RSS
 

Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Graduation from Formal Education

08 Jun

In the midst of discussion about the trade-offs of higher education versus online courses or being self-taught, cost of schooling, etc., I wanted to share what I’ve learned.

I’m 35.  I did Arabic for 63 weeks, 7 hours a day in the Army, along with military schooling in hand-t0-hand, rifle marksmanship, defensive driving, commo, hazmat, etc.  I studied tech in art school.  I did Greek/Latin in college.  I did foreign policy studies in DC.  I stopped short of a PhD because they’re perpetual and even worse of a guarantee of employment.  School was pretty exhausting: never-ending work (if you’re doing it right), constant feeling of inferiority compared to the weight of the material and depth of the field/competition, that absence of a salary or stability.  So I get it.  I get why people are saying to skip school, avoid the costs, study on your own.  But here’s how I see the current state of higher education:

Don’t Go to School Until You Know What You Want

This was not necessarily the worst thing, but college was the only option I knew about in my senior year of high school.  I didn’t know why I wanted to go to this or that college/brand, and I had no clue what I wanted to study or do with my life.  I didn’t really know my competition and I was flying blind.  My mother was extremely helpful in this regard, covering up for my glaring blind spots.  Luckily, UT Austin took the top 10% from every Texas school and UT is one of the best public schools in the country so things worked out for me.  I spent more time making money designing sites and trading stocks than going to class, in some of the semesters, though.

When I later joined the Army after college and after 9/11, I realized that I should have joined the military after high school, but there was next to zero chance that I ever would have considered that an option at the time.  The military was distant, far away, something that people like me didn’t have to suffer through.  The military’s for those kooky white kids with the buzzcuts who never smile and who take themselves too seriously — oh, and they’re probably from military pedigrees already so that’s the only life they know.  That’s the stereotype, anyway.

What it ended up being for me later in life, when I was older than most of the other kids in basic training, was my passage into adulthood.  I got disciplined, I got chiseled down to my essence, I lost my comforts, I was forced to man up, I lost the illusion that I was safe in life with what I already had, I was confronted with my utter lack of common sense.  It was isolating, humiliating, challenging, completely foreign to my former life.  But I ended up becoming competent, I found a code of values to live the rest of my life with, and I found friends who will always remain so.  I participated in an important block of American history in a fairly significant way that remains relevant even to this day (target identification, communications interception).

Some of my Army friends joined right out of high school and they were looking at a good future where they could keep military employment as skilled people who earned a good salary, or they could then go to school and know more about what fields of study would be good for them.  Instead of using college to grow up, which I feel most kids do these days, they were using college for what it should be (especially given the current cost): focus into enriching the mind.  Ex-military folks don’t often associate with other classmates, just because of the difference in life experience, but that does mean they probably are more sharply attuned to what they need to get out of their schooling.  Plus they already had the discipline from our Arabic classes and from their sergeants riding their asses to go to the library and put in the book-time once they got to school.

By the time I left the Army in 2007, when I was 27, I finally knew exactly what I wanted to do and I studied harder than I ever had before, and my grades improved.

Another alternative is the “gap” year.  I prefer this to going to college right after high school but I still think there’s a problem with it.  You don’t have any experience after high school to know how to appreciate travel.  You see the world but it’s just a long holiday.  On some of my trips (the Outback, Galápagos), I’ve started meeting more people my age who actually worked after high school or college for a good number of years (close to a decade) and then decided to quit their careers or jobs for a year or more of full-on world travel.  By that point, they had money, they had life experience, they had their wits about them, and they could really savor their trips, while at the same time benefiting from disconnecting from dead-end work or a stressful rat race.  Euros.  They have that shit figured out.

Veteran Hiring

Your mileage will certainly vary on this, but the hype about companies looking to hire veterans is hollow.  It’s like how companies are looking to hire more women, etc.  It’s just a PR thing.  But when push comes to shove, organizations usually go with what they know.  And they will take skills over taking charity cases any day of the week.

Unless you stay near military bases, or you are fortunate enough to work in security or intelligence for the federal government or in DC, then your military status is probably not going to help you much for employment.

Military experience, training, and bearing is immeasurably useful for many veterans for the rest of their lives, but for finding a job, veterans hit the wall of the HR screenings and employers who can’t relate.  Think about it.  If you’ve never been in the military, how much does it mean to you when a veteran tells you she has leadership time or a strong work ethic or discipline or experience following orders?  These are invaluable in team, individual, and hierarchical organizations, but they do not resonate for hiring because they do not indicate specific skills that are needed to perform jobs on a daily basis.

Companies don’t hire for talent, they hire for immediate return, except at the higher levels where they’ll pay any amount of money to get the best of the best.  I had one job interview where the recruiter was telling me how they changed their entire hiring practice to look for talent and the potential to learn, not to just regurgitate answers in the interview.  Next interview with someone from the department that was hiring?  Questions for regurgitating answers.  This is double-speak.

Everyone likes to think they operate like a startup, or are considerate towards work-life balance, or are attracting top talent, or are encouraging innovation, etc.  Very few actually are.

I think I got a little lucky when applying myself to jobs post-military.  In particular my first full-time job out of Georgetown was with a contractor whose executives were all ex-military officers.  I fit right in with them and thought I was able to deliver exactly the style and results they expected, very quickly.  I was also able to do another career change and get another big break but it was mainly because another boss not only was familiar with how the military integrates with technology and with society, but also had experience in politics.  I guess the point is that without familiarity with military, employers will gloss over those years spent working for Uncle Sam.

Higher Education is a Proxy for Jobs, Not a Pipeline

While it’s mostly likely true that more education and better jobs are correlated, it might be more causative to say that more education opens up more opportunities to better jobs.  What I mean by this is to say that most degrees do not lead directly to available jobs.  Unless you are doing something like computer science, accounting, or medical school, or to some degree business and law (though even JDs and MBAs are losing some of their guarantee), employment is not a certainty.

A lot of my friends ended up being English or liberal arts types, and that sort of degree leads to a life of forging your own path through uncertainty, self-doubt, lack of understanding by 90% of employers, etc.

Now, I will say, pretty much every English major I can think of is capable of producing absolutely pure magic with their words.  Their writing is sublime, they fascinate me with their insights, and they weave creativity out of thin air.  It’s interesting to me to see really creative, successful people in their 40s and 50s who were actually English majors back in the day but who had to put in a lot of hard time gaining credibility throughout their careers until eventually they became thought leaders.

As a classics major, even in 1996, I was told that there was no future of employment in that field.  I did that major because I had a lot of AP credits, which let me take a lot of random classes like astronomy, parageography, business classes, etc.

As an Arabic linguist in the Army, I was never good enough at Arabic to continue at it for a living.  Intelligence collection/analysis was definitely something I felt really good at, and I’ve continued it to some degree since, but I didn’t end up doing it as a career.  This was probably the #1 path to success that I could have followed in my life.

As a foreign policy grad student at Georgetown, even though it was the #1 ranked foreign policy school in the country, I still didn’t quite fit in.  I wasn’t fit to work in finance in NYC or international financial/economic risk evaluation in DC.  I didn’t have a good background or the personal financial backing for international development and fighting poverty.  I certainly wasn’t polished enough to be one of those suits talking policy for South Sudan.  I talked about Galapag.us for my orals presentation and my evaluators stared at me blankly (this despite my feeling that an interconnected system for tracking identity and reputation would revolutionize our ability to account for all the disconnected, anonymous, and voiceless people targeted by things such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN’s Millennium Development Goals).

As a grad student at NYU, I got to play in probably the best hackerspace in the world.  Laser cutter, 3D printers, Processing/OpenFrameworks/Rhino/Unity/etc. classes, circuit design, Arduino, node.js/python flask, all applied however we wanted to whichever art projects we could come up with.  The ITP community is unparalleled.  For me it was more of a backdoor into software development, since I learned pretty quickly that I would have to shore up my computer science deficiency.  I knew how to move about the DOM on a web page, from having made them since high school, but the world had changed and in job interviews I was getting pure coding questions on closures and sort algorithms, and I was taking tests on implementing apps from given JSON routes and doing testable Java apps and writing clever little algorithms to solve tricky problems to demonstrate coding efficiency/style.

My point in talking about all this was that school is not enough if you want to be highly employable.  In many circumstances, schooling seems to be a strong negative against employment, in terms of having the skills you need to make the cut.  School is wonderful for theory (you will probably be far more exposed to where trends are), but you will not know how to do the simple skill requirements that any employer wants a new employee to be able to do from day one.  School is also wonderful for gaining breadth, but it is not particularly good at depth unless you do targeted research into, I dunno, computer science or interface design or get a successful research topic or something.

The conclusion is that if you want to get a degree because you think it will make you more employable, you might be better off if you just work in that career area for the 2-4 years instead.  Work experience makes you far more employable than a degree, because you’ll be able to talk about how you used X and Y, even if you might not be able to explain the cultural backdrop for why X and Y came into being (which is what you would probably learn with a degree).

Learning

Limitations

I remember when my friends in school started getting better at math and science than I did.  My grades started slipping and my friends’ didn’t.  I didn’t understand how they knew how to get certain answers all the sudden, even though we sat through the same classes and did the same work.

Through so many other different contexts, modules, and learning environments, I gradually gained confidence that it wasn’t so much always that I was slower, but that the teaching methods were incorrect for me.  I think I had pretty good teachers in grade school who realized that different students had different learning styles, but teachers don’t always have time to cater to each of those kinds.

My pre-calculus homework consisted of problem sets.  But since they were made up in textbooks in which sparse examples were given and the answers certainly were NOT given except in the teacher’s answer key (and sometimes even those answers were wrong because of poor editing), I had virtually no time or backup plan for learning how to solve the problems.  If I couldn’t figure out a problem based on a simple pattern from the reading, then there was no recourse.  Nowadays, I would probably be able to google a topic and read about it to deduce the answer, but this was in the early 90’s.  I wonder how my studies would have been different if I were a kid now and I could use the internet for my homework (at the time, the internet was really only good as a social communication tool).

I would sit through class the next day as classmates breezed through the solutions.  Usually the harder questions were at the end of the problem sets so we spent more time covering those, but the questions for me started to become difficult about one-quarter through, so I didn’t want to slow down the class and ask about them.

I also liked to play tennis as a kid.  My mom I think talks about how I lost my ability to serve when I went through my growth spurt.  I went from having a fast Sampras serve to barely being able to get any serve in.  I did some classes and participated in a tennis camp regularly, but I never got any better.

I think I’ve learned that I’m not well-suited for precise tasks that require the same motion every time, hence serving is difficult.  But how would I have ever known this?  All that time wasted on something I could never find any talent in.  Sure, maybe it’s fun, but I think a kid needs to at least have one thing that she can develop confidence in.  I ended up hitting or throwing a lot of tennis balls against walls by myself instead.

Now, what methods did I find that worked for me?  The best training I ever had was for using special equipment in the Army.  Some contractor trainers came to our base to teach us.  We had a block of instruction followed by some hands-on time, followed by more block instruction.  Same as usual.  We even got time to go take the equipment out and use it out in the forest.

The key difference was that, after all that, we then had a block of hands-on time for debugging.  The trainers would break the equipment and have us figure out how to debug it and deduce how to fix it.  This meant we had to understand how to check components in order of operational logic and then figure out where the connection would break down.  From there, we could use what clues we discovered to figure out the solution.

I knew that equipment inside and out by the time we were done.  Because I understood the big picture view and chain of events.

Counter-examples are so crucial.  It’s not enough to show someone how things are done right.  You have to show someone how things are done wrong, so that, through seeing all the differences and errors, one can see the limitations of the implementation and how it actually works.  If you’ve only seen something when it’s working 100%, you’ll have no clue what to do when it breaks.

Macro

I think this was the time I learned that most schools teach things from a micro point of view.  Tiny blocks of logic with no sense of how they tied into larger blocks.  I learned that what I desperately need to know about any new thing I find is how its biggest sense works.  Once I understand that big picture, I can dive in and deduce why each inner part is there.  To extend this, what if I were taught why people need to learn computer science or biology or calculus first, instead of having faith that the teacher was telling me stuff I needed to know even if I never knew when to apply it?

In the same way, it would have been useful for motivation to learn if I had been told that I might need to know history as a field because if I wanted to, say, become a surfer, I would want to go see x film or research y first surfer’s biography, or study how z surfing equipment is made.  That is, history would not just be remembering dates, it would branch into sociology, technology, business, etc.  The common saying is that no one uses math once they get older.  But had I known that I could apply math to, say, winning more often at no-limit Texas hold ‘em, or Fibonacci sequences in momentum stock trading, or even figuring out the statistics behind landing a valuable baseball card in those bubble gum packs, it really would have opened up my eyes more.

The other key learning moment I had was learning PHP.  I know people hate PHP but the PHP documentation is outstanding, at least for me.  I couldn’t find one great example but here’s the doc page for HTML special characters.   The docs will usually have a few examples, but perhaps more importantly, they will often have counter-examples to show common errors or hang-ups.  And the docs have comments where people share snippets of code to tackle certain problems.  Some languages like Java are devoid of good examples, and they have fairly obtuse documentation pages; while at this point I can decipher documentation, when I was studying the Processing language at ITP, I could see that other students just saw the documentation pages as full of gibberish.

Eric Rosenthal

Eric Rosenthal is an ITP legend.  Large, scaled, well-constructed circuits and installations.  Devotes tons of his time to help students, even with our dumbest questions.

So I was in his office asking questions about our flying robot project.  He got to a point where he was saying how people don’t care to learn anymore.  They don’t just open things up and experiment.  If they have questions about it, they don’t go look them up and read more about it.  After a point, I realized that he was somewhat referring to me.  I said that my buddy Slavek always took things apart, but I never did, and I never grasped it as well as he did.  But Rosenthal parried that it wasn’t that hard if people would actually research things and be curious about them, and I took it personally and wondered: maybe I really am not that good at these things, and my willpower to learn just pushes me to try even though I’ll always be sub-par.  It’s sobering when you wonder if you’ve reached your natural limits in a certain area.

Some questions: should we end up doing what we’re good at?  Should we do what we enjoy?  Will we ever get both?  What if we don’t really get to do either?

Teach Yourself

I am not for or against in-person education or online self-paced courses.  Personally I plan to continue studying computer science and coding languages through free online courses, but that only happens after I’ve gotten enough background to be able to pace myself through the courses and understand what’s going on, which means I probably had to have had some training beforehand.

I do feel as though sitting in actual classes and talking to people face-to-face is a necessity for education, but I feel as though that system doesn’t scale well in today’s universities.  Of course sitting in a 400-person class offers none of the benefits of physical interaction.  But even a class with 10 people makes it hard for a professor and TA to engage every student.  No one has time for it.  The student doesn’t have time for a lot of added engagement and the professor certainly doesn’t (with all the other things professors do these days).

Online courses, I think they require a high level of competency before they’re useful.  Learn coding through an online course?  I don’t think so.  But if you’re learning a new language once you’ve already learned others and coded projects in others?  Certainly.

It’s even worse if you’re not disciplined.  Will you really be conversant in, say, business, if you’ve only read through an online curriculum?

What I think would be really useful for online courses is more sharing and more competition.  This lends itself particularly well to coding.  Project Euler is great for this: it’s a set of coding problems that emphasize not so much just solving the problem but finding an efficient way to solve the problem.  You could brute force a solution (do 10k iterations) or come up with another solution that maybe only does half that many iterations.  Maybe to pass, you have to have the code complete in less than x seconds.

For papers or other projects, I never understood why we couldn’t look at each other’s work.  I mean, I kind of get it.  Students are incredibly protective of their privacy when it comes to their work and especially for grades.  But why?  If a professor can’t give tailored reviews or advice all the time, why can’t the other students?

In-Person Mentorship

Really where I think education breaks down is in mentorship.  My entire aware life I’ve been in search of mentors.  The best people I know all seek mentors.  A mentor is someone who can give you individualized, targeted guidance.  Someone who can hold you accountable, can adjust your learning as you need it, and who can give you support or advice on how you should continue.

A professor is not going to have time to push me.  One of the biggest freedoms I ever experienced was realizing once I hit grad school that I should really just write about whatever the fuck I found interesting — my grades improved and I felt like I was writing about things that were unique and important.  Up until then, I was writing about what I thought others wanted to read.  But no professor really pushed this on me.  Maybe I gained some sympathy into how, as a professor, you’d probably get really bored of reading the same crap over and over.

But my best mentors have always pushed me.  Quizzed me daily to see if I retained material.  Forced me to work on projects in new techs so I’d get hands-on.  Pushed me on certain principles to get me closer to being a seasoned professional.  And they’ve offered their reference, far better than a random reference from a professor or employer you barely knew.

Mentors need to know how to get from point A to point B, and how to identify what point someone else is at along that spectrum.  A mentor whom his student doesn’t respect will fail, and a mentor who gives scattershot advice to a student is not helping either.

Physical, one-to-one mentorship is crucial to education.  And you won’t necessarily find it through formal education.

Expectations and Greatness

I feel as though students have to push themselves in order to be great, or at least to strive for greatness.  Peers and teachers aren’t pushing students hard enough to go further than they would go on their own.  The difference is between a haphazardly written proposal or project and a fully-formed all-out attempt to make something important.

Team Projects

Related to that, I think that team-based project mindsets have led to substandard results.  Particularly in business school, the theory goes that you have to work in groups so that somehow you know how it is in “the real world” (whatever that is).  So, you’ll have to work for a few weeks on a half-formed project assignment for one class out of many others with 3-4 other classmates who have multiple other completely separate priorities.  Just like “the real world”?

I was in a horrible class in grad school where we formed 4-person groups to build a project using a technology none of us even got our hands on till the end of the course.  What’s worse, my team lost a person who dropped the course.  No one ended up having a working project at the end.

Here’s what I think should have happened.  Seen School of Rock?  I love this movie for many reasons, but I also think that the school project is brilliant.  Form a band, assign classmates to different roles.  There’s the manager, the band, lights, costumes, roadies.  This at least in theory would teach the whole class to execute on a common project but in more manageable parts that tied into an easy-to-identify goal, led by a teacher who (again, in theory) is older and has more experience to be able to bring all the parts together.

To me it would make more sense to run a class as one big project.  It’d operate more like a platoon, or like a startup.  Several smaller projects can be doomed to fail with all those moving parts.  The final product is less likely to be realized, to be made great.  It’s that 10% of extra work at the end that makes the project shine.

Apprenticeship

Another thing I don’t get.  Dislocation between education and jobs.  At least in the military, you’re more likely to go to schools that improve your ability to do your job.  In the real world, training has gone nearly to zero, because no one can afford to lose their employees.  And kids coming out of school are not going to know the software or tools needed for the jobs they’re applying for.

Why are there not more programs where students get education in exchange for a contract of employment guaranteed for x years?  Why wouldn’t companies have more of an interest to train future employees from an earlier age so they can produce more efficient workers?

Well I’m guessing the answer is because companies are mostly flying by the seats of their pants, have no long-term vision, and can’t afford anything beyond the short-term value of employees.

Cost and Brand

The cost of education doesn’t make much sense.  The problem is that there isn’t much of a choice.  Those $1k scholarships you can win are ineffectual.  Unpaid internships in exchange for credit are usually useless versus your just taking another course.  The cost of not going to school could be huge, unless you find a pipeline career that lets you avoid school.  So is school worth the cost?  The only reason it’s not worth the cost is you absolutely can’t pay for it (unfortunately education is becoming, as tradition has mostly held, only for the elite) or you have a career already.

Now, brand.  Brand matters for strange reasons.  Top finance firms care about brand, not because those schools (Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Wharton, etc.) produce smarter students necessarily, but because the employer knows it is getting a certain personality from that school, and, believe it or not, certain values.  Different schools do manage to inculcate their values (if they have any) into the students, particularly at stronger brands.  In that way, pedigree is important to employers.

Some random anecdotes that I came across: the only person I heard getting into Yale out of my interview group went to an arts magnet school, the only person I heard from my interview group for Booz Allen Hamilton to get in was from Carnegie Mellon (solid engineering/CS).

The Future

So here’s where we are.  A bunch of mercenaries for hire, fighting over each other for the next short-term contract (i.e. a job).  Get rich or die tryin’.  School is a fun place where some of that competitiveness goes out the window and you get to experiment and play a bit.  But there are only a few places in the employed world where you get to do that.  And fewer places where that sort of job is living-wage.

Education won’t necessarily bring you comfort and stability, whereas sticking with a job, gaining seniority, that seems to lead to, in most cases, winning the war of attrition, when everyone else has left.

It’s true that the best can succeed.  Good grades, good school, good athleticism, good looks, these things do translate into success.  For the rest of us, though, we have to find other things.  For me, I derailed my own success more times than I can count, and since I never could keep up with grades or talent, I did my best by trying to work harder than the rest, and I’ve tried multiple careers in order to find happiness, stability, and success.

And if it’s been hard for me, it’s got to be really hard for others.  Or am I making it far harder on myself than it needs to be?  Why do I know so many extremely gifted people with fabulous work ethic, force multipliers in pretty much every aspect of society they contribute to, who are struggling to get even the most basic entry-level jobs?

Is this the future we want?  Or can we strive to build something more sustainable?

Payoff

What I think I’ve learned is that school is not a viable option for most people, and not because it’s expensive (I still believe it’s worth the lifetime of intellectual freedom), but mostly because there is no tangible connection to an eventual payoff except in parenthetical ways.  That is, yes, you will meet people who you end up being close with and end up marrying/working with.  You might even gain some pedigree or credibility.  If you’re lucky, the time you spent studying will help you crack into your first job and into further promotions.  But it’s not a sure thing.

I think the best payoff right now is to take a job with reasonable mobility and just stay in it.  Climb the chain, outlast your peers, get marginal promotions.  You’ll do better if you balance this with changing jobs so that you can negotiate higher salaries.  But changing industries, or leaving industry to go to school, these are massive momentum killers.  Think about it: would a company want to hire a new unproven person or hire someone internally who uses all the dumb, arbitrary software stacks only that company uses?

Feedback

I’ve generalized in a lot of ways here and in other ways it’s very personalized to my own experience.  I know a few of you are professors, other students, people who chose lucrative and not-so-lucrative fields of study.  I’d be interested to hear your opinions on education.

 

Eudaimonia Versus Existing in a Childproofed Society

10 Aug

We live within a culture where negative feedback is purposefully avoided.  You can’t “dislike” on Facebook, you can only “+1″ on Google+.  Yelp was rumored to have strong-armed companies into paying to get rid of bad reviews.  Online sites like Consumerist are attacked by businesses who claim they’re unfair.  Most companies purposefully hide their contact numbers on their sites so you can’t easily call them (because if you’re calling, you probably have a problem with them!), you can’t cancel service on a web site and usually have to call, people avoid conflict and argument, companies set up complex levels of firewalls to prevent angry customers from getting anywhere, etc.

It goes further.  The world’s standard for measuring national improvement is Gross Domestic Product, which only tracks consumption in a very crude way.  Simon Kuznets, one of the architects of the GNP metric, admitted, “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income… Goals for “more” growth should specify of what and for what.”  But this forewarning was ignored.  If someone gets cancer and has to purchase a bunch of equipment and pills and spend money in the hospital, this is counted as a net positive for society because of the purchases, even if all these resources are being spent on one person who is unable to contribute to society while sick.  The U.S. government (!) is protesting credit rating agencies’ assessment of its indebtedness, where both the U.S. government has been profligate and the agencies have been corrupt in currying favor with the U.S. one moment and then trashing it the next.

The stock market, currently in shambles within the last few weeks, has scared nations yet again after a shock only three years ago.  Predictably, the Greek government, which has watched its economy grind to a halt and reach almost-default levels, has decided to ban short-selling of stocks for two months.  This is essentially an ideological move.  Short-selling, where you make money by betting on a stock going DOWN, not up, has always been seen by non-market people as, in varying degrees, dastardly, unpatriotic, illegal, and even dangerous.  It’s that last point regulators focus on.  They believe that short sales by people who hate a company can drive a stock to zero.  Meanwhile, market folks know that short selling actually adds more transparency, information, and support to stock prices, because there will be pressures pushing the stocks both up AND down, and not just up.  The problem in a market without short sellers is that without them, when buyers disappear, prices collapse completely.  No short sellers would be covering their positions.

And this says something else about markets.  Very few people actually understand how they work.  Virtually all the mainstream articles being written about the latest downturn are just flat out WRONG.  You’ll get guys like this, who tell you to stay in the market so you don’t risk the upside (again, it’s always about things going up).  He goes on in another piece to say that Wall Street is irrelevant!  The Daily Beast, usually a pretty savvy digest of the most important stories, has turned to mush when it comes to the markets.  Otherwise very intelligent people I follow online also have very flawed notions of how the markets work.  The lack of economic understanding is frightening when you consider that these people probably know a little bit more than the politicians elected to vote on policy for government role in the economy.

I’d prefer to read people like George Friedman, who emphasizes that it is not just economy, but political economy, that we must talk about.  Politics and the relations between power groups affects most of the dynamics in our lives, and we cannot act like the economy is some neutral entity that is impervious to human mistakes and designs.  The “economy” is intimately wrapped within the designs of men.

I had to quit watching the daytrading IRC channels because even those high-frequency traders had what was basically a cynical Ayn Rand-ish slash Gordon Gekko slash Snake Plissken view of the world where you’re only successful if you cut others’ throats to get to where you are.  Their adaptability to changing market conditions was highly questionable.  Basic economic principles were ignored.  But hey, they made good money so I can’t complain too much.

I would agree with Richard Florida (PDF), Umair Haque, Tim O’Reilly, and some others that we are in the very early, ugly stages of a transition to an eudaimonia society, from a purely consumerist society.  I believe that we need to be able to take an honest look at how our society is structured and allow for more negativity in our metrics.  We need to develop the capacity to take criticism, to be voted down, to be shamed when we do things that are wrong (a concept crudely and devastatingly wielded mostly by religion), to take a more holistic look at everything impacting our lives.  Pure revenue should mean less if it comes at the cost of environmental degradation, pollution, lack of time at home raising families, lack of sleep, abuse from employers or manipulation from unions, etc.

Eudaimonia is a term fit only for us classicists, but @'s concept of the economics of the good life is spot on http://bit.ly/l25koR
@timoreilly
Tim O'Reilly

Umair Haque:

“I believe the quantum leap from opulence to eudaimonia is going to be the biggest, most significant economic shift of the next decade, and perhaps beyond: of our lifetimes. We’re not just on the cusp of, but smack in the middle of nothing less than a series of revolutions, aimed squarely at the trembling status quo (financial, political, social): new values, mindsets, and behaviors, fundamentally redesigned political, social, economic, and financial institutions; nothing less than reweaving the warp and weft of not just the way we live–but why we live, work, and play.”

The goal is for people to be able to pursue middle-class professions in fields that they are talented at, to unlock their creative potential, instead of shoe-horning people into certain professions if they want to live any kind of decent lives for themselves.  The goal is for people to have a successful career but also a family to raise, a community to participate in, and a healthy life.  The way society is constructed now, as I’ve said before, is a zero-sum kind of get-rich-or-die-tryin’ mentality where everyone is incentivized to fuck everyone else over, at least until one becomes wealthy enough to think about maybe working on philantropy for others.

My "EUDAIMONIA" Tattoo

Instead of just Gross Domestic Product, people like Mark Anielski (“The Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth”) recommend the Genuine Progress Index, or the GPIAtlantic.  The GPIAtlantic was broken down into these indicators:

  • Time Use
    Value of Civic and Voluntary Work, Value of Unpaid Housework and Child Care, Value of Leisure Time, Paid Work Hours
  • Living Standards
    Income and its Distribution, Financial Security – Debt and Assets, Economic Security Index
  • Natural Capital
    Soils & Agriculture, Forests, Fisheries and Marine Resources, Energy, Air, Water
  • Human Impact on the Environment
    Solid Waste, Ecological Footprint, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Transportation
  • Human and Social Capital
    Population Health, Costs of Crime, Educational Attainment

These indicators are far more in line with how we actually consider the world subjectively.  They capture our concerns, worries, and understanding of how much we feel safe living in our communities.  But all of the factors are ignored in the top-line metrics that we use.

Which is sad because we live in an era now of big data.  The top quants in the nation are working in finance, insurance, computer science, crypto.  Yet the metrics we use for our own well-being and happiness are crude “neutral” measurements from another century.

The above chart shows the disparity between how the U.S. economy is measured through GDP versus how it is in actuality.  In short, we have hit a plateau in our quality of life for almost 60 years, while our GDP measurement seems to indicate we’re much “richer” per capita.  It coincides with increasing income inequality, measured through the Gini coefficient:

They show that our society as a whole probably peaked in overall access to happiness somewhere in 1968.

In short, we have insulated ourselves from seeing the negative aspects of our society.  Amartya Sen calls this phenomenon “hedonic opulence”, Anielski calls it “chrematistics”, Clive Hamilton calls it “affluenza”.  We believe that we can grow our way out of poverty, that if we have enough positives in a society, that we can just overwhelm the negatives.  But the truth is that the negatives impact the bottom line of growth and positivity.  A community full of pollution and crime will stop creative processes from flourishing there.  A sick populace will be less productive at work, impacting overall economic success.

Said Robert Kennedy on March 18, 1968, at the University of Kansas:

“Too much and too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product [GNP]… – if we should judge America by that – …counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities…. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

This is why I want to work on Galapag.us as my life project.  It is an ecosystem for reputation.  All the things you’ve worked on in your life are aggregated into metrics of your own design.  The most popular metrics (say, success at being a contributor to your community, looking at data such as your volunteer work, church life, money donated, time spent tutoring other people or children, household income, trustworthiness, crime record, etc.) would be voted up to the top.  We would not be constrained to just GDP.  We could build our own metrics.  Then those local, individual metrics could be aggregated for county level, state level, all the way up to national level.  The data is anonymized as it is grouped, or, if you choose, fully identifiable and open if you are an open person.

The imperative, though, must be on more transparency and accountability.  If we as individuals can’t handle being criticized publicly, then we can’t expect things to improve at higher levels of organization.  Being criticized is not always a bad thing.  If the criticism is fair, you should improve yourself with it.  If it is unfair, your detractor should be penalized for making false statements.  We do not have this kind of global feedback system in place.  We are victim to flash mobs, anonymous attackers, stalkers, people who suffer no negative feedback from their actions.  Galapag.us would fill this hole in the internet’s identity layer while still providing degrees of anonymity, pseudonymity, and identity.

Daniel Suarez’s seminal but overlooked books, Daemon and Freedom (TM), suggest deprogramming the “Non-Player Character”/NPC dynamic of being trapped within a world of simplistic metrics (the quotes below are from Freedom (TM):

“What do we look like to a computer algorithm, Sergeant? Because it will be computer algorithms that make life-changing decisions about these people based on this data. How about credit worthiness—as decided by some arbitrary algorithm no one has a right to question?”

“Imagine how easily you could change the course of someone’s life by changing this data? But that’s control, isn’t it? In fact, you don’t even need to be human to exert power over these people. That’s why the Daemon spread so fast.”

Suarez’s books propose that darknet hacker communities will spring up in the rural areas, away from legal restraints and the encroachment of lawyers, corporations, and other barriers to entry, creating more balanced, sustainable, networked communities for people to be rewarded at their individual trades by leveling up in the darknet world and then using darknet credits to earn a reputation and a living.

“Holons are the geographic structure of the darknet. Any darknet community lies at the center of an economic radius of one hundred miles for its key inputs and outputs—food, energy, health care, and building materials. Balancing inputs and outputs within that circle is the goal. A local economy that’s as self-sufficient as possible while still being part of a cultural whole—a holon—thus creating a resilient civilization that has no central points of failure. And which through its very structure promotes democracy. That’s what we’re doing here, Sergeant.”

“The Daemon financed this.” Sebeck turned to her. “Didn’t it?” “The Daemon’s economy is powered by darknet credits, Sergeant. Imaginary credits are all that money is.” “But there’s a theft at the heart of it.” She thought about it and nodded slightly. “Yes, the darknet economy was seeded by real world wealth. Wealth that was questionable in origin to begin with. Here, it’s being invested in people and projects that have begun to return value—not in dollars, but in things of intrinsic human worth. Energy, information, food, shelter.”

There are ways out of the messes we’re in, but most people see them as unconnected issues.  But personally I see it as symptomatic of an entire society’s failure to examine itself.  Gnowthi seauton.  Jared Diamond-type stuff.  Granted, it would be a LOT to expect humankind to be able to look at itself honestly, for humans always hope to avoid the negative and only see the good in the things they believe in, but this would be one of those points where one would hope that our civic leaders and politicians would be required to study — and therefore detect — such policy/societal failures and properly diagnose them.

Unfortunately, that is not the ruling class that we have, and we are not likely to correct these systems until an alternative system is built.  Those who make money under the current system will resist, but even politicians go along with something when it’s shown to be successful.  Hopefully for me it would be something like Galapag.us, but I would accept any attempts.

The only way to change our systematic problems is to build our own alternative.

 

My Goals for NYU’s ITP Program

07 Jun

I’m really excited to be starting my Master’s in Professional Studies program at New York University for the Interactive Telecommunications Program in August. In a way, it’s a true culmination of all the things I’ve been doing on my own OUTSIDE of school for so long. BBS‘ing and Sierra Networking in high school, telnetting and MUDding and daytrading and webdesigning in college, blogging and searching in the Army, coding a bit at Georgetown. Not really finding folks who found value in doing anything technical in any of those tribes.

I don’t know how this program will end up, but given that it’s throwing people headfirst into Arduino circuitboards, coding, hacking, social media remixing, designing, creating…I’m hoping to find peers who love to experiment and play and make.

Having seen various sectors of the American economy while living in CA/DC/TN/TX/IZ, particularly the knowledge economy, what I’ve been struck by most has been the lack of technical knowledge. People know their tiny sliver of the world, such as collateralized debt obligations, US-Pakistan policy, aid packages, writing reports…but anything broader than that knowledge is usually treading on very delicate ground. Even in some of the more technical areas I’ve worked in (military intel, social media, innovation projects), there is literally no knowledge of or curiosity for experimentation or remixing.

When I see people who don’t tweet or blog or have much of a presence online, particularly when they claim to be pretty digitally savvy, it makes me wonder. Twitter is all about remixing ideas, combining cultures and taboos and tribes. It’s a swirl of information waiting to produce the next memes or companies or news or collaborative one-offs. To me, not only is this environment fascinating, versatile, and by its nature educational, it also is a cauldron for the next generation of successful projects and people. It’s a testing ground for future successful workers. How can you compete in the working environment if you can’t keep up digitally? I understand if you don’t like computers or the internet, but it’s your own livelihood.

About a year ago, before I applied or even knew what I was going to do, I quit my job for 2.5 months. I got to enjoy the DC summer, but mainly I was coding full-time for my personal project, Galapag.us, having no clue where it would go or how it would ever be more than just a dumb idea. But I was super-frustrated with where my career was going. I wanted to build, to create, to do more with my hands. I think I called several family members and friends looking for advice. I ended up applying for ITP (and nowhere else), shelving Galapag.us for a bit, and returning to work. In April I found out I got in.

The way I see it, heading to NYC, the most creative, diverse, urban, and pragmatic city in the world (I’d argue), to finally be a true geek, I can only see this as a huge personal victory, a huge opportunity to be myself and to create a lot of great things that are useful to a lot of people.

And since I’m older this time around, and have an international development/international affairs Master’s under my belt from the best IR school in the world, this time I know I should have a plan of attack.

Galapag.us

Galapag.us is what I’d like to be my life’s work.  It’s what I want to be known for.  An open reputation system providing alternative forms of credit and trust, verified through a balance of different interests, using all your life’s data to compute what kind of person you are.

I want my projects to all work on some aspect of Galapag.us, to test its weaknesses and experiment with what it could eventually look like or become.

 

Prototype Glasses with Visual Augmentation for Reputation

To that end, I want to build the glasses used in Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom (TM).  Regular-looking glasses that you put on, plugging you into digital layers that show reputational score layers next to someone’s image, route planning towards your next objective, visuals of your level and trade (Level 19 Farmer, Level 3 Government Analyst, etc.) and others, digital inventories you can use with real-world objects, etc.  Augmented reality is being worked on at the platform level, but I’d like to build a functional prototype of some sort (PDF).

Prototype Location-Aware RFID Organizer Bins and Objects

Cory Doctorow’s Makers had his two tinkerers create a cheap and easy tech that consisted of RFID chips in containers and on objects, so that when you needed to locate something in your closet, you could call it up and the container it was in would glow for you so you could find it faster.  RFID and its intermixing with IPv6, linked data, and object reputation will lead to greater connectedness between the digital and real world, and will enhance our ability to interact with the real by mapping the computational digital world onto it.  It’s pretty kludgy the way we look at a real-world object (a book) and then google or amazon it online.

Video Editing

We have already reached textual literacy on the internet.  To the extent that we can remix and reuse text without violating the horrible, innovation-choking copyright laws that currently exist, we’re actually pretty good at finding, searching, and sharing text.  With bandwidth and storage and access increasing for video, we will need to reach video literacy next.  I already know that my posting a video will have far fewer hits than if I post just text.  Many people don’t want to watch a long video, or are at work and are blocked from YouTube.  But once a video goes viral, it has far more of an impact.  I would like to capture some sort of Marshall McLuhanesque understanding of video and get smart on video, Final Cut Pro, AfterEffects.  Video editing I see similar to web design — it’s a way to create and express your own view of the world without relying on others to make it for you.  And now that video is social and allows for feedback, through perhaps the most important tech given to us after the dotcom revolution besides Google (no, not Twitter or Facebook), YouTube:

YouTube Preview Image

Music Creation

Instead of being a guy on his night out at the club, I always wanted to own the club, or be playing the music for the club.  While I have no musical ability, I think I’ve at least accumulated enough knowledge from a broad enough swath of songs to be able to start mixing them together.  The tools for music creation, however, are somewhat arcane.  I want to get more comfortable with it.  Out of my straight-laced DC policy/analyst friends, I have seen their better parts/personalities emerge only when drunk and on the dance floor.  That is the power of music and communitas with alcohol and Cee Lo Green-revealed magic of Friday and Saturday night.

YouTube Preview Image

Miscellany

I have a few other projects I want to prototype.

ProbablyGonna. DC culture consists of a bunch of people who live in the District and want to go to happy hours/networking events EVERY NIGHT.  I came to DC and went immediately to Georgetown, so I had a built-in group of friends to hang with.  I have a feeling people in DC have a bunch of different circles and tribes they hang with, so the best way to meet up is not necessarily blast e-mails or FourSquare checkins.  What might work best is you signaling your intent to go out on certain nights on the calendar.  Say you want to have a night of clubbing on Friday night, until late, and maybe you want to do Adams Morgan.  You signal that on ProbablyGonna (as in, I’m probably gonna do this on Friday), and anyone else connected with you can signal their intent to do the same.  It’s not mutually exclusive to other events, so you could signal for multiple events.  This solves the FourSquare problem of knowing someone is at a location after they’re there, or in most cases, long after they’ve left.

Men’s tailoring. Most men do not know how to dress.  They certainly don’t own the essentials, the basics, for different social events.  What if you go to a site, select that you want a “business casual” outfit for work, enter your rough dimensions, and order a pretty basic outfit of a suit, shirt, starter tie, socks, shoes, underwear, belt, cufflinks, watch?  Then that kit either goes to a local tailor working with my company, or it goes to you and you schedule your time with the tailor later.  The tailor establishes a personal relationship with you and zeroes in your dimensions for the clothing.  The tailor then mends your kit, and gives you a business casual basic outfit that actually fits you, flatters your shape, and is worth far more than a regular tailoring job.  The best part?  Over time, your purchases get better.  Different outfits (going out Friday, wedding, weekend wear) go straight to the tailor, who tailors your kit, then gives it over to you.  It helps you dress far better for your body shape, it helps the tailor develop clients, it helps my company move product.  Then I can also sell you your pieces of personality, usually in the tie, the socks, shoes, kerchief, etc.

Reputation badges for your outfits:  piggy-backing on Galapag.us. You unlock badges that you wear on your clothing or bags when you go out.  They have QR codes or some other unique form of code (e.g. Itizen TRACKit).  Say you’re an excellent wingman and have saved three mates.  You get a wingman badge with two oakleaf clusters.  Or you know CPR.  You get a CPR tab (designates a skill, not an accomplishment).  Designated driver?  Badge.  This mirrors the military uniform system of achievements.  Clothing subconsciously is used to denote class, personality, and tribal association, but we’ve lost individuation and accomplishment that Papua New Guinea and Maori and other tribes used tattoos for, or Roman colors for their togas.  I want to bring that back.  Using Galapag.us’s reputation system as the backend and standardization platform.

So in short I want to play with things.  I don’t expect to get good at any one thing.  I’m not sure I will be very good at 3D printing or laser cutting or making actual models of things, having no prior design background, but I’ll give it a shot.

Setting the Tone

Those are the actual products.  Mostly what I want to do is create things that are useful and happy.  Two of the biggest problems among Internet-Americans is that they 1) have no clue how to make tech that benefits the poor, weak, and under-represented, and 2) they get too cynical or unhappy.  Fortunately NYC is taking on the personality of a digital city, thanks to Mayor Bloomberg and his efforts to push the city online, including appointing a Chief Digital Officer, Rachel Sterne.  As for me, I’ve realized how happiness and laughter and fun make more of a difference in peoples’ everyday lives than being sarcastic, sardonic, cynical, pessimistic, or mean.  While I’m sarcastic and dark in my humor, I want to try being happy.  I want to make peoples’ lives better and happier.  I want to stay away from the easy, which is being critical, doubtful, and resentful, while at the same time being pragmatic, useful, and iconoclastic.

So that’s what I want out of the next two years.  Hold me accountable to it.

 

Drunken Georgetown Students

28 Apr

Someone in Burleith, the neighborhood just north of the Georgetown campus, has had enough with all the drunken rager parties that students are throwing at their shared rental houses, so he’s put up a site called DrunkenGeorgetownStudents.com.  He’s tired of having sleepless nights because of the hordes of Dionysian wild-eyed drunkards wandering his sleepy community until the wee hours.

Evidently the guy, Stephen R. Brown (LinkedIn, professional site, personal knol), lives on T Street and 37th, nearby where I used to live (at T Street and 38th) when I was a student there for 2 years.

Here’s the situation:  Georgetown is a small campus and it has little room to expand or to provide all of its students housing.  So many students live east and north of the campus in rowhouses, often with 4-7 students sharing the house.  A ton of grad students and medical students also live there, since the university provides no housing for them either.  As a grad student, I lived in Burleith with 3 other MSFS students and the landlord’s son, a medical student.

So, running the math:  Parties = Students + shared living + school full of students learning society and networking + proximity to campus + private residences.  Pretty straight-forward.

My house held several large parties for my program.  We would invite everyone over on a Friday or Saturday night.  We would inform our neighbors so they would know about it beforehand.  They were always cool with it.

What we quickly learned was that Burleith and Georgetown are filled with nosy neighbors.  Our first year was mostly okay, but the second year, the DC MPD (metro police) was wrangled into stepping up its patrolling efforts in the neighborhood for loud parties because the local residents were complaining.  As you can imagine, the police are strong-armed into doing with the residents want because they have far more power than the Georgetown students, who are sloughed off under the campus’s administrative sway.  And Georgetown usually rolls over for the local neighborhood, even though the Burleith and Georgetown areas would be completely dead without the campus.  I saw the same thing in Austin at UT (the top party school in the country).  Locals would act as though they had no use for UT Austin even though it is the lifeblood of the city.

One day in my second year, I was shocked to see flyers posted on campus and in the neighborhood anonymously posted by someone warning students not to be loud.  It had photos of houses, including the one I lived in.  I don’t know how the person targeted my house or if it was intentional, but it’s kind of worrisome, even to a guy, to see a photo of one’s own residence posted publicly without any knowledge of it.

The last party we ever threw, the neighborhood was under the full watch of a joint MPD/campus liaison program.  So liaisons were forced to drive around and warn party hosts that the cops might come.  I can only imagine how much this cost the school.  Liaisons came to our house and I stopped to talk to them.  I told them I’d talked to cops just prior to that, who warned me about the liaisons!  So everyone was stopping by to warn us about everyone else!

The next week, we received a notice from the school that we were cited for being loud and had to talk to the campus school conduct director.  Again, a great use of resources.  The woman we spoke to was highly professional and very understanding.  She warned us about future incidents and we promised we’d stop (which we did), but I thought it was completely absurd to be a 30+ year old person being told not to be loud at a party.

But you know, it gets better.  Now that I think about this guy’s blog (he’s a 60ish year old photographer), he’s probably the one who put up the flyer…anonymously.

And the neighborhood itself is pretty sketchy.  As a safe haven for wealthy, proper dignitaries (Joe Lieberman and other famous politicians live nearby), the emphasis is on property value and on high standards of decorum.  This probably explains why the neighborhood flyer is produced by, wouldn’t you know it, a Coldwell Banker real estate broker, Lenore Rubino!

Lenore Rubino, then, is also president of the Burleith community’s organizing group.  Do you see a conflict of interest where the “public interest” may have been hijacked by real estate interests?

The Georgetown campus community has several blogs, covering this new drunkard site, including Vox Populi and Saxa Speak.

Some (probably student) comments from Vox Populi’s post:

“YOUR NEXT PARTY PHOTOG says: April 28th, 2010 at 12:42 am

Hire me and Stephen to shoot your next party!!!! Whoever said Stephen is the Cobrasnake of Georgetown is right– professional party photography is the next big thing for Burleith. Hire us to capture the special moments of your party like making animal noises in a pool, broing out with officer crist, or reaching the point in the party where there are like 8 people in your backyard/porch.

We’ll be cross-posting the photos for your Monday morning viewing pleasure on spectacular table-based nightlife websites including drunkengeorgetownstudents.com, http://www.srbphoto.com, and srbphoto.zenfolio.com

Rates are highly competitive as we’re stuck in the past. We can also shoot video if we can ever get those videos to decompress!!!!!!!gahhhhh”

And:

“So, to recap: Neighbors called the cops 117 times in a four month period, which resulted in only 9 citations. That’s 7%, for those of you counting at home.

“I’d be interested in knowing the number of robberies that took place in the same amount of time while police were responding to the 93% of college students watching Netflix too loudly after 11.”

And:

“The Neighbors are completely unreasonable and they need to be stopped. They need to stop calling the cops for noise violations. College students are going to be loud. Nothing is ever going to change. If they don’t like noise they should move to a quieter neighborhood. Anyone calling the cops for noise before midnight is unreasonable. The power the CAG and the ANC has is ridiculous. The rerouting of the GUTS buses is completely ridiculous. Metro buses use the exact same routes that GUTS buses are now banned from running. The neighborhood really holds the university back from offering the best for it’s students. And if they don’t want students in houses off campus maybe they shouldn’t have blocked all attempts to use the wormley school. The Neighbors are completely ridiculous and won’t be satisfied until the school doesn’t exist anymore. They should have no rights to influence what the University does unless they can prove dramatic impact it would have on the neighborhood. None of their complaints have been close to justified.”

These blogs have also been covering the Georgetown community’s vehement rejection of Georgetown University’s proposed 10-year plan (which, if you read it, is pretty sane compared to what the neighbors think of it).  You can read the Burleith community’s April newsletter here, which complains about how the Georgetown plan will hurt Burleith (read, property values), and which, coincidentally, has an advertisement from Stephen R. Brown (the drunk student blog’s author) for his photography gigs.

Want some more insider baseball?  The local community has also been reducing the access that the free Georgetown University shuttles have to the neighborhood.  There are 2 main shuttles (and some smaller ones) that run students and campus members out to Dupont Circle and to Rosslyn in Virginia.  Since Georgetown can’t have a metro station for whatever reason (a subject of some debate, but probably because of zoning, property, and geography, but certainly something the locals would prefer never happened), these shuttles are really the only way for people to GET to campus, since parking is restricted and the city buses, while wonderful, cost money and aren’t always reliable.

The local residents, however, managed to shut out the shuttles from passing THROUGH the neighborhood.  So what was a 15-20 minute commute to and from Dupont Circle has turned into an epic bus ride up to the National Cathedral and down Embassy Row, usually a 30-minute trek.  The reasons cited?  Residents thought the buses rattled their houses.  Oh no!  Future knowledge workers and politicians trying to get to school are rattling houses!

In case you lost track, then, the residents 1) don’t want students living in their neighborhood, 2) don’t want to make it easy for students to live elsewhere and commute to campus instead of living in their neighborhood, and 3) harass the students who live in their neighborhood.

The complaints from residents have caused the campus to have to spend money on liaisons, to spend time on administering “problem” students, and to expend resources on bus drivers, shuttle schedules, etc.

Even more insider baseball:  this has all happened while the neighborhood continues to fall victim to criminals who prey on the population.  We have the infamous Georgetown Cuddler, who must have over like a dozen incidents of sneaking into girls’ homes and getting in bed with them while they sleep.  We have Prospect and other streets near M Street that continually have incidents of armed robbery and sexual attacks IN the streets.  I have friends and fellow alumni who were MUGGED in the street.  One was pistol-whipped.  Another was choked out until she passed out and her bag was taken.  All while the local residents complain about noise from parties (in controlled environments which probably make things safer for young students).  Police manpower is being diverted for THIS?

Do you see a mismatch of interests here?  Look, a local community’s interests are going to be to shut out drunkenness, loudness, whatever.  But they hold Georgetown University by the shorthairs and it’s not going to change that students drink and party.  The power is set up so that the neighborhood has far too much influence, and it’s not helped by the fact that the local association is run by a real estate broker and other interests who don’t have any compelling need to listen to Georgetown University’s interests.

Just check out this recap (and another) of the recent Burleith Citizens Association meeting, in which Rubino closed with:

“At risk is not only our quality of life, but the value of one of our biggest investments, our homes. Many real estate agents and buyers see Burelith as a student party town. If just ten more houses turn rental, that turns into 6 0more students, and 60 more cars looking for parking,” she said. “Georgetown will hire the best attorneys and experts their money can buy. Your money will hire a zoning expert and urban planner. We have done a lot of work ourselves, but we need the experts to fine-tune our case.”

Said another speaker, Glen Harrison:

“Burleith will no longer be a diverse neighborhood where children, parents, families, seniors, single renters, and even students live together, but will become a student village.”

REALLY?

I’m not making any grand pronouncements here.  If anything, the MPD seems to be juggling all this well, and I’ve always had good relations with them.  They’re doing their job as best they can.  The Georgetown administrators have been pretty fair about the whole thing, as best they can.  The students I saw were not violent or disrespectful.  They were just being young.  My neighbors too were also very understanding and always welcomed us over and wanted to talk to us.

It’s just a few people who are being completely unreasonable and who, through their own personal issues, are causing organizations around them to expend considerable manpower and financial resources to make them happy.  How fair is that?

 

Wall Street & Trading

29 Nov

I just finished Karen Ho’s “Liquidated:  An Ethnography of Wall Street”.  It tied together various experiences I had daytrading from 1998-2002 and 2006-2007 and the recruitment sessions that big banks and consulting companies would have for Georgetown Master’s students.

Some things the book helped to confirm:

1) Time differentials.  Wall Street works very often 100-120 hours a week.  This doubles the minimum hours worked by corporate America.  So that affects time scales; Wall Street is constantly trying to create profit through liquidity and exchange and deals.  Corporate America works on a much slower timeline, to create products or services.  It is a more human scale.  Wall Street works not for salary but for bonuses, which are created through quantity and size of deals.  It doesn’t get compensated for long-term corporate success.

2) A large number of students from Ivy League Plus schools chase the money into finance.  They get paid a fortune if they can cut it.  But the net loss is to society — these brilliant minds do not seem to be employing their money back into philanthropic pursuits, ambitious programs, or bettering the world.  The money is put into unsustainable, wasteful lifestyles which the east coast thrives off of. (read the Washington Post’s article about Rhodes Scholars herding into finance)

3) CEOs and executives care about “shareholder value” and the stock price, but these things are no longer linked to the internal health or long-term success of a firm.  It is corporate raiding.

4) Wall Street is transferring wealth away from those who create it, by facilitating “deals” which leak commissions to the banks.  How many deals have you seen executed by public companies lately which actually make any sense?  Remember AOL and Time Warner?  That was the pinnacle.

5) Wall Street wasn’t destroyed in 2007 — it did what it always does; quickly it reinvented itself, laid people off, and adapted.  No other sector is able to reconstitute itself so quickly. It does this by pursuing talent at any cost.  It recruits the best, unattached minds in the nation from the top universities, and promotes a cult of personality of “smartness” — you will be among the best people if you go to work on Wall Street.  I saw the degree to which Wall Street pursues talent; one of my classmates at Georgetown had a standing job offer even throughout the 2007-2008 financial crisis!

6) Downsizing is good to Wall Street. If a company lays off workers, this means the company is reducing its overhead.  Wall Street does not care about Main Street.  It pulls from the elite, and the job does not care about how Main Street is doing or whether workers are suffering.  Wall Street enjoys higher unemployment as long as productivity increases and costs are reduced — and as Professor Ho points out, this job insecurity mirrors what Wall Street is constantly under the threat of.

7) Even within Wall Street, there is segregation. Cost center people, like support staff, take different elevators within buildings than the people who make the profits for the banks.

8) Investing in the stock market is a sucker’s game.  Owning stock in a company is not worthwhile, because common stock is so diluted that it doesn’t constitute any sort of ownership in the firm (and Professor Ho points out it never did).  The stock market is its own entity and should be treated as a quick trading vehicle:  volatility and liquidity are the only things that matter.

9) Neo-liberal economic theory permeates Wall Street, but it is unsustainable for most people.  While Wall Street is made up of the best and brightest who easily transition from job to job, Main Street would not be able to withstand this “creative destruction”.

This is a sobering book, but also a fascinating move for anthropology:  I think most people associate anthropology with studying small, backwards, tribal groups.  But this studies incredibly modern, adaptive Wall Street tribes.

As a citizen I’m deeply concerned about how easily the finance sector controls what happens in this country, and even President Obama has succumbed to a lot of the banks’ demands.  What’s worst is that finance is intellectual magic to create new ideas and derivatives and “products” while the actual economic base of development in the US has taken a back seat.  How long can that last, with our greatest minds essentially creating nothing but instability, instead of new technologies, theories, and breakthroughs?

 

Dreams of the Future

19 Nov

What do I hope to accomplish within my lifetime?

Keeping the American Dream in Perspective

The American Dream is an incredibly alluring concept.  It resonates with me because my parents came from England to work and start a family back in the 60′s, and have done well for themselves.  They were not leaving a horrible situation in England, but I imagine they smelled opportunity.

This whiff of opportunity inspires new generations to come to the US, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned just how many obstacles to progress there still are here.  The civil rights movement was a brief generation or two ago, I have to keep reminding myself.  Cosmopolitanism and multiethnic communities are still not feasible for most, and views on immigration are muddled and confused.

The idea that you can come to the US with nothing except the clothes on your back and then build a life for yourself is still more true here than anywhere else. But the pursuit of the Dream comes now at greater cost:  the protection of the ideal of a middle class is being chipped away, while the desire for unfettered capitalism is powerful.  In other words, you have to want to get rich or die tryin’.  The safety net underneath taking risks and undertaking entrepreneurship is no longer so safe.

I love capitalism.  I love open, competitive markets.  I would love to duke it out as a business fighting competitors.  I love maximizing profit.  However, I also know that not everyone is an entrepreneur, not everyone can or wants to slug it out every day.

And it’s not enough to just get rich and then retire off to buy big boats and go to the best parties.

The idea of the American Dream is not complete until it includes the responsibility to plow philanthropic projects back into the country.  The biggest robber-barons, capitalists, and monopolists of our history, like the Kennedys, Morgans, Rockefellers, Carnegies, Gateses, Vanderbilts, Waltons, and Buffetts turned their money into philanthropic juggernauts.

No one does private philanthropy like the US has.  We look beyond ourselves, towards ideals and virtues, using wealth to create what would be impossible without that wealth.  We take on human-changing projects and change the course of history…for the better.  Who else can claim to have this in their genes?

Combine this with a theory of mine:  there’s plenty of money and food and resources in the world.  Those are not issues.  What are the central issues now are power, injustice, corruption, and tribal affiliation. These factors restrict which people have access to all that money and food, in order to get and maintain influence.

Human Capital

The underlying sense of my beliefs is becoming more strongly linked to building human capital.  Some of my fellow Georgetown MSFS grads who studied international development met up to discuss Sheryl WuDunn’s and Nick Kristof’s “Half the Sky”, a book about female empowerment and girls’ education.

In my studies I never really thought much of most development projects, which seem like dei ex machina, disregarding lifetimes of habits and traditions for the sake of Western scientific rationalism (which is not always correct and certainly isn’t embraced universally).  But bottom-up microfinance and whatnot also seemed to be like pushing a Sisyphean rock up a hill.

What I’ve come to believe is that children’s education should be viewed as a force multiplier.  Universal human rights should be viewed as a force multiplier.  Look at it this way:  if you were to spend all your money solely on 5 girls to go from birth to graduating college, making sure they received proper diets, health screenings, and education, then they may not choose to go on and use their educations.  They may even choose to just get married and have kids.  But that education is impossible to ignore:  they will raise their children better, and will probably send them on to school.  They might be so compelled by their educations that they seek to better their situations through social entrepreneurship.  At the least, it won’t just be them that’s affected.  At best, they will steer their children, demand more suitable conditions for a husband and community, and undertake more community roles.

Everyone is unique, surely, and they must be allowed to go off in the directions that they were given the talent and interest for.  Shoehorning women into jobs isn’t sustainable, but having them go to school will allow them to make more informed decisions.

With that, here’s what I intend to do with the rest of my life.

1) Found Galapag.us. This is of course the key, since it will be subsidizing everything else.  Add in tricky twists like my needing to maintain another job until Galapag.us takes off, and my not wanting to cash out on my personal baby project.  But I do think Galapag.us as a new measurement and identity/reputation system has the potential to disrupt a lot of different sectors, while bringing back human traditions.  So that should be bank…if not directly then indirectly through building a public good!

2) Get Married, Have Kids. I mean, otherwise, what’s the point?  I believe in the security and strength of having an equal companion to rely on, and raising kids has to be the greatest educational lesson one could ever receive.

3) Build a New School. I was watching Andre Agassi’s interview on 60 Minutes.  He reveals that his father thought his education was a waste of time, and he preferred that Andre would go practice tennis instead.  Andre was a meal ticket, and he loathed tennis for it.  Later he would bottom out, CHOOSE to play tennis, and become a great player because he found the love.  What really made the story, though, was hearing that Andre had created a school in Las Vegas to give selected students the education he never had, as long as they and their parents swore to go to college afterwards.  Andre just had his first graduating class, and ALL the kids were going on to college.

How can you measure the social good of that?

4) Subsidize Co-Working Locations and Up-and-Comers. For me, raising capital isn’t the main barrier to starting a project.  It’s finding enough incentive to not just get a normal job that provides stability.  So provide consummate hard-workers and creative types with a competitive salary ($70k-ish) so they can work on their projects without the stigma of not actually having any income.  As for the social environment that work provides, a co-working area with other alpha-dog social entrepreneurs with common, open offices that allow for collaboration, sharing, and resources to build businesses or work on “20%” ideas.  Certain people will always work hard and try to create things; they just need security and stability in order to feel safe enough to reach higher.  Web folks championed this idea; see Citizen Space in San Francisco.

5) Philanthropic Contribution to American Education, Health. I’ve long had a dream of giving away money to developmental projects.  Studied the damn subject in grad school.  And nothing seems to be more of a force multiplier than education, particularly girls’ education.  And nothing seems more measurable in developmental work than disease vaccinations, hygiene, and nutrition.  Final point:  I don’t know any country as well as I know my own, and there is a LOT of poverty, illiteracy, and other scarcities of human capital to address.  So my developmental work would focus on the United States. Similar to what Bill Gates is doing up in Seattle for their schools.

6) Open a Digitized Restaurant. I would like to build a ChurchKey-like dark-woodish comfort food bar that is built from the ground up around digital technology.  Touchscreens at every table and at the bar for ordering, having seamless order processing and check-out ease for large groups.  A strong, embracing neighborhood presence with approachable comfort food items.  Suggested:  a damn good burger, gourmet PB&J, smoothies.

7) Own an NBA Basketball Team with My Buddy Chris. Surely the most selfish thing on the list.  It’s an idea we’ve been throwing around for a while.  I guess my angle is that basketball is full of some pretty insipid business people who seem to run franchises into the ground, so why not give it a shot?  Hell, there’s so many things I’ve always wanted at a game that you’ll NEVER see because owners are all pretty conservative…  Read Bill Simmons’s “Welcome to the No Benjamins Association”.

8) Contribute Legal Fees for Key Cases. It seems true that the scales of justice are easily tipped by enough money and lawyers.  For a mega millionaire, throwing a million dollars’ worth in legal fees towards a significant intellectual property or civil rights case seems justified, and keeps your dogs in the fight, instead of letting justice fail just because a sole voice of dissent can’t afford the financial bullying cost (i.e. SourceWatch, “Goliath and David:  Monsanto’s Legal Battles Against Farmers”).

See this propaganda, by the way:  Monsanto, MPAA.

So yeah, there you have it.  That’s what I’ll be up to.  Of course, it won’t turn out this way — you can’t predict anything — but these are my dreams.

 

State of the Nation After 9/11/09

14 Sep

Oh man, where to begin.  I think I’ve been a little frustrated lately because I haven’t written in a while.  So let’s get it out there so I can move on.

National Tea Party, 9/12

This last Saturday was the National Tea Party Day in DC.  The Tea Party is a rallying cry for essentially Jeffersonian anti-big government, anti-taxation, anti-socialism, anti-public option Americans.

I live in DC.  I went to meet some friends at the St. Regis hotel for drinks, since one of our friends was attending a wedding reception there for her friends.  I think there were three weddings in the area because there were people dressed to the nines everywhere.  But interspersed among them along 15th Street, since the St. Regis is due north from the White House, were tons of Tea Party out-of-towners.  They wore the typical uniform of the red-blooded American patriot from the midwest and south.  So imagine little black wedding party dresses and heels and tuxedos mixed in with American flag t-shirts, Don’t Tread on Me flags, large homemade posters decrying socialism, and 13 Colonies flags.  It was quite a scene.  Read this post for an idea of the iconography and symbology they use.  Heavily Confederate, heavily Jeffersonian.

Inside the Tea Party

I am being generous in my description of the Tea Party because here’s what it really is:  despite claims to the contrary (they say they are inclusionist) by those orchestrating it (Dick Armey, FreedomWorks, FOXNews, Glenn Beck), the Tea Party is almost exclusively old, white, fat Americans from the midwest and south (watch the videos, about the only minorities you see are the police, ironically…DC at least in the workplace is diverse, although not so much socially).

YouTube Preview Image

This panoply lends itself to legitimate elements of conservatism, as well as attracting isolationism, racism, and antiquated rhetoric, because they want to be left alone by the government, prefer Jeffersonian federalism, and couch their political rhetoric loosely around racist anti-Obama, obstructionist anti-Keynesianism, and anti-national anti-public school/health care/anything that takes money out of their pockets.  As with any movement, the fringe elements make up a lot of the headlines.

medicare

The thing is, their political ideology has a strong historical foundation.  The American debate has long focused around Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians arguing about central government vs. limited government, diplomacy vs. isolationism.  The Tea Party certainly has legitimate doubts about the encroaching danger of a growing government, the problem of being taxed too heavily by hungry and wasteful federal programs, the desire to own guns vs. the fear of the government seeking to seize them, etc.  They are the accountants of American domestic and foreign policy.  Their first instinct is always to say no.  And we need this.

Today’s American Policy Schools of Thought

One significant limitation with solely following this school, though, is that the world has become far more complex than these classic debates (fought out when America was not yet the superpower), and so has American history.  Walter Russell Mead, author of Special Providence:  American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, adds two more schools of American thought, the Wilsonians and the Jacksonians.

The Wilsonians can be best described as the non-government organizations in Washington, DC who lobby for peace in Darfur or de-mining Cambodia or human rights in China.  They believe that the American freedoms we enjoy within successful democracy and human equality can be exported; we should spread those ideals abroad.

The Jacksonians are the belligerent, more realpolitik war-fighters who believe strongly in national security, honor, and individualism at any cost.

Naturally you can see that the Tea Party people take a lot from the Jacksonian movement, with their profession of faith for the 2nd Amendment, the vivid display of patriotism and love for the red, white, and blue, and resisting the “public option” of health care in favor of individualized, privatized health care.

But this is not what they choose to make the basis of their movement.  They know that preaching fiscal conservatism is where they will be the most inclusive to the conservative base, judging by their organizing web sites.  What’s interesting about that site in particular is that #tcot is a hashtag meaning Top Conservatives On Twitter (the libertarians’ is #tlot, the liberals are split up) and the site’s style is a direct knock-off of Drudge Report‘s site design (which I’ve since deleted as a bookmark despite it being a great place for a links, because it’s just become too much of a political EFP pushing anger at certain topics).  The Tea Party Patriots web site uses film footage from FreedomWorks, the lobbying group that (and I’m trying not to be too judgmental here, but the FW logo is on everything) is pushing the Tea Parties.

I would describe myself as mostly a Hamiltonian (having had a Keynesian economics grad school education, admittedly), but I also draw heavily from the other schools:  Jeffersonian appropriateness of levels of government and high requirements to declare war, Jacksonian desire for ferocity when war must be conducted and desire for militaristic honor in combat and argument, and Wilsonian dreams of universal human rights.  I share libertarian suspicion of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve (and any organization that is not transparent and accountable to the people).   I support companies in their mandates to earn as much money as possible, but I also think they must do it within the commonly-accepted range of American regulatory institutions protecting the public interest vigorously.  I grew up in a Jeffersonian, libertarian Texas as a kid, fought in a post-9/11 Jacksonian US Army, studied at the afore-mentioned Keynesian economics institution, concentrated in a Wilsonian international development concentration.

What’s Wrong With the Tea Party?

With all that said, I feel as though I am qualified as a well-rounded American to question the motivations behind the Tea Party movement.

First of all, it is exclusionary, in that it is made up of old white people who are afraid of having things taken away from them by illegals, blacks, government, etc.  As this recession becomes more severe, you can expect hatred to increase.  In the past, when the economy did worse, groups like the Ku Klux Klan enjoyed higher enrollment.

I also feel it is out of touch, even down to its name:  the Boston Tea Party desired representation for British taxation, in essence declaring that paying taxes was a way of expressing voting preferences.  The Tea Party is anti-federal government, and desires to pay much less taxes (if not any), and thus, losing voting rights.  This is a horrible distortion of the original meaning of a pretty significant declaration in favor of democracy by our forefathers.

For the Tea Party people to travel to a district (DC) that has no representation, down to the license plate (“taxation without representation”, to protest being over-taxed, seems ignorant.

The Tea Party also called itself teabaggers at first, until liberals informed them that teabagging was a lewd sexual act.  Another massive blunder.

The Tea Party also will not to admit to this, but it consorts with racists.  All-white crowds who bring firearms and yell down opponents?  This is intimidation in its rawest and most public form:  if you’re an illegal, a Latino, a black, a gay, then you better not attend.  Racists rarely come out and say they hate other people (at least the white supremacists are honest about it), but it is intellectually dishonest for the Tea Party to say it is not racist while it does not censor its own members for being racist.

Again I must emphasize that the Tea Party expresses legitimate fears, once you get past the overt lobbying effort at the top of it. It is not a baseless, stupid movement.  DC is a liberal town and most of the residents were unhappy to see the Tea Party show up in town.  But as Mead writes,

“Divided We Coast.  By the closing months of the Clinton administration, American foreign policy could have been compared to a car.  In the front seat the Wilsonian and Hamiltonian schools agreed that the car should go as fast as possible, but they disagreed on the best course.  Their feet were together in pressing on the accelerator, but they wrestled for the wheel.  Jeffersonians, meanwhile, sat in the back and exercised the classic privilege of the backseat driver:  They complained loudly and irritatingly that the car was going too fast, and that it was taking wrong turns.

“The three schools were so busy fighting that at first none of them noticed that the engine — the Jacksonians, whose support gave the car its real power and drive — were no longer responding.  Hamiltonians and Wilsonians pumped the accelerator, but to no avail:  The car continued to slow.”

For all the ill-informed bluster about death panels, socialism, big government, Nazi/Communist Obama Brownshirt Girl Scout Nazi Youths, the Tea Party engine is genuinely scared.  For Obama and liberals to ignore these peoples’ fears and desires would be political stupidity and lack of empathy for fellow Americans.

In fact, the progressives, underneath it all, share a lot in common with these protestors.  Both are deeply sensitive to the powerlessness they feel against elites and big government/business.  They both feel as though the system has been stacked to pay off the elites and not the common man.  Both fear a blow to the middle class.  Both seek reform.  If anything, both now benefit from the increasingly wise understanding of how money, politics, and influence can affect different organizations and legislation and externalities.  We live in the first days of rapidly increased transparency (but not yet accountability, except through smear campaigns).

CNBC is Involved

CNBC has strangely had some connections to today’s debate.  It perhaps began with Jim Cramer’s famous blow-up about how bad the crisis was (which Bush and Obama used stimulus money to prevent, successfully, I might add).

YouTube Preview Image

It continued with Rick Santelli, a trader and commentator on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, made a massively influential rant on CNBC about subsidizing losers using government money, to the cheers of fellow financial class traders.

YouTube Preview Image

Santelli’s video was a rallying cry for the Tea Party before CNBC intervened and tried to have his name removed.

Another CNBC alumn, Dylan Ratigan, left for MSNBC and recently wrote an op-ed for Huffington Post about how the financial industry owns us and we haven’t done anything about it, because we are hostages.

So CNBC is intertwined in all these debates as well.  Those who make the most money in this country, the financial executives and the industries that support them, have a vested interest in stoking up capitalist-socialist fears and monopolistic/subsidized conditions for their profit.

As an aside, I was watching FOXNews and Tucker Carlson (the kid who got beat up in school and is taking it out on us now, and also got beat up verbally by Jon Stewart on TV and was then trashed by CNN) did a smear piece on “The Trouble with Textbooks”, where he’s arguing that progressives and intellectuals are secretly inserting their messages into your kids’ textbooks.  Better take your kids out of public schools.  Let me guess.  Are they going to Christian madrassas?

A Bad Summer

Obama clearly lost control of the message this brutal, brutal political summer during the Congressional lull.  Obviously he fouled up the entire health care debate, allowing FOXNews to dictate the terms of the debate through town hall ridiculousness.  He was not achieving the immediate success in jobs numbers he hoped from the stimulus.  He has not pleased his progressive base by advancing on any civil rights fronts (the easiest of which would be to allow gays in the military).

He needs to engage the Tea Party people and address their demands.  At the same time he should play the base off (Mead’s “engine”, made up of Jacksonians at their core) against the lobbyists and corporatists who are playing them like puppets.  These lobbyists are scaring up the disconnected gap of the midwest and southern states who are afraid of losing more and more during a brutal recession and transformation of the American economy to that of an information economy.  It is scary that lobbyists have convinced whites from the middle of the country to vote in favor of cutting taxes for the richest of the rich, disallowing better health care for those who can’t afford it, and in general voting to allow the most elite in this country to have less responsibility and compliance to the rest of us.

THAT is pretty disgusting.  But Obama could exploit this divide.  Keep in mind that it was Bush, an idealist but running as a conservative, who violated fiscal conservative policies.  It was he who exploded the national budget deficit and negative trade balance.  Just imagine if Obama cut back the anti-recession stimulus measures (which, I might add, he HAD to do, and which DID prevent a financial sector collapse) and ran as a fiscally responsible politician?  He would win away a lot of scared, hurting midwestern whites.

Racism Grows With Recession

I’ll be honest.  I’m getting a little worried.  It is true that Latinos will become a major power in this country, through pure demographics.  This will continue to exacerbate the divide between the cosmopolitan coastal cluster cities and the rural traditionalist interior.  The radical whites that the Republican party has been forced to rely on (i.e. Palin) will continue to be disconnected and feel that the rest of the country does not pay its fair share of respect and resources to them.

Look at this one video of a guy who definitely does not want the US government, law enforcement, or anyone to go near him:

YouTube Preview Image

Now compare it to a jihadist video by Azzam al-Amriki, who, American interpretation aside, actually preaches on the face of it a message to the west to leave his people alone, get out of Muslim countries, and stop imposing foreign values on his people.  He is anti-globalization and anti-financial system.

YouTube Preview Image

In both cases, they are in a private room, secluded, wearing the uniform of their people (cowboy hat vs. kuffia), listening to their music (country vs. jihadist), finger-waving that they will shoot to kill anyone who attempts to infiltrate.  I hate to compare the two, but the similarities are striking; they both complain of an attack on their strong sense of identity, and they are both reacting against what they see are great injustices against their people.

Their concerns should not be ignored.  They should be empathized with and understood properly.  We should get a good sense of this loss of trust.  When we ridicule Iran for rattling its sabre against Israel, we should remember that it is because Ahmadi-Nejad gets votes for being anti-Israeli.  The Republicans get votes for being pro-white, anti-federal government.  When we wonder why the Taliban has such a stranglehold in tribal AfPak, we should look at our own country and see the people who don’t want to live in the cities or be cosmopolitan or be around people who aren’t Christian, hetero, and white.

While fortunately our Americans are not militant, it is not a far cry to see that they one day may be.

A Call for Unity

Which is why it’s so crucial that we unite our nation.  Through manifest destiny and the belief we are a city upon a hill with special providence, we’ve been provided one way or another with a secure geostrategic position nestled between Canada, Mexico, and two oceans.  We are secure, if we are smart about what our vulnerabilities are and work to reduce them.  We have the largest economy in the world and we are the largest country that has the most unified populace.  We have naval, air, and space superiority over all the other nations.  The Russians are weak, the Europeans are wrestling with forming a union, and China is running into significant demographic and political instability risks.

I believe in taking bold steps necessary to maintain American superiority, but I also believe that we must push a more equitable international system, and I also believe that the only risk we have is if we break apart as a nation.  It was quite right of FDR to say that the only thing we have to fear is fear itselfOur position in the world is assured as long as we don’t screw it up.

“And finally, in our progress towards a resumption of work, we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order. There must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments. There must be an end to speculation with other people’s money. And there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.

“If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize, as we have never realized before, our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take, but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress can be made, no leadership becomes effective.”

We face two domestic risks:  that the white base will turn itself against the USA and break apart from the coastal liberal city clusters that provide most of the economic clout (e.g. SF, LA, DC, NYC, Miami).  While they will manage to divide both coasts (which would give the breakaway states the ability to hamper coordination between the coasts), this would be even more destructive to national unity.

At the same time, the southwest continues to build dual loyalties:  those to the union and those to Latino heritage.  I do think that the southwestern states are strong contributors to the union, but if things disintegrated, the cultural, racial, and religious affinities might force them to create a sub-state, much like Kurds in Iraq.  The failed War on Drugs has turned Mexico into a weakened state amongst drug cartel lions whose resources eclipse those of the nations in which they exist.  This brings violence and drugs to our borders, which we can’t hope to guard effectively.  Mexico is a primary national security concern, as a result.  But we do very little to aid Mexico’s stability with our drug policies.

A Russian professor recently got a lot of press for proposing this break-up.  The details are ridiculous (even indicating lack of ground truth knowledge of the USA) but in my mind, it’s the US’s only real risk.

Texas, where I’m from, of course flirts periodically with the idea of seceding from the Union.  Its crazy governor, Rick Perry, is now joining up with Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, asserting 10th Amendment state sovereignty rights.  This is fine, of course, but legal subtleties barely cover up a seething desire for separation from the Union.

The Tea Party was being sponsored partially by Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project.  As this essay rightly states, the 9/12 Project is an attempt to commandeer a national event, 9/11, and commemorate it “their” own way.  It separates my 9/11 from your 9/11.  Having joined the Army after 9/11 to go fight terrorists, part of me wonders how many of the 9/12 Project answered their country’s call.  Part of me is offended that they try to co-opt the military as being part of them, when I wore the American flag every day for 5 years too.

Losing national unity is our greatest risk in the long-term.  Our success is so assured that it is almost as if we are doomed to ruin it if we are not vigilant about promoting equality and unity.

On PBS I was watching a documentary on some of the civil war leaders and presidents who tiptoed the line between these schools, in the midst of vicious civil war, America finding its place in the world, and ultimately Lincoln unleashing his generals to fight the Confederacy.  It of course was the bloodiest war the US has ever fought (most civil wars end up being that way).  Now, when political climates have turned poisonous, all these ancient resentments have re-surfaced.  Just like what we might see in Lebanon, or Sudan, or Russia, or China.

There are common threads among pissed off progressives, pissed off libertarians, and pissed off conservatives:  fiscal discipline, getting rid of corruption, re-evaluating our national interest based on risk-reward.  There is common ground that could form consensus, if used correctly.

The Butt of International Jokes

But what are we going to do about this?

What are we going to do?  We are fighting amongst ourselves, ridiculing each other, taking the high road while denigrating and minimizing the strength of our opponents.  Meanwhile, we are losing our competitiveness.  We are not educating our children sufficiently to compete in an increasingly global economy.  While we fight with each other, Chinese kids are working their asses off.  Indian kids are working their asses off.  It’s the same worldwide.  People are learning that they have to compete.  Other countries are laughing at us in disbelief over our fear of socialized health care systems and our inability to deal with border violence, health care, government spending, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.

Meanwhile, we have strong elements in our country seeking just to preserve what they have.  All these lost jobs in the US will never return.  We have to keep educating ourselves so that we can fill the newly-created jobs.  It will never be the past again, in terms of comfortable blue-collar jobs.  It certainly won’t be that way if we radically privatize our country (no social safety nets, no government benefits for workers or citizens).

Jefferson, in his own inaugural address:

“During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world’s best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”

Obviously Americans in Jeffersonian days still battled with the same balance between majority and minority, the Constitution and interpretation.  But are we being played off each other?

In short, and I have said this before, we have a battle between elites, who are seeking to preserve monopoly status and government preference, and citizens who realize that the only way to make it in today’s America is to get rich or die tryin’.  If you don’t get rich, you can’t feed your family.  You can’t pay for health care.  You can’t take any vacation.  You can’t live in a safe neighborhood.  It becomes a Hobbesian world where everyone is out to protect just their own families and maybe even their tribes.  Large corporations, seeking protection under freedom of speech as “individual” entities, throw money at issues affecting them so they can influence policy, while at the same time using Milton Friedmanomics and Reagonomics to deny unions, public NGOs, and government oversight, the only institutions that can match corporate lobbies in influence, purpose, and money.

The American Dream becomes not one of inclusion, where we take in your poor, your huddled masses, promising them a fair start and a chance to get rich.  The American Dream becomes “the greatest show on Earth” (thanks Bill Moyers) where you come to peddle your wares, make your money, and get out of the disgusting, violent market as soon as you can, to go live comfortably in a gated community where you’re safe from the violence and randomness that exists outside.

Choices

We as a country are going to have to make choices.  And they are not really choices at all.  Either we divide, and fall, or we unite, and fulfill what we consider our destiny.

We have to decide that we are true capitalists, who see firms as maximizing profit entities but working within the boundaries of a government that exists to protect the public interest and good.

We have to decide that yes, we are individuals who deserve our own rights, but those rights extend not only to us, but to those who are different than us, poorer than us, richer than us, from different countries, are here illegally, to every human on the planet.  The liberals have to clean up their house, and the conservatives have to stave off death.

We have to remove obstacles towards implementing better project design and implementation.  I don’t know how that will come about, except by the blunt force of inescapable technological advancement.

Mostly we have to decide that we’re going to do this together.   With that, I think I should close with MLK Jr.’s last speech before being assassinated:

YouTube Preview Image
 

Labor Costs

04 Aug

One of the topics I want to study more about is what we’re all going to do in the future for work and jobs.  Part of the sharp upheaval of the 20th century of rapid economic development was that a stable career was not sustainable except for certain professions.  It is true in the US that most jobs that students are being taught for, ostensibly, do not even exist yet.

The manufacturing jobs we used to have have been pushed abroad to cheaper labor markets.  Farming has been turned into a large-scale industry needing expensive fertilizer inputs and economies of scale.  Services and data processing have, for a while now, been offshored to cheaper labor markets as well.

The idealized hope was that at least with the offshored jobs, those countries that welcomed such labor-intensive tasks would develop their way into the first-world club.  That has not exactly happened the way people hoped; instead, what has happened (and which is well-documented in Naomi Klein’s book “No Logo”) is that international companies shift resources to whichever country prostrates itself by way of tax-exempt zones, cheap wages, and lax regulation.

Furthermore, as machines and robots will become increasingly capable of completing labor-intensive tasks, they will replace the vast pools of labor that we currently use.  The limits of technology have made vast human workforce scale cheaper (that is, it is still cheaper to use humans to finish sock production than to use machines, if only by pennies per sock).  But that will eventually change.

So what the hell are we all going to do?

We can at least rely on a flattening population curve, which (one would hope) will lead to international competition for higher education for newer information and programming and mapping and engineering jobs.

But what I’m hoping for is that, freed from some of the requirements of labor in order to make the world function every day (whether it’s through a massive breakthrough in energy production, perhaps through solar, or if it’s through using robots instead), that we will actually need to work fewer hours per day and can spend more time engaged in creative and teaching endeavors.

Right now among my friends in DC, it’s pretty common to work from 8 or 9AM up to 8PM or even 9PM, daily.  What on Earth takes them so long to complete tasks at work?  Why is there so much work to do?  Is it because labor costs are so high that firms choose to hire fewer people, but work them harder, knowing that American work ethic looks highly upon those who work long hours for their pay?  Is it because people are just highly inefficient workers when they put in longer hours?

This isn’t sustainable, particularly for raising children, enjoying life, being creative, being social, being helpful in the community.  Surely part of that has assisted the drastic decline in civic life in the US (again, see Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”).  But we don’t want to end up letting robots do anything while we lounge around and become fat (think Wall-E).

I watched a talk given by the host of Dirty Jobs, Mike Rowe.  It takes a while for him to set up his talk, beginning with lamb castration.  But eventually Rowe, whose show has him apprenticing for people who have really dirty, labor-intensive jobs, talks about how these people tend to be really happy, satisfied people.  Rowe says that we work too hard in jobs we don’t enjoy.  He also says that “following your passion” isn’t actually good advice — more important is that you go do something that no one else is doing, to find your niche.

YouTube Preview Image

“We’ve declared war on work,” Rowe says.  He says that working people on TV are portrayed in horrible ways (fat plumbers as punchlines).  Rowe says that we consistently feel a longing to have more personal time, but we aggressively fight it in our culture.  We marginalize lots and lots of jobs.  Trade school enrollment is on the decline.  Infrastructure jobs are disappearing.

Think about the old NASA engineers and nuke engineers.  With the strangling of the NASA budget and the public abhorrence of nuclear power plants, those with the technical skills to remember how to build spaceships and construct programs, and create nuke plants, are dying and disappearing.  The ranks aren’t being re-filled.  As a society we are forgetting how to build things and how to do things.

What is going to happen if we run out of products to market and advertise?  What is going to happen if we’re too busy working to raise our children properly and enjoy life?  What is the standard of living that we want?  How do we balance work, family, religion, recreation, creativity, et al?  Do we even know how to measure all that yet?  We’re going to need happiness and well-being metrics on an individual and an aggregate scale.

The path of the internet’s development has shown us that software and hardware are hollowing out the core of labor within modern goods and services.  A small software company of 5 people can now use the cloud to host their data — all they’re doing is programming and internal business management and marketing/sales, pretty much.  Large-scale projects can now be done by a handful of people.  Sure, somewhere the cloud must be managed, but the costs to start a well-educated programmer/business idea are so low now.  You don’t need the capital for hiring lots of people or the capital expenditures to purchase equipment.  You can work out of your apartment.  What are 8 billion people going to do when software runs a highly-autonomous network of computer systems in the future?

Guess we better start learning to enjoy each other’s company and free time…

 

Surpluses and Shortages

26 Jul

I’m moving out of my Georgetown rowhouse and just started my job, so I’ve been a little busy and haven’t been able to write much.  That’s one reason Twitter is so great — I’ve been able to just send some quick tweets (the other reason it’s so great is its generativity (see Jonathan Zittrain) — Twitter provides such a vast platform/ecosystem for other ideas to thrive in).

[edit:  I didn't know this until after I published the post, but apparently the Pop!Tech 2008 conference was focused on the subject of abundance and scarcity.  Fitting!  Here's the opening video presentation that the Pop!Tech conference began with.]

Anyway, since it’s been so long, I’m going to ramble a bit.  The blog is still great for that.

When I took all my money out of the market back in September/October of 2007, I did it because there were vapor bids on all the stocks out there.  Nothing was supporting any equities.  About two years later, the financial markets have stabilized quite a bit, with the TED spread finally dropping back to the levels before the markets got a whiff of collateralized debt obligations going sour.  Companies have shed a lot of jobs and have made a lot of cutbacks.

As an investor, I’m feeling a lot safer about putting my money back in.  I wanted to wait until at least this summer, when a lot of mortgage and housing resets hit the market.  Now is the dreaded velocity period of August-October, when the market is most likely to crash, historically.  But it can also rally pretty strongly in that time period — I think this has something to do with new fiscal years beginning and a lot of annual inflows/outflows taking place around that time.

I’m still only interested in Amazon ($AMZN) stock, but since it’s already pretty high I have to leave it alone.  There is no other stock out there worth holding right now, in my opinion.  I suspect the next big runner in tech will be a Facebook IPO or perhaps Yahoo! ($YHOO), if  they can ever find a moneymaker.

I went to the premiere of Barack Stars, a play showing at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in DC, done by the Second City Comedy Troupe (SCTV, some Saturday Night Live folks).  It’s a play lampooning the reverence for Obama and all the political scandals in DC lately.  One of the joke skits involved poor laid-off finance guys from NYC.

Funny to be sure (I highly recommend you go see this), but how accurate?  My suspicion is that while a lot of finance types in NYC lost their jobs, it wasn’t long before they found new ones.  All the smart money that didn’t vaporize probably went to the next unregulated market out there, or as some have hinted, towards carbon credit markets, the next bubble target according to Rolling Stone’s Matt TaibbiThe NYTimes just ran a story about how the big brokers were trading with a 3ms advantage on retail traders, racking up tons of money through arbitrage.   This just goes to show you that when you combine fierce NYC finance types with the new quant PhD players, every aspect of the market is a game that no layperson is going to win.  Back in the 90′s, daytrading was somewhat fair, but now the game is entirely stacked towards brokers.  Combine this with the scam that is now common stock:  common stock is worthless, effectively, since there’s now so many classes of preferred and private stock for the company insiders that no common stock holder is actually entitled to as much equity as he/she may have thought.

That really leaves the only effective vehicle for making money in the stock market picking solid companies that are undervalued.  Tech stocks are especially good for this; the thing about NYC types and PhD folks is that they’re not particularly good at identifying good companies.  Yes, they make money selling companies’ stock to their clients, but they come up with long bullshit reports that they charge over $100 for that just basically say how every company in a sector is worth buying.  However, if you know your tech, or you know the zeitgeist about a company, you can still stand to get a triple-bagger on a stock (triples from the price you bought at).  Long-term investing, in my opinion, is dead.  The market is set up to scam you unless there’s a major regulatory overhaul.

Anyway.  Surely there are many people who were working in NYC because of connections, hook-ups, etc. and they don’t have the goods to keep doing it.  But I bet many of the financial class either have merit-based wealth (good skills either in smooth-talking or in quant models) or status-based wealth (being born into east-coast privilege), a dichotomy discussed in John Clippinger‘s “A Crowd of One”.  In other words, they did not lose their money and leave town.  This wasn’t like the Great Depression, where people ended up leaving the cities and going back to their family farming traditions or joining the military.

Sadly, the military adventure continues.  Afghanistan now looks a lot like Iraq a few years ago.  Soldiers are still dying and money is being wasted.  To Obama’s credit, we are now pressing into the Taliban as we always should have been doing, and Robert Gates seems to be a responsible steward of the armed forces.  But the inertia of occupation still continues forth and it’s only those Americans who give a damn and enlist who seem to be paying the price.

The rest of America goes on as usual.  Unemployment is higher, for sure.  This could end up being a large problem, especially since I view those lost jobs as jobs that will never return — the high velocity of job destruction and creation requires adaptability, quick learning, and higher and higher levels of education…qualities that the American innovation and education systems are no longer producing in any citizens except wired kids, who are doing all that learning outside of the system anyway.

The fact that America and the rest of the world are still pumping away and doing okay must be because the world is just awash in money.  There are far too many people you or I or anyone can name who do not seem to have earned their money or their ease of life.  Deals that are completely nonsensical still seem to happen.  People make careers out of nothing more than proposing meetings that never happen.  Job hiring, as I’ve talked about a lot lately, is a complete farce of a system, an inane game that we all have to play.

My own impression of venture capital is that it’s become extremely risk averse and dumb money.  There are some cool angel firm ideas, seeding start-ups with a little money and lots of training.  But look at the trash they are producing.  Some incremental improvement on video watching.  Some tiny adjustment to file sharing.  Did Twitter come out of one of these programs?  No, and it never would:  it had no financial model (if you’re unimaginative, anyway, like most people) and it took a while to catch on.  As it turns out, Twitter is a massively open platform for innovation.  How do you put a valuation on that, exactly, using today’s financial models?  You can’t.  That’s why vencap and angel insistence on financial modeling is so retarded.

If the world is awash in money, why are there so many poor?  Amartya Sen intimates that there are no longer food shortages worldwide, just rationing.  More specifically, he says that no democracy has ever had a famine.  In other words, when food is allocated at least somewhat responsibly and with a conscience towards those who need it, there is enough of it.

The fact that people are poor, hungry, weak, sick, etc. has, in the past, been because of material shortages.  But now it seems as though poverty exists because of socio-political power structures.  Clientelism, warlordism, authoritarianism:  these are the systems that withhold from those who need resources to survive.

The American Republican party itself has become a curious modern system bordering on clientelism but within a democratic system.  Made up of a steeply declining older white male base of paternals, the Republicans have somehow convinced even the poor that cutting taxes, reducing responsibilities and ties to the government, and getting more privileges in society will somehow benefit everyone.  That Republicans immediately think of government as being 100% inept, refuse to pay more taxes to help out fellow Americans (even when more accountability and transparency has been promised, under Obama’s Gov2.0 plans), and yet still claim themselves to be the most patriotic Americans is absurd.  That poor, disenfranchised white people go along with it is even worse.  You have people who have never been rich before advocating that Goldman Sachs plunderers and profiteers MUST receive higher and higher bonuses in order for them to be sufficiently motivated to work at all.  What the heck?

The Republicans have successfully blended Friedman/Reagan trickle-down economics with moral conservatism — highly successful for recruiting, but only if you’re white, old, and usually rich.  No one takes them seriously in financial conservatism anymore, their having been responsible for ballooning the national deficit in the name of security.  Sadly, fiscal conservatism is probably one of their strongest platforms.  That they abandoned it gives you some idea of how defunct their party is.  Perhaps one of the biggest flaws was assuming that the “invisible hand” is naturally benevolent.  Incentives can, at some level, often be predictable, and that’s where economists and public policy people would be important for identifying where the market will exploit resources and prices to make a lot of money.  The proof of this most recently was in the financial crisis, which resulted from the market splendidly moving away from regulated areas into shadow pools through hedge funds, cascading collateralized debt obligations and packaged mortgages on top of each other.  The market did exactly what it was allowed to do.  But that impulse is not always used for good.  Does that not imply a need for government checks and balances upon ravenous capitalist incentive?

So the US needs a jumpstart to get its innovation pipeline going again.  China and India and other countries are hungrier than we are.  They want success more than we do.  And they are at least attempting to modify their education, technology, innovation, legal, and health care systems to get success.

We, meanwhile, are plodding along with a broken health care bill.  Health care is a massive taboo subject in the US and, as I’m interested in reading about lately, anywhere where there’s a taboo, there’s some deep-seated cultural issue that is a dangerous setback for that culture’s competitiveness and advancement within the international community.

Fortunately we have smart people assessing our national broadband plan (Obama has picked some great tech guys and has enlisted the Harvard Berkman Center to look at broadband).  Combined with a great secretary of education, a new CIO, et al, the US should start to pick up again in another 5 years after the investments in basic research and education start to kick in…or at least the promise of them.  The force multipliers of these basic investments will be greatly increased if Obama is elected to a second term.  I can only hope.

The Republicans see anyone in government as being inept and unable to control costs or execute even the most basic project (as David Brooks pointed out recently, this is partially true).  But what is the proposed solution?  Radical privatization?  Are we supposed to trust the “invisible hand” of the markets to manage complex human health care problems or educational pipelines?  The problem with the libertarian viewpoint is that it seems to not take much interest in HOW you actually make people healthier, or make people smarter.  You just let the market do it.  But SOMEONE has to know these things, whether it’s a government or a private company established to do that task.  In a democratic system, citizens are the deciders of how those things are done, so it is their responsibility to become better educated about their mission.  A private company’s sole task is to make money, and combined with profiteering hit-and-run executives, there is little incentive to act with accountability — unless government puts legal safeguards on it to keep it from running off the rails.  For all their talk of incentives, Republicans can be pretty selective in how they decide to employ them.

I see the US government in today’s massively complex world as being a gardener of a national ecosystem.  The libertarians are right that a government with no incentives to cut costs will use its bottomless pockets to buy influence.  But conservatives and libertarians are wrong that government cannot play a role.  It seems anti-competitive to suggest that only private companies should be the sole provider of all goods and services and public space.  The truth is that companies provide excellent goods and services, but only with intense competition.  The truth is that companies are HORRIBLE at providing public space, because giving something away is not part of their incentives.  As Naomi Klein points out, a public square lets you protest and assemble, whereas you can’t even run a camera at a shopping mall because it’s private property, let alone pass out flyers or collect petitions.

So it seems simple-minded now to not talk about an ecosystem where public companies, private companies, the government, non-government non-profits, unions, and community networks all work in the same space with and against each other.  The competitiveness imperative must be extended from not just providing good and services but to also providing public space, social capital, and public capital.

The only factor that has mitigated the lack of such space and capital has been the internet.  Its realm of free speech and free time/space has led to places for minorities and youths and fringe movements to experiment and organize.  It is no secret that social networking has exploded online, while a privatized “meatspace” has become deathly quiet in terms of social capital, as Robert Putnam’s famous “Bowling Alone” book described, with the death of American civic life.

The people who created the building blocks for the internet should be recognized for their massive contribution to society and for bringing an end to a pretty savage era of radical privatization.

The internet and computing have driven storage and connection costs down rapidly, killing many industries and incumbents except those with the power to lobby our old, white Congressmen (i.e. the telcos and “entertainment” labels).  One of the only correct things Tom Friedman wrote about was how the internet, combined with globalization, led to a massive networking of human effort worldwide.

If you are to look forward, it is getting to the point where there are not many shortages left in the world to limit human progress.  I already discussed money — I do not see money as something there’s a shortage of in the world anymore.  Aggregate time is no longer a shortage.  People can be more productive with better online tools, and they are also watching less TV.  As Clay Shirky hints at, this means there’s a lot of surplus time out there now, although it’s up to us to figure out how we want to distribute that time.  Food (energy) is no longer a shortage — while we do it incredibly wastefully and unsustainably, we have figured out how to have more obese people in the world than starving.  There is not exactly a shortage of energy inputs either — “peak oil” seems highly dubious compared to when we will drastically reduce petroleum consumption, while the sun provides easily enough power to provide to the entire world.  If we just knew how to harness it properly.

We can expect processing power and time and storage to continue to plummet.  The cloud online will allow us to build holy grids of collaborative supercomputers, eventually perhaps providing a platform in which we can upload ourselves, the digital singularity.  At that point, it will be interesting to see which people stay and which people “go”.  Who will maintain the systems that keep the internet going so that we may live digitally forever?  When will that question cease to be relevant?

There is, right now, a significant limitation in one area of electronics that has hindered all othes:  energy storage.  It affects what kinds of cellphones we can use (a G1 barely lasts a day with background apps and GPS on), the miniaturization we can achieve with smarter devices, the distance our devices can be from plugs, and so on.

I was using a lot of electronics gear while I was in the Army.  Our equipment could operate off standard power, but it could also run off batteries if we were in the field.  But these batteries seemed to weigh 1-2lbs each, and we needed to replace them maybe once a day.  So if we were on a mission, we might need to carry 7-14 extra lbs of batteries, plus spares.  On top of our other gear.  Batteries just haven’t miniaturized like everything else in an electronic gadget has.  This is holding us back tremendously.  At the very least, we are starting to use RFID chips that are activated briefly by being stimulated by electrical interfaces like at metro stations.

The good news is that Obama has put $2 billion into manufacturing and research for battery technologies.  Even that has a wrinkle, according to the “Breakthrough team”, quoted in a NYTimes blog post:  if money is diverted into deployment, it will take away from basic R&D:

“The Breakthrough team warns that while deployment of today’s technologies is vital, if money for deployment is included in the $150-billion pie, that dangerously reduces the amount of money for laboratories pursuing vital advances on photovoltaics or energy storage and for big tests of technologies that must be demonstrated at large scale — like capturing carbon dioxide from power plants.”

Our inability to localize energy storage has meant that concentrated power has been the name of the game — it is the same for wifi right now, but WiMAX will make that issue obsolete.

So eventually there will be at least one valuable resource which is always limited and finite and definitive of our cultures and personalities:  individual time.  We will only have 24 hours in a day.  If our brains can handle more than one task at a time, our bodies can’t.  We still require sleep, eating, drinking, education, socialization, play, etc.  What’s more, we love to take part in those things, even so far as to do it alone or with others, whichever we have the opportunity to take part in.

What becomes most valuable to us, on an individual level, is whatever we spend our time doing.  And the chances are that it will be interacting with each other, or building things, or being creative, or relaxing.  These, as they should be, will be the most valuable things we both seek and trade and sell and share.  Time will dominate as a currency.

To some degree this is already occurring.  There are a lot of poor people willing to work for next to nothing, and their active time is being used abusively to produce stuff so we don’t have to.  We develop a product and market it and then buy and sell it, but it’s the poor people who put in the hard labor.

I’m not sure this human tendency to exploit the weak and poor will change on its own — certainly not under capitalist impulses.  Perhaps robots could take their place, ultimately becoming more productive than humans, who require food and water and sleep.  This is why some scifi people dwell so much on what happens when the robots decide they’ve had enough with us treating them like slaves.  Less a Terminator outcome than an I, Robot outcome.

The Pope released an encyclical which discussed globalization and economics at length.  I think his emphasis on helping the poor makes a great deal of sense; only through humanity’s constant effort will the number of poor be reduced.  We’re obviously not sure how that is to be done yet — but I think the development economists on the cutting edge who suggest that it has to do with leadership in government and power mainly, but then reinforced by all the other stuff:  human capital, good governance, nutrition and health, girl’s education, non-intervention, etc., are going to figure it out.

I’m not pushing for paternalistic top-down programs by any means, even if I’m talking about strong government leaders and a Catholic papacy.  Certainly I feel I’m as entrepreneurial as they come, wanting to build a massive reputation and identity platform and make big bucks from it, along with fame.  But it has a not-for-profit data-protecting component as well, and I am after all a product of mostly public institutions (public high school, UT Austin, the Army) until I went to a private institution (which is heavily influenced by Catholic Jesuit values).  I have benefited from a healthy blend of so many different structures and organizations, to include a multi-racial lineage and multiple nationalities among my family and friends, that I can hardly avoid seeing the world as REQUIRING a flourishing ecosystem of diversity and intense competition that also provides for learning and apprenticing and mentoring and teaching.

So at some point I’m looking to bring the international development component of my studies back in to my career.  But more and more this is looking like I’ll have to apply development theory to my own country, as it struggles to balance its technological and entrepreneurial bents along with entrenched and powerful radical corporatism, along with a declining propensity to seek bold policy overhauls where it needs it (education, health care).

To me, the economics of our world system demand that the most important future input will be education from low-level grade school all the way to advanced studies.  The effects of technology upon society and economics have been pervasive and profound, and in order for us to continue making breakthroughs, we’re going to need more and more advanced understanding to reach even basic levels of academic research in tomorrow’s future areas:  solar, nano, genetic modification, quantum-level, as well as reputation and forgetting/forgiving, identity, cultural anthropology, ecosystem gardening/curating, gift economics, happiness economics, etc.

The US, being so heavily reliant on its entrepreneurial technology, should be even more concerned in building up its education pipeline than any other country on the planet, because technology and risk is the US lifeblood.  So I feel as though any efforts I make in the future will have to incorporate policy and private incentives towards education.

These are my first few stabs at understanding what my career will ultimately look like, but I see them in line with the needs of the country, the trends of technology, and the progress of social demographics.  It’s kind of exciting, don’t you think?

 

Big, Interesting, Mysterious Pragmatic Problems

31 May

I’ve just finished a master’s program full of amazing classmates seeking policy solutions to some of the toughest problems the US and international institutions have to currently deal with.  For my part, I deeply love to spend a lot of my recreational thinking time searching for gaps in solutions to problems — entrepreneurial thinking — looking for where something is grossly inadequate and is in need of a better solution.

Better Left Unsaid?

There are certain wide swathes of areas of study that are ignored — and within them lurk many potential solutions.  I’ve gradually noticed some of these areas over the years of study and experience I’ve gathered in my life.  And I’ve often thought about why they remain ignored, and why the solutions, which some very smart people very clearly understand how to identify and implement, remain unused.

I’m reading The Wisdom of Whores:  Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS right now (thanks Kevin Donovan for lending it to me), and its author, Elizabeth Pisani (see her blog on the subject), talks about why HIV/AIDS continue to thrive.  One of the main problems is that we refuse to talk about sex realistically.  We refuse to talk about, as she says, how certain men dress as women and think of themselves as women, how young unmarried women are often more at risk for HIV/AIDS than young unmarried men, how adultery and multiple sexual partners are fairly common all around the world.  Certainly we have not been helped by Ms. Beetroot in South Africa or by George Bush’s insipid abstinence policy for Africa instead of more condom usage.

What Pisani calls it is a problem of taboos.

Taboos Make Us Act Dumb

There must be some sort of linkage between massive societal problems and taboos, because many of the gaps I’ve come across have, in some part, to do with deep cultural taboos.  Taboos around certain issues, like sex and drugs and economics, cause individuals and their government representatives and their communities to ignore debate — what comes out of that perversity is things like bars in Tokyo where Japanese businessmen go into a mock subway car and feel up girls in schoolgirl outfits, or massive failures in counter-narcotic policies, or the idea in some areas of Africa that condoms actually give you AIDS.

I remember a poignant moment when I went to New York City as part of Georgetown MSFS’s NYC alumni trip.  We went to a bar for my birthday and one of my friends brought a guest, some young girl who didn’t really seem that clued in.  We asked what she did for a living and she snootily said that she worked in “collateralized debt obligations”, spoken in such a way that we were stupid if we didn’t know what they were.  Such a phrase didn’t belong to the person speaking it (which might be a little stereotypical, I know), but as it turns out I’m willing to bet she’s out of a job right now and probably never understood the underlying securities.  I just think of that moment for its essence of cognitive dissonance and how no one understood how real estate was booming without underlying income and assets to support it.

As part of my Yahoo!/ISD research, I proposed an openness/closedness model, wherein the nexus was transparency.  Within the realm of health, a society can choose to be very closed, leading to rampant STD prevalence and incidence and cultures of distrust and adultery and secrecy, or it can choose to be very open, in which case it loses much of the meaning of intimate and long-lasting relationships and is prone to gossip (when those who are very open are criticized by those who aren’t as much so).  A third way is institutional and societal transparency, leading to public health initiatives (i.e. civic responsibility over personal privacy in order to increase general health).

Thinking in this way, here are some other massive existing problems I’ve always wondered about.  Most of them have their own inflection points that are seared into my head for one reason or another.  My spidey sense kicks in and asks, “Why did this person react so strongly to this topic?  Why is a topic very intensely studied EXCEPT for this certain area?”  What are the cultural taboos lurking underneath these large-scale societal issues?

Job Hiring and Human Resources

This one is near and dear to my heart right now, since I’m unemployed and looking for work.

Despite services like headhunters, monster.com, et al, the entire job hiring process is completely broken.  Here’s how it generally works.

A job listing is posted on the organization’s web site.  The organization receives maybe hundreds of resumes, cover letters, and all the other junk that recruiters ask for.  The recruiter chooses the most promising candidates for interviews and then after an interview, the recruiter and team picks the best person.  Sounds fine, right?

But what really happens is that some overworked manager at work needs to recruit someone, so he writes up this long listing with completely unrealistic job requirements, like “20 years experience in Swaziland and Indonesia, 15 years executive experience, for free summer internship”.  In fact, someone could probably get a lot of traffic with a blog that tracks the most audacious, ridiculous job listings on the market.

On top of this listing, what one needs to do is apply, and that turns into a whole game unto itself.  If you’re lucky, all you need to do is send your resume to an e-mail address.  The more onerous ones ask for a cover letter, which seems to me to be an exercise in redundancy, since your resume should be enough to warrant interest.  The worst hiring mechanisms are in larger organizations, which ask for short-answer or essay responses.  Or you might upload your resume (which is fine), but then the server software tries to parse your resume and then you have to fill in these laborious form fields so that your data fits in this organization’s database.  The worst system perhaps exists in Avue Digital Services, a contractor’s system used by a lot of government agencies.  You should really check this web site out.  It looks like it’s from 1998.  I applied for one job at USAID and I literally had to click on options about how extensive my experience with “formulating a plan and carrying it out” and THEN had to fill out a textbox fleshing out the details behind it.  And this was repeated for 10 other questions.

Keep in mind that if you want to take this process seriously, it will likely take you several hours to complete.  And also keep in mind that you’re not even likely to get any sort of response for all your work!

That is another peccadillo of mine:  people who don’t have the courtesy to respond, even if just to say “no”.  Obviously people are overworked and busy enough as it is, but how does one know whether to follow up or give up if they don’t even get a form letter denial?  This is professionally lazy.

I have a bunch of unemployed friends right now and they are brilliant.  But there’s no entry path into organizations.  A smart organization would put a lot of money into entry-level pipeline programs for training, because there’s few jobs where someone is actually going to come in and be fully-trained for their job.  (Chemonics International and the World Bank seem to have these sorts of programs — kudos to them.  Anyone else you’ve found?)

Thus you get these ridiculous requirements in job listings, posted by people who don’t really know what their organization needs, sent to people who have to send out more and more resumes just to get one organization that responds to them.  The whole system is burdened and, in short, completely broken.

All that said, smart people know that you don’t really get jobs by going on monster.com or through job listings.  The best jobs come through your weak ties and social networks.  But doesn’t this sidestep the great advantages the internet offers in terms of matching up interests and human capital?

It is 2009 and we still don’t have online standardization for job hunting.  LinkedIn has a wonderful system that is essentially an online resume with social networking.  But why doesn’t Reid Hoffman, if he’s so brilliant, push LinkedIn as a standard resume system?  Why do we have these bizarre artifacts like tailored resumes that have to be in Word format?  We do we have artifacts like a resume flood where only a few people are even notified that their resume was acknowledged?  Why isn’t there a system that tracks which places you’ve applied to, when you applied to them, and what the results were in an open system?

The answer is that it’s all taboo.  Companies don’t know what they really need in new hires.  People can’t share salary details because people don’t want to know that they might get fleeced, and companies prefer the information asymmetry.  Those on the job market aren’t quite sure what skills they need to get jobs because they know that in their jobs, the “skills” are often complete nonsense.  Opaqueness is the name of the game — don’t let anyone on to the fact that you have no clue what’s going on.

It really is a wonder that organizations are able to make money.  I dream of the day when I get to do hiring as part of my job as a founder — I would, in a heartbeat, volunteer my company to be part of a network of organizations that agree to use an open, transparent hiring system.

Altruism and Non-GDP Labor

I took a biology class in college which stood out in mind for its professor who was keenly interested in making sure we understood the most sweeping, important ideas within the field.  In particular, he spoke pointedly about the concept of altruism in nature, so much that I think he might have even devoted a whole lecture to it.  He spoke about whether there are examples of altruism in nature and whether that altruism was ultimately self-interest or if it was genuine.

The attention he gave to that topic signified its importance to me.  But having grown up in a fairly mercantilist Dallas, and in particular the ultra-competitive suburb of Plano, and then bearing witness to the high-flying dotcom boom and the era of Greenspan and Reagan and trickle-down economics, altruism has been a topic suspiciously ignored and avoided in much of the literature I’ve read.

Something has changed since the dotcom bubble collapsed.  The massive drop in costs for storage, bandwidth, and processing has made information dissemination and creation go exponential.  Freemium (offering most of your services for free while charging for premium features) is a viable business model, collaborative projects like open source Linux and Wikipedia are a normal part of our innovation ecosystem, and the “gift economy” is no longer fantasy.  Check out this article on the altruism in economics.

Greenspan infamously admitted there were flaws in his theory, and Reaganomics have gone dormant.  Now The Economist is worried about big government (its latest cover signals the magazine’s shift from averting financial collapse to anti-government economic conservatism, as if those are either/or states).  The neo-cons have gone dormant as well.

This is allowing for more integrative economic theories to be debated and explored — the outcome will be some mix of purely economic labor (i.e. going to work and earning a salary) and social capital wealth (fostering your strong and weak ties) and incorporating household labor (cleaning the house, taking care of family) into statistics about overall wealth.

You can see the taboo in this area in how economic growth used to be calculated:  gross domestic product per capita.  This is a crude measurement of overall GDP divided by population, ignorant of massive socio-economic divides or other measures of well-being.

But the Human Development Index has gained traction.  On top of GDP/capita, it also includes statistics on literacy and life expectancy.  This is a closer approximate to tracking a realistic, sustainable snapshot of human life.  In fact, one might even call it an attempt to measure happiness (in the past, happiness was just how much money you earned, according to economists).  Bhutan has taken a radical approach — it’s made happiness a national measurement.

“Specifically, the government has determined that the four pillars of a happy society involve the economy, culture, the environment and good governance. It breaks these into nine domains: psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance, each with its own weighted and unweighted G.N.H. index.”

Economic theory is the real story of the 20th century.  The advent of Marxism and Communism vs. Capitalism, the Keynesian economic school that led to Friedmanism and a collapse of financial institutions in the United States (1929 and eventually 2007).  Why are economists, who are given so much control over policy, unable to break the taboo of non-monetary labor?

For more, read Clive Hamilton’s “Growth Fetish”.  Some choice quotes:

“As Andre Gorz has observed, ‘Socialism may … be understood as the positive response to the disintegration of social bonds ensuing from the commodity and competitive relations characteristic of capitalism.’  Eudemonism too is motivated by an understanding of the corrosive effects of capitalism on social bonds, but it differs in two respects.  First, it attributes this erosion of social bonds not so much to the depredations of the capital-worker relationship but to the social disintegration associated with excessive consumption in the marketing society.  Second the problem of capitalism is not only the disintegration of social bonds but also the loss of self that characterises the marketing society.  We need to recover the security and integration of pre-modern societies, societies ‘in which the unity of work and life, of society and community, of the individual and the collective, of culture and politics, of economy and morality, is re-established; in which the functional requirements of the system coincide with the aims of everyone, and the meaning of each person’s life coincides with the meaning of History.”

“Becker defined marriage as an arrangement to secure the mutual benefit of exchange between two agents of different endowments.  In other words, people marry in order to more efficiently produce ‘household commodities’, including ‘the quality of meals, the quality and quantity of children, prestige, recreation, companionship, love, and health status’.  The marriage decision is therefore based on quantifiable costs and benefits.

“He defined love as ‘a non-marketable household commodity’, noting that more love between potential partners increases the amount of caring and that this in turn reduces the costs of ‘policing’ the marriage.  Policing is needed ‘in any partnership or corporation’ because it ‘reduces the probability that a mate shirks duties or appropriates more output than is mandated by the equilibrium in the marriage market.”

Those organizations and companies that seek to promote the value of activities and social goods other than those goods and services produced and paid for will be the big winners in the next century.  Who is tackling these issues?  Read Kevin Kelly’s latest primer on the subject of the global collectivist society.

Human Capital and Social Capital

Facebook I believe is one of those companies.  While Facebook still has a tinge of triteness in the minds of many, I think what it is doing will help to define our coming networked information economy, to use Yochai Benkler’s “Wealth of Networks” term.

Facebook is building a standardized international system for maintaining our pre-existing social capital and expanding upon it.  Social capital is roughly measured by the number of your contacts, weak or strong (weak ties are acquaintances or co-workers while strong ties are your friends and family), and the level of interaction you have among them and your ability to bring your different nodes of interaction together.  Essentially this is what you are doing on Facebook when you’re having conversations with all your friends in one location (your wall).

Human capital focuses more on things like education level and health care and nutrition, the fundamental building blocks which allow us to achieve more parts of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (further discussion of Maslow suggest that you don’t need to have all the lower levels on the hierarchy of needs to reach self-actualization — you can have different combinations).

I bring up human and social capital because they are deeply awash in taboo.  People react violently to sharing their data online, because they are terrified of accountability and misuse and the idea that you can game human interaction.  Ask girls you know what they think about Neil Strauss’s “The Game”, a book that describes a community of men who figured out that if they wore attention-grabbing ornamentation to a club and said certain things to ladies at a bar, they could get those ladies to do just about anything they wanted while there, including “number-closing” or getting a girl to give you her number.

No one wants to think of human relationships as so base and simplistic, particularly when it comes to her OWN relationships.  Everyone wants to be complex.  But there are biological and social mechanisms that are intrinsic to how we interact.

The taboo that humans cannot be studied as though they are animals stops us from being able to understand ourselves, and thus we are exploited by reputation thieves, identity crooks, marketing projects, “players” and “hustlers”, et al.  We come up with imperfect systems like eHarmony to try to find us the perfect mate, and we use simplistic hiring systems to find jobs.

Good Governance and Strong Leadership

The international development discipline has gone through many fads in its attempts to systematically reduce worldwide poverty:  economic growth, education initiatives, public health, increased nutrition, food aid, import substitution, infrastructure projects, anti-corruption, institution-building, etc.

Naturally, flooding anything with money will lead to existing power structures siphoning that money away or just plain mismanaging it so that the end result looks nothing like how the project was intended on paper.  What you end up getting are things like warlordism (Somalia), clientelism (South America and much of the world), and simple corruption (everywhere).  Thus, you have people like Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo, development economists, who are saying that we’re wasting our money with “aid”, if it’s not accompanied with the proper incentives for all parties, and if it’s not held accountable to the recipients of aid (i.e. poor people and the citizenry) but only to the government.

I’ve just started a very interesting book my brother chose about Tokyo’s fish market, Tsukiji.  In it, the author, Theodore Bestor, has a disclaimer up front that anthropologists should stop being afraid to address power structures and economics — he notes that anthropologists abhor discussion of economics and economic systems, a sentiment I’ve noticed when I listen to my family talk about the two topics.  There is notable distaste between anthropologists and economists, even though I’ve always found both subjects fascinating and inextricably linked.

I studied international development as my concentration in my master’s program and very rarely does any of the literature talk about the importance of strong leaders except in a negative context, primarily for “big men” in Africa who ruled for multiple decades and ran their countries into the ground.  But if we’ve established that aid money is subject to graft, infrastructure projects are steered towards clients of the government, literacy is kept down to stop the citizenry from fighting back, and virtually all development initiatives can be co-opted, doesn’t that leave good governance as an important (but not the only) step?

And that’s where development stands now:  encourage strong institutions and good governance and a country’s government will start performing better for its citizens. But still, the issue of having a strong leader to push these programs through, even knocking down incumbent interests who will resist, is ignored.  It is a taboo topic.

Just look at what the CIA used to be obsessed with:  regime change and propping up friendly rulers.  The most taboo and secret people of all, our clandestine services, used to subvert governments worldwide.  They did it either to keep parts of the world so fractured that they couldn’t challenge the US or to bring in someone who would represent American interests.  And in that context, it worked pretty well.  We didn’t care if that country’s people were disenfranchised and thrown into poverty.  We didn’t care about internal civil societies or human capital.  We just wanted rulers who would do what we wanted them to.  End of story.  The CIA knew what was up.

It doesn’t seem as though there are many ways to birth, train, and promote a great leader like Gandhi or Churchill or Lincoln out of a lab or vacuum.  So how can development practitioners bring this about?  They can’t, really…at least, not that popular literature and research has uncovered.  Have you found anything?  The best thing seems to be leaving countries alone, forcing them to deal with their national identity and to have a natural process of finding leadership.  But this is not something we can spend millions of dollars on.

Perhaps the best thing we can do is to be the best role model country on our own, to exemplify values we hope others have.  This solution does not provide practitioners with jobs.  So perhaps that is why there is a taboo about strong leadership in international development literature.

Personalities & Social Lubricants

One subject that has come to dominate my thoughts more and more over time is the importance of individual personalities.  This is somewhat linked to the strong leadership gap described in the last section, but specifically I am obsessed with the development of very interesting people.  I don’t care as much about how they got to where they are, but am most interested in the conditions and environment those people grew up in, and what decisions those people were faced with at critical junctions in their lives.  This is why I loved Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” so much; he finds that successful people did not appear at a vacuum.  In many cases they were blessed with extraordinary opportunities that seemed mundane at the time but that gave them the time to become experts in their fields.

Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Sergei Brin and Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, etc.  These are remarkable human beings but they do not just settle on one thing in their lives.  They are pushing forward on new initiatives.  They’re not one-trick ponies.  They have stunning ability to motivate others to go further.  It’s these personalities that I don’t think get enough credit except for the fact that they are filthy rich.

It’s no secret that personalities sell — I appreciate the tabloids on that basis alone.  But the celebrity world of movies and music seems to be the only real vector for pushing personalities into the forefront.  It is not as though many other professions can hope for that level of fame, no matter how eccentric they are or how interesting their award-winning work is.

As far as I know, there’s really only one organization that seeks to build a network of particularly entrepreneurial individuals:  the Ashoka Foundation.  My impression is that the foundation takes entrepreneurial winners from different countries and then encourages them to become mentors for the next generation of social entrepreneurs from their country.  This talent-centric approach is at odds with venture capital and the public markets, which only care about the ideas, and more recently, only pay attention to entrepreneurship in business models.

I would much rather hire or invest in someone whose mind is abuzz with new ideas than fund one idea and hope that it pans out.  This is why talented individuals are so important.  Hire them, put them in a room together, and they will come up with absolutely brilliant stuff.  Why is this so hard?

Some might blame it on shareholders wanting to see short-term results.  Others see it as protecting an entrepreneur’s future revenue streams.  Both lame explanations.

What is a Taboo-Destroying Entrepreneur?

Part of being a social entrepreneur is helping solve societal problems.  But they are still problems for a reason.  It’s not because no one’s had a brilliant-enough idea.  It’s because of cultural taboos.  It’s because no one’s chosen to shatter a taboo into a bunch of different pieces and force people to see the truth underneath that taboo barrier.  So you could equate social entrepreneurship to shining a spotlight on a culture’s most embarrassing traits, the dirty little secrets that no one talks about regarding sex, drugs, black markets, relationships, bribery, and so on.   Social entrepreneurship is about destroying taboos.

Some more taboos.  Assuming we can just stop everyone from doing drugs or having sex has resulted in a failed abstinence program worldwide and a massively-defunct war on drugs that has turned Mexico and the pipeline countries of the drug trade into a bunch of city-states fighting cartels.  Nintendo crushed its competition by releasing a console, the Wii, that appealed to a bigger pie of people than just hardcore gamers.  What are we doing about our prison system, the costliest and most populace in the world?  Prisoners still manage to get cellphones and all the gear they need into jail, and terrorism and hardening of criminal behavior seem to actually thrive within the prison system that is supposed to rehabilitate them.  Prisoners easily even get drugs in prison!  Michael Lewis’s Moneyball showed how one statistician fought the commonly-held assumptions of how to recruit talent (i.e. hunch) and decided to let statistical analysis do the talking instead, resulting in a revaluation of which players should be signed and, although not yet, eventually a revaluation of salaries versus performance.  There are just so many examples of individuals having to fight the incumbent system to install what everyone should want:  something that more closely models reality.

Is the American Innovation Ecosystem Broken?

I am about done reading Judy Estrin’s “Closing the Innovation Gap:  Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy”, one of the best books talking about innovation out there.  One of the most poignant things Estrin brings up in the book is asking whether the US is not longer innovating as it should.  Estrin argues that even while dotcoms were all the rage and the web 2.0 community lifted off in the first decade of the 21st century, the underlying building blocks of the innovation ecosystem had gone stagnant.  Estrin doesn’t pull any punches for Bush the Younger for not improving education and immigration incentives, not funding the apolitical science foundations enough, etc.  She is worried that while things have the appearance of being good right now, the US is shutting down innovation-wise and countries like China are investing massive amounts of money into general research such that immigrants are no longer as likely to come to the US and stay afterwards to work.  What happens when we become exporters of information workers and not importers?

I’m not high-level enough to know how today’s situation compares to the past, since I’ve only spent limited time with master’s and PhD types and administrators at universities.  Georgetown has a pretty small endowment and even smaller for my program.  I’d like to think I’d be able to rally the alumni to bring money and attention back to MSFS later, but I don’t know how to do that yet.

I’ve read a bit about Harvard’s looming budget crisis for research and Estrin talks a bit about how PhD research is in danger of becoming a beauty pageant tailored towards whichever areas receive the most money and not where people are most interested in researching.

I’ve also had some trouble getting interest in my topic of interest, identity and reputation in the digital world, despite its being the next step for the online networked information economy.  There haven’t been any big IPOs lately and start-ups seem to be mostly dead-on-arrival ideas.  It’s a far cry from what was going on in 1995 online.  All the interesting stuff is lurking under the surface right now — and mainly in collaborative open source projects.  In other words, the internet’s development is back to underground communities because the public and private funding is not there.

Final Words

I just want to close with the sentiment, that despite my attempts to quantify human behavior, I do come from an anthropologist family and so therefore I do passionately enjoy reading about the peculiarities and eccentricities of different cultures and would never want those things to disappear.  What I do think, though, is that many people take advantage of other peoples’ lack of access to information and then they exploit that.  Such exploitation of power and information is substantially different from cultural and social community-level identities.  To make our societies more transparent, I argue, is to embrace our differences fully and bring them out so we can enjoy them.  Without taboos.