AdjectApproval

Over the break, I had some free time to build a quick site called AdjectApproval, a play on the phrase “abject disapproval”.  Instead of the connotation of something very sternly and harshly offensive, AdjectApproval plays on the phrase as finding approval and verification and identity using adjectives and descriptors.

When you go to AdjectApproval, you’re prompted with a list of descriptors and then must guess what you think those words are referring to.  Do they describe a person, a brand, a company, or what?  There is a hint button, which will give you the tribe and gender of the unknown object, if available.

If a set of adjectives seems to yield correct answers often, then we can assume that they’re more useful than a set that yields incorrect answers.  But then you should be able to add more adjectives if you guess wrong, and this should improve accuracy over time.

You can also look in the left column, where you can add your own people or things.  There’s a list of random current events names and personalities that you can enter adjectives for, as well.  If you click on “full list of descriptions” at the top, that page will show you everything that’s been added to the database.

Eventually I want to track which adjectives are used to describe men, women, and brands, and pull some natural language processing on that stuff.

Basically AdjectApproval was intended to experiment with the problem we have when we can’t remember someone’s name, or when we have to describe someone to someone else.  What words do we use to describe someone as efficiently as possible, so we’re not stuck explaining who the person is for twenty minutes?  What words would immediately cause someone to say, “OH!  You mean so-and-so!”?

I was also interested in this because, just as Galapag.us attempts to quantify and qualify peoples’ identities, I think there’s a massive disconnect between how people perceive themselves and how both those close to them, and complete strangers perceive them.  The measurement of the difference between these perceptions is the margin of error, or the variability of someone’s perceived character.  This margin can be used by some people to steal and lie and cheat.  This margin can also be the cause of severe insecurity of people in social settings, as they perceive everyone to be judging them, when in fact other people may not even be thinking about them at all.  This margin fascinates me.

In the course of building the small project, I realized that the most useful descriptors are often the most socially offensive.  This seems interesting because it suggests that we will censor our descriptions of the world if we are in company where it might offend.  Describing someone as “fat” or “anorexic” or “ugly” or “hook-nosed” or “cankles” is really offensive in most company, but it might cause someone, who knows which tribe or social group this person is a member of, to guess the right person immediately!  Would we be better-served if we were just brutally honest about our perspectives?  Or is this a price too large to bear compared to the benefits of social niceties?

I also learned that adjectives are too confining; we often can describe people in multiple ways: nicknames, profession, catchphrases, their favorite possessions, their familial links, names of things they’ve created, etc.  This seems to invite more of a vocabulary of marketing and branding, since you’re basically dealing with building a brand, or using something like the literary device of metonymy. (e.g. “The White House” as metonymy for the executive branch of the federal government, or for the President)

I built AdjectApproval using PHP, MySQL, jQuery, and jQueryUI.  It’s definitely not bug-free and I’m going to have to restructure the CSS and make it far more intuitive, with better guidance and feedback messages.  The styling is pretty poor and inconsistent.

Adding Processing Sketches to WordPress Posts

Since people have a lot of problems getting their Processing sketches to work when they try to post their work online, here’s a guide I made.

First off, I don’t use the Processing plugins for WordPress.  I know that some people do but I couldn’t get it to work.  Plus, I think using embed code from OpenProcessing.org is more consistent.

Next thing you need to know is that there are two key modes when you edit a WordPress post, “Visual” and “HTML”, tabs attached to the upper-right corner of this edit window. (see the purple)  Visual is the simple mode where you just type in your text and it will be automagically formatted for you.  But if you need to insert HTML markup or paste in Arduino or Processing raw code, you need to use HTML mode.

So if you switch to HTML mode, you will see non-formatted text in HTML format.  Go to where you want to paste your code (to document your work!) and then type

<PRE CLASS=”brush: java;”>

And then paste your code, with

</PRE>

after the code ends.  See the image above for an example of how it looks.

This will actually format your code into a fixed-width format, and it will also highlight your code to a specific language’s syntax rules, IF you have the Easy Google Syntax Highlighter plugin installed (which you can install via this site: http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/easy-google-syntax-highlighter/ )  It’ll be an automatic install if you search for it via the “Add New” menu under “Plugins” on the left side of your administration menu and install it that way, instead of trying to go to the site and download the code to your host and then etc. etc.

Having the CLASS=”brush: java;” or CLASS=”brush: php;” or whatever will give you prettified code (and line numbers!) if you have the Easy Google Syntax Highlighter installed:

By the way, you’ll see I have Blackbird Pie and Viper’s Video Quicktags installed.  These let me embed YouTube and Vimeo videos just by pasting in the URL to the box that pops up after I click on the icons:

Blackbird Pie lets me display tweets just by entering in a tweet’s unique URL:

You’re not done yet.  You’ll have to make sure in your code that any left- and right- arrows (< & >) are translated into HTML entities first.  So < translates to &lt; and > translates to &gt; Don’t ask why for now.  It just prevents everything from getting cut off — probably a parser error.

So it’ll look like this in your HTML-mode:

If you don’t do this, then your code may get cut off/truncated once you post it.

Next you probably want to post your sketch.  I have found that OpenProcessing.org embedded code almost always works unless there’s some included extra library that you decided to use for your sketch.

OpenProcessing.org has a pretty helpful interface to help you upload your applet.  So yes, you will have to export from Processing in “Standard” mode first, in order to get an “applet” folder.

Then go to http://www.openprocessing.org/visuals/uploadVisual.php to upload your code.

You’ll see instructions to compress your “applet” folder, which won’t exist until you export it in “Standard” mode from within Processing.

In OS X, you just right click the “applet” folder and “Compress “applet””, which will create an “applet.zip” file.  This is what OpenProcessing.org is looking for.

Once you upload (and name your project), you’re not done yet!  You will be taken to a verification screen to check if your Processing sketch actually works:

You must verify by clicking on the button in green in order for your upload to be complete and so people can find your sketch. Also, don’t link to the verification page — link to the resultant project page.

Then your project page will have a button where you can get the embed code for the sketch, which you can paste in HTML-mode into WordPress.  However, I would recommend if you want faster load time for your blog post that you only link to the OpenProcessing.org sketch instead of embedding it, because when people try to read your blog, their browser will have to load your Java applet as well — this can bog down a system, especially if your blog displays several sketches at a time.  One way to reduce this problem is to use the “More” button in your WordPress post editor (see the blue below):

This will, on the main blog page, only display the part of the post above the “More” tag.  Someone will have to click to go to the full post in order to see the rest.  But this is good for hiding lengthy code or videos or Java that will slow down someone’s load time.

Let me know if there’s anything I should add to this guide.

Comm Lab (Video & Audio), Week 1: On Copyright

Ever since I downloaded my first MP3 in my freshman year of college in 1996, amazed at how small the file was (I think it was a Shaggy track), I don’t really think much has changed in the music industry with regards to copyright.  The timeline is (pock) marked with the detritus of used-up and destroyed start-ups and companies that tried to find a way around the RIAA.  Spotify and turntable.fm and others are the latest to find temporary ways to sidle into the prickly graces of the recording companies…until they are shut down or bought out and taken apart wholesale.  Google, Apple, and Amazon, with their priorities being to build distribution platforms via hardware, are the only real challengers short of a Renaissance of digital thought in Congress.

The arms race between downloaders and labels has been escalated to a fairly sophisticated level, resulting in an unofficial detente in the courts.  While I think to a large degree, even with the death of the physical act of interest in buying a CD, that the music industry has managed to formalize a lot of piracy through iTunes, Amazon, and other sources, what has been happening over the last fifteen years is defined more by what HASN’T happened than by what has.

The chilling effect is something I’m particularly sensitive about, since getting in trouble in the Army for blogging about my time in Iraq (though nothing was ultimately found to be wrong), and after witnessing the censorship efforts on communications networks during the Arab Spring and in Oakland during my time working for a Homeland Security contractor. The RIAA has lost most of its momentum (and the MPAA will soon enough be there too, but it’s still dangerous enough to conduct psyops and bully telcos into sending warnings to individual IPs), but it has certainly managed to turn artists against each other (not particularly hard, I guess), turn music fans into private consumers of music because they can’t remix and share and admit to downloading illegally, but most importantly perhaps the RIAA has turned its product, “art”, into something smeared as commoditized and fake, while at the same time making the act of obtaining music illegally an act of political defiance.

Rohter’s NYT article revealed two things to me that I think are worth investigating further:  1) the recording industry itself has significant disagreements about the public face of its position, and 2) the current Congressional trend is to argue in favor of extending the length of copyrights. The first is instructive because, since we can’t rely on artists to really share much of an opinion with each other, even in their attempts to unionize, we might find that the solution might be as simple as lobbying to prevent the current revolving door of recording industry executives into public policy positions in Washington (FCC, mostly) where they will argue for their RIAA masters. The second is interesting because it’s another representation of a chilling effect: block information and art from reaching the public domain where it can be freely remixed and reused.

Thankfully the internet has provided enough creative off-the-radar networks of music fans and technology to allow “illicit” sharing to continue.  While I do hope that artists can be paid for their works, I also think their main input to society is their labor — that is, relying on a one-off artistic creation to provide a lifetime of income is absurd, and that any human’s main contribution will not be one or two projects, but a continuing font of creativity and execution — in other words, labor which is rewarded with at least some basic regular wage.

The Garnett/Meiseles article was a rare take from both the copyright holder and the copyright abuser.  I understood Meiseles’ take on defending the context of Arauz’s act, but I strongly disagree with her.  Frankly I think she assumed far too much credit for Arauz, as if she became his guardian after taking his picture.  She certainly did her job as a photographer, and even followed it up with figuring out who the people were in her photo.  I would love to see a digital connection between people, objects, and locations in photos and the context for them, available through some sort of touchable interface, so that I could touch the kissing couple in New York City after World War II ended, and find out how they met, and what happened to them afterwards (they were strangers, I believe).

But once that photo was put out to the public, it’s game on.  It’s up to be remixed.  It’s up to be reinterpreted, reused in different contexts.  I thought immediately of Shepard Fairey’s famous HOPE portrait of President Obama, which now (somewhat contentiously) hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in DC now.

Did Meiseles ever criticize non-Americans, outside of her legal system, for remixing the image outside of her own private context?  There was not evidence of her doing so in the article, nor would she be able to do much about bringing a Sandinista rebel to, er, copyright justice.  Meiseles was taking the position of a journalist here, but not of an artist, for she cared more for the importance of investigating the context than reimagining the emotion the image evoked. She should be happy someone else found her image so powerful as to use it for another work.  It begs the question of whether we need alternate systems for rewarding people, beyond a simple copyright or job system.  There is also the gift economy and the reputation economy.  If Meiseles were properly rewarded in the reputation economy (for taking a powerful photo), then perhaps this would un-burden the hulking inefficient system we currently have, which rewards in only one currency, the almighty dollar.

Naturally I loved Lethem’s essay for Harper’s, for its subtlety in addressing the underlying issues and for calling for the practical necessity of a gift economy.  Copyright holders who defend their turf have, in my opinion, made defiance and rebellion “cool” in the eyes of downloaders, anti-corporatists, etc.  I fully welcome their attempts to blow holes in the oligopoly which exists, and the mere acts of developing software and networks to circumvent weak and hamfisted attempts to block them have become acts of art in themselves.  Today’s artists and musicians are too beholden to the system to veer very far from it, so one is not likely to see many artists in today’s generation challenge copyright regimes without a lot of help from others.

But I would expect the generation of kids who grew up in the downloadable world of art (and in the age of Anonymous and 4chan) to create their own music outside of the formalized system, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the system assimilated that style of music as well, but it would bring along with it, perhaps, a better model for rewarding artists and avoiding chilling effects against their fans.

[Note:  The New York Times article was made available via PDF for class, but it does not include the second page.  Clicking the PDF’s second page link will take the reader to the web site though.  Suggest inclusion of second page into PDF for future students’ accessibility to the whole article.]

Moments

When I think about how poor my memory is, I know that there is a lot I’m just going to forget, not because I just don’t care or think it’s unimportant, but because 1) I’m a guy and 2) I don’t remember details so much as impressions and also how to find those details again.  The internet is becoming our collective mental hard drive.  It’s far better at storing data for individual long-term memories as well as for shared memories (what we might called culture transmission and shared knowledge).  This off-loading of long-term memory from our brains means our short-term mental RAM can become sharper.

Still, we’re human.  We remember certain experiences with the utmost vividness, even decades afterwards.  Whether they are traumatic or pleasurable inflection points, they profoundly affect our characters.  Just think about your relationship with someone close to you.  Perhaps you will remember impressions of many days spent together, but you will remember certain key moments down to how the air smelled or what song you were listening to.  The rest sort of fades away.

This is our passion and our personality.  The way we react intuitively and immediately to certain situations.  Highly dependent on our most vivid memories of something similar.

Yet, all that discarded memory can be important too.  Certain memories may strike you differently and more profoundly at some other point in your life.  But since it wasn’t relevant at the time, maybe you forgot it.

One project I’d like to work on is reproducing the magic of a moment digitally, whether it’s the profound or not so profound.

The profound is easy.  You would want to remember your first kiss.  You would want to remember how you felt and looked when you graduated from something.  You would like to see the looks on your family’s faces when they were so happy with something you’d done.

Certainly an age of everyone recording videos of each other is coming.  It leads to accountability, transparency, and reviewability, among other things.  If you’re not recording, everyone else will be.  Once cameras become cheaper and more ubiquitous, this is inevitable.

But what I want to do is create new moments.  Say you want to create a moment for your girlfriend who lives a long way away.  You’ll likely not see her for a while.  You can write a letter or email, or send a gift, sure.  But it’s not quite a shared experience.  It’s a one-way communication in many ways.

I would like the ability to create something like a moment quest.  I would let her know that she has a moment quest ready for her.  In order to receive the message or gift or news that I want to give her, she will have to complete a series of actions or mini-quests in order to unlock the moment made especially for her.  Perhaps the tasks are shared tasks that you do online together.  Or they require both of you to complete.  At any rate, the quest is something the two of you shared together, and thus, when the reward comes at the end, the reward is fused with the journey taken to receive it.  This is a moment.

You can craft better moments.  Ones that incorporate story-writing, taking photos, sharing sights and smells and thoughts, ones that require going out to complete mini-quests like going to four sushi joints.  Ones that require you to talk to your mom and dad first.  Ones that send you on a scavenger hunt or a digital Odyssean quest.

There’s even the story about the wedding gift a man made for his newlywed friends which consisted of a locked box that had a button on it.  The box said the newlywed couple would have 50 presses of the button to figure out how to open it, or it’d stay closed forever.  Pressing the button would give simply a distance to the target, and the number of remaining guesses.  So the box had a GPS unit in it, and it was telling the couple how far they were away from a location which, when the box detected it, would presumably open the box.  It turns out the box was on some charming island where the man had first started having feelings for the woman.  A great wedding gift.

I don’t accept the divide people make between the digital world and the “real” world.  The two are converging.  History in the future will show an intimate relationship between the two — you’ll have to interact in both worlds to do many jobs, I’m sure of it.  What if we could move past bias against one type of world, and just create more quality moments with those we care about?

When we’re on our deathbeds, aren’t those quality moments all we’re going to really care about?

My Impressions of Social Media for Emergency Management

I’ve learned a lot working on social media analysis over the last few years.  What I’ve seen:

  • Traditional journalists have adjusted a lot in the last couple years. Many news organizations and even individual journalists have moved to Twitter to push stories and show developing details in their stories before they post final reports. More savvy types are retweeting others’ related info, are establishing rapport with other journalists on Twitter, and most importantly, they are using Facebook as a way to gather users comments and observations. I’ve seen some great threads where people share road closures, trapped cars, etc. for bad town flooding, as an example. Two years ago, a lot of journalists were Twitter-stupid. SO much different now.  They are almost one and the same.  Almost.
  • The key problem right now is not having the right reporting app, or aggregating info.  We’re pretty good at that, and we adjust fluidly per incident. Haiti’s Ushahidi maps and retweets and reliefweb were damn solid.  No, the main problem is institutional.  News organizations are proprietary.  Governments withhold negative information. Agencies are hamstrung by risk-averse lawyers and braindead public relations departments that want to control every single message. The lawyers work FOR us, remember?  Not against innovation.  The worst is that people are stubborn.  I have had journalist people tell me how dumb they think Twitter is, and how useless social media is in the face of fact-checking. Well, yes, we need that too. But how do you go about finding which intel and information to go verify?  So, let your Twitter-smart people do the work.  They love it anyway.  Don’t threaten them and tell them what they can and can’t tweet.  They are the online ambassadors.
  • Firefighters are the best at emergency management in social media.  Just a quick look at the #nmfire hashtag.
    OMG!! RT @: Latest picture looking at Los Alamos Medical Center Not sure who credit goes to for pic. #nmfire http://yfrog.com/kh1yuej
    @trip_44
    trip jennings

    The initial coverage of the Los Alamos Las Conchas fire was quick to post thermal imagery, photos, geocoords, incident management team activation, coordination between different fire teams.  I think firefighting is the best for a lot of the social media-specific tools because it involves coordinated effort for a single event over a large area, where containment is the goal.  The fires often cross county- and state- lines, as well.  Contrast this with, say, the Missouri/Mississippi River floodings, which have been managed mostly by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controlling dam output.  It’s not widespread coordination as reaction to USACE decisions, and requesting federal aid to begin reconstruction.  Hashtags have to deal with local areas and not regions, since the damage is random and widespread:

    Is there a reason why news reports on flooding in #Minot ND never mention Minuteman missile base there? 91st Space Wing http://t.co/qZ1beuC
    @DirigoBlue
    Gerald Weinand
  • Some events are not conducive to social media.  Deepwater Horizon started out as something entirely contained to the wreckage of the platform.  Very hard to get good info on it.  But then the situation shifted.  While the activity at the broken well was controlled by BP and NOAA resources, the blogs and forums at the Times-Picayune and al.com became excellent resources for hearing what local store owners, shore residents, and others were saying about how oil slick and reduced tourism were affecting them.  The story tracked on social media occurred among the residents nearby, not out in the water’s depths.
  • There is a new tribe of social media emergency managers being formed.  There are also a lot of hangers-on.  But having spent slow nights and weekends and holidays watching who posts and who cares, it’s become obvious to me which people are in the digital trenches, tracking events, and more importantly, the game-changing events, and not the useless fluff.  Another trend I’ve noticed is the single-serving types: I follow tons of people who are one-trick ponies with Afghanistan or Iraq obsessions, purporting to be national security experts but having no clue about CBP (Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Miguel Aleman, international bridges, etc.), JTTF, ICE, Sheriff Joe, Guatemalan Zeta movement, grow farms in the northwest run by Mexicans, Coast Guard activity on the Mississippi, liquid natural gas shipments, etc.  There’s a very, very small subset of people who actually get national/homeland security in a broad enough context.  The rest are following what’s cool, and right now, it’s “cool” to be counter-terror.  There’s always the tension between on-the-ground folks and the theoretical office-based folks.
  • Evan Kohlmann posts teasers from jihadi forums without citation, presumably to preserve his utility as a source of non-jihadi reporting?  I always wanted a Twitter account that retweets everything of his with [citation needed] attached.
  • Haiti blew me away.  The U.S. Air Force running ops out of the airport, the Navy trying to repair the docks to start bringing in relief via sea.  The local radio DJ @carelpedre who used his Twitter account to broadcast locations of reports of people trapped under the rubble, the reliefweb reports of makeshift camps and cholera outbreaks and riots.  It was an amazing blend of media from different sources, all of whom were needed, from Haitians on the street to the local DJ who had throughput and a broadcast antenna to the US military to international relief organizations to field journalists.
  • A lot of open source and intel analysts still don’t trust social media.  They want some big, verified name to hand them the truth, when really their job is to catch wind of what is happening.  Are there some people saying there’s something going on in this small town?  Point the spotlight there and see.  Maybe it was nothing.  But you just need some hints, then you rely on your analytical skills to figure out the truth.  A good intel analyst doesn’t just wait on Associated Press to do his work for him.
  • I would not want to have to hire someone who had no Twitter and Facebook accounts.  I almost feel that way about gmail.  How can you trust them to be worth their salt at social media if they care about protecting their online history?
  • Ushahidi is super easy to install and setup.  But what emergency response needs is dedicated curators, and more automatic uploading of content from on-the-ground folks, so that they don’t have to stop and manually do it.  I predict GoPro cameras + high-speed wireless + real-time uploading will be key for this.  Or what about a tech to translate voice/radio to digital clips, piggy-backing off a trusted first-responder’s Twitter brand/account?
  • Curators, curators, curators.  The people who sift through and vet stuff.  Like @acarvin.
  • New York City really doesn’t give a fuck.  I think they deal with so many suspicious packages and incidents that it’s tough to get a rise out of them.  Compare that with other cities and towns where people see a brown paper bag in the street and FREAK OUT.
  • Databases are still a mystery to government and news organizations.  Half the tasks done could be automated and be used to generate sophisticated analyses of emerging threats or patterns.  But hey, we’ll just craft our impressions in an Outlook draft for now.
  • The Mexico drug violence, which we only recently admitted was 1) a problem and 2) was spurred on using our own weapons, has infiltrated and intimidated journalists in Mexico so much that it has become the first social media-mediated battle zone.  Local residents use the #MexicoRojo hashtag to discuss what’s happening, such as hearing a shootout down the street.  The anonymous drug cartel reporting blogs regularly have thousands of comments per post, with people offering speculation about what the cartels are up to, and (I suspect) cartel members and sicarios taunting each other.  The bodies hung off highway bridges along with narcomantas (signs w/ messages to opponents), the brutal dismemberments and burning and acid baths of bodies are meant for the papers and for Twitter, with accompanying videos of torture and execution being posted on YouTube and on Mexican blogs.  It is a war without ideology, one of money and power and humiliating opponents for control of drug routes and for machismo.
  • LulzSec and Anonymous and rivals using Twitter to communicate directly was interesting.  A very public display of interaction.  Pastebin as a quick and dirty and metadata free way to post info was also interesting — third-party site used for a bit of old school pure text.  Going back to IRC, to the shell, to the days of just using text and Linux without all the fancy stuff we have now.  My general opinion of the cyber stuff is that the US government must adapt, and not try to change the internet to stop those types of people.  The leaks that have been put out have not been bad for the US’s purported values of openness, democracy, peace, and human rights.  A lot of the leaks show a bureaucracy that’s doing as it should.  What we need to get rid of are the bureaucrats who grew up in the world of overclassification, elitism, and centralized access to information.  I see Anonymous as a foil, and one the US could take advantage of as promoting its core principles…if the US only had the humility to admit that the internet is, and should be, dealt with only at the edges.

Bottom line.  If you really want to improve social media emergency response, the best thing to do in the short-term is to promote the leaders.  It’s the Ashoka model of promoting the gamechangers and the changemakers themselves, the individuals who seem to just be really good at it.  Then give them all the resources they need.  Give them a team they will train.  Those people will take that social DNA with them, and it will expand from there.  You can’t force people to have passion for this stuff, but you can reward those who do have it.

Guerrilla Journalist Teams

Two things have struck me lately.  One was meeting Jennifer Eccleston and Arwa Damon in Iraq (and their equipment guy) — they were embedded with the Marines to report on the war.  I also am impressed with Anderson Cooper’s effort in Haiti, as well as his previous reporting in other parts of the world.  These people have crazy field experience as well as access to get the ground truth.

The other thing is the Breaking News Online team on Twitter.  It’s a motley crew of young men who live in different countries but collaborate to routinely find news before mainstream media gets it — sometimes up to hours before it hits the TV or press.  They also put value in calling to verify news, a technique that “real” journalists have somewhat forgotten as of late.

So these two trends together…  What if you could form a lightweight guerrilla journalist team?  It would start with one field reporter and two people as a social media team.  Very small.  Basically, the field reporter finds an interesting story (e.g. Haiti) and goes to that area to report what he sees on the ground.  The two people back home provide intelligence to the reporter from the social media world, as well as verify information and make the logistics and verification calls that the reporter needs.

The strength of this system is that it’s small and adaptable, and the team benefits not only from sentiment on the ground (with active content creation with photos, video, etc.) but also from incorporating what other news outlets are saying, what people are saying on Twitter, etc.  The two people back home work 12-hour shifts to provide 24-hour coverage, adapting to what hours are needed to sustain the story.

The media is getting far better at using Twitter to complement its other news-gathering functions but it still gets hung up on editorial process, requirements to satisfy a public that wants only certain stories, and other things detracting from the usefulness of journalism.

Three people would be pretty cheap; most of the costs would be towards supporting the field reporter.  The social media team would have to be pretty capable at multiple tasks (manipulating multimedia, scouring social media and networks, making calls and maintaining connections with other journalists), but the costs associated with that are low (besides salary).

I have seen some amazing stuff done by people who aren’t tied down to larger organizations in terms of reporting the news…  And I do think the model would be sustainable, if not profitable.  Most likely it’d start through donations or through a foundation, but I think the efficiencies of the team’s structure and its ability to deliver news would vault it to the top of the food chain in terms of accurate, timely reporting.

The social media team might also be able to handle two other field reporters at most at the same time, thus improving coverage.

The key is to not get laden with constraints that bigger organizations have.

On the Health Care Debate

[read my previous post on this subject for more context]

Tea Party Rally (Again)

On Wednesday, I went on a 5 mile run to the Capitol and back to my apartment before my afternoon shift of work began.  On the west lawn of the Capitol was a fairly sizeable Tea Party rally that took up most of the greens.  I’d heard a whiff of this rally while reading some of the political blogs, knowing that Michele Bachmann would be leading it, but knew little else.  There were more people than I thought there’d be, I suppose, and filling that lawn was pretty decent.

I stopped at the half-point of my run to walk through the rally and to get a sense of what it was like.  I’d seen the previous Tea Party that was held on the Washington Mall; it was much larger and more boisterous.  The stories and photos online of some of the horribly racist, offensive, and ignorant things at the rally were true:  that first rally really was a national disgrace and a panoply of the worst elements you could imagine.

However, this rally on Wednesday was not much like the previous one.  Gone were the disgusting signs, replaced with signs that were far more focused on just health care and big government (and not the panoply of other conservative pet issues).  It looked much more like a good ol’ fashioned American political protest.

The signs still compared Obama to socialism and communism, implying that he endorses Mao, that sort of stuff.  But this at least makes sense from the perspective of people who believe that Obama is ushering in a predatory government.  I have no problem with that line of reasoning from the Tea Party.

The audience seemed to be more fit this time, fewer obese and grossly overweight families. I would attribute this to the rally taking place on a weekday and with much less fanfare:  people from the midwest and south couldn’t make the trip out for this one, because they had to work.  This is just a hypothesis, though.  The people at Wednesday’s rally seemed like the smarter, more politically savvy/motivated types.

The rally was, again, composed almost entirely of white people, most approaching their 50s or older.  Again, most of the blacks, Latinos, etc. were DC and Capitol security.

Abortion

This rally seemed only tainted by the large number of anti-abortion demonstrations, whereas the earlier rally in September only had anti-abortionists as a fringe element.  But these people seemed to take center stage.  I stopped by one demonstration, in which a man dressed up as the Grim Reaper with black covering his face, used a megaphone to mock Reid and Pelosi.  Those two were played by characters wearing suits but covered in fake blood, locked in chains attached to fake baby fetuses.  “Reid” and “Pelosi” wailed while the Grim Reaper taunted them about supporting abortion.  I thought this was pretty grotesque, some sort of macabre scene you’d picture right before a stake-burning in Victorian England of some village witch.

I didn’t stay long, so I missed witnessing what some pretty decent independent reporting published about later that day:

“A seemingly endless parade of speakers seemed to encompass virtually the whole of the House GOP caucus.

“What really set this event apart from all others is that the long list of Republican lawmakers assembled before the crowd did so as part of a day’s work in Congress on the steps of U.S. Capitol, cheerfully facing a barrage of signs that decried Pelosi and President Barack Obama as socialists, and the president as a usurper and transgressor of the Constitution.

“Sure, you’ve heard that that story before, even bits and pieces of it out of the mouths of individual members of Congress. And, yes, U.S. senators and representatives have been present before on podiums where the Obama-as-fascist-socialist-Marxist-Muslim-foreigner story revealed itself in the chants and signage of protesters. But here was the leader of the House Republicans, addressing just such a crowd as part of his day job, leading perhaps 20 members of Congress to join that fray.”

Big Weekend

This latest rally was a last-ditch attempt to lobby Congress to block “Obamacare”, which was debated extensively yesterday (Saturday) for a vote later that evening.  I went for another run to the Capitol yesterday and there was a much smaller rally on the southeast Capitol lawn, participating I suppose in a vigil during the health care wrangling inside the building.

The President’s convoy was seen leaving the Capitol to the White House, and later I saw the Marine 1 helo convoy leaving the White House to God knows where.  It was a busy day on the Hill while the rest of us DCists enjoyed our beautifully sunny and unseasonable warm weekends.

It’s pretty satisfying to be drinking beer with friends at a bar and see your House Representatives still slaving away at work.

Last night the House passed the bill and no one really knows what it all means and none of it probably matters till the Senate is ready to vote, anyway.

Here Comes the Opinion

So here’s my take on all this.   Please read my previous post on the Tea Party for more context, first.

First of all, I think the Tea Party is intellectually bankrupt.  The Gadsden flag, a yellow flag with a snake on it, accompanied by the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me”, is the prominent symbol displayed.  This rattlesnake symbology is not really relevant anymore.  Said Benjamin Franklin of the rattlesnake:

“I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?”

This played well when America was an upstart group of colonies finding its cajones against an imperial British oppressor.  Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project also plays off the rattlesnake, cut into 13 pieces for the original colonies.  What the Hell is this supposed to symbolize back to the past?  We should return to the colonial days before the Revolutionary War?  Doesn’t it seem kind of silly to treat the world superpower as a rattlesnake that will bite if it’s not left alone?

History_of_US_flags_med

Surely the thought behind this is that common working folk in America just want to be left alone and not be harassed with a corrupt, growing government welfare nanny state that usurps them through taxation.

Fine.  But tie this into health care.  Health care costs have skyrocketed and the system is not sustainable.  The middle states will be even more burdened by this inflation of costs as the jobs that currently exist there disappear, combined with atrophying job skills.

Seriously, you want to be left alone?  The American way of life will cease to be if you just want to be left alone.  Encroaching corporate interests, already brethren with government regulatory precedents, are Big Brother’s brothers and sisters.  You have as much to fear from big business as you do from Big Brother.

A Revised Mission Statement

The spirit of the Tea Party should be thus:  elites, whether they be government or business, are encroaching on our personal rights and freedoms.  Elites, whether they be government or business, seek fees, taxes, scams, oligopolies, and changes in the law in order to take away our hard-earning money.  We, Americans, coming from a capitalist tradition, value first amendment rights, competition, and fairness above all.

Playing business off government is the only way to ensure proper competition:  left alone, they will corrupt each other to take advantage of the people.  Health care is uncompetitive, with 90% market concentration in some states.  Telecom, retail (see grocery store shelf-space positioning), sports teams, et al are just some of the sectors in which we do not benefit from competitive markets but instead only have an illusion of competition.  Yes, you have 20,000 products to choose from, but they’re owned by 5 companies.  Yes, you have several telecom providers to choose from, but they all fix prices to be very similar, block new entrants, and are notoriously opaque about their operating practices.  Yes, there are plenty of sports teams, but any attempts to compete against their leagues results in failure and artificially priced closed markets.

This is what the Tea Party should rally against.  When I can see Drudge Report going off on Obama’s spending, and then go to Huffington Post to see them complaining against GM and Goldman Sachs funneling taxpayer money out to executives, there SHOULD be common interest there.

Democrats and Republicans enjoy the two-party system because they have no viable competition from new entrants.  They can play off each other as it suits them and take bribes and lobbying knowing that any corruption is just written off as DC politics and not as a referendum to kill that party entirely.

The Tea Party has glimpses of being this way:  it sounds like Palin and Beck are playing the populist drumbeat, fighting against the big party Republicans like Gingrich in, for example, east coast politics.  But the bottom line is that the Tea Party is organized and motivated by staunchly conservative lobbyists.  It is not grassroots by any means.

The Tea Party should attack it as big interests dividing and conquering the American citizen.

That the House GOP caucus made an appearance at the latest Tea Party rally might end up being a key moment.  These career politicians and lobbyists, in an effort to thwart Obama and health care reform, are throwing their lot in with the anti-federal government right-wing that could just as easily turn on their masters and throw the top Republicans to the wolves when the wind changes.

So this is why I can’t take the Tea Party seriously.  Clearly we need to break open all the monopolies and oligopolies that exist throughout our systems, but it won’t happen.  Clearly the Tea Party could forge itself as the strong Public point of the triangle between Government, Business, and Public, but seeing as how the Tea Party is conservative, that makes it anti-union and anti-anyone who isn’t of the party (i.e. immigrants, minorities, the coasters).

When I was at Georgetown, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Eric Maskin came to speak about voting systems in the US.  One of the ideas floated about in this discussion was having a multi-party election where conceivably you could come in second in every state and still win, because the people who came in first in every state were all different.  That is, if there were 3 states voting:

Alabama:  #1 A, #2 B, #3 C, #4 D

California:  #1 C, #2 B, #3 A, #4 D

Texas:  #1 D, #2 B, #3 A, #4 C

Then B would win, because it’d have gotten the highest number of higher positions.  What this conveys is that party politics would become more about consensus, and not winner-takes-all.  It incentivizes being less radical.  It captures the silent majority’s opinions, which both the Democrats and Republicans both routinely claim backs them.

A viable third party would need something like this in order to ever be successful.

Some Final Points

Health Care Chickenhawks

A chickenhawk is someone who pushes for military aggression (usually conservative) without having ever served in the armed forces.  But from time to time, Republicans have dared attack the only socialized medicine in the US outside of Medicare:  military health care.  Take Tom Tancredo, racist former presidential candidate.  He argued that veterans want vouchers (lol, the only people who know what vouchers are are creative libertarians) instead of their government-provided health care.

Problem was, I guess he didn’t know his opponent, Markos Koulitsas, was a US Army veteran!  I guess he just assumed that a liberal must be a pussy who would never fight.

So Markos laughs at Tom and calls Tancredo out for getting a deferment from Vietnam because he had depression.  Tancredo got pissy and stormed off the set.

Chickenhawks are pretty vile because there’s a slew of them who continually send our nation’s children to war without having been to war themselves.  This is a cardinal sin for anyone who’s been in the military:  you don’t ask your soldiers to do something that you aren’t willing to do yourself.   The list of Republicans, I might add, who never served, is pretty substantial.

The list is not exactly partial, nor does it include Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi, who clearly never served, themselves.  But let’s be honest.  No left-wingers like Reid or Pelosi either, so it’s funny to see the right attack those two and expect a defense from progressives.  They’ll get very little response.

My opinion is that I would rather have an integrated, digital health care 2.0.  I enjoyed the days of walking into the Army clinic to get my yearly physical or shots or whatever and never having to worry about paperwork.  It was done without my having to push it through the whole way.

Certainly, if I need some heart transplant, I’d want to pay for the best doctor I could find.  But for most stuff?  To include preventative treatment (which went out the door because of rising health care costs)?  I’d rather walk into a government clinic, have it done, and never worry about it again.

Slack-Jawed Ideologues

The chickenhawks are examples of a larger trend:  Republican ideologues are increasingly career politicians.  No military experience, no public policy experience.  They didn’t earn their way up through any institutions.  They’ve been tucked away in think-tanks and lobbyist groups.  They have no actual experience running anything, and if they did, it probably failed (see Bush the Younger, or Rove/Rumsfeld during Nixon).

Go ahead!  Wiki it.  Pick a Republican leader and see what his/her background is.  John Boehner?  He got a “bad back” and dropped out of the military, to go become a prolific House tearjerker.  Phil Gramm?  Got into military academy because of his dad, but then didn’t join the military.  Studied economics instead, and went totally neo-liberal/Friedman (a fiery mess of economics we’re still recovering from, in reality and intellectually).  Rush Limbaugh?  Family of lawyers, was classified as injured and so was an emergency Vietnam draftee never called up.  Glenn Beck?  He was a morning zoo jockey!

I mean those were the first (and most notable) names I came up with!  Total hacks.  There’s absolutely no experience running anything except a media juggernaut or a courtroom there. [Note:  Reid and Pelosi were little better…]

What’s worse:  half these folks go absolutely gay for Ayn Rand.  You know Ayn Rand.  Fountainhead.  Atlas Shrugged.   Yes, she was a fiction author.  FICTION.  See this biographer talk about Rand on the Daily Show (I apologize for the lefty link).  Yet she’s the heroine of some movement for entrepreneurship.  Really?  How many of today’s tech/social entrepreneurs love Ayn Rand?  The selfishness and lack of empathy is so perfectly captured in Stephen Colbert’s book title, “I Am America (and So Can You!)”.  It’s a wonderful mix of rugged narcissism and consumerism and desire for success all wrapped up in one.  Even “Don’t Tread on Me” is essentially a selfish slogan.  Quite a bit deal different than my old Special Forces unit’s motto, “De Oppresso Liber”, or “To Free the Oppressed” (or alternate translations).

Business

Excuse me, but if you love small business or any kind of business, why would you advocate that businesses should have to provide health care coverage?  This saddles businesses with paperwork, operating costs, and a lot of headaches that reduce their competitiveness worldwide.

Competition

It is no lie that America is home to commerce.  But it’s also true that the US has some of the least competitive markets in the world.  And these markets are backed by government subsidy and loose regulation.

The same for health care.  For Americans who value competition so much, it just seems ignorant that they wouldn’t seek to have more competition for health care insurance providers.

I can seen an argument that the government should not get into health insurance, because governments tend to grow in influence and power and crowd out business.  Okay, I can buy that.  That’s why you have to have a legal spirit of regulation allowing for a government option to compete vigorously against private interests.  The government option’s interest is in protecting the health of its citizens, while the private interest is to make profit.

These two must be put together in a system which encourages them to compete.  This is the only way to make it sustainable.

Balance of Powers

To me, there should be a vigorously-fought balance between Government, Business, Citizenry, and the Media.

Government is currently made up of lawyers.  It should be made up of public policy people whose only interest is to protect and encourage the Citizenry to be more active.  That is, make sure the Citizenry is healthy, happy, and has protections and rights.

Business seeks profit.  It is doing its job just fine in America, but it corrupts the country through lax regulation.  While I see business as working fairly successfully, I see the Government as having been infiltrated by private interests and lobbyists so that the Government has not been doing its job of protecting the Citizenry’s interest.

Citizenry needs to hold Government and Business to account.  Contesting large amounts of tax payer money for programs is key.  But so is attacking companies that pollute the Citizenry’s land and environment.  So is attacking the media for not providing them proper information.

The media could also use more competition.  MSNBC and FOXNews are as partisan as you can get, and offer no value to the Citizenry at all.  CNN is just plain worthless.  There are plenty of journalists who are trained and professional enough to seek multiple views for their stories, but a corporate-dominated media structure means that ratings win, and the best way to get ratings is through opinion.  Despite government-run organizations like NPR, PBS, and BBC providing good reporting, the Internet has now turned into the best source of news.

The Internet I did not include because it’s a medium, not a “branch” of government.  But the Internet is the only place that still has options for the Citizenry to disrupt the other branches.  This may change.  If the Citizenry wants to maintain any sort of fingerhold on Business and Government, it needs to ensure that the Internet is a public space for the Citizenry to organize, learn, innovate, and experiment.

Boy, have I digressed…  Sorry for this sprawling post.

[P.S. A couple Tea Party links.  1:  divisions amongst the ranks.  2:  some in Tea Party promote Russian analyst’s US-breakup prediction.]

Public Transit Adds Data Points

Here in DC, WMATA (Washington Metro Area Transit Authority) has started putting up signs at all its bus stops that have a unique stop number on them.

wmataWhat this number symbolizes is a unique ID that riders and WMATA operators can use to point to an exact location and stop.

As you can see from the sign, it’s not exactly intuitive what this number is for, but you can call that number and tell the system the unique stop ID and it would tell you when the next bus is coming.

More useful is that WMATA has put up a mobile version of the same functionality at http://www.wmata.com/mobile/ which allows you to go on your iPhone or whatever and type in the stop # to find out when the next bus is coming.

This app also lets you check when the next trains are coming on the Metro, once you’ve entered the station.

But I think there are some interesting applications more on the bus side, what with WMATA having to add the pictured signs to ALL of its bus stops.  This is no small number; according to Wikipedia, that number is 12,301 total bus stops.

It will take some time for WMATA to get signs on some of the lesser-traveled stops, but I’ve noticed that a lot of the work’s already been done as I travel around town.

That means there are now 12,301 new data points (maybe not new to WMATA’s internal logs, but certainly new to us) that could be used.  Right now, people can’t interact actively with those data points.

But I could imagine that if the data points were all mapped onto Google Maps or OpenStreetMap, then interesting things would begin to emerge, e.g. emergency responders could be told that there’s an injured person at that location.

This might be done by turning the bus stops into communication posts:  the sign itself could be connected to a WiMAX network and thus displays the next-bus time without you having to look it up.  But it could also allow for emergency requests, or you could touch your phone or an RFID-enabled device to it to get more information on whatever was needed; this information would be primarily localized, like where the nearest convenience or grocery store was, etc.  This would make up for a lot of the shortcomings that still exist in being able to use the GPS/triangulation on your phone but still not having any context on your map that’s meaningful beyond what cross-streets you’re at.

New York supposedly is about to try out its own version of having next-bus displays at bus stops, according to the NY Times.  It’s not entirely clear to me what their technology is although they claim it is some sort of “mesh network technology” which to me sounds like it’d be fraught with errors and lost coverage.

The new data points could be used in different applications:  you could check in to FourSquare from them as you travel around town, playing its social game.  If WMATA played ball and opened up the data, you could calculate total hits on a station by a bus over a year.  Even more interesting would be if you could see how many people were on each bus, to see how congested things are over time (I can already see privacy zealots complaining about that).  How about figuring out overall transit times for Metro users?

What else could we do with this stuff?

Surpluses and Shortages

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

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.