Nuclear
  • Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC)
  • Geothermal Power (sometimes small scale, but limited places it can be built)
  • Compressed Air energy Storage
  • Pumped Hydro
  • Flow Batteries

That’s just a few energy technologies off the top of my head, and I’m not trying to say that modular technologies will always win out over industrial scale technologies. But I am saying that price per kWh is not everything… sometimes small scale leading high prices per unit of energy but low prices for individual systems can allow a rapid evolution to lower prices per kWh. We’ve certainly seen that in Solar.

What’s next? LEDs were also able to develop rapidly because they were useful in a large number of specialized niches, such as indicator lights on electronics) despite the high initial cost per lumen.

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Map of Hybrid/Electric vehicle sales across the US

NPR is doing a series looking at automakers’ push to meet the new CAFE standards. Included is this map of hybrid/electric vehicle sales across the US by market:

http://api.tiles.mapbox.com/v2/npr.basemap-world,npr.hybrid-sales/mm/zoompan,tooltips,legend,share.html#4/36.65000000000001/-96.96999999999997

I thought it would be interesting to compare it to gasoline prices across the US. Here’s one from Gasbuddy.

I’m having trouble getting the frames to work, so you need to open two separate windows to view them side by side.

The correlation looks near perfect with the exception of the most rural parts of the mountain west and (MT, UT) and norther Great Plains (ND,SD). These states buy fewer hybrids than you would expect given their gas prices. My guess is that they see it as unmanly: at least that was the case with one of my sister’s ex-boyfriends, a farmer from Montana living in Wyoming.

The flip side is the desert southwest: Tucson and Albuquerque buy more hybrids than I would expect based solely on gas prices. Perhaps the fragile ecosystem makes them more environmentally conscious?

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