Author Archives: David H. Freedman

How Do You Sell a Product When You Can’t Really Say What It Does?

San Francisco startup Ploom has a high-tech spin on smoking tobacco (and certain other plants). It also has a huge marketing challenge.

From my article in the May, 2014, issue of Inc. Magazine

There are two big factors that favor Ploom’s James Monsees and his co-founder Adam Bowen in their quest to make tobacco cool again. One is that their devices let users pull from tobacco most of the nicotine and flavor of cigarettes in the form of vapor, without taking in the cigarette smoke–thus removing many of the health risks, according to some experts. And, as a major bonus, one of their devices has become the darling of the pot-smoking wojames-monsees-ploomrld, which is steadily converting to vapor even as that world swells with growing legitimacy.

But two big factors are also working against Ploom. One is predictable: fierce competition that’s likely to stiffen as both startups and tobacco giants invade the “e-cigarette” market–already worth nearly $2 billion a year and growing fast. The other is a bit less typical in the business world: Ploom can’t market on its strengths. That’s because making health claims and wooing drug users cause all sorts of problems for a company that’s trying to remain squeaky clean in the face of widespread disdain for, and the threat of regulation of, anything linked to tobacco.

That leaves Ploom with a burning problem: How do you expand a company when you can’t really talk about what your products are good for? Read more

America Is Burning: The Fight Against Wildfires

Wildfire2Years of climate change, drought, and reckless development have transformed nearly all of the American West into a giant tinderbox. Is there anything we can do to keep from going up in flames?

From my article in the Aug, 2014, issue of Men’s Journal

Traffic jams are a fact of life in Southern California. But few motorists have seen the likes of the one that stranded thousands of vehicles in May on Interstate 5 near San Marcos, about 35 miles north of San Diego. As vehicles idled, walls of flame arcing as high as 50 feet, and whipped by winds of up to 70 miles per hour, raced along an adjacent hillside, ripping through acres of parched trees and shrubs and blotting out the sky with roiling, glowing, thick smoke. And that wasn’t the only out-of-control blaze raging: At one point, San Diego County firefighters were grappling with nine separate wildfires – and six of those blazes were winning.

….Big, out-of-season fires are starting to look like the new normal. For as long back as there are records, California’s wildfire season hasn’t truly gotten under way until fall. But through most of 2013 and 2014, wildfires have been raging almost constantly, essentially leaving the state with a 12-month wildfire season.

And it’s not just California. In May, Arizona, Oklahoma, and even Alaska all were hit by large wildfires, months ahead of schedule. More blazes are occurring in fall and winter, as well. “In November, a fire in the Colorado Rockies burned across a snow-covered forest while firefighters watched, astounded,” says Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, in Claremont, California, who studies wildfire. “That may be something no one has ever seen before.” Read more

Good News, Spock—We’re Getting Closer to a Universal Translator

The rapid advancement of Google-style, statistical translation may help realize this long-time dream.

From my Impatient Futurist column in the the March issue of Discover

Those of us for whom Star Trek serves as a benchmark for technological progress can only bemoan the fact that hopes for faster-than-light travel to other galaxies seem to be receding at warp speed, given that we no longer even have faster-than-sound travel to France. But I would prefer to focus on the bright side: We’re rapidly closing in on the Universal Translator, which means that when I do finally arrive in France, I’ll be able to communicate as easily as if I were on Earth.

The Universal Translator, of course, was a handheld device that 
instantly converted Captain Kirk’s futuristically clipped English into the language of whichever vaguely humanoid alien was offering to buy him a blue drink. It is impossible to overemphasize…read more

Evernote: Company of the Year

Evernote is rejecting industry trends, getting customers to pay for something that’s free, and reinventing the way we remember

From my article in the December 2011 issue of Inc. magazine

Phil Libin remembers the moment he left childhood behind. It was nearly four years ago, when the funding for his Internet start-up fell through. He was 35.

   It had all been so much fun until then. But at 3 a.m., out of cash and having waited in vain for a venture capitalist or angel or CEO or anyone at all to return his increasingly desperate calls, Libin knew that he would have to pull the plug on Evernote, a software application that helps people remember things. “I realized I was going to have to wake up tomorrow and lay off everyone in the company,” he says….read more

Science Finds a Better Way to Teach Science

After doing some much-needed research, cognitive scienctists are suggesting a new way to boost students’ lagging scores: Get rid of the hallowed (and stultifying) classroom lecture

From my Impatient Futurist column in the the December 2011 issue of Discover

Teaching well is hard. I can cite my direct observations of the hundreds of victims of my occasional efforts over the years as a teacher of physics and writing. As I have stood lecturing brilliantly to a few dozen purportedly eager collegians, it has not escaped my attention that at any one time only three or four seem awake enough to keep up with their text messaging.
   Clearly the problem is not the content or presentation style of my lecturing, which, as I may have neglected to mention, is brilliant, or so I was once assured by a student who stayed after class to ask for a sixth extension on an assignment. Then again, from what I recall of my college days, I wasn’t exactly on the edge of my seat at my professors’ lectures, either. And most of my fellow lecturers don’t report much different. Could the problem be with the nature of lecturing itself?…read more

The Man Who Gave Us Less for More

Examining the crushing success of Steve Jobs

From my article in the January 2012 issue of Discover
(#8 of the top 100 science stories of 2011)


I was front row center when Steve Jobs unveiled the Apple Macintosh to the world in 1984 in 
Boston. While the crowd cheered and clapped 
and squealed, I was scratching my head. What did this pretty beige box offer that a hundred other computers didn’t already offer, besides a higher price, much less choice in software, and no 
compatibility with the rest of the world’s devices?…read more